One of the new features I’m really enjoying about the new Christianity Today is their ‘Village Green,’ a brief symposium on important topics.  Space limitations prevent the conversation from going deep, but CT has done a good job of blending theoretical and practical concerns.

And since we like a little dialog around here, the difference of opinions is simply fun to read all in one spot.

This month’s is how to promote pre-marital abstinence in an over-sexed culture.

Mark Regnerus’ response is, not surprisingly, the most compelling.  The best way for young people to avoid non-marital sex (as he rightly identifies it) is for them to get married. It’s a shocking idea, I know, but the more you think about it, the more sense it’s going to make.  Trust me.

But Donna Freitas registers her disagreement:

Most people understand abstinence as a several-years-long commitment, perhaps even a several-decades-long one for young adults, and present it as such. If you present a student, already overwhelmed by living in hookup culture, with what sounds like another overwhelming framework for having sex (or not having it), you won’t get very far, at least not with too many of them. They are already living in one impossible situation—offer them what sounds like another impossible situation, and they are likely to keep treading water where they are. And where they are is hookup culture.

While I think Freitas is wrong to create the false dichotomy between the “overwhelming framework” of marriage and short-term strategies for abstinence, I suspect that on a practical level her appeals to individualism and rebellion against the norm have a more attractive appeal than–alas–marriage.  But such appeals also further reinforce the notion that abstinence is a “lifestyle choice” that can be tried out “just like you can try out hooking up.”

But, of course, abstinence isn’t a lifestyle choice.  And isn’t the goal of Christian teaching on sexuality not to prevent pre-marital sex per se, but to cultivate and promote robust and healthy marriages?

Chastity is a positive virtue, not a negation, and while CT’s question is clearly relevant, it misses the most central aspect of young people’s sexual lives.

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Posted by Matthew Lee Anderson

Matthew Lee Anderson is the Founder and Lead Writer of Mere Orthodoxy. He is the author of Earthen Vessels: Why Our Bodies Matter to our Faith and The End of Our Exploring: A Book about Questioning and the Confidence of Faith. Follow him on Twitter or on Facebook.


  1. Christopher Benson January 8, 2010 at 1:10 am

    Like you, I welcome CT’s “Village Green.” Unlike you, I don’t find Mark Regnerus’s response compelling. He writes: “Unfortunately, most young Christians move into their 20s without realizing that a vocational calling—to marriage or singleness—has already been given to them by a loving Creator.”

    First, a note about terminology. The Christian tradition has spoken of a vocational choice between marriage and celibacy, not marriage and singleness. Singleness is a relatively newfangled term.

    Second, let’s not conflate celibacy, a spiritual gift or calling for lifelong sexual abstinence (e.g., Daniel, Jeremiah, Paul, Jesus), and singleness, an indefinite state of sexual abstinence.

    Third, the church should stop yammering about sexual abstinence, which singles out the singles, and start exhorting married AND single people to chastity, a virtue that must rehabilitated, as Lauren Winner did in her excellent book, “Real Sex: The Naked Truth About Chastity” (cf. Christine Colón and Bonnie Field, “Singled Out: Why Celibacy Must Be Reinvented In Today’s Church”). All Christians are called to chastity; only a remnant of Christians are called to celibacy.

    In conclusion, we should drop the negative injunctions (“Do not have non-marital sex!”) and adopt positive exhortations, as G. K. Chesterton memorably writes in his essay “A Piece of Chalk”: “Chastity does not mean abstention from sexual wrong; it means something flaming, like Joan of Arc. In a word, God paints in many colours; but he never paints so gorgeously, I had almost said so gaudily, as when He paints in white.”


    1. Christopher,

      I think your response is right on, and the direction I was hinting at in the latter part of the post. It is a tad unfortunate the way they framed the question.

      That said, as you know, I’m pretty sensitive to the terminology when it comes to marriage, so I appreciate and agree with pretty much all your points. Winner’s book is awesome, and she is on this point exactly right.




  2. Matt – please let me know if my “comments” are too long! I spent a couple days mulling over this and finally produced something I’m happier with.

    LOL. The first thing that popped into my head was the Christian classic “I Kissed Dating Goodbye.” Somebody gave me that book while I was in my late teens and I summarily round-filed it. It wasn’t until I was married that I reopened the book and found some great concepts therein. The irony was not lost on me.

    I see extramarital sex as a symptom, not the true problem itself. If we continue to try and just treat the symptom, the problem will only effuse sin in other ways. The problem is a lack of good relationship modelling, a lack of community (family) support, and a lack of intentional accountability.

