“I went to Bible College once,” a friend of mine casually reminisced over tea. She was in her mid-thirties and characteristically enjoyed telling stories about how she and her husband met. However, this particular story took a turn I had not expected: “I couldn’t handle it and left after one year. It was like a meat market!” My face must have betrayed my confusion at this remark, for she quickly explained, “You couldn’t have any male friends without them imagining you barefoot and pregnant in their future kitchens!” And with that, Bible students everywhere instantaneously produce one of two reactions: a collective gasp of disbelief at the biased absurdity of it or a knowing nod. Bible colleges do have a reputation similar to the above statement. It is my hope that Moody does not follow suit to that particular extreme; however, it is difficult to deny the affect that our environment understandably has on our approach to relationships. It would be naïve to expect an insignificant number of romantic relationships to develop out of environments such as Moody: the four-year extended collision of several hundred like-minded young people with goals for ministry fueled by a common love of the Lord. Desiring marriage is not wrong; in fact, it is not marriage itself that is the problem, but rather how we go about it. In the resulting sub-culture where invitations to coffee might as well be executed on one knee and pairs are formed in the grapevine a few steps ahead of reality, we should not begin to regard relationships and friendships as transactions made merely as an avenue to marriage.
Relationships are extremely susceptible to developing a mercenary attitude, even unconsciously. To be mercenary is to be driven by the primary concern of one’s own benefit, usually at the expense of others and ethics. Upon observing the culture at Moody, it becomes apparent that there is an abundance of ways in which relationships teeter on this insufficiently acknowledged edge. For instance, a common frustration that I have observed among students is in some ways similar to my friend’s lament above: male and female students cannot engage in meaningful friendships without the immediate insinuation—from within or without—of a romantic relationship. As a result, the Moody culture has become “define the relationship or ‘DTR’-happy.” This is most likely the result of a genuine effort to be intentional with others’ emotions and to be sensibly cautious in developing friendships and romantic attachments. However, the relief in tension that a “DTR” provides can often come at the expense of losing the time involved in developing a meaningful friendship. We must be careful that “defining the relationship” is not merely selfish impatience masquerading as intentionality.
It is important to note that while Bible colleges like Moody get a bad rap for being especially marriage-prone, this is not always different from students in this age group throughout other institutions, including secular universities. What characterizes the selfish endeavors of non-Christian college students’ relationships just as easily influences ours—many Bible college students are just clever enough, however, to find a way to do it in the name of Jesus. In the secular world, college students hook up, shack up, and break up. At Moody, we meet up (at orientation), look up (on Facebook), and hurry up (to coffee, otherwise known as “commitment”). Our relationships at Bible college, informed by the constant influence of our biblical studies, fall prey to our culture in more ways that are subtler than that of secular students’. It is dangerous, for instance, to assume that prayer is a failsafe for the success of relationships. Whether or not it is consciously acknowledged, it can be far too easy to consider one’s relationship validated by the amount the individual spends in prayer. In addition, at Moody there is an appreciated and understandable effort by students to take relationships seriously. However, this seriousness can easily fall to the following extremes: desiring lengths of commitment before they are reasonable or wise, or wanting to confirm not merely the likelihood but even guarantee of marriage before entering into a relationship.
Perhaps the most detrimental effect Moody culture has on relationships is on the development of friendships. Friendships can swiftly become mercenary, especially if one or both parties are concerned with friendship primarily for the benefit of a future romantic relationship. As a result, when the possibility of relationship no longer exists in a certain friendship, it is left to crumble as one party or both considers their time better spent elsewhere. What results is the swift death of community and fellowship.
It is unreasonable to say that these examples are always the case or that they are the only illustrations in which Moody relationships become mercenary. Regardless of specific examples, our relationships often become susceptible to being primarily concerned with pursuing one’s own comfort or enjoyment, even and especially if that comfort is found predominantly in the another person. Without fail, human relationships continue to expose self-centeredness, for mercenary purposes will always yield mercenary results. This is because relationships and romance were not intended as ends in themselves. In his book The Meaning of Marriage, Timothy Keller suggests that relationships should indeed be mercenarily intent upon something other than the relationship itself, but by a different definition: not self-seeking, but Christ-seeking. In other words, Keller believes we should be primarily concerned with relationship not as an end in itself but as a means to the end of closeness with Christ, the One to Whom it was created to point. The word he uses to describe this is “penultimate,” meaning next to last, indicating that marriage was not created as the end but rather that relationship with Christ must still be viewed as ultimate.1
In The Four Loves, C.S. Lewis suggests, “The very condition of having friends is that we should want something else besides friends.” The paradox is that the motivation, drive, and passion of deep friendship cannot merely be itself. There must be something else that both friends are dedicated to and impassioned by besides one another. “Those who have nothing can share nothing,” Lewis insists. “Those who are going nowhere can have no fellow-travelers.”2 Deep friendship is a striking unity that blossoms as two people, speaking the truth in love to one another, journey toward a common horizon. And this kind of deep friendship should be the foundation for marriage.
