Texas megachurch pastor Matt Chandler says the way the world defines marriage is "unbiblical" and "unhealthy", yet far too many young Christians are following after the cultural standards of love. This reality prompted the Village Church leader to offer biblical insights on dating, courtship and marriage from the Song of Solomon in his recently released book Mingling of Souls.
The book is also a reflection of how God transformed his marriage of 15 years to his wife, Lauren. "The first seven years of my marriage were extremely difficult years and then the last eight have been really blessed. I wanted to talk about relationships in a way that was honest and straight forward," said Chandler.
In the interview below (edited for clarity), Chandler explains why the notion of finding "the one" is a myth and reveals what couples should do to keep the passion in their marriage.
Christian Post: There are so many books and study guides by pastors about marriage and sex. What led you to add your voice to the mix?
Chandler: Honestly there were a couple of things: I'm first of all a pastor of a large church that is made up primarily of people in their twenties and early thirties. So the issue of relationships is really the one that continually comes up. So that's one of the first and primary driver.
I think the second driver, there's just no secret about this, I've said it from the pulpit and taught on it before, the first seven years of my marriage were extremely difficult years and then the last eight have been really blessed. I wanted to talk about relationships in a way that was honest and straight forward and really Mingling of Souls isn't ultimately about sex. In fact the one chapter on sex is half the size of the chapter on fighting fair. And so in a full on sex-saturated culture, I don't think Song of Solomon is some kind of sex guide as much as it is God's heart for the interaction of a man and a woman in regards to romantic relationships.
CP: In writing this book, you reach deep into Song of Solomon. Why did you choose this book of all the books in the Bible, especially when some find it so controversial that they avoid it?
Chandler: My roots – I was converted to Christ in a Baptist church and was trained in a Baptist school and they talk a lot about it. They're not the only ones but that's where I learned it, about the sufficiency of Scripture and that God is revealing both Himself to us in the Scriptures as well as wooing us with how He designed things to work. So the Song of Solomon or the Song of Songs was put in the middle of five books in the Old Testament called the wisdom literature and it was given to us for a reason. And so to avoid it because of discomfort doesn't seem wise in a grouping of books that are entitled the wisdom literature. So to say, Hey it's apparently looking out at kind of the cultural sign posts that we don't quite understand: how relationships work. We don't quite understand how sex fits into how we are to think and respond to culture at large, the opposite sex in particular. And so to avoid the book seems kind of foolish when it appears that it's one of the ways God wants to communicate to us in the scriptures about how these things operate.
CP: Why is there so much confusion about dating, relationships and sex among young Christians?
Chandler: I think there's been an avoidance of the topic and I think there's all sorts of reasons that people have tried to avoid the topic. And then honestly – if I'm frank, I hope this doesn't get me too many emails – I think where it has been tackled, it's been tackled poorly. So then ultimately it's kind of this rules based kind of step-by-step process of how to make things work, and life's just messier than that. It's just not that clean and so we begin to set up false expectations and there's an over romanticizing of marriage and sex. And so then people enter into these relationships thinking that on the other side that there's no hardship, there's no difficulty, no sanctification, but you're having sex 14 times a week swinging from the chandler and you don't do anything but laugh. When it's set up like that you set up people to be disenchanted very quickly.
So I think that's part of the answer and I think by and large our culture is being discipled by the world in how relationships work in a way that's unbiblical, unhealthy, and based ultimately in a type of Roman … emotive based relationship that has no root, no gut, no what the Hebrew language calls "ahavah" love of the will,[meaning] I've seen your weaknesses but I'm not going anywhere.
We've kind of bought into this there's that one person out there that's going to make me happy and that I've got to find that one person and it's not about compatibility and it's not about partnering with one another for the glory of God and for, Lord willing, having children that we can impart the glories of God to. Like all of those key components seem to be missing from the conversation and I think that's a big part of why you can look at the divorce rate being up; the really blatant confusion and unhappiness among specifically young Christian singles as they try to figure out how to date.
CP: What should young adults know before they begin dating?
Chandler: I think that the thing that you have to help singles understand and really grasp – not just kind of have lip service but really kind of see and understand the weight of what's going on – what you're doing when you date is you're trying to see does this person have the character, does this person have the godliness, does this person know the Lord and love the Lord like I do and hopes to serve the Lord like I do, and not just looking for six-pack abs. Not just looking for oh, he makes me laugh or she makes me laugh, but rather can I see myself partnering with this person in gospel ministry in the lay level? Can I see myself serving the Lord alongside this brother or sister for the rest of my days come mountain top or valley experiences, and to understand what you do when you get married is you enter into covenant, not a contract. You're not saying if you do these things to make me happy, I'm staying. You're saying for better or for worst, I'm here; richer or poorer, I'm here; sickness or health, I'm here.
If you think about the nature of wedding vows, it's a stunning reality that on the most romantic day of your life, you're confessing in front of everyone, that this can go bad. You're saying for better or worst. So here we are, we're all dressed up, everyone we love is in the room, it's the most romantic day of our lives and this can go bad. If it goes bad, I'm staying. I'm not going anywhere. So to help people understand they're building toward that and not towards some sort of fleeting, momentary happiness or pleasure, but kind of a life-long run together. And to get that in your head to where it moves past the kind of initial attraction, physical attraction and maybe being driven by purpose rather than loneliness would root us more firmly in what God has for us.
CP: Surveys about marriage and relationships show a growing trend in dating in which men and women have boyfriend and girlfriend relationships spanning several years. They live together and have children together yet marriage seems to be nowhere in sight. How do you advise young adults in these kind of relationships?
