There were about 50 of us all seated and listening, some shuffling their feet, some alert and curious, others head down, not caring to pay attention, still others peering down their row, awaiting their turn. “When you allow yourself to get physically involved with a guy or a girl, you’re giving away a piece of your heart, and the girl or guy that does this over and over again will have less and less to offer the person they’ll one day marry”, the preacher’s tone carried a terrific warning as he spoke. From person to person, down each aisle, a single red rose was being passed along. Why, no one was immediately sure, but we each took hold of it in turn, passing, listening, eager to move on from this uncomfortable topic. The last person having received the rose, the speaker held it high for the room of teens to see. Petals were scattered under seats, its stem awkwardly bent, the color dulled and beauty obviously compromised. “So many people have handled this rose that it’s lost its beauty. Raise your hand if you would want to keep this rose!” Silence. Not one hand is raised. “Exactly!” he said, satisfied his illustration was working. “In the same way, no one wants to marry someone who’s passed themselves around, given pieces of their heart, their body away. Don’t scatter yourself around. Guard your heart, keep it safe, untouched for that special person God has for you one day.” The admonition timed with the reveal of a perfectly fresh rose, provided a striking visual contrast with its less fortunate counterpart. Its petals intact, the red silky texture still shimmering and smooth, it was obviously the more desirable choice. My eyes were fixed on it, confidently identifying myself with its unmarred perfection.
Such messages and ideas were repeated over and over during my teenage years. So many well-meaning, loving adults, wanting to shield me and inspire me towards sexual purity, spoon-fed me the “guard your heart” speech from the day I started my period until the day I said “I do” that I honestly lost count. I had a lot of people in my life that cared about me enough to talk to me about sex, about the importance of wise choices, and I love them for it. Their motives were good and the call to live chaste was biblical, but it’s not the kind of message I want to pass on to my daughter, or to my son, at least not as it was packaged.
THE PURITY CAMPAIGN
During the early 1980’s and 1990’s, several organizations launched movements, such as “True Love Waits”, to motivate and encourage teenagers and young adults towards sexual abstinence until marriage. There were seminars and dramatic productions, concerts, and sermons. Each warned of the pitfalls of premarital sex (and anything that might lead to sexual arousal), inferred the promised reward of a sexually fulfilling marriage for the abstinent, included an emotionally compelling visual illustration (like the rose), and often concluded with an urgent invitation to sign a purity contract/pledge on the spot. I’ve come to refer to this altar-call method as spiritualized telemarketing. “Act fast, and all these things will be added unto you!” Each pledge was worded slightly different, but each conveyed the same idea: commit, wait, get married, enjoy sex.
Riding on the heels of the sexual liberation of the 1960’s and 70’s, the movement was rightly concerned with and responding to a devastating trend of indiscriminant sex and warped concepts of sexuality. But the response wasn’t entirely complete. The presentation seemed accurate and compelling as thousands of teens and young adults signed the pledge and slipped on purity rings, but something vital was missing. No one ever connected the conversation about purity with the redemptive narrative. No one linked it with the gospel, at least not in my experience.
I realize that this is going to be a hard pill to swallow for a lot of people, but the whole purity campaign is tragically messed up. I say this with the utmost caution, because I am a product of the purity campaign, a woman that signed the pledge, wore the ring, and managed by God’s grace to save sex until marriage. But even with all its purity pledges and emotional ploys, this campaign, more often than not, leaves its adherents with a conscience full of shame and drowning in guilt or completely disenchanted and filled with scorn. I don’t have any data on that, so I’ll admit it’s a sweeping generalization, but I’ve spoken with enough people who grew up with this kind of rhetoric to believe that this is true in many, many cases.
Simply put, the core values of the purity campaign can be summarized this way:
- Godly men only want to marry godly, pure (i.e. virgin), modestly dressed women (i.e. God’s best).
- If you allow yourself to become emotionally attached to more than one person, there will be irretrievable parts of your heart that you won’t be able to offer that special person in your life that is “God’s best.”
- Don’t ever, ever, ever have sex. Kissing shouldn’t happen either because it could lead to sex. And you probably shouldn’t hold hands or ever give anyone of the opposite sex a hug. It’s all a big slippery slope. Don’t get too close or you’ll begin the irreversible downward fall.
