The Left’s Trouble With Abstinence
Posted by Shane Vander Hart on March 26, 2010
Abstinence-only education is effective. Abstinence itself is 100% effective every time it is tried. There are many myths surrounding it that are unfounded that are proclaimed in promoting comprehensive sex education. Abstinence-only sex education just drives the left bonkers. When that happens they turn on the snark. Rob Asghar, author of Lessons from the Holy Wars and contributing blogger at The Huffington Post, wrote a post entitled “Bristol Palin and The Trouble With Christian Sex.” He, of course, decides to point to Bristol Palin as an example of what is wrong with abstinence-only education. I’ve blogged on Bristol Palin before and don’t intend to say much here. I do want to point out this, to say a teenage mother can’t be an advocate for abstinence is akin to saying a former drug addict can’t speak out on the dangers of illegal drugs. Who can better do just that than someone who has experience the pitfalls.
Enough said about that. What I really want to take time to address is the three fundamental problems that he feels arises from Biblical sexual instruction framed around his main premise that, “Christians simply have an idealized notion of sex and relationships, one that’s increasingly divorced from the reality and the direction of the larger society.”
1. Its rules weren’t intended for modern society.
Whether the human body developed gradually over millions of years or suddenly around six millenia ago, God or Mother Nature installed sexual plumbing that slips noisily into gear around age 13 and keeps churning noisily for decades. Yet human society has developed in ways that increasingly delay marriage till 30-something. The body and mind are hardly silly to rebel.
The focus on abstinence, on "presenting one’s body as a holy and living sacrifice to God" (to use Paul’s term), is in 2010 a great way to never meet that special someone. Christianity is so fearful of experimentation on the part of singles that it encourages passivity instead. The notion is that "God will deliver the right person in His perfect timing. I shouldn’t upset His plans or force His hand and get into inappropriate entanglements." Given that marriage is being delayed more than ever, it’s little wonder that many quality people that I knew in church have moved into middle age solo, against their will and better judgment and deepest longings. And it’s little wonder that some of those who married did so with people outside the church.
It is true that some people are putting off getting married until later in life. It also true that some view adolescence lasting until age 25. He says that human society has increasingly found ways to delay marriage. I can’t deny that. I don’t think it’s healthy or appropriate to view a 22-year-old as an adolescent however. It’s ironic that on one hand as David Elkind, a child psychologist and professor emeritus of Child Development at Tufts University, notes in his book, The Hurried Child, we do push our kids into growing up too fast and they end up mimicking adults – giving a sense of pseudo-maturity. Elkind notes, “We see these adolescents mourning for a lost childhood.” On the other hand (perhaps a direct result of the push to end childhood) we extend adolescence to the age where instead getting married and starting a career or family like they did a generation ago, many still refuse to take on real responsibility or make a commitment.
But I digress.
Let me challenge the main premise behind what he is saying with his point. That not engaging in sexual behavior “experimenting” is passive and the Christian Single will never meet that special someone. Can I say this one of the major reasons a lot of marriages end in divorce? Far too many relationships are built on the foundation of sex and physical attraction and they as a result lack depth. Marriages need to be built on love, intimacy and commitment and that is often lacking when the physical aspect of a relationship is the center of attention. It is possible to meet a future spouse without the presumption of a sexual relationship… I’ve known many people who do get married after college after meeting their future spouse there, and I’ve know many older Christians who found their spouse later on.
All without acting like a bunch of minks.
2. It promises more than it can deliver.
It criticizes all premarital liaisons as dangerous or at least misguided, and it pooh-poohs any possibility of even some redeeming or meaningful engagement with another human being. And it sets the marital bed up as a far greater good. This leads to the common complaint of various married Christian friends, which is that married sex isn’t what it was cracked up to be. Distress over the mundaneness of it all, anger at the lack of interest on the part of a spouse, and curiosity about what else may have been out there prior to marriage may not be terribly different from what anyone else feels. But Christians’ sense of disappointment is more real and palpable.
At some level, the notion that abstinence in singleness will lead to maximum joy in marriage is a microcosm of the idea that if you show restraint on earth you will have boundless joy in the afterlife. And there are many who, based on how they found the former notion to be untrue, worry about the latter being a bit trumped up, too.
Again Asghar frames relationships as being primarily sexual. Is it possible to have redeeming or meaningful engagement with someone without having sex? Yes. The marital bed is a far greater good, God designed it that way. He created sex and said it was good within the boundaries of marriage. Asghar’s citing complaints of various married Christian friends (he seems to rely on anecdotes quite a bit, and I wonder how many people he’s actually talking about here) about the mundaneness of married sex. Yeah it can be mundane. But what I find ridiculous is that he thinks the answer is in premarital sex. I don’t think that remedies the problem, in fact, I think it makes it worse. Comparisons start. Remembering previous sexual partners while you are supposed to be making love to your spouse doesn’t exactly help achieve intimacy.
Then you have our sex saturated society and porn culture that sadly has had a devastating impact on marriages in and outside the Church. When men start comparing their wife to some porn star they’ve seen – well there’s no way that can lead to satisfaction with the marital bed.
