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Modesty, Purity, and Nudity
“I also want the women to dress modestly… not with elaborate hairstyles or gold or pearls or expensive clothes” — 1 Timothy 2:9
In her book Pure, Linda Kay Klein tells the story of a woman named Laura experiencing sexual assault. Afterward, when Laura told her dad what had happened to her, the first thing her dad said to her was, “What were you wearing?”
When a story of sexual assault is met with a question like that, what’s conveyed is that the one who is raped is to blame for the rape. As Dr. Sellers pointed out in Sex, God, and the Conservative Church, “Purity movement teachings also dealt with lust and modesty in such a way that women were made responsible for how men behaved. They were to wear modest clothing in order to keep men from “stumbling.” This taught women to distrust men and taught men that they were not responsible for their behavior or sexual drive.”
In Matthew 5:29, Jesus gives a very different solution: “If your right eye causes you to stumble, gouge it out and throw it away.” In other words, we should deal with our proclivities toward stumbling and sin within ourselves — not by blaming others, or trying to force those around us into conformity with what we think will keep us pure. Galatians 5:23 lists “self-control” as a fruit of the Spirit within us, not a fruit of others’ modesty. The difference is that one school of thought locates the blame on what the aggressor sees, whereas the other locates the blame within the aggressor, i.e. on how he/she sees.
Obviously it’s much easier to blame external circumstances for our sin. But we have to teach our young men and women that every individual is responsible for his or her own sexual integrity. Previously, the entire discussion’s emphasis has been drawn from verses like 1 Corinthians 8:9: “Be careful, however, that the exercise of your rights does not become a stumbling block to the weak.” In context, Paul is talking about whether or not Christians should eat meat that had been sacrificed to pagan idols. That doesn’t mean there aren’t principles that can apply beyond Paul’s specific example; but in fact, historical, scriptural, archaeological and literary evidence all point out that nudity in Paul’s day didn’t have nearly the same taboo that nudity has in modern America.
The awkwardness is that we have invented a new way to stumble — and yet we now live and function within our invention. Inside, many women are condemned for their wardrobe choices, and many men learn that any attraction to the female form is sinful lust. In our Porn, Sexting, and Masturbation track, we make the case that what Jesus is talking about when he uses the word “lust” is not desire, attraction, or even sexual arousal, but rather making plans for sexual gratification which fail to respect the boundaries of marriage. However, if we assume we’ve already sinned in our attraction to someone, we might now sin more deliberately to cover and numb the shame of the first sin (which, again, may not have actually been sin).
Many women learn through advertisements, TV shows, and movies that their value is in their body and their sexuality, so they display more than they otherwise might in an attempt to demonstrate their value to others. As we disciple our kids in how they see the human body, we should also disciple our daughters that their value does not come from their sexuality, but from the fact that they are made in the image of God and that Jesus died to make them his.
Others may use the body taboo as a baseline to transcend, maybe pushing the envelope for the purposes of seduction or to sexually signal others. We would argue that any intention to cause sin is sin. But in the #MeToo era of sexual assault, we would also rather encourage our kids to err on the side of assuming that how someone dresses is not a sexual invitation.
To quote again from C.S. Lewis’ book Mere Christianity: “The Christian rule of chastity must not be confused with the social rule of ‘modesty’ (in one sense of that word); i.e. propriety, or decency. The social rule of propriety lays down how much of the human body should be displayed and what subjects can be referred to, and in what words, according to the customs of a given social circle. Thus, while the rule of chastity is the same for all Christians at all times, the rule of propriety changes. A girl in the Pacific islands wearing hardly any clothes and a Victorian lady completely covered in clothes might both be equally ‘modest’, proper, or decent, according to the standards of their own societies: and both, for all we could tell by their dress, might be equally chaste (or equally unchaste).”
On a debate panel, Sheila Gregoire was asked, “What do we do when a woman who is seeking walks into church wearing something really inappropriate, like a skimpy sundress? How do we tell her that she’s a stumbling block?” Sheila’s wise response was to say, “You don’t! Because in this situation, she is the weaker brother. The men are more mature in the faith. It’s her faith that God is most concerned with. He leaves the 99 to find the 1.”
