Sex and the Path of Holiness

by Rachel Held Evans Read Distraction Free
'Verdant Path' photo (c) 2008, John Morgan - license:

Because we’ve spent a good deal of time here discussing the harmful effects of a shame-based purity culture that treats people who have had sex before marriage as “damaged goods” by comparing them to polluted water or chewed-up gum (see “Do Christians Idolize Virginity?” and “Elizabeth Smart, Human Trafficking, and Purity Culture”), some have wrongly concluded that I don’t value saving sex for marriage. 

This is ironic, given the fact that I waited until I was married to have sex and have been known to shout at the TV when my favorite dramas take it for granted that characters attracted to one another with sleep together after the first date. 

Just the other day, a reader left a comment that began, “I know you’re against sexual purity and all…” which I confess kinda made me want to bang my head against the dining room table. (Fortunately, there was a bowl of Honey Nut Spins in the way and I didn’t want to ruin my delicious off-brand breakfast.)

Perhaps the reader got this idea from a Gospel Coalition post that claimed those of us who reject the “damaged goods” approach advocate “commitment free sex” as the alternative— a ridiculous conclusion that grossly misrepresents my position. (See Abigail Rine’s piece at The Atlantic for a much more balanced and truthful overview of the purity culture conversation within evangelicalism.) Or perhaps this is just the result of all the either/or perspectives that plague our discussions on sexuality. 

What is it about sex that sends us religious folks scurrying to these extremes anyway? 

Girls are either virgins or whores. We must advocate either shame or promiscuity. A person is either pure or polluted. We can either withhold information about contraceptives or throw a condom parade. 

Goodness. With something as complex, layered, and beautiful as sexuality, might there be a little space for nuance? Might there be some shades of gray? (…Well that expression is forever ruined in this context, but you know what I mean.) 

Out of all this insanity comes the very wise perspective of a woman who identifies herself as “the very worst missionary,” but who is pretty much “the very best blogger” when it comes to speaking frankly about faith in real life. 

If you haven’t seen it already, check out Jamie Wright’s two-part series on sex. 

From Part 1

“It took me a lot of years and a lot of conversations with God (and with people who know more about God than me) to understand that everything I believed about my own sexuality was built on two huge lies.
The first comes from our culture, and it tells us that sex outside of marriage isn't a big deal.
The second is from the Church, and it tells us that sex outside of marriage is the biggest deal of all the deals ever.
One allowed me to give it away freely, convinced I would carry no burden. The other forced me to carry a spirit-crushing load.
Both are complete crap. [Read the entire post]

From Part 2:  

“…We’ve done a really bad job of teaching about sex in the Church. Our approach has been to shame girls for having it, and shame boys for wanting it. And when the smart kids ask, ‘Why wait?’, we shrug our shoulders and say, ‘Because the Bible says.’ Then we give the girls a purity ring and we give the boys nothing and we cross our fingers and hope they'll cross their legs. So dumb.
We've made virginity the goal, when it is purity that we should be aiming for; They're not the same thing. Sexual purity is a lifelong spiritual practice that doesn't begin or end with a single sex act, just as it doesn't begin or end on a wedding night. So when we are asked, "Why wait?", we should have an answer that empowers and prepares people to choose wisely for a lifetime. We should be teaching people something they can carry with them beyond their first roll in the hay. 
Why wait? Um. Because you need to learn some freaking self-control. That's why.
No kidding, the person who is a slave to their sexual desires will have a difficult row to hoe…But the man or woman who has a sense of mastery over their own sexual appetite will be far less likely to fall into the easy traps of addiction and infidelity that plague marriages today. I don't mean to imply that postponing sex guarantees fidelity – it certainly doesn't. And I don't think this is a fail safe for a long and happy marriage, but I think delaying sex is a pretty solid beginning. [Read the post]

I love how Jamie speaks of a holistic sexual ethic that can’t be reduced to a single sex act. The problem with the evangelical purity culture, as I see it, isn’t that it teaches saving sex for marriage, but that it equates virginity with sexual wholeness and therefore as something that can be lost or given or taken away in a single moment. 

