Or perhaps more specifically: let’s talk about how we talk about abstinence to unmarried Christians.
This is story is less about abstinence itself and more about Christian attitudes towards it when advising people who are not married. Here, I am going to outline two differing Christian views on abstinence by exploring the influence of two particular Christians; one from the Patristic period, and one from today. This is effectively a story about how two men – each grounded in their own culture and time period – set the church on two remarkable trajectories with her attitudes toward sex, abstinence and marriage. Although both of these characters have claimed to have life-changing turning points in their lives, as we shall see, neither managed to fully escape the cultural baggages they carried into their theologies.
So, let’s first explore the origins of the “Sex is dangerous” rhetoric:
Augustine was a North African man who famously met with God in a garden and wrote a book about it called the Confessions around 400AD. He is widely considered one of the most influential Christian thinkers after Paul, and was hugely important in systematising theologies of the Fall, the Trinity, and so on.
Augustine wrote his Confessions in his mid-forties, and at this point he had recently been made a bishop and was coming to terms with his famously shady history. Most notably for this blog post, Augustine had cohabited with a woman before he became a Christian, and was quite distressed when he had to break up with her.
Throughout his writing, Augustine gives a very honest and raw account on the power lust had over him throughout his life. For Augustine, even after converting to Christianity, his appetite for sex never really went away (big shock there), and this unfortunately skewed his theology. In an attempt to throw away his shameful fleshy tendencies, Augustine opted for a life of celibacy once he converted, and he is now quite famous for asserting that God only made sex for procreation, and that sex for pleasure was from the devil.
As such, the catholic church spent many centuries teaching that even within marriage sex can be a bad thing, and that making babies should be its sole purpose. This has caused immeasurable damage to Christians throughout the ages, simply because they were told by religious authorities that their God-given desires are actually bad and shameful.
In a nutshell, the dominant Christian view for centuries was that abstinence is good because sex is bad.
A lot of time has passed since then, and we have thankfully figured out that God does not hate sex. As Maggie Smith aptly remarks in the 2005 film Keeping Mum: “the Bible is full of sex – haven’t you noticed?“.
One would hope this would eventually happen, given that we have had the Middle Ages, a Renaissance, a Reformation, and many other cultural movements that have no doubt shifted and shaped Christianity’s attitudes to just about everything.
We now come to the surprising “Sex is THE BEST” rhetoric, stemming from the True Love Waits movement that is ever so prominent in American Evangelicalism.
The cultural background to all of this comes from the sexual Revolution of the 60s and 70s. Key influences include the Pill (which made the consequences of sex less risky), psychologists such as Freud (who wrote about the detrimental impact of sexual repression), and of course the media (playboy culture and the normalisation of pornography). The church had to respond to all of this, as abstinence until marriage was no longer the norm.
Enter the Purity movement.
The fundamental premise of this movement is that sex is really really really good if you do it God’s way. (i.e. only do it with one person in your whole life, and that person is your spouse). In other words, they are selling abstinence by selling sex. If you want the best sex ever, then take some advice from the guy who invented it (God).
This counter-revolution to the surrounding culture went on for quite a while, but it climaxed (cough) in 1997 with one of the most famous books to ever come out of the purity movement: I Kissed Dating Goodbye by Joshua Harris. Written by an unmarried 20 year old homeschooled kid from Dayton, Ohio, this book sold over 1.2 million copies, and is regarded by many Christian millennials as one of the key influencers of the purity movement.
The book promises a fulfilling sex life if you follow this simple formula: don’t have sex, don’t kiss, and don’t even hold hands until you are married. Moreover, you shouldn’t even date when looking for a potential spouse. Instead, the book advocates ‘courtship’; a model that insists on the man being the ‘pursuer’, the woman being the ‘pursued’, and the overall consent of this pursuit being granted by the woman’s father. Fundamentally, it disavows casual dating and insists that men should only pursue and get to know women whom they intend to marry.
