Virginity and Christian expectation

Last week I nearly didn’t go to church, I was bored of all the same words spoken. I was frustrated with the expectations and event management. I had had enough of having enough. I got annoyed with the words that people spoke, and found objections to the smallest of things. There was something deeply out of step, and going to church only made that worse.

Tomorrow I will walk through the doors again, partly out of habit, and partly out of a determination not to let my disenchantment beat me, partly because I still believe the church to be a good thing. But also out of pride.

Out of pride that I don’t want to let my guard down, I don’t want people to know that everything is not quite a-okay. Slightly defeated by writing this post.

I feel as though I have an image to protect. That of the sorted Christian. The one who doesn’t have doubts or struggles, the one who knows which verses to quote at which point, who knows the right point in songs to raise their arms in worship. The one who knows just how much sarcasm and cynicism about church culture is acceptable.

This is probably the most vulnerable thing I have ever written, I can write about relationships and keep that at arms length, I can write about being single, even in deeply personal terms and manage that. I can throw a dose of humour into posts about dating, I try and find the seems of compassion when addressing controversial topics. But on this I have no guard, I am deeply exposed.

Zoe Sanderson has written this week that: “God is big enough to handle our questions, but in my experience churches often aren’t”. When we have questions and doubts church should be a place where they can be wrestled with in all their raw, uncertain, honesty. They shouldn’t be made into abstraction, and they shouldn’t be shunned out of fear they may cause others to question or undermine the values and beliefs of the church. When the church is afraid to listen to questions it loses the right to try and answer them.

Shame is different to acknowledging that something is other than the way it should be. I do not think my attitude towards church is a particularly healthy one, and I would prefer it to be otherwise. However, fearing speaking out about those doubts and problems because shame may be the result is a far worse situation. I worry that promoting too perfect a vision for how something should be creates a culture that silences uncertainty. And this can make the church the last place people turn with their doubts.

This week’s been labelled ‘impromptu sex week‘ due to the sheer number of posts around the issue of virginity and purity. Emily Maynard, Leigh Kramer, Preston Yancey and Joy Bennett all got in on the act, and attracted some flak from The Gospel Coalition. And I think the core of the issue is less about sex, virginity and purity than about shame.

It raises the question: how can we talk about something being a good thing without pushing those who might not achieve it into shameful silence?

I am a virgin, and I think that is a good thing. But when an unwavering focus on maintaining a particular good thing unwittingly perpetuates a culture of shame for those who might not be it should force a rethink. Not necessarily about whether abstaining from sex before marriage is a good thing, but what we are communicating when the church teaches that. If in trying to encourage purity we just shovel silence onto puritanical norms and end up causing far more harm, suddenly what might be a good thing becomes a very bad thing.

Joy Bennett added a clarification to her post, and then I think amended that, in it she pointed out that neither abstaining from sex before marriage nor not abstaining is shameful. Originally I think she wrote that both are fine, but I think ‘not shameful’ is better. I think we can and should hold views that some things are not fine, but our actions should never lead to shame.

In Emily Maynard’s post she wrote: “Virginity is just another way that people in power talk about who’s in and who’s out of favor with Church, that we set up winners and losers in a Kingdom supposedly of equals. It’s just another way we try to make God like us more than other people”.

I’ve sometimes wished I had a more exciting past. I wish I was saved out of a life of drugs and rock and roll, gone off the rails at one hundred miles an hour and crashed back down to earth only to find my way into the arms of God. I’ve told my testimony as one of many repetitive narratives, I’ve given into the lie that dramatic is better. In the conversation this week I’ve felt I have little to say, I’ve never nearly lost my virginity, I’ve never felt shamed into keeping my trousers up. I have never felt like a winner in the kingdom because I’ve not had sex, it is just where I am. I have got so many other things wrong that there is no source of pride in this.

