I’ve considered making videos for sometime, and I finally did one. This is my first “sermon”.
Hello and welcome to the first of what I’m calling, “Choose Your Own Sermon”. This is a series where you get to choose what I speak about. For this episode, I received a question about a phrase I’ve used, “The evangelical fear of sex”. I’ve been requested to expound upon this. I didn’t plan for my first “sermon” to be about sex, but here we are. However, I think this uncomfortability highlights part of the problem—the topic of sex seems taboo, so we don’t talk about it which makes it feel taboo. Along similar lines, Jonalyn Fincher once shared how she learned that just because sex is private doesn’t mean it’s shameful. More on this in a moment.
The attention-grabbing title I’ve selected for this particular video is, “God Kills Kittens—Sex and Christianity”. Now you’re likely wondering what it is about this topic which places cats in peril. The title is inspired by a XXXChurch marketing campaign from years ago which said, “Every time you masturbate, God kills a kitten.” Now don’t worry, this is neither biblical nor theologically accurate and no kittens were harmed in the making of this video. But this also led to one of my favorite memes ever—every time you write parallel fifths, Bach kills a kitten. Now in case you’re struggling to figure out how XXX and Church go together, know that they are an organization which, among other things, will go to porn conventions and, rather than protesting, will set up a booth inside and pass out “Jesus Loves Porn Stars” bibles. How cool is that!? If you’d like to learn more about XXXChurch and/or support them, check out their website. Now that I’ve said enough juicy words for any content filter to flag this video, let’s continue.
I’ve heard a joke that Baptists (or some other denomination) prohibit sex because it might lead to dancing. The joke is funny both because it flips things around but also due to how it captures the true paranoia regarding sex. Not only is sex “prohibited”, but many other activities are avoided as well out of fear that they might lead to sex—as though this is the worst thing in the world, to be avoided at all cost.
Regarding the evangelical fear of sex, the first thing which comes to mind for me is what has become known as “purity culture”. This is the term used to refer to an evangelical movement in the 90’s and 2000’s which encouraged young people to abstain from sex until marriage. The first book you’ll most frequently hear blamed for this is “I Kissed Dating Goodbye” by Josh Harris. This book became very popular… and equally hated. Seriously, I’ve never experienced people hate a book more passionately than this one. But I believe the blame is somewhat misplaced. “I Kissed Dating Goodbye” captured the conservative Christian view on dating and sex more than it did create it. Harris was only 21 when he wrote the book, too young to have adequately developed his own views on the subject. (In case you’re curious, Harris married not long after the book was published and moved on with his life, dating no longer being personally relevant. It wasn’t until a couple of years ago that he began to revisit and re-evaluate the topic through a documentary made about the influence the book had.)
In reality, the Southern Baptists are a more likely culprit. If you are unfamiliar, the Southern Baptists are the largest protestant denomination in the U.S. and are basically the flag bearers of conservative evangelicalism. It was Lifeway—the publish division of the Southern Baptist Convention, which came up with the idea for “True Love Waits”, a campaign to encourage young people to pledge to abstain from sex until marriage. But though this may have been the beginning of “purity culture”, this wasn’t the root of evangelicals’ fear of sex. To find the real source, we must go back. Much, much further back. All the way back to the 4th and 5th century.
At that time there was a theologian named Augustine or Augustine depending on who is speaking. Augustine is arguably the most influential theologian in history—at least in western Christianity—outside of biblical authors. It so happens that Augustine believed sexual passion—sexual desire itself—was evil. [Pause] This is why Roman Catholics are to this day against contraception. Seriously. Part of our modern-day controversy over healthcare in the U.S. has to do with the beliefs of a guy who lived 1600 years ago.
Where did Augustine get this notion from? Asceticism became popular in early Christianity. You may have heard of the “desert fathers”—early Christians who went out into the wilderness attempting to live with almost nothing. Significant influences in this were likely Greek philosophy and strict Roman social order more than they were scripture and Judaism. Plato and other philosophers separated the physical world (including our bodies) from ideas, believing the latter to be higher. Gnostics ran with this, holding the belief that the spiritual realm is higher than the physical and that the physical would eventually cease, leaving only the spiritual. Prior to becoming the theologian we know, Augustine was influenced by Gnosticism and the Manicheans who believed that sexual desire was innately evil. Though Augustine left Manicheism, he obviously continued to share their views of sex. You see, if you separate the body and believe it to be lessor, then one’s natural desires seem to get in the way of “higher” pursuit of God. Even now, pastors and other Christians will sometimes say things which sound highly spiritual but which aren’t necessarily correct.
