Most of us recall the recent defection of former “Young, Restless, and Reformed” (YRR) author and ex-senior pastor Joshua Harris. A homeschool movement leader’s kid who went on to become a leading figure of the evangelical sexual purity and “courtship” movement with his 1997 monster best-seller I Kissed Dating Goodbye, followed by Boy Meets Girl: Say Hello to Courtship, and Sex Is Not the Problem (Lust Is), he went on to renounce his approach to promoting virginity and his rejection of dating in his 2018 documentary I Survived I Kissed Dating Goodbye and a number of public statements. The following year, Harris repudiated Christianity, announced that he and his wife Shannon were divorcing, and apologized for his previous “bigoted” views on sexuality, including teaching that gay marriage was wrong.
There was a great deal of shock and discouragement among many of those who had followed his teachings. A veritable cottage industry of articles sprung up analyzing what went wrong. Many of these focused on explaining Harris’s fall from the faith. The usual reasons given included that he had been entrusted with too much too soon while he was too young, along with spot-on rejections of the “media star” ecology of “Big Evangelicalism.”
More relevant here was the analysis focused on what had been wrong with sexual purity teaching itself, echoing longstanding biblical critiques of Harris’s teaching as well as allied movements such as True Love Waits, the Silver Ring Thing, and the like. The best criticisms were from evangelicals who continued to stand for the historic Christian sexual ethic, but who found serious problems in many sexual purity methods and teachings. Excellent examples include The Gospel Coalition’s Joe Carter, evangelical and former National Review writer David French, and World magazine’s Janie Cheaney.1
Although he probably had the best of intentions and did accomplish a lot of good, Joshua Harris damaged the church in both his original abstinence and courtship teachings, as well as through his public—dare I say “evangelistic”—rejection of Christianity. One rarely mentioned impact of his actions is that Harris made it more difficult for those who have been trying to help young believers understand and practice chastity through wiser and more biblical means. Joe Carter noted that critics of evangelicalism used Harris’s downfall to push the idea that “abstinence before marriage is an outdated concept.”
In reacting to errors of the sexual purity movement, we must not throw the baby out with the bathwater. It was Jesus in his Sermon on the Mount who condemned sexual lust not only in action but as we harbor it in our hearts (Matt. 5:27–30). Those who would serve and glorify God are still called to pursue holiness in all aspects of their lives, including sex, and should desire the same for their children. But we can do better than virginity pledges and rings, legalistic courtship requirements, or mass movements trumpeted by Christian rock stars and hip preachers at glitzy conferences.
Two “Bad News” but Necessary Starting Points
A fine Reformed pastor told me he likes to see topics such as this arranged in terms of the law and the gospel—the bad news preceding the good. So, before we get into some concrete steps toward improvement, let us look at two sobering starting points.
First, we must acknowledge and reject the errors of the sexual purity movement. These include relying on snake-oil gimmicks such as pledge rings and commitment cards, wrapping up calls to virginity in emotional events fueled and led by celebrities such as Miley Cyrus, many of whom, like Cyrus, then spectacularly crashed.2 This includes not creating extrabiblical rules and treating the violation of them as sin, focusing too much on sex to the exclusion of a wholistic approach to holiness and integrity. It means not advancing a grossly impoverished view of God’s grace that leaves those believers who failed sexually seeing themselves as permanently damaged goods. It requires that we present a scriptural and realistic understanding of that messy process known as sanctification. And it means avoiding false or tragically inflated promises that those who follow prescribed methods are almost guaranteed great marriages filled with amazing sex. These errors have led to deep disillusionment and despair among many for whom Christ died. The sexual purity movement too often focused on pushing young people to triumph in contests with their sexual drives and over our culture’s sexual infatuations, rather than on helping them to be whole Christians struggling to humbly know, love, please, obey, and glorify the Lord.
Second, and on the other hand, we also need to acknowledge the level of sexual unfaithfulness that the professing, evangelical church is guilty of, just as the sexual purity movement did. We evangelicals have followed the world in our sexual views and practices. We have lost sight of the honored place of marriage in God’s order and a deep, theologically grounded understanding of why and how he connected sex to it. We are a long way from embracing the biblical teaching that John Calvin summarized in such an earthy way in his commentary on Genesis: “God intends the human race to be multiplied by generation indeed, but not, as in brute animals, by promiscuous intercourse. For he has joined the man to his wife, that they might produce a divine, that is, a legitimate seed.”3
We should want to see Christian young people truly striving to reserve sex for marriage. We ought to be disturbed by the fact that not only do most fail, but that they increasingly do so boldly, promiscuously, and without any sense that they are sinning. This should be not because we are rigid legalists, but because we love God and we love them.
