Family Ministries Book on Marriage, Sex Inhabits Known Universe, Made-Up Universe

(Spectrumbot) #1

There’s a new book out on Love, Marriage and Sex from the Adventist Church's Family Ministries Department that occupies the space between this universe and an alternate universe that exists in the Adventist psyche.

Among the undramatic business sessions at this year’s General Conference Spring Meeting (the last stop before San Antonio for the General Conference Executive Committee), various denominational departments unveiled their latest projects and products.

I sat in the back of the GC auditorium creating a fairly banal tweetstorm on the Twitter when a book plopped down on the table in front of me: “Real Family Talk,” by Willie and Elaine Oliver, the couple behind the GC Family Ministries Department, with the Pacific Press imprint on the back cover. I scooted the book over into my growing pile of GC swag—bookmarks, phone chargers, magazines—a small treasure trove of Adventist promotional materials.

After Spring Meeting, back home in Southern California’s droughtlands, I unpacked my travel bag and “Real Family Talk” fell out. Willie and Elaine grinned at me from my livingroom floor.

“Answers to Questions About Love, Marriage and Sex,” said the subtitle, full of mild intrigue. Who doesn’t want to know what Willie and Elaine Oliver have to say about sex, I thought.

The Olivers share some impressive degrees between them—Willie’s PhD in family sociology and Elaine’s Master’s in counseling psych with a PhD in psychology in the works. So it seemed reasonable to have high expectations.

In a question and answer format, the book covers a lot of ground, and touches some very important topics.

Some important questions also go (accidentally) unaddressed. One important lead, “Is divorce an option,” sits atop a discussion of a wife whose husband doesn’t like it when she answers the phone during mealtime. After rereading the section three times to make sure I wasn’t missing something, I decided an editing hiccup (I know about those!) must have placed the header above the wrong section. There was nothing in the paragraph about divorce. Whatever happened there, is divorce an option in Adventism? The answer to the question matters a lot.

A subsequent question in the section on domestic abuse mentions the possibility of divorce specifically in this context, but the answer skirts the issue entirely. The Olivers helpfully offer resources for getting away from abuse and finding safe places. But the divorce question? “Trust God to lead you and to help put your family back together” (pg. 103).

Adventists have had a hard time with the topic, and a nuanced discussion of circumstances that make divorce not only permissible, but also necessary, would be tremendously helpful in a culture that can inadvertently reinforce abusive relationships and needlessly guilt divorcees. Maybe the next print run will sort that topic out.

Some helpful tidbits:
It’s not necessarily a problem to become romantically involved with a woman fourteen years older than you, so long as it’s not just about this “postmodern” obsession with “cougars” (they didn’t use this word, though I kind of wish they had).  Just keep in mind that brain development increases with age, etc., they advise.

Physical, verbal, and emotional abuse is never justified, and it affects men as well as women (the Olivers suggest research indicates 95% of domestic abuse is perpetrated by men against women).

When talking with your teen whom you suspect is trying alcohol, stay calm, factual and non-judgmental. Don’t lecture.

Girlfriend doesn’t want to change her surname to yours, and it’s making you have second thoughts about marrying her? “I shudder to think that I may have given up such a significantly blessed experience (being married to my wife) because of a decision based on a patriarchal tradition of viewing women—consciously or unconsciously—as personal property,” Willie writes (pg. 57).

Less helpful tidbits:
Women in this book nag. Husbands don’t nag. Wives nag.

Men in this book cheat. Wives don’t cheat. Husbands cheat.

Don’t date around. It’s intimacy without commitment, which is bad.

Teen sexuality = the idea that one can have oral sex and still be a virgin. Trusted adults should talk to teens about this so teens don’t get warped ideas about sex as adults. The Bible says get married before having sex. Other sex is bad.

My kids are making crappy choices. Are my prayers even doing anything? Answer? Prayer changes circumstances and changes us. So pray without ceasing, mmkay?

Somewhere in Between:
As an African-American parent, how should I address issues of race with my kids in racist America? Answer? Raise kids within the parameters of loving our neighbors as we love ourselves. The way we talk about people in private shapes public behaviour. Also, trust God, and we’ll pray for you.

Most of this book inhabits the known universe in which marriages are tough, teenagers do teenagery things, and communication is difficult but necessary to healthy relationships. And most of the advice is solid, if a little dry. It’s the kind of sensible, middle of the road, Bible-based counsel James Dobson used to give before he got all political.

