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Pastors, We Must Do Better on Premarital Sexual Ethics

by Gerald Hiestand, co-author of Sex, Dating, and Relationships

The September/October 2011 edition of Relevant Magazine includes a remarkable update regarding evangelical sexual ethics.[1] In the article, “(Almost) Everyone’s Doing It” author Tyler Charles, drawing upon data gathered by the National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unwanted Pregnancy, informs us that forty-two percent of (single) evangelicals between the ages of eighteen and twenty-nine are currently in a sexual relationship, twenty-two percent have had sex in the past year, and an additional ten percent have had sex at least once. Assuming the accuracy of Charles’ data, this means only twenty-percent of young evangelicals have remained abstinent.

Only 20% of single evangelicals remain abstinent.

When I first heard these numbers they seemed a bit high, so to ease my mind I took an informal poll of the singles at my church. Without disclosing their own personal history, they collectively agreed that the numbers were probably too low! So much for peace of mind. Statistics can be a tricky thing, but even if the survey’s data were wrong by half, the numbers would still be concerning. In my own pastoral experience, I see a significant amount of confusion and compromise among Christian teens and singles, particularly as it relates to premarital sexual ethics.

And the pastoral community must shoulder much of the blame here. Simply put, we pastors are not quite certain how to counsel singles and teens regarding appropriate sexual boundaries. We either offer subjective-biblical standards (‘the Bible says be pure’) which can be massaged around like a wax nose, or objective-personal opinions (‘keep it above the neck), which lack any real authority. Singles need an objective-biblical standard of premarital sexual ethics, and we pastors are the ones responsible for providing it. Of course, we clearly teach that sexual intercourse should be reserved for marriage. But beyond this, there is no clear consensus among evangelical clergy about where the boundaries should be drawn. Instead we tend to push the burden of this question back onto singles. One pastor typifies the counsel regularly given by evangelical clergy:

You may want me to tell you, in much more detail, exactly what’s right for you when it comes to secular boundaries [in dating relationships]. But in the end, you have to stand before God.  That’s why you must set your own boundaries according to His direction for your life. . . . I want you to build your own list of sexual standards.[2]

Do we really want to build our own list of sexual standards?

But do we really mean to say that Christian singles should “build their own list of sexual standards”? Certainly this can’t be right. Is oral sex permissible? Fondling? Mutual masturbation? Passionate kissing? Pastors and ministry leaders have been sending a mixed message about premarital sexual activity. We’ve left the door open to sexual foreplay, while insisting that singles refrain from consummating that foreplay. In essence, we’re telling Christians singles that it is (or might be) permissible to start having sex, just as long as they don’t finish. Which is, of course, not a workable sexual ethic.

Is it little wonder then, that many Christian singles—while largely agreeing that intercourse should be reserved for marriage[3]—find themselves unable to live out their own ideal? It is time for the pastoral community to reach an objective-biblical consensus on this crucial issue. Until we—the shepherds of the church—are clear on this issue, there is little hope that Christian singles will make any progress.

In our recent book, Sex, Dating, and Relationships: A Fresh Approach, co-author Jay Thomas and I work hard at constructing an objective-biblical standard for pre-marital sexual ethics.  Not everyone may agree with our conclusion, of course, but we do hope that many will engage in this conversation. And if you’re a pastor, it’s a conversation the singles in your congregation can’t afford for you to neglect.

Gerald Hiestand is Senior Associate Pastor of Calvary Memorial Church, Illinois, as well as Executive Director of the Society for the Advancement of Ecclesial Theology. He is the author of a number of scholarly papers.

Learn more about Sex, Dating, and Relationships or read a free sample chapter.


[1] Tyler Charles, “Almost Everyone’s Doing It,” in Relevant Magazine, September/October, 2011. The article gets its data from the National Survey of Reproductive and Contraceptive Knowledge, conducted by the National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unwanted Pregnancy, Dec., 2009. The survey can be found online at:  http://www.thenationalcampaign.org/fogzone/PDF/survey_questionnaire.pdf, accessed October 24, 2011.

