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. 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.
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—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.
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.
 Jeramy Clark, I Gave Dating a Chance: A Biblical Perspective to Balance the Extremes (Colorado Springs : Waterbrook Press, 2000), 108-09.
 Charles goes on to note that “76 percent of evangelicals believe sex outside of marriage is morally wrong.” See “Almost Everyone,” 65.