Someone who has kept out of bed until their wedding day is not more of a winner in the Kingdom of God, and someone who has never had doubts about church does not claim the prize. This is not, as The Gospel Coalition suggested, rampant individualism, it is acknowledging that we do not get it right, and what that looks like for each of us will be different.

It is about the church being a community of grace that does not pretend everything goes right once you tick the box marked saved. It’s about discipleship that goes deeper than sin management, it is about accountability that is more than confessing to messing up.

It is about me finding the words to say I barely want to go to church. But it is also the assurance that the solution, for me at least, does not lie in running anywhere else.

I may not be proud of my virginity, but I am afraid of the shame of saying that I sometimes don’t want to go to church. I may not be au fait with the purity culture more prevalent in the US, but I have struggled with the pressure of not admitting the questions and doubts that might linger in my heart and mind.

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13 thoughts on “Virginity and Christian expectation

  1. “It is about the church being a community of grace that does not pretend everything goes right once you tick the box marked saved. It’s about discipleship that goes deeper than sin management, it is about accountability that is more than confessing to messing up.”

    Yes. This. I feel that the sooner we embrace this thought the sooner Christianity will once again be more about love than keeping score where our rights and wrongs are concerned.

    Thanks for your courage to speak up!

    Carol

  2. Thanks for this. I kind of think sometimes we get too hung up on the whole purity thing as Christians.

    No one is pure – we need Jesus because we are not pure. Jesus says in Matthew’s Gospel that whoever looks at a woman( or man) lustfully has committed adultery in their heart. I defy anyone who has been a teenager not to have looked at someone lustfully at least once in their life even if it was someone off the telly. I don’t think it matters who is a Virgin and who isn’t at the moment one gets married as long as the marriage (and relationship) is faithful not only to each other but to God and his word. I do know of churches that won’t marry couples that register from the same address which is to me judgemental and ridiculous.Of course ideally everyone would be a virgin – stick to the rules- but life is messy, doubt is easy and the world is a corrupting force, and you can’t take it back once its given.

    There is no such thing as a perfect Christian. God searches the heart. Isn’t he the priority? Don’t prioritise appearing to have it all together, just be real to where you’re at because when your focus becomes what others think then you are on shaky ground. I am a trained singer, I have been blessed with a beautiful voice and I find singing to God not to people especially hard of a Sunday morning.

    If your church really is that bad that you can’t just be yourself there even in your life group, that you really feel like you have to stick to the formula of conformity and being OK, perhaps the season you are supposed to be there has ended and its time to move elsewhere. Which is not something I say lightly because I unequivicably abhor the idea of a consumerist church, but God does move us in seasons to worship him in different places, ways and with different people.

  3. I can so much relate to this: “I’ve sometimes wished I had a more exciting past. I wish I was saved out of a life of drugs and rock and roll, gone off the rails at one hundred miles an hour and crashed back down to earth only to find my way into the arms of God.” In Christian circles in sometimes feels there is little value in stories like mine, of being raised in a Christian environment, becoming a Christian at an early age, and pretty much sticking with all the “correct” things Christians are supposed to do. That’s why posts like this are important–letting others know they are NOT alone in thinking and feeling that way.
    Something I’ve been pondering is what happens from here? I’ve read many of the purity posts and I think they are important, but if it ends there I wonder at the point of it all. Affirming the “okay-ness” (and even value) of healthy doubt and questioning is something I’m trying to work out in practical, everyday terms. What do these things look like in my relationships, in my involvement at church, etc? Curious if you have any thoughts on it.

  4. Thanks for being honest Danny! Sorry to hear you’re finding things difficult. It’s always a balance when you’re a work in motion between the good we desire and hope for, the good we aspire to live in, and the mixture of good and evil we see present in our own lives now. They are all important parts of our journey and must not be denied, and aren’t easy to swallow or digest. I’ve been trying to wrestle with these ideas recently having had a few conversations with others.