[2] Jeramy Clark, I Gave Dating a Chance: A Biblical Perspective to Balance the Extremes (Colorado Springs : Waterbrook Press, 2000), 108-09.

http://www.thenationalcampaign.org/fogzone/PDF/survey_questionnaire.pdf

[3] Charles goes on to note that “76 percent of evangelicals believe sex outside of marriage is morally wrong.” See “Almost Everyone,” 65.

June 19, 2012 | Posted in: Uncategorized | Author: Crossway Staff @ 8:00 am | (7) Comments »

7 Comments »

  1. It would help if more pastors would take an open Biblical stand against prurient entertainment deemed acceptable by some as part of a twisted, non-Biblical concept of Chrisian liberty.

    Comment by Mike Wilder — June 19, 2012 @ 5:37 pm

  2. 1. Protestant churches have elevated marriage and family to idolatry status. The SBC Faith and Message Statement actually excludes single adults from church participation by presenting marriage as the only option. St. Paul would not be allowed in the front doors.
    2. Churches have no consistent definition of “single.” Divorced, widowed, single parent, never married. I have a single book on my desk. The word is meaningless.
    3. Unless absolutely necessary, married people should not be leading singles ministries.
    4. Most churches today have nothing beyond “youth groups” and pizza parties. In fact, many have become strictly grandparent and grandchild churches.
    5. Churches are not discussing issues relevant to singles – i.e., sex, relationships, parents, school. Daniel will be in the lions den another thousand years.
    6. Mentors and role models are not being identified. Never been identified, as far as I know.
    7. The education level of church leaders has plummeted.
    8. Many SBC churches in the south have banned single men from pastoring churches or serving as deacons.
    9. Single adults are leaving churches in record numbers. See Julia Duin’s Quitting Church.
    10. Many youth ministries have embraced the world culture with their music and other entertainment.

    Comment by John Morgan — March 14, 2013 @ 10:04 pm

  3. The church does nothing to support or encourage unmarried Christian adults over the age of 30.

    I’m a Christian female (though considering leaving the faith) who is still a virgin, who is between the age of 40- 45. I have already decided to have sex outside of marriage – no more waiting for me. Telling Christians to wait until marriage to have sex is a total, utter joke. I’ve lived it out, and it’s not been worth it at all.

    Many Christians tell young Christians, (as I was when I was younger), that if you have faith, pray, and wait and trust God (and it is strongly implied if one remains celibate, God will reward the Christian with marriage), that God will send you a spouse. I did all that, and am still unmarried.

    I’m tired of Christians obsessing on unmarried people under the age of 30.

    There’s a percentage of us older (as in age 30+) Christian virgins out here, and churches and Christian publications do nothing for us.

    Those of us who admit to wanting marriage receive trite comments, or we are shamed for it, or given false or insulting advice (such as, “lose weight”- (but I’m not fat), “be content in your singleness,” “join a dating site!,” “Jesus is all you need,” etc).

    To all the pastors and Christian authors out there who do bother to write about singleness:

    Please stop with the pat answers and platitudes, and stop assuming all of us chose to remain unmarried, or that we are at fault for it, and stop assuming all unmarried Christians are under the age of 30 or 35.

    We did not choose to be single into our 40s, and we’re not to blame for it.

    We’re not single because we are weird, fat, ugly, lived ungodly lifestyles, God is trying to whip us into shape, or we “have too much baggage.”

    Stop telling us that wanting to be married is tantamount to “making marriage into an idol.” It is not.

    Preacher and Christian authors:
    Stop telling us unmarried Christians that it is selfish to desire marriage – and then turn around the next moment in your books and blogs and tell us how all Christian should desire marriage because it’s so godly and wonderful, and shame on us if we didn’t marry by age “X”.

    There is no real effort by churches to play matchmaker, to help singles get married.

    Some singles object to this and do not want to be paired up, but for those of who would appreciate the help,we are dismissed with comment such as “churches are not meat markets” or “church is for bible study.” Oh, okay then, I guess you want me to pick up biker men at local bars instead?

    Mr. Hiestand would do well to read the book “Singled Out” by Field and Colon, in addition to the aforementioned “Quitting Church” by Julia Duin for a fuller picture of the discrimination that unmarried people, unmarried Christians in particular, face inside and outside of the church.

