Abstinence or Chastity?

Ever since the oh-so-wise and ultra-experienced new mom Bristol Palin expressed her opinion about “abstinence” being “unrealistic,” the Christian blog world has been abuzz, with bloggers tsk-tsking, scolding, pontificating, and hand-wringing by turns.

I’ll be the first to admit that the abstinence movement (the stalwart True Love Waits and various smaller efforts) has been a joke and a general failure. A Slate.com article from a while back (one of many on the subject) called such programs a success on a sociological level, in that they motivated participants to delay sexual intercourse by around eighteen months, on average. Wow! Eighteen whole months! What a triumph…

“Joke” might sound like a bit of a strong word. It is. But in the words of Inigo Montoya, “Lemme splain. No, there is too much. Lemme sum up.”

Abstinence is a stupid term. Abstaining is something teetotalers do, something Sylvester Graham touted. However fancy the packaging, the word “abstinence” still feels punitive. It’s the absence of something. And as any dieter will tell you, when you feel deprived, you’re that much more likely to splash out by having an appetizer AND a rich dessert AND a glass of wine.

But a proper view of human sexuality is not supposed to feel like eating celery sticks at the Food and Wine Classic. Sexuality is woven into the created order. It’s got a whole book of the Bible dedicated to it. It’s supposed to be honored and protected. It’s meant to be celebrated by the community of faith. It’s part of our identity as image-bearers of God.

Do you see why it’s completely insufficient to say merely that true love (whatever that means) “waits”?

Waits for what? Waits how? Waits why?

I think we need to completely remove the idea of “abstinence” from our discourse — particularly the discourse we aim at young people — and put in its place the idea of chastity. Chastity is both broader and narrower in its focus than “abstinence.” To abstain is to do without something — in this case, sexual intimacy. To be chaste is to view sexuality and sexual intimacy as something godly, valuable, and noble, to be experienced freely and joyfully in the right context, and to be directed toward that context. It’s not a “don’t.” While abstinence is necessarily temporary, chastity is to be practiced throughout the Christian life.

(As a side note, I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard Christians say, “I was sexually pure until I got married.” Hold up! If you’ve only ever been intimate with your spouse, you are STILL sexually pure. I believe this rather amusing and revealing malapropism stems from the idea that sexual purity is for the virgin but not the wife — still perpetuating the old stereotype that sexual intimacy is a malum in se rather than an evil only when misused.)

I signed a True Love Waits pledge as a young teen, and I even wore a promise ring for a while until I misplaced the darn thing (sorry, Dad!). But I did so alongside dozens of friends who went on to forget those foundationless and hastily-written promises, which sounded so meaningful at age fourteen but somehow wore thin over time.

The truth is, we have failed to give young people a compelling reason to direct their sexuality toward marriage. At the same time, we’ve encouraged them to put off marriage, making even compelling reasons ring hollow! We’ve hinted that sex is dirty and sinful. We’ve told them No, No, No, No, and that’s the end of it. We’ve told them they have to conquer the beast of temptation alone. We’ve spoken in hushed and shocked tones of fallen women and p orn addicts and all manner of other sexual sinners, driving the struggling and fainting heart into isolation.

Worst of all, we’ve failed to put before them the blinding glory of Christ and the plan of the Almighty God of the universe for human relationships. We’ve failed to tell them of the provision of Christ for our every need, and for the precious gift of the Holy Spirit who comforts us in our distress and guides us into all truth.

Given all these failures, is abstinence unrealistic for most young people? Of course.

But chastity, grace, and the glory of God? That’s a message well worth our time to tell.


20 thoughts on “Abstinence or Chastity?

  1. I side with Augustine on most issues, but sexuality is one where I believe I must humble disagree with The African Bishop.
    I was part of an abstinence awareness group in college that went into jr. high and high schools, giving talks and all manner of cheesy skits. Being almost always in public schools, our hands were tied with regards to what we could say in our talks, but I am glad we made it clear that sex is good, even if we could not wholly explain why, in the context of marriage.

  2. Dear me, he WAS so off base, wasn't he? My 8th graders and I read his Confessions and I had to spend a lot of time outlining his mistakes in understanding the physical, bodily realm. It was a good opportunity for them to learn the discipline of disagreeing with people without throwing the baby out with the bathwater.

  3. did you just get the high five and hip bump i sent you?

    i think mike's curiosity was peaked when i began talking to my iBook, “Yes … THANK you … I'm SO glad someone else is saying this stuff, too!”

  4. Andrew — ah, so you DO have a name after all. And I only know that Latin phrase from “Legally Blonde.” 😉

    'Stine — haha… so that's why I lost my balance on the way into dinner tonight. Hip bump.

    If there's anything that frustrates me about us Christians it's this issue — we just cannot seem to get our story straight about sex. Is it good? Is it bad? What?

