When teaching about sexual purity, churches tend to target teens and college-age students. But what about Christian singles in the postcollege years? Steve Tracy is a professor of theology and ethics at Phoenix Seminary who specializes in sexual issues. In his previous role as an associate pastor, he spent many hours in ministry to singles. CT associate editor Edward Gilbreath spoke to him about the sexual challenges facing single Christians.
What to you are the key trends regarding singles and sexual purity?
In many cases, singles have been redefining what sex is and what's appropriate. What I'm seeing played out is a depersonalization of human beings through sexual behaviors and practices. The divine intent is total intimacy. It's to know as opposed to lie with. "To lie with" is an Old Testament phrase for inappropriate sexual behavior. However, in the Genesis context it's yada—"to know"—;a beautiful term for complete sharing, not just of bodies but of souls.
What we're seeing more of in relationships among Christian singles—;as well as non-Christians, of course—;is false intimacy. There's the offer of what on the surface is real intimacy through pornography or oral sex outside of marriage, but it's short circuiting the real thing. It's not total body or soul sharing.
We live in a culture where our leaders, from the president on down, are redefining what sex is. And of course, in a hypersexualized culture, singles understandably are sometimes quick to latch on to those redefinitions. It seems to give them new freedom.
In all of this, we're seeing Christian young people, who are increasingly depersonalized in their relationships, experience less and less true intimacy. This makes the Christian community and koinonia in the body of Christ take on a new level of significance. The church has an opportunity in this fragmented culture to offer real healing.
What counsel can the church offer postcollege singles?
We tend to fragment our sexuality into tiny spheres. We need to think in terms of the whole, of who we are as men and women. All of our sexuality belongs to God, all of it is healthy, and all of it should be developed under the lordship of Christ. That means so much more than just "Don't have sex outside of marriage." It's celebrating who you are as a man or a woman. It's healthy, nonerotic intimate relationships. It's a full spectrum of things.
One of the things we can offer singles is to help them not look at themselves as somehow nonsexual beings, because they're not supposed to be having sex, but to learn to accept and celebrate the whole of their maleness and femaleness in healthy but nonerotic ways. This doesn't take away the sexual struggles, but it certainly puts them in a healthy framework.
Many Christian singles say that they feel churches don't know what to do with them.
Churches need to reevaluate the subtle attitude that suggests that until you're married, you're not quite a whole person. Churches need to pull singles into the inner life of the church, into the community and leadership. Do we have elders and deacons and deaconesses who are single? If not, philosophically what's that saying?
We've given the message that marriage is a picture of the love relationship between Christ and the church, and that metaphor is true. But as Stan Grenz points out in his book Sexual Ethics, singles can also mirror Christ's love. In marriage, we're to be committed to only one person—;it's exclusive. But there's also an ever-expanding sense of God's love where he keeps reaching out, establishing relationships with more and more people.
Singles can demonstrate expanding love by having nonexclusive relationships. In not having a covenant relationship with a spouse, they can have more relationships, which demonstrates a different aspect of the character of God.
See today's related article, "Losing Our Promiscuity."
Our earlier coverage of Christian single life includes "Women Churchgoers 'Face Growing Difficulty in Finding Partner' | British magazine says church is out of single men, especially older ones." (June 7, 2000)
Steve Tracy has a short biographical sketch on his page at Phoenix Seminary.
Christian Single, a publication of the Southern Baptist Convention's Lifeway Christian Resources, is online.
Al Hsu's Singles at the Crossroads is available at the Christianity Online Bookstore and other book retailers, as is Stanley Grenz's Sexual Ethics.
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