    It does depend on the church, though; while some churches discriminate against unmarried people, or some abuse us (use us as as work-horses for cheap labor, or as free babysitting services for married church couples), we and our concerns are usually ignored…

    Because most preachers are continually preaching about marriage and parenting.

    Most church programs and ministries are about marriage or parenting.

    I am a never-married Christian adult over the age of 30. How I tire of Christians at new churches I enter assuming I must be divorced or a single mother.

    And (to married Christians out there): Stop assuming all unmarried Christian women are sex pots who will steal away married men.

    A lot of pastors and Christian husbands refuse to meet alone with single women, chat with them in the church, etc., because they assume we want to sleep with them – we don’t (stop flattering yourselves).

    And so, some unmarried Christian women remain very alone and cut off, because they cannot even have friendships with people.

    The American church and Christian community should be ashamed of how it treats unmarried Christians past the age of 30.

    To any Christian women under the age of 35 who may be reading this: don’t assume you will get married by the time you are 35 or 40. I don’t care how much you pray and have faith or serve in the church and follow all the other usual Christian advice on this issue, none of that is a guarantee you will get a spouse. I know because it happened to me.

    Comment by christianpundit — March 17, 2013 @ 5:22 am

  4. P.S. at Mike above who said,

    “It would help if more pastors would take an open Biblical stand against prurient entertainment deemed acceptable by some as part of a twisted, non-Biblical concept of Chrisian liberty.”

    Please define what you consider prurient.

    Because there are some very weak or legalistic Christians out there who are so severe in what they consider “permissible” entertainment, they would even consider a G-rated innocent kid cartoon shows or films “prurient.”

    There are some Christians who are such harsh and strict kooks, they frown on any and all entertainment, except for maybe the KJV 1611 and those creepy Elsie Dinsmore books for little girls.

    I watch R-rated films now and then, and while I don’t condone all instances of nudity and sex in them, am able to weed it out and enjoy the rest of the film.

    And yes, the Bible says we do in fact have liberty in Christ. Just because you may take issue with R-rated films does not mean I have to stop watching them.

    I’m not even sure what this has to do with the main blog post, which is about sexual activity in dating relationships, and the like.

    Comment by christianpundit — March 17, 2013 @ 6:10 am

  5. Gerald – I need to echo what Christianpundit said. I’m a 51 year old man who has never had a physical relationship of any kind either. I mostly try to avoid using the “V word” because I could get shot in public. Because honestly, we’re not supposed to exist. When it comes to premarital sex and singles, there are two glaring problems today. The first one is that sexual ethics are not being discussed in churches. The words “fornication” and “adultery” have practically been taking out of our vocabulary. The religious community has bowed to political correctness. The second is that authentic role models are not being identified. You see at least two here on your blog comments and I’m sure there are more. Parents who don’t feel comfortable discussing these issues or who don’t have a sexual witness they can pass to their children need to swallow their pride and ask for help in this regard. I think I mentioned these two issues earlier, but I wanted to highlight them as being of utmost importance.

    Comment by John Morgan — March 17, 2013 @ 7:46 am

  6. @ John M.
    I agree with you that many churches, or Christian culture, is not addressing sexual ethics, but it might be more accurate to say they are not addressing it correctly or more effectively.

    1. First, most of these Christian sexual ethics pages/ books/ sermons are aimed at people who are under the age of 30, like what we see on this page.

    (As though people over 30 don’t need encouragement, or to be held accountable, or don’t have sexual desires they struggle with.)

    2. It seems to be assumed, a given, that all, or most Christians, are having sex outside of marriage.

    This article focuses on that fact that only 20% of Christians under 29 years of age are abstaining, but with the focus being on the 80% who are not.

    Why not write more about the 20% – tell them they’re doing great. Congratulate them, tell them you know it has to be difficult to hold on in our sex-saturated secular and Christian culture (yes, many churches are obsessed with sex), but keep hanging in there.

    Those Christians who are past age 30 and still virgins get no acknowledgement, recognition, or support in Christian materials or churches.

    All the focus is placed on those Christian singles who are fornicating. The ones who are not remain ignored – and this is detrimental to them.