- A morally pure body is your greatest treasure and will be the most valuable thing you can offer your future spouse. (See core value #1.)
- Once you’ve lost your purity, you can never get it back.
- Living this way guarantees you’ll be rewarded with a wonderful marriage.
When we hold up this picture of purity, and label it “God’s best”, we’re sending a clear message that anyone who doesn’t fit that description is “second best”, and by varying degrees of failure, worthless. To clarify, I am all for saving sex for marriage, for keeping a close watch on one’s emotions, and for being purposeful and thoughtful about romantic relationships. These are good and right values to teach and encourage our children and each other to live by. But to motivate someone’s physical, emotional, and mental purity out of fear of loss or hope of gain is to ignore the gospel and make promises you cannot keep.
Beth Felker Jones, in her book, Faithful: A Theology of Sex, adds this perspective, “Our value, our worth, our purpose in the world can never, never be attached to some supposed purity of body, as if we were merchandise instead of sons and daughters of the King.” Is remaining a virgin until your marriage a beautiful gift you can present your spouse? Absolutely! But is one’s sexuality of any less value if it has been spent but redeemed by the blood of Jesus? Not a chance! God’s best isn’t virginity, virgins marrying virgins, or saving your first kiss until your wedding day. God’s best is Jesus! Anything less is, as the Bible puts it, bloody tampons. Attaching the idea of treasure to virginity is downgrading “sex into currency” and “convinces us to prepare our bodies for sale, to the highest bidder [i.e. most deserving/godliest/purest partner you can find] instead of delighting in our bodies and praying that God might use them as signs of the freedom of grace” (Faithful: A Theology of Sex). To fix this connection in our children’s minds is to create a devastatingly demoralizing tiered market of potential suitors, elevating the physically chaste and eliminating the shamefully unwise. Teaching our kids that they can do better than the repentant man or woman with a broken past is to limit their understanding of grace and instill a false sense of superiority. This is a system of meritocracy, a value system that’s, for the most part, fit for a free market enterprise but should have no bearing on a Christian’s sexual ethic.
We need to stop believing and perpetuating the lie that only virgins are holy and desirable, and that sexuality is an irreplaceable treasure. Because it’s not. Sex is a good, beautiful, amazing gift, and unwrapping it before marriage does carry with it painful and difficult consequences, but to stop the narrative there is to deny the power of the gospel and the goodness of the Father!
THE BIG PICTURE
In their thorough, balanced guide, How and When to Tell Your Kids About Sex, Stan and Brenna Jones encourage this: “In teaching children about sex, start with the fundamental reality of Creation. Then move through the effect of the Fall on creation and then to the healing effect Christ’s work of redemption has on our sexuality. All along the way, we teach in light of the coming glorification. We are out of order if we start, as so many Christians do, with the Fall in teaching our children about sex. It’s too easy to let teaching focus only on the dangers and evils of sex when it is misused. Equally tragic is starting and ending with Creation, as if sin were not a reality for each of us and we can simply trust all our instincts and follow all our whims.” Our children need the complete narrative. I need the complete narrative. Dwelling on the muck of the Fall is a terrible motivator. In it the self-righteous see no need for grace and the guilty see no hope of it. Furthermore, when sexuality is taught with the full picture of the gospel in view (creation, fall, redemption, glorification), and our conversations are framed in a tone of anticipation and excitement, those who enter marriage as adults will have the freedom of spirit to embrace the full expression of their sexuality. When the realities of the Fall are preached on repeat, individuals enter marriage with confusion about the goodness of sex and struggle to reconcile a conscience that has been trained to be wary of it.
This is a conversation that should start as early as possible with our children, opening up the gateway to age-appropriate, on-going, open-ended dialogue about our bodies, God’s good design, the distortions of his created intent, and the hope and joy redemption brings.
