I came of age, and came to Christ, in the 90s. Like so many Gen X Christians, my spiritual foundation was chiseled in a youth group where purity was a big deal. I had a purity ring, signed a True Love Waits card and got the clear message that part of being a Christian was just saying no to sex. In my mind, virgin and Christian where two sides of the same coin, two pillars of my new identity in Christ.
Admittedly, it was a rudimentary theology. While I had surrendered my life to Christ, I had a tendency to add to the gospel, looking to the things I did, or in the case of sex, the things I didn’t do, as a means to please God. No band of gold could save me or keep me from sin. No commitment card could either. What I didn’t fully grasp as an angsty new believer is that only Christ’s work on the cross can do that.
Fast forward past the teen years, and I’ve spent 15 years ministering to young women. I’ve watched as talk of abstinence has gone the way of chastity belts. Stadiums are no longer full of teenagers promising to wait. As I’ve watched the pendulum swing, I’ve had simultaneous urges to cheer and to sound the alarm.
We are wise to help young people wrestle with the weightiness of the gospel instead of reducing it to a list of do’s and don’t’s. We should broaden the conversation about sex, marriage and intimacy beyond the “finish line” message they sometimes hear when we ask them to wait. As the church rides this next wave of the sexual revolution, we must teach our young people a sexual theology that goes beyond a few “thou shalt not’s.” But at the end of the day, abstinence still matters and purity and chastity still need to be taught.
What the hook-up culture has done to women
Anne Maloney is an associate professor of philosophy at the College of St. Catherine in St. Paul, Minn. From her post on a college campus, she is on the front lines of the war for young people’s hearts and minds. She’s seen her share of casualties. In her article, “What the Hook-up Culture Has Done to Women,” she describes the devastating toll casual sex is having on college-aged women. Here’s a flyover:
- “The young women I encounter every day on the campus of the university where I teach are worse off than this [rape] victim, because they do not know what has gone wrong in their lives. Nonetheless, something has gone terribly wrong, and on some level, they know it.”
- “It is no coincidence that the top two prescribed drugs at our state university’s health center are anti-depressants and the birth-control pill. Our young women are showing up to a very different version of ‘college life’ than that of the previous generation.”
- “The world we have created for these young people is a world which welcomes every sort of sexual behavior except chastity.”
- “I am going to go out on a limb here and suggest that the reason so many college-aged women binge-drink is so that they can bear their own closeted sorrow about what they are doing.”
Her words punch me in the gut, and leave me gasping for air. What she sees happening on one college campus is likely happening on every college campus. These women, and the men they are sleeping with, bear the image of God. They are broken and battered by the lie that freedom comes when we throw off God’s guidelines for sexuality.
“Women have never been more ‘sexually liberated’ than these women are, or so they are told. No more are they shackled by ridiculous bonds like commandments, moral rules, words like ‘chastity.’ They shout: ‘We’re free!’ Yet they whisper: ‘Why are we so miserable?’” Maloney writes. “I continue to be struck by how unfree these students feel.”
Fast forward another fifteen years with me, and imagine the shock waves that will be sent out from the epicenter of this sin. These women are future wives and mothers, future Sunday school teachers and pastor’s wives. They will sit in our pews and in our women’s Bible studies. The men who make up the other half of this sexual equation will also come into our churches as walking wounded. When the reality of their sin finally falls on their shoulders, it will be an unbearable weight. If their wounds are to be bound up, it will only be by Christ, and often through the ministry of the church. We must be ready to run in with the salve of the gospel for those already wounded by the lie of sexual freedom. But in addition to doing triage, we must warn the next wave. We still need to beat the drum of purity. We still need to teach young people to wait.
Sexuality as a guard rail
In the broader culture, sexuality is the cause we are all war-dancing around. Whether it’s homosexuality, pornography or sex scandals within the church, nothing makes Christians stick out from the broader culture quite like talk of what happens (or should happen) in the bedroom. I don’t think this is an area where we should compromise.
However, sometimes we get the order of the message wrong, don’t we? The lost need the gospel first, and God’s commandments second. A desire to keep God’s law is a byproduct of accepting God’s grace. The gospel is the highway we want our young people to drive upon, but sexuality works as a guardrail along that road.
Paul said it a different way.
“Flee from sexual immorality. Every other sin a person commits is outside the body, but the sexually immoral person sins against his own body” (1 Cor. 6:18).
All sin is the same in that it all separates us from our loving Father, but sexual sin is different because the consequences are so devastating. When we throw off the guardrails, or simply neglect to maintain them, young people careen off into an emotional and physical abyss that is extraordinarily difficult to come back from.
Re-framed with different lens, as a parent, I put safety measures in place to protect my children from the dangers of electric shock because they don’t yet understand the complexities of electricity. They’ll learn about volts and currents when they are mature enough to grasp it, and then we won’t need to have so many conversations about why we don’t put forks in the outlets. But I’m going to do everything in my power to protect them in the meantime. In the same way, the consequences of sexual sin are so dangerous that we must protect our young people by teaching them to wait, even before they are mature enough to develop a robust theology, grasp God’s grander plan for sexuality or even articulate the basics of the gospel.
I’m so grateful for the youth workers who looked me in the eye and told me to wait. I’m thankful for the rings and cards that served as tangible reminders that God’s standards are worth sticking to. I’m grateful to have dodged the bullets propelled into so many hearts by the hook up culture. When I think of those bruised by the lie that sex without boundaries equals freedom, I can’t help but wonder how many hearts could have been shielded by a compassionate adult who wasn’t afraid to wade into the mess and say, “This is not God’s best.”
Parents, you should tell your children why you waited or why you hope that they will. Don’t just have “the talk.” Keep talking.
Pastors, please put purity in your queue of topics that you address regularly from the pulpit. There are young people in your pews who need you to show them where the guard rails are.
Youth workers, look around at the faces in your small group, your Sunday school class and your Wednesday night program. Then listen closely to Maloney’s haunting words. “An entire generation of women is wounded yet unable to find the source of the bleeding. . . . They “hook up” feel awful and have no idea why. It’s hard to heal when you don’t know you’ve been damaged. And the despair and shame that these women who hook up feel is real.”
We need to keep talking about sex. In a culture that’s gone off the sexual deep end, we need to continue to elevate God’s high standards—and then point them to the Way by which we can reach those standards. Words like “purity,” “chastity” and “virginity” should be in our collective vernacular. In this department, perhaps it’s time to teach like it’s 1999. Because true love still waits.