But another portion of the book inhabits an alternate universe created by Adventists, which runs contrary to the real universe. In the real universe (the one that Adventists would rather not inhabit), teenagers sometimes have sex and it doesn’t screw them up for life. In this universe, kids, parents, siblings, friends turn out to be gay. Or transgender. Or even intersex. In the universe that Adventists avoid, divorce sometimes is as important as marital counseling. Sometimes people drink alcohol, and their lives are not ruined. Sometimes, prayer doesn't work. And sometimes, cohabitation works out great.

I’ve been Adventist long enough to know why a publication from a GC department can’t acknowledge some of these realities of this universe. I get it. The problem is that when our advice ignores reality, and people are able to see for themselves that reality is being ignored, it undercuts the church’s message. It makes the church less relevant. And the under-30 crowd in the church, more than anyone else, doesn’t have time for a version of reality that ignores any part of reality. That is real family talk.


Jared Wright is Managing Editor of

This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at

(Elaine Nelson) #2

DId the publishers suggest this as a nice little wedding present to the SdA couple embarking on such a treacherous course? Years ago, the suggested book was a white bound copy of “The Adventist Home.” outdated when I received it 70 years ago.

(Carolyn Parsons) #3

By not speaking candidly with a foot firmly planted in the real universe, guilt is a damaging result. Anyone who has lived in an abusive relationship knows that if only the option of staying married is considered, the party that is abused, and often suffers from guilt because of that, is made to carry additional guilt for not being able to make the marriage work.

Another issue the book may not have covered is safe sex. If a young person, as they can do, decides to be sexually active and there is never talk about safe sex, then they are going to be less likely to use condoms. We see that in the bible belt of the US, that teen pregnancies rates are higher. Utah has a very high ten pregnancy rate, which ironically may be inflated because of teen getting married at a higher rate. The US has a higher teen pregnancy rate compared to other industrialized countries. Rates in the US are twice that of our neighbor Canada. Religiosity is unfortunately correlated with higher teen pregnancy rates.

Sexually transmitted diseases are another huge concern with unsafe sexual activity. The CDC has some statistics showing some troubling rates of STD’s among teens:

Sexual risk behaviors place adolescents at risk for HIV infection, other sexually transmitted diseases (STDs), and unintended pregnancy:
•Nearly 10,000 young people (aged 13-24) were diagnosed with HIV infection in the United States in 2013
•Young gay and bisexual men (aged 13-24) accounted for an estimated 19% (8,800) of all new HIV infections in the United States, and 72% of new HIV infections among youth in 2010
•Nearly half of the 20 million new STDs each year were among young people, between the ages of 15 to 24
•Approximately 273,000 babies were born to teen girls aged 15–19 years in 2013

Which brings us to Gay and bisexual teens and young men and their STD risk, which is stunningly high. Without loving support and frank discussions, young LGBT people will be at a higher risk of STD’s.

(Robert Sonter) #4

Thank you Jared, very well said.


One of the stunningly undiscussed issues in the real universe is the impact pornography has on many marriages, particularly where the husband gets so addicted to sexual activity with an online computer-generated ultra-sexed female and ignores his wife’s beauty and needs.

He destroys his marriage (and this could be the other way around, too) by his sexual relationship with a computer goddess. However, the church defends him, tries to destroy the wife if/when she divorces this man, and promotes him as a wonderful church member and Christian and victim of the wife. Sick.

The church elders and fathers just wink-wink when the wife explains and discusses the powerful effect of pornography on their family and her marriage. “Boys will be boys,” is the response when he should be disfellowshiped for adultery.

Does this book touch this issue?

(Peter Marks) #6


I have read this piece which purports to be a book review! What a disappointment!!

Why highlight the fact that Adventists think differently about marriage and sexuality than the surrounding culture? This is hardly news!! Adventists willingly and deliberately has always sought to offer counter-cultural advice and solutions to real world problems. We do so, chiefly because such solutions work better than worldly solutions and because these better solutions are drawn from the principles of Scripture!!

People everywhere are looking wistfully to heaven for answers to issues, that are framed from outside the mold that the world delivers!!

(Jared Wright) #7

The book did not (unless I missed it) pick up the topic of pornography. I think I would categorize under not-entirely-helpful-over-simplifications the trope of “husband looks at porn, destroys marriage.”

Again, reality in this day and age may be a lot more complex than that. Start with the fact that there is almost nobody these days who hasn’t seen pornography, if we’re talking about the real universe.

(Jared Wright) #8

It’s one thing to be intentionally counter-cultural. It’s another thing to ignore cultural realities because they don’t fit within the reality we construct. That’s all I’m saying here.

