The V-Word: Our Evangelical obsession

It’s always a little bit worrying when evangelicals start writing about virginity.

So to alleviate your worries from the outset, here are three things I’m not intending to do:

1) I’m not starting a new conversation. I’m probably not saying anything radically new within the conversation either. I’ve read a few great blog posts recently about the weird relationship between evangelicals and virginity (I liked this one on Threads) so I just wanted to throw in my thoughts too.

2) I’m not intending to be particularly personal – so Mum and Dad, my two guaranteed readers, you’re welcome to keep reading!

3) I’m hoping not to sound like a stereotype: someone who grew up with teenage evangelical ideals about saving sex till marriage, expected to be married by age 20, and now that that hasn’t happened, wants to conveniently backtrack on the rules…

Just like a used car?

That out of that way, here’s the situation. Evangelical Christians are obsessed with the idea of virginity. I’d be tempted to say it’s more a feature of American Christianity than here in Britain, but that’s only from what I’ve heard and read. Besides, here we just use a few more British middle class euphemisms when we talk about sex. But we are, we’re obsessed.  Books for Christian teenagers are so often about saving yourself for marriage, about keeping yourself pure, about keeping as far away from the line as you can rather than creeping up to it (the most frustrating answer, by the way, for any teenager who has ever asked their youth leader, ‘how far is too far?’). I read an awful book called “Technical Virgin” which seemed to me to be all about how the aim is to stay a virgin because girls are like used cars: the more you’ve been ‘used’, the more experience you’ve had, the lower your value is. It seemed to be advocating keeping away from all sexual activity mainly because you don’t really get to call yourself a virgin if you’ve done any of it. I also used to listen to a song by Rebecca St James called “Wait for me”, which was as the name suggests, a song to the singer’s hypothetical future husband asking him to make sure he stays a virgin in the same way as she is. There are purity pledges, purity rings, I’ve been at seminar after seminar on how to hold on to your precious gift of virginity, and even talks on how you can ‘regain’ it in a kind of spiritual sense when God forgives you for having sex before marriage. The point doesn’t seem to be being forgiven, it’s about regaining the prized possession, virginity.

All of that is normal when you’re immersed in this particular Christian culture, but I’ve been trying to step outside the bubble a little bit and think about whether this is really the most helpful way to be talking about sex and marriage. On reflection, I’m a bit surprised that it’s the dominant language for evangelicals.

Not because it’s an unpopular view to hold – we’re very used to, and happy with, being ‘counter-cultural’. But I’m surprised because as far as I can see, this choice of language, focus and priorities in our culture surrounding sex is not very Biblical. [[For why I think that word can cause difficulties, see this post. Here I’m using it to describe the parts of the New Testament where we generally go for our sexual ethics – the gospels, Paul’s letters, perhaps a couple of other letters.]]

I don’t think the concept of virginity particularly fits with a Biblical understanding of sin, even if we assume here for the sake of argument that God has designed sex for the context of marriage. With no other sin do we create a name for a whole category of person who has never done that particular thing. There is no word for a person who has never lied, or who has never gossiped, or never stolen, or never been judgemental. We rightly, as Christians, don’t see the mistakes we make as changing something fundamental about our identity. I didn’t go from one thing to another thing the first time I gossiped, so why do I go from virgin to not-virgin the first time I have sex before marriage? The same could be said of the way we use ‘purity’ in this context. We don’t talk about being a pure or impure person based on anything else particular that we do. It’s not avoiding a particular sin which makes us pure but God does it. So why would my making one particular mistake be able to undo that in a way that nothing else can?

I’m not trying to suggest that we’ve got this all wrong, that sex is for any time and not best kept in marriage. Just that we’ve got the focus wrong. See, I think if we put a microphone under Jesus, or Paul, or some other apostle, and said “What would you most like to say to the church about sex?” I don’t think they’d reply “Whatever you do, make sure you get to your wedding night a virgin.” They’d have more important things to say. I think they’d reply something more like, “Whatever you do, make sure you have integrity and keep your word.”

A quick sweep of the gospels shows that what Jesus has to say on sex and relationships is about adultery and divorce (try here and here) . When you’ve made your commitment to someone in marriage, keep the vows you’ve made. Don’t wander from your commitment to one person exclusively, not even in your imagination, and don’t give up on it when it becomes hard work. Have integrity.

When Paul talks about sex (for instance here) he talks about responsibility to one another, mutuality, and self giving. When the writer to the Hebrews mentions purity here, it’s not an instruction to stay a virgin but a command to the married, to keep their marriage bed free from adultery.