Relevant Magazine is a popular, edgy Christian publication directed toward younger evangelicals. The September/October 2011 issue featured a piece by Coalition for Campus Outreach (CCO) minister Tyler Charles, which received a lot of attention at the time, though not as much as it deserved, titled “(Almost) Everyone’s Doing It.”4 That “everyone” referred to evangelical Christians and “doing it” to sex outside marriage. The article documented not only that the majority of unmarried professed evangelicals were sexually active, but that an alarming percentage of the women were getting pregnant and even having abortions. The only silver lining at the time, Charles asserted, was that the vast majority still considered sex outside marriage to be morally wrong. The article was filled with quotes of familiar prescriptions that evangelicals start coming to grips with reality and stop teaching abstinence-until-marriage. A quote from evangelical theologian Scot McKnight—who does not advocate premarital sex—noted that the Bible was written at a time of arranged and young marriages and is hard to live by in a time when people routinely marry in their late twenties. Though the article clearly affirmed orthodox views of sex despite these quotes, and encouraged positive action to turn around these trends, things have declined since.
In my book Christian Marriage, I lay out detailed behavioral statistics from the Center for Disease Control’s massive National Survey of Family Growth (NSFG) and look at attitudes and some behavior from the National Opinion Research Corporation’s similarly large and prestigious General Social Survey (GSS), along with other professional sources. I updated many of these in a blog and a research brief for the Institute for Family Studies just last year.5
The data is awful. Among those categorized as “fundamentalist” (which refer overwhelmingly to those we would regard as “evangelical”), in the years 2008 through 2018 combined, 86% of never-married evangelicals aged 18 through 29 had at least one sex partner in the past five years, and 54% had three or more; 83% had engaged in sexual intercourse within the past year; and 66% were doing so as often as two to three times per month or more. Since these included adults who were as young as 18, this actually underestimates the percentages among young adults, as the numbers get worse the older we go.
For the two waves done between 2013 and 2017, the NSFG show that one-quarter had sexual intercourse at least once by ages 15 to 17, and about two-thirds by ages 18 to 22. Again, the inclusion of the younger ages actually depresses the percentages. Of course, there are other forms of sexual activity as well. If we include oral and anal sex as well as intercourse among 15- to 17-year-old evangelicals, well over 40% have engaged in at least one of those sexual activities, as have three-quarters of those ages 18 to 22. Meanwhile, among 15- to 17-year-old evangelical females who had become sexually active, 36% reported having two or three sex partners, and another 32% reported four or more. For males, those figures were 19% and 35%, respectively. Without reciting more ugly statistics, the percentages with multiple partners gets much worse for sexually active single evangelicals 18 to 22.6
As for attitudes, the GSS for 2010 through 2018 combined shows that most professing evangelicals no longer hold biblical views on sex before marriage, if they did even when the Relevant article was published. When asked about the morality of a man and woman who are not married engaging in sexual relationships, only 38% overall said it was “always” wrong, and another 9% it is “almost always” wrong; 40% replied “not wrong at all.” Among those 18 to 29, those percentages were 28%, 8%, and 48%, respectively. For those 30 to 39, 33%, 10%, and 46%. It gets worse. As I discovered in a recent research project, the NSFG for years 2011 through 2017 shows that 43% of evangelical teens 15 to 17, and 45% 18 to 22 said they would definitely or probably live with someone out of wedlock in the future. Only 22% and 30%, respectively, said they definitely would not.
Houston, we have a problem. And we have to face it realistically if we hope to bring our youthful crew back home safely.
Positive Solutions Rooted in Normal Christianity
So, where do we go from there? I would like to lay out some things that are scriptural and logical and that reflect the data. There’s nothing earth-shattering here. It’s time to stop looking for the big splash and return to relying on things embedded in what should be the normal, day-to-day reality of living out faithful Christianity in healthy churches with good and godly leaders. There’s nothing “sexier” than that, except maybe doing a survey or two.
First, we need to strongly promote regular, weekly, committed involvement by those believers who wish to be communicant members of our churches. The parents and the children, the single and the married, and the divorced and widowed. The positive difference between those who attend church regularly and others, in terms of whether they have begun engaging in sexual activity, are substantial. For example, just among single females who attend church weekly, 20% ages 15 to 17 and 59% of those 18 to 22 have engaged in some kind of sexual activity, compared to 36% of those 15 to 17 and 82% of those 18 to 22 who never attend church. These statistics do not suggest that church attendance is a panacea. Obviously, there are still serious problems among those who assemble regularly. But it certainly helps.
