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…
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.