By virtue of being single, I am largely underrepresented when it comes to an evangelical approach to sexuality.
As one who grew up in church, I can’t count the number of times I’ve heard it announced that it’s time to do that series again: a series or message on sex or marriage or love or commitment or something like it. It’s usually announced in late winter to most inconveniently coincide with Valentine’s Day.
The series is always for married people, because marriage is what makes it ok for us Christians to talk about sex.
But rather than acknowledge that not everyone is in the same stage of life and that some messages won’t apply to the whole room—and that that’s ok and part of learning from a greater community—there is always at least one message or message segment explicitly reserved, “for the singles.” This is usually preached by a married, male pastor, who met his current wife of 20-plus years when they were 17 or at Bible college or both. This is not the most accessible medium for the 30-year-old listeners hoping to not have to compete over the new single person they spotted ring-less in the third row. Nor is the contrived moment when the pastor tries to youthfully get all the singles to wave or clap or give a shout in order to be identified in the room, because in our searches for our soul mates it actually does dawn on us to look around the church we attend.
And the message can be summed up in one word: wait!
It might be said in other ways: Sex isn’t for you (yet), pray for a spouse, if you’ve already had sex God will forgive you, porn is destructive, masturbation is selfish, imagine the gift you will be for someone one day, etc., etc. Seldom discussed are matters of rape, consent, abuse or issues of gender, though those conversations dominate our media feeds nearly every day. Some more recent iterations and some braver pulpit-eers may broach the subjects of sexual orientation, affairs, pornography, and the all-encompassing word for everything uncomfortably sexual—“lust”—but all of this is targeted at essentially one audience, and it’s not the one statistics reveal to be growing in the church and the world: singles without marriage on the horizon.
Because, in church, you’re either married or not-yet-married.
Unless of course you have the gift of celibacy, which few seem to think they possess. That idea comes from the New Testament where Paul states we are better off staying single and serving the Lord full time, but if we can’t stay celibate then, “…it is better to marry than to burn with passion” (1 Corinthians 7:9).
One damned verse and for years Christians have tried to tie abstinence in a bow without discussing what is inside the package.
Instead, any ounce of sexual desire is understood as a disqualification of that gift, rather than a part of managing it. So, to sum up, people who aren’t horny feel like they should be nuns and priests, and people who are horny feel like they have a spiritual justification for not having to spend another second of their lives unwed. Many give up all together and begin their walk away from a life of faith over the issue, or at the very least decide any spiritual or moral discussion of a conservative sexual ethic is antiquated, and must no longer apply.
Here’s the thing, I don’t actually have a problem with Christians considering sex to be for marriage only, but I have a huge problem with the idea that it is being saved for marriage!
For years and years of witch burning and scarlet lettering, chastity rings and teen purity conferences, commitment ceremonies and courtship weekends, Christianity has been branding virginity as “saving yourself for marriage,” and the ultimate gift that you can give a spouse someday. Such preservation conjures up the imagery of currency where sex is something to be saved up and spent on a future spouse, and other expenditures diminish the total gift to be allotted.
It may also give way to an idea of a bank account or piggy bank that may eventually burst if you don’t find something to spend its contents on (yup, that’s a full-on sexual metaphor).
That’s all fine and well if you end up getting married, but what if you don’t? What are you going to do with all that money just burning a hole in your pocket? (yes, another metaphor.) So, if you have money in your sex bank, you should spend it on marriage, if you don’t have money in your sex bank, it’s because you’re destined to some kind of monastic living, leaving us a third category that remains unaddressed in any church I’ve ever gone to: money in your sex bank and nothing to spend it on!
The key flaw in this narrative is the embedded assumption that marriage is inevitable, when the reality many singles face today is that coupledom may never happen for them, or it may happen at a life stage well beyond one’s sexual prime.
For some, marriage may have already happened and since failed or ended. So, what are you saving sex for if you never get married (or feel like you never will)? What are you saving it for if you’ve previously been married and now accrue sex currency at an alarming rate? Or if you already spent a lot of it on past relationships? Or if your church’s definition of marriage differs from another denomination’s? What’s the point of any purity discussion if I’m not doing damage to a future spousal relationship?
For the Christian, sex inside marriage is God’s design, but saving sex is bad theology.
It fails to acknowledge that impurity is destructive regardless of relationship status. It can also lead to the deception that sex within marriage is perfect (it’s not), or that sex outside of marriage cannot be redeemed (it can). Saving myself for marriage has me constantly defined by a future, unguaranteed version of myself—as a spouse— so that my identity hinges on how I engage sexually.
And for those of us who actually choose to be celibate, we are shamed no matter where we turn:To the world we are prudes; to the church, incomplete.
Perhaps the most damaging impact of this broken theology is that when urges, desires and frustrations emerge in the lives of single people, God is immediately cast as, “The Withholder,” who is robbing us of the gifts of marriage and sex, rather than as the good, gift-giving Father who desires our abundant life.
We need to recognize that, somewhere along the way, we lost sight of the bigger picture.
Purity isn’t about our connection to a sacred text, our relationships with other people, or even about our relationships with ourselves—though that too is often overlooked—it is first and foremost about our relationship with God. Sex and marriage aren’t rewards for purity. The reward for purity is clarity about the will of God for your life.
“…in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God—this is your true and proper worship. Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is—his good, pleasing and perfect will.” (Romans 12:1-2)
God has a broader definition of you than who you choose to sleep with.
A theology where all sexual behaviour is brought into the context of honouring such a purpose is far more freeing and inclusive, than a “wait for a spouse” creed. Sex is a gift, but celibacy is also a gift: from God to you, from you to him, and from you to yourself. God isn’t saving you up for some future wedding day, or a specific relationship, he has plenty for you to do right now and wants to lavishly pour into an overflowing cup. We are not waiting for marriage or waiting for sex. We wait for the Lord and his plan whatever it may be.