Sadly, according to the NSFG for 2011 through 2017, 9% of evangelical teens ages 15 to 17 say that they never attend church, another 20% do so less than two or three times per month, and 58% attend weekly or more. Attendance drops off even further during the college years. For those 18 to 22, those figures are 12%, 27%, and 49%, respectively.
The Scriptures are clear that Christians need to be frequently encouraged and admonished in the local church, while also receiving the grace God makes available through corporate worship and prayer, the preaching of the word, the Lord’s Supper, and the like. Reaching out to early believers facing terrible persecution, the writer of Hebrews admonished,
And let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near. (Heb. 10:24–25)
There is no doubt that coming together on the Lord’s Day was assumed among believers in the early church (Acts 20:7; 1 Cor. 16:2). The Lord Jesus inhabits the prayers of his people (Matt. 18:20). Meanwhile, like a lion the devil hunts them down (1 Pet. 5:8), and we all know that means picking off strays.
By modeling consistent church attendance and insisting on the same, pastors, elders, and parents quietly demonstrate their commitment to Christ and their dependence on his body. How should parents who can’t even find time to participate in weekly public worship expect their children to be committed to something much harder—namely, resisting both their own sexual urges and the powerful cultural tides that encourage them to act on them? Regular church involvement also exposes them regularly to the support and teaching of fellow believers, including their appointed shepherds. I have taught Sunday school classes and often noticed that the majority of those who needed this teaching were never there! Moreover, problems are picked up quicker and remedied before they become intractable when we are regularly in fellowship within healthy churches filled with people who care about our souls. The church as a whole represents a greater variety of experience and insight than can be found in our families alone, and parents can be equipped there to effectively lead their households.
Next, church leaders and parents must model good marriages and sexual self-control, as Paul makes abundantly clear in his requirements for elders and deacons (1 Tim. 3:1–8, 12; Titus 1:5–9). This does not mean perfection, but substantial holiness coupled with ongoing sanctification and the humility to confess and repent, while guarding themselves from temptation (1 Cor. 10:12). Laxity in maintaining high standards for elders and deacons is widespread in the church. I know of one situation where a pastor was caught in adultery with a married woman, and then left his spouse to marry his lover, all without missing a day in the pulpit. I can recount another where an elder who was seriously abusing his wife was allowed to continue on session and even teach Sunday school. How can we expect young people exposed to such examples to take biblical calls to chastity seriously? In addition, many pastors struggle with pornography.7 On the flip side, those who have confessed and dealt with such failures have experienced not only healing but also positive impact on the lives of those to whom they minister, not to mention their own marriages and homes, whatever their church’s response. If evangelical leaders and parents don’t take sexual sin seriously, neither will evangelical young people.
Third, whether from the pulpit—even in the course of faithful expository preaching—or through Sunday school classes, youth groups, workshops, and so on, our churches need to make sure that biblical teaching on sex and sexuality is taught clearly. This teaching should not be of the type too often seen in the sexual purity movement, with almost lurid promises of great sexual experiences for those who marry! It needs to be sober, honest, and realistic. It should include not only Scripture but also hard facts (taught by those who are well informed) about such problems as sexually transmitted diseases, abortion, out-of-wedlock pregnancy, the negative marital impact of premarital promiscuity and cohabitation, and the like. As it is in the Bible, this needs to be grounded in a proper fear of God and regard for his glory. For we modern Christians, typically God is too little and man is too large. “Everyone is doing it” is a frequent defense of sexual activity given by single believers. But as Peter declared, “We must obey God rather than men” (Acts 5:29).
Moreover, all teaching about sex must be placed within the context of marriage, its place within God’s covenant order, and all it means to God and to the human race: Jesus’ first miracle was at a wedding (John 2:1–12); the church is the betrothed bride of Christ awaiting the marriage supper of the Lamb (Rev. 19:6–9); and marriage represents the union of Christ and the church (Eph. 5:21–33). Throughout the Old Testament, God likens Israel’s faithlessness to adultery and prostitution. All of this loads sex—which God united to marriage—with powerful theological significance. It is only with reference to marriage that we can properly declare to our children the essential goodness of our sexual natures.
All sex outside of marriage dishonors marriage, and to degrade marriage is to treat with contempt the One who created it. Sins such as fornication and adultery tell God and others that his provision for us in marriage is not adequate and not good enough for us, and that doing all we can to honor marriage and protect our own present and future marriages is not a priority for us. Outside of a proper, doctrinally rich, covenantal understanding of what marriage is and its purpose and place within God’s plan for the human race, teaching about sex degenerates into sterile rules and hand-slapping. “God says no, and if you do this, he will punish you.”
