The Millennial Generation’s Acceptable Sin

on January 8, 2013
Do not disturb sign
A messy conversation is behind door 103. (Photo credit: Manss)

By Bart Gingerich (@bjgingerich)

The following article originally appeared on The Gospel Coalition website.

Every human institution and society has its own list of sins and virtues that contradict the law of God. With the rise of the Millennial generation in evangelical churches, a vice is creeping up into the realms of acceptance, indifference, or at least resignation: fornication (i.e. extramarital sex or unchaste living).

A few decades ago, this was one of the main issues that evangelicals hammered in their social witness. The skeptical news cycle and entertainment industry mocked this often; they saw pleas for chastity as a laughable result of pietistic sexual repression and no small bit of hypocrisy. Theological leaders and other influential voices chided their fellow believers for obsessing over a select set of sexual taboos.

Now, however, the exhortations have eased off. Commentary from Tim Keller at the latest Q Conference in New York is quite telling. “We’re not doing well on the sex side,” he confessed. Talking about his church, Keller said, “We’re just like the rest of the city. If I preach like that [on sexual ethics], everybody gets real quiet.”

Similarly, the National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy discovered 80 percent of unmarried evangelicals between the ages of 18 and 29 had engaged in sex. Using a more stringent definition of “evangelical,” the National Association of Evangelicals (NAE) recently reported that 44 percent of millennial evangelicals had sex outside marriage. Of course, just because Christians oppose sexual immorality does not mean they never struggle with it. Nevertheless, in this sort of moral environment, harping on moral sex lives is analogous to starting an abolitionist church in the antebellum South. Thanks to the public liturgy of Hollywood and our own human inclinations, fornication has been normalized and poses a massive obstacle to effective pastoral ministry.

Shut Up and Stay Out of Sex Lives

More disturbingly, many young evangelicals are trying to loosen the standards of the moral law to fit their desire to become sexually active before committing to marriage. Some are direct, telling the church to shut up and stay out of their sex lives. They say that Jesus wants his followers to pursue justice, provide for the poor, minister to the outcasts, and otherwise love their neighbors as themselves. They claim Christ did not send his disciples out to be the sex police, and the early church focused instead on counter-cultural community-making.

Of course this argument is contradicted by the historical evidence. For example, Polycarp (student of St. John the Apostle) instructed women to be “loving all [others] equally in all chastity.” Likewise, he urged young men to be “especially careful to preserve purity.” Speaking of Valens (a man estranged from church discipline by his indiscretions), Polycarp taught, “I exhort you . . . that ye be chaste and truthful. ‘Abstain from every form of evil.'” In the Epistle of Mathetes to Diognetus, the author famously describes Christians: “They marry, as do all [others]; they beget children; but they do not destroy their offspring. They have a common table, but not a common bed. They are in the flesh, but they do not live after the flesh.” The Apostolic Fathers and their standards for the ancient church are clear. We must not form the past and its teaching to suit our wants.

Costly Toll on the Soul

Other young evangelicals, however, are truly struggling with sexual morality—and often losing. I refer especially (but not solely) to pornography, in which one commits adultery in the heart. The toll this battle takes on the soul is costly. Perhaps this is why the popular folk band Mumford and Sons’s music resonates so strongly with Christians. The group’s lyrics often explore fall, redemption, grace, and love. For instance, band leader Marcus Mumford asks in “White Blank Page”:

Can you lie next to her

And give her your heart, your heart

As well as your body

And can you lie next to her

And confess your love, your love

As well as your folly

And can you kneel before the king

And say I’m clean, I’m clean.

For too many young men, wracked with regret over their defeats and struggles, the answer is an ashamed “no.”

Beware Acceptable Sins

Young evangelicals must choose their master. Right now, too many follow their appetites and desires. They are bending God’s own standards to satiate their libido. Perhaps fear and repentance would not be amiss here—numerous portions of sacred Scripture indicate that sexuality expresses God’s character as carried out in his image-bearers. The cost of trespassing providential limits is too high. Beware your acceptable sins—they are the ones that will kill you. When a society caves in to one particular sin and twists the gospel to defend it (e.g. the antebellum South with slavery) that vice will become a canker on the soul and will eventually bring it to ruin.

Christ Jesus lived a pure, spotless, and (notably) chaste life to buy his Bride on the cross. He proved his authority and victory in the resurrection. At Pentecost, he sent the Holy Ghost to empower and enliven his apostles to carry out a very special work. His disciples would be instruments to make a people for himself.

To this end, the single soul as well as the called-out community are sanctified. They war with the Devil, the world, and (especially relevant) the flesh. God grants his enabling grace to the saints that they might instantiate the renewed creation: husbands and wives bound in perfect unity or the celibate set apart for special kingdom service. This involves every part of human life, manifested in appropriate ways: the economy, almsgiving, kind acts, pursuit of political justice, and—yes—even sexuality.


  1. Comment by Sara Anderson on January 8, 2013 at 10:15 am

    Excellent analysis, Bart. It is sad that in today’s church culture singles who choose to be faithful are often the target of smirks instead of support. The people who wish the church would stay out of their sex lives do not want to accept the command to be a “living sacrifice, wholly acceptable to God.” Eugene Peterson calls sin (in general) a well-constructed defense against God. This is one of the many examples of how we try to bar the Lord from certain areas of our lives.

  2. Comment by Donnie on January 8, 2013 at 2:54 pm

    I seem to remember an article last year on the “Hook Up” culture at Yale Divinity School. And how a Freshman was shocked to find that many of his fellow Christians at Yale were behaving the same way as the world, and sometimes worse.

  3. Comment by Paul Hoskins on January 9, 2013 at 7:23 pm

    Donnie, that shouldn’t surprise you, Yale Div is about as lefty as you can get. The only thing that should shock you would be if the school came out in favor of monogamy. A century ago, the Social Gospel types were notorious for their philandering, and that sacred tradition continues. When you care about “the world,” and are concerned-n-compassionate, you don’t have to bother about trifling things like the teachings of Jesus and Paul.

  4. Comment by Eric Lytle on January 8, 2013 at 6:09 pm

    A few years ago, when I was still single, I attended a large Southern Baptist church, with a large and active (and I mean ACTIVE) group of singles. In their theology and politics, these were very conservative. The ones who were doing sleepovers – or even living under the same roof – didn’t flaunt it, but everyone knew that when John “picked up” his girlfriend Karen and took her to church, he didn’t have to travel too far, since they were waking up in the same bed. Occasionally, during social times, I got the impression that the “couples” had a certain amount of disdain for the singles who woke up alone on Sunday morning. We live in a sex-saturated (and chastity-mocking) culture, combine that with the high-octane hormones of a guy in his 20s, throw in peer pressure, and look what we’ve got. But I think this situation makes it MORE important, not less, that churches not sweep chastity under the rug. Yeah, our secular friends will snicker. So what? That probably means we’re doing something right.

  5. Comment by kkollwitz on January 10, 2013 at 5:46 pm

    Yet another “unforseen” consequence of the contraceptive culture.

  6. Comment by Ted on January 19, 2013 at 5:34 am

    My experience as a pastor shows me that sex outside marriage is not limited to millennials by a long shot. I constantly deal with single boomers and all younger generations who are either living or sleeping together. Perhaps millennials receive a covert “permission” from their parents’ generation.

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