Remember, the book asserts that these rules must be followed not just in order to please God, but also to have fulfilling sex when you are married. Virginity is key. If you do it with someone else before your spouse, well, that someone else will forever have a piece of your heart, and this will bring your marriage (and your sex life) to ruin.
This premise became so saturated in Christian culture that the word ‘purity’ became synonymous with virginity, which in turn became fundamental to Christian identity.
Many of the Millennials influenced by this movement – myself included – are now finding out the hard way that this model doesn’t actually work. We are also realising that it is fundamentally sexist and it places disproportionate emphasis on virginity being central to the Christian message.
In 2017, Harris featured in a documentary entitled I Survived I Kissed Dating Goodbye, where he faces some of his harshest critics and greatest fans, all the while questioning the central premise of his original best-seller.
Since then Harris has more recently denounced his book, as well as all the others that came after. He has apologised to those negatively affected by the movement as a whole and asked for forgiveness. He has also announced that he has separated from his wife, moved from the US to Canada, and no longer considers himself a Christian.
So much for all that then.
But where do we go from here?
On the one hand, we don’t want to align ourselves with the the idea that sex is fundamentally bad and that abstinence is a weapon we must use to combat this dangerous evil. The Songs of Solomon should be chucked out of the canon if that is the case. On the other hand, we also don’t want to buy into the idea that sex is our ultimate fulfilment, and that abstinence is our channel towards that fulfilment. Neither of these views are Biblical.
But then how do we talk about abstinence?
The Bible does talk about sex and abstinence, but it doesn’t actually say much about why, other than simply to please God. Not that we like this message. We would much prefer the assurance that sex is going to be amaaaaaaazing as long as we just hang in there for now. And if we can’t buy that extreme then we slump back into our 4th Century view that sex is a terrible evil and must never be enjoyed (especially not by women!).
But I would assert that both of these extreme views have managed to place sex over and above God. Our problem is neither sex nor abstinence; it’s idolatry.
Yes Augustine is wrong in placing sex in the category of bad; the Bible clearly commends it as a good. But let’s remember that it is a good with a little ‘g’ – not Good with a capital ‘G’. It’s not bad, but it’s not the Good (i.e. God). It’s just good. But, like all good things, they come with boundaries, and these boundaries are simply protecting it; they’re not what makes a good thing good.
If you are abstaining from sex until marriage, please note that getting married is not going to solve your porn addiction or your tendency to over-fantasise about the perfect orgasm. The purity movement has made virginity far too much of a big deal, and many people who have waited and waited and waited and then finally gotten married have been somewhat disappointed by their wedding nights.
Chill out. Sex is not an ultimate fulfilment in your life, and although abstinence might make it better (for some) in the long run, you’ll still have to work at it when you’re married and improve your techniques together.
How about we talk of abstinence (until marriage) as something that pleases God, and, like all things we do to please God, it’s not what makes you holy or ‘pure’. And of course there is grace when we fall short. But let’s make the end-goal of abstinence simply to please God and nothing more. The potential added benefits are just a side-note.
I don’t think there really is a set formula on how to ensure that your future sex life is going to be ultimately fulfilling. It probably won’t be. It will hopefully be good, but it will never be Good.
Needless to say, both of these movements were founded by imperfect individuals who are both keen to remind us that they are flawed and we should’t take their word as ultimate. Thankfully, both Augustine and Harris will be remembered more for their repentance than their sins.
James K.A. Smith’s On the Road with St Augustine (pages 92-105) tackles the issue of sex really well, and uses Augustine’s own logic when exploring his blindspot on sex.
Ethon Renoe’s blog gives some interesting and pragmatic insight on this issue (and others).
2 thoughts on “Let’s Talk About Abstinence, Baby”
This is one of the most rational, well-thought pieces regarding sex and the church I’ve read. I look forward to reading more from you.