Having grown up in church, I’ve lost count of how often I’ve heard the announcement for the latest iteration of that series on sex or marriage or something like it. It’s always for married people, but in the name of inclusivity, one segment will be awkwardly reserved “for the singles.” It’s usually preached by a married male pastor who met his wife of 20-plus years when they were 17, or in Bible College, or both. His not-so-accessible 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, porn is destructive, masturbation is selfish, etc. but it is all targeted at one audience – singles eager to marry. These messages ignore the one audience that statistics reveal to be growing at a rapid pace – singles without marriage on the horizon – because in church, you’re either married or not-yet-married. Unless of course you are one of the few with the gift of singleness.
That idea comes from the New Testament, where Paul states that we are better off staying single and serving the Lord full time, but if we can’t stay celibate, “it is better to marry than to burn with passion” (1 Cor. 7:9). One teeny paragraph and for years Christians have used it to tie abstinence in a bow without discussing what is inside the package. Any ounce of sexual desire is understood as a disqualification of the gift, rather than a part of managing it. So people who don’t have a strong desire for sex, feel like they should be nuns and priests. While people who do have that desire, feel like they have a spiritual justification for not spending another second of their lives unwed.
THE FLAWED NARRATIVE
Before you get too nervous, I don’t 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!
Through years of witch-burning, scarlet lettering, chastity rings, teen purity conferences, commitment ceremonies and courtship weekends, Christian virginity has been branded as “saving yourself for marriage.” Virginity has become 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 allotted. In this way, desire becomes a piggy bank that bursts if we don’t find something to spend its contents on. This may be fine if you end up getting married, but what if you don’t? What are you going to do with all that money burning a hole in your pocket? 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 called to ministry (like Paul). This leaves the 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 marriage 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 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?
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 maintain our abstinence 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 sexual urges, desires and frustrations emerge in the lives of single people, God is immediately cast as, “The Withholder.” We see him as the one robbing us of the gifts of marriage and sex, rather than as the good, gift-giving Father who desires our abundant life.
A BETTER THEOLOGY OF SEX
We need to recognize that somewhere along the way we lost sight of the bigger picture. Purity isn’t just about sex, our relationships with other people, or even our relationships with ourselves. It is first and foremost about our relationship with God. Sex isn’t a reward for purity. The reward for purity is clarity about the will of God for your life (see Matt. 5:8 and Rom. 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 him 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, 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. I am not saving myself for marriage; I am (trying) to live fully in my singleness for my God.
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