Sex and Discipleship: How Should We Talk About Purity?

A few days ago I ran across an article discussing how some evangelicals are beginning to question the ways in which we talk about sexual purity in the church. For some, the problem is that Christianity insists on any sexual boundaries at all.

For others, though, the issue is methodology. Do our youth conferences and purity pledges send the message that virgins are inherently better than those with sexual experience? Isn’t it demeaning and unkind to tell people that a “piece of their heart” is ripped out every time they have sex? When we talk about the “irreversible damage” caused by premarital sex, are we denying or undermining the grace of God and His ability to heal past wounds?

As an evangelical, of course, I disagree with those who think we ought to drop the biblical standards of sexual purity. The Scripture is clear that marriage is the only acceptable context for sexual activity. For the sake of Christian singles, then, we have an obligation to talk about chastity, especially when we live in such a sexually charged cultural context.

I do think, however, that we need to be cautious in the way we talk about sex in Christian circles. Let me suggest a few principles to guide us as we approach the issue of sexuality in the context of Christian instruction: 

1. Sexual purity, while important, is only one aspect of Christian character. It troubles me that non-Christians often identify Christians primarily with our views regarding sexuality. Don’t get me wrong — I talk about biblical sexuality on a regular basis with my own children and with the college students at my church. However, I don’t define a mature disciple solely as somebody who abstains from premarital sex or pornography. I know people who are sexually pure, but they demonstrate immaturity in many other areas — they are prideful, unkind, greedy, or selfish. On the other hand, I know mature Christians who still struggle mightily with sexual purity. When we communicate to singles that premarital sex is the worst offense we can commit against God, we’re doing them a disservice. Why? Because Christian discipleship is the process of being conformed to the character of Jesus in every way. Jesus was sexually pure, but the Bible mostly talks about His love, grace, truthfulness, and wisdom. Let’s begin discussing sexual purity in the broader context of what it means to imitate Jesus Christ, rather than as a set of legalistic commands.

2. Sexual purity is not binary. In other words, the pursuit of sexual purity is not simply a matter of whether you have or haven’t crossed The Big Line. Often “purity talks” consist of 59 minutes of shame, concluded by a 1 minute statement about God’s forgiveness. I think we inadvertently leave singles with the impression that 99% of those in the room are totally pure, while the dirty 1% really need forgiveness. In reality, the pure 99% is a myth. All of us are impure. Whether we’ve crossed The Big Line or merely fantasized about it, we all need God’s forgiveness. Purity is a lifelong pursuit, not one that ends on our wedding day, or even on the day we make The Big Mistake. (I’ve known students who have reacted to this binary mode of thinking in some interesting ways. Some of them cross every line short of The Big Line, but proclaim themselves to be “technically pure.” Wouldn’t it be better to talk about purity as a matter of one’s heart and mind and spirit, rather than simply a matter of one’s body?).

3. Large scale instruction is efficient, but not always effective. There is a place for youth conferences and huge events centered around the topic of sexual purity. However, I think it’s often best to approach the issue in smaller and more personalized settings. The best way for young people to learn about biblical sexuality, of course, is through their Christian parents. Many students, though, come from non-Christian homes, or they have parents who dump the task of discipleship onto youth pastors and church leaders. So I think those of us who minister to young people need to prepared to teach on this topic. We need to provide instruction about sexuality in the context of a pastoral relationship. Here’s what I mean: Josh McDowell may be  a more dynamic speaker than I am, but he doesn’t personally know the students in my group. If I take my students to a large conference, I need to be prepared to follow up in a more personal setting.

4.  Junior high is too late to begin the discussion. Critics of the “purity pledge” concept like to point out that only a small percentage of those who sign purity pledges actually honor them. One problem is that by junior high or high school, most students have already decided whether to commit to sexual purity or not. I heard a Christian counselor state that most young people have formed their basic views about sexuality by the time they’re around eight or nine years old. They have basic belief systems about their bodies, their own significance, and their relationship to God. Those belief systems form the basis of their sexual decision-making processes for years to come. Am I suggesting that children’s pastors need to start hosting sexuality seminars for third graders? For the record, I’m not. I am suggesting, however, that pastors ought to equip parents to talk about these issues with their kids, well before junior high. By that age, all we can really do is reinforce the concepts that are already implanted, and perhaps challenge those with unbiblical views to reconsider them.

