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One of the more vexing issues facing Evangelical pastors today is premarital sexual ethics. Simply put, we pastors are not quite certain how to counsel singles and teens regarding appropriate boundaries. Of course, we clearly teach that sexual intercourse should be reserved for marriage. But beyond this, there is no consensus among Evangelical clergy about where the boundaries should be drawn. Instead we tend to push the burden of this question back onto singles. One pastor typifies the counsel regularly given by Evangelical clergy:

You may want me to tell you, in much more detail, exactly what’s right for you when it comes to secular boundaries [in dating relationships]. But in the end, you have to stand before God. That’s why you must set your own boundaries according to His direction for your life . . . . I want you to build your own list of sexual standards (Jeremy Clark, I Gave Dating a Chance , 108-09 ) .

But do we really mean to say that Christian singles should “build their own list of sexual standards?” Presumably the intent here is to respect the judgment and conscience of couples. But our laissez-faire approach isn’t helping. In fact, there is every reason to suspect that our lack of clear direction is putting singles in a precarious position.

The September/October 2011 edition of Relevant magazine includes a remarkable article, “(Almost) Everyone’s Doing It.” In it, Tyler Charles draws upon data gathered by the National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unwanted Pregnancy and informs us that forty-two percent of Evangelical singles between the ages of eighteen and twenty-nine are currently in a sexual relationship, twenty-two percent have had sex in the past year, and an additional ten percent have had sex at least once. Assuming the accuracy of Charles’ data, this means only twenty percent of young Evangelical singles have remained abstinent.

I’m inclined to think that pastors must bear much of the burden here. We’ve told Christian singles that it’s fine to prepare the meal and set the table, just so long as they don’t finish what they’ve started.

Beyond this lack of clarity regarding objective boundaries, Evangelicals also typically lack the theological resources that undergird chastity. Too often our articulation of sexual ethics sounds like we’re reading items off of a grocery list”bananas, milk, cereal; no adultery, no fornication, no incest. It often amounts to little more than an arbitrary list of “do”s and (mostly) “don’t”s that lacks any unified rationale.

It is precisely at this point that Evangelicals need to construct a theology of sexual relations that informs the question of premarital sexual boundaries. Thankfully, we need not start from scratch.

John Paul II, in his Theology of the Body , pushes back against the Cartesian depersonalization of the body and rightly presses home the point that man does not simply have a body, but in a certain sense is a body. Thus sex, in as much as it is the union of the male and female bodies, is properly (and theologically) understood as a form of personal communion”a “gift of self.” When a man pursues a woman sexually what he desires (even if he does not realize it) is not simply the surrendering of her body to him as a material object, but rather her personal openness to receive him as a gift. In sex the man offers himself to the woman as a gift, and he finds his joy in her opening herself to receive him as the gift he offers of himself. And she, for her part, finds her joy in yielding herself to another before whom she is vulnerable, who seeks her joy in the giving of himself, who uses his strength to bless rather than totalize. And in this way she too is gift to him, for she gives herself as gift to him in that she opens within herself a place for him to dwell, trusting and receiving the man’s gift of self, and returning it in like kind. And mostMost significantly, this mutual giving and receiving of the self results in new life”a child, an expression of personal communion so profound that it actually has the power to instantiate the imago Dei .

All of this makes a good deal of sense when one considers the bridal typology deployed by St. Paul in his letter to the Ephesians. Here the Apostle frames up for us a view of sex and marriage whereby they are not ends in themselves, but rather are types of something higher, pointing to the deeper reality of the believer’s life giving “one spirit” union with Christ. Just as the sacrifice of the Passover Lamb in the Old Testament foreshadowed Christ’s atoning sacrifice in the New, so too the mutual self-giving and joyful receiving of spousal love, “refers to Christ and the Church” (Ephesians 5:32).

Christ offers himself as gift to us in offering of his body (both on the cross, and in the supper); and we give ourselves as gift to Christ in the free surrender of ourselves to him, that we might joyfully receive him as gift. Most significantly, he himself is the gift of grace that we receive, and we ourselves are the gift of faith that we give to Christ. We find our joy in opening to him and making room for him to dwell within us, and he finds his joy in placing himself”his life via his Holy Spirit”inside of us, and being joyfully received by us. And this free exchange of selves, whereby the church becomes one with Christ, and Christ becomes one with the church, is, as every baptism attests, inevitably a life-producing union.

Our sexual conduct should be patterned after the way in which Christ and the church relate spiritually. The prohibitions against homosexuality, polygamy, incest, prostitution, fornication, bestiality”indeed all forms of porneia ”find their ultimate explanation against the backdrop of this reality.

It is within this Christocentric framework that we can begin to think constructively about premarital sexual activity. In as much as God has ordained sex as a means of foreshadowing the one-spirit relationship between Christ and the church, we misuse our sexuality when we express it outside the context of the marriage relationship.

Premarital sexual activity therefore, must be assessed in light of this fundamental context of meaning. Given the theological import of sexual relations, it is difficult (if not impossible) to justify any amount of sexual activity outside the context of the marriage relationship, even if that sexual activity stops well short of intercourse. The man who uses his sexuality (even in minor ways) in a premarital relationship fails to use his sexuality in a way consistent with his calling as a Christian.

Gerald Hiestand is Senior Associate Pastor of Calvary Memorial Church, and the Executive Director of the Society for the Advancement of Ecclesial Theology. His latest book (co-authored with Jay Thomas) is Sex, Dating, and Relationships: A Fresh Approach (Crossway, 2012).

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