Every February, sometime around Valentine’s Day, I like to open a window on the world of love and romance. What caught my attention this year was a new trend in the publication of Harlequin romance novels. I’ve never actually read a book from Harlequin–or any other romance novel, for that matter–but I have seen the covers at the newsstand. You’ve probably seen them, too: Harlequin sells 150 million books a year.

A recent article from the Institute for American Values (Propositions, No. 6, Fall 1999, pp. 1-2) notes that a number of recent Harlequin romances focus on the theme of fatherhood. The books have titles like Do You Take This Child?, The Secret Baby, The Father of Her Child, and so forth. The basic plot line goes something like this: They meet. They are attracted to one another sexually. She gets pregnant. Then, for one reason or another, they separate. Either he’s not ready to make a commitment, or circumstances conspire to keep them apart, or she is afraid to tell him that she’s pregnant. The situation gets desperate. She is facing a life of loneliness and her baby is facing a life without a father. But at the very last moment, he confesses his undying love for both her and the baby, they get married, and they all live happily ever after.

To get the flavor of the new Harlequin romance, consider Dr. Sheila Pollack, the heroine of Do You Take This Child? Dr. Pollack is about to become an unwed mother. The baby in her womb was conceived during a night of passion with Slade Garrett, who has long since disappeared. On her way to the hospital she laments having to raise a child without a father. But then, to her complete amazement, Slade shows up at the maternity ward, proposing marriage. He has decided that he wants to be a husband and a father after all. In his words, he wants to take time “to stop and smell the baby powder.”

The good news about the new Harlequin romances is that couples are getting married and fathers are taking responsibility for their children. What is strange about them is the sequence of events, which changes all the old rules for courtship. The traditional chronology was love, marriage, sex, and baby. It was like the old schoolyard rhyme: “First comes love, then comes marriage, then comes someone in a baby carriage.” The new chronology is a plot for postmodern times: sex, baby, marriage, and love. It is almost exactly backwards, except that the baby comes after the sex. But this is simple biology, and not even Harlequin can change with the way God made us. Otherwise, the new romances turn romantic relationships upside down, making sex the basis for love, and separating procreation from marriage.

The Bible is not a handbook on courtship and marriage, but it does put things in the right order. First comes love, a selfless commitment to care for another person. Then comes marriage, a covenant partnership made in the sight of God (see Mal. 2:14), in which both partners promise undying love. This is followed almost immediately by sex, the uniting act which cements their covenant. Last of all comes the baby, depending on the will and providence of God.

This order of events goes all the way back to Genesis: “A man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife (that’s marriage), and they will become one flesh (through intercourse)” (Gen. 2:24). Not only is this the biblical pattern, it is the only sequence that makes very good sense. Arranged marriages sometimes work, I suppose, but ordinarily a man and a woman should should start loving one another before they promise to stay in love for the rest of their lives. And they should get married before they start enjoying sexual intimacy. There are lots of good reasons for this, but one of the most obvious is that children need the security of being born into a family that is based on a covenant commitment.

This biblical sequence–love, marriage, sex, baby–has many practical implications. For married people, it serves as a reminder that love is the foundation of your relationship. There are many ways to strengthen your marriage: renewing your wedding vows, giving your spouse sexual pleasure, and sharing the joys and trials of parenting, to name a few. But perhaps the best way to strengthen your marriage is to go back to the foundation, and that means loving your spouse. It means serving your husband (Eph. 5:22-24), helping him become the man God wants him to become. It means sacrificing for your wife (Eph. 5:25-28), cherishing her in a way that nurtures her inward beauty. God’s best plan for your marriage requires you to become a good lover (Prov. 5:16).

The biblical pattern also has practical implications for single people. One is that you should refrain from any kind of sexual intimacy. True sexual fulfillment is only to be found within a marital covenant, never outside of it. Sex was never designed to provide the foundation for a relationship, let alone a marriage. This is where the new Harlequin books do the greatest disservice. They suggest that the way to get a man to make a commitment is to carry his child. This is not romance, it is fantasy! Women sometimes hope that they can trade sex for commitment, but that is almost never the way life works, especially when a baby is involved. True love waits. Single men and women should protect their purity and their virtue by preserving their sexuality for marriage.

The biblical pattern for courtship and marriage also shows singles where to begin. The first step is love, which is the Greatest Commandment. Love is something you can offer right away. The more you love–through service and sacrifice–the greater your capacity for intimacy. If you ever get married, you will discover that you already know how to be a good lover. If not, you will discover that your growing ability to love is widening your network of satisfying friendships.

Love, marriage, sex, baby. You depart from this sequence at your own peril, although God always has grace for sinners. Whether married or single, following God’s pattern brings the deepest joys and the most lasting pleasures.

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