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.
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In the play Man and Superman by George Bernard Shaw (1903), the main character Jack Tanner speaks:
“We live in an atmosphere of shame. We are ashamed of everything that is real about us; ashamed of ourselves, of our relatives, of our incomes, of our accents, of our opinions, of our experience, just as we are ashamed of our naked skins. Good Lord, my dear Ramsden, we are ashamed to walk, ashamed to ride in an omnibus, ashamed to hire a hansom instead of keeping a carriage, ashamed of keeping one horse instead of two and a groom-gardener instead of a coachman and footman. The more things a man is ashamed of, the more respectable he is. Why, youre ashamed to buy my book, ashamed to read it: the only thing youre not ashamed of is to judge me for it without having read it; and even that only means that youre ashamed to have heterodox opinions. Look at the effect I produce because my fairy godmother withheld from me this gift of shame…
“When you want to give me a piece of your mind, you ask yourself, as a just and upright man, what is the worst you can fairly say to me. Thief, liar, forger, adulterer, perjurer, glutton, drunkard? Not one of these names fits me. You have to fall back on my deficiency in shame. Well, I admit it. I even congratulate myself; for if I were ashamed of my real self, I should cut as stupid a figure as any of the rest of you. Cultivate a little impudence, Ramsden; and you will become quite a remarkable man.”
This can be seen as an early manifesto of the sexual revolution from the other side of which we comment.
There never has been a society with less shame about sexual matters than this one now, yet the abolition of what little shame that remains is perhaps a higher social priority than ever before.
One bad motivation in this area is to use the agenda to abolish shame as a way of avoiding responsibility for the consequences of one’s actions. This is not really a desire for forgiveness (such as Christianity promises) – not a desire for our souls to be ‘washed clean’; but a desire to wipe clean our social record – that other people should not be allowed to respond to our history, that whatever we have done in the past should not be used (should not be allowed to be used) as evidence concerning what we are *likely* to do in the future.
This amounts to a denial that our past choices are evidence of our character (and that character is enduring); and indeed this is a denial of the concept of character – we become conceptualized as creatures without identity, creatures of mere labile responsiveness.
So, while everything you say about the corrosive effects of shame is true; there is a large scale, unworthy and indeed fundamentally dishonest public discourse focused on the removal of shame – which is indeed one of the major problems of modern Western society.
Shame has typically been removed by moral inversion – by taking that which was shameful and making it (via the mass media, the arts, government regulations, state education etc) into something admirable – and this is the regular daily diet of public discourse in many people’s lives.
Indeed, people now feel shame that they do *not* make sexual choices that used to be regarded as shameful.
Presumably, at some point, therefore, there will be a shame backlash.
Indeed. It is amazing how ashamed our society can make people of the fact that they don’t have sexual histories.
I write this as a man who has had much sexual sin in his life: the core you point to, about us all being damaged bodies that are now redeemed goods in Christ is something that I wish had been preached to me at a much younger age.
The amount of shame I personally carry centered around this issue is unhealthy. While I don’t blame the Church or well meaning teachers, I will defiantly say that no one pointed the issues of sexuality and sex at the Cross and Resurrection. It was always addressed with in the context of “purity” and sanctification (more accurately keeping one’s self “unpolluted” from sin, and there fore “holy”). If we are going to change the christian culture’s idolization/over spirituralization of sex and it’s demonization of sexuality, we need to begin with Jesus, and point the conversation towards Jesus (and away from what we can or fail to achieve).
Thank you for your thoughts here Alastair. They are redemptive.
Thank you, Aaron. I am pleased that you found them helpful. It was our Twitter conversation that really sparked this all off!
This is a really great response to what has in recent days become something sentimental.
Thank you for the time you took to write this post and for including wonderful Scripture references.
Thank you, Kae.
Thank you, Alastair- especially for: ‘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…’
Scripture speaks in such a matter because Paul was a messed up person. It’s that simple. Just like Augustine of Hippo, he was deeply screwed up about his own sexuality. Both hated themselves for their own feelings. This is especially well documented in Augustine’s case as he wrote about at length. So Christianity was created by people who had some serious issues and hangups about sexuality and then projected it on everyone else. Today we’d tell them to get therapy.
