Adam* and I began our premarital counseling during my first year of college. We started meeting with the local minister, Donald Corbin*, who was hesitant to work with us because neither Adam nor I were baptized members of The Church and because I was still a teen. The Church taught there was a “natural order” to everything, including marriage: baptism first and then marriage. And there were to be no marriages before the age of twenty without parental (as in the father’s) consent.
Adam was 23 and I had just turned 18. Neither of us considered ourselves “ready to be baptized.” We hadn’t discussed baptism or joining The Church because it wasn’t something we thought about. Adam attended Sabbath services because his mother and a brother were members, he had childhood friends who were now members themselves, and he was dating me. I attended because I still lived with my parents and I was forced to. That, and I enjoyed socializing with my friends who attended with their parents and who went to the same parties, dances, sport events, hikes, swims, and other Church outings.
For years, I had gone through the motions. I’d sat through services, passed notes to my friends, daydreamed, and did whatever it took to get through the boring sermons. And during the non-boring sermons – the ones that held my attention by deriding children and youth and degrading women and girls, the ones that told me and my kind what we couldn’t do or wear or look at or look like or listen to or read or watch or talk about or talk like or think about – I sat with my rage and stifled every impulse I had to stand up from the crowd out of my cold metal folding chair and yell: BULLSHIT!
Like most kids in The Church, I knew what was forbidden. That much had been beaten into all of us. But I hadn’t paid enough attention to understand the doctrines or the convoluted prophecies or something as basic as the order of the Holy Days or this thing they called “God’s Plan” or the three resurrections. I wasn’t interested in committing to a belief system I didn’t understand or fully accept yet.
I held on to the expectation that there would be a time when I would understand, when I would feel the compulsion to join and become a full member of The Church. Friends my age and older were already being “called” and “converted” or were going through “baptismal counseling” or attending “God’s College” (Ambassador College) despite how The Church had been a source of so much of our childhood misery. I assumed these young people knew and understood things I didn’t yet. I knew enough to know I didn’t know enough to make a decision about baptism yet.
What I didn’t know at the time was that “yet” would never come for me. Or for Adam.
“Mr. Corbin,” as we called him because we addressed all ministers as “Mister,” began counseling with me and Adam, albeit reluctantly. Corbin was a legalistic stickler, even more so than most Worldwide Church of God ministers, and he made clear at every meeting how much disdain he had for us and how he in no way approved of us getting married. His disapproval would prove so strong that his wife would boycott our wedding as a show of righteousness and “to set an example” to others in the congregation.
He told us we really should have been working toward baptism and not marriage. And then in sermons, he told us again about what lukewarm hangers-on we were and all those others who attended with “converted” spouses or parents but “neglected their own calling.” He called us out, not by name, but with enough identifying information. He said we were Laodiceans, neither hot nor cold and thus ready to be spewed from God’s mouth.
Laodiceans and “The Laodicean Era” and other “Church Eras” were just more Armstrongism prophecies that didn’t make sense to me yet. Still, I knew that being called a Laodicean was one of the worst things someone within The Church could be called. I knew enough to know when a minister called anyone a Laodicean, it held the threat of abandonment and death – of being left behind when the faithful from The Philadelphia Era (the Worldwide Church of God) would be swept away to The Place of Safety while God destroyed the rest of The World.
Corbin was only obliging us at my father’s request and he didn’t even like my father. It was apparent from the day they’d met some four years earlier (after our move to Knoxville) that they had a deep and mutual dislike for one another.
My father had moved into the Knoxville congregation already a deacon, ordained years ago in North Carolina. Many of his close friends were ministers with whom we socialized regularly, shared meals, and visited in their homes. So, my father assumed he would have the same relationship with this minister and similar access and status.
Corbin, authoritarian that he was, rigidly heeded Headquarters’ warnings about not “fraternizing with” members from the congregation. Ministers were told they should spend time with other ministers and not with their inferiors lest their loyalty to Headquarters be compromised or they be swayed to show leniency or favoritism toward individual members.