Confronting moderns, even evangelical ones, about sexual sin is tough and getting even tougher. I highly recommend the recent Barna Report, Faith Leadership in a Divided Culture.8 Among other things, the Barna Group learned from pastors where some key pressure points were in their teaching ministries—areas they knew their congregations wanted them to address issues in which, in a classic Catch-22, they faced the possibility of serious blowback if they did so honestly and biblically. In the top ten list were issues such as homosexuality, marriage, sexual morality including cohabitation and sex before marriage, abortion, and the like. While pastors need to show compassion, understanding, and grace, they also must not avoid these topics or shave off the hard edges of Scripture.
Fourth, we need to create places and opportunities for honesty, where wrong ideas can be corrected, where wrong actions can be forgiven, and real help provided. Young people learn very quickly how to tell us what we want to hear. Creating this type of honesty is difficult, although it is easier if we are open about our own failings and our youngsters see that. This means that they need to have access to trustworthy people who are capable of communicating with them effectively and maintaining their confidentiality. That can be tough, especially for parents when they know their kids are sharing struggles with a trusted pastor, for example, but are not yet ready to talk to them about it.
Another tool that can be quite useful is the anonymous survey. It is best to use questions and response items gleaned from proven sources. It is much harder to write a good poll item than most people realize. Where churches are small, combining efforts with other compatible local churches can help in a youth survey project. Some may want to draw on expertise at nearby Christian colleges or from members involved in marketing research. As a sociologist, I would welcome calls from our local churches for help conducting such a study. Regardless, it is easier to tailor your ministry to correct error and sin if you know specifics, which a well-designed survey can uncover quickly, accurately, and efficiently.
Fifth, we often forget the role of communicating the aesthetic loveliness, the desirability, of God’s best for our lives. Truth about God and his perfect will is beautiful, and the way we talk about sex should help the younger generation to envision the splendor of godly marriage and sexuality. This is not the “someday you are going to have a hot wife and you’ll be glad you waited” promises made by too many youth pastors. This is not an unrealistic claim that leads only to disappointment. This is beauty grounded in the ordinary. If I were going to think of ways to capture it, it would not be by getting teens to imagine two great looking, popular people enjoying free access to powerful sexual gratification. I would rather have them think about two older people who have weathered life together, blessed many others, had children and grandchildren, and are still best friends whose sexual relationship involves a lot more bread and butter than filet mignon, but is deeply rooted in binding, covenant love.
We must inspire if we want our youth to aspire. Not with false expectations or with Christianized versions of the same shallow things modern Western culture increasingly pursues, but with a life of deep meaning, lived with integrity before God and, for most of us, a fit companion at our side who stands by us in plenty and want, health and disease, until death. Sexual integrity is key to realizing this, and unrepented sexual profligacy destroys it. We have to help young Christians see this, through modeling and didactic teaching but also through their imaginations, planting images in their mind of a better way, a superior life they can know.
The US Marine Corp advertises for recruits with images that are realistic about the sacrifice involved but that also help them visualize the reward. Pictures of those who have persevered and earned the right to be called Marines, standing straight, disciplined, strong. People of honor. They want these recruits to aspire to something that is wonderful but achievable only through hard sacrifice, so they inspire them with images they can relate to and aspire to become. Done honestly, this is not a gimmick. It is an effective presentation of truth. It doesn’t lie about the challenges, and it doesn’t cheapen the destination.9
Before we can communicate to young people about the discipline necessary for Christian growth, we need to practice this ourselves. Prayer, studying Scripture, applying the Bible to our own sins (at times ruthlessly), being open to the correction and rebuke of loving friends and family while cultivating humility. One of the problems with too much of the sexual purity movement was its emphasis on singular events, such as altar calls during deeply emotional revivals. Sometimes God uses such means. But the next morning, the next week or month, those vows must be kept, those truths must be lived, after the glow and excitement are gone. There will be disappointment, failure, the need for more repentance, to get back up and try again. There will be the need for others to walk alongside and struggle with them. Our youth need us to model that and be honest about it. As the late Jerry Bridges emphasized so well in his magnificent book The Pursuit of Holiness, sanctification is hard work. The Holy Spirit provides enabling grace, encouragement, motivation, and hope directly and through various means; but in the end, it takes effort. This is especially true in young people trying to exercise self-control over powerful, exciting, often newly awakened, and unfamiliar sexual desires.