Perhaps instead of virginity…or even purity (which carries something of an either/or connotation, I think)…we ought to talk about the path of holiness.  Holiness, to me, means committing every area of my life— from sex, to food, to time, to work—to the lordship of Jesus. It means asking how I might love God and love my neighbors in those areas so that the Spirit can grow love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control in the sacred soil of everyday life.

Holiness isn’t about sticking to a list of rules. It isn’t something you either have or don’t have, keep or lose. It’s a way of life, filled with twists and turns, mistakes and growth, uncertainty and reward. And, (to make matters even worse for the fundamentalists), a holy lifestyle often looks different from person to person, though the fruit of the Spirit is the same. 

One of my favorite college professors, Dr. Jim Coffield, began each of his classes with a brief discussion on the book of Proverbs. I’ll never forget how he challenged us to circle the words “path” or “way,” every time they appeared in our reading.  The perpetual AWANA star, I didn’t think it was possible to add more highlights to my heavy Ryrie Study Bible, but by the end of the semester, there were hundreds of new circles in my book of Proverbs. 

In all your ways acknowledge Him, And He will make your paths straight.
But the path of the righteous is like the light of dawn, That shines brighter and brighter until the full day.
I have directed you in the way of wisdom; I have led you in upright paths.
He is on the path of life who heeds instruction, But he who ignores reproof goes astray.

Dr. Coffield’s point was that wisdom isn’t a single decision; it’s a path, a road, a way. 

Holiness, too, isn’t a single decision, moment, position or thought; it’s a way of life. 

As my friend Zack Hunt put it: “Our identity as the holy people of God is not defined by a list of things we don’t do, but the ways in which we actively and sometimes scandalously incarnate the love, grace, hope, and healing of God to a lost and dying world.”  

I’ve been reading the monastics recently, and it strikes me that while much of modern evangelicalism echoes their teachings on self-control and self-denial when it comes to sexuality, we tend to gloss over a lot what this great cloud of monastic witnesses has to say about self-control and self-denial in other areas of life—like materialism, food, relationships, and hospitality. Ours is indeed a consumeristic culture, the kind that too often turns people into commodities, and I believe Christians can speak into that culture in a unique, life-giving way—not only as it concerns sex-on-demand, but also as it concerns food-on-demand, celebrity-on-demand, stuff-on-demand, cheap-goods-on-demand, pornography-on-demand, entertainment-on-demand, comfort-on-demand, distraction-on-demand, information-on-demand, power-on-demand, energy-on-demand, and all those habits that tend to thrive at the expense of the dignity and value of our fellow human beings or our planet.  Far too often, Christians talk about self-control as it relates to sex, but remain silent when it comes to self-control as it relates to justice.  Perhaps if we approach purity more holistically, if we talk about the importance of restraint and self-control in other areas of life, our feet will become more accustomed to the paths of wisdom, and sexual holiness will just be another part of a lifelong journey. 

Of course all of this sounds pretty vague and theoretical at this point, which is why I hope to continue exploring it at the practical level with our Sexuality & The Church series. Just as pursuing justice can’t be rendered down to a list of rules, so pursuing sexual holiness can’t be reduced to a “have-you-ever?”-type checklist. But I want folks to know that abandoning the painful and destructive narrative that a single sexual encounter can “ruin” a person or make her unworthy of love doesn’t mean swinging to the opposite extreme to endorse an anything-goes sexual ethic. 

I’m still working through this, just like a lot of you. There are questions to which I don’t have answers and sometimes I feel a little out of my depth with this whole series. (You will notice I've been sharing a lot of guest posts, interviews and roundtable discussions...because I'm scared.) 

But it’s nice to know I’ve got friends and mentors with which to travel the path. May the grace of Jesus guide us. 



So what are your thoughts on all of this? How do we encourage self-control without resorting to shaming tactics? What does sexual holiness look like long term? 


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