So when my father called Donald Corbin by his first name as he had done with his minister friends, Corbin bristled and said, “That’s Mr. Corbin to you, Tom*,” deliberately calling my father by his first name rather than returning the respect and calling him Mr. Llewellyn*.
The rest of us non-deacon, non-elder, non-minister members and non-members of the congregation were expected to address all ministers and deacons as “Mr.” and their wives as “Mrs.”
By Corbin’s estimation, my father and our whole family were too “worldly.” My brother’s hair was too long, my mother worked, my skirts were too tight, and my brother and I were a little too stylish and overly obsessed with our physical appearances. On top of all that, which of itself looked really bad, we had used those “worldly” CB radios to communicate back and forth between vehicles during our move. Sometimes we even talked to truckers!
Right after our move, Corbin called us (and others) out in a sermon. Again, he never mentioned anyone by name because he didn’t have to. “I’ve seen CB antennas on cars in the parking lot – cars that belong to what should be God’s people. If you’re out there on the highway with the rest of The World talking on your CB or going along with every trend like everyone else in The World, then you are no better than The World!” (Or something like that.)
Members could always tell what Corbin (or pretty much any Worldwide minister) thought of them by what he included in his sermons and whom he chose to shame.
So, here Adam and I are four years later, sitting with this minister and his contempt for us.
That I was an extension of my father must have made it worse for Corbin, but in an odd, confused sort of way, as I was a non-person: both female and a child in his eyes. But if my father had given his permission for my marriage then my father had the authority to request Corbin perform a ceremony that went against his conscience, against Church teaching and, most importantly, against Herbert W. Armstrong’s written word.
Armstrong, so sure of himself and his “research” into the customs of ancient Israel and the “fact” that “God did not even count people in the census as adults until age twenty” declared 20 to be the magic number. In The Missing Dimension in Sex (p. 226-8) he proclaims “with sound judgment guided and approved by God” (a phrase he repeats twice) that no one under twenty should marry despite what human laws might say to the contrary. He did concede that he found “no punishable prohibition against marriage before the age of twenty” in the Bible and that it might be acceptable in rare circumstances.
I don’t know what that conversation or series of conversations between my father and Corbin went like, but I do know my father and the patterns of ministers and the things that were said during our counseling and after our wedding. The gist of my father’s request probably went something like: This girl is a particularly lascivious sort and will probably have sex soon if she hasn’t already. She could end up pregnant. Isn’t it better to marry than to burn? (1 Corintians 7:9)
The first thing Corbin said to us in our counseling was that he had had trouble with some other young couples in the congregation having premarital sex. In one instance, he even had to perform a quick wedding and baptism because of an “out of wedlock pregnancy” involving an “unequally yoked” couple – one baptized and the other unbaptized. Shock! Then he was forced to suspend them from Sabbath services for three months to “correct them” and teach them (and all of us) “a lesson.” Of course, everyone knew who the couple was because Corbin had preached about it (not naming names, of course). The young man was Adam’s former roommate in college and the older brother of my closest Church friend. The young woman was the sister of Adam’s sister-in-law. When the young woman returned to services after her three-month suspension, she was visibly pregnant, which made the shaming all the more effective.
And, then Corbin told us there was the other marriage where a spouse hadn’t disclosed their non-virgin status. Fraud! And how the marriage was now dissolved. Of course, Adam and I knew this couple and the details of found letters and shocking honeymoon discoveries because Corbin had preached about it and shamed them for it and also because congregants picked up the information trail and gossiped about it. Everyone knew.
Corbin asked me first, “Are you a virgin?”
I answered, “Yes.” What I didn’t tell him was that I had had a variety of sexual experiences. Adam and I had several types of sex together even, but not vaginal intercourse. So, yes, by Corbin’s and The Church’s technical standards (the only standards that mattered) I had not engaged in THE unauthorized sex act.
And then to Adam, “Are you a virgin?”
And with that began our awkward and invasive premarital counseling with one of God’s True Ministers.
*The names have been changed.
Better to Marry than to Burn (part 2) continued in next post.