This is such an important topic, because the stakes are high and most people struggle with purity. I’d love your input: How can pastors and Christian parents approach this topic in a way that is practical, gracious, and Spirit-directed? 

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Is It Wrong to Desire Marriage?

Last week I sat with a group of college men as they were talking about relationships, personal purity, and marriage. In the context of the discussion, one young man asked, “Is it wrong for me to desire marriage? Is it alright that I think about marriage and hope to get married one day?”

I found the question itself to be illuminating. Is it possible that we Christians, in our zeal for purity, have communicated that all sexual and relational desires are somehow wrong? If so, that’s tragic, because the absence of desire is not a Christian concept. It’s true that certain passages in the New Testament tell us that for some people in some contexts, it’s better to remain single (1 Corinthians 7:24-35). However, the Bible simply never says that a desire for marriage is wrong. The Scripture speaks highly of marriage as a gift from God (Gen 2:18-25; Prov 18:22; 19:14).

What is wrong, of course, is misdirected desire.  When we desire marriage (including its emotional, spiritual, and physical components) as an opportunity to display Christ’s love (Ephesians 5:21-33), it’s perfectly legitimate. God made us with a desire for intimate relationships with others; we see that desire displayed from the very beginning with Adam and Eve. However, when we begin to seek marriage — or any other relationship — for strictly selfish reasons, we have a problem.

In other words, if I’m seeking marriage solely as a means to satisfy my sexual cravings, or to fill an emotional void in my heart, then I’m not looking at it as God intends. But the desire for sex or love or emotional intimacy, in a relationship that is centered on reflecting Christ’s love, is perfectly legitimate.

Desire turns into sin when we seek the fulfillment of the desire for our own purposes, rather than for God’s purposes. That principle holds true whether we’re talking about money, sex, physical health, success on the job, or anything else.

Often, our problem is that we believe that the fulfillment of a particular desire will satisfy us in a way that only God can satisfy. We seek earthly treasures for their own sake, rather than seeing them as mere reflections of the much greater treasures promised to those who know God (Matthew 6:19-21). C.S. Lewis put it well (see The Weight of Glory, pp. 3-4):

If we consider the unblushing promises of reward and the staggering nature of the rewards promised in the Gospels, it would seem that Our Lord fins our desires, not too strong, but too weak. We are half-hearted creatures, fooling about with drink and sex and ambition when infinite joy is offered us, like an ignorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in a slum because he cannot imagine what is really meant by the offer of a holiday at the sea. We are far too easily pleased.

Far too easily pleased, indeed.

Do you struggle with the concept of desire? Where does legitimate desire turn into sin, and how do you avoid going down that path in your own life?  

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When Should You Share Your Past Sins With Your Significant Other?

Many (if not most) Christian young adults enter into dating relationships with some baggage from their past. It’s quite common for people to worry about how their past sins will affect their future relationships, especially as they approach the point of marriage.

Should you tell your current boyfriend or girlfriend about your past sexual sins? If so, at what point in the relationship is it appropriate?

There’s no one-size-fits-all answer to the question, since every couple is different and every person has different needs. However, I think some general principles apply:

First, past sexual sins ought to be discussed at some point prior to marriage. There are a couple of reasons for this. First, marriage requires trust. It’s hard to enter into a relationship of trust if one or both parties are hiding information about themselves. As painful as it may be, honesty is the best policy. Second, the possibility exists that your potential marriage partner could find out about your past anyway. It’s much better if they hear it from you rather than from a third party.