Okay, fast-forward back to the future… er… back to purity culture. Some Christian leaders were concerned that young people were becoming less… moral. They were also concerned over statistics showing increases of teen pregnancy and STDs, etc. Furthermore, there was concern about how casual sex could lead to heartbreak and other consequences. Arguably, their intentions weren’t bad. However, the methods used to encourage young people to pursue sexual abstinence were flawed to the point where they arguably did more harm than good.
First of all, the primary emphasis of purity culture was simply “Sex outside of marriage is bad, waiting until you’re married to have sex is good.” While it may not have been intentional, what happened in reality is that this led by extension to also mean anyone who has had sex outside of marriage is bad while those who haven’t are good. You see in my experience, conservative evangelical Christianity values morals and their beliefs more than they do people. There is paranoia that association with “a sinner” may lead oneself to likewise sin. Now there is truth to the idea that you’ll tend to behave similarly to those you are around. But this evangelical paranoia leads to people being judged as to whether they are “good” or not. Good people are accepted and bad people are distanced. This is classic cultural shaming in attempt to achieve conformity. In reality, this is very unhealthy because it leads people living in this culture to either put on a mask of conformity, hiding any part of themselves perceived to be unacceptable, or it places a huge cloud of shame, condemnation, and rejection on those who can’t or don’t conform. Hypocrite was a term meaning “actor” and is one of the things Jesus was most critical of.
In purity culture, there was also little to no teaching about sex apart from “don’t do it until you’re married”. The topic of sex was largely taboo apart from this which also led to a subconscious impression that sexuality is shameful. Again, the “evangelical fear of sex” meant a fear of talking about it for fear that it might spark the idea in someone’s mind, eventually leading to the act. The toxic shame has been one of the worst legacies of purity culture. Unfortunately, from what I’ve heard there are many people who have had significant challenges with sex in their marriage because of the shame associated with it. This was another unintended consequence. It’s true that purity culture said that sex within marriage is good. However, the subconscious part of the brain where shame lives is not aware of one’s marital status. Sex was so closely linked with shame that some people struggle to shake this association even in marriage.
Additionally, by focusing on it, purity culture over emphasized sex. In so doing, they ironically made a same mistake as the mainstream culture they were trying to distance themselves from. The mainstream culture often views sex as the ultimate experience. In trying to encourage young people to wait, purity culture hung out the incentive of a good marriage. In other words, the sex and good marriage would be “worth the wait”. One problem with this is that it made a happy marriage the reward for abstinence rather than integrity or character as the goal. Additionally, within purity culture, marriage was assumed. A subsequent unintended consequence could be a sense of entitlement—feeling deserving of a fulfilling marriage if one did wait. Purity culture never expected nor provided guidance for dealing with extended singleness or challenges within marriage. Yet these things can be a part of real life. Life can be complicated and bad things happen at times regardless of merit. I think conservative religious people try to find a sense of control through morality. At the very least in the case of purity culture, the message was, “If you act right, things will go well; if you act wrong, things will go wrong for you.” (This also makes it easy to judge people—if things are going wrong, it must be their fault and therefore they deserve it.) However, we know real life isn’t this simple. The bible certainly acknowledges that at times life goes well for those doing wrong while it goes poorly for those who are doing everything right.
Purity culture also reduced sexuality to just intercourse. From what I always hear, the first lesson about sexuality is that it’s about more than just sex. It’s about our desire to connect with others and the beauty in the world. Our sexuality is a fundamental part of who we are. So in some way, expressing our sexuality is a part of being a healthy, whole human being. (Now for those of you who are concerned, I’m not saying we have to go around having sexual intercourse.) Exactly what does it mean to express healthy sexuality outside of intercourse? I’m still trying to understand this question myself. Healthy sexuality—and being a person of integrity in general—is more about practicing values such as love, peace, patience, etc. more so than following rules. In fact, people misunderstand Jesus’ statement in the sermon on the mount when he says, “If you look at a woman lustfully, you commit adultery.” Because of Christians’ history with sex, we think lust is merely thinking about sex with a person. So we think Jesus is saying that even thinking about and/or desiring sex is a sin, defining a new rule for us to follow. This is an example of the problem of ignoring context. In reality, the point Jesus is making in this portion of the Sermon on the Mount is that a person doesn’t make themselves righteous by merely holding to the letter of the law. It’s the spirit of the law which counts.
