This post is the third in an unintentional three-part series on sexual purity. In the first post I discussed criticism of the Church’s “purity culture”, and in the second I explained why I think Christians should stop talking about virginity and focus instead on love as the basis for sexual ethics.
In high school, my youth pastor would sometimes talk to us about sex. He always pre-announced it, and everyone would get excited because teens like sex, even if they’ve never done it and have no expectation of doing it any time soon. Just the prospect of hearing it talked about was cause for anticipation, although, of course, we would inevitably feel a little disappointed afterward because the actual conversation never turned out to be at all titillating.
But that Wednesday night (every youth group I ever attended in the 90s met on Wednesday nights at 7 p.m.), gathered together in our shiny new dedicated youth room under the trendy exposed black ductwork and fluorescent lights, we would wait patiently through announcements and prayer time to hear all about that magical experience we were not allowed to have, and every single time Tim, the youth pastor, would say the same things:
- Sex is a wonderful gift God gave us.
- You shouldn’t do it until you’re married.
- You should stop asking questions like “How far is too far?” or “Is french kissing a sin?” because you shouldn’t be thinking about how much you can get away with but about how you can be as holy as possible.
As you might imagine from the comparative number of words used to express the above three points, the third one took up the bulk of the time. I have no idea how Tim decided that his messaging on sex for teens should revolve around holiness. Maybe the other, hotter, more popular kids for whom sex was actually on the table asked him questions like that all the time and he got tired of parsing out all sexual activity into “good” and “bad” for them. Possibly it was brilliant way for him to avoid a fear- or guilt-based approach to teen sexuality but still say true things that would keep him out of trouble with both protective parents and morally conservative congregants. In any case, he was the only adult in the evangelical community I ever heard talk like this; other messages on the subject revolved entirely around pregnancy, STDs, the sinfulness of impurity, and saving sex for marriage so your future spouse wouldn’t be angry and disappointed with you.
Obviously, these tactics have proven ineffective. Christian marriages aren’t better than anyone else’s—divorce rates in the Church are, if anything, slightly higher than the norm. And teen pregnancy in the more religious red states outstrips that in blue states. Our kids are having sex, regardless of the potential consequences or how guilty they may feel about it.
Why do we want our youth and the unmarried to abstain from sex, anyway? The reasons I’ve most frequently heard correspond roughly to the messaging of my teen years:
- Avoiding negative consequences (pregnancy, STDs)
- Emotional safety
- Promoting healthy marriages
- The sinfulness of sexual activity outside marriage
I think nearly everyone would agree about avoiding disease or unwanted pregnancy, and people should certainly be careful about managing their emotions. There is some circumstantial evidence that abstinence before marriage has a positive effect on marital happiness, for practical reasons easy to identify with a little thought. As I explained in my previous post, though, I do not think it is at all clear that God condemns pre-marital sex. In any case, guilt and shame are poor motivators of behavior, while the binary view of sexual purity as something that can be lost but never regained communicates to those who have already become sexually active that they may as well continue. For those who consider abstinence before marriage biblical and important, therefore, we need to replace our current, ineffective guilt-based reasoning with a more positive, aspirational image.
Moreover, both because of the Bible’s relative silence on the issue and due to ongoing cultural shifts, more and more Christians will likely believe quite sincerely that Biblical ethics do not preclude sexual activity before marriage. The Church’s current approach to teaching on sexuality has nothing to say to these people except “stop sinning”. While I believe in healthy dialogue and the obligation to challenge my Christian friends about their beliefs and practices when necessary (commensurate with our relationship), I also believe that I should be willing to continue in community with others even when we disagree about issues on which the Bible is not clear.1 And if we are going to welcome into our congregations believers who are unmarried but sexually active or potentially sexually active, we ought to be able to engage them on the subject of sexual ethics with more than just a unilateral command.
What, then, can replace our current negative discourse on pre-marital sexual ethics, allowing us to support those struggling to remain celibate and dialogue with those who view sexual activity before marriage as acceptable Christian behavior?
I’m going to adapt my youth pastor’s message for my own time and purposes: we should not think about far we can go with our sexual liberty but about how well we can embody God’s call to be set apart for himself. My belief—based heavily on nuance and summation in interpreting the scant biblical evidence, but still my belief—is that the best and most rewarding kind of Christian spirituality involves only being sexually intimate in the context of marriage. Many people still share this belief—although they might not frame it in exactly the same way—and for those among them who are unmarried and find celibacy difficult, the concept of celibacy as a component of holiness provides a positive goal as motivation to continue doing the hard work of sexual abstinence. It can also guide those currently in romantic relationships—whether they consider abstinence a command or not—as they determine their sexual boundaries, the call to holiness dictating that, unlike the world, we must make love for one another, rather than our own desires, the rubric of our decision-making.
This is all extremely abstract language, so let me suggest three more concrete (albeit very idealized) situations.
- A high school boy and girl who are dating but want to remain abstinent.2 Endeavoring to control their raging hormones but also starting to get serious, they want to be able to express their affection physically without sacrificing their idea of holiness by becoming too sexually intimate. They have agreed that the cuddling and closed-mouth kissing they currently do represents the farthest they can go in their physical relationship without violating her conscience. He thinks they ought to be allowed to kiss open-mouthed, but another girl from their youth group reminds him that it is more Christ-like to put his girlfriend’s needs above his own. From then on, every time the heat of the moment takes them in that direction he voluntarily backs off because he values her beliefs about appropriate intimacy more than his own sexual desires.
- A couple in their 20s who have been together for nine months and believe in abstinence before marriage but have recently had sex several times. Their relationship has become more serious, and they want to keep seeing each other, but they also view sexual purity as important and would like to remain celibate from now on. They decide the issue is so important they should bring it up to their small group at church. After some dialogue, the group helps them realize they should no longer spend time alone together in either of their homes, thus eliminating the kind of situation that could easily lead to another slip-up.
- A college-age couple who do not see celibacy before marriage as a biblical command but do think the decision to become sexually intimate should be taken very seriously. After they have been dating for two months she feels they have reached a point where sex would be appropriate, but he wants to wait. One night, while making out in her apartment, he begins touching her inner thigh. She tells him that she is becoming aroused and would like to stop, since he is not ready to take her all the way to orgasm. Remembering a conversation with a morally-conservative friend from church about sexual purity and consideration for others, he agrees that they should find some other activity to occupy the rest of the evening.
Are real people always going to find it so easy to practice sexual ethics that revolve around justice and consideration toward others? No. These are ideals. Real life will be much more messy and difficult. People will repeatedly fail to live up to their ideals and require forgiveness of each other much more frequently than they will immediately identify the right course of action and follow through with it every time. And this is fine. God is not keeping score against us any more. If he thought he could expect a spotless record of us, he would not have sent his Son to be spotless on our behalf. If he thought he could demand perfect adherence to a law, he would have given us a new law.
Instead of a law, though, he has given us as guides of behavior the Holy Spirit and the command of love. When the Church teaches sexual ethics—or any ethics—we must shun constructed codes of conduct, which can only reinforce legalism, leading to a life of guilt, and distinguish ourselves from the world by basing our relationships and actions on our identity as God’s holy people, called to a life of incarnation and love.