Since the age of 23, I’ve been on staff at churches within a few different streams of Christianity and at a Christian university. I noticed that those at the conservative leaning Christian university where I worked were obsessed with sex. They talked about sex all the time—mostly in the sense of needing to avoid premarital sex and policing how the women dressed. But for all the purity talks in chapel, book studies, dorm room talks about saving oneself for one’s mate, and panel discussions on modesty, consumption of pornography on school computers and on cell phones was epidemic among the men and steadily climbing among women. There were reports of men in certain dorms obsessed with gay pornography—a major bombshell at a conservative Christian university. There were some Bible, theology, youth ministry, and pre-seminary majors who were addicted to pornography. And they left the school, for ministry, still addicted. A few of our students were arrested for child pornography. There were all sorts of rules against consumption of pornography, premarital sex, immodesty, and sexual experimentation. But rules and shame are one thing, and transformation of our hearts is another. Many of the students wished for all the world that they were free of their sexual addictions but believed that in reality, being pornography-free was an impossibility. Chastity, too, seemed impossible.
And they weren’t alone in their views and behavior.
Outside the college-aged demographic, I’ve observed that people who are in evangelical churches, and who’ve been influenced by purity culture, mostly maintain that premarital sex is wrong. But, abstinence among them is nearly absent. Chastity, of which abstinence is just a part, seems otherworldly. It’s a nice idea, but not practical or practiceable. And, of course, they too struggle with consumption of pornography.
However, it’s not just them either. I’ve discovered that elderly people in our churches are not practiced in chastity and abstinence. Perhaps their spouses have died and they long for companionship. The problem is—if they remarry, many will lose their income. So they may be sexually monogamous (or not) but they don’t marry because they don’t want to lose Social Security income from their spouse or survivor benefits from their deceased spouse’s pension. Or, they don’t want to upend family dynamics by remarrying late in life. And they don’t want to cause acrimonious fights over inheritance by inducing panic among their children who worry that a Johnny-come-lately spouse will take the money to which the children feel entitled. So in order to avoid a huge family debacle, the elderly remain unmarried, cohabitate, or they live in separate residences but engage in sexual activity.
Evangelicals, like most of the world, are obsessed with sex. We talk about avoiding premarital sex and other sorts of sexual immorality, but we’re not very good at knowing how to embrace a chaste life. We need more conversation about what it means to embrace Jesus’s abundant life in this area and what it means to love another person instead of all this talk about ‘avoidance’. We need more conversation about what it means for us to love our neighbors in this context instead of trying to micromanage and legislate how others, particularly women, dress. How do we honor God with our bodies and in our communities while seeking the flourishing—and not the destruction or manipulation and control—of another?
To whom can we look for help? Well, the Roman Catholic Church has been thinking about chastity for centuries. They define ‘chastity’ as:
“the successful integration of sexuality within the person and thus the inner unity of man in his bodily and spiritual being. Sexuality, in which man’s belonging to the bodily and biological world is expressed, becomes personal and truly human when it is integrated into the relationship of one person to another…. The virtue of chastity therefore involves the integrity of the person and the integrality of the gift.”
Maybe we should study what else they have to say.
And then there is Lauren Winner, who does a masterful job of reflecting on her struggles with chastity in this culture and of making a strong case for communal accountability in the area of sexuality in her book, Real Sex: The Naked Truth about Chastity. And the best resource I’ve found to date as far as sexuality, spiritual formation, community, and the whole person goes comes from an Eastern Orthodox priest named Andrew Williams. He spearheaded the program and podcasts entitled Finding the Freedom to Live.
My hope is that those of us who are evangelical by conviction, even if not by culture, can find a way forward in forming a holistic sexual ethic, based on love, not avoidance, and one that helps us actually live in the way Jesus would have us live in this area instead of just talking about it.