Second, choose your timing carefully. Don’t unload everything on the first date. That’s awkward and unnecessary. On the other hand, you don’t want to spring the information on your fiance the night before the wedding. That’s unfair and overwhelming. Simply wait until the relationship is seriously progressing toward marriage. That doesn’t mean you have to wait until you’re engaged. Again, every couple is unique. As a general rule, though, once it’s clear that you’re both seriously contemplating the future, go ahead and discuss your past.

Third, you don’t need to share every graphic detail. Be truthful without being explicit. Don’t paint a high resolution picture for the other person. That isn’t helpful. Just share the basics of your past in an honest and tactful way. Ask forgiveness for any behavior that could negatively impact your future marriage and commit to being faithful to your future spouse and to God from this point forward.

The result of this conversation ought to be increased closeness and trust between you and your potential marriage partner. By the way, if you happen to be the person on the receiving end of this conversation, remember that we’re all sinners in need of forgiveness. Assuming we’re talking about sin that is truly in the past (before you two were dating) I strongly urge you to offer forgiveness and acceptance. If necessary, take some time to think and pray before you respond.

Would you add any suggestions or ideas to what I’ve written here? I’d love to hear your input!

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How Should We Talk About Sex?

So Mark and Grace Driscoll just released a new book about marriage and sex, and it’s #1 on the New York Times Bestseller List. It’s generated a good deal of controversy because of one chapter, in which the Driscolls answer graphic questions about what sort of sexual behavior is permissible in marriage.

Pastor Ed Young also released a new book with his wife Lisa, called Sexperiment (yes, that’s the real title), based on the highly publicized challenge they issued to married members of their church to have sex every day for seven days. In conjunction with the book’s release, the Youngs staged a “bed-in” on the top of their church building for 24 hours. I think the idea was to generate buzz around the concept that sex is a good thing created by God. Something like that.

All of this has raised the question of how we should talk about sex in the Christian community. The Bible talks about sex and marriage a lot, and in today’s sexually obsessed culture we can’t ignore the subject. As a college pastor, I’m solidly convinced that it’s a critical topic to address, especially with young people.

But are there boundaries we should set around how we discuss the subject? Let me suggest a few principles for how to discuss sex in a straightforward yet productive way:

1. Treat it as a sacred subject. Why? Because sex is sacred. Paul tells us that the “one-flesh” relationship in marriage represents the relationship between Christ and His church (Ephesians 5:31-32). So sex isn’t something to snicker at or sensationalize. Every pastor knows that talking about sex is an easy way to fill the room. Our world is fascinated with the topic. So it’s quite tempting to talk about it in a way that’s certain to generate attention and controversy. But that’s a mistake. The Bible treats it as an important and serious subject, and I think we should as well.

2. Treat it as a deeply personal subject. Every person has different feelings and attitudes toward sex. Some are addicted to it, some are afraid of it, and some are repulsed by it. Some people have been abused, used, or neglected. And of course some people have perfectly healthy views about it. I don’t think it’s wise to give everybody the same advice when it comes to specific expressions of marital sexuality. For some couples, having sex every day for a week is a good idea. For others, it’s a terrible idea. In fact, some couples should probably be advised to abstain for awhile, to work on other areas of their relationship first. Because every person is different, every marriage is different and should be approached that way.

I also think some things are meant to be private. The details of one’s sex life in marriage aren’t meant to be shouted from the rooftops or sold in the local bookstore. I don’t think this is prudishness. Instead, it’s an acknowledgement of the deeply personal and sensitive nature of sexuality. We need to be careful not to make others feel unnecessarily ashamed or inappropriately curious or deeply disgusted. A good question to ask is, “Why am I sharing this detail? Even though sharing it isn’t a sin, is it productive and beneficial?”