Sometime today, or as soon as you’re able, ask your son or daughter what they’ve heard in church or in school about “modesty.” Listen for any clues that they’re starting to believe that a man’s sexual integrity is a woman’s responsibility. Ask them whether they think it’s right or not that one person should be held responsible for someone else’s sin.
“Father, what a mess we’ve made of the world you created. Have mercy on us. We need your love, we need your grace, and we need your powerful, transforming redemption. Come into our lives as we continue to seek you and your Kingdom. As you promised, may your Holy Spirit lead us into all truth. Guide our thoughts, words, actions, and tone as we continue to have these conversations with our kids. In Jesus’ name, amen.”
Three Parent Guides
“Now to him who is able to do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine, according to his power that is at work within us, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations, for ever and ever! Amen.” — Ephesians 3:20-21
Today we are making three of our best Parent Guides available to you, to help you navigate some of these very difficult issues: our Parent Guides to Modesty, Purity, and Sexual Assault. Each guide is packed full of tools, information, and frameworks to help you navigate some of these complicated and sometimes painful aspects of sexuality.
If sexual assault is a part of your story, or a part of your daughter or son’s story, first of all, our heart breaks for you. We are not experts in the recovery process that will be necessary to find healing, and we would like to sincerely encourage you to seek counseling for that if you have not already done so. If you’re reading in America and you’d like to explore counseling, here’s a link to the American Association of Christian Counselors, which can help you find a counselor in your area.
Choose the Parent Guide that is most relevant to your current situation. Write down in your worksheet any points you hope to highlight with your son/daughter. Then, sometime today, or as soon as you’re able, pick a few of the discussion questions from the end of one of them, and ask one of them to your son or daughter.
“Father, have mercy on us — on me, and on my family. This world is so broken and can be so vicious, but in your word you say to take heart, that you have overcome the world. Help us to live and move forward in that reality. In Jesus’ name, amen.”
Contraception and Abortion
“For you created my inmost being; you knit me together in my mother’s womb.” – Psalm 139:13
Summarizing research from Douglas Kirby, Donna Freitas, and Karen McClintock in Sex, God, and the Conservative Church, Dr. Sellers points out that:
- “…many Christian young adults may have grown up in a culture of abstinence-only sex education, which research shows does not lower the incidence of sexual intercourse and increases the incidence of unwanted pregnancy, thanks to the decreased use of contraception in this population (Kirby 2007, 15).”
- “[Christian students] are more likely to delay sex, yes, but when they do engage in sex, they are more likely to have unprotected sex” (Freitas 2008, 124-5).
- “Research on the effect of the purity pledge indicated a slight delay (12 to 18 months) in the onset of sexual activity, a reduced use of contraception when young persons did engage in intercourse, and a significant increase in shame, condemnation, and self-loathing” (McClintock 2001, 30; SIECUS 2005).
Sometimes reports like this can fuel a sort of fatalism, which says, “Well, if so many of them are going to have sex before marriage anyway, we may as well buy condoms for them.” But we agree with Nancy Pearcey in Love Thy Body, when she says, “The loving way to treat young people is not to hand out contraceptives, which amounts to collusion in impersonal and ultimately unfulfilling sexual encounters. It is far more loving to inspire them with a higher view of sexuality.”
Perhaps the real issue with the sort of abstinence-only sex education that Dr. Sellers critiques is not that students were encouraged not to have sex, but that all they heard about sex were catchphrases like “Just say no.” There was no explanation of how their bodies worked, maybe no deeper exploration of the meaning of God’s design, and his higher and more beautiful purpose for sex. Maybe there was no discussion of grace for failures either.
Some parents may not want to talk about contraception because they don’t want to consider that there could ever be a situation where that information could become relevant for their teens. Others may feel like the consequences of sexual immorality should remain as fearfully high as possible, and so might want to leave this partial solution undiscussed. Others may want to talk about it, but aren’t sure how they could do so without incentivizing their teens to act out sexually.
Of course, some married couples use contraceptives as part of family planning, so this isn’t just a premarital issue. Regardless, our goal is for you to become your kids’ go-to resource for all their questions about every aspect of sexuality. We want your kids to know that no topic is off-limits with you, and that you can be trusted to give them a real, honest answer about anything.
