Sex in Conservative Evangelical Christianity

By | July 14, 2019

Here’s a deep thought to ponder: Jesus said there will not be marriage at the resurrection, but the Bible never says there won’t be sex in “heaven”. I imagine this thought may tweak a lot of evangelical minds. In evangelical thought, sex is so tied to marriage that I expect many might struggle to consider this. But I wonder, is this actually because our view of sex and marriage is so correct and Biblical? (I acknowledge that this article is imperfect; the following may just be my impression based on my experiences, and it may not accurately reflect conservative Christianity today. That said, I think there is still some potential value in what I share.)

I’ve heard it suggested that our western theology is significantly influenced by the Greeks. Plato held that everything on earth was just an imperfect shadow of a perfect version of that thing1. Even more influential, Gnosticism held that the spiritual realm was higher than the physical2. We like to think our theology isn’t influenced by this, but isn’t the common view of heaven a detached spiritual state? Yet from what I understand, this isn’t a solid Biblical view, especially not one grounded in a Hebraic context.

I bring this up because I wonder if this hasn’t influenced our view of sex too. Perhaps it’s just me, but is it a common perception among evangelicals that there won’t be sex in heaven? Because, after all, there won’t be marriage, and isn’t sex just a lower, carnal desire? I wonder again, is this really God’s view or is this more influenced by Plato and Augustine. (Augustine may be a pillar of theology, but he arguably had an unhealthy view of sexuality that is still hurting the church so many centuries later.)3

Although I expect many evangelicals are unaware of this, at least directly, evidence shows that the conservative church’s approach to sex is broken and has been harmful to people.4 This is loaded, I understand. Evangelicals have what I call “the evangelical fear of sex”. This isn’t about arguing for sex outside of marriage. We can believe that marriage is the only context for sexual intercourse but still fumble our handling of the broader topic of sexuality. I think there are probably many evangelicals who think something like, “Well this is the truth of Biblical teaching, and yes it may be hard but it’s the truth we must emphatically defend!” It’s the “The Bible says it and that settles it!” mindset. “What more is there to talk about?” they may ask.

Here’s a thought experiment: let’s say there is a mixed gender group at a church studying sexuality. And let’s say there are a man and a woman in the group who experience some mutual attraction, go out and have sex. And let’s hold that having sex outside of marriage is a sin. The thought experiment is this: the couple has sex and it’s a sin. So what? Are they suddenly going to die of natural causes as a consequence of this act? Will God be so angry that he will smite them? Have they ruined their lives irreparably forever? If none of these is true, then what? What if—gasp—they actually enjoyed it? Are they evil? Should they be ashamed? Are they beyond God’s forgiveness? This isn’t to say that there aren’t potential consequences to sex, it’s just that the negative consequences have been way over stated in conservative Christian culture.

I ask all these questions because these are the kinds of things I’ve been taught in evangelical culture—not necessarily in so many words, but communicated nonetheless. The emphasis placed on sex in conservative Christian culture makes it seem like just about the biggest sin possible, maybe just a step down from murder. I imagine that in most church, there would be a ton of scrutiny of the above scenario with the assumption that if people had sex, it must mean that the church did something wrong. This is just one demonstration of the evangelical fear of sex.

I suggest that the evangelical church has so mishandled sex that we need to hang onto the belief that sex is only for marriage loosely until we’ve repaired the damage we’ve done and found a healthier way to teach about sex. But the fear of sex runs so deep in evangelicalism, many will not be able to accept this suggestion. Though I said nothing of the sort, many will hear it as a license for people to have sex (which BTW studies show that they’re already doing anyway to a large extent5). Or they will hear me saying that sex is not a sin which again is not what I actually said. But we can’t become healthier so long as we’re clutching those beliefs so tightly. Sex outside of marriage may be a sin, but what if the evangelical fear of sex is just as much of a sin with its own damaging consequences? (This is part of a larger problem with conservative Christianity in which avoiding sin is often made the focus of following Christ.)

