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Yes, Evangelical ‘Abstinence Culture’ Is A Bust, But The Answer Isn’t A Sexual Free-For-All


When I read the headline, “Liberal Lutheran pastor to melt purity rings into vagina sculpture to ‘take down’ church teachings about sex,” I assumed it was from the Babylon Bee. But no, it’s actually a thing.

If you’re unaware, Nadia Bolz-Weber is a liberal teacher in the “ELC”A (“Evangelical Lutheran Church” in America—their locale is really the only word that doesn’t justify scare quotes). She’s requesting purity rings from evangelicals who’ve lost their ability to honestly wear them, so she can melt them down and cast a vagina idol as a statement of defiance against Jesus’s teachings about sex.

The instructions she’s trying to take down are the usual ones—the Bible’s prohibitions on fornication, sodomy, adultery, and the like. Her call “to support a sexual revolution” is just the same old program from the last sexual revolution. The publicity stunt with the sculpture is just a face-lift to make these tired complaints edgy again.

Nevertheless, the whole affair is so reminiscent of the Golden Calf incident that I half-expect Bolz-Weber to unveil her vagina (sculpture) next year with a cry of “These are your gods, O Israel, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt!”

As vile as Bolz-Weber’s crusade and “vagidol” are, the evangelical purity culture she decries is also deeply flawed. Not because it needs more sneering contempt for sexual purity, but because of how poorly it actually teaches sexual purity. With 80 percent of unmarried Christians fornicating, it’s undeniably been an utter failure. One doesn’t have to give up and throw in with our amoral culture to admit that or to understand why.

I Couldn’t Wait Forever, So the Rules Don’t Apply

Consider the example of Dianna Anderson, a former evangelical who wrote a few years ago about her experience in purity culture. It ends badly—her first kiss was at 25 and she retained her virginity later still before finally giving up and having sex outside of marriage. Naturally, after such a wait, she found that fornication really hit the spot, so she declared it a new sacrament in obedience to the god of her feelings.

But more instructive than her ridiculous conclusions about Christianity is the life that brought her to those conclusions in the first place. She tells a tale of doing everything she was supposed to do—making a purity pledge, deliberately deciding to refrain from sex before marriage, etc.—all while waiting on God to bring her a good Christian husband who would appreciate her purity.

But marriage never came. When you listen to her story, the only mystery is why anyone would be surprised at that outcome:

I graduated college with only one blind date under my belt. And then graduate school. And then I moved to Japan and started questioning my faith. Lots of little things that I thought were God’s blessing – my job in Japan, my success in academics – were leading me nowhere fast. It wasn’t so much that I was unhappy – it was that I felt totally abandoned and misled by this God I’d been told to believe. I’d done everything right. I’d been told my virginity and modesty and purity would be attractive to Christian men. And yet, nothing was happening, nothing was moving, nothing was clear.

This is the problem with waiting for God to bring you husband (or a wife). One actually has to make some kind of effort to get married. One blind date by college graduation isn’t exactly a rigorous attempt to find a spouse. Even more ridiculous, she genuinely believed she was doing everything right to marry a good Christian man, despite moving to a nation where Christians represent 1 percent of the population.

Contrast her feeble attempts at marriage with the way she pursued her career. For this, she completed both college and graduate school, along with relocating to the other side of the planet. She pulled out all the stops. It’s really no coincidence that these are the areas of life in which she succeeded. In the meantime, the first relationship she mentions is the guy she fooled around with at 25—a relationship she ended after two months by moving again.

As ineffective as her pursuit of a husband was, I have no problem believing that she really was doing most of what her fellow Christians were telling her. That’s the problem with purity culture. It purports to be about saving sex for marriage, but the whole point of purity rings and abstinence is to refrain from sex while delaying marriage. It’s all supposed to help young people remain celibate while dutifully fulfilling their worldly priorities first—namely, education and career—until marriage hopefully just comes along and happens somehow.

Evangelicals Are Adopting Feminism, Plain and Simple

There, in that demand for celibacy, lies the rub. As the Church of Rome has been proving for the last 1,000 years, celibacy doesn’t actually work for most people, no matter how many oaths, ceremonies, and monastic environments are used to facilitate it. If you don’t have the Apostle Paul’s relatively rare gift, it’s not sustainable long term. After all, humans have always struggled with sexual temptation, and our culture ramps that temptation up to 11 through mass media and loose mores. The Christian prescription for that struggle isn’t celibacy—it’s marriage.

Whether it’s the perverse culture of theological liberalism or the celibate culture of conservative evangelicalism, the root problem is that they’re both attempts to baptize feminism. The liberal end with its vagina-worship is your basic sex-positive feminism, in which chastity is seen as a shackle from which women need to be freed.

But the conservative evangelical side is likewise feminist, because its pours its effort into baptizing the elevation of education and career above marriage and family. It just simultaneously tries to force that into the mold of Christian prohibitions on fornication.