If you’re still watching, you may be asking, “So, what are the rules regarding sex? What does the Bible say?” Evangelicals have rightly been criticized for making huge deals about certain sins while ignoring others almost completely. At the same time, the Bible does say a lot about sex. In the New Testament, there are several example lists of sins; items related to sex are mentioned more frequently than any other. So on one hand, it seems that Christian have some legitimate source for the emphasis on sex. In the Old Testament, there are quite a few rules regarding sex, many of which may seem odd to us today. However, understanding the New Testament reveals that we’re to live by the Spirit, not by rules—new or old.
One of the first Christian controversies was how Jewish non-Jewish Christians needed to act in order to be Christian. Did all Christians need to follow the entirety of the rules in the Old Testament? The conclusion they came to, recorded in Acts 15, is no, they do not. Nevertheless, they had four things which non-Jewish Christians were instructed to follow, one of which was to abstain from sexual immorality. And what is sexual immorality? Well, this isn’t necessarily clearly defined—more assumed. But here’s the thing: people often seek rules because rules are easy. This might sound strange, but consider it. If there is not a clear rule regarding a situation, we have to think about it, consider, debate, and try to figure out how to best apply principles which frequently compete with one another. By comparison, having a rule to apply would seem easy. It doesn’t require much thought. And the real motivation behind it is once again control. Christian can easily assume—even without realizing it—that things will go well if they hold to the rule and badly if they don’t.
Here’s the thing: I think that Christian can want and think that everything is black and white as though there is a clear line running down the middle. However, in reality I believe it’s more like a playing field. There are boundaries marking areas which are clearly out of bounds. But there is also a lot of room to play. God didn’t create a world where everything is set, black and white, effectively putting us in a test to see if we’ll stay of the right side—a test we’re destined to fail. No, instead, God created a world in which we have space to play, to make our own choices within the given boundaries.
I think that within marriage, the guidelines for sex are that so long as it’s private, consensual, and doesn’t involve other people, a couple are free to explore. The goal should be loving one’s spouse. Now outside of marriage… will sex ruin you’re life? In some extreme cases, yes. It also can potentially lead to lifelong negative consequences in many other ways. However, in real life, a person might be quite sexually active and not experience any significant negative consequences. Meanwhile, a person who does everything “right”, waiting for marriage, etc. may well experience significant challenges in their marriage—if they even marry at all. Again, in the real world, the unfortunate truth is that sometimes good people experience heart wrenching trails while things seem to work out for others who’ve done everything “wrong”. I don’t think this is to say it’s a complete craps shoot, it’s just that they’re aren’t guarantees. We should certainly strive to do what is best, we should always try to do what’s right, but we can give ourselves and others grace when we fail. We can give others grace rather than judgement when we realize that if something is going poorly for them, it’s not necessarily their own fault (though it can be).
Because of my evangelical background, I can already hear people complaining that I haven’t been adamant enough, laying down law regarding sex. I think evangelicals want to emphasize the rules in part because they recognize that actions have consequences. And yes, actions do have consequences. A person who does whatever they feel like all the time and shouldn’t expect not to experience any negative consequences. However, life is complicated and therefore one cause does not always lead to the same effect in every situation. Furthermore, it seems that evangelicals have blown the potential consequences of sex out of proportion. The negative connotations about sex have been so pounded into people’s heads that they’ve literally expected they were going to die after having sex for the first time.
Here’s the challenge: not every church is the same and not every person’s experience is the same. Some may have had an opposite experience where they were never told that sex may have negative consequences and wish they had been warned. Some may never have heard this topic addressed in church and wish it was. I don’t know how much it is or isn’t being taught these days, especially to young people. So I recognize there may be different perspectives on this. What we need is balance: the subject of sex should be addressed with honesty and realism. Avoiding the topic altogether or over-emphasizing one dimension such as the negative consequences both lead to significant problems.
If you’d like to learn more about this subject and/or if you are someone who grew up in purity culture and struggle with sexuality, I highly recommend this book, “Sex, God, and the Conservative Church”.