Sex Series: State of the Sexual Union

Jul 18, 2012 |Amber Lapp, David Lapp
Sex Series

Too many men and women lack a vision, anchored in good theology, of the body, sex, marriage and chastity. Rediscover that compelling vision here.

What percentage of unmarried, self-identifying evangelical young adults (ages 18-29) have had sex?

According to a study by the National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy (cited in RELEVANT), the answer is 80 percent.

What percentage of unmarried, evangelical millennials who (a) attend a Protestant church at least once a month and (b) hold to a set of traditional evangelical beliefs, have had sex?

According to a report by the National Association of Evangelicals and Grey Matter Research, the answer is 44 percent, and only 25 percent had sex in the last three months. (According to the study, 10 percent of the overall American millennial population fits their definition of evangelical.)

The distinction between practicing or relatively devout evangelicals on the one hand and self-identifying evangelicals on the other hand, is an important one. The available research suggests that when it comes to chastity, there is a big difference between religious affiliation and religious practice (the same is true for divorce). For example, according to the second study cited, 60 percent of young evangelicals who frequently read the Bible have never been sexually active, and 63 percent of those who regularly attend church have never been sexually active.

In other words, the majority of unmarried, evangelical millennials regularly attending a congregation and reading the Bible have never had sex.

But the research also indicates that even for relatively devout evangelical millennials, the road from a born again experience to marriage often includes a struggle with chastity. According to the second study, 92 percent of ever sexually active unmarried, evangelical millennials were sexually active after becoming a born again Christian. On the one hand, that may not mean too much when you consider that the average evangelical millennial in the study said they were born again around age 8. On the other hand, it does indicate that even among the small cohort of relatively devout evangelical millennials — most of whom make a Christian commitment early in life — chastity can be a difficult virtue to practice.

Take Carly, who despite attending Christian schools growing up and then a Christian college, says that she and her boyfriend found it difficult to practice chastity while dating "because we didn't really have any role models. It was hard not feeling like we were just subscribing to an archaic legalism that was unnecessarily keeping us from ultimate happiness in our relationship."

So why has the Christian community largely failed to embody a compelling countercultural story about sex to the point that even dedicated Christian young adults feel alone in their efforts to live chastely?

There are likely a myriad of contributing factors — including hypersexualized media, easy access to porn and later age of first marriage — but we think the problem is most exemplified by an honest question from our friend Emily.

"I have to admit something to you," she says. "Though I have been sexually active in the past, and can see the detrimental effects, I also still to this day do not fully understand what having sex out of wedlock does. I do not fully understand that command by God."

And who can blame her, considering what we often hear is a cluster of arguments that appeal to fear? We see slides of herpes-infected genitals in health class; we hear a man on the street corner shouting about how fornicators will not inherit the kingdom of God; we Google "why wait until marriage?" only to find bullet points and statistics that warn about heartbreak, pregnancy and decreased academic performance.

So while unmarried Christians have been given practical reasons to avoid sex, what we often lack is a compelling vision of marital sex as God's good design. We rarely hear the poetry within the command to practice chastity — the "yes" that the "no" protects. When it comes to sex, we suffer from a theological deficit.

What we need is a theological formation on sex and marriage, which won't happen simply by scanning "Ten Reasons Why You Should Save Sex for Marriage." Instead, it requires contemplating foundational truths, specifically about the meaning of our bodies, sex and chastity.

What Do Our Bodies Mean?

A strain of thought prominent in contemporary culture says that what ultimately matters is what is in one's heart. So as long as one loves the person in his "heart," there is nothing objectively wrong with using one's body for sexual play or sexual intercourse outside of marriage. According to this conception, our intentions determine whether a particular bodily activity is right or wrong, and the body is merely a vehicle for our intentions, capable of being manipulated to what we want it to say. In other words, the body does not have its own objective "language" that all of us can recognize and are called to honor.

By contrast, Christianity has always had a high view of the body — according to Christian teaching, the person is not just a soul trapped in shell-like bodies, but a psychosomatic unity of soul and body. This high view of the body is most dramatically evident in the biblical promise of the resurrection of the body — we will have redeemed bodies in the New Jerusalem. And because the body is an important aspect of the person, what a person does with his body matters.

The Apostle Paul makes this clear in 1 Corinthians 6:16, where he reminds us that the body enacts an astounding reality in the act of sex: "Do you not know that he who unites himself with a prostitute is one with her in body? For it is said, 'The two will become one flesh.'" In other words, no matter how much an unmarried person's "heart is in the right place," when a couple has sex, their bodies "say" something real: We are one flesh. The couple may or may not recognize that their bodies are saying that, but the objective reality exists nonetheless.

Furthermore, as John Paul II puts it in his Theology of the Body, the body is a "sign [that] transmits in the visible world the invisible mystery hidden in God from eternity." What mystery do our bodies signify? That God is love — which is to say that God is not an isolated divine person, but a Trinity, a communion of divine persons: the Father eternally gives himself to the Son, the Son eternally gives himself to the Father, and from this divine dance of giving and receiving proceeds the Holy Spirit.

Our male and female bodies, together, make visible this invisible divine mystery. Just by looking at our bodies, we see that the man is for the woman and the woman for man. Our bodies literally fit together, and it is this complementary, sexual union that creates new life. In other words, the male-female bond is an "image" of the Trinity. As the Genesis account tells us, "So God created man in his own image; in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them" (Genesis 1:27, emphasis ours).