Most sources which share information about contraceptives also come with a built-in secular worldview, one which espouses that sexual activity should happen whenever you feel like doing it, and with whomever. But if you as the parent were to breach this topic, you could pre-empt and reframe the conversation. You might say something like, “Yes, there are ways to protect yourself from some of the physical consequences of sex, like accidental pregnancy or STIs, and some kinds of protection work better than other kinds. But contraception only deals with the physical side of things, and we’ve never believed that sex was only physical. It’s also emotional, spiritual, and relational. This is part of why we believe sex should be reserved for marriage, because the consequences of going outside of God’s design go way deeper than just the physical.”
In an NPR article called, “In Texas, Abstinence-Only Programs May Contribute to Teen Pregnancies,” Laura Silverman writes, “For years, California has invested in comprehensive sex education and access to contraception… There, the teenage birth rate dropped by 74 percent from 1991 to 2012. The teen birth rate in Texas also fell, but only by 56 percent.”
Although we saw in part 2 of the Sex Talk 2.0 video series that Gen Z’s sexual experience has become more digitized, pregnancy still remains a real possibility. One (difficult) question that’s worth asking is, “If the unthinkable happened, and one of our teens got (or got someone) pregnant, would they know that it was still better to carry the baby to term than to terminate the pregnancy?” Maybe then the baby could be put up for adoption, so a family in a more mature life-situation could give the baby the care he or she truly needed. But if teens believe their ultimate goal should be maintaining the appearance of righteousness before others, in a situation like this, abortion may present itself as a way to keep reality covered up. So then the question becomes, “How good is our community at offering grace for mistakes? Or have we conveyed the message that looking put together is the most important thing?”
For many Christians, it’s easy to talk in abstract terms about abortion being wrong. It’s much harder to create an environment where teens know that some things are more important than looking perfect. As a friend of ours once put it, the crucial question for parents to ask themselves is this: “Are you raising a sin concealer or a sin confessor?” When it comes down to it, a teen’s willingness to be open about their current life situation hinges on the amount of trust established with the ones who want to know.
One of the best ways to raise a sin confessor is to model sin confession, which brings to something we talked about in our Laying the Foundation track: sharing your own story. If you haven’t already done so, take some time to think through (and/or talk through with your spouse) the major points of your story that have informed your convictions. How much detail would you want to share if an opportunity presented itself?
Then, sometime today, or as soon as you’re able, ask your son or daughter this question: “What have you heard or learned about abortion? What do you think leads people to get an abortion, or to decide not to get one?”
“Father, when I am weak, you are strong. When I am nervous, you are secure. Thank you that you have come, not just to cover my past, but to lend me power for my future. I pray that your Holy Spirit would prompt me to ask the questions which uncover my son/daughter’s heart. Help me to align myself with you and what you’re doing in his/her life. In Jesus’ name, amen.”
“For there are eunuchs who were born that way, and there are eunuchs who have been made eunuchs by others—and there are those who choose to live like eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of heaven. The one who can accept this should accept it.” — Matthew 19:12
The word eunuch, of course, literally refers to someone who has been castrated, but the symbolic meaning goes beyond that. In his book Theology of the Body for Beginners, Christopher West writes, “In the Christian tradition, a eunuch “for the kingdom of heaven” is someone who freely forgoes sexual relations in anticipation of that state in which men and women “neither marry nor are given in marriage.”” In this way, being “a eunuch for the Kingdom,” or practicing celibate singleness, becomes just as much a witness of God’s love to married couples as the married couple is a witness of God’s love to the celibate single.
The two lifestyles are two parts of the same picture. The celibate single reminds the couple that the ultimate source of their love is not each other, but the God who loved us first. The couple reminds the celibate single of the goodness and importance of expressing that love in our relationships — whether romantically, in friendships, in our families, or in our church bodies. This is one reason we believe churches should make more room for singles in their congregation — and not just in “singles groups,” where the main goal is for singles to pair up. When married couples and celibate singles begin regularly spending time with one another, both parties have the opportunity to share and live out the sort of witness we’re describing.
