Purity Culture has been a significant topic of cultural conversation since the announcement that Joshua Harris, author of I Kissed Dating Goodbye, is getting a divorce and leaving “conventional” Christianity. Sean and Scott offer some historical and ethical reflections on how the church has taught sexual purity. They discuss both positive and negative elements of purity culture and offer some thoughts on what a biblical sexual ethic should look like moving forward.
Sean McDowell: Welcome to the podcast, Think Biblically: Conversations of Faith and Culture. I'm your host, Sean McDowell, professor of Christian Apologetics at Talbot School of Theology, Biola University.
Scott Rae: I'm your co-host, Scott Rae, dean of faculty and professor of Christian ethics, also at Talbot School of Theology here at Biola University.
Sean McDowell: Today, we want to talk about a subject that's been really discussed pretty heavily over the last three to five years, but really in the past few weeks because of an announcement by Joshua Harris, the author of the book, I Kissed Dating Goodbye, which was a radically popular book in kind of the late-90s, framing what has been called Purity Culture.
Turns out that Joshua Harris who wrote this book at only 21 years old decided to kind of abandon his teachings in this regard, and also to say he no longer defines himself as a conventional Christian, and that he and his wife are divorcing.
Many people have come out and said, "This is the death of Purity Culture." And many people and critics from the outside have said, "This is the damage of a Christian sexual ethic." Now, a lot of people have weighed in on this from a number of different perspectives and this podcast is not really going to be focused on the story of Joshua Harris, or in particular his book, but really what's been called Purity Culture, and just asking the question: What kind of message of sexual purity, if we even want to use that term, do we want to teach from the church and from parents really focused on the next generation?
Now, this term Purity Culture is actually somewhat ambiguous, and I don't know that anybody really knows what it means, but essentially, you go to maybe the late-90s into the 2000s, it was a very intentional movement and you had campaigns like, say, the Silver Ring Thing, or Why True Love Waits, and again, the book by Joshua Harris, I Kissed Dating Goodbye, essentially trying to help young people save sex for marriage and avoid this encroaching non-Biblical sexual ethic that seemed to be coming closer and closer to home really with, in many ways, also, with the growth of the internet to this young generation.
Now, that's kind of what's meant by Purity Culture. And it included things like purity rings, people signing purity pledges, huge rallies, music, curriculum, on and on. So, that's kind of briefly what we mean by Purity Culture. Now, my kind of experience with this, so to speak ... Now, I'm turning over to you, Scott, to share your perspective. Is, I grew up, actually, kind of with a father who, in the 80s, did what was called the Why Wait campaign, which really was the first time publicly that the church addressed some of the ideas coming from the sexual revolution in the 60s and the 70s. So, that was kind of through the 80s into the early-90s and mid-90s.
And then in the late-90s, you have movements like, Why True Love Waits that kind of took the baton, so to speak, in a similar but also different direction. So, I was coming to age, so to speak, in high school and college while this Purity Culture is really hitting. Now, you have a little bit of a different perspective.
Scott Rae: Yeah. I came to faith quite a bit younger than you did, in the 70s, sort of in the aftermath of the sexual revolution in the 60s and I started high school in the late-60s when the sexual revolution was in full bloom.
And so, there was a lot of discussion about how to be faithful while at the same time dealing with this sort of flood of sexual freedom that was now coming, sort of in large part, for the first time in culture. We were no longer in the Ozzie and Harriet culture of the 1950s.
Sean McDowell: Right, right.
Scott Rae: It was no longer Leave It to Beaver. But you know, coming out of the 60s, and basically growing up in the 60s, we were bombarded with the idea that the only way to really be yourself and to be authentic and to express yourself was to sort of give yourself ... I think maybe the best phrase would be to almost to sexual hedonism.
Sean McDowell: Wow.
Scott Rae: And I mean, there was this huge celebration that the limits of this puritanical sexual ethic, as it was described, were now being lifted and you could be who you were.
So, the contrast between a Christian sexual ethic, which was still fairly strong. I mean, the late-70s, early-80s, when your dad sort of started with the Why Wait campaign, you know, I think that was directly in response to what we saw as a sexual revolution.
Sean McDowell: That's right.
Scott Rae: I remember the [inaudible], the early 1980s when Time Magazine basically had a comment that says, "The Sexual Revolution is Over."
