by Loren Seibold
Growing up in a conservative church I learned that Scripture demanded perfect sexual purity before marriage. The way the subject was framed even made it seem a virtue to be ignorant and naive. Implied (and sometimes said) was that sexual interest couldn't coexist with faith. Consequently some left the church precisely when they needed a church family most. Others stayed and learned hypocrisy.
Some Christian commentators are questioning the high place we've given virginity. In the Christian press Sarah Bessey, Elizabeth Esther, Rachel Held Evans, Jen Pollock Michel and Carolyn Custis James have all taken on the subject. Writes Bessey in "I Am Damaged Goods", "I was nineteen years old and crazy in love with Jesus when that preacher told an auditorium I was 'damaged goods' because of my sexual past. He was making every effort to encourage this crowd of young adults to 'stay pure for marriage.' He was passionate, yes, well-intentioned, and he was a good speaker, very convincing indeed. And he stood up there and shamed me, over and over and over again."
We Christians pride ourselves on a sterner morality: "thus saith the Lord" trumps any other reason for being good. Yet inseparable from—ideally, homogenized into—a specifically Christian morality is something that we don't always mention: Divine grace as a guarantee of forgiveness and restoration.
In practice, the line between acceptable Christian behavior and forgiveness for misbehavior is a shifty one. The church has had a tough time finding the balance between discouraging sin and encouraging sinners. The reformed sinner back from a life of addiction and debauchery may be a hero, making the rounds of the Christian lecture circuit to show what God can do. At the same time the young Christian trying to make early adult decisions is protectively shamed and scolded and left to believe there won’t be a way back."Your life will be ruined if you lose your virginity" is self-fulfilling: it gets ruined at least in part because we said it would be. And admitting there’s forgiveness isn't giving permission.
Understandably, Christian leaders don’t want young people to do what they’d later regret. There’s plenty to fear about the effects of promiscuity: unwanted children, STDs, exploitation and psychological damage. I think you can make a good argument that fewer of these things would happen if there were any way for the church to talk about sex except "Don’t!"
Given what is apparently permitted under the seventh commandment (concubines, multiple wives, women as chattel, adolescent marriage, child-bearing slaves), it’s hard to see how it can make the case for the judgemental purity preached from many pulpits. The New Testament is clearer on adultery and marriage, but it still doesn’t come up to the standard of conservative churches—a standard Elizabeth Esther calls our "new and improved" virginity. "Ultimately" she says, "we implied that a woman’s inherent worth and dignity could be measured by whether or not a man has touched her."
Perhaps that's why where the church is leading, few are following. A 2009 study by the National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy concluded that 80 percent of unmarried evangelical young adults (18 to 29) admitted to having had sex. (See more here.) Another study shows that the Christian purity movement has been a crashing failure: "Teens who took a virginity pledge have sexual relationships that are nearly identical to those of similar teens who did not make such a pledge. The one area in which the pledge does make an impact is negative: Teens who took a virginity pledge and did have sex were less likely to use condoms and other forms of birth control."
There must be more effective ways to help young people grow up to have happy Christian families.