Henri Nouwen puts it beautifully in his book Clowning in Rome: “We are children of God first and we all belong to God first. Everyone does. Those who live consecrated celibacy do not attach themselves to one particular person, and by their lives they remind us that our relationship with God, as the children of God, is the beginning, the source, and the goal of all human relationships. By his or her life of non attachment, the celibate lifts up this beautiful truth about our Christian life.”
Of course, as eloquent as Nouwen makes it sound, for many of us (especially many hormonal teenagers), the prospect of going the rest of our lives without sexual satisfaction sounds pretty miserable. This is why some of the most fearfully persuasive research about porn use are the studies connecting it to the inability to be aroused or sexually satisfied by anyone in real life. Many porn users are horrified to realize that, though porn may have started as a placeholder for the real thing, it often ends up corroding users’ ability to experience and enjoy the real thing. Along similar lines, the Catholic News Agency published an article called “The new celibacy? How porn may be destroying the impetus for sex.”
All that to say, most human beings are highly driven to seek the satisfaction of their sexual desires. Most people want to have sex with someone someday. Jesus acknowledges this reality at the end of Matthew 19:12, when he says, “The one who can accept [living like a eunuch for the sake of the kingdom] should accept it,” which implies that he knew most people wouldn’t be able to handle it.
Henri Nouwen was in a unique position to accept this calling, as some of his published letters reveal that he wrestled with same-sex attraction for much of his life. (We talk more about this dynamic in our Gender/LGBT track.) But even apart from experiences like his, 1 Corinthians 7:7 refers to singleness, broadly, as a “gift.” Of course, few people today think of singleness like that. The Babylon Bee satirizes our culture’s response in an article called “Local Woman Looking to Return Gift of Singleness.” The woman’s fictional prayer to God is, “Lord, I know you meant well with this gift, but this is not really something I’m into… And I know my time as a single woman is to be spent dedicating myself to you, but, well, what I really wanted was a dreamy guy.”
The question is, what does it mean to have the “gift of singleness”? It’s common to assume (with a sense of dread) that if someone has this gift, they’re going to stay single for the rest of their lives. We believe this interpretation reads more into 1 Corinthians 7:7 than is warranted. Unless someone has received a very clear conviction or vision from the Lord that their call to singleness will be for the long haul, we believe that we determine whether we have the gift on a daily basis, rather than a lifelong basis. So the best way to determine whether someone has the gift of singleness is by asking the question, “Am I currently single?” Then, this gift can become an invitation to steward ourselves for that day, instead of an occasion to worry about what may or may not happen in the future.
Still, the witness of the one who voluntarily chooses celibacy provides an important reminder. It reminds us that, “Yes, romance is good, and yes, marriage is good, and yes, sex is good — but none of these things were designed to fulfill us ultimately. That kind of fulfillment can only come from God, whether we’re married, dating, or single.” And though contentment in singleness shouldn’t be regarded as a means to an end, the one who is content as a single person will be much less likely to cling to romance for a sense of purpose, and therefore much better equipped to enjoy the gift of romantic love if the opportunity does arise.
Write down in your worksheet any points you hope to highlight with your son/daughter. Then sometime today, or as soon as you’re able, ask your son/daughter one of these questions:
- “How do you think people live fulfilled lives without romantic relationships?”
- “Why do you think most people get into romantic relationships?”
“Father, help me to show my son/daughter that our ultimate fulfillment does not come from starting families or having romantic relationships, but from our relationship with you. Help us not to treat the single life as a substandard life, and not to regard our single friends as having a disease that needs curing. Help us see that love isn’t only expressed romantically, but also expressed in friendly, familial, and spiritual ways with one another. In Jesus’ name, amen.”
Purity and Consent
“It is good to grasp the one and not let go of the other. Whoever fears God will avoid all extremes.” — Ecclesiastes 7:18
In our Porn, Sexting, and Masturbation track we mention Nadia Bolz-Weber’s book Shameless, and how we believe her proposed sexual ethic (which de-emphasizes the importance of marriage in order to de-emphasize shame) represents an overcorrection from some of the harmful excesses of purity culture. She writes in a similar camp as writers like Linda Kay Klein (with her book Pure) and Dr. Tina Sellers (with her book Sex, God, and the Conservative Church, though we have found her research and some of her frameworks to be thought-provoking and helpful. This new approach to sexuality is often driven by powerful, emotional stories about people who have been harmed by some experience in church, as opposed to a careful study of what scripture says. We believe these stories should be reckoned with, but without forgetting the impressively consistent witness of Christian tradition that sex is for marriage, and without overhauling the scriptural witness because of these stories. As G.K. Chesterton put it, “Don’t ever take a fence down until you know the reason it was put up.”
