Real-life application of biblical wisdom is worth more than a diamond ring in establishing a God-honoring marriage. When I saw bookstores carrying Andy Stanley’s book with the straightforward title The New Rules for Love, Sex, and Dating, I picked it up eager to see what gem might help me bank into relationship success. By the end of the first few chapters, I was ready to put it back on the shelf. I was forced to lay it aside while I considered the concerns I had with it, concerns I would now suggest as disclaimers for the book.
The first weakness in Stanley’s Rules is a dearth of biblical references to bring solidity, authority and depth to the subject. More often, Stanley relies on catchy maxims as the building blocks for his savvy advice. Chelsen Vicari, blogging for the Institute for Religion and Democracy, also points this out. While a couple chapters are spent on discussing 1 Corinthians 13, explaining “mutual submission” in Ephesians 5:21, and elaborating on Jesus’ teachings on love, there is little clarification on the purpose of a Christian relationship or the biblical basis for marriage.
That leads to the next issue, and the most disquieting, in my mind. Without a well-grounded biblical foundation, many of the principles advocated by Stanley could be misconstrued in a way that would detract from a godly relationship. For example, in discussing potential weaknesses in a person, he urges the reader not to wait for that person to change but to give “time and space.” The message I carried away was this: If there is a problem with a person, leave him, at least until he’s got a handle on it. But what amounts to enough of a problem? Drug addiction? OK. Procrastination? Maybe not. And what if the problem arises after you’ve made marriage vows? Should you still break off with your troublesome spouse, and your vows?
The reader might decide that question is answered with the most troubling statement Stanley makes: “When it comes to relationships, commitment is way overrated.” Granted, I realize he makes this statement in the context of preparing to make a commitment before rashly making a promise without being equipped or intending to keep it. Even so, a distinction is needed. Preparing for commitment is great as is discerning character flaws before marriage or a serious relationship. But the actual commitment in marriage cannot be discounted.
Commitment trumps even the sad discovery of a lack of preparation. The sacred nature of marriage involves not just two people who want to live happily all their lives but the plan and purpose of God as acted out through Christ and His Church. Unfortunately, Stanley neglects to mention that holy dimension.
Stanley misses the same mark when he states that a relationship won’t ever be any healthier than you, so become a better person. I don’t have any arguments with accountability, self-improvement and responsibility, but Stanley’s hasty treatment barely skims the surface of the concept. It assumes that anything contributed to a relationship traces back to two flawed human beings. I would suggest that in a Christian relationship, there is a third Person involved who has a greater power and influence than either of the other two. In fact, any betterment of persons that goes on can be attributed to His work, not to human efforts at self-improvement. So, once again, I would have to differ with Stanley. Can a relationship be better than I am? Yes, by God’s grace, it can. Thanks be to God! Can I also become a better person in that relationship? Yes. Thank you, Jesus. I can.
Now, I do want to add that the book appears to have been written with an unchurched audience foremost in mind. The first few chapters in particular seem to address those in relationships that don’t fit a Christian lifestyle, perhaps those involved in sexual immorality, criminal activity or abuse. The book doesn’t ever pointedly address the non-Christian. But Stanley’s preaching ministry is largely focused on reaching the unchurched or newly churched, so it makes sense that he may have been thinking specifically of that demographic in this book.
Stanley also proffers much that is of value, describing ideas such as preparing for commitment before marriage, displaying a serious attitude toward relationships, and avoiding a person who depends on you to “fix” him or her. All of that is sound instruction, and no doubt is a new and needed message for many people. However, the conversation could go deeper for a mature Christian understanding of relationships.
I would suggest the comments discussed above should be read as being made in the context of non-Christian or potentially short-term dating relationships. I would also advise seeking a sturdier biblical framework for the construction of God-honoring relationships. In fact, all the best material from this book is thoroughly covered by Stanley in the DVD Staying in Love. It gets right to the heart of the relationship counseling Stanley offers. Also, What the Bible Says About Love, Marriage, and Sex by David Jeremiah is a book that should not be passed over by anyone in any stage of a relationship. Jeremiah makes his strongest points from biblical truths in the very areas that Stanley falls short. Whatever resources one turns to, the truth to keep at center-square is that God can give grace and work out His glory in relationships.