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 friendseven 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. A 2002 study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that 41 percent of American women aged 15 to 44 have, at some point, cohabited with a man. According to the 2000 census, the number of unmarried couples living together has increased tenfold between 1960 and 2000, and 72 percent between 1990 and 2000. Fifty-two percent of American women have sex before turning 18, and 75 percent have sex before they get married. According to a 2002 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 virginsthat 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 troublingit means simply that a lot of abstinence pledgers are having sex at 19 instead of 18. This is hardly a decisive victory for abstinence.
As one reporter summarized the findings, "The pledge was more effective among 16-year-olds than 18-year-olds; there was no entirely conclusive evidence about its effectiveness among 15-year-olds; and it was only effective among those surveyed so long as less than 30 percent of their classmates took it. It had to be popular, but not too popular. Pity the poor policymaker who's supposed to act on these findings, navigating the incomprehensible logic of high-school cliques and identity politics." The study, which was conducted by sociologists at Columbia and Yale, also showed that students who broke the pledge were less likely than their non-pledging peers to use birth controlpresumably in part because the use of birth control implies that you thought about sex beforehand; you planned for it. The culture among Christian singles dictates that the sin is somehow less grave if you got swept up in the heat of the moment.
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.
What is chastity? One way of putting it is that chastity is doing sex in the body of Christdoing sex in a way that befits the body of Christ, and that keeps you grounded, and bounded, in the community.
Sex is, in Paul's image, 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 church 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 marriagethe boundaries of communally granted sanction of sexis 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 basic rule of the community, but it is not a mere rule. It is also a discipline.
The language of spiritual discipline, an ancient idiom of the church, has come into vogue again. In the 1970s and '80s, two books on spiritual disciplines, now rightly considered modern-day classics, were published: Richard Foster's Celebration of Discipline and Dallas Willard's The Spirit of the Disciplines. Foster and Willard called readers to deepen their Christian lives by incorporating ancient practices of the church. These books struck a tremendous chord, and Christians of all stripes began exploring habits and structures like liturgical prayer, fasting, solitude, simplicity, and tithing.
The spiritual disciplines are things we do; they are things we practice. They are ways we orient our whole selvesour bodies and minds and hearts, our communities and rhythms and ways of being in the worldtoward 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. As Willard explains in The Spirit of the Disciplines, 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 statethe state of being chastebut 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, that bodies have something to teach us, and that sex is not about spirits communing, but about persons being bodies together.
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.
Prayerfixing on one's contact and communion with Godis 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. I say this as one who is not a big fan of fasting. In fact, I began fasting only fairly recently, and only because my pastor more or less insisted. So now, once a week, I give my day over to this discipline. I drink fruit juice, but I don't eat. ("Isn't chugging V-8 Splash sort of cheating?" I asked my pastor when he first suggested protein-enriched juice might be allowed. He chuckled. "Just try it. All the juice in the world won't make you feel like you've bitten into a hamburger.") I know in advance, now, that I won't be as good a writer or teacher on the days that I fast. I know I might get headaches. I know that by late afternoon I might be short-tempered with anyone who crosses my path.
But I'm beginning to understand some of the benefits of fasting; I'm beginning to see that I recognize my dependence on God more clearly when I'm hungry; I'm beginning to chip away at some of the stupor that comes with always being sated. I've not achieved that highly advanced state where I look forward to it. I wish there were an easier, less annoying way to reap the fruits of fasting, but I don't think there is. Fasting is slowly teaching me the simple lesson that I am not utterly subject to my bodily desires. I'll admit here that cheese is my favorite food. I especially like sharp white cheddar cheese. I would eat it at every meal if I could. One day I realized I'd done just that; I had eaten cheese at the last six meals. So I decided I'd take just three days off, eat no cheese until Thursday (when I had plans to meet a friend at the pizza parlor). This seemingly small gustatory sacrifice was a mini-revelation. On Tuesday, for example, I found myself at a cafeteria for lunch, and there was yummy-looking mac and cheese. The world would not have ended if I'd eaten some. I don't think God was sitting in heaven jotting notes to himself about my cheese intake. But in passing up the cheese, I got the inkling of a lesson. I am not captive to this desire. I can pass up the mac and cheese. I can say, Nope, today I'm fasting from cheese.
