purity-ring*Warning: This will be a two-part rant. Please comment and argue as you see fit!*

Christians are bad at sex.

I’m not referring to technique. I’m talking about how Christians are handling the issue.

Let me pull a pastor’s trick and tell you a story to illustrate what I mean.

I once danced with a nice, shy, college-aged Christian-homeschooled young man.  The dance called for close contact because it was a tango.  But he, with much stuttering over a rigid explanation, opened his “frame” and held me out and away from  his body in something closer to a waltz pose.  You could have fit far more than a Bible between us—heck, you could have fit the last two Harry Potter novels in there.

As a result, it was difficult for me, as a female “follow” partner, to dance with him. The communication between our bodies was essentially severed but for his hands—trained strictly on my shoulder blades and upper arms. The center of gravity that was supposed to be created by the mutual lean-in of both partners had shifted outward into something almost centripetal as we went into a loose orbit. When we stepped our way precariously around the room, I felt like I was in constant danger of tripping him, falling backward and looking silly, or worse, actually getting injured.

And while I’d done my homework and had read all the sexual purity literature that he had—and therefore knew directly where he was coming from theologically—I wanted to shake him for the way he was acting: Like I had the plague of sin all over me.  Like he didn’t trust himself enough to control himself.  Like there was something unholy in the slight buzz of curiosity that you always get when you dance with a stranger. Like Jesus himself was going to throw a fit on the floor if we danced the tango like our teacher instructed us to.

So I did something rather awful, and I’ll confess it to you now (and offer him a belated apology, if he reads this).  I teasingly told him that, even if we danced chest-to-chest, he still wouldn’t be actually touching me. I might have mentioned that I was wearing a padded bra as a kind of barrier.  He turned a brilliant shade of red, and I tried not to laugh at his show of innocence.  It was like I was talking to a giggling tweenager, not a twenty-something man.  It made me feel like a wordly Jezebel, a Herodias, and a conniving, dangerous little Delilah all at the same time.  But when I laughed, I felt God laughing with me, and I knew I wasn’t being evil, even if I was being a bit of a snit. I was on the verge of making an important point (which I’ll get to in the next section).

Ruth performed a live tango with her college ballroom partner last fall.  They were too focused on not screwing up the choreography to even think about screwing . . . um, around.

Ruth performed a live tango with her college ballroom partner last fall. They were too focused on not screwing up the choreography to even think about screwing . . . um, around.

In spite of my attempts at humor, he still refused to dance closer. We fumbled about awkwardly until the song ended and I was free at last to find a male “lead” who would dance with me without giving into any dance-inappropriate hang-ups.  I felt instantly relieved when I slid into close-embrace with a man who wasn’t scared stiff (bad pun, I know, but I’m keeping it) by my sinful girly parts.  As I relaxed in the arms of my new male lead –practically melted in them, really—and allowed myself to work over the steps with confidence, I realized that my mind was letting go of a surprising amount of angry tension.

I danced awhile in deep thought. Why was I angry?  I knew I wasn’t upset with the young man.  I quite liked him, really.  It wasn’t him, no, I just hated how he’d seemed so shaken, how it made me feel, how it made him seem . . .

Yes, I was mad at his fear.

To be specific, I was mad at the spirit of fear that I’d felt erupting from his pores.  I was angry that someone had taught him that risking sensuality was worse than risking putting someone in danger of personal injury.  I was even more upset that this boy—no, man—and a man of an age when he should be pursuing marriage—was so scared of my sexuality that he could hardly hold a discussion with me.  I was angry that the weight of his own church-conditioned anxiety was such that he was rendered inconsiderate as a dance partner (without meaning to), incapable of leading the moves (as a result of the distance between us), and insubordinate to the dance instructor’s directions (because a tango involves some tangling of limb from time to time as a rule).  Far from being a good example or making a statement about purity, he was simply, conspicuously, hard to dance with.  I danced with him anyway, though, because I understood him.

