Friday, November 16, 2012

Are we allowed to question abstinence?

I always knew I wasn't supposed to have sex if I'm not married. But what if that's actually not true?

I'm a girl who's been a Christian my entire life, and I've never had a purity ring. How is this possible? Image source.

Well, that's frickin' terrifying. Because if we don't have a rigid, black-and-white rule about it, then that means we have to decide on a case-by-case basis, applying principles like love, honesty, loyalty, etc, and trying to determine how they play out in each individual situation.

And if I get it wrong, then I'm ruining my life. Or so I've been told.

This question is discussed in a recent blog post, "Progressive" Christianity and Premarital Sex. The writer, Sarah Moon, grew up in "Christian purity culture" and learned a lot of BAD reasons to not have sex- it will ruin your life forever! boys will have no reason to respect you! the most valuable gift you can give your husband is your virginity!- bad reasons based in fear and shame. She left that way of thinking behind and found other arguments in support of abstinence- the importance of building friendship in a dating relationship, choosing self-control over lust, having physical boundaries to show that you value your body.

But ultimately, she says those reasons did not satisfy her either. She concludes that abstinence is a "good choice" but "not necessarily THE good choice." She says you can't make some kind of universal rule for all Christians, because this is a complex personal choice.

And my first thought, before I can even begin to consider the merits of her way of thinking, is "Are we even ALLOWED to ask these questions?"

Because so many times I've been warned about how much it would ruin my life to have sex. Surely it's dangerous to even THINK that it might be okay. We mustn't let our guard down for even a MINUTE, because temptation is so powerful and the consequences are so disastrous.


I don't buy that.

Readers of this blog should know that I believe QUESTIONING EVERYTHING is very important. If something is TRUE, then it can stand up to any questions you throw at it. I've questioned whether God is sexist, why the plagues of Egypt were so horrible, whether the idea of "modesty" makes any sense at all, etc etc, and that's what I'll continue to do. Because I am a Christian and I believe the bible, and I'm very confident in that.

And the idea that sex/dating is the one area where everything is so powerful and dangerous that we mustn't let anyone attempt to make their own decisions... I don't buy that.

For what it's worth, I don't agree with Sarah's conclusion. I think the bible's commands against "sexual immorality" include premarital sex- Sarah actually brings this up, and asks for an explicit definition of "sexual immorality", which no one is able to provide. This is TOTALLY the right question to ask, and I don't have a real answer- I just believe that because it seems to be how those commands are typically understood.

Also, I don't agree that it's solely a personal choice. My body does not belong to me; it belongs to God. (This is not a very feminist idea.) So these decisions CANNOT be based solely on what I determine is best for my situation- I also need to consider what God would and would not allow me to do with my body.

All of these ideas are definitely worth exploring more. The reason I explain my own point of view is not to say "Sarah is wrong and needs to stop saying that stuff". No. I would totally love to have more discussion about this, rather than being afraid of hard questions, or afraid I'm ruining my life if I misunderstand.

God gives us freedom. He doesn't want us to live in fear. So let's follow God and ask those questions.


  1. It's really kind of amazing to me the number of things that people think are in the Bible that aren't in the Bible. I'm reading A Year of Biblical Womanhood right now and Rachel mentions how many conservative Christians have preached or written about the importance of women keeping themselves beautiful for their husbands and being sexually available to them at all times, even though she combed through the Bible and never found anything like this, but in fact more the opposite, a recognition that woman's bodies change as they get older.

    I see the same thing with prohibitions on premarital sex. It seems Christians are more willing to accept homosexuality, which the Bible does explicitly prohibit (though I believe none of the relevant verses are applicable to the loving, faithful, mutual commitments of same-sex couples of today), than they are to accept premarital sex, for which there is no explicit prohibition anywhere in the Bible. You can make the argument, certainly, like you did, that general references to "sexual immorality" included premarital sex, or that the Genesis verse about a man leaving his parents to become one with his wife somehow is a reference to needing to be married first, but it's anything but clear. But I believe people are just so terrified of their own children having sex too early that they can't let go of things like abstinence-only education, scare tactics, and a stubborn insistence that the Bible says you must be married to have sex.

  2. This whole idea of "actually, it's NOT wrong for Christians to have premarital sex" is totally new to me and I'm really skeptical. In that philosophy, what does "sexual immorality" mean? When is it okay for a couple to have sex?