Does what I’m getting at make any sense? It’s not that the idea of keeping sex till marriage is a bad one or a wrong one, I don’t think, and it does seem to chime with what we see here about sex going hand in hand with commitment. But it’s not the part that Jesus, Paul and the others keep driving home like Christian youth workers and student workers keep driving home. When it comes to when we have sex and who with, they were far more concerned about the bigger (and perhaps much more difficult) issues of integrity, keeping our word, honesty, and respect for other people. There’s no sense in the New Testament of a magical pre-sin state, which is then destroyed by one night’s mistake to leave you forever changed and tainted. Of course there’s not, because that’s never how sin and grace and Christian life work.

Of course, the other problem with focusing our conversations about sex on preserving virginity, and putting all our energy into that quest, is that it soon becomes irrelevant. Either when you give in and make a mistake, and suddenly you’re no longer in the revered category of “waiting till marriage”, or you get married… and then what?! All those years of talks, purity pledges, and awful books are no longer much help. But if, all along, we’d be talking about integrity, taking responsibility for your actions, how to treat people as people not objects, practising keeping to a commitment even when it’s hard, then maybe we’d have a more well rounded view of the best context for sex, and we’d have healthier relationships in the mean time too.

I do actually have a “purity” ring. My Dad and I bought it together when I was 15, having had a conversation about how those kinds of things are no good when parents force such commitments on their children, but how symbols can be helpful for reminding you of commitments you’ve chosen to make yourself. I’ve worn it since I was 15, and I don’t think of it as a reminder to keep myself ‘pure’. I am pure because God makes me pure, and nothing I do can change that. I’d rather consider it an integrity ring, a challenge to keep my promises and practice faithfulness. It seems that Jesus was quite big on that, so I’d better be too.


About Claire

@claireylegs Keen on Jesus. Keen on justice. Ordinand in Durham. Find me in: coffee shop / church / pub / bed.
This entry was posted in Evangelicalism, Sex and sexuality and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

20 Responses to The V-Word: Our Evangelical obsession

  1. askthebigot says:

    I love the whole purity ring thing, and I think you’ve hit the nail on the head re: integrity. I read this and, like your post, it helped me to reorient how I will talk with my daughters about “waiting”.

  2. This is such a brilliant post! I spent all of last term, for my thesis research, reading about the issue of sex before marriage and how the Church of England discussed it in the early 1960s (which was fascinating!) – it really underlined for me the precise point you’re making, that as Christians we can get so obsessively focussed on marriage as the determinant of whether sex is ‘right’ or ‘wrong’, and forget to think about *why* marriage has come to be thought of by Christians as the appropriate context for sex. The Biblical reason for this teaching is, of course, like you say, not the status of marriage per se, but the fact that it creates the context in which the *purpose* of sex. We can argue of course, about what the purpose of sex precisely is, but as you helpfully point out, based on Biblical teaching it seems that integrity, commitment and self-giving love are the sort of themes which define it. As one Christian ethicist I read recently puts it (David Cunningham in ‘Christian Ethics: The End of the Law’, 2008): “the real test [of a sexual relationship] is not its name…but the virtues that it embodies and displays”. I think it’s really important that Christians grasp this point, rather than focussing simply on marital status as the sole determinant of the morality of a sexual relationship, because this should awaken us to the fact that, on this basis, sex within marriage is often wrong! Too often as evangelicals we seem to get the impression that, as soon as a couple is married, their sex is “pure” and morally sanctioned; clearly however, there are probably lots of married couples whose sexual relationships don’t exactly demonstrate the Fruits of the Spirit! Thanks again Claire for such a perceptive blog post 🙂

    • Claire says:

      Thanks Andrew 🙂 Remind me again what your thesis was titled? I hope you’re publishing it somewhere, I’d love to read it. Thanks for the thoughts on marriage, it’s definitely helpful to think about what we even mean by marriage -is it the same now as it was more than 2500 years ago when some of our biblical texts were being written?! Do we mean the same as they did in the first century? It must be something to do with a context of security and commitment that we’ve wanted to protect, although I guess that the history of the institution of marriage would show it hasn’t always been characterised by those things.

      • It was titled “‘In Pursuit of Virtue’: The Church of England and Premarital Chastity, 1961-3”. It’s not published anywhere I’m afraid, but I’d be happy to email it to you if you’d like to take a look; after all, after having spent so long on it, it seems a shame that no-one except the examiner really reads it! No worries if not though.
        And yep, like you say, there’s the whole issue of what marriage has meant historically… there’s so much interesting stuff on these issues, I think it’s a shame that we discuss them in such black-and-white terms sometimes!