I wanted to understand better, though. I tried to imagine how young Christians raised to this degree of sexual paranoia by their parents ever manage to lower their guard and achieve real intimacy with a future spouse.  I wondered if their innocence goes hand-in-hand with the kind of ignorance that led a super-Christian girl I know to get herself pregnant on her honeymoon just because she didn’t know how to properly use the Pill and didn’t openly communicate with her mother or husband on this blush-worthy topic.  It was sheer stupidity, coupled with naiveté, on her part, and I blame the situation entirely on the cloistered lifestyle she’d been brought up in that reinforced the idea that sexuality—and especially its aspects of contraceptives and family planning—was too sinful a topic to broach.

I think that’s why we need to be wary of the flip side of pursuing sexual purity, especially if we go at it (bad pun again) like a Pharisee.  One can feel so much pride in one’s attempts at innocence that that pride overcomes one’s intelligence and thwarts God’s biological design for humankind.    When that happens, I can’t imagine Jesus applauding us.  I think he does a massive face-palm maneuver and shakes his head at us.

The Law vs. the Lawgiver’s Intentions

Let’s talk about the Pharisees and their pride in following all the rules.

I’m going to ask for a show of hands, here. How many of you remember the story about Jesus out in the grain (possibly corn) field, hand-picking from the crop with his hungry disciples on a (gasp!) Sabbath day (in Luke 6, Matthew 12, and Mark 2)?  Do you remember how snippy the Pharisees got with him?  Anyone?

I’ll relate the incident as it appears in Mark 2: 23-28, just to refresh your memory:

One Sabbath Jesus was going through the grainfields, and as his disciples walked along, they began to pick some heads of grain. The Pharisees said to him, “Look, why are they doing what is unlawful on the Sabbath?” He answered, “Have you never read what David did when he and his companions were hungry and in need? In the days of Abiathar the high priest, he entered the house of God and ate the consecrated bread, which is lawful only for priests to eat. And he also gave some to his companions.” Then he said to them, “The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath. So the Son of Man is Lord even of the Sabbath.” (NIV)

Matthew Henry’s Concise Commentary can give us a few reasons why Jesus retained his righteousness in this instance (hint: it wasn’t because he was God and could therefore bend his law if he chose [which God wouldn’t], it was because he was also a man):

Mt. 2:23-28–The Sabbath is a sacred and Divine institution; a privilege and benefit, not a task and drudgery. God never designed it to be a burden to us, therefore we must not make it so to ourselves. The sabbath was instituted for the good of mankind, as living in society, having many wants and troubles, preparing for a state of happiness or misery. Man was not made for the sabbath, as if his keeping it could be of service to God, nor was he commanded to keep its outward observances to his real hurt. Every observance respecting it is to be interpreted by the rule of mercy.

In the case of sexual purity, I have a strange feeling that God’s rules about guarding our eyes and not lusting after our non-spouses aren’t meant to be a burden to us, either.   Those rules, like the Sabbath, are God-instituted in order to keep our marriages sacred, our families intact, our society at peace, and our relationship to God unsullied by illicit affairs that become gods to us and entangle us in devastating sin (King David learned this lesson with Bathsheba, an affair that just went from bad to worse to worser still).

One glance at our biology will tell you that man not only wasn’t made for the Sabbath, he also wasn’t made for rules about sexual purity (although some might argue based on the bond-creating “cuddle” hormones released during sex that we are made for the monogamous sexual pairing of marriage).  But God made these rules for us in order to help protect us from the spiritual danger of our own, often indiscriminate, sexual hunger.

That being said, I think we need to look very closely at what sort of thing actually constitutes sexual sin, rather than following a set of well-intentioned but rather heavy and dangerously impossible rules for dating and relationships, like those delineated in popular sexual purity literature.

But how, exactly, do we figure out what is God’s definition of sexual sin, and what is simply just breaking a human set of rules?

The best place to start is , well, with God’s starting place for judging all of mankind: the heart (1 Samuel 16:1-13, Psalm 139:23-24).

Christ reasserts that the heart is the starting point for defining sexual sin when he says, “You have heard that it was said, ‘Do not commit adultery.’ But I tell you that anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart” (Matt. 5:27-28, NIV).