It’s much better as Scripture says after being married for years to rejoice in the wife of your youth, as we see in Proverbs…
Should your springs be scattered abroad,
streams of water in the streets?
Let them be for yourself alone,
and not for strangers with you.
Let your fountain be blessed,
and rejoice in the wife of your youth,
a lovely deer, a graceful doe.
Let her breasts fill you at all times with delight;
be intoxicated always in her love, (Proverbs 5:15-19, ESV)
Asghar’s advice doesn’t help build what is sorely lacking in our marriages and society at large, and that is contentment. Having sex before marriage won’t do anything to enhance the marital bed, it will only hurt it. If you aren’t having the sex life you desired you should ask yourself perhaps we aren’t connecting in other ways like you should as a couple or perhaps you have unrealistic expectations.
3. It encourages bad faith, not integrity or maturity.
Within a contemporary church, you will discover many committed couples who break traditional bounds of romance while pretending to be chaste. They stay overnight, for example, grinding their way past every boundary short of intercourse. I believe Calvin would have had them flogged in Geneva, and I suspect God would have told them to quit the BS and just go ahead and use a condom instead of attempting to play coy.
Theological and ecclesiastical authorities will say that this isn’t what Biblical instruction intends and shouldn’t even be cited as an example of Christian conduct. But few will concede that sex is complicated, and that sometimes the unmarried couple that enjoys sex responsibly but which later breaks up may be healthier than the ones who rationalize loopholes.
There is also the issue of premature marriage. Go back to the huge gap between puberty and marriage that arises due to social changes that extend adolescence longer than ever before. Combine this with Paul’s admonitions that "it is better to marry than to burn," and far too many devout Christian singles end up getting married before they are emotionally mature. They want the sex now, and marriage is the only way they can get it in a way that they think God can bless. So they marry just after graduation from their Christian college, well before they know what they want in a relationship or can bring to it. This is bad faith, and it is thus small wonder that the divorce rate for Christians is roughly the same as for those who don’t live by the Bible’s demanding standards.
Asghar says you will discover many committed couples within the different churches (don’t exactly know what he means by contemporary) who have sex before marriage or are what I call technical virgins (which really is not being pure at all). I’m sure there are, but there are many who don’t. And what God would say about such behavior is what he says about any sinful behavior to repent, turn from your sin and flee to Christ. God is good and in Christ’s sacrifice we can hold to the promise that “if we confess our sin, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sin and cleanse us from all unrighteousness,” (1 John 1:9, NIV). Others may not realize the deception, but God does. We can with confidence go to God’s throne of grace to receive mercy and find His grace in our time of need, (Hebrews 4:16).
Those in Christ still have a sinful nature, and yes they do fail. And the Apostle John tells us that he who says he is without sin not only deceives himself and the truth is not in him, (1 John 1:8) and even goes as far to say that he is a liar if he does such a thing, (1 John 1:10). That doesn’t mean we should just give up and live our lives in utter disregard to what Scripture teaches. Rather we need to immerse ourselves in the Gospel of Christ, remembering His love for us and His sacrifice. Because only by the mercies of God can we offer our bodies as living sacrifices, (Romans 12:1). If we approach this as a set of rules we’ll fail, but if that among other things is seen as worship and done out of love and reverence from Christ… well our perspective changes.
We need grace, but as Paul asked (and then answered):
What shall we say then? Are we to continue in sin that grace may abound? By no means! How can we who died to sin still live in it? (Romans 6:1-2, ESV).
But yet that is what Asghar advocates. His last argument is to point out premature marriages, and then he links it to the divorce rate among Christians. So Christians divorce because they hold off on sex until marriage and then marry prematurely? I’ve written on divorce before so I don’t want to get into that here. I do recognize the divorce rate among Christians is much better than the rest of the world. I want to challenge a couple things here – first off what evidence does he cite for these premature marriages? None. My wife and I married when I was 21 (she was 20), we were the exception, not the norm. Most of those who were in married student housing at the time were in the Seminary at Trinity International University. I didn’t know (and still don’t know) that many people who get married why they are still in college. I’ve been married almost 17 years. Were we immature? Certainly, I’d like to think I’m more mature now. We had our share of problems.
My point is this – marriage is hard. Age doesn’t necessarily prepare you for how your life changes. Actually, in some ways, I think it would have been harder if you’re used to living by yourself. But he also operates under the assumption that is the only reason people marry that young is so they can have “legal sex.” I think that in most cases is a false premise. He also looks at maturity in marriage as “knowing what you want out of a relationship and what you can bring to it.”
I would say the “knowing what you want out of a relationship” is the wrong approach. It’s immature. It’s looking at “what’s in it for me.” And it is that attitude that leads to divorce more often than not. If you go into a marriage looking to have your needs met… you are sunk. You will be disappointed. It’s that attitude rather than if you get married out of college as opposed to in your 30s that’s the problem. Marriage means sacrifice. If Asghar is right, then why is it more couples in a second or third marriage get divorced? Why do people who cohabitate prior to marriage tend to have a higher divorce rate. I’m not saying that getting married young doesn’t come with some disadvantages, but I believe Asghar is over-generalizing. The fact is most people either outside or inside the church still do get married after college.
You have to hand it to Asghar for setting up a nice straw-man argument though.