Sean McDowell: Wow. 1980s.
Scott Rae: Like the battle had been won.
Sean McDowell: Wow.
Scott Rae: It was done. There was no longer any discussion about it. In Christian circles, that wasn't quite the case because the Christian sexual ethic that I grew up with was still pretty strong. And as you mentioned, with all the things that surrounded the Why Wait campaign and the Purity Culture, there was a lot of Christian cultural support for the Purity Culture, and it needed it at the time.
Now, the difference was, we didn't have the visual images that were so readily available at the touch of a place on your smart phone or the click of a mouse. So, that's the part that is totally different.
Sean McDowell: In many ways, pornography has changed everything. Now, let's come back to that, but how old were you again, remind me, when you became a Believer?
Scott Rae: 16.
Sean McDowell: You were 16 years old. And this was roughly what year? I'm sorry to put you on the spot, but give us some context. What decade was ... This was, you said-
Scott Rae: 1970.
Sean McDowell: 1970s. Okay. So, what was kind of the message coming from the church about sexual purity that you recall in the 1970s?
Scott Rae: Well, I think what was so different about it than today is that most of the people who embodied the sexual revolution were so counter-cultural in a whole lot of other ways. I mean, it was the hippie generation. And, you know, it's when Woodstock came of age. And the muses were really radically changed, and it was associated with the drug culture that was coming on the scene for the first time. So, it wasn't purity ...
How can I put this? Sexual promiscuity was associated with all sorts of other things that the culture at large, I think correctly, had really significant problems with. And so, it wasn't isolated on its own apart from all these other cultural things that ... What I would call cultural baggage that went along with it from the 1960s.
Sean McDowell: Now, this is a really important distinction because today we're told that a biblical sexual ethic is actually damaging to certain people, and it harms you if you think you shouldn't have sex outside of a marriage-context. You say you go back to the 70s, and at least culturally-speaking, it was kind of the opposite, at least on the surface, that people believed and sexual promiscuity was more associated with things like rebellion and alcoholism and drugs that itself was dangerous. Is that a fair-
Scott Rae: I think that's right. And I think we still didn't know a whole lot about sexually transmitted diseases. This was before the advent of AIDS, so we didn't know anything about that. But it was just associated with all these other things that it made it a little bit easier for the average young Christian to reject the sexual promiscuity because you were also rejecting all the other stuff that came along with it.
Sean McDowell: So, if you rejected this in the 70s, you were a part of the mainstream. Now if you reject the wider culture, it's the opposite. You are a revolutionary.
Scott Rae: Right, right.
Sean McDowell: What a radical change that is.
Scott Rae: It's been a ... Yeah. A very big change. Although, I remember as a pastor in the mid to late 1980s, before I came to teach at Talbot, I remember my wife and I doing premarital counseling, for example. I pastored to singles. And we talked a lot about biblical sexuality.
But I remember doing premarital counseling, and we sort of drew lots for who covered what, and my wife and I drew the straw that dealt with the talk about sex and sexuality and waiting.
And I remember, even as late as the mid-80s, we would almost get laughed at by couples that we were counseling.
Sean McDowell: Wow.
Scott Rae: When we were encouraging them to wait. Particularly if they had been married before and this was a second marriage, they just looked at us like, "You can't possibly be serious about this."
Sean McDowell: And this is the 80s. This is not-
Scott Rae: This is the mid to late 80s, yeah. And so, that's why I think the idea that the sexual revolution ... You know, once it sort of shed the hippie culture, which it did in the 80s and going forward, then people evaluated it more in terms of, "This is a no harm, no foul thing." And so, we really didn't begin to see the damage until we had 20 to 30 years of data, and all sorts of anecdotal evidence that we've had come to the fore.
Because there are all sorts of victims of the sexual revolution that have been coming forward in the last 10 to 15 years. You know, our friend that we've had on our podcast before, Jennifer Morse, is head of an organization called The Ruth Institute. She has lots and lots of documentation of these stories, and lots of empirical evidence about the damage that's been produced by people engaging in sexual relationship with partners that they couldn't trust or didn't know. I mean, the plethora of sexual transmitted diseases that take place, most of which, in my view, disproportionately effect women more so than men.
For example, one of the side effects of almost every sexually transmitted disease is an impact on their fertility, which is not the case for men. And so, at least the impact of that seems to be disproportionate for women.
