Recently I wrote a post called “Rethinking Sex”, which was a response to another blog post that appeared on my friend Andy Gill’s blog. I was compelled to write a post about Christian sexual ethics largely because over the past two years I have lived in an evangelical Christian bubble know as Bible college. During my time in college, I have seen just how poorly young evangelicals have been equipped to deal with and think about issues of our sexuality and sexual ethics. This is evidenced, in part, by the alarming amount of young Christians that are addicted to pornography, the amount of people engaged in premarital sex, the amount of closeted and suppressed LGBT people within evangelicalism, and the vast number of other creative sexual struggles that I have both seen and experienced.
I have seen the devastating effects of the “purity culture” that has been cultivated among my generation and the amount of guilt and shame that so many evangelical young people have accumulated from years of falling short sexually. I have seen my friends going from purity group, to accountability partner, to prayer meetings, back to accountability partners, and yet still struggling to remain sexually “pure” for years on end, most often with little hope of success. I have heard of couples on my campus who were compelled to get married quickly so that they could “release their sexual tensions” in a way that had been deemed “holy”.
After encountering all of this I felt compelled to begin investigating new perspectives on what the Scriptures taught on the topic of sexuality. As I went on this theological journey, I stayed in constant dialogue with many of my peers about these issues. As I read new perspectives — perspectives that made sexual exploration a natural and healthy part of maturing into adulthood — I began to feel less burdened and less guilty by my own struggles and the temptations that allured me and so did many of the friends who went on this journey with me. And yet, if I am honest, all along there was a nagging feeling that something wasn’t quite right with these new perspectives. Being free to explore sexually outside of marriage just didn’t seem quite Christian. But neither did the immense amount of guilt and pain that I and thousands of other young evangelicals where experiencing throughout our youth and into adulthood.
So after a year or so of rethinking this issue, I decided that the only position I could take in good conscience was to take a posture of ambivalence. I wasn’t sure what’s the truly Christian way to deal with sexuality was, and I wasn’t convinced that anyone else knew either. If they did, I had never heard them explain it in a way that was helpful and relevant to the day-to-day struggles that hormonal evangelical college students were going through. It is with this same ambivalent posture that I attempted to communicate in my piece last week.
Within a few hours of posting my blog, I had received dozens of comments and messages from both evangelical young people who resonated with my perspective and thanked me for my honesty, as well as those who are committed to what I would call the traditional Christian teaching on sexuality and sought to correct my “error.” As I talked through my perspective with people from both sides of the aisle, I was further convinced that ambivalence was the only possible response I could take. The tugging from both sides made me feel like the topic of premarital sex was a lose-lose situation for everyone.
Sex as a gift …
That remained my perspective until I read a comment from a friend from my Bible College who said something along the lines of “premarital sex is acting in a way that makes it seem like God is withholding good from us. And we all know that’s not true.” I am not sure why, but that statement resonated with me and stuck with me throughout the remainder of the weekend as I continued to prayerfully wrestle through this topic.
Sunday night, I went to a church service where I got to hear my friend Ian Morgan Cron speak about the Gospel and the Eucharist. (Side note: If you don’t know Ian, you have GOT to check out his stuff. It will wreck you in the best way possible!) Ian began his homily by explaining that the way he had come to define sin was “taking that which only can be received as a gift.” He went on to explain how the error of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden was that they grabbed and took from the tree instead of received from the hand of their Father who loved them. Ian explained that Adam and Eve’s error is also our error. We are always grabbing and stealing that which only God can give to us as a gift. He explained that any time we grab and take something, it never has the potential to bring us fulfillment. Whenever something is stolen, it is always a knock off and always will bring negative consequences. Often times, the things that we steal are things that God would have given us if only we asked and patiently waited on our loving Father who delights to give us all good things in his timing. And then Ian said it- “God will not withhold what is good from us, but we must receive it from his hand as a gift.”
As soon I heard Ian reiterate what I had read from my friend earlier this week, the light bulb went off in my soul.
The problem with premarital sex is that sex is a gift from God to us.
