David and I were sitting in
a friend's living room recently, drinking civilized wine, eating
civilized crackers, and making civilized conversation, when the
friend in question asked about our whereabouts the previous evening.
Our whereabouts had been a hotel room. A hotel room with a lone
Sex and the
The church lady vs. the 'evangelical whore'
|Lauren F. Winner
No big deal. Men and women go out of town and get a hotel room,
and in this day and age no questions are asked, no eyebrows raised;
the couple in question has no reason to check in pseudonymously,
pretending to be church-sanctioned, state-approved Young Marrieds.
Unless, that is, the couple in question is a Christian couple,
and the friend feeding them Stoned Wheat Thins is a Christian
friend. If that's the scenario (and it was), the couple never should
have been in that hotel room to begin with, and this is the
conversation you can expect afterward:
|Celibacy is a big
deal. But it's a big deal that evangelicals aren't willing to
talk about, except to remind us that True Love Waits.
"I can't believe you two," Sarah said. "Can't you keep your pants
on for one damn minute?" (Sarah may not have had sex before she
married, but she has learned to curse since.) "Perhaps you've
noticed that the Bible forbids this sort of thing?" She gazed evenly
at David: "Maybe I shouldn't expect any better of someone so new to
the faith, but I did have hopes for your girlfriend. Silly of me."
Sarah glanced my way. "I suppose that's what you get when you're
dealing with the world's favorite evangelical whore."
Mark Noll, the evangelical historian, published a book a few
years back called "The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind." The scandal
was that there is no evangelical mind, and Noll called for a
rejuvenation of Christian thinking. I think there's another scandal,
and, following Noll, we might call it The Scandal of the Evangelical
Body. The scandal, thankfully, is not that there is no evangelical
body. There are, in fact, many evangelical bodies. Lots of those
bodies are married, and I can't say much about their sex lives.
But lots are unmarried, and for us sex--or, perhaps more
accurately, celibacy--is a big deal. But it's a big deal that
evangelicals aren't willing to talk about, except to remind us that
True Love Waits. This slogan might work when you're 15. Ten years
later, catch-phrases don't really do the trick. So here, in short,
is what I propose is the scandal of the evangelical body: the church
tells all of us to be celibate outside of marriage, and then turns a
blind eye to those thousands of unmarried evangelicals who ignore
this injunction. We Christians spill plenty of ink moralizing about
sex, but we seem unwilling to talk about it in any honest or
theologically engaged way.
Take Al Hsu's "Single at the Crossroads," widely recognized as
one of the best books on Christian singleness. After rich
discussions of friendship, community, and the benefits of the single
state, Hsu turns to the temptations singles face. "Sexual expression
is not essential for life," he writes. "While we acknowledge that
sex is a good gift designed by God, we must also affirm that it is
intended for only appropriate circumstances."
When he tries to articulate helpful hints for singles struggling
with celibacy, he falters. "Setting forth rules"--like don't remove
her blouse or don't lie down together--"doesn't help," he says.
"Paul does not provide a detailed list of situational dos and
don'ts." In the end, Hsu concludes that singles must simply opt "to
pursue holiness and purity," finding whatever approach to the task
of remaining chaste "works for us."
My unmarried evangelical friends, I think, are fairly
representative. Some of them are virgins. Seriously chaste virgins.
Others are virgins in Bill Clinton's sense: in the tactful euphemism
of my friend Sheila, they "entertain through other orifices"
nightly. Or take my friend Ben, who managed to marry as a virgin but
was still a virgin on his first anniversary: he couldn't flip the
switch from "Sex is bad while I'm single" to "Now I'm married--sex
|My friend Ben
managed to marry as a virgin but was still a virgin on his
first anniversary: he couldn't flip the switch from "Sex is
bad while I'm single" to "Now I'm married--sex is great."
Then there are those who do have sex, like Jill, a Wheaton
College grad who lost her virginity in the Billy Graham Center. The
college administrators, experts at acting in loco parentis, might be
shocked. After all, they've put their students in sex-segregated
dorms, sent Elizabeth Elliot to lecture them on purity, told their
students to be good till marriage, and washed their hands of the
matter. Little does Wheaton know that some of its dorm rooms house
So, what to do, if not turn a blind eye? In the first place,
evangelicals might attempt to have an honest conversation about
sexuality. We might aim for a discussion of scripture that
investigates what the Bible has to say about sex, rather than
assuming what it says. (I suggested sexuality as a theme for a
20s-and-30s Bible study group at a nearby evangelical church and was
laughed out of the room--a response that might lead the cynic to
wonder just what evangelicals are afraid of. If, indeed, the Bible
is so straightforward about the evil of premarital sex, surely it
wouldn't hurt us to spend six weeks rehearsing the theme.) We shy
away from discussing sex because, like most other matters in our
highly atomized, individualized culture, we think of it as private,
off-limits--all evangelical-speak must be above-the-waist.
But sex is sometimes a community matter too, especially when
one's community is the body of God. In Paul's letter to the
Galatians, he writes: "Brothers, if someone is caught in a sin, you
who are spiritual should restore him gently. But watch yourself, or
you also may be tempted. Carry each other's burdens, and in this way
you will fulfill the law of Christ."
As the Anglican theologian John Macquarrie observed, "We must
avoid the mistake of thinking that because human sexuality is
personal, it is also private." Macquarrie went on to say that sex
has any number of social ramificiations--sex leads to babies, babies
get property, and so on. But Christians have an additional reason to
worry about sex--what I am or am not doing in bed affects my
relationship with God as much as what I do in church does, and it's
the job of my sister in Christ to hold me accountable. The problem
isn't that Sarah made my sex life her business. It's that her
evangelical vocabulary left her with nothing to say but "whore."