    3. When the topic of sexual purity and sin is addressed, the advice is simplistic:

    “Just say no to sex,” or it might be worded, “Having sex outside of marriage is wrong and sinful.”

    I also find approaches such as, “Remember who you are in Jesus, and that will help you remain chaste,” or “your sexuality belongs to the whole body of Christ, not just to you,” as some Christians have used in various books, to largely be ineffective views, as they are intellectual “gobbeldy-gook,” or rather vague.

    4. Married Christian people also commit sexual sin.

    This needs to be talked about and admitted to when preachers and Christian authors discuss sexual sin with singles, or with mixed groups (meaning singles with married couples).

    Many married Christians, including preachers, are addicted to dirty sites, movies, and magazines. Some have affairs and divorce.

    Yet this stereotype of unmarried Christians as being out- of- control- promiscuous horn dogs, and thus in need of sexual purity reminders and lectures, persists.

    Your average Christian married couple probably needs more ‘anti-X rated material’ and purity lectures more so than some Christian singles do.

    It’s somewhat insulting that these lectures and pearl-clutching blogs about sexual sins among Christians are almost always continually aimed at singles only.

    5. While I am not advocating that Christians who are guilty of sexual sin should be made to feel like trash, and yes, they should be reminded that God can and will forgive them of sexual sin…

    The constant teaching from preachers and Christian bloggers on how willing and quick God is to forgive sin, how they use rhetorical devices such as telling fornicators they can be “secondary virgins” or “spiritual virgins,” sort of makes a mockery out of those Christians past the age of 30 who have remained virgins by choice.

    Some of these Christians mean well in trying to reassure Christians who feel guilty over consensual sexual sin, but in the process, they cheapen the resolve and dignity of Christians who have willingly abstained from sexual sin into their 30s, 40s, and beyond, especially when such resolve was based in part on fidelity to the Scriptures’ teachings on sexuality.

    If you are going to sit there and tell a 22 year old that his or her sexual sin is all fine and good and peachy keen and nothing to remain upset about because God will forgive them for it, the message I take from this as a 40-something Christian virgin is, “Why then, should I continue remaining chaste at my age? I might as well have sex too.”

    I’m not saying people who fall into sexual sin should be “beat up” for it by the church, but preachers and Christian authors need to walk more a middle line on the topic, where they-

    1. re-affirm that yes, God forgives sinners of all types, but
    2. -sexual sin is not acceptable-

    Too often, point 1 is emphasized and point 2 is down- played, or ignored.

    There are probably a few other points that need to be mentioned, but those are the only ones to come to my mind at the moment.

    A lot of Christians today do not believe that the Bible condemns pre-marital sex.

    Ones I have run across online claim Bible verses which address sex do not condemn fornication, or that the Bible is hazy and vague about it, so that they can make up their own rules about sexual behavior.

    Because some Christian women (in more flaky, weird, far- far- right Christian groups, such as Quiverfull and Reconstructionists) have been emotionally or physically harmed due to extreme legalistic teachings about sexual purity, and the over-emphasis on the importance of a female’s virginity, some of them chuck sexual purity out the window altogether once they leave those groups.

    So they write blog pages criticizing teachings about virginity and sexual purity.

    But anyway, this non-stop weeping, blog pontificating, or hand- wringing over the sexual shenanigans by Christians of the under age 30 set- all the while ignoring those of us at age 35+ who are actually still sexually pure- is a farce and is a little disrespectful.

    -Kind of like how churches spend a lot of money on their under-age-30 singles but not a dime on their over- age- 30 singles.

    Comment by christianpundit — March 17, 2013 @ 10:22 pm

  7. ChristianPundit – I think you got me confused with somebody else. Please read my comment again and note my age. If it seems to be foggy, that’s fifty one years old. That means I’m over the age of 50. That’s a five and a zero. When I say I’ve had no physical relationship of any kind, it means just that. No sex, ever. And I am a guy. For real. And I’m the same John Morgan you have seen on other blogs. That’s my real name. Blog pontificating? I’m not sure what you mean. I only give personal encouragement to people I know, people who have a real name, people who are not using the internet to find romance.

    Comment by John Morgan — March 17, 2013 @ 11:12 pm

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