Sex and Evangelicals

99% of Fundamentalists and Evangelicals have been opposed to having sex before marriage. “Save yourself for marriage” has been the watchword. They point to passages of scripture that teach about marriage. And they point to verses that condemn “fornication.”  Fornication is a term that is used in the Greek portion of the Bible as a catch -all for any kind of disapproved sexual activity. But there aren’t a lot of verses that define what that disapproved sexual activity is. The apostle Paul disapproved of homosexuality, adultery (sex with someone married to someone else), prostitution, lewdness (undefined) and uncleanness (perhaps referring to Jewish uncleanness laws in the Law of Moses).

Notice the lack of mention of masturbation. In fact nobody in the Old or New Testaments seemed to care enough about masturbation to even mention it, even though masturbation is the most common  sexual activity in the world by far, practiced by 75% of the population, married people masturbating more than singles.

The apostle Paul seems to be relying on the Hebrew Bible to define sexual sin. The Hebrew Bible condemns bestiality, prostitution, male homosexuality, cross dressing, rape, and adultery (capital offenses), sex during a woman’s period, and sex before marriage (less severe offenses).

The punishment for sex before marriage was that the offending couple had to get married, or the young man had to pay a fine to the young woman’s father.

Most of these laws were addressed to male heads of households: “Thou shalt not covet thy neighbor’s wife.” No commandment to not covet thy neighbor’s husband.

The custom in the surrounding areas was for a man to buy his wife from the father of the bride. The parents of the bride were supposed to guarantee that she was a virgin. For this reason young people were not permitted to date for most of the period covered by the Hebrew Bible. Marriages were arranged.

This was very practical. If a young woman became pregnant, who would take care of her and her child? Forming a responsible society that took family and children seriously guaranteed that Judaism became a major force in history. Children were viewed as a great blessing. Small families were seen to not have been blessed.

There is one book that is an anomaly in the Hebrew Bible that discusses passionate sex, and that is the Song of Solomon. It is a play, perhaps a musical, with a chorus that speaks lines and a young woman with dark skin being prepared for marriage to a young handsome king. Full of lusty passages, it is used by evangelicals and especially pentecostals as an allegory of the passionate love of Christ for the church. It falls down however, when taken in the perspective of the real Solomon: who had ambassador-wives (300) and concubines (700), 1,000 women he had sex with. So this woman in this play is sharing her husband with 1,000 other women.

In the New Testament there is no mention of multiple wives as in the Hebrew Bible. And evangelicals wax eloquent about Jesus quoting the creation story (Matt 19) to tell us that marriage was created for one man with one woman: How else can a woman give herself sexually to her husband if she cannot trust that she is his one and only?

In the New Testament Greek portion of the Bible, several of the sexual and marital rules from the Law of Moses are repeated, but there is a major shift: women are starting to be mentioned as having equal rights in a marriage. The gospel of Mark reports Jesus talking about a woman divorcing her husband.   Paul says that men do not have sexual control of their own bodies, but their wives do. Wives should not deprive their husbands of sex and husbands should not deprive their wives of sex.

Conservative Christian advice columnists have repeatedly stated that the more partners a woman has before marriage, the more difficult it is for her to relax and enjoy sex with her husband later. About 3% of the population waits until marriage. While some of the cautions may be true, they leave out the fact that those who now remain virgins until marriage are often dysfunctional, with major lack of differentiation from their parents. They are emotionally reactive and, from what I have seen, end up having the worst levels of bickering with their partners after marriage. So virginity does not guarantee the marital bliss they were promised, and they feel painfully betrayed for having believed this evangelical story.

What then is God’s will for unmarried people today about sex? I cannot answer that question.

However I can make some observations: The only group of Christians successfully raising children who are virgins until marriage, and whose marriages are relatively happy are blue collar fundamentalists and pentecostals. Key word: blue collar.  In blue collar working class families (construction workers, technicians, food industry, transportation) it is fine to have babies at age 19 years old. So to get married at 18 years old is encouraged, and to have 4 children is also encouraged. These blue collar families tend to support 1950s values: an obedient wife who stays home, mostly, is poor, and devotes herself to raising lots of children. The entire congregation becomes a support system to encourage these young teens, and then young married adults with lots of children.

Mark-RegnerusMark Regnerus wrote that evangelical teens have the same amount of sex as teens in the general population, 97% have sex before marriage, but they have more shame and guilt about it. The average evangelical teen starts having sex at 15 years old. Why? Because most evangelical parents will not condone their children getting married until they are 25 years old. Ten years of virginity is unfathomable to these teens, so everyone just looks the other way. Most teens stop attending church.