3. Acknowledge that sex is more than a physical act. Because our bodies and spirits are so closely connected, sex is much more than the union of two bodies in a bed. My sexuality is deeply tied to my sense of personal identity. When people engage in sex, they are opening themselves up to another person in more ways than the physical. Even those who have never engaged in sex recognize that their sexual desires touch on issues much deeper than the physical body. So when we talk about sex, we need to discuss it in conjunction with other critical issues, like how we relate to God and to other people. Crude discussions about what positions or activities are acceptable from a physical standpoint tend to miss the point. The bigger issue is how we ought to approach sexuality from the standpoint of discipleship — in other words, what does my sexuality have to do with how I follow Jesus? The Bible seems much more concerned with that question than about the specific details of how and when and where to engage in marital sex.

Like I said above, we have a responsibility to address this critical subject from a biblical standpoint. I think most Christians would agree. But I wonder sometimes if we cross the line from biblical teaching to sensationalism. Or from discussing sex to idolizing it. “Everything is permissible — but not everything is beneficial. Everything is permissible — but not everything is constructive” (1 Corinthians 10:23). I pray we’ll have the ability to discuss the topic in a way that is both permissible and constructive.

What would you add or take away from my analysis here? 

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Does Anybody Wait for Marriage Anymore?

Every so often I run across an article discussing the problem of young Christians engaging in premarital sex. One recent example comes from Relevant Magazine, a cutting-edge magazine geared toward young adults.

Typically the information presented runs along the following lines: nearly all young Christians are having sex before marriage, despite intense efforts by the evangelical church to convince them to wait. (The Relevant article says that 80% of young Christians are having sex outside of marriage). In nearly every case, the writer characterizes the popular True Love Waits program as a colossal failure, because only about 12% of the students who sign purity commitments during the program actually keep their promises.

Despite the compelling statistics, though, I think articles like this are alarmist at best and misleading at worst. Why do I say that?

First, they often portray sexual sin as something new to Christianity, as if everything was a great deal better in the “good old days.” But that perspective is inaccurate. Go read any of Paul’s New Testament letters, and you’ll see repeated exhortations against sexual immorality, usually because members of the church were in sin. In some cases he provides specific examples of Christians who were failing in this area (for example, see 1 Corinthians 5). The Church has struggled with the issue of chastity for thousands of years. In certain eras and in certain cultures it has done a better job of forcing people to conform to external standards of purity (usually by shaming or punishing those who disobeyed), but I wouldn’t say that sexual purity has ever been the norm. Even if people managed to control their outer behavior, there were usually struggles boiling beneath the surface.

Second (and I really think this is key), articles like this make no attempt to distinguish those who identify themselves as Christians from those who actually possess a Christian worldview. In Ronald Sider’s book The Scandal of the Evangelical Conscience, he laments how the behavior of evangelicals is indistinguishable from that of the culture around us. He cites some of the same troubling statistics about sexual sin, violence, and racism in the Church. However, toward the end of the book he makes a critical distinction that I think is worth noticing (pp. 127-128).

He mentions that George Barna did a study to determine the effect of a biblical worldview on a person’s behavior. Here’s how Barna defines a biblical worldview:

For the purposes of the research, a biblical worldview was defined as believing that absolute moral truths exist; that such truth is defined by the Bible; and firm belief in six specific religious views. Those views were that Jesus Christ lived a sinless life; God is the all-powerful and all-knowing Creator of the universe and He stills rules it today; salvation is a gift from God and cannot be earned; Satan is real; a Christian has a responsibility to share their faith in Christ with other people; and the Bible is accurate in all of its teachings.

Guess what? Only 9% of “born-again Christians” actually have such a biblical worldview! And among that smaller group, the statistics relating to sexual activity are much more encouraging. While 1 out of 8 born-again Christians had sex with somebody other than their spouse in the month preceding the survey, only 1 out of 100 of those with a biblical worldview had done so!

So on a practical note, what does this mean? It means that sexuality cannot be discussed as a separate issue apart from the holistic calling to be a disciple of Jesus Christ. Parents and youth leaders, take note: if you tell your kids to “just wait” without explaining to them why they should wait or integrating the discussion of sexuality with robust training in the spiritual life, your efforts will most likely fail.

