|Purity ring. (Photo source: JamesMarner.com)|
There are three posts you should read: “Christians, Stop Staying Pure Till [sic] Marriage” by Sarah (last name unknown), “I Didn’t Wait For My Future Spouse, and You Shouldn’t Either” by Daniel Wilde, and “I Kept My Virginity, But Not My Purity” by Danielle Renfrow. By no means do these young Christian writers — two single, one married — suggest that other Christians engage in premarital sex. Rather, all three are critics of the Evangelical “purity movement” and the language with which it’s been taught.
Until recently, there’s never really been an explicit Christian theology of sexuality to tie the various prescriptions and proscriptions of sexual behavior together. You could even say, with some justice, that Christianity has always been ambivalent about sex.
On the one hand, the Church long ago rejected the Gnostic position that even sex for the sake of reproduction was sinful; on the contrary, she taught that marriage, childbearing and childrearing were positive goods. On the other hand, passages from both Christ and St. Paul suggest that people could pursue celibacy “for the sake of the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 19:12), that there is something of value to celibacy that doesn’t obtain to marriage (vide 1 Corinthians 7:32-34).
This ambivalence persists about fornication. Considered strictly as sex between two unmarried people, with the implication that neither one intends or is committed to marry the other, it has always been considered a sin (e.g., St. Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica II-II:154:2 SC); however, as a pastoral matter, its gravity was (and still is) often underplayed. And premarital sex — that is, sex between people who do intend to marry — hasn’t always been considered a grave matter in every time by every communion.
So marriage has always been good — but not better than celibacy, while fornication has always been bad — but not always as bad as other sexual sins. Nevertheless, the idea that sex is an unclean necessity isn’t authentic to the Christian tradition. That fact, however, hasn’t stopped some Christian idiots from teaching it as a “biblical” principle. (Exhibit #2,623 in the case against sola scriptura.)
Sarah, Danielle, and (to a lesser, more indirect extent) Daniel are all looking at the aspect of purity from their particular vantage points. Sarah argues that purity needs to be uncoupled from physical virginity in order to be appreciated for its own value:
… [Purity is] a lifestyle, not a state of being. Something either you walk in or you don’t. In accepting the exchange of Jesus, you can’t separate yourself from it. It goes with you to both the grocery store AND to the sanctuary, to the doctor’s office AND to the kitchen to make a sandwich. It also goes with you to your bedroom. It goes with you, because you go with Christ.
Danielle illustrates the problem from the other side of the coin, when writing of a boy she dated before she met her husband:
In my mind, I always thought I would never do more than kissing before marriage. Just like all temptations, when we flirt with it for so long, it is only a matter of time before you do something you never thought you would do. I let him touch me in places that belonged to my [future] husband. Lies of the Enemy bombarded my mind. I became more concerned with the question, “How far is too far?” rather than understanding what God meant by purity. We Christians love the already defeated game of, “How much can I get away with and still be a Christian?”
Daniel echoes the experience, although he never uses the word purity:
I was more focused on how premarital sex would affect my relationship with my future spouse, than how it would affect my relationship with God. Premarital sex would definitely come in-between my future spouse and me, but more importantly, sin would come between my relationship with Jesus. Does it really glorify God when my motivation for waiting is less about Him and more about my future spouse?
The false dilemma
Susan’s springboard is a post from August on Thought Catalog, “I Waited Until My Wedding Night To Lose My Virginity And I Wish I Hadn’t”, by Samantha Pugsley. “Samantha had been raised to believe sex was something vile and dirty,” Susan fumes, “that it was a shameful act to be kept in secrecy and never openly discussed. It’s no wonder she struggled so much when she finally got married. How can you expect a girl to be told something is bad her entire life, then magically expect her to think it’s good the moment she says ‘I do’?”
You shouldn’t. It’s unreasonable. More to the point, it’s bad moral theology. Within the context of marriage, the choice Samantha faced (to be sexual or to be religious) was a false dilemma: nothing authentic to Christianity precluded her from being both.
Sin attaches to many sexual acts, not because sex is a necessary evil, but because sex is a gift from God — our participation in His ongoing act of creation — that is all too often misused and abused. But the fact that this good thing is misused doesn’t make it evil: ab abusu ad usum non valet consequentia (you can’t draw valid conclusions about the proper use from the abuse).
This same principle — concerning abuse and proper use — attaches to the concept of purity. Strictly speaking, purity is not about sexual continence; rather, it’s about honesty, integrity, and clarity of motive. A person who is pure of heart doesn’t lie or trick others. She has no hidden agenda. Neither malice, nor pride, nor selfishness, nor inordinate desire plays any role in her behavior. A person who is pure of heart is not only good but transparently good: she is in no wise putting up a false front.
“What comes out of a man is what defiles a man. For from within, out of the heart of man, come evil thoughts, fornication, theft, murder, adultery, coveting, wickedness, deceit, licentiousness, envy, slander, pride, foolishness. All these evil things come from within, and they defile a man.” (Mark 7:20-23)“Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God.” (Matthew 5:8)
The fact is, the physical desire of a husband for his wife, and a wife for her husband, is not a bad thing. Even that curmudgeon, St. Paul, advised his flock, “Do not refuse one another except perhaps by agreement for a season, that you may devote yourselves to prayer; but then come together again, lest Satan tempt you through lack of self-control.” (1 Corinthians 7:5) While we trust that proper love and respect for each other prevents spouses from using each other as mere masturbation tools, and proper respect for the act itself leaves the marriage open to children, it still remains a fact validated by scientific research that frequent marital sex leads to longer-lasting marriages and greater marital harmony.
Chastity follows purity
Purity, then, isn’t a function of virginity. Indeed, as Danielle reminds us, it’s all too possible to be impure while technically retaining virginity. Rather, chastity — in the Christian sense, sexual propriety — is a function of purity; and chastity is not limited in scope to mere physical virginity or premarital conduct.
The answer to bad pedagogy in one direction (“Sex is dirty”) isn’t bad pedagogy in the opposite direction (“Screw whenever and whoever you want”). Rather, what Christians need is a method of teaching sexual restraint that pays due honor to sex as a divine gift, and teaches young people to see sexual sins as misuses of that gift.
But more than that, Christians need to teach a more complete and well-rounded understanding of what purity really means. Teach purity of heart, and chastity will more or less follow.