Finally, as this last point implies, we must communicate grace and forgiveness to young people during their inevitable failures and sins. Their eyes should not be on themselves or their sexual desires, or even on wonderful but lesser things such as human marriage and family. Their eyes should be turned continually to Christ and all he is and is for them. This includes what he has accomplished for them at the cross for each and every one of their sins, interior and exterior, past, present, and future. As David French said so well, the worst thing about much of the sexual purity movement was the constant messaging that “sexual sin stained young persons, even though Christ forgave them.”10 That is a lie.
Those who truly repent deeply regret what they have done and realize it would have been better never to have sinned. True repentance never says, “Great, I got to enjoy the pleasure of sinning and I got forgiven too!” We can help those struggling, but who have not yet fallen, to see the rewards that lie on the other side of successfully resisting sin, without driving those who do ultimately yield to it to fall into despair.
To our young people and really everyone who falls into sexual sin, we need to say without reservation,
Come now, let us reason together, says the Lord: though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be as white as snow; though they are red like crimson, they shall become like wool. (Isa. 1:18)
He will again have compassion on us; he will tread our iniquities underfoot. You will cast all our sins into the depths of the sea. (Mic. 7:19)
Brothers, I do not consider that I have made it my own. But one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus. (Phil. 3:13–14)
When our children fall into sexual sin, do we really want them to feel that they can no longer have a godly marriage? That they are now second-class citizens in the kingdom, unable to be pure and whole before God? That they are forever tarnished spouses and parents? When it comes to sin, especially sexual sin, we struggle to find the balance between presumption and cheap grace versus harsh legalism, which produces nothing in the long run for those who practice it except hopelessness and hypocrisy. Like lumberjacks in a log-rolling contest, we struggle not to fall off one side or the other. Scripture and the Holy Spirit, however, apply God’s word equally to both errors. We must learn to do the same, for ourselves and for the youngsters we hope to nurture and guide through the storms of puberty.
All I have described here is within the scope of the ordinary life of the church, pursuing goals God has called us to using the basic means he has given his people through all of Christian history. There are no shortcuts, no razzle-dazzle. It is the steady teaching, modeling, and application of Scripture, prayer, and wholesome Christian discipline in the power of the Holy Spirit, with our eyes firmly fixed on Christ. This will not turn us into supermen and women untouched by the declining culture; but if we are faithful, then we will see substantial growth that sets us apart from the world. It is my prayer that we can all move together in this direction, taking it seriously and encouraging one another on the journey.
David J. Ayers (PhD) is professor of sociology in the Department of Economics and Sociology at Grove City College, Pennsylvania.
- See Carter’s article at https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/article/faqs-know-purity-culture/; French’s at https://www.nationalreview.com/2019/07/whither-evangelical-purity-culture-thoughts-on-the-legacy-of-a-lost-pastor/; Cheaney’s at https://world.wng.org/content/a_double_divorce.
- See, for example, https://www.christianpost.com/news/miley-cyrus-from-purity-ring-to-perversion.html.
- See https://ccel.org/ccel/calvin/calcom01/calcom01.vii.i.html.
- See https://issuu.com/relevantmagazine/docs/sept_oct_2011.
- See https://ifstudies.org/blog/sex-and-the-single-evangelical, and https://ifstudies.org/ifs-admin/resources/final-ifsresearchbrief-ayers-evangelicalsandsex8819.pdf, respectively.
- In A Tribe Apart, journalist Patricia Hersch went undercover as a student in a high school in northern Virginia. What she found out about the teens there, including those in active evangelical churches, was truly disturbing. The pattern of evangelical teen sexual activity, often in the context of church activities and almost willful parental ignorance, was shocking. See Patricia Hersch, A Tribe Apart (New York: Ballantine Books, 1999).
- See, for example, the report from Barna at https://www.barna.com/the-porn-phenomenon/.
- See https://shop.barna.com/products/faith-leadership-in-a-divided-culture.
- The Puritans are excellent models for handling topics such as sex with honesty, realism, grace, aesthetic beauty, and even a reasonable dose of humor. For a great introduction, see Leland Ryken’s Worldly Saints: The Puritans As They Really Were (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1990), Edmund Morgan’s The Puritan Family: Religion and Domestic Relations in Seventeenth-Century New England (New York: Harper and Row, 1966), and the chapter “Marriage and Family in Puritan Thought” in J. I. Packer’s A Quest for Godliness: The Puritan Vision of the Christian Life (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 1990), 259–73.
- See https://www.nationalreview.com/2019/07/whither-evangelical-purity-culture-thoughts-on-the-legacy-of-a-lost-pastor/.