It might be odd to think of conservative Christians as feminists, but one must remember that conservatives are first and foremost traditionalists. Feminism is now a wrinkled old lady that has been marching through our institutions for generations. It’s become traditional in many respects. Conservatives may balk at the latest extremities, but they’re mostly on board with things like egalitarianism, serial monogamy, and blaming men for everything.

Christians need a third path—something that actually encourages marriage instead of choosing between fornication or celibacy. The church needs to recover the virtue of chastity.

Chastity Isn’t No Sex, It’s the Right Sex

When we speak of virtues, we’re speaking of a kind of internalized morality. They are dispositions towards right behavior and against wrong behavior that determine how we act. For example, one has the virtue of courage if he is inclined to act bravely in the face of fear. One has the virtue of temperance if he is inclined to act with deliberate self-restraint rather than on impulse.

Developing virtues requires training and discipline rather than good intentions and legalism.

A virtue is not an external moral rule, but the practical ability to behave in accordance with an external moral rule. It requires knowledge, but rests in the application of that knowledge to life. Accordingly, developing virtues requires training and discipline rather than good intentions and legalism.

The virtue of chastity, specifically, is the disposition towards right behavior and against wrong behavior with sex. It’s not abstinence, but the fulfillment of sexuality within marriage. For the majority of Christians, who don’t have Paul’s rare gift of celibacy, it requires actively pursuing marriage rather than deliberately delaying it or absentmindedly scorning it.

Our culture no longer facilitates that virtue, which makes our job harder. But that does not mean we should come up with a completely new system of courtship to wholly replace dating. (And no, dating has not disappeared in favor of hookups for long-term relationships. It’s just that people adopt the poor strategy of hooking up to find somebody they want to date.) As terrible as our culture is, we can’t wish it away and surround ourselves with a custom culture—at least not when trying to form relationships with other people.

Instead, Christians need to start finding ways of adapting our culture to our advantage by deliberately planning for marriage. We need the same kind of incremental change to build a new culture that was used to destroy the old one. That’s a tall order, to be sure, but there are ways to begin planning for marriage.

Here’s Where to Start

It starts with Christian parents. We need to teach marriage as an aspiration and an expectation for our kids—much like we treat college. Parents need to teach their children to look forward to marriage. We also need to prepare to provide material and moral support so our chidren have the option of marrying at a younger age. Instead of encouraging them to try and ignore or abuse their sexuality through the most fertile years of their lives, we need to help them to find its expression in marriage during those years.

Given the practical difficulty of remaining celibate into one’s 30s, it’s important to measure one risk against another.

Until the 1980s, the median age of marriage hovered between 20 and 22 for women and 22 to 26 for men. Since then, it’s shot up to 28 and 30, respectively. This is entirely in line with the expectations we’ve been teaching for the past generation or two that youth remain single until their education is complete and career established.

That was certainly the case when I was coming of age. Just before I married at 21, my father gave me the usual advice of getting my career on track first—advice I’m glad I disregarded, as that would have meant, for all practical purposes, an end to my relationship with my wife.

But doesn’t marrying young mean an increased risk of divorce? To an extent, but there are two mitigating factors to consider. First, the way the data is usually sliced, “young marriage” includes teenagers—younger than I’m suggesting. With that demographic removed, young divorce rates aren’t much worse than normal.

Second, young marriage isn’t the only thing that increases the odds of divorce. The number of sexual partners a bride has had before marriage radically increases that risk. Given the practical difficulty of remaining celibate into one’s 30s, it’s important to measure one risk against another. Marrying young has its challenges, but to two people who are committed to making it work, they are the kinds of challenges that forge both spouses into better people.

Young People Need to Act in Fidelity to Their Faith

Any plan for marriage must also be picked up by the youth who need to deliberately prepare themselves for it. Parents, again, need to do everything we can to guide and assist in this, but the responsibility ultimately falls on young men to become good husbands and fathers and on young women to become good wives ad mothers. That means young people need to critically examine the things they’re pouring effort into and evaluating how that’s going to help in their goals (not the same as rationalizing how the thing you already decided to do is going to help.)

Start thinking of your future sons and daughters as people whom you will love with all your heart rather than as distractions from ‘real’ life.

The first thing this preparation entails is acquiring the kinds of skills and character required by the different roles that men and women have in a healthy marriage. Men: learn a trade. Maybe that’s four-year college; maybe that’s vocational school or an apprenticeship; maybe it’s starting a small business. There isn’t a right path here, but you do need to be able to support a wife and children. That’s not necessarily providing in the manner to which they’ve become accustomed growing up—parents have had a big head start, after all—but to be able to acquire the necessities and have potential to advance.

Women: spend time around children and learn to appreciate them. Find a way to overcome the fecundophobia you’ve been taught and start thinking of your future sons and daughters as people whom you will love with all your heart rather than as distractions from “real” life.