It is also a gift from us to our covenanted and committed partner. Premarital sex is trying to steal what can only be received from God as a gift. When we steal sex, it never fulfills. It’s never enough. And it always has consequences. When the Scriptures tell us to pursue holiness in our sexuality, they are calling us to wait for God’s timing. To have faith that God knows what is best for us and will give us the gift of sex at the time that he deems right. And we know that the journey of faithfulness is not easy. There are great struggles along the way. But isn’t this the case with every aspect of the Christian life? Isn’t the whole of our journey of faith one of struggle, waiting, and finally rejoicing when God provides in his timing? (Which always turns out to be perfect timing)
My friend Anne got it right — God is not withholding good from you. The God who created you and is your Heavenly Father loves you and desires to give you good gifts. He desires to give you abundant life. He desires to make you whole and complete lacking in nothing.
For many of you, this may seem obvious. But there are a number of us that doubt the truth that God is actually doing what is best for us.
Sometimes we believe that perhaps God is withholding good from us.
We look around and see others engaging in sexual activities and wonder why it’s “so bad” — they seem to be just fine and quite happy. Many of us have stumbled sexually and have discovered that the consequences were not as bad as our youth pastors made them out to be. We wonder if this whole idea of Christian sexual ethics is sham after all. Many of us have gone through intense periods of guilt and shame because of our own sexual unfaithfulness and have found that our church community has only perpetuated our guilt and shame. We have found that there is more pain in the confession of our sin than there is healing and grace. And it is this posture that pushes us away from the Church and her teachings. The Church must find new ways of teaching sexual ethics and new ways of responding to the growing amount of sexual brokenness within our congregations.
… given in God’s timing
But this unfortunate reality doesn’t change the truth that lies at the heart of the Christian gospel — that God loves each one of us and desires to give us good gifts in his timing. There is no need to take anything. For the Christian, there is only receiving from our Father. For some, God may give the gift of marriage and sex early. For others, he may not give it until we’re 40. And still for others, God may have a plan for us that doesn’t involve sex. But whatever our situation might be, God loves us and will provide us everything we need. This is the magnificent truth of the Gospel. This is what Jesus came to reveal. In Christ there is nothing but grace, love, peace, healing, and wholeness. Christ offers us abundant life. But often times we doubt the truth of that statement. We go around grabbing for things that our Father would give us if we would only ask and posture ourselves to receive. What we steal will always fall short of the real thing.
All of this is to say that I have rethought my “rethinking” of sex. I am convinced that sex is a gift from God. A gift that is meant to be enjoyed within the confines of marriage. I am convinced that if we are faithful to take our struggles to God and to wait on him, he will give to us the gift of sex in his perfect timing. I am also convinced that those of us who have fallen into sexual sin and those of us who continually struggle in habitual sin can find grace upon grace in the arms of our loving Savior. God does not condemn us even when the Church does. We are freed from the guilt that comes from our struggles. And though we will likely continue to struggle, God is faithful to provide healing and liberation from bondage. It often takes a long time — for freedom comes only through great struggle — but we can find strength in the reality that our Father is cheering us on. Calling us to move forward in boldness trusting him to give us all that we need and all that he desires for us. Freedom and holiness is possible. For all of us.
So is premarital sex a sin? Yes, now I believe that it is.
I believe it is taking what can only be received as a gift. I believe that God gives us the gift of sex to be enjoyed in the covenant of marriage, as a unique and holy gift that we can share with our partner. But I also believe that in the coming years Christians need to get more realistic and more creative with how we teach sexual ethics in our communities and how we deal with those struggle and fall into sexual sin. We have too often failed in this arena and have lined ourselves with the stone casting Pharisees rather than with our gracious Savior speaks the healing words to the adulterous woman — “Neither do I condemn you — go and sin no more.”
That is the way of the Gospel. That is the way of abundant life.
I’d love to hear your thoughts! Chime in below!
Read more of Brandan’s writing at Patheos.
photo credit: “Naked feet,” Nicolas – flickr, cc
BRANDAN ROBERTSON is an Evangelical writer, activist, speaker, and the dreamer behind the Revangelical Movement. He desires to build-bridges across cultural, theological, and political divides and to help others rethink, reform, and renew what it looks like to be a follower of Jesus in our post-modern, post-Christian world.
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.