To put it another way, the "language" that is inscribed in our bodies, as male and female, is the language of gift: We are created to be a gift to one another. In the same way that the Father eternally gives himself in love to the Son, and the Son eternally gives himself back in love to the Father, and from that giving and receiving proceeds the Holy Spirit – in that same way, we humans (who are made in the image of God) are called to give ourselves in love to each other, and to be open to the new life that may proceed from that loving union.

That's the "divine code" that our bodies, as male and female, reveal. And living according to the code inscribed in our bodies is the secret to flourishing relationships, marriages and families. No matter how good our intentions, if we fail to recognize and honor the code inscribed in our bodies, we make ourselves vulnerable to the effects of living outside of God's good created order.

What Does Sex Mean?

If the language of gift is inscribed in our bodies, what exactly do a man and woman say to each other with their bodies when they have sex?

The traditional Christian answer is that by having sex with a person, one says, "I give my whole being to you. I am all and only yours, now and until death does us part." (Remember Paul's words about a man and prostitute having sex: "The two will become one flesh.") In other words, in sex a couple is saying with their bodies what they said with their lips in the wedding vows. For this reason, sex has historically (at least in the Western world) and theologically been understood as the consummation of the marriage.

Why does sex necessarily have to involve this complete, irrevocable giving of self? Why can't it, for instance, be a way for committed, dating couples to express their love?

To answer this question, it's useful to ask another question: Is there any greater, more intimate way to say with one's body, "I give myself totally and only to you, until death does us part," than by a man and woman revealing their nakedness to each other, and further, of joining their bodies in sexual union, such that they actually become (however momentary on the physical plane) a one-flesh union? One grasps to imagine a more comprehensive, total way of enacting the marriage vows with one's body. Therefore, when an unmarried couple has sex they tell body lies. With their bodies they say, "I give myself totally and only to you, until death does us part," even though in reality they have not yet made that promise.

Another way of seeing the truth of the traditional Christian answer that sex involves the most complete, irrevocable gift of self is by remembering that from sex may issue new life. Whatever one's position on the morality of contraception, it's not hard to see how contraceptives helped sever the connection between sex and children, making it easier for everyone to reduce sex to pleasure — and, we would add, therefore easier to justify premarital sex.

By contrast, if we were to keep at the forefront of our minds the possibility that through this act of sex, the other person could become a mom or dad, we would probably be more apt to feel the weight of the sexual act, and the sacred, life-giving power into which it taps. It would help us to see how sex is a complete and irrevocable gift of self — so complete and irrevocable that a new "image" of the couple may be born, a life for which the couple is responsible for the rest of their lives.

What Does Chastity Mean?

A theological exploration of chastity will benefit from rediscovering the theology of the body and sex.


If inscribed on the body is a "divine code" of gift, and if marital sex reveals the most complete, irrevocable way of giving one's body to another, then chastity emerges as the virtue to help everyone — unmarried and married — follow and honor the divine code inscribed on their bodies.

As John Paul II says, at its essence chastity helps a lover to "see clearly" his or her beloved as the person for who he or she truly is — a gift — and to act in accordance with that reality. Edward Sri summarizes John Paul II's thought this way:

Because of original sin, we don't automatically experience authentic, self-giving love for a person of the opposite sex, but [as John Paul II says] 'a feeling muddied by a longing to enjoy'…. Chastity, however, moderates these desires for pleasure, so that we can see clearly the value of the person and respond to our beloved with a love that is centered on his or her good, not on seeking enjoyment for ourselves. Hence, the virtue is called 'chastity,' for it gives [the lover] a clear, pure love of the other person.

The discipline of chastity frees a person to tell the truth with his body, no matter his marital state. This formation in chastity is important for everyone because a couple with a shallow vision of chastity will probably fail to comprehend the significance of chastity after marriage, and once married, the couple will be more vulnerable to misuse each other for their own selfish ends. By contrast, the couple with a formation in the discipline of chastity will be prepared to constantly make a pure sacrifice of self to the other in marriage.

Telling a Beautiful Story

The state of the sexual union is that too many men and women lack a beautiful vision, anchored in good theology, of the body, sex, marriage and chastity. Rediscovering that beautiful vision in good theology is probably the most important thing that the Christian community can do to strengthen chastity.

A couple may have all the Bibles in the world — and Christian dating books on proper boundaries — stacked up between them, but if their vision of chastity is as shallow as "don't have sex before marriage because the Bible says so" and "you might get STDs," they will probably find a way to knock those books down.

By contrast, a couple with nothing separating them but a theologically formed vision of the body, sex and marriage will find a way to reserve the consummation of their mutual love until after their highest moment at the marriage altar, where they forsake all others and heroically pledge their total being (body and soul) to each other for better or worse, until death does them part.

In other words, a couple captivated by the theology of sex and marriage will find a way for the act of consummation to be just that: a genuine consummation (the most radical gift they will ever give in this life), not a counterfeit consummation (telling the other person at least in body that he or she is entirely and exclusively the other's, that they are one flesh, when in truth they have not yet made that vow to each other).

In short, a couple enthralled by the language of gift encoded on their bodies will find it much easier to tell the truth with their bodies.

PART 2: Sexy Single Men »

Copyright 2012 David and Amber Lapp. All rights reserved.


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Sex Series

A six-part article series on gaining a vision, anchored in good theology, of the body, sex, marriage and chastity