Christians say they are always about Jesus. Then way put so much stock in someone who wrote a couple of letters decades later? This doesn’t make any sense. Follow what Jesus said if you want, but ignore the ramblings of an ignorant man who lived 2000 years ago. None of his personal opinions are relevant today.
I like how you mention that we are all ‘damaged goods,’ which is one big thing that I think some posts dealing with the “virginity cult” are getting wrong by saying “I am not damaged goods.” I think people tend to have difficulty with the idea that ‘brokenness’ does not mean ‘without value’ or ‘unloved’ or ‘undesired.’ We can be damaged and yet still be quite valuable in God’s eyes.
I’m wondering something; perhaps you have discussed this in posts I haven’t seen. I think your correctives to the church’s teaching on virginity are helpful. i have also seen you mention the church’ need for a more positive teaching on singleness. This may sound cliche, but being single is one of the greatest spiritual struggles of my life. I find even the positive messages that most church’s give–that usually center around singleness as a time for increased “Christian” activity to be more discouraging than not. i see a lot of wailing and gnashing of teeth over the lack of positive teaching on this issue, but I have encountered little substantive help. (The teachings of, for example, Joshua Harris raise many practical as well as theological concerns.)
I’ve written on this subject at length in the past, in various contexts, but I haven’t visited it that much recently. It is something that I hope to revisit at some point in the future, especially as I would take a slightly different approach to the subject now. I reviewed a helpful book on the subject for Ecclesia Reformanda a while back – Barry Danylak’s Redeeming Singleness. I would be happy to e-mail my review to you, if you are interested.
That would be great!
If I search for “singleness” on your blog, will I find material?
There isn’t much material on this blog, although see this. My old blog has a three part series: part 1, part 2, part 3 (I would take a slightly different approach at certain points now). I will e-mail you the review now.
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Excellent post. I would love to see more of this truth spoken about all sin. It avoids Pharisee pride and condemnation, and still speaks the truth calling sin . . . sin. Too often we offer grace without law, or law without grace. Your balance is Biblical truth. Thank you!
Thank you, Deb!
Thank you, Alastair, for a most helpful & insightful post. I especially like your gospel & pastoral approach. I teach ethics & in my journey to understand Christian ethics have come to the point where I see the gospel as absolutely central to Christian ethics. Christian ethics is gospel ethics.This, of course, does not deny the creation order, devalue the law or disregard the character of God & importance of Christian virtue.
In the circles I move in in Cape Town & South Africa I haven’t seen an emphasis on damaged goods, etc. Probably because we don’t have a legalistic condemning & judgmental culture. That could be because I’m not working with young adults – except teaching them! – I mean at an intimate pastoral level. More likely is that we either minimize sexual sin or in some circles hide or ignore it.
Thanks again for your insightful analysis. I’m going read your previous post too & will in time share them with my students.
Thank you, John!
As a christian your perspective comes across to me as striking the balance between good and bad shame so to speak. Or to perhaps differentiate between guilt (i did something wrong) and shame (there is something wrong with me).
That said I do think we often need to translate this truth for those that dont share our theological language as shame is a universal emotion.
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This is beautiful.
thank you Alastair for this post, and your post on pre-marital virginity. I’ve fallen into sexual sin in past relationships, and have seen the consequences of that sin manifested in many ways. I’ve repented of that sin, and know my forgiveness is assured, but have often struggled with the shame you talk about above. I’d accepted my state as ‘damaged goods’ and just hoped someone would take me in spite of my defiled state.
thank you for articulating that “the value of our bodies derives from the fact that they have been redeemed by God,” rather than from whether or not our virginity is intact. from your other post, I was particularly moved by “Losing your virginity does not leave you as a worthless failure in God’s sight: God has a habit of turning whores into spotless brides.” you’ve helped me better see the true hope the gospel offers to all defiled sinners, whether virgins or not.
sexual sin has consequences, and often painful ones. I’m prepared to endure the consequences of my sin, but it’s certainly better and easier if that’s being endured not by resigning oneself to a state of worthlessness, but rather by knowing and relishing in the already-present redemption from that sin that He offers.
Bryan, thank you for your comment! It is always encouraging to hear when someone has been helped through something that I have written. I trust that God will continue to bless you richly as you discover and explore who you are in Christ!
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