Sean McDowell: Now, growing up in the 80s, we'd have a lot of conversations with my dad about this because he was researching and talking and thinking about it. One of the things he told me is he goes, "When I started speaking on Maximum Sex," that was the title of it, "On college campuses in the 70s and 80s, it was radical on the university campus to hear something pushing back against the sexual revolution, saying there's reasons to wait, God designed sex for a purpose, and there's consequences if you don't live this way." God's design really gives us love, so to speak, the best love.
Well, one of the things he said is, "So many people in the church just didn't even want to talk about this." They wouldn't address it. And he's an outsider getting more criticism from within the church than from outside. Is your assessment that a lot of people really just resisted even talking about this, and probably talked about it too late. Is that fair? Would you agree with that?
Scott Rae: Well, I think in the 70s, you know, there was so many other things pushing back against Christian faith, and this was just one of them. And so, it was easy to include this as one of the things that Christian faith was pushing back against. You had all kinds of cultural trends.
In the 80s and 90s, I think it's a little bit different because once we had the rise of the religious right and got more politically involved, for a while, it became culturally cool to be Christian.
Sean McDowell: Gotcha. Interesting.
Scott Rae: While at the same time ... I mean, it's always been counter-cultural, but in the 80s and 90s, it was not as counter-cultural to be Christian as it is today.
Sean McDowell: Is this the Regan Revolution that was associated with-
Scott Rae: Yeah. All of it.
Sean McDowell: ... Christianity?
Scott Rae: Yeah. And you know, there was a lot of public pushback against abortion, for example, that was led by Ronald Regan, for example. I mean, his book, Abortion and the Conscience of the Nation. I mean, can you envision a president today writing a book that says what that said about abortion? I mean, it's unthinkable today.
Sean McDowell: Right.
Scott Rae: So, I think in that era, it was a little easier, I think, to maintain that sexual ethic. And then, I think a big part of the Promise Keepers movement had to do with fidelity and marriage and encouraging young men to be men and to wait until marriage. I think that was a ... I mean, the Promise Keepers was a big-
Sean McDowell: It was huge.
Scott Rae: It was enormous!
Sean McDowell: So, it sounds like some of the 60s and 70s really started to hit home and there was a recognition that we've got a problem here and the moral majority made it permissible to start to-
Scott Rae: Talk about this.
Sean McDowell: ... Talk about this.
Scott Rae: Now, what that corresponded with was the onset of AIDS in the early 1980s.
Sean McDowell: Yep.
Scott Rae: And in my view, some very unhelpful ways of talking about sexual purity, because we said unspeakable things about AIDS victims. I remember churches say that AIDS victims were ... And this was God's judgment on the homosexual communities.
Sean McDowell: Oh, my gosh.
Scott Rae: Just the damage that that did is incalculable today. And I don't ever recall seeing anybody representing the cause of Christ in some of those early AIDS marches. You know, where were we when the victims of AIDS needed Christian compassion? You know, we didn't have medical solutions. I mean, AIDS was a death sentence when it started in the early 1980s.
Sean McDowell: I remember hearing about it as a kid, and it was like you get bit by a mosquito you might get AIDS. Of course you don't, but there were these kinds of fears going around.
Scott Rae: Yeah. So, there were a lot of unhelpful ways that we talked about sex.
Sean McDowell: So, let's talk about this a little bit. There's unhelpful ways we probably engaged our neighbors, such as, like you said, choosing the AIDS virus as some kind of judgment from God and ignoring other calamities in the church. It was a very selective, unhelpful, ungracious way to love people who are genuinely hurting. And of course, it ignores the fact that there were victims of all ages, all places, for all reasons. It's never as simplistic as people painted it.
What do you think are some other unhelpful ways that maybe we approach the narrative in the church of dealing with kind of the sexual revolution.
Scott Rae: And that's a great question. I think we sometimes take a strictly utilitarian approach to this and we inadvertently lose our principles, and we only highlight the consequences. Now, those consequences are real and they're important and we shouldn't put our heads in the sand and admit they don't exist. And I think the longer term consequences especially matter a lot. But I think we become, I think, culturally complicit if we just talk about that utilitarian framework.
I think another way is ... And I think we've don't this in the church, we've over-sold marriage.
