Does Sexual Purity Still Matter in the Church?

“What if the problem with ‘purity’ is much deeper? What if the problem is the message itself?”

Spending a week away with college students is always a revealing experience. Away from their normal surroundings, they will often share stories and open up unlike any other time. On a recent mission trip, one student brought up the point that it is “unnatural” to wait for sex until we are married—which they proclaimed as usually being by one’s late 20s—because of the fact that bodies are physically mature.

This student’s reasoning is part of a collection of reasoning as to why millennials are not waiting until marriage. Add to this the perception that the Bible is outdated in its conception of what is right or wrong or that our culture is different today, and what we are left with is the perception that what is best—even “natural”—is to engage in sexual activity. It is simply too difficult to wait.

So, what are we to do as the church?

Part of the issue is that the church has not rethought its approach. Perhaps you have heard the saying, “The message is the same—but the method changes.” I have—more times than I can count. Assuming for a moment this tired cliché is true, is this truly the problem? Is the problem as simple as we have not packaged the message properly? What if the problem is much deeper? What if the problem is the message itself?

What if our message of “purity” is the problem? What might it mean for us to change the message, yet also still be faithful to what we understand to be God’s desire? My hunch is that when we present “purity” as the reason for waiting, we may not actually have a clear vision of what we are talking about.

What do we mean by “purity”?

Whether we like it or not, words like “purity” and “abstinence” come with baggage. In their original context, these words may have communicated what we intended. However, over time these words have taken on a colloquial meaning and now, for many people, conjure up close-mindedness, outdated thinking and even spiritual abuse.

When I was a youth pastor, and like many youth pastors, I did the classic series on waiting for marriage. Looking back, I never intentionally wanted to bring wrongful condemnation or unnecessary guilt, but that often was the result.

For one of my classic illustrations I had the lights brought down, soft guitar music in the background and a rose. I said something like, “Every one of you are represented as this rose—pure and untainted. Every time you hook up, go ‘too far,’ have sex, etc., you lose a petal.” Then I continued down that train of thought until there were no more petals left. I explained to the students that they would not want to show up on their wedding day without a rose.

I had every good intention in that talk. But looking back now, I see that I used an illustration to indirectly communicate that if you do not have a rose to give, you are somehow lacking, you are somehow irreparable damaged. And that is simply not true! Scripture is clear Jesus came to bring us redemption and healing—not condemnation and damnation. He allows us to respond to his grace and mercy.

Moreover, this idea is a result of zero-sum thinking. You are either one way or another—there are no two ways about it. Once someone has had sex, they can no longer be pure or celibate. Now, I know that we may not believe that, but our message implicitly and unwittingly communicated that.

“But it’s next to impossible to wait!”

When my student remarked that it was “unnatural” to wait for marriage—I understood what he was getting at. He was saying, “It’s next to impossible to wait,” or even, “It is impossible to wait.” I also sympathized with him. In biblical days, men and women were known to marry earlier in life—but that was not always the case.

With the average age of a woman’s first period in our current American culture at 12 years of age (as opposed to between 15 and 17 in the late 1800s) and with the rising of the average age of a mother at first birth (from approximately 21.4 in 1970 to 25.2 years in our current day), there is now over a decade of time to explore sexual opportunities. To give some perspective, there was only a three-year timespan in the Pre-industrial Era (1750–1850) between first period and first childbirth.

With the mixture of more time to explore sexually, our sex-saturated culture and an environment where young adults are living in close quarters, it is no wonder “hookups” have increasingly grown in popularity. This phenomenon is a relatively recent one, and one that influences the way young adults view dating.

Add to the mix dating and hookup apps, and we find another game-changer. Tinder is the most widely used app in America for dating and hookups. If you see a picture of someone you find attractive, you swipe right. If they swiped right as well, then you have a connection and can meet.

Other apps, such as Tingle and Pure, are specifically geared for hooking up. You can find a match whether you are at a bar, restaurant or wherever, and these apps help facilitate the connection. Add the readable availability of pornography and the fact that this millennial generation does not marry until their late 20s or later—and you have a seemingly impossible situation to wait for marriage.

A recent article in USA Today shed some light on this ongoing situation, looking at the results of a “Singles in America” survey from Match.com. With over 5,000 millennials surveyed, they received some thought-provoking data.

One of the changes this survey found is that it is becoming more socially acceptable to hook up before a first date than it is to text during a date. In fact, millennials are nearly 50 percent more likely to have sex before a first date (the above apps have made this all the easier) than all other generations. In fact, hooking up before the first date may even be a type of “interview” to see if it is even worth giving the other person a chance.

With this generation, sex is almost a given. In fact, sex does not always equate to intimacy. It becomes more about physical pleasure—nothing more at times. The intimacy comes when the partners meet friends and family—because when that happens, “Things just got real!”

What are we to do?

This can paint a grim picture of our millennials, but there’s hope! Even with all of this—delayed marriage, dating and hookup apps, and hooking up being an almost normal part of this generation—there is still something deeper going on. In every study I have read over the past five years, the majority of students I have interviewed and even the study from Match.com clearly exposes one singular reality—an innate need to belong, to be loved.

I have a suspicion that at the root of why young adults are hooking up is the search for something deeper, something much more meaningful.

What are we, as the church, to do? We are to go back to our first love. We are to remember that the only reason we have the capacity to love is because Jesus first loved us. We are to remember the quote that is classically attributed to late 19th- and early 20th-century theologian, G.K. Chesterton: “A man knocking on the door of a brothel is knocking for God.”

Instead of giving up, we as the church have a mandate to be God’s representatives in the here and now. That means living a life that emulated his—a life that is appealing, a life that offers fulfillment, a life that quenches thirst—and ultimately bringing fulfillment because the creation has connected with the Creator. Our lives are to bring people to God when their actions are “knocking for God.”

Does purity still matter? Yes, it does. But it may mean something so much more than we have ever imagined. Therefore, I have chosen to use the term sexual faithfulness because it communicates that anyone, whether married or single, can commit to being sexually faithful at any stage. What if waiting is more than a desire to remain pure? What if it is a function of wanting to be faithful? How might this change the conversation?

Maybe the problem is indeed bigger than the method—perhaps it is the foundational message we are trying to share.

Bryan A. Sands is the director of campus ministries at Hope International University in Fullerton, California. He also blogs regularly at EveryoneLovesSex.org.

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