  3. siobhanj says:

    This was interesting. I’m surprised you didn’t mention gender differences though… Even though you weren’t being personal, it’s quite a female orientated account – would you say that’s reflective of the wider conversation in general? If so/not, why? You could argue that then ties into your questions about biblical ideas and also goes some way towards answering what changes (physically) with this type of ‘purity’ issue…

    • Claire says:

      Yeah there must be gender issues that make a difference here . The generally accepted double standard outside of a Church context being that men are congratulated for their sexual prowess whereas women are seen as dirty or cheap if they act in the same way wasn’t particularly reflected in my limited experience: the churchy message to teenage boys and girls was the same “whatever you do, stay a virgin” message. I wonder if guys growing up in that environment feel a greater conflict because of the greater contrast in those messages? Or whether girls feel greater shame because their sexual activity is condemned from all sides?

      I agree there’s more to say about the whole idea of virginity being about the physical impact of sex on a woman, and that being where the idea of being tainted or impure or ‘used goods’ comes from, and how horribly sexist that is. I’d like to think more about how that shapes what we are implying when we talk about purity in that way…

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  5. Emma says:

    I’ve never bought into the purity doctrine, mostly because I was seen as “impure” by the time a church I started attending told me about it. being outspoken even then I would try to debate the issues but no one, especially no youth leader, was ever interested. I had three monogamous relationships before I got married. I took those relationships really seriously and sex was not something I “gave away”. I don’t regret any of it and wouldn’t change it, even though my heartgot broken each time. I like the focus on integrity and its what I prefer to talk about with young people who speak to me.

    interesting thoughts also abound the discussion of what marriage was and is. my first relationship was when I was 16, late for a marriage in biblical times. I wouldn’t have had choice over my husband then either. I would have had a choice made for me. surely these cultural changes, amongst many others, have to factor in.

    no, this didn’t help much, but I’m clear that it makes clarity and the absolute of the purity message tricky at best and risky at worst.

    oh and finally; God loves us and accepts us as sinners and forgives us – this is the message I want my daughter to grow up knowing above all else.

    great writing by the way, I’ll be following you now

  6. mastersquill says:

    Well done and quite challenging and probing into the heart of the matter. You lead us into a position of defending our beliefs when they are not really brought into question. Integrity and commitment are key in our life with Christ. We all view our lives through various filters and, thankfully, God views believers through the filter of the blood of Jesus Christ. Our faith has transformed and regenerated us, made us into new creations…pristine and pure. So God sees us as perfect and untainted. Additionally, as we sin from time to time, forgiveness becomes a part of our vocabulary and the cornerstone of our hope and faith.
    Thanks for your insights and ability to convey them. Thanks for visiting my site as well.


  7. Carwyn Grav says:

    Thanks Claire. I completely agree with your spotlighting the emphasis on ‘Whatever you do, make sure you have integrity and keep your word’: it makes perfect sense to me because it chimes with one of the features of God’s character most consistently stressed by all the biblical writers, namely his Faithfulness. And if part of what the whole story is about is God restoring his marred image in us, then it makes perfect sense for him to be really wanting us to grasp more and more what faithfulness means…..Paul draws the parallel between husband/wife and Father/Son (and Christ/Church) and surely one of the features of the Father/Son and Christ/church relationship is the perfect faithfulness of the former to the latter. Anyway, I loved what you were saying because it nestles neatly into a deeper ‘biblical’ (:p) context, which is a very good thing!

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  9. The evangelical focus on abstinence tries to pretend that something with non-being (e.g. not having sex, not doing anything on this list of naughty actions) actually has being of its own. “Abstinence” is the virtue rather than “sex in marriage.” To pretend that a privation is actually a good is the very essence of evil in Christianity. We are training ourselves *toward* fuller being, something which is more actual and true, rather than training ourselves *against* what is evil. Evil is only the privation of the good.

    I hope this adds to the way you look at the issue! Also, thanks for following my blog =) You should stop by again and check out the latest post to see if you would like to participate in the project I’m starting.

    • Claire says:

      That’s a really helpful addition, thank you – I’d never made the link to the evil as a privation idea from this topic before. I certainly will do!

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  11. Tanya Marlow says:

    I really like this. It’s so helpful that you identified ‘virgin’ as identity vs active purity in the way that we act (and who we have sex with).

    I really like your blog. I have a similar journey, and seek to teach the Bible in a way that engages emotionally and viscerally whilst still thinking theologically and canonically about the passage in question. (I don’t always achieve this!)

    I also lived in Oxford for a few years – t’was fun!

    Great to ‘meet’ you!

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