With all the emphasis on virginity as virtue's Holy Grail, if a Christian woman isn't a virgin when she marries, she's made to feel that she has somehow disqualified herself from God's greatest blessings and callings.
That's how Sarah Bessey explains the unfortunate subtext of much of the purity speak that is happening in our churches in her recent post "I Am Damaged Goods."
"In the face of our sexually dysfunctional culture, the church longs to stand as an outpost of God's ways of love and marriage, purity and wholeness," she wrote. "And yet we twist that until we treat someone like me… as if our value and worth was tied up in our virginity."
Implicit in what I'm reading about purity from Bessey, and a host of other women, such as Elizabeth Esther, Rachel Held Evans, and Carolyn Custis James, is a broad concern over how the church handles and presents God's teachings on sexual sin. This topic matters a great deal, considering that nearly 80 percent of self-proclaimed Christians are having sex before they are married.
The church has been pushing purity standards for ages. Esther refers to the shame she carried with her as a virgin into her marriage because she'd kissed a couple of boys before her husband and because she had masturbated. Esther would argue that the church's restrictions are becoming more rigorous, and by outlining its own capricious rules, the Church has inevitably constructed a "new and improved virginity."
But is there such a thing as hyper-purity, a sexual standard more rigorous than God's? Referring back to Jesus' words in the Sermon on the Mount, where he insists that lust is equivalent to adultery (Matt. 5:27-30), I'm not so sure. God's purity standard is effectively impossible to meet.
We can, though, fall guilty of making God's grace small by making sexual sin big, whenever the church insists that non-virgins are cast beyond the reach of grace. Sexual promiscuity is not the unforgiveable sin. Let's not forget those featured in Jesus' genealogy (Judah, the man who slept with his daughter-in-law, mistaking her for a prostitute; David, the king who murdered the husband of his mistress), nor those winning mention in the Hebrews 11 Hall of Faith (Rahab, the prostitute who sheltered the Israelite spies, and Samson, the man with a weakness for beautiful women). The Bible, in weaving its long history of redemption, is not a storybook of heroes. Failure, even sexual mistakes, has not once tied God's hands. He accomplishes what he wills through the worst of us.
But unfortunately, virginity has arguably become a modern-day idol of the church. According to Tim Keller, idolatry is fundamentally making good things into ultimate things. Virginity, which is rightly good, has unfortunately become ultimate, idolized in some churches as, in Bessey's words, become "a barometer of our righteousness and worth." Virginity is not a moral merit badge. Whether or not we have had sex before marriage, we are all lawbreakers (James 2:10). None can feel superior ¾ not even the virgins among us.
But all of this may beg the real question: How do we talk about sexual sin in ways that don't shame and yet stay faithful to the biblical truth that sex outside of marriage is, after all, sin (Heb. 13:4)?
For me, that question is not merely a philosophical one. Just days ago, my 11-year-old daughter stood looking over my shoulder and reading my current book manuscript. "You slept with your boyfriend?" she asked me incredulously, her eyes widened by the shock and dismay at my printed words of guilt.
I was 15 when I lost my virginity in the back bedroom of a strange apartment. He was my boyfriend, and I loved him. This rendezvous was not something we had planned, but my boyfriend's father, months previous, had offered him a box of condoms, "just in case."
Because let's be honest: Can we hope for purity with horny high school kids?
There are the three people I've had to work hard at forgiving over the last 20 years: me, for having made what has felt like one of the worst decisions of my life, my boyfriend, for having ever proposed the idea, and his father, for having had so little faith.
Strangely enough, though, I have readily accepted God's forgiveness, which isn't to say that I don't sympathize with the profound shame that many women with similar pasts are subjected to.
I have always planned to tell my children of my sexual past, not least because I believe God's grace is bigger than that history of shame. I have also wanted them to know what I believe about sexual sin, something that I fear isn't being mentioned in our blogosphere of grace. Sexual sin, although not unforgiveable, visits upon us categorically different consequences than other kinds of sin.
The Apostle Paul, in his letter to the Corinthians (a church, which floundered as we do in a culture of promiscuity), warns against sexual immorality: "Every other sin a person commits is outside the body, but the sexually immoral person sins against his own body," (1 Cor. 6:18). When someone has sex outside of marriage, she corrupts herself, even her sexual DNA. This doesn't mean that sex, as holy and right and pleasurable, can't be this when we marry. Nor is this to say that redemptive healing isn't possible. It can mean – at least it has for me – that having enjoyed illicit sex once can make us vulnerable to that temptation again.
Jesus rescued me from myself. This is what he continues to do because this is what grace always does. God keeps infinitely short accounts. While this is to me gospel, I do not want for my daughter the choices I made and have come deeply to regret. Virginity isn't everything… but it's still something.