Keep in mind that the reason career holds the place it does for men isn’t despite children, but because of them. Most of us don’t actually want to sit in our cubicles, finish our shifts, and so forth—that’s why people have to pay us to do it. We make the best of it by becoming competitive and embracing our work goals, but without families, men’s career ambitions look quite different.

It’s also important to become broadly capable by learning household skills. Men, make sure you know how to unclog a sink, change a tire, hang shelves, build a bridge—anything that will improve a home. Ladies, do the same with traditionally feminine skills. You should be able to cook, shop economically, maintain a household, and so forth.

While you need to make sure you’ve got your own traditional roles covered, nothing says you have to stop there. Men who can cook and women who can change tires are both great assets to a home. If you can, actively try to learn these things from your mom or dad. If not, YouTube is your ally. These are skills anyone can learn with sufficient effort.

If You Need a Lot of Debt, You Can’t Afford College

Prepare for marriage financially. Start saving money early. Most importantly, be extremely careful about acquiring student loan debt. As ubiquitous as debt may be, many college degrees don’t justify themselves economically.

Studying less financially viable fields may be intellectually rewarding, but those are the kinds of things you only do if you can afford them. If you have to go into substantial debt, then you can’t afford them. Make a sober assessment of whether any college degree is going to help you reach your priorities, because a gargantuan debt you may never be able to discharge is a difficult burden to bring into a marriage.

Going against the grain of culture by avoiding fornication means you’re going to need to put in extra work to develop viable relationships.

Another part of preparation for marriage is working to become attractive. Going against the grain of culture by avoiding fornication means you’re going to need to put in extra work to develop viable relationships. Finding a hookup is relatively easy—like your typical squirrel, if you look good and smell good, then you’re in for the night. Finding a spouse is a lot harder, as is being a potential spouse. If you’re going to be selective about other people, you need to make yourself desirable.

Everybody should know the basics already—work out (guys, you should be lifting weights), learn to dress and groom yourself well, etc. Don’t make the mistake of projecting your own desires onto the opposite sex. Ladies, don’t expect men to find your academic and career accomplishments attractive—we don’t. Gentlemen, don’t expect women to appreciate you for being a sweet and submissive helpmeet—they don’t.

Also, Don’t Fornicate

Lastly, don’t fornicate. Yes, this is obvious (How do we be chaste? Don’t be unchaste. Brilliant!). But it’s also difficult to pull off, so you’ll be frequently tempted into thinking it won’t matter in the long run. That is untrue.

For women in particular, fornication is a great way of sabotaging your future marriage prospects. (Note: I didn’t say “it makes marriage impossible.” Past sin isn’t a reason for despair, for it’s always wisest to make the best of what you have. Nevertheless, a wise person will also try very hard not to squander what she has.)

Complain about the double standard all you want, but men instinctively care about a woman’s sexual history more than women care about a man’s. Trying to shame men out of caring is never really going to work. We already mentioned the drastically increased risk of divorce, but even deeper than that, finding trustworthy wives is an inherent part of reproductive strategy for most men. Ladies, if you really want equality on the matter, then work on finding male virginity attractive instead.

The time has come to stop trying to conserve the misplaced priorities of a feminist culture and start finding new ways to chastely pursue marriage instead.

Remaining chaste is easier said than done, especially today, but you can at least improve your odds by avoiding temptation. Don’t waste time on relationships with people you find attractive but would make poor husbands and wives—your desire to stay close to people like that is your sex drive trying to talk over your good judgment. Likewise, don’t put yourself in positions where you really want to sin (e.g., don’t go to the hot guy’s party and start drinking; don’t park the car in a secluded place where no one would ever see you to “talk;” etc.)

This does not mean you should avoid interacting with members of the opposite sex or becoming romantically involved with them—your goal is marriage, after all, not celibacy. But you do need to avoid sequestering yourself with them before marriage and creating easy opportunities to sin. If both of you are looking for marriage sooner rather than later, then waiting that short time is surprisingly doable.

I don’t envy anyone the task of seeking a chaste marriage in contemporary culture. Nevertheless, despite being well over that hurdle myself, I still have a responsibility to help my children when they come of age, so the job isn’t over yet.

Faithful Christians don’t have the option of throwing in with our culture and disregarding Christ’s teachings. But that doesn’t mean we have to be stupid about it. Our self-imposed purity culture has failed spectacularly. The time has come to stop trying to conserve the misplaced priorities of a feminist culture and start finding new ways to chastely pursue marriage instead.

To those who receive this advice with bitterness—who think it’s not fair and there are no good men or women out there worth putting effort into—consider this: Maybe your situation isn’t fair. Maybe nobody deserves the work you’d put into marriage.

But when your death approaches, none of you are going to look back on your lives and think, “I’m so satisfied that I never did anything I shouldn’t have had to do.” Like any other form of hedonism, going your own way in this fashion is never going to be satisfying for long. What will satisfy is having done the best you could with the hand you were dealt.