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Fellowship of Saints and Sinners

Fellowship of Saints and Sinners

Evangelicals on Sex: “High Bars” or “Hang-Ups”?

"Happy Condom"

On most any afternoon a small ecumenical council of women convenes on the school playground: we include a converted Jew, backsliding Catholic, conservative evangelical, “spiritual but not religious” seeker and yours truly (who, if resorting to labels, would describe herself as a “feminist evangelical”).  We solve the world’s problems while mending skinned knees and changing diapers.

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The other day we were wondering which of our represented faith traditions has the biggest monopoly on guilt.  Catholics, evangelicals and Jews were all in a dead heat for first place, with the one difference being the way we talk about sex.  Jews, we agreed, at least have fewer hang-ups about the issue- and they are more apt to talk openly about their problems with guilt.  (Which probably means that in the end Catholics and evangelicals win the prize for biggest guilt trips.)

But, assuming there is a difference between “hang-ups” and “high bars” for morality, where does one begin and the other end? Sometimes I wonder if the space between these two poles is a very small one.  I’m not sure how to negotiate it exactly.  Maybe you’ll have some ideas, and I hope you  leave them here.

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A recent video put out by the National Association of Evangelicals claims that eighty percent of evangelicals are having premarital sex.  Yesterday’s article in The Huffington Post would suggest that statistics like these are signaling a change in how evangelicals talk about sex and the abortion.  The article cites, for example, the results of a survey at this month’s Q conference in Washington: when participants were asked in a session addressing how to reduce abortion whether churches should support the use of contraception among their single 20-somethings, 64 percent said “yes” while 36 percent said “no.”

If genuine, these movements in the direction of a more honest conversation that speaks to the reality of how we evangelicals are living outside the pew are welcome.  I hope they keep developing.  I hope that, as the parent of two children who not long from now in the scheme of things will be teenagers, I will have the courage to talk about this reality rather than just offer rose-colored prescriptions.

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My own introduction to this otherwise forbidden and mysterious realm consisted of a (literal) “birds-and-the-bees” book in fourth grade, followed in high school by some fear-inducing casette tapes by James Dobson.  Later in college, I remember the leader in my InterVarsity chapter standing up publicly to admit to a small sexual indiscretion (with the exception that it happened to be with someone of the same sex).  He asked for forgiveness only to be relieved of his responsibilities.  It was a bit like a scene in the movie, Saved, except that it really happened, and it wasn’t really funny.  It was downright humiliating.

Experiences like these contributed in those years to my own guilt-laden, “fumbling through” in this arena of sex and sexuality.  To be sure, the inculcation of sex’ covenantal sacredness, on the one hand, protected me from a lot of potentially unsafe and self-destructive behavior.  For that I am grateful to this day.  I instead lived vicariously through the stories of fellow swimmers and sorority sisters who would often shamelessly regale me with the details of their one-night stands.  (Incidentally, I can’t help but wonder if the jaw-dropping popularity of Lauren Winner’s book some years back had to do at least in part with the voyeuristic thrill it offered evangelicals- a chance to be titillated by Winner’s intimate revelations?  But, I digress.)

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On the other hand, this somewhat obsessive focus on bodily sexual purity at the expense of other dimensions of the Christian life also reduced the beauty and adventure of a relationship with Christ to little more than “sin management,” and my own failure to live up to the ideal in my relationship with my future husband left residues of shame and guilt around this expression of intimacy that impacted our early years of marriage.

So the question thus becomes, how do we straddle this tension of, on the one hand, lifting up sex as a beautiful, powerful, potentially soul-enlarging expression of our humanity, and letting it become a guilt-ridden hang-up that actually impedes our Christian witness? Not long ago I featured Jefferson Bethke- (another one of those now-controversial Mars Hill people, thanks to Mark Driscoll and his book on sex and marriage)-rapping about how Jesus came to abolish religion.  Here is Bethke again, this time on the subject of sexual healing.  And I must admit that overall I like what he has to say:

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Assuming there is a difference between “hang-ups” and “high bars” for sexual morality, where does one begin and the other end? How do we inhabit that space with integrity?  Leave your comments below!

  • Kristina Robb-Dover

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