Sean McDowell: Oh.
Scott Rae: I mean, I think the culture over-sells sex.
Sean McDowell: Yep.
Scott Rae: The church over-sells marriage. And I think the culture today ... This is what our friend Jennifer Morse has pointed out so insightfully, is our culture today uses sex as one of the main rites of passage into adulthood, and because the church can't do that outside the context of marriage, we use marriage today and it functions, I think, in largely the same way.
We encourage marriage as that same rite of passage by sort of giving theological permission for people in their 20s to have sex. And so, I think we use it in largely the same way. The idea that marriage is this panacea is such a pipe dream.
And I remember ... You know, I pastored to singles in the church for a while, and we had all sorts of stereotypes we had to overcome, the idea that single people sort of corner the market on emotional hang ups, was clearly false because I know so many messed up married people who stay that way because their spouse enables them to do so.
Sean McDowell: Right.
Scott Rae: You know, nobody ever talks about that.
Sean McDowell: And on the flip side, very healthy singles, right?
Scott Rae: Exactly. Well, and we've talked about this on the show before that I think if we have any shot at connecting a meaningful faithfulness to Christ with people who struggle with same-sex attraction, we have got to reframe how we think about singleness.
You know, Christina Hitchcock talked about this-
Sean McDowell: Yeah, that was a wonderful interview.
Scott Rae: ... In great Kingdom terms on this. But I think we've downplayed singleness. We've assumed too much about some of the things that, quote, cause singleness, and I think we've definitely oversold marriage. I mean, we come into marriage thinking it's sort of ... you know, you have sex whenever you want.
Sean McDowell: Right.
Scott Rae: You sort of glory in the conflicts you have because they, quote, bring you closer together. Nobody talks about, and we never hear from couples who have really struggled not only for a period in their ... But maybe throughout the course of their marriage. You know, I've had couples who have told me, "We have an okay marriage with occasional good days."
Sean McDowell: Right, that's realistic.
Scott Rae: Where do we hear from them?
Sean McDowell: You know, what's interesting is you say this got us ... I've been reading a book this week called Making Chastity Sexy: The Rhetoric of Evangelical Abstinence Campaigns, written by a professor at the time from Wheaton, Christine Gardner. And she says, we almost take this fairytale perspective to marriage, that there's a prince, save the princess, rescue from the dragon, which is the sexual revolution, finally get married, and it's happily ever after.
And then sex and the relationship is not how people expected it to be, and so, they have conflict which, in many cases, could be very normal conflict in a marriage but they don't expect it and they're not ready for it, so then they end up abandoning their marriage, and in some cases, abandoning their faith.
So, the point that she makes is sometimes in this Purity Culture, we adopt the means of the culture rather than saying, okay, scripturally-speaking, let's start there. And I think that's somewhat of the failure of how we've approached this issue of sexual purity.
Scott Rae: I mean, yeah. I mean, today, abstinence is one of the least-sexiest things you can have.
Sean McDowell: Right?
Scott Rae: Because if you tell the average person that you're waiting until marriage, they'll look at you and think you've lost your mind. Although, I think we need to be clear about what the benefits are of doing that, because I think it does ... It builds trust. It builds the relationship of some ... A point your dad made years ago that your primary sex organ is your brain. It's the relationship that you have, and so, abstaining now builds the kind of trust and relationship that you need for great sex later on.
And most sexual dysfunctions ... Although there are some physical dysfunctions, but most sexual dysfunction is relational, not physical. We've know that for a long time.
Sean McDowell: That's a good point. And that's because sex is not just a physical experience. It's spiritual, it's relational, it's emotional, it's a holistic experience. It can't just be reduced to physical.
Now your point, one of the tensions I often wonder is some of the critique of Purity Culture has been that every thing ... Sex is used to sell everything in our culture, from cars to burgers to new shoes. And part of the Purity Culture is like, no, no, no, we've got the corner on sex. Come to the Christian fold and it's actually even better. So kids chanting at rallies, "Sex is great! Sex is great!" But wait for God's standard.
And part of the goodness of that is saying, "Yes, sex is beautiful." So many people have thought sex is bad and it's ugly and it's wrong, and we need to say, no, sex is actually good and it's beautiful. It's not something to be ashamed of. But we flip around and use the cultural script, and it's like, "Wait a minute." We need to highlight the benefits of waiting and experiencing the life-giving sex that God designed us to have, but when we use the culture script and we set up this formula, it's almost like we are setting up many young people for failure and frustration.
