When I was in high school, I attended a Bible camp out in the Black Hills every summer. It was always a good, fulfilling, fun time for me. Every year – like in many Bible camps across the country – there’d be one night set aside for the “sex talk.” The content varied from year to year, but the message was the same each time: “sex outside of a marriage is a sin and you must show utmost remorse for it. Forever. And it’ll probably ruin you for life. So don’t do it. Also, you will get pregnant and die.” Okay, that last part is from the movie Mean Girls, but you get the picture.
The narrative never shifted. There was always testimony from someone who had “done it” or come close and regretted it deeply. Usually, it was a guy or girl who got drunk and slept with someone at a party (consent issues were, of course, never addressed). But one year, one of the youth pastors took the mic.
This man was probably twice our age. He had been married since his early 20s. We settled in for his tale of woe, sure that he’d committed some too-early action with a high school girlfriend – that’s usually how these stories go.
But, no. He’d only ever dated his wife, he tearfully told us, and they had gotten engaged a few months into their relationship. After their engagement, they began to struggle with physical boundaries, and, a couple of months before the wedding, committed “the ultimate sin.” They both had been living with guilt and regret and shame for years.
Even at the time – I was in the midst of my purity craze, proudly wearing my ring every day and proclaiming to any who would listen that I was saving myself for my future husband – I thought this was a little weird. They were engaged at the time. They were in love. They’d only ever been with each other and had never strayed.
Surely, all this guilt and shame and regret were…disproportionate? Was sex before marriage seriously that powerful?
It challenged my prefabricated narrative about sex before marriage. These two had had done it – while engaged – and had spent much of their marriage feeling guilty about it. But they hadn’t caught an STD, they hadn’t developed totally unhinged sexual morals (eg, they didn’t start sleeping with everything with a pulse, which we’d been warned was a consequence of premarital sex), and their marriage hadn’t fallen apart.
It seemed like they were beating themselves up over nothing.
Of course, I didn’t allow myself to ask these questions until years later. At the time, I felt a sort of vague discomfort at the story, but didn’t connect it to the disproportionate shame or guilt. I simply didn’t have the tools before me to recognize that my narrative of “how things work” might not reflect reality, even in the face of a story that challenged my ideas of what would happen. I simply didn’t have the tools to recognize that shame and guilt were wreaking havoc, and unnecessarily so.
I have a feeling that the men at The Gospel Coalition are like the teenaged me. They simply don’t have the understanding or the vocabulary to grasp the difference between criticism of shame-filled rhetoric and the green lighting of (what they consider) heresy.
That’s the only explanation I can think of for this piece.
You see, a couple of weeks ago, writers Sarah Bessey and Elizabeth Esther kicked off an impromptu sex week in blogging that started up a firestorm. They discussed the shame that purity teachings had heaped on their heads – one for having sex before marriage, the other for idolizing virginity to the point that crushes were bad. Rachel Held Evans jumped into this and asked “Do we idolize virginity in modern evangelicalism?” Preston Yancey wrote a couple of posts about shame and grace. Emily Maynard discussed how virgin and non-virgin are insufficient categories for whether or not someone is a faithful Christian. Joy Bennett addressed the idea that “marrying a virgin” is probably not going to happen in this world of shifting demographics and "delayed" marriage. Leigh Kramer discussed the problematic nature of sexuality teachings for singles being determined by married folk. Sarah Markley talked about the difference between virginity and purity. Jake Meador talked about virginity as product. And Tony Jones hopped in with a confusing piece that had a provocative title but didn’t necessarily say anything more than a call for a new and different sexual ethic.
This is the narrative of what happened. This is the reality of what they were saying: a big, giant discussion starting with a call to stop shaming people regarding sex and evolving into a multitude of voices, all contributing variations on the theme of “what is a healthy sexual ethic?”
But, The Gospel Coalition decided to invent its own narrative. The piece, written by Bart Gingerich, refers to this collective diversity of voices as “commitment free critics,” and says, “The underlying complaint seems to demand that we accept different decisions without critique or even regret.”
Soon after this was posted, the comment section and Twitter erupted. And I began to see a common refrain from people supporting The Gospel Coalition’s piece: “If you believe that premarital sex is a sin, then why don’t you just say it?” As though one could possibly sum up these issues in a 200-word comment or a 140 character tweet.
The problem here is that the Gospel Coalition is trying to simultaneously cede our point – that the shaming of purity culture is a problem – and hold onto it. They are saying, “sexual ethics aren’t a salvation issue,” while also demanding that we meet their expectations of orthodox.
And that’s the wrong conversation, the wrong questions, the wrong discussion.
Asking “do you believe this is a sin?” is fundamentally the wrong approach. I refuse to answer the question (and I suspect the other authors cited in the piece would agree, though I do not speak for them) because defining whether or not something is a sin is not a conversation I’m interested in having. I reject the premise out of hand. Drawing rules and lines and definitions is not the way one moves toward a healthy sexual ethic.
Now, the Gospel Coalition’s piece also linked (subtly) to a post I made well over a year ago, in which I attempted to address (rather poorly) this question. It didn’t occur to me at the time of writing that the post would be so misread and galvanizing. Do I say in the post that I don’t think premarital sex is a sin? Yes, I do. But my larger point is that the portions of the Bible from which we draw conclusions about modern dating and “fornication” are so steeped in patriarchal and cultural mores that we have to have much more discernment in how we approach the topic.
Basically: I didn’t have the language then that I do now to realize that I was trying to have the wrong conversation.
The damage wreaked by the purity movement is the constant background radiation of my blog. Developing a healthy approach to sexual ethics is my goal. What that means for me, personally and professionally, is that I simply, fundamentally don’t care about the questions The Gospel Coalition is asking. Because when someone is having sex does not matter to me as much as whether or not they are doing so in a manner that is healthy, respectful, consensual, and gracious.
I told my mom on the phone the other day something I think succinctly sums up the issue: We spend so much effort and energy telling people to say “no” that we’ve not equipped them with how to say “yes.”
That is my concern; that is my wheelhouse. Healthy approaches and attitudes to sex first. Then we can talk about whether or not marriage is the ideal (it might just be).
We don’t achieve a healthy conversation by creating lines and drawing rules about what is or is not a sin – despite the Gospel Coalition’s professions, every time they tell us the Scriptures are clear, they are drawing a line in the sand.
We don’t help people by condemning them and saying they should feel shame – despite the professions of Mr. Gingerich, this is the theology of the body he propounds when he says, “For the longing singles among us, we have heard it said that love is patient. So go out there, date, and maybe get married. Just do not make allowance for lustful flesh.”
We don’t move the theology of the body forward when we invoke Gnostic imagery by implying that the flesh is something to be subsumed and tightly controlled.
We don’t create a healthy sexual ethic when we ask the wrong questions about sin.
Graphic by the astoundingly awesome Dani Kelley. You can see more of her portfolio here.