Intention, intention, intention—that’s what paves the road to Hell.  Bad intent was why Joseph ran from Potiphar’s wife: because she was clearly trying to seduce him, and Joseph knew it (Gen. 39-40).

But what about our good intentions? Is the old (non-scriptural) proverb true regarding those? Do they also pave the road to Hell?

I highly doubt it. I was not trying to seduce my partner, just trying to dance!  And he, of course, was too concerned about his future wife’s feelings to be seduced by me, in any case.  If we went on intention alone to judge both sides, tangoing properly in close-embrace position wasn’t going to send us to Hell or ruin our future sex lives with our spouses.  If we’d stopped to consider it, we’d both have realized that the paranoid distance between really was unnecessary for holiness, just like the Pharisees would have realized that picking a few handfuls of grain to fill an empty belly (or thirteen bellies) on the Sabbath wasn’t an act committed to dishonor God.  The Pharisees, caught up in the power of their rule making and ruled by spiritual paranoia, could only see evil behind some innocent snacking.

Knowledge, Wisdom, and Power

I bordered on redundancy in the last paragraph with my use of two forms of the word “paranoid,” but that’s becasue I think “paranoid” is a good word to describe a lot of young Christians who have joined the Joshua Harris/Elisabeth Elliot/Eric-and-Leslie Ludy purity party these days.  And while there’s nothing ever wrong with being careful, some of the extremes taken in the current purity movement to keep people from any form of intimacy before marriage goes beyond the the call of innocence and leaves some of its followers in a perilous realm of ignorance about sexuality, its charms, its God-given uses, and its worldly abuses.

I can see some hackles going up over this one. Some of you may be thinking what I hope you’re not thinking.  But let me churn out some scripture that will point you to where I’m actually going with this.

In Matthew chapter ten, when Jesus sent out the Twelve, he told them:

“I am sending you out like sheep among wolves. Therefore be as shrewd as snakes and as innocent as doves.  Be on your guard against men. . .” (vv. 16-17, NIV)

He then goes on to tell them all of the dangers they will face as proclaimers of the gospel, including all of the evil things that can be done, will be done, and might be done against them.

“Brother will betray brother to death, and a father his child . . .”  (v. 21 ff).

The list of awful warnings that follows is very long, but you get the idea. Jesus educated his followers about what people can and might do so that they weren’t caught off guard.  They could be as “shrewd” (cunning, in some translations) as the predatory serpents of the world without actually engaging in their vices, like doves flying above the earthly masses.

Jesus wanted them to know what was out there. But sometimes, God’s people don’t know what’s going on, and they get caught in snares of ignorance.  The prophet Hosea called out the priests of his day who encouraged ignorance of God, his laws, and his blessings, in his day, proclaiming with the voice of God in Hosea chapter four:

“My people are destroyed from lack of knowledge. Because you have rejected knowledge, I also reject you as my priests;  because you have ignored the law of your God, I also will ignore your children.” (v. 6, NIV)

Hosea goes on to explain that this lack of knowledge of God’s law led to the Jews to seek other gods for answers, and to give themselves over to sins they didn’t even know were sinful (4:10-14).  Here, ignorance of sin leads to spiritual danger.

The reverse extreme can also happen, though.  I can’t tell you how many times an exasperated Jesus would say something along the lines of “Don’t you know the scripture . . . ?”  to a Pharisee who was so caught up in making his own oppressive laws against sinning that he became ignorant of the real intent behind God’s law.  You remember how this went in the incident with the grain-picking on the Sabbath.  Jesus wasn’t about to be lectured to.  I can just imagine the eye-roll he barely managed to hide from those tassel-wearing nitpickers.

What makes Christians “bad” in the area of sex is the combination of both kinds of dangerous ignorance—of knowing too little of sin and evil, and of creating well-intentioned-but-impossible rules that defy God’s objective–a combination which, sadly, stands as common practice in today’s purity-ring wearing Christian subculture.

* * *To be continued!* * *