    To combine thoughts from Winner (I have not read the book but read the reviews / summary) and Regnerus, my thoughts are three:
    1. First, we need to present a compelling picture of Biblical marriage to youth- by example.
    2. We need to communicate what God has intended for marriage and sex, and finally
    3. We need to give youth some good leaders (including parents) that they can be vulnerable with and accountable to (by their own choice).

    As Christians, we know that God wants the BEST for us in every area, including sexuality. We know that the World’s idea of sexuality is trash and a hollow shadow of the richness that God designed.
    (As someone once put it, “Yes, God is trying to take something from you. He’s trying to give you a feast and take away your dirty sandwich!”)
    We need to STOP skirting sex-talk and we need to preach about how wonderful God intended sex to be. We need to take ownership of this topic back from the world. We need to talk about it from a young age – right now the World is winning the race to present its ideas about sex to children’s minds.

    Secondly, after having presented youth with something to hope for, we need to encompass them with a compassionate and yet perceptive and bold community that looks out for them (cf Matthew 10:16). The community needs to span age ranges and needs to be able to talk about sex. It needs to be able to listen to a teenager scream at the top of their lungs “I WANT TO HAVE SEX RIGHT NOW!!!!!!”
    If youth have a community that will let them express how they are truly feeling, and will even give them the tools with which to express those feelings (words, art, music, what have you), it will give the community a chance to reach into young relationships and offer suitable defences that will protect youth from actions they would later regret. The key is that, with youth, you can not prescribe restrictions and walk away. You need to involve them and aid them, and ultimately leave the informed choice up to them. But finally, just like any other part of the Christian life, youthful uncommitted relationships with hormones raging will certainly have much poorer outcomes when conducted in isolation than when they exist in a supportive community ecosystem.

    I would like to see a survey or some statistics about whether people who married young regretted it, or whether they were more incompatible with their mates over the long term than those who waited until later in life (when, presumably, they were more stabilized in who they were, and therefore there were less surprises for their mate.) I look into the past and see people marrying at much younger ages (12? 14?). Did it work well then? Certainly, the tradition of marrying young lasted a long time. It seems it’s only recently that we’ve taken on this trend of marrying later in life, well past the time in life when hormones rage at full boil. If Christian adults can find ways to help (sexually-struggling) Christians successfully marry at a younger age, while keeping in mind that people change markedly from say age 18-25, then we certainly should. Perhaps one way of achieving this is to drop the huge costs of big weddings off our radar. I seriously doubt there’s a correlation between cost-of-wedding and marital success! ;)

    To add one more thing, I know a woman who only ever seriously dated one man before marrying, and she is so pleased that she never had to go through the many great heartbreaks of dating-as-usual. I believe her route was much better than my experience of serious dating and serious heartbreak. While it’s obviously hard to prescribe, I think that we need to encourage youth to look critically at their potential mates. We certainly need to empower them to be able to say after few low-risk dates “This isn’t what I was hoping for. This isn’t everything God has for me. Goodbye.” We need to empower youth with a positive self-image – that is – we need to ensure that they know how Father looks at them: passionately and full of pride (Matthew 3:17). What I’m saying is this: when youth stand firmly on their footing with God, they are much less likely to go looking for a mate that will prop them up in dysfunctional ways, and they will much less need to fill their gaping spiritual emptiness with the salve of sexuality. With a positive image, they will look lightly on failed dating trials and heavily on choosing a life partner, not vice versa.

    I’d love to see more on this issue – it’s simply terrible to pass on the dead-end message to hormone-infused youth “wait until you’ve graduated from university and then you can address those hormones, if you’re lucky.”


  3. It also seems worth noting that a recent study found that 95% of Americans have/had pre-marital sex (including 9 in 10 women born in the 1940s)

    It’s all well and good to talk about values and ideals but a healthy dose of reality is important, especially when talking to young adults who have a keen eye for BS.


  4. “Scriptures4life,”

    Lots of good stuff in your comment, and lots that I agree with. I think you are exactly right when you describe extra-marital sex as a “symptom,” which is why I get nervous in making it the center of our discussion about the issue.

    All the studies I have seen indicate that people who marry young tend to divorce more than those who wait until after college or even later. However, there are LOTS of reasons why this is the case, none of which have to do with the brute fact that they are marrying young. But it’s worth bearing in mind, to chasten the impulse to ONLY advise people to marry young (which you clearly have not fallen into).


    Thanks for the comment. It’s great to hear from you again.

    I have to register some skepticism about the report. Additionally, I’m curious to know if they broke it down into religious categories and what the results would show. I am going to review it here at Mere-O soon, but Christian Smith’s latest (Souls in Transition) indicates again that regular church-going is an indicator of a very different lifestyle. I’ll try to dig out whether he says anything directly about abstinence or not.




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