By Bart Gingerich (@BJGingerich)
You may have noticed the recent volley of criticism against the evangelical sex culture. No, not the trends toward loose morals, but the Christian fascination with virginity and purity. The casualties of the “purity movement” are starting to speak out.
Former fundamentalist and current feminist Elizabeth Esther looked back on her adolescence and said, “[W]e implied that a woman’s inherent worth and dignity could be measured by whether or not a man has touched her.” Those who fail to meet the physical requirements are “damaged goods.”
Sarah Bessey continued the theme. She observes that she was “disqualified from true love” because of her previous sexual encounters. She and others “feel like the dirty little secret, the not-as-goods, the easily judged example.” For those so shamed, Bessey enthuses:
There is no shame in Christ’s love. Let him without sin cast the first stone. You are more than your virginity—or lack thereof—and more than your sexual past. Your marriage is not doomed because you said yes to the boys you loved as a young woman. Your husband won’t hold it against you, he’s not that weak and ego-driven, choose a man marked by grace.
Rachel Held Evans voiced her approval of both posts. The ever-bold Tony Jones wondered if Christians should “celebrate pre-marital sex,” concluding, “Today, sex is everywhere. It’s unavoidable. A new sexual ethic for Christians is desperately needed.” A more moderate Emily Maynard condemned “virgin” and “non-virgin” as philosophical categories for human beings.
They all have a point. Too often in an over-sexualized culture, Christians engage in what Elizabeth Esther calls “reverse objectification.” Purity policing leads to a strange objectivism—a surrender to the sexual message of the age. Christians risk ceding the argument that a woman is a purely sexual object when it comes to her visible physical nature. So in response, her body must be hidden or else made ugly to keep the spirit clean and pure. In the end, much unjust suffering comes down upon girls and the rest of society because of various abuses.
Much like Islamic settings, Christian fundamentalist cultures can shame women and eschew human beauty. Some religious folks resort to a “steaming pile of legalistic shame-mongering.” When a religious community sees the human body along utilitarian lines while sacred texts forbid sexual misconduct, they resort to deontological ethics—unwavering adherence to rules. In certain circles, there is an underlying assumption that God punishes the sin of fornication by ruining the future marriage, when that may not in fact be the case. But sin is much more deceptive and subtle.
Individualism Gone Wild
At the same time, all is not well with these virginity critiques. The underlying complaint seems to demand that we accept different decisions without critique or even regret. But sin—especially sexual sin—affects the entire community. Likewise, fornication (as with any other sin) interrupts communion between God and man and thus must be reconciled through Christ.
The sin of fornication is not minimized by “mutual consent.” Contrary to popular belief, the Old Testament is not chauvinistically patriarchal, and the Scriptures are clear on sexual mores. The most honest skeptics intimate sexual standards based in an old book should be thrown out altogether. Couples “really committed” to each other, we hear, should be able to do as they please outside the bounds of traditional matrimony.
What a strange understanding of commitment! This new standard eliminates the risk of love. The traditional understanding of the marriage covenant requires trust, especially in the sexual realm. A couple is taking a plunge into the world of family life because they love each other. Couples who abstain until marriage tell one another, “I love you so much that I will surrender my body to you. I have denied the pleasures of a moment for a life tied to only yours in this dangerous world, from this point on.”
For generations, this model of marriage has proven remarkably resilient. In this context, love can be truly maddening—people do crazy things like have children together, stick together through debilitating diseases, and mutually endure declining health. On the other hand, what reason do the “really committed” have not to jump from one sex partner to the next? One could conclude that such “commitment” is merely strong emotion—a passion of the moment—that has little to do with true resolve.
Thankfully, healing is possible for couples who do not abstain. The gospel of Jesus Christ can overcome any sin! Still, pastors who counsel couples tell me the process of restoring trust is long and painful. Virginity does not make someone “better,” but young Christians deny themselves the fullness of romantic love by fornication. They will only make things worse by lying to themselves about it.
For the longing singles among us, we have heard it said that love is patient. So go out there, date, and maybe get married. Just do not make allowance for the lustful flesh.
Editors note: The following blog post originally appeared on The Gospel Coalition website. Special thanks to Joe Carter.