    I’ve found it fascinating looking at the life of the apostle Paul and the message I have learnt from him and would share with you is that we are not alone to feel shame and know its impact in our lives. I was somewhat surprised to find that Paul, probably the person we would agree had the most profound understanding and revelation about the work of Jesus and the reality of the new covenant of grace, struggled with his past. In fact, he says not only that he was the least of all the apostles, but he goes on somewhere else to say he was the least deserving of all God’s people because of what he did to the church (and Jesus) before coming to a knowledge of the truth. Did Paul really look down on himself in his walk with Jesus as he lived out a life of faith in the God of grace who is said to give us a clear conscience through the blood of Christ? Yes. Did Paul also say that shame is an inevitable and important part of life and life with God in grace? Yes. (Eph.4:19) Shame shows your conscience and the Spirit within you are still alive! Thank God for them! The only way to kill shame is a route to the destruction of all goodness; that is a terrible endeavour.

    Paul trusted that Jesus’ blood and God’s promises were greater than his failures, even if his failures made him (at least in his own eyes) a lesser person. I’m not really sure what I think the significance of all this is, but it does open the door for an interesting discussion – do we need a shame revolution of some kind? Thanks for being honest Danny; it’s good to share what’s going on in my head too. It’s good to know we’re not alone!

  5. thanks for this. i relate with so much of your post. admitting the questions and doubts i’ve been struggling with has been really hard for me as well. all the more so since i’m one of those pk’s – been in church since i was 2 weeks old, went to bible college kinda people…

  6. A lot of great thoughts here, Danny, but I was especially struck by this question: “how can we talk about something being a good thing without pushing those who might not achieve it into shameful silence?” That nuance has been lacking for far too long. I’m hopeful the recent discussions will turn the conversation in a healthier, more open direction.

    • “How can we talk about something being a good thing without pushing those who might not achieve it into shameful silence?” By taking our politically correct helmets off and letting our yes be yes and no be no. If purity makes somebody else feel shameful, they have not experienced God’s forgiveness. All Christians have a witness that involves a sexual history — whether it’s one of thankfulness for having remained pure or one of shame and regret. And both of those can be effective witnesses.

  7. I love this post. As I mentioned to you yesterday I can really identify with what you’ve written about your feelings re: church and how you feel about making these feelings known. Although I know it is true to some extent I get tired of the repeated quotes from people along the lines of “If you’ve got a problem with church, you’re probably the problem”. I wonder why we feel like we shouldn’t articulate feelings sometimes, why we have this instilled into us. Because I’m really cynical, I wonder if it’s about making congregations compliant. There’s always the worry that if you don’t come across as the “sorted Christian”, people will disapprove because you’re not “on message” enough.

  8. A 50-ish year old man visited a church one morning. He was by himself and seemed rather unkempt. He had a Bible in his hand and seemed appropriately devout, maybe too much so. As he took a back seat, he saw some heads turn from the senior citizens’ pews. “Who is that man” they whispered. “He doesn’t seem to care about his personal appearance.” He unnerves you too because you can’t figure him out. You wonder about his motives. Why is he single? What’s the story there? Really, he was never married? You begin to wonder how safe your kids are around him. On the way out the door, he passes by you as you jump back in horror. He offers you his hand and says: “Good afternoon. My name is Paul of Tarsus.”

    Sexual sin without shame or consequences leads to silence. Silence leads to suspiciousness. If the word “virginity” makes somebody uncomfortable in a church setting, they need to put cotton in their ears or leave the room. One of the natural consequences of sin, especially of a sexual nature, is that it disqualifies you from speaking on certain topics. Whose fault is that? How welcome do you think Apostle Paul would be in churches today? Don’t you think he’d have a few eggs thrown at him?

    John – 51 yo lifetime celibate

  9. Yes. Good on you, Danny, for naming and shaming shame as the problem. Keeping stuff lots of us struggle with in the dark doesn’t help, I suspect, so it matters that people are willing to talk. I wish you well with processing your feelings about church – hope you come to a more contented place soon.

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