Scott Rae: I think that's a great observation, and if you think about it, the average couple when they get married, assuming they've not been hugely sexually active before marriage, but it takes the average couple, once they start having sex, about nine to 12 months before they actually really start to feel like they're in-sync sexually.
Sean McDowell: Wow. Let me stop. Why do you think that is.
Scott Rae: Well, I think in part because it just takes that long to get to know a person ... Now, that's not to say that the plumbings not going to work and you won't have the experience, but I think to experience ...
Well, let's put it this way. It's not uncommon for a couple's wedding night to be a major disappointment. And it makes total sense why that would be the case because you're totally stressed out.
Sean McDowell: You're exhausted.
Scott Rae: You're totally exhausted. I mean, if you're really honest, most couples after their wedding reception, they say, "I just want to go to sleep for the next two days." So, it's not uncommon that there's all sorts of adjustments that you have to make to each other before you're in sync sexually like you are in any other component of a relationship.
But I think what we do is by somehow the way we ... I'm not exactly sure how we do this. I think we can kick that around a bit.
Sean McDowell: Okay.
Scott Rae: But I think we do set people up for disappointment because we assume that if we wait according to God's standards that once we get married and are behind closed doors, that its fireworks and the Fourth of July just by virtue of two people showing up, and it just sort of happens like spontaneous combustion does, which is simply not true. It takes a period of adjustment before that works.
Sean McDowell: That's really important to keep in mind.
Scott Rae: The other thing I think that's important too, and anybody who's married for a while can tell you this, but you're going to have times in your life where the ready availability of sexual relations is just not going to be there.
Sean McDowell: So, this is wife is pregnant.
Scott Rae: She's pregnant.
Sean McDowell: Somebody is sick. You're on a deployment, you're just going through an emotional difficult period. You're busy, etc.
Scott Rae: Yeah. I mean, anybody who's raised small kids knows ... I mean, you're sort of two steps from life coming unraveled at any moment. And most couples when they go young kids at home, they're happy to get through the day and collapse in a heap into bed at night and go to sleep.
Sean McDowell: Right.
Scott Rae: And then you think about the impact of menopause for a woman on sexual relations, often has pretty significant ramifications on how they're able to enjoy sexual relations. So, the idea that you're just going to ride off into the sunset for great sex forever is not true for anybody, regardless of your worldview on the subject.
Sean McDowell: Right. That gives such a deep tension, and I don't know exactly how to resolve this because I want young people to know God has designed sex for a purpose, and when we live according to His design, it is the most life-giving.
But, on the flip side, we have inherited Original Sin. Many people have experienced sexual abuse. We have insecurities. And it's just not that simple. So, helping young people say God's design is for a purpose, like Deuteronomy 10 says, "God has given us these commandments for our own good," but on the flip side that doesn't mean necessarily people who aren't following a Biblical script aren't having good relationships, good marriage, or good sex.
I got an email from a lady this weekend, my heart just went out to her, and she said ... I don't remember how long it was, but a couple decades, she had been in a lesbian relationship. And she writes, she says, "I felt loved. I felt care for. It was wonderful." She said, "But I've really come to grips that I want to follow the Lord moving forward. What does it mean to be single? Am I destined to have difficulty now if I'm not attracted to a guy?" And I thought, "Gosh, if our whole script is just follow the Biblical pattern of marriage and this makes you sexually fulfilled and happy, what do I say to her?"
Scott Rae: It's a lot more complicated than that. And I think part of it ... And this is a cultural thing too. That I think there's no doubt that the culture has oversold sex, because I mean, think about in the movies, on television, every time a couple is behind closed doors, you are assuming ...
Sean McDowell: Now it's not even closed doors.
Scott Rae: Yeah. I mean, yeah. There's less left to the imagination.
Sean McDowell: Of course.
Scott Rae: But the assumption is that anytime that happens, it's just this off-the-charts awesome experience, when in reality, that's true a lot of the time, but that's not everybody's ... That's not a universal experience.
Sean McDowell: Right.
Scott Rae: And let me be clear about this. I love my wife and we're doing great. So, I'm not projecting any of this.
Sean McDowell: Right, right, right.