Chandler: I think there's a lot of components there. I think that unfortunately those relationships have a tendency to cannibalize themselves and what I mean by that is if you look at God's good design, the pieces that need to be in place before the physical is introduced – the Hebrews would use the word "raya" for love, which is a friendly love, that there's a friendship there kind of like the Greek word "phileo," that there's this friendship that's in place. Then you have the "ahavah," which is kind of that commitment of the will – I'm committed to you. So you have this kind of idea, this kind of progression in the Scriptures of a strong friendship that is committed to one another even when we've seen each other's crazy. That then introduces the physical, and if you introduce the physical before those things are in place, you tend to burn that flame out because it's a lot easier to make out then it is to search and serve one another's heart and struggles and old wounds, and deal with baggage. And if you introduce the physical too soon, then all of a sudden you're not dealing with those things because it's easier to make out and it has the feeling of a type of intimacy that honestly isn't present. So the purpose of relationships between the man and the woman is ultimately marriage if we're talking romantically – I think there's friendships and all of that – but if you're saying let's try this out, there's no way to try it out without being married.
The purpose of dating and courtship is to have an ever-increasing friendship that is moving more and more and more to intimacy while keeping the boarders of physical intimacy in place so you don't cut the legs out from underneath the type if intimacy that will transcend us long term in the way the physical simply won't.
So if the relationship is a long term relationship with all the benefits of covenant and no covenant [and] you simply put your soul on the line, there can be a lot of damage done to you as a person and you're giving people things that don't belong to them. So what I mean by that is there's some things that God has for me from my wife Lauren that Lauren shouldn't give to other men before she gives them to me and vice-versa. And so if you're in relationships where you're trying things out, I think ultimately you're practicing divorce.
CP: What advice do you have for young adults who have been together for a long time, but are holding off on marriage because they're still not sure if they've found "the one"?
Chandler: What I'm trying do at the Village [Church], I don't know how effective I've been, but I want to try to get rid of this myth of the one. [By that] I mean this idea that there's only one person out there that's going to complete me. I think there is one for me and that one is Lauren Chandler and the reason that I know Lauren is the one for me is because I asked her to marry me and she said yes and because she said yes, we're married and in covenant relationship and I don't plan on, Lord willing, ever having another wife unless something happens to my bride because I made a covenant before God until death do us part. So ultimately the big question isn't, is this the one, but rather is the one whom I want to serve the Lord with.
So rather than make this kind of mythical, transcendent, oh my gosh this is the one person, instead we should be having the conversation about compatibility. We should be having the question about growing friendship. We should have those types of questions and then look at marriage as what it's meant to be: a partnership in which we serve the Lord and serve one another to reflect in our relationship the goodness and grace of God in saving us in Christ.
CP: I saw this question directed to you and your wife on Twitter and I think it is a great question for those who are married. The question is how do you build empathy for your spouse's struggles when you are overwhelmed by your own?
Chandler: That is an amazing question. In fact Lauren and I went back into our little studio here and answered that question. So I'll tell you how I answered it and I'll leave the mystery of how Lauren did for the [video's] rolling out.
The way I answered it is my own weaknesses and my own frailty has created in me a greater empathy for Lauren's struggles because I understand that she's doing certain things she wishes she didn't do in the same way I'm doing things that I wish I wasn't doing. I wish I didn't react that way. I wish that I was more mature in that area of my life, and if being able to spot my own failures and being able to spot my own shortcomings that actually produces empathy toward Lauren's shortcomings, and when I get frustrated at Lauren's shortcomings, most of the time what I'm doing is comparing my strengths to her weaknesses so that I might justify my own sinful behavior. So a Gospel-lensed view of my wife's struggles should create in me great empathy because my knowledge of my own struggle.
It shouldn't work that in getting all bogged down in my own struggles that I can't have empathy for spouse. It should actually create empathy for my spouse because I know what it's like to not like where I am.
CP: For those who have been married for a while, how do you keep things romantic and passionate, not necessarily in a sexual way, but in a way where your friendship is not getting stale?
Chandler: So this, like all areas of life, this is where this kind of modern notion of love fails us so miserably. There has to be discipline involved in the pursuing of our spouses heart and their life and their mind, and so you got to pay attention to your spouse.
I've been married to Lauren for 15 years now and in that 15 years, she's probably been three different women. There was the Lauren that I was married to before we had any children; she had different desires, different things she liked to do, different places she liked to go. Then when we had our first kid, things changed, and then by the time we got to three kids, things changed again. So in each of these little stages, I've had to pay attention to her heart. I've had to pay attention to the things that she likes. I've had to ask questions. I've had to rearrange schedules. I've had to invite her in all the more into my own world. I've had to be invited all the more to hers. I had to be disciplined about scheduling time for her and to get away and just have conversations about us, not about the kids, not about the budget, not about the schedule, but just how are you doing? What's the Lord showing you? What are you feeling drawn to right now? What do you not want to do anymore? And I think you got to work at it. You got to create that space and both sides need to be OK with the fact that this is a discipline.
CP: How has talking about the issue of relationship with your wife for the Mingling of Souls video series impacted your own marriage?
Chandler: Honestly it has been a lot of fun. Lauren and I had seven years that were very difficult for the both of us.
I'm from an abusive background in my family. She's kind of from this overt religious family but I don't know if there was a real love for the Lord there. Or really when they weren't at church, every time the doors were opened, I don't know how much things were flourishing – not in her parents' marriage. And so here I am coming from this abusive background and here she is coming from this kind of Ned Flanders-like home, and that just led to a lot of difficult things for seven years… really it was the first four that were very difficult and then over the course of the next three years God really did a profound work, and we're in such a sweet season in our own love for one another and our own understanding of how to support and speak life into each other [now]. It's been a lot of fun to try to help others through our understanding of the world of God and our own experience in the valley and our own experience now in a sweet season having gone through what we went through.