Sex in the Body of Christ
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.
In 1992, 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."
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.