Few self-respecting upper middle class families can tolerate their 19 year old son or daughter getting married. They see them as being condemned to a life of blue collar poverty. Status is powerful in American society. College is shamed into our children’s psyches from way before first grade. Nothing can get in the way of a college education: not marriage, not pregnancy, not sex and not our evangelical faith. If an evangelical girl gets pregnant, 95% of them get an abortion, even though they believe that abortion is murdering a baby. (The same percentage of women in evangelical churches have had abortions as in the general population.) Dropping out of college to become a poor futureless mother is too much of a shame burden for evangelical middle class and upper middle class women, and their parents are often the ones who urge them to get an abortion, against all their values.

DiefendorfSarah Diefendorf did her PhD thesis on small support groups of young men wanting to remain virgins until marriage. These groups occur in intense churches who meet at least 4 hours per week, and who encourage extremely traditional 1950s values. She said the the small support groups were powerful, but ended abruptly at marriage. The men felt lost and confused about how to deal with their problems in marriage with no support group.

Sara Moslener wrote Virgin Nation, a book about how the sexual purity movements in evangelicalism is more about explaining our fears than about sexual purity.

So what is the answer? There probably is no one answer. But this is true: Our system is broken. The members of evangelical churches are too full of shame to be able to support each other around figuring out a sexual morality for today.

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About Mark

I was raised in the conservative non-institutional churches of Christ and attended Florida College in Tampa, Florida. I served as a minister for 8 years in the non-institutional churches of Christ, and 4 years at a mainline church of Christ in Vermont.
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6 Responses to Sex and Evangelicals

  1. garycummings says:

    Mark,
    That is a great post about sex and evangelicals. I grew up in a non-christian home. They were not pagans, just normal working class folks. My dad was retired military and an aircraft inspector after he retired. My mother worked when he was laid off at a local drugstore. That being said it was just an average working class home. I never had any sex education at home. In the 6th grade our class was divided by gender one day and we got “the lecture:,It was basically “boys have penises and girls have vaginas. They are for producing children children after marriage. Keep them apart until marriage.” This was in the 1950’s.

    Then at the age of 17, I got saved while attending a Baptist Church. Then a year later I wound up in the COC. At Fort Worth Christian College for 2 years, I saw that most of the guys there, who were raised in the COC were the most sex crazed. They tried to push the envelope as far as they could. The girls raised in the COC were told, to save themselves for marriage, and had to be AFTER graduation from college. The girl I dated for a couple of years was raised in the COC, and we were serious, but she said we had to get married after she graduated from college, got her teaching certificate, and worked a couple of years. She wanted me to wait 7 years after graduation. We did hug and kiss and that was all. I was a virgin and so was she. We were dedicated to not going “all the way”. I had never even masturbated, and did not even know what that meant, as I had had zero sex education at home. I never even saw my mom and dad kiss, except once a year on her birthday.

    So, my girl friend and I broke up when we got to ACU. I was tired of having to listen to “7 years of waiting” just like Jacob in the Bible. I started dating other young women. Then in my senior year I met my wife to be. We got married after I graduated, I went to Colorado or preach. She decided
    to marry me rather than finish her BS degree. We got married. Our wedding night was a disaster. It took a week or so to get things kind of right. She would only be naked around me only for the act of sex. Then the gown went back on. She never enjoyed sex, and would start fights to avoid sex. She thought it was unnatural to be naked. I was only allowed to touch her during sex. Other times I got got hand slapped. We moved back to Abilene so I could do my Alternative Service
    and start graduate school.

    The more I questioned the COC teaching, the less sex I was allotted. One day she left and moved back to her mother. We had some counseling. She said being naked with a man was so hard for her, She did not even know that men had nipples, She was raised to think that sex was only to procreate, and not to be enjoyed by the woman. She said she would only have sex with me, because “men have to have it.” She moved back, she sexual refusal continued, and one day she left. We had sex that morning which was unusual. She then got up and took a shower. Her bags, she had packed the night before. She said she was leaving for good, and the sex was a parting gift.

    That was my experience of being married to a woman raised in the Churches of Christ. I know that is probably not typical of all COC marriages, but it fits Mark’s post to a Tee.

    After she left, I discovered masturbation, and always felt guilty about it. Later I remarried to a wonderful woman was not shy about sex or nudity. Since then I have studied a lot about sexuality and nudity. I spent 40 years in the medical field and that helped me place nudity in a non-judgemental manner. Last summer we went to Germany and I visited German spas, and they had mandatory coed nudity. I saw nothing wrong with that, It was just natural and non-sexual. The evangelical churches have a lot to learn. I met a guy on line named Pastor David, RN. He is an OB nurse, and has delivered 1,000;s of babies. He is used to the naked human body without moral judgements. He has a site called “My chains are gone.” He is non-judgemental about masturbation and nudity. He does believe that natural human nudity is not automatically pornographic. He teaches that the cure for porn is nudity in a healthy context of family and social nudity. There is a lot to learn from this man.