Writers like Klein, Sellers, and Bolz-Weber all share stories of men and women who got married but weren’t able to unlearn the negative view of sex they had been taught in youth group. Again, these stories fuel the idea that sex should be liberated beyond the confines as marriage in order to prevent future sexual shame later on (like in marriage). Then there are other stories about people who were taught that if they “remained pure,” God would reward them with an ideal husband or wife and a perfect sex life in marriage. Many who practiced abstinence waited years for their reward, becoming more and more disappointed that God wasn’t delivering on the promise others had made on his behalf. We set others up for faith crises when we start making promises on God’s behalf in this way. As Jason Burtt with Unaltered puts it, “My motivation to live a pure and honorable life is because of what Christ already did, not because of what I want him to do for me.”
Meanwhile, when “purity” was defined in binary either/or terms, some of those who became sexually active before marriage fell into a spiral afterward, acting out a feeling of continuous estrangement from God. If purity is framed as something we’re born with, and can lose — as opposed to something we only have if Christ has given it to us, which he renews in us and empowers us to grow in — we may again be setting up someone’s faith system to crumble.
One tenet of the new sexual ethic is that any guilt we might feel for acting out sexually is only the result of social programming, not our heart’s sensitivity to the Spirit’s conviction. This is a powerful line of rhetoric, and those who believe it are often empowered to discount many guilt feelings for going farther than their purity culture might have permitted. This is also propelled by a critique on the double-standard that exists for promiscuity between men and women (i.e. it’s okay for men to sleep around but when women do it they’re “sluts” or “thots.”) We agree that the double-standard should be corrected, but believe that a true solution would be greater sexual integrity for both men and women, not a further removal of sexual boundaries for everyone.
As Katelyn Beaty wrote in this New York Times article, “To be sure, consent is a nonnegotiable baseline, one that Christian communities overlook. (I never once heard about consent in youth group.) But two people can consent to something that’s nonetheless damaging or selfish. Consent crucially protects against sexual assault and other forms of coercion. But it doesn’t necessarily protect against people using one another in quieter ways. I long for more robust categories of right and wrong besides consent — a baseline, but only that — and more than a general reminder not to be a jerk.”
The issue with a sexual ethic that’s only based on concern for each others’ desire in the moment is that it’s short-sighted. A friend of ours told us that the conversation with his fiancée about her sexual history was one of the most painful conversations he’s ever had with anyone. Although the critique of purity culture says that sexual guilt is only social programming, our friend quipped, “Purity culture isn’t what made my heart sink.”
Of course, there is grace for everything, and nothing is beyond God’s ability to make something good out of it. But the next generation should understand that if we’re sexually active with someone outside of marriage, there’s a good chance that person will have to take those decisions into a marriage with someone else. Someday they’ll have to tell someone else about what they did with us, and no matter how enlightened or progressive someone may be, the vast majority of us still don’t like learning that our romantic partner has been sexually active with other people. Jesus said, “Do for others what you would have them do for you.” The challenge is to help Gen Z see the beauty in and apply that principle, not just for what we want in the immediate moment, but with a view toward the long haul of our entire lives.
Watch minute 2:11 through 3:54 of this fantastic articulation of the meaning of purity from YouTuber Katie Emmerson.
Then, sometime today, or as soon as you’re able, ask your son or daughter this question: what do you think Jesus meant when he said, “Do for others what you would have them do for you?” How do you think that applies to romantic relationships? What about sexuality?
“Father, thank you that you do not deal with us according to what we deserve, but according to your unending grace. We ask your forgiveness, mercy, and healing for our sins. Help me as I lead my son/daughter toward sexual integrity and purity, not through uncertain promises of earthly rewards, but because of who you are and because of what you’ve already done for us. Grant us all discernment to see the shallowness of sexual ethics which aren’t based on full recognition of the reality you’ve created. In Jesus’ name, amen.”