Many will fear and do already fear that, if we’re not extraordinarily clear and emphasize that sex outside of a heterosexual marriage is wrong, then people might actually have sex. My response? Yeah, and so? Let’s go through the list of questions in the thought experiment above once again. Beyond that, statistics show that people are still having sex despite all of our imploring for people to turn off their sexuality.5

A lot of what I’m saying is in response to “purity culture” which at least was popular in evangelical churches. In a nutshell, parents and leaders were scared that their kids might have sex, so in order to try to keep them from sex, they promoted the idea that waiting to have sex until marriage would ensure a good marriage (at least sexually) while having sex before marriage would inevitably lead to marital problems.

One of the core assumptions you may have noticed baked into this is the message that you will get married. This is part of why one author stated that the “purity movement” had nothing to say to adults beyond the age of 236. Truly, in conservative Christian culture, marriage by a fairly young age is held up as normative and correct—a clear ideal. I’m not sure what the exact number is (I’m not aware of anyone having quantified this), but I’ll guess that about 95% of evangelical pastors and church leaders are married.

Are singles, especially older singles, valued in evangelical churches? The story I hear most often is that they are more able to serve. Is this all we value singles for? If we allow few of them to be leaders, are we truly valuing them? Or is there a perhaps unrecognized impression that marriage is the correct ideal, and therefore if some church member is not married, they aren’t fully “ideal” and are therefore less qualified, less mature and able to lead?

I’ve heard it said that we demonstrate what we value by what we celebrate. We celebrate baptisms, weddings, and babies. All of these things are good to celebrate. But to demonstrate how badly the church has handled sexuality, is an older single more likely to be proud or embarrassed about being abstinent? (If embarrassed, if may have to do more with being single than their sexual history, but in either case, the church arguably hasn’t embraced them.) Our culture has movies like The 40 year old virgin and 40 days and 40 nights, both of which communicate by their very core premise that foregoing sexual intercourse is abnormal and crazy. You know how the church has responded? With silence. In other words, it really hasn’t.

For all the condemnation of sex outside of marriage, I can’t say we’ve honored and celebrated those of us who have kept to this supposed ideal. In fact, as I’ve somewhat been communicating, the opposite is actually true. I’ve heard some Christian leaders go so far as to say that you’re living in sin if you don’t marry by thirty (or there about). While usually not that extreme, still it seems that singles are more often seen as an oddity, an aberration to be pitied more than celebrated. (And I haven’t even mentioned how we’re so “focused on the family” that even in our beliefs we only leave singles with the scraps after God and family—an approach I’d suggest is not Biblical.)

Yes, the Bible has a high sexual ethic. But there is much more to sexuality than just abstinence outside of marriage. And evangelicalism’s complete fumbling of this issue so core to who we are as human beings has left a wake of damage. (And I haven’t even mentioned the sexual struggles I’ve heard many Christians encounter even once they do get married because of the lack of teaching as to what healthy sexuality is.) Evangelicals need to let go of their irrational fear of sex (which is not the same as license) in order to begin helping people to heal, to show them the love of Christ, and to teach what healthy sexuality is.

2. These ideas come from what I’ve heard of Gnosticism and Platonic philosophy. However I would need to study further to truly understand their potential impact on Christian theology.
4. What I have in mind here is what has been called “purity culture” which is what I experienced in conservative Christianity. It’s been suggested to me that this may not apply as much today as it did in previous decades. There are no doubt a range of experiences in conservative churches, so this may be more or less true depending on one’s specific context. In any case, I’ve heard that a significant percentage of those experiencing some form of sexual dysfunction come from a conservative and/or Roman Catholic background. I’ve heard this from multiple sources over time, but for two examples, see “Unwanted” by Jay Stringer, p. 212, and “Sex, God, & the Conservative Church” chapter 1.
5. I’ve heard this a number of times of the years, but for one example, see “Sex, God & the Conservative Church” by Dr. Tina Sellers, pp. 12-13. I do want to note that statistics regarding Christians can vary significantly based on whether are classified as such based on their claim of religious affiliation verses whether their actions demonstrate active participation, etc. I haven’t studied all the statistics and their methods myself, so I can’t at this time speak to the exact degree the methods of “purity culture” did or didn’t prevent pre-marital sex.

photo by MA Fotografi, on Flickr

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