Scott Rae: But we know, for example, you mentioned a woman who's been sexually abused. You know, she's happy actually to wait for sex in lots of cases, either that, or she does just the opposite and becomes even more sexually involved in order to compensate for that. But it's just unrealistic to expect that if I am marrying a woman that has sexual abuse in her past-
Sean McDowell: Or you bring this to the marriage, or both of you.
Scott Rae: Yeah, that we're going to get behind closed doors and it's all going to be great. That's just not true.
Sean McDowell: Yeah. My dad was sexually abused from six to 13. We're talking in the 40s and 50s. And he's experienced healing and transformation from this, and has had a wonderful sex and love relationship with my mom, but he still talks about just memories and pain that stays with him today. This was often left out of the piece of I think some of the Purity Culture, these difficult dynamics.
Now, you said something earlier about how the sexual revolution has made ... How its approached sex, and the question: "Is it a big deal?" And there's kind of a tension in the sexual revolution. They're saying, "It is a big deal. This is fulfillment, and it's fun. We have to be able to have sex." But on the flip side, it's also been saying, "It's not a big deal. It's just like having a glass of water. It's just a physical process, get rid of the stigma, get rid of the ... Certainly you can get rid of pregnancy that comes from it with the condom and abortion and other kinds of acts, but it's not sacred. It's just a physical act."
So, in the church, one of our responses is to say, yes, it's a big deal, but we have to follow the biblical pattern of sex. And part of my tension is, it is a big deal in the sense that we have a #MeToo movement, not of people physically abused, as painful as that is, but somebody who is sexually abused, that gets at the heart and it creates a different kind of hurt and a pain. And scripture talks about sexual immorality is the one sin you commit against your own body.
Life comes from sexual activity. It is a big deal. But it's not the biggest deal. Billy Graham said years ago, he said, "It's idolatry that's the worst sin." So I think the church in some ways has responded by saying, "Oh no! It's a big deal. It's a huge deal." And maybe said, "It's the biggest deal," too much and not brought a bigger balance. So, I've seen parents with their kids who are like, "I don't really care if my son is greedy and if he's selfish, but as long as he's sexually pure, I've succeeded as a parent." And I think something's gone wrong with the message here. So, is sex a big deal or not? How do we strike this right balance within the church?
Scott Rae: Well, I think we've taken our cues from the culture on this. And I think, Sean, you're right to point out the ambivalence of the culture. And I say to the culture sort of make up your mind. Either it's a big deal or it's not. And I think we're probably gravitating more toward the fact that it's not today, at least in the culture at large just because with how ubiquitous pornography is today-
Sean McDowell: That's true.
Scott Rae: ... I mean, it's almost impossible to get away from it. And I think the way young girls, for example ... This is some of the big harm in my view. The way young girls are being hyper-sexualized today in fashion, in advertising. In fact, we're really losing the category of pre-teen.
Some of my colleagues in other parts of the world where some of this advertising is even worse are pointing out that we're losing that pre-adolescent period where you either have toddlers, youth, and then you have full-on adolescence.
Sean McDowell: Right.
Scott Rae: And that adolescent period is coming earlier and earlier. That seems to be one of the major harms of the hyper-sexualization of young girls.
I would put it, I think, like this. I think our culture wants to tell us that sex is the main course, and I think sex is the dessert, not the main course.
Sean McDowell: Okay, sure.
Scott Rae: And I think to mistake it for the main course is like a person that fills up on dessert, and pretty soon you're going to get sick, pretty soon you're going to realize that it's not designed that way. And so, I think to make it the main thing in a marriage, I think is clearly, I think, getting ... We've just taken our eye off the ball.
Sean McDowell: It's just not sustainable practically.
Scott Rae: Well, it's not.
Sean McDowell: Let alone Biblically what marriage is for.
Scott Rae: The other thing, I think if we recognize that marriage is for fundamentally the union of two miserable, wretched, totally depraved, self-centered sinners, who have decided to jump on a train and travel together, rather than it being a destination. It's to decide, "I've got a traveling partner now."
Sean McDowell: And could it be that come of the Purity Culture has maybe overemphasized this experience in marriage of having great sex, which seems to be about what I get out of this marriage.
Scott Rae: Ah, that's well-put.
