Chastity is a spiritual discipline for the whole church.
A word like “chastity” can set our teeth on edge. It is one of those unabashedly churchy words. It is a word the church uses to call Christians to do something hard, something unpopular.
Chastity is one of many Christian practices that are at odds with the dictates of our surrounding, secular culture. It challenges the movies we watch, the magazines we read, the songs we listen to. It runs counter to the way many of our unchristian friends organize their lives. It strikes most secular folk as curious (at best), strange, backwards, repressed.
Chastity is also something many of us Christians have to learn. I had to learn chastity because I became a Christian as an adult, after my sexual expectations and mores were already partly formed. But even many folks who grow up in good Christian homes, attending good Christian schools, and hanging out with good Christian friends—even these Christians-from-the-cradle often need to learn chastity, because unchaste assumptions govern so much of contemporary society.
I am not an expert on chastity. I am not a theologian or a member of the clergy. I’m just a fellow pilgrim. I offer only a flawed example, a few suggestions, and the reminder of why, as Christians, we should care about chastity in the first place.
Two-Thirds Unvirgin World
One reason we should care right now is because of the unchaste culture we find ourselves in. About 65 percent of America’s teens have sex by the time they finish high school, and teenage “dating” websites that boast millions of members encourage teenage patrons to select not prom dates but partners for casual sexual escapades.
41 percent of American women aged 15 to 44 have, at some point, cohabited with a man. The number of unmarried couples living together has increased tenfold between 1960 and 2010, and 72 percent between 1990 and 2010. Fifty-two percent of American women have sex before turning 18, and 75 percent have sex before they get married. According to a study by the Kaiser Family Foundation and Seventeen magazine, more than a quarter of 15- to 17-year-old girls say that sexual intercourse is “almost always” or “most of the time” part of a “casual relationship.”
Christian communities aren’t immune to the sexual revolution. Three surveys of single Christians conducted in the 1990s turned up a lot of premarital sex: Approximately one-third of the respondents were virgins—that means, of course, that two-thirds were not.
True Love Waits, a popular Christian abstinence program with roots in the Southern Baptist Convention, was founded in 1993. The program asks teens to make the following pledge: “Believing that true love waits, I make a commitment to God, myself, my family, my friends, my future mate, and my future children to be sexually abstinent from this day until the day I enter a biblical marriage relationship.” In 2001, a study of 6,800 students showed that virgins who took the pledge were likely to abstain from sex for 18 months longer than those who did not take the pledge. Abstinence advocates touted this as good news, but actually it is troubling—it means simply that a lot of abstinence pledgers are having sex at 19 instead of 18. This is hardly a decisive victory for abstinence.
In 2003, researchers at Northern Kentucky University showed that 61 percent of students who signed sexual-abstinence commitment cards broke their pledges. Of the remaining 39 percent who kept their pledges, 55 percent said they’d had oral sex, and did not consider oral sex to be sex. (Anecdotally, a roughly equivalent percentage of self-identified evangelical college students I recently spent the day with said they don’t consider anal intercourse to be sex.)
Luke Witte, an evangelical Presbyterian pastor at Forest Hill Church in Charlotte, North Carolina, says he asks engaged couples to cease having sex before their wedding. “I won’t marry a couple that is sexually active,” he insists. “There are biblical reasons. We’re asked not to fornicate.” But Witte, interviewed for a 2002 New York Times article, acknowledged that he has to have the chastity talk with most of the engaged couples that ask him to marry them. “More often than not,” he says, “there’s a sexual relationship” before the couple ties the knot.
Christianity Today surveyed more than one thousand of its readers. Forty percent said they’d had premarital sex. Fourteen percent said they’d had an affair. Of those who had cheated on their spouses, 75 percent were Christians at the time of the affair.
I wanted to get a sense of how the struggles of single Christians to stay chaste were playing out in my neighborhood, so I spoke to Greg Thompson, a campus pastor with Reformed University Fellowship at the University of Virginia. Charlottesville is, in many ways, a pretty conservative place. I thought if any corner of the church would exemplify chastity, it might be here. It seems I was wrong. Greg said that with one exception, every dating couple he has counseled has “talked about sexual failure.” Most of these dating couples, he said, are “having serious problems understanding what to do and what not to do with their sexuality. … I consistently have conversations with Christian students who are either having sexual intercourse, or having oral sex, or taking their clothes off and masturbating each other. Every college pastor I’ve talked to about this says the same thing: Their students, even those in their leadership groups, people leading Bible studies and so forth, are sexually out of control.”
Real Solutions Are Needed
All this suggests to me that our usual strategies for helping people cope with sexuality are not working. Repeating biblical teachings about sex is simply not enough. Urging self-discipline isn’t enough. Reminding people of the psychological cost of premarital sex or infidelity is not enough. What we need is something larger and deeper: a clear vision of what chastity ultimately is and the most important context in which it is practiced.
Discipled Sex – What is chastity?