THE SLIPPERY SLOPE
As we teach our children the goodness of living chaste, “we must not plant in [their] minds . . . some sort of pessimistic sense that if they violate the limits we discuss with them once, they are rapidly sliding down a slippery slope towards promiscuity from which there is no return. With God’s help, people change patterns of life all the time. There are no actions for which they cannot be forgiven and enabled to start anew” (How and When to Tell Your Kids About Sex). All my life I lived in mortal dread of the oft mentioned, “slippery slope” and so steered clear of anything that might push me in its direction. Unwise decisions have heartbreaking ramifications; that’s true enough. But to imply that those decisions will forever alter one’s purity or future sexual enjoyment is a sad, hopeless message indeed. Jesus climbed Golgotha, ensuring that I wouldn’t ever have to work my way back up a hill again. He put to death my sins in his body, took me out of the slippery muck, and set my feet on solid ground (I Peter 2:24 and Psalms 40:2).
Someone once used the illustration that every time a boy sinned with lust, he had to pound a nail into the side of a barn door. After pounding in nail after nail, failure after failure, he went and sought forgiveness. Forgiveness was granted and the nails removed, but the holes forever remained – a cautionary tale of the lasting damage of sin. But like the illustration of the two roses, it denies the power of the gospel. It denies the promise that we have been healed. We have been cleansed. It counts the truth that Jesus is making all things new a lie. “True purity, understood properly, is something that is done to all of us, both our children and us, and not something our efforts can accomplish, even guided and empowered by the Holy Spirit. This is because true purity is being washed in the blood of the Lamb” (How and When to Tell Your Kids About Sex). I’m not denying the reality of consequences. We should be honest with our kids about those. They do exist, and they are devastating. I am however, encouraging a broader, more hope-filled conversation that teaches a way of mercy to the guarded and a well of grace to the guilty. Let’s tell them the stories of Rahab and Mary Magdalene, Judah, David, and The Woman at the Well. Because they, like us, in repentance and faith, each testify to the forgiveness and faithfulness of Jesus. Let their stories, and the stories from your own life, bear witness to how the Rose of Sharon was trampled that we might be upheld, and of how the pure, Holy One was nailed to the cross so that we might be made whole.
Too often the lessons passed on about sexuality are reactionary to events and experiences rather than rooted in theology and hope. Perhaps there was hurt, abuse, or discouragement over personal moral failure. These experiences have the potential to mark conversations with fear rather than faith, focusing so narrowly on the dangers of sex that the celebration of sexual enjoyment and its beauty and wholesomeness is excluded altogether. So it’s vital that those of us who have experienced harm or failure resist the temptation to allow those heartbreaks to define our sexual identity and so reduce our rhetoric to all caution and little anticipation. Healing from these experiences is no small thing, so consider enlisting a trusted friend to help you reclaim a rich sexual ethic that you can enjoy and entrust to the next generation. Redemption, by Mike Wilkerson, is an excellent resource for those working through the pain and scars of sexual sin and sexual abuse.
Idolizing virginity (hopelessly mourning its loss or glorifying in its possession) is harmful in several ways.
First, it creates a myopic view of the purpose of sexuality. “The picture marriage paints does not turn in on itself, but outward and upward to Christ” (Love into Light). Sexuality isn’t an end in itself. It’s a lens through which to view and anticipate a greater pleasure. Sexuality, expressed within marriage or sacrificed through celibacy, is a means with which to model and experience a physical picture of the intimacy and loyalty of Christ’s relationship with the church.
Second, it unintentionally informs the sexually abused that they are broken beyond repair. This was never something I heard anyone explicitly say or intentionally imply during a message or conversation, but the conclusion is logical when our communication about sexuality is disengaged from the redemptive narrative. I’ve spoken with a number of individuals who, because they believed their virginity to be an irreplaceable treasure, refrained from exposing their abusers because of deep shame and despair. This misinterpretation alone is not the only factor that contributes to a feeling of isolating shame experienced by the abused, but it is a significant one that needs mentioning. As a natural consequence of this misguided belief, sexual predators are protected and allowed to continue their abuse.
Third, it discourages repentance. If virginity equals purity, and it is one’s most treasured possession to offer their future spouse, then giving it away before marriage is akin to “game over.” You had one chance, and you blew it. For someone in this position, and without a rich understanding of redemption, it’s very tempting to give up altogether and indulge the sin rather than repent and receive the righteousness of Christ.
