This Washington Post headline caught my eye: “How polyamorous people are marking commitment to multiple partners.” The article tells us about “weddings” and other “commitment ceremonies” involving multiple partners. At no point does the writer question the morality of such relationships. To the contrary: she quotes a psychotherapist who touts the benefits of such ceremonies and alleges, “We have the right to be with our loved ones and share the resources that we would normally get to share in a monogamous context.”
Here’s another headline along similar lines: “Why More and More Couples Are Turning To Discreet Affairs!” According to the writer, “Research has shown that the secret to a happy marriage is discreet affairs,” though he cites no such “research.” He nonetheless claims that “affairs can add excitement to a marriage,” sometimes “help marriages end on a good note,” “help improve communication in a marriage,” and “be a way to strengthen a marriage.”
In other news, the American Academy of Pediatrics has released a book titled You-ology: A Puberty Guide for EVERY Body. It includes content related to kids who identify as transgender. For example, in Chapter 3, a group of boys in a boys’ locker room realizes that a biological female is in the locker room as well. They question why and are accosted by the girl’s brother, who explains: “Oliver was assigned female at birth. That’s why you may have known him in the past as Olivia. But Oliver is a boy, so that means he’s transgender. He belongs in the boys’ locker room as much as any of us do.”
Meanwhile, the New York Post tells us about a “stay-at-home girlfriend” who “spends days stretching, getting botox, lashes.” Critics warn her that she is “totally dependent” on her boyfriend and encourage her to have a “back up plan” in case he “gets bored.” However, no one seems to question the morality of an unmarried couple living together. Since the number of such arrangements has nearly tripled in the last two decades and comprises 7 percent of the total adult population, such acceptance is not surprising.
What’s going on here? The allure of normalization
“Normalization” has been defined as “the process through which wisdom becomes conventional.” In the context of providing medical and social care for others, especially those who are often devalued by society, normalizing values, behaviors, and experiences can “help us dislodge some of the prejudices and biases that both we and the general society at large hold against people who are different.” In this sense, it “provides one of the most coherent and systematic ideologies to light the road for all human services.”
Once an idea or behavior becomes normalized, those who align with it are protected or even rewarded, while those who deviate from it may face conflict, disrepute, and social isolation. Such an outcome can be the aim of conscious attempts to manipulate the norm to change attitudes.
Eventually, what is termed the “social normalization of deviance” can set in, whereby people become so accustomed to deviance that they do not consider it as such. Deviance then becomes part of the culture.
Think about the stories we’ve discussed thus far today. How long ago was the term polyamorous not even a word anyone would use or understand? How long ago would most people be shocked by an article claiming that affairs can “strengthen” marriages or by an American Academy of Pediatrics publication normalizing transgenderism in children?
If, by contrast, the “stay-at-home girlfriend” story did not shock you, it is the exception that proves my point.
Three ways to live in Corinth
How should followers of Jesus respond to the escalating normalization of immorality in our society?
Let’s consider a biblical case study.
People living in first-century Corinth would not have been shocked by today’s conversation. To the contrary, their standards were so low that to “corinthianize” meant to commit acts of unspeakable immorality.
One might therefore assume that a Christian who urged Corinthians to “flee from sexual immorality” (1 Corinthians 6:18) would avoid even entering their city. In reality, Paul spent eighteen months there (Acts 18:11), a longer stay than is recorded for any other city except Ephesus (Acts 19:10). From his example and experience in Corinth we can identify three principles.
One: Go where people need what you have to give.
When Jesus went to “those dwelling in the region and shadow of death,” the result was that “on them a light has dawned” (Matthew 4:16). The darker the room, the more urgent the light. Pray daily for the wisdom to know the “room” into which you are called.
Two: Go where people are responding to God’s word.
When the Jews in Corinth rejected Paul’s message, he turned to the Gentiles (Acts 18:6). As a result, “many of the Corinthians hearing Paul believed and were baptized” (v. 8). Pray daily for the Spirit’s leading as you go where you can make the greatest difference.
Three: Trust the protection and provision of God.
After God promised Paul that “no one will attack you to harm you, for I have many in this city who are my people” (vv. 9–10), “he stayed a year and six months, teaching the word of God among them” (v. 11). But when persecution increased, he “took leave of the brothers and set sail for Syria” (v. 18). Pray daily for the wisdom to balance trust and presumption, staying faithful to the last word you heard from God and open to the next.
A commencement speech I’ve not forgotten
Our culture is normalizing immorality on a level unprecedented in American history. As a result, followers of Jesus need to become cultural missionaries on a level of transformative urgency and significance. But we must recognize sin as sin and refuse the allure of the popular or we will lose our credibility and betray our Lord.
When one of our sons graduated from high school, his commencement speaker made an observation that has stayed with me over the years. He noted the surest way to tell a live fish from a dead one: the live fish swims upstream, while the dead fish floats with the river.
Which will you be today?