  3. I think there's a lot of evidence throughout the Bible for what kind of relationships God rejoices in and what God warns people away from. There is celebration of love, service, and appreciating and blessing one another. And there's a big emphasis on honor, too -- honoring promises and commitments, showing honor to one's family. On the other hand, coveting something that is not yours is a big problem -- so in a sexual context, lusting after or seducing someone who has already made a commitment to someone else is a problem. Seeing someone as a sexual object apart from love. Using sex as a tool or weapon or display of power. Of course, there are different messages about sex throughout the Bible, depending on the historical context. But if you look at the larger messages of the Bible and what it teaches us about God and our relationships to one another, I think that's a much better guide for what constitutes morality or immorality.

    I know, that's not as clear-cut as having a set of rules :)

  4. I definitely see what you mean about principles like honesty, love, not taking advantage of people, etc. It seems like the conclusion is that sex is only for consensual, lifetime-commitment relationships- so basically, people who are married or engaged. Can a case be made that sex is legit for people who are dating, with an unclear level of commitment?

  5. I definitely think you can draw the conclusion that sex is intended to be consensual, but I'm not sure you can draw a conclusion that sex can only come after a lifetime commitment. One of the most famous examples is the Song of Songs, for which there's no evidence that the couple was married or had made a similar commitment.

    I think there are plenty of good reasons to wait until you've made a lifelong commitment to someone before having sex with them, which is why that's what I did. But that's not the same thing as "the Bible prohibits premarital sex." And I think that's really the point. If you want to convince people that sex is something of great value and that it deserves to happen within a context of love and commitment, then there are a lot of ways to make that argument. It's flat-out saying, "Premarital sex is wrong because the Bible says so" that is not only rather ineffective but not that accurate either.

  6. And if I get it wrong, then I'm ruining my life. Or so I've been told.

    That sentence jumped out at me, because it was one of the running refrains of life in my parents' home. If I had a dollar for every time my mother said, "But I can't just SIT here and WATCH you RUIN your LIFE!" -- well, I wouldn't be rich, but I could buy a lot of very good chocolate.

    I am 56 years old, and I can categorically say that (1) I never let that stop me, and (2) I have not noticed my life being in any way ruined as a result. (I should also probably note that none of the things my mother was howling about were seriously potentially-life-damaging except in her own head. And yes, that includes premarital sex.) There are a lot fewer things in the "ruin your life" category than the people who fling that phrase around seem to believe.

  7. Exactly. I think there's too much fear, and it paralyzes people. :) If something really is a bad idea, we should say WHY instead of just vague warnings about how much it will "ruin your life." Glad to hear you didn't let that stop you.

  8. I love that you're asking this. I've been thinking about this lately (lately? the past two years or so?). And at this point I've been married for 6 years and have a 3-year-old! My husband and I both waited until we were married to have sex. And I think that was a great call. But I feel like it wasn't really a decision we made. We never talked about it. It was understood, and a lot of that was the fear-based teachings we had learned.

    But I've been thinking about it. I read through the whole Bible in 2011, so I've got that going on, and I've been reading and thinking a lot about biology and hormones and oxytocin, and I've been thinking about what I'll tell my 3-year-old about this stuff. And the best I've come up with so far is: According to the Bible and science and everything I know to be true from personal experience, having (consensual) sex is *like* getting married. It's a big deal, it's very serious, our *bodies* know it's a big, serious deal. So it's not that you should wait until you're married to have sex, it's that having sex bonds you to another person, as if you were married. That's what I want my daughter to know. If she knows that and believes it, I think she'll be able to make good decisions, even if I won't agree with all of them.

  9. Yeah I think that's a really good reason to "wait" til marriage. (The question is whether that's the only right answer, or are there valid arguments one can make from the bible to say otherwise...)

  10. Oh, even if the way I'm thinking about it is right, I don't think that necessarily means waiting until marriage is the right answer. It just seems like a lot of Christians think of it backwards or ask the wrong question. It's more like, "What does sex mean? How will it affect me? How does God say it will affect me?" And, as you said, less like, "What is the rule?? Is my life ruined if I do it wrong??"

  11. Yeah this is a good point- if people are supposed to not have sex before marriage, then there must be a good reason for that- it's not just because God gives arbitrary rules. And I definitely agree we should focus on the principles behind it, rather than fear and legalism.

  12. The trouble with the thinking: "sexual immorality = any form of sexual behaviour outside of marriage" and "sexual morality = married sex" is that it discounts the very important distinction that "moral sex" is in fact consensual intimacy between couples who embody respect, honesty, love, loyalty, safety, acceptance, and support. I would say there is a whole lot of sexual immorality that goes on it your typical "holy" evangelical conservative marriage between people who maybe even "kept themselves pure" until they had a big party and put some rings on. So I suppose my standard of sexual morality and immorality has changed from my upbringing, which reflects the magical thinking of "sex = bad until the wedding day, when suddenly sex = blessed by God". Now it runs more along the lines of: is the relationship healthy and good?