One of the biggest challenges of being a Christian young adult is trying to understand what to do with your sexuality and sexdrive.
In the conservative Christian world it is unanimously accepted that any kind of sexual activity outside of marriage is sinful and should be refrained from at all costs. This means no masturbation, no intercourse, and for many, no physical interaction of any kind with the opposite sex (other than the sanctified Christian side hug). These kinds of restrictions leave hormonally charged young people in a very difficult place. After all, God himself has given us these desires. He is the one who designed humans to experience intense sexual drives during their teenage years and into their twenties and thirties.
The majority of young people who are not conservative Christians engage and experiment sexually, allowing both the release of the immense amount of tension that builds up and having a chance to learn how to handle themselves and their sexual desires. But for the conservative Christian, we are told to refrain completely. To wait until marriage.
It is this mindset that compels many Christian young adults to pursue marriage at a very early age. At my conservative Bible College many of my friends get married before they graduate college, a system that has proven to not be successful in producing lasting and healthy marriages. But because “they burn with passion” (though few would actually ever admit to that reasoning) they get married quickly and get to experience that sacred joys of sex while the rest of us singles look on with great envy, wondering if there is something wrong with us because we’re not yet married and struggling to remain sexually “pure” as we progress on into our twenties.
Recently, my friend Andy Gill hosted Hannah Gordon, a sophomore at the University of Michigan, as a guest contributor on his blog who argued that the way she has chosen to respond to this sexually repressive purity culture within Evangelicalism is to simply reject it and have sex. Her reasoning was admittedly (theologically) weak but I for one could totally sympathize with her thoughts. Sex has and continues to be a very difficult struggle for me (and every other Christian college kid!), and I have often wondered why our Christian moral standards around sexuality are so high. According to psychologists, I have been ready for sexual activity for a good number of years now. (I am just about to turn 22) Biologically, I have been ready to engage sexually since I was around twelve years old (when I began puberty). It has also been proven that sexual repression can have a number of damaging effects on young people. It also could explain why pornography and masturbation addiction is so high among conservative Christian men and women alike. (Though, to my knowledge, no conclusive evidence has ever been brought forward to prove this.)
As I have studied the Bible and theology, I have come to the conclusion that sex and sexuality is nowhere near as “sacred” as conservative Christians make it out to be.
The Bible is full of examples of men and women who fail to be sexually pure, but God’s response to them isn’t to consider them “damaged goods” or “impure.” To the contrary, most of the men and women who “sin” sexually continue on to have great lives, faithful ministries, and eventually good marriages (or hundreds of good marriages in the case of Solomon!).
It is also stunning how silent scripture is on what the qualifications for sexual activity are. There is no word in Greek or Hebrew to refer to premarital sex, and while the Bible is very clear that adultery (or cheating on one’s spouse) is a sin, it has little to say about sex before one enters in to a marriage covenant. But that doesn’t get us off the theological hook. It is clear in both Jewish and Christian moral traditions that sex before marriage has been grouped under “sexual immorality” which is condemned in a ton of passages throughout the Old and New Testament. However, at the end of the day, the clear Biblical prohibitions of premarital sex remain missing. The traditional sexual ethic remains squarely in the realm of speculation about what Biblical authors meant when they wrote about sexual immorality.
A new sexual ethic
This lack of Biblical clarity has led many in the millennial generation to develop a new Christian sexual ethic — an ethic that allows for sex between consenting and committed partners outside of marriage. And this new sexual ethic isn’t a small trend. A surprisingly large number of committed Christian young people have adopted this position and are engaging sexually with their significant others. In 2009, the National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy released a poll that revealed that over 80% of Evangelical Singles have had sex outside of marriage.
Contrary to what many may assume, these Christians who are sexually active are not “bad Christians.” They are not “forsaking God’s word” but rather have become convinced that this issue is a matter of conscience and not of clearly defined Biblical morality. These sexually active Christians are discovering that many of the warnings that they were told in youth group are simply not based in reality. They have had sex and have not backslidden into utter moral decay. Many have broken up with one partner and entered into another sexual relationship and didn’t face some profound emptiness or brokenness. Because that’s simply not how human sexuality works.
And this is precisely the problem with the way conservative Christians teach on and speak to young people about sexuality. The apocalyptic purity language and guilt tactics aren’t helpful and don’t match the experience that many Christian young people end up having when they “fall” into sexual sin. It’s never as bad as their youth pastors and Sunday School teachers make it out to be. In fact, many discover that sex, is in fact, incredibly meaningful and pleasurable, not merely physically, but emotionally and spiritually as well.
As a side note, I should be clear that no Christian I’m aware of is suggesting that casual sex between uninterested partners is morally acceptable. No one is supporting a “hook up, shack up, break up” mentality for Christian young adults. Commitment, love, and mutual respect are still key requirements before engaging sexually with a significant other. Sex is still seen as sacred by those who are adopting this new sexual ethic, and it is to be reserved for those they are truly in love with and committed to. Sex is still viewed as a gift to be reserved for those with whom there is a potential for a future.
This new Christian sexual ethic is sure to make many people uneasy. It makes me uneasy. I personally am not sure where I stand on these issues and I am not willing to jump into a position on this issue without being certain before God that it is where I feel led to be. But I do definitely sympathize with Hannah and my many other Christian friends who have chosen to be sexually active. I understand their reasoning and desires. I agree that the Bible does not make a clear or compelling case against premarital sex and also agree that the culture that conservative Christianity has created around the issue of sex, purity, and virginity is absolutely toxic. But I am still not sure that I am comfortable jumping the traditional ship. I still believe in the sacredness of the marriage bed and the gift that it can be to one’s spouse to be able to give oneself sexually to them and them only. I don’t believe for a second that if one is sexually active before marriage that they are somehow less-than or damaged, but I do see the beauty in striving to save sex for one’s spouse.
Prayerful discernment required
What I will say is this: the issue surrounding sex and the Christian is one that should be considered with much prayer and wisdom. I don’t think it’s smart or good for anyone to begin having sex with their significant other just because “everyone sins” anyways. In the words of the Apostle Paul in 1 Corinthians 8, if you believe it is a sin, then for you it is one. This issue is important and requires great discernment. Wherever one ends up, one thing is clear. All Christians should be committed to love and commitment. All Christians should strive for healthy sex lives. All Christians should seek to have a clear conscience before God. All Christians should refrain from judging others based on their sexual ethics.
Sexuality is a much more complex issue theologically, biblically, biologically, and psychologically than it has been given credit for in the past. It’s not black and white. It’s most definitely a gray area. And because of that we must exercise humility and grace.
So, is sex before marriage a sin? Potentially. But that is between each individual, their significant other, and their Lord. May we all submit ourselves to the Holy Spirit’s guidance in this complicated area, and may we all seek to glorify God in everything that we do.
What do you think? Should Christians rethink sexual ethics? Or do you think the Bible and our tradition is clear? I’d love to hear your thoughts!
Read more of Brandan’s writing at Patheos.
photo credit: “Naked feet,” Nicolas – flickr, cc
Brandan has a B.A. in Pastoral Studies and Bible from Moody Bible Institute in Chicago and is pursuing his M.Div. Degree from Wesley Theological Seminary. He writes for Revangelical on Patheos, Red Letter Christians, Sojourners, and IMPACT Magazine, and has been a featured contributor to a number of well-read blogs and news outlets. He is currently working on a book to be published by Destiny Image Publishers in early 2015, and is a contributing author to the book Praying In The Frat House, Kissing In The Chapel edited by Adam Copeland. Be sure to follow his latest thoughts on his blog, Revangelical.