Fourth, worshipping virginity can inhibit a fulfilling freedom of sexual expression within marriage. Think of it this way: expecting a woman to enjoy her wedding night after years of hearing “don’t have sex because it’s wrong, and there are painful consequences” is like telling a 4-year-old it’s ok to touch the stove now because it’s not on after months of sharply reprimanding them whenever they got too close. Their conscience is going to be confused and find the transition extremely difficult. The loss of virginity, even within marriage, ends up being emotionally perplexing, rather than fulfilling and good.
Not only does idolizing virginity have damaging repercussions, but it also infers promises that can’t be kept. Again, no one that I heard made these claims outright, but the implication was that those who abided by the rules would A) get married someday and B) have incredibly fulfilling sex lives. It’s only natural to attach an idea of reward to a job well done. And since biblical marriage was being held up as the end goal of faithful abstinence, it became the target. But again, this falls short of God’s intention for faithful expressions of sexuality. The reward for faithfulness is not marrying another virgin and enjoying pleasures unspeakable. Good sex is really spectacular, but in and of itself, it’s ultimately a dissatisfying reward. The shortsightedness of this goal misses out on the reality that sexuality is meant to speak of. It also leaves singles with the sense that they got cheated, somewhat like the prodigal’s older brother who stayed, honored his father, yet didn’t get the big fancy party. It’s valuing inheritance over relationship with the Father, just like the prodigal son who felt entitled to cash in early. It’s worshipping the gift instead of the Giver.
Jones speaks beautifully on this point. “Marriage is not a reward. Faithful marriage – like faithful singleness – is a way of the cross . . . I’m not denying that marriage – like singleness – includes much that is rewarding, and certainly, in marriage, the delight of sex counts for a great deal in that regard. But marriage is not a merit badge nor is it a pleasure party. Marriage is a kingdom relationship meant for kingdom work” (Faithful: A Theology of Sex). Giving our kids the big picture view of Christ as our inheritance, speaks to the whole human experience, fueling the abstinent, enriching the married, fulfilling the barren, and sustaining the celibate.
In that regard, the church would be wise to work out a practical theology of sexuality that includes an honest, supportive conversation about the goodness of singleness. Peter Hubbard, in his book Love into Light, quotes Colón and Field to address this idea:
“We soon discovered that the evangelical world, which so often revolves around the nuclear family, didn’t quite know what to do with us. . . . The phrase ‘wait until marriage’ begins to lose its power when you realize that the ‘marriage’ part may never come. It wasn’t that we disagreed with the sentiment, and it certainly wasn’t that we were going to relinquish our moral standards and live like seemingly everyone else. But we needed more” (Taken from their book, Singled Out: Why Celibacy Must Be Reinvented in Today’s Church). An ethic of faithful sexuality shouldn’t be limited to youth groups and summer camp retreats. It’s a message for the whole body of Christ, in every season and stage of life. Marriage isn’t the goal of faithfulness. Intimacy with Christ is.
In an age where sexuality is self-defined and where perverted sexual expression is celebrated in 50 shades of fantasy, I want to offer more than a call to abstain, I want to give a call to receive, receive Christ and all the blessings in him in faithfulness and joy.
ALL THINGS NEW
There’s no intrinsic harm or danger in mature, capable adolescents and adults signing a pledge or wearing a ring of reminder, as long as those physical representations are given and received in the context of a full and rich understanding of sexuality, its created intent, and of the gospel’s power. If tangible reminders are helpful and meaningful, then by all means employ them! But we should not trust in them, nor idolize them.
The reality for the man or woman that has been sexually unwise is the same for the man or woman that has taught sexual purity unwisely. Jesus’ blood provides redemption. So if you’re feeling the weight of damaging, albeit well-intended, words, take them to the cross, repent of them, and move forward in the hope that Jesus makes all things new, both words and bodies, both messages and morals. And as that hope settles in your heart, let it give you a new song to sing:
Jesus wants the raggedy rose!
RESOURCES FOR FURTHER STUDY:
Faithful: A Theology of Sex by Beth Felker Jones
How and When To Tell Your Kids About Sex by Stan and Brenna Jones
God’s Design for Sex Series by Stan and Brenna Jones
Love into Light by Peter Hubbard
Redemption by Mike Wilkerson