About six months ago, I blogged on the subject of chastity and pre-marital virginity. Over the last few days, I have seen the issue of Christian teaching on the subject of virginity becoming a live one again. Following a long discussion with a friend on Twitter on the subject, I thought that I would post a few further thoughts, tackling some issues that weren’t sufficiently addressed in the original post.
The current conversation is focused on the poisonous character of much Christian teaching around the subject of virginity. Young people are caught in a sense of worthlessness and guilt on account of past sexual sins. The glass filled with polluted water, the petal-less rose, the sticky tape that has been used so many times that it has lost all adhesive power, the ‘damaged goods’, the ‘sloppy seconds’: these powerful images and many more shape young Christians’ perceptions of themselves and their sexuality. Unlike other actions, one’s sexual history is regarded as having a power to define who you are and your personal worth. Anyone who has committed sexual sin can feel a crippling sense of shame, a sense that they have irreversibly decreased their value as persons. Others can reinforce this sense of shame, by treating them as defiled.
The person trapped in shame has a sense of the loss of their integrity as a person and of their dignity and glory. Shame can be no less real, even on occasions that have nothing to do with our own sin. The person who has been raped can feel profound shame, even if they feel no guilt. The person whose body is mocked by their peers can feel shame, even though there is no guilt. Bodily integrity has been violated and the glory proper to their body has been robbed or denied them. Shame can cling much closer to us than guilt and is much harder to free ourselves from. Shame is about the exposure of nakedness and the stripping away of glory.
Shame can be virtually unparalleled in its demotivating power. The person who feels shame feels that they have been devalued as a person and will often start to live in terms of this sense of worthlessness, feeling powerless, forgoing agency, and despising themselves. Shame is a prison for the self, preventing the self from knowing the freedom appropriate to it.
When a sense of shame does motivate people, it can drive them to extreme lengths to shake it off. They feel naked and frantically try to cover themselves up. They can be drawn into a desperate quest for pride and honour. People who have been shamed will often try to restore honour by forming communities around themselves, dedicated to attacking or shaming the communities that shamed them, by seeking revenge, by shaming others, by denying their sins. They can even end up ‘shamelessly’ glorying in the very thing that should be causing them to be ashamed (Philippians 3:19).
The discourse surrounding the topic of sexuality in many Christian churches is a discourse of shame. It is a discourse that leaves many people feeling that their bodies are devalued and worthless. The power of shame, set loose in churches, is a defining presence in the lives of many Christians throughout their lives. It is something that imprisons people and makes them feel that they lack true value. The person who feels that they have been devalued by shame is more, not less, likely to engage in shameful practices, as they have lost sense of their true dignity. If we think that we can motivate others, or ourselves, to lives of holiness with the power of shame, we may find ourselves to have been sorely misguided.
Many people have sought to escape the shame associated with churches’ teaching on the subject of sexuality. In place of biblical terms such as ‘fornication’, we may speak only of ‘premarital sex’ or ‘abstinence’, hoping thereby to decrease any stigma associated with it. Attention is drawn to the fact that a majority of Christian young people will have premarital sex (distinctions between pre– and extra-marital sex might be helpful here, although both come under the biblical condemnation of ‘fornication’), the commonality of the sin suggesting that it cannot be so serious. Young people are assured that it isn’t that big of a deal: God doesn’t care anywhere near as much as many churches do about chastity, so we should cut ourselves a bit more slack.
And yet, the language of shame in association with sexuality is not unbiblical. Sexual sin is presented as defiling on occasions. Contrary to those who would suggest that we should regard sexual sin as just like all other sins, in order to detach them from their peculiar attachment with shame, Paul presents sexual sin as a unique kind of sin in 1 Corinthians 6:18:
Flee sexual immorality. Every sin that a man does is outside the body, but he who commits sexual immorality sins against his own body.
The significance of sexual sin is also clear from the prominent focus on sexual sin in biblical lists of vices and practices that can exclude people from the kingdom of God (e.g. Romans 1:18-32; 1 Corinthians 6:9-10; Galatians 5:19-21; Ephesians 5:5; 1 Timothy 1:9-11). In keeping with the seriousness of sexual sin in the Old Testament, the New Testament treats sexual sin, not as the victimless crime that we tend to treat it as, but as a defiling and perversion of the image of God in mankind – something focused on marriage between man and woman – and a sin against human nature.