What is chastity? One way of putting it is that chastity is doing sex God’s way. Sex is a joining of your body to someone else’s. In baptism, you have become Christ’s body, and it is Christ’s body that must give you permission to join his body to another body. In the Christian grammar, we have no right to sex. The place where the Lord confers that privilege on you is the wedding; weddings grant us license to have sex with one person. Chastity, in other words, is a fact of gospel life. In the New Testament, sex beyond the boundaries of marriage—the boundaries of communally granted sanction of sex—is simply off limits. To have sex outside those bounds is to commit an offense against the body. Abstinence before marriage, and fidelity within marriage; any other kind of sex is embodied apostasy.
Chastity, then, is a discipline.
The spiritual disciplines are things we do; they are things we practice. They are ways we orient our whole selves—our bodies and minds and hearts, our communities and rhythms and ways of being in the world—toward God. Thinking of spirituality as something we practice or do strikes some people as odd. Isn’t the point of Christianity that Jesus saves you regardless of what you do? No, doing spiritual practices doesn’t get you into heaven. Rather, practicing spiritual disciplines helps align your feelings, your will, and your habits with God’s will.
Discipline is a modern term for what the old church would have called asceticism, which comes from the Latin word ascesis, meaning ‘exercise’. And, indeed, the spiritual disciplines are, in part, exercises that train us in the Christian life. Thinking about physical exercise, actually, can help us understand spiritual exercise. Serious runners run at least three or four times a week, rain or shine, whether or not they feel like it. Even on the days you don’t enjoy your jogs, you know you are maintaining your skills and strengths so you can go for that run on the beach when you want to. Spiritual practices form in us the habits, skills, and strengths of faithful followers of Christ. Committing myself to a discipline of daily prayer, for example, teaches me how to be a person of prayer. Committing myself to tithing, even when it pinches my budget, turns me into a person who understands that all is a gift, that all belongs to God. Spiritual practices “mold and shape” us. They are activities “undertaken to bring us into more effective cooperation with Christ and his kingdom. … To grow in grace is to grow in what is given to us of God and by God. The disciplines are then, in the clearest sense, a means to that grace and also to those gifts.”
Chastity, too, is a spiritual discipline. Chastity is something you do; it is something you practice. It is not only a state—the state of being chaste—but a disciplined, active undertaking that we do as part of the body. It is not the mere absence of sex but an active conforming of one’s body to the arc of the gospel.
The disciplines of Christian sexuality can be seen, too, when we look at sex between married people. Here the discipline of sex is twofold. Fidelity is a discipline: Just as most single people want to have sex, period, so married people (even really happily married people) find themselves wanting to have sex with someone other than their spouse. And restraining those impulses is itself a discipline. (Indeed, it is worth pointing out that practicing chastity before you are married trains you well for chastity after you are married; it stands to reason that those who are promiscuous before marriage may be more likely to cheat on their spouses once married.) But so too is having sex with your husband or wife a discipline. Sometimes we have sex with our spouse because we feel desire, because we want to express the intimacy we feel, because we feel turned on; but sometimes a husband and wife have sex precisely because they don’t feel desire or intimacy. We recognize that sex can do good work between a husband and wife, that it can do the work of rekindling that desire and intimacy.
The Web of Disciplines
Speaking of spiritual discipline seems to elevate chastity from gritting-my-teeth- and-stonily-avoiding-sex to something lofty, noble, and spiritual. But when I speak of chastity as a spiritual discipline, I also mean something eminently practical. Speaking of chastity as a spiritual discipline immediately connects it to the other disciplines. In the spiritual life, these disciplines cannot be severed from one another.
Prayer—fixing on one’s contact and communion with God—is the bedrock discipline. All the other spiritual disciplines, like fasting and chastity, depend upon prayer and are, in fact, forms of prayer. My pastor is always reminding me that prayer and Bible study must precede, accompany, and support any other spiritual exercises.
Prayer and Bible study are basic, but I think fasting can be a good companion to chastity as well.
Understanding chastity as a discipline helps us quiet that nagging voice in our heads that says, “I’m being made to give up something that is totally normal and natural!” Of course, the desire for sex is normal and natural, but many spiritual disciplines center on refraining from something “normal”.
One who keeps vigil is abstaining from sleep in order to abide with God; one who fasts is abstaining from food in order to see that one is truly hungry for God; one who spends time alone forgoes the company of others in order to deepen a conversation with God; one who practices simplicity avoids luxury in order to attend more clearly to God. And the unmarried Christian who practices chastity refrains from sex in order to remember that God desires your person, your body, more than any man or woman ever will.
With all aspects of ascetic living, one does not avoid or refrain from something for the sake of rejecting it, but for the sake of something else. In this case, one refrains from sex with someone other than one’s spouse for the sake of union with Christ’s body. That union is the fruit of chastity.
Self Control – A Fruit of the Spirit
I sincerely believe that God would not ask us to do something without giving us the tools to accomplish that task. Chastity is not an easy task in a society that seems to worship sex and sensuality. The Holy Spirit has empowered us with the gift of “self control” to enable us to walk in obedience to the things God requires of us.
Lauren F. Winner is author of Real Sex: The Naked Truth about Chastity (Brazos, 2005)