    Anyway, I do appreciate Mark;s post-Thanks, Gary.

  2. Jim says:

    Hey Mark: I used to belong to the Los Angeles Church of Christ, in the North San Fernando sector They kicked me out of their congregation for “non-biblical reasons.” I have since been reaccepted back into the congregation at the Westside Church of Christ (Santa Monica, Culver City). I am still a Disciple, and find that living my life separate from a Church that is rather controlling, tends to be much more spiritually fulfilling, anyway.

    Thank you so very much for all your research on this subject of sex. I “hear” a lot of areas where the “Bible is silent” in your observations. I would agree 200% with you.

    I have been thinking a lot about, “What God thinks of our view on Sex,” over the past few months, as well … and I would like to add, “In Genesis, when Adam and Eve were created,” now remember, this was before the Original Sin, “God told them, ‘Be fruitful and multiply.'” God did not give them any guidelines, in addition to His command. Just simply, “Be fruitful and multiply.”

    With our knowledge of how prophylactics are used, the only additional item God might have been alluding to, would be, “You are free to go and get as much sexual experience, as you feel you need.” Additional problems are only experienced by people who don’t think through “non-married” sexual situations. If male / female teens are made aware of the proper way to have orgasms (masturbation, actual sex with the use of birth control) … I think that would better prepare them for future marriage. And, most likely, they wouldn’t experience dysfunctional situations- when they remain virgins until they are married.

    This also goes on to the issue of people who married, but got divorced. They are not virgins for their second time of marriage. Does that make it wrong for them to want to get remarried ? How do you think God views them ?

    Now, I think humans are the products of their own downfall. It is true that there are morals that keep many people out of the “guilt pool.” Many unnecessary beliefs, though, cause more people to feel guilty about themselves, than what I actually think God intended.

    You are absolutely correct … there is no mention of the word “Masturbation” in the Bible. No where does it say it is wrong. “Sexual Immorality” is “sex without self control.” If you pre-think through an opposite-sex sexual situation … and use protection(s) where necessary … I believe people can experience sexual situations the way God intended His creation of the “orgasm” to be experienced.

    One more thing … God created males / females with the ability of being able to “self-create” an orgasm. When we have “self-created” orgasms, we are doing nothing more than experiencing the pleasurable feeling of what God created for us. What a great stress reliever ! Nobody gets hurt. Why do people feel so bad about having one ?

    God created our ability to have an orgasm … why should we feel so ashamed about having one ?

  3. garycummings says:

    Orgasms are great and we all need them. When intercourse is not available for whatever reason, masturbation is always there for yourself or your spouse. I am not sure what to do when neither a guy or his wife is unable to perform on him. What is left?

  4. Back to the article, she has no solution to the problem. Middle class families don’t want their kids married before age 25, so the church looks the other way at sex before marriage, co-habitation, and abortion, because it is normal to want to have a physical relationship with somebody at that age. Don’t forget, prime childbearing age for women is between ages 18 and 25. So what does that tell us? I got married at 17, still married 46 years later. This problem seems not to be an organized religion problem, it seems to be a middle-class mores and values problem. Parents want kids to put off marriage as long as possible, then they’re shocked when young women get pregnant out of marriage.

    When I was young, it was common for girls like me to get married right out of high school. (I was 17, but I had graduated h.s.) But then, we were working class girls. We got married, got a job to help out, quit when we had kids, went back to work when the kids were grown. That was common.

    They always used to tell us even back then that teen marriages almost always ended in divorce. But I know plenty of people married young like me and are still together. I’ll bet they were talking about teen marriages where the girls was pregnant and had to quit high school, and maybe the guy, too. That would be a bad way to start out. But, if you’re through school, why not? Lots of those marriages lasted. (These days, no marriages seem to last, no matter how young or old the people are, we live in a different era.) Ellie Rae

    • Gary Cummings says:

      Ellie Rae,
      I hear what you say. I was in love at 19 to my COC girlfriend. I really wanted to marry her then/ Her mother gave us a lecture that nothing will happen marriage wise till she graduates from college. Then the girlfriend added stipulations (if we did) that I would have to wait for 7 years, just like Jacob in the Bible AFTER she graduated to prove my love.
      We are chaste young lovers, and all we did was kiss. But I do no think it is natural to ask people in their sexual years to delay marriage for 10 years. Then we expect them to be virgins till they marry? That does not happen. People have sex (unprotected because of guilt), and then they have an abortion or bear the child. The father usually signs away his parental rights and the grandparents wind up adopting and raising the child. We do love in a different era.

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