On the other hand, the students who wait until marriage are concerned first with knowing Jesus and following Him. Their approach to sexuality is not disconnected from their spirituality, but is an integral part of it.

And here’s the really good news: there are students who are waiting. I know many of them in my own ministry. Yes, it’s difficult, and yes, they are constantly tempted and no, they don’t always make perfect choices. But they are waiting and they do see the value of sexual purity as a part of their spiritual life.

So let’s not be too alarmist or fearful, but instead let’s be diligent to make disciples, recognizing that the way we use our bodies is a critical aspect of walking with God (1 Corinthians 6:12-20).

Do you agree or disagree with my assessment? Why or why not?

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Why Does the Bible Restrict Sex to Marriage?

Since I minister to college students, the question of sexual behavior outside of marriage comes up quite frequently. Our cultural environment views the concept of abstaining from sex until marriage as a laughably old-fashioned idea. Most people believe it’s impractical at best and unwise at worst.

Conservative Christian students often struggle deeply with the issue. They’ve been told that premarital sex is wrong but they haven’t always been told why it’s wrong. Many have also been left with the impression that sexuality is inherently evil. Although the Bible contains clear prohibitions against sex outside of marriage (Heb 13:4;1 Thess 4:3-8) it also contains a number of passages celebrating sexuality in the appropriate context (Proverbs 5:15-23 is a great example).

[NOTE: When I speak of marriage here, I am referring to it as a primarily religious institution and not a civil one. The question of whether the government endorses a union is secondary to the question of whether God endorses it. Although the ceremonies and symbols vary between cultures, two elements remain the same: marriage is a lifelong commitment, and it is made in the presence of God and the community. There are almost always formal ceremonies of one kind or another to ensure accountability — marriage is not a private institution, but is also not a governmental one. It’s an agreement entered into by two people who publicly agree to be accountable to the Lord and to others to fulfill their vows].

So if sex is a good thing created by God, why does He limit it to the context of marriage?

First, because marriage (including its sexual aspect) is a reflection of Christ’s relationship with the Church (Eph 5:22-33). And Christ has promised to never leave nor forsake His people (Matthew 28:18-20). Sex creates a bond of physical oneness that implies spiritual and relational oneness also (Gen 2:24-25; 1 Cor 6:15-20). When we create that bond and then rip repeatedly rip it apart, we’re misrepresenting God’s steadfast character. The New Testament never places expectations of purity on those who don’t know Jesus, but for those who do it is critical for this reason.

Second, sex is about more than merely pleasure. Unmarried couples can certainly find pleasure in sex. However, they cannot experience the character transformation and depth of relationship that occurs in the context of a lifelong commitment (see 1 Cor 7:3-5). It’s easy to please a person for a night or a week, or even a year. It’s much harder to practice selfless love for years on end, in the  midst of physical and financial and spiritual struggles, when there are children tearing through the house or your spouse’s dirty laundry on the floor. But for those who practice that selfless love over time, there is a joy in the relationship that spills over into the sexual arena and includes much more than physical pleasure. And the process of finding that joy changes us into the image of Christ.

Finally, sex creates families who need stability. Even with birth control, the possibility of pregnancy still exists (I can introduce you to several parents who were diligently using birth control). As much as we try to separate them in our culture, sex and procreation are still closely connected (Gen 1:27-28). And the ideal environment for children is to have two parents both actively involved in their lives (see this article about a study on the topic). I say “ideal” (not “only”) because I know the Lord is gracious, and there are single-parent and divorced homes in which children grow up to know Jesus and are very well-adjusted. But two parents present is the ideal. This is most likely to happen, of course, when the parents are married and have previously made a commitment to raise their kids together.

So the bottom line is that God is not anti-sex. Nor is He out of touch or cruel. Instead, He wants us to experience relationships of true love, joy, and purity with Him and with one another. He wants our lives to be genuine reflections of the character of Jesus. In the area of sexuality, this is best accomplished when sex remains inside of marriage.

What are your thoughts on this issue of sex outside of marriage? Have I forgotten anything?

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