Sean McDowell: And there's nothing wrong with having great sex, so to speak. I think God wants us to. He designed it. I mean, read Proverbs 5 and Song of Solomon. But when marriage becomes primarily about that as opposed to a way of incarnating God's love for the church, and showing faithfulness to a broken culture, and raising kids in the ways of the Lord, that's the main core, so to speak. And we've kind of lost that.
Scott Rae: Well, and that's why I think it is okay to say that sex is a big deal, because Paul says it's a big deal because marriage reflects the relationship between Christ and the church. So, I think that makes all the components of marriage a big deal, and why it's important to stand for marriage as God designed it today.
Sean McDowell: Earlier, you made a comment, Scott, about how we approach sexuality from a utilitarian perspective, that we take cues from our culture. I wrote a blog some time ago and I just asked the question: Culturally speaking, what if everybody followed the sexuality that Jesus taught? Would this help our culture or would it hurt our culture?
And I came up with a bunch of bullet points. I won't read all of them, but there'd be no sexual exploitation, sexual trafficking or sex abuse. There'd be no victims of pornography. There wouldn't even be pornography. There'd be no sexually transmitted infections, there'd be no rape, no unwanted pregnancies. There'd be no crude, degrading sexual humor. There'd be no debate about abortion at all. There'd be no pain from divorce, no dead beat dads, no prostitution, men leaving their wives for younger women. I mean, on and on, I'm not even hitting the subject.
Now, part of the narrative I think we want to tell is that Biblical sexuality is not only true, it's not only good, but it's beautiful by looking at the consequences, but we're not setting up a utilitarian calculus within itself. It seems to me the consequences show that God has designed the world to function a certain way, and sexuality is just as objective as gravity. And when we align our lives according to that, you see the benefit of human beings and families because of it. So, how do we frame this without overselling the utilitarian points?
Scott Rae: I'd say the way the ethics guy would put it, would be that-
Sean McDowell: Which is you, right? You're the ethics guy?
Scott Rae: Well ...
Sean McDowell: Okay, you're [crosstalk]-
Scott Rae: You're not off the hook though. But I think the way I'd put it is that our principles ... The way God designed it is that our principles match the consequences that they produce.
Now, that's not always the case because, in the short term, sometimes it's different. But in the long run, adhering to the principles and virtues that God designed is what gives us the best set of consequences in the long term. And your exercise, I think, is a really good example of that.
Sean McDowell: I think the way we're framing this is helpful because sometimes Purity Culture can be all about my experience and myself. And we're saying, no, let's look outside ourselves at the world in which we live, and God designed sexuality for a reason, and it does actually benefit our neighbors, and it's for their objective good.
Scott Rae: And wouldn't we rather live in a culture where the #MeToo movement is not necessary? And that we don't have to have organizations combating sex trafficking, and on and on and on.
Sean McDowell: I think everybody could agree on that. You know, as we look back on what was called the Purity Culture in the 90s, there are some rightful criticisms about it being formulaic, overplaying marriage like you said. Not talking about singleness. Not even talking about issues on the LGBTQ spectrum in which many kids who wrestle with that felt like, "Do I not belong here and how does this apply to me?" So there's some very fair criticisms that have been raised of this.
But I also think, we got to look back and not throw out the baby with the bathwater, so to speak, and also, I don't sense any charity by so many critics looking back on the church's response to this, and I'm not saying all of it was good. What you talked about, categorizing the AIDS epidemic as judgment from God, I don't have any charity for that. But I also see a lot of well-meaning people who just didn't know everything we know now. Good intentions, some it helped, and some of it didn't help.
So, I want to look back on this with some charity. And one of the good things about Purity Culture is it just brought to the surface, "Let's talk about sexuality. Let's talk about it." I had a young man, I'll never forget, he was probably in his 20s, and I was speaking at a worldview conference. He came up to me and he told me his dad was a pastor, but never once talked with him about sex. And he said, "As a result of it, I had to figure this out myself, googling stuff, looking it up online, asking my friends." He goes, "If my dad had just talked with me about this at least I would have had some perspective," but by not talking about it, it sent a message that this is shameful, or irrelevant, or "Figure it out yourself." So, this is one of the positives that's come from this we can't miss amidst the criticism.
