It’s Time To Bench Virginity Pledges

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You can find the first article in our current series on sexuality here.

You’ll have a hard time finding a more passionate advocate for sexual abstinence than I. Beyond the biblical parameters that confine sex within marriage, the practical benefits of abstaining from sex are innumerable. Can you conceive of the global economic, social, and public health benefits of a world where no person had sex, except with the one person to whom they were committed for life through marriage?

Because I am a champion of sexual abstinence and of adherence to God’s design for biblical sexuality, I have a recommendation for the church: let’s put the purity rings on the bench for a season. Better yet, maybe we should consider finding a cozy spot in the recycling bin for the virginity pledge certificates. Let’s declare a moratorium on the various forms of publicly committing to sexual abstinence.

I know this may sound antagonistic or counterproductive, but here are my reasons for urging Christian communities to reconsider this practice:

1)    Virginity pledges generally do not work.

Over the past decade, a number of studies have examined the efficacy of virginity pledges, showing that they have little to no impact among religious teenagers. The most publicized initial study, published by then Johns Hopkins doctoral student Janet Rosenbaum, found that religious students who signed virginity pledges both had sex before marriage and had their sexual debut at about the same rate as religious students who did not take the pledge. One study found that eighty-eight percent of pledgers had sex before marriage. Further research found that students who already had a deep religious commitment prior to the pledge succeeded in abstaining from sex, while pledgers without great spiritual devotion failed. In other words, the ring itself had no bearing on a child’s sexual behavior. Their spiritual maturity determined whether or not they would remain obedient to God’s commands in this area, irrespective of the pledging.

2) Purity pledges tend to focus on sexual intercourse and not overall sexual obedience.

At a 2006 Youth Specialties Conference, I remember hearing Real Sex author Lauren Winner emphasize the importance of not making intercourse the sole focus of sex education within churches. Two problems arise from such accentuation.

First, students may engage in an array of sexual sin- pornography, masturbation, oral sex, etc.- but dismiss this as acceptable because they have not crossed the coveted virginity threshold. Is a young person really better off entering marriage as a virgin but having looked at pornography every day?

Secondly, once a student breaks the pledge and has sexual intercourse, well, it’s all over. Why repent? Winner emphasized the notion among young people that once they have engaged in intercourse, they had less motivation to resist afterwards because they were no longer a virgin. The had failed in the purported goal of sexual obedience- to enter marriage as a virgin- and had little reason to repent down the road.

The New Testament condemnation of “sexual immorality” (Mt. 15:19, Rm. 13:13, 1 Cor. 5:1, Gal. 5:19, Eph. 5:3, Col. 3:5, etc.) uses the Greek term porneia. Porneia, refers to sexual intercourse outside of marriage and any way in which sex becomes an idol. God calls Christians, not only to abstain from premarital sex, but also to repent from the aforementioned manifestations of sexual idolatry.

3) They associate righteousness with external behavior rather than the blood of Christ.

The language of purity pledges very often includes talk of entering marriage “pure” and “clean” or with a “clear conscience.” Unfortunately, even if by God’s grace a person does enter marriage having abstained from premarital sex, they still are not chaste. Jesus makes clear in the Sermon on the Mount that any person who has lusted sexually after another person has committed adultery [1]. When we consider sexual sin at the heart level, rather than through a behavioral lens, no person approaches marriage sexually pure. We all have sinned sexually. Purity pledges imply that righteousness can be achieved through one’s ability to adhere to a code of conduct. In reality, “purity” comes only through the blood of Christ. Through Jesus, God makes sinners white as snow. We never should suggest to young people that their “purity” originates in their efforts. This message is particularly important for young people to hear, given that everyone will sin sexually and everyone will need to remember God’s forgiveness along the way.

4) Emphasis is usually on our effort rather than our dependence on God.

I cannot think of a more difficult temptation to resist than that of sexual temptation. Scripture validates the powerful allure of lust in 1 Corinthians by saying that we should “flee” sexual immorality [2]. Don’t resist, don’t fight, but we should physically remove ourselves from this type of temptation. Thus, we are no match for sexual temptation out of our own strength.

Purity pledges tend to emphasize the commitment of the young person. The decision, signified by the certificate or ring, is central. Given our desperate need for God’s help in such a challenging struggle, greater attention needs to be given to God’s commitment to us. When we face temptation, God pledges to give us a way out. When we are caving, God promises us the Holy Spirit to lead us away from sin. When we fall, God commits to forgive and restore us in our contrition. 

 

[1] Luke 5: 27-28

[2] 1 Corinthians 6:18

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