If marriage is the goal of relationships, we must understand that our view of that goal will influence how we go about relationships. Unless we begin to allow the lens of Scripture to trump our culture-hewn viewpoint of marriage, we cannot begin to make discerning choices regarding our marital futures. Edmund Clowney in his lecture series on Biblical Theology3 explains the connection that relates marriage to Christ and the Church. In this typology, it is not as though God had pondered to Himself, “What already in existence can I possibly use as a fathomable example of my relationship with them, something that can illustrate to them the betrayal of idolatry when they wander from my ways? Oh, I know! Marriage!” On the contrary, when God originated the first marriage of Adam and Eve, He already had Christ and the Church in mind. Paul’s exhortation for marriage in Ephesians 5:22-33 represents this. As Piper and Grudem exclaim, “This is one of God’s great purposes in marriage: to picture the relationship between Christ and His redeemed people forever!”4
Paul’s view of marriage in this passage is deeply intertwined with the gospel. The Word Biblical Commentary shares insight into Paul’s entreaty for husbands to love their wives: Marriage is to depict Christ’s love for the Church in terms of his sacrificial death, and the purpose for this sacrifice of love is the Church’s holiness.5 In the same way, our penultimate view of marriage shifts the focus from mercenary self-fulfillment to self-forgetfulness. Having been given such a radical example, we are made aware of what lengths we are to go in the pursuit of one another’s holiness. Keller’s conclusion in The Meaning of Marriage is this: “What, then, is marriage for? It is for helping each other to become our future glory-selves, the new creations that God will eventually make us.”6
I believe the solution to our affinity for mercenary courtships is gospel-centeredness. If marriage’s ultimate goal is viewed as reflecting Christ and the Church, glorifying Him, and pursuing one another’s Christ-likeness it is bound to mend the self-seeking mercenary strategies we often exhibit in our pursuit of relationships.
A biblical view of the end will inspire a biblical view of the means. Therefore, a desire for generic companionship and ease of loneliness, while legitimate, if it is solitary or even primary in our motives for pursuing relationships, it is selfish at best. Two things must surpass this desire: an acknowledgement of the penultimate nature of marriage and a unique and specific dedication to another’s sanctification. A penultimate attitude toward relationships results in a mercenary pursuit of Christ above all as the reason for the relationship. Dedication to another’s sanctification by nature has to be person-specific and not generic, for we cannot see and desire to be a part of another’s journey without knowing them. Ultimately, relationships were created to exist on the foundation of Christ-centered friendship.
The reality is that our relationships are almost always mercenary. However, relationships should be mercenary in a different way—as a means to intimacy with God rather than solely a means to satisfy our own longings for human intimacy. There is nothing wrong with relationships that exist for the purpose of acquiring God’s gift of marriage; however, the gifts of relationship and marriage should be used and enjoyed ultimately as a means to growing closer to the Giver.
1. Keller, Timothy (2011-11-01). The Meaning of Marriage: Facing the Complexities of Commitment with the Wisdom of God (p. 190). Penguin Group. Kindle Edition.
2. C. S. Lewis, The Four Loves, first paperback ed. (New York: Mariner Books, 1971), chapter 4. Keller, Timothy (2011-11-01). The Meaning of Marriage: Facing the Complexities of Commitment with the Wisdom of God . Penguin Group. Kindle Edition.
3. Clowney, Edmund. “Biblical Theology.” Westminster Theological Seminary, Philadelphia. Lecture.
4. Piper and Grudem, Recovering Biblical Manhood and Womanhood: A Response to Evangelical Feminism. G.W. Knight, “Husbands and Wives as Analogues of Christ and the Church” therein (176).)
5. Ibid., 353-355.
6. Keller, 112.