It would seem that we have a problem. If shame can be so hard to shake and so devaluing, why would Scripture speak in such a manner? Despite seeming commonalities, the contrast between the way that the Scripture speaks about sexuality and our bodies and the way that these subjects are spoken of in many churches couldn’t be starker.
The way that we speak about the subject of sexual sin, perhaps more than any other moral issue, says an awful lot about the sort of gospel that we believe. It is in sexual sin that we can feel most powerfully defined by our rejection of God’s way. Only the true gospel – a gospel powerful enough to free us of the most persistent stains – enables us to speak with unflinching honesty on such a subject, without being destroyed by the resulting knowledge.
It is in a legalistic approach to virginity, an approach that locates our value in our ability to keep ourselves pure that a false gospel emerges in the lives of many Christians and churches. When our personal worth is made entirely contingent on what we do with our bodies, we should not be surprised to find people imprisoned in self-righteousness, guilt and shame, the denial of sin, and judgmentalism. To tell the truth about yourself within such a gospel is to destroy yourself. Those who do are racked with debilitating guilt and shame. However, for every such person there are many others who are caught in sin-denial, self-delusion, and self-righteous judgmentalism. Even those who are seeking to escape the shame of this false gospel are often not escaping the false gospel itself, merely moving in the direction of sin-denial and self-delusion. This false teaching can hit people on an existential level that a merely ideological gospel-teaching from the pulpit, divorced from a practical form, cannot reach.
In these areas there are too many people being destroyed by knowledge of seeming ‘unforgivable’ sin on one side and too many people not speaking seriously enough about the sinfulness of sin on the other. This can be especially dangerous for virgins who, believing that they have avoided the ‘unforgivable’ sin, fall straight into a self-delusory self-righteousness, failing to attend to the lust and pride that may be bound up in their sexuality. One side has no real forgiveness or redemption to offer. The other side all too often has a cheap presumptive ‘forgiveness’, which renders the sin ‘no big deal’.
Part of the reception of forgiveness is the full acknowledgment of our sin, as we concur with the divine judgment upon it implicit in the offer of forgiveness. This is why a presumptive forgiveness, which does not fully acknowledge the seriousness of sin, is not forgiveness at all. It is only in the light of forgiveness, redemption, and glorification that we can speak with utter truthfulness about sin, as it is only through these things that we are released from its crushing weight. If this is true about sin in general, it is so much more true about sexual sin in particular. By believing that we can abstract our discourses about sexuality from the gospel, we produce a poisonous and deadly culture, a culture in which the truth cannot be told or borne.
In the true gospel we learn that the value of our bodies does not derive from our virginity, nor is their value lost if our virginity were lost outside of marriage. As Christians, the value of our bodies derives from the fact that they have been redeemed by God. In fact, God cares so much about these ‘damaged goods’ that he is going to raise them up on the last day.
And all of us are ‘damaged goods’. Virgin bodies must be redeemed too. They too are defiled and polluted by the sin that dwells within them. Shame is exposure and nakedness, which can only truly be acknowledged where covering is offered. This is what we find in the gospel. These bodies, weak and rendered shameful by sin, will be raised and clothed in glory, their mortality swallowed up in life (2 Corinthians 5:4). The value of our bodies does not lie within our bodies themselves. It does not lie in our sexual histories, but in the value that God places upon them and the glory that he has prepared for them. It lies in the fact that he has taken bodies corrupted by sin and death and fashioned them into temples for his Holy Spirit. It lies in the fact that our bodies, notwithstanding all of their sexual history, will be resurrected in the new heavens and the new earth, objects of divine delight. Every Christian, virgin or not, derives the value or his or her body from the same place.
And this is the point where Christian sexual ethics begins – with the realization that our bodies are ‘redeemed goods’, with immense value in God’s eyes and an incredible destiny. It begins with the realization that we can speak with a complete honesty about sexual sin as that discourse occurs within the context of forgiveness, grace, and redemption, a context that frees us from the devastating burden of the shame appropriate to sexual sin. In Christ and the sanctification, justification, and glorification that we receive in him, we are freed from the legalistic yoke of securing the value of our own bodies, whether through sexual sinlessness or physical appearance. We are freed from self-loathing, anxiety, and shame. We can name the bondage in the light of the freedom. The sexual ethics of the gospel are concerned with how to live embodied lives in liberty, no longer returning to the slavery of guilt and shame, but joyfully pursuing the good bodily ends for which we were created, glorifying God in our bodies and spirits, which are his.