Francis of Assisi famously called his body "Brother Ass." It is fasting, I think, that helps us say to our body, You are Brother (or Sister), but you are also Ass. Fasting, in other words, is the practice that most obviously helps us learn to discipline our physical selves. A woman of the early church known as holy Syncletia taught that "bodily poison is cured by still stronger antidotes; so fasting and prayer drive sordid temptations from us." I have a happily married friend who puts that in a modern idiom. He says that when he wants to have sex with someone other than his wife, he fasts. In remembering that he can discipline his desire for food, my friend reminds himself that he can discipline his desire for sex, too.
Of course, premarital abstinence is different from fasting, because when you fast you know you will eat again. Premarital abstinence is different from keeping vigil, because during your vigil you can be confident that you will sleep again. Unmarried Christians have no guarantee that they will ever get married. They have no guarantee of licit sex. Thus to practice premarital chastity is at times to feel as if you are being forever forbidden the satisfaction of a normal appetite.
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 disciplinesthe so-called disciplines of abstinencecenter 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.
Lauren F. Winner is author of Real Sex: The Naked Truth about Chastity (Brazos, 2005), from which this article was excerpted. She is a CT contributing editor.
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Deeper into Chastity | It was the failures of my sexual history that brought me to see it as sin.
Real Sex: The Naked Truth About Chastity is available from Christianbook.com and other book retailers.
Our sister publication, Books & Culture, reviewed Real Sex.
More CT articles about Lauren F. Winner include:
The Dick Staub Interview: Lauren Winner's Faith Still a Bit Jewish | The author of Girl Meets God discusses the Jewish habits that inform her Christianity (Jan. 20, 2004)
Christ via Judaism | Lauren Winner's spiritual journey is an invaluableand, to some, unsettlingreminder of where we came from. (July 07, 2003)
Christianity Today articles by Lauren F. Winner include:
meetingGod@beliefnet.com| I thought the high-powered, heady world of dot-comseven dot-coms devoted to religion and spiritualitywas far removed from my own walk with Christ. (Nov. 16, 2001)
Solitary Refinement | The church is doing better than ever at ministering to single people. But some evangelical assumptions still need rethinking. (June 4, 2001)
The New Ecumenists | At the Vine, emerging Christian leaders are reinterpreting the meaning of church unity. (Feb. 5, 2001)
Policy Wonks for Christ | At Civitas, grad students learn to think Christianly about public life. (Nov. 16, 2000)
The Man Behind the Megachurch | There would be no Willow Creekno small groups, no women in leadership, no passion for servicewithout Gilbert Bilezikian. (Nov. 6, 2000)
Good News for Witches | Every Halloween, thousands of Wiccans descend on Salem, Massachusettsand local churches reach out. (Oct. 27, 2000)
The Weigh & the Truth | Christian dieting programslike Gwen Shamblin's Weigh Down Diethelp believers pray off the pounds. But what deeper messages are they sending about faith and fitness? (August 25, 2000)
Something Old, Something True | With The Story of Us, released on video today, Hollywood offers a rationale for sticking with marriage. (Feb. 14, 2000)
T. D. Jakes Feels Your Pain | Though critics question his theology, this fiery preacher packs arenas with a message of emotional healing. (Feb. 7, 2000)
Eavesdropping: An Open-Door Policy | Is meeting alone with a member of the opposite sex dangerous? Is taking steps against it sexist? (Nov. 8, 1999)
Eternal Ink | A growing movement of Christian tattooists is leaving its mark on both body and soul. (Oct. 4, 1999)
Death, Inc. | What the funeral industry doesn't want you to know. (April 26, 1999)
Whoa, Susannah! | It's great music, but its portrayal of Christian hypocrisy will make you wince. (Oct. 4, 1997)
More Sexuality & Gender article are collected on our website.
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