(le vieux) #9

Sounds to me like the author is implying that we shouldn’t strive for a higher standard than the culture around us. It’s not that we ignore reality, but we refuse to accept it as an inevitable situation. In the OT, the Israelites (who were supposed to set an example of a higher standard than the world) succumbed to the culture around them and look where it got them.

And I would suggest that premarital sex does affect one for life, and not for the better. One can rise above it and move on, but the scars are there. The same could be said for drinking or divorcing.

The fact that some folks appear to come away unscathed from drinking, cohabiting, or divorcing, does not mean that it’s no big deal, or that we shouldn’t counsel our young people to avoid these things. Since when did the church allow reality of a fallen world to determine its standards?

It may not have been intended as cynical, but that’s how the article came across to me, almost as if the author believes our standards are unrealistic and outdated. Biblical morality is never outdated.

(Carolyn Parsons) #10

It can’t be said that sex outside of marriage necessarily has a negative affect on life. It can be good, neutral or bad, just like marital sex.

Absolutely, counseling people to avoid these things is a good idea. What is not a good idea is suggesting that this is the only way, and that if you make a mistake that you are fallen, or not trying hard enough, or a bad person.

I think there are many examples of biblical morality that are outdated. The most important example is marriage based on mutual interests and satisfaction for both spouses, egalitarianism and mutual respect.


The issue I’m addressing is NOT that everyone now at some point sees porn. The issue was that the family was destroyed because husband’s addiction to porn and downloading of child pornography was ignored by Adventist church officials when the wife appealed for help. It was a brick wall and she was blamed and ignored.

I’m sorry the authors failed to deal with porn addiction as a threat to Adventist families.

(Carolyn Parsons) #12

I was a bit confused as well. I now see that this was an actual event. I am sorry that she didn’t get help from her church family.

(Steve Mga) #13

Does anyone remember the Harold Shryock books? Happiness for Husbands and Wives. On becoming a Man. On becoming a Woman.

(Steve Mga) #14

I noticed the statistics DID NOT report on Female HIV+ infection rates or numbers. There are lots of Females, not just young, but older in 40s and 50+ on HIV meds.
It is no longer a Male or young adult problem.

(Steve Mga) #15

Disfellowship is NOT the cure-all for what you discussed.
This person needs long-term professional help. Also need to be in some type of Support Group in addition to Therapy.
This is the only way this person will be saved for the Kingdom. May no save the marriage. Saved for the Kingdom is important to the Person, the Child of God.

(Carolyn Parsons) #16

The report was focused on young people and was just highlights of the situation. The issues is complex beyond the scope of that report.

(Elaine Nelson) #17

I’v read that Aids is a real scourge in the senior citizen’s areas.

This book is a clear example that the members and especially pastors need more realistic information on sexuality, marriage and divorce. The book contains much outdated and even harmful advice as shown here on comments of pastor’s advice.
Physicians and psychologists should have workshops for young people (from who they might learn a lot), members and pastors to bring them up-to date on all these issues.

Dr. Shryock’s books were outdated when I read them more than half a century ago. Surely, there are better and more informative books available to church pastors and members than this one.


So with ubiquitous pornography available, if the book has no discussion on it that is a mammoth oversight.

(George Tichy) #19

So… what would you say about the “BooxKeepers?”… :wink:

(Tim Teichman) #20

Yes, it becomes comical when someone says that marriage should be between one man and one woman, as defined by God in the bible. This is for two reasons:

  1. If they read the bible, they’d see that no where does it say this. Instead, plural marriages were the norm, where one man is married to many different women, and where men kept concubines and temple prostitutes at hand. And these were the heros of the bible.
    Here’s a site that does exactly this, starting out with “Marriage is a sacred vow between a man and woman and the Bible offers many verses that offer guidance” and then lists bible verses (cherry picking) that actually never make any such statement. All the site is doing is reading back current norms an notions of marriage into bible times. IMO, the site is it’s own worst enemy:

  2. Gender is not black and white. It turns out it’s a gray scale, both physically and psychologically.

Yes, anytime a man (or woman) is abusive, it’s time to leave. A woman especially should never be coached to try to preserve an abusive marriage. She should pick up and leave, or kick the abuser out and get a court restraining order. And maybe a baseball bat.

Yep. And sometimes they smoke pot, too. And perhaps drop a little acid. If everyone who did drugs ruined their lives there would be almost no one left from the 60’s generation.

It depends on what you mean by ‘work’. I like to say it always works, but usually God’s answer is ‘no’ to whatever you’re asking for. Doesn’t mean it didn’t work.