Scott Rae: Yeah, and that's a great point. Imagine a person who walks into one of our churches, totally unfamiliar with the Bible, say completely unfamiliar with the 10 Commandments, doesn't know that there's such a thing that says, "Thou shalt not commit adultery." And walks into one of our churches, how long do you think they would come and attend church before they would hear something that would say something about sexual immorality?
I suspect you could probably go a pretty long time without ever hearing anything. Although, I think it would probably take a little bit of naivety, I think, to think that, well, this church probably thinks that promiscuity is okay. I don't think they're going to say that.
Sean McDowell: Sure, sure.
Scott Rae: But I think for an increasingly Biblically illiterate culture that we have today, I don't think we can assume that everybody that walks into our churches knows what a Biblical sexual ethic involves.
Sean McDowell: That's a huge difference from what you talked about-
Scott Rae: Totally different.
Sean McDowell: ... Decades ago. And what they do know is probably a stereotype in the sense God had a bunch of rules, He thinks sex is bad. I mean, there's a bunch of just-
Scott Rae: God instituted sex as a result of the Fall.
Sean McDowell: Oh, gosh.
Scott Rae: And you think, well, maybe you need to go back to Genesis 1 and 2, and the becoming one flesh is before Genesis 3, not after.
Sean McDowell: So, as we kind of start to wrap some of this up, one of the messages that came out of Purity Culture was, "Don't have sex outside of marriage. If you wait, you'll have great sex because God designed it for a purpose, and you'll avoid consequences." There's some truth in that, but it's certainly not the whole picture, and not the sexual ethic as a whole we want to teach to the next generation.
Scott Rae: Right.
Sean McDowell: Part of my question is, what should that ethic be? And as I look at it, I don't want to lose the fact that God has designed this for a purpose. Sex is good. It's beautiful. It matters, without making it too big of a deal. And God's design is to protect us and provide for us.
But there's also this sense where ... In Leviticus, in the scripture, God says, "Be holy because I am holy." It's not because of what you get out of it, it's because you've been bought with a price, and because our bodies matter. Not just what we do with our minds, but what we do with our bodies is the way we worship God.
So, it's almost like we have to flip the script and say, you know what? Sexual abstinence or purity, whatever word we want to use, and both those have some baggage, it's ultimately not about you. You're part of something bigger than yourself, and this is how you worship God. And as a result, when we do this, we tend to experience some blessing as a result of it. Would you agree with that? Would you add anything?
Scott Rae: I would. I'd add one part. I think that's particularly well-said, but I'd add one component, and I would make sure we include sexuality within the broader heading of marriage, and that ultimately, marriage matters because it's a reflection of God's relationship to each one of us.
Sean McDowell: That's great.
Scott Rae: And we see sexuality framed within that.
Sean McDowell: And on top of that, if I could throw in, without overselling marriage.
Scott Rae: Correct.
Sean McDowell: Reminding people, 1 Corinthians 7, Matthew 19, that marriage and singleness are equal ways to love and honor the Lord, to follow the Lord. And the Bible says they don't know us by our marriage, but by our love.
Scott Rae: That's right.
Sean McDowell: Well, this has been a great conversation, Scott. Thanks for bringing your perspective. I think when these issues hit culture and everybody piles in, sometimes people want to completely throw out a Biblical sexual ethic, and I think that's too fast. On the other hand, sometimes people want to go, "Well, let's defend everything the church has done." I say, well, let's have some charity to those who've come before us, try to put ourselves in their position, but not withhold rightful criticism where criticism is due. And I think that's what you and I, looking forward, would hope that people would do for us on the cringe-worthy things that maybe we've said over the years. Maybe I should just speak for myself.
Scott Rae: No. I've contributed to those too.
Sean McDowell: Well, this has been a great conversation.
Scott Rae: Yeah, no.
Sean McDowell: Thanks for your insights.
Scott Rae: Great insights, great questions to raise. Yeah. And I hope our listeners will take this as an encouragement, not only to uphold a Biblical sexual ethic, but to not put our heads in the sand and pretend that these issues don't exist. They need to be up, up, exposed in the light, on the table for discussion, and we don't need to be shying away from that particularly in a culture like ours today.
Sean McDowell: Amen.
This has been an episode of the podcast Think Biblically: Conversations on Faith and Culture. To learn more about us and to find more episodes, go to biola.edu/thinkbiblically. That's biola.edu/thinkbiblically.
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