  5. this is a great post. I'd also say that the word 'preserving' oneself for good sex is a better way of thinking than abstaining 🙂 the only time the Bible seems to talk about abstaining is in 1 Cor 7, where, I take it, married couples abstain from sex for a time and a purpose… Abstaining assumes that you had access to something in the first place, that it's bad for some reason, and it doesn't necessarily mean never ever doing it. It implies staying away from something you already have and can possibly come back to again.

  6. It strikes me that some Aristotelian ideas might be helpful. Aristotle considers children to be human, but not fully human. What he means is that they are not fully developed and are still becoming a mature person. This perspective could be of some use here if we view the single as still becoming in terms of sexuality and the development will not be complete until maturity (ie, marriage). The problem with this line of reasoning is, “what do we do with single adults called to celibacy?” Paul clearly indicates that these people are safely within the confines of righteousness, and this it seems to be wrong to suggest that they are somehow lacking in their humanity. I should look up what Aquinas said on this. He would have to address both the goodness of marriage as well as the goodness of celibacy (especially among the nuns, monks and priests).

  7. GP — thanks! I like your take on 1 Cor 7… I think you're probably absolutely right that the biblical understanding of abstinence includes having already had access to the thing you're abstaining from. More to ponder.



    Really it's the pot calling the kettle black because I'm now trying to remember what Aquinas said as well… But he's on the shelf at school so it'll have to wait until tomorrow.

  8. This is really good. I'd never really thought about it this way before and was never bothered by the use of the word “abstinence”. But I now completely agree that the word chastity is much better.

    The thing that troubles me a bit is to hear parents stressing over the “right” way to keep their kids “pure” until marriage. Which is better courtship or dating? When should it start? How often should I call my college kid and keep him/her accountable? etc. All those things are fine – but at the end of the day, the kid has got to make his/her own choice about whether they're going to put God's word above the philosophy of men and be obedient. Parents cannot make that choice for their kids.

  9. Hi Tracy! Give my greetings to Monica and Phoebe and Joey!

    I agree that ultimately it's the kid's decision — but I think it's imperative for parents to teach their children rightly about God's purposes for human sexuality. That being said, I think the parents you're referring to are looking for a magic bullet to make sure their kids stay pure… I certainly knew lots of parents who thought their kids' signing of a “True Love Waits” pledge excused them from actually TEACHING their kids the purpose of sexual purity.

    The point of raising children is to release them, so I think parents need to worry about getting all that truth into their kids' heads, and teaching them how to live that truth, BEFORE they leave home!

  10. Monica, Phoebe and Joey send their greetings!

    Yes, really, the greater issue is integrity. Sexual purity is only one aspect of that integrity of our faith.

  11. Oh, forgot to add that “Abstinence” tends to draw a line in the sand – go this far and no further. Hence, many teens say they are still virgins though they engage in oral sex. This certainly would not be considered “chaste” behavior.

  12. That is very true, Tracy — true and dangerous! I had a friend in high school who proudly called herself a virgin despite having, for example, showered frequently with her previous boyfriend. Yikes!

    I've often reminded young people that chastity is not about drawing lines; rather, it's about pursuing godliness!

  13. Tracy,does the expression “Nail,meet hammer” ring a bell?? A succinct and perfectly realized expression of the difference between abstinence and chastity.

    Be forewarned, I shall be using this in the future unless you Copyright it immediately. (wink)

  14. Amen! Laura, it is so encouraging to hear this from a single gal rather than a married chic. You are living this (not to say that married gals aren't being chaste) and not throwing it away for something temporal. This is extremely rare and can only be evidence of God's work. I love you, sister!

  15. Gary… consider it copyrighted, then, bro! Although I'd be perfectly happy for you to quote and/or link. 😉

    Christi, thanks so much for your encouraging words. You're awesome!

  16. Laura, I once read a catholic nun's take on desire and choosing to be sexually pure as a single person. She said some interesting things but I wonder how helpful they were…

    She said that nuns are still sexual beings but who choose to “redirect” these drives towards other things…

    I thought it was helpful to say that she considered herself sexual and that being a sexual person is a healthy fact of life – but “redirecting that energy towards other things” is hard/weird to visualise…

  17. Donners, that last paragraph made me laugh. Weird indeed.

    I keep waiting for the day when Catholics go back to Augustine and realize that his view of sexuality and the body, which is basically theirs too, is much more based on pagan dualism than it is on the Scriptures. I guess I shouldn't hold my breath…

  18. Andrew, I disagree that sexual purity and abstinence are one and the same for single Christians. I agree that *not* having sexual intercourse is a PART of sexual purity for the single Christian, but I don't think abstinence encompasses our journey right now.

    Having a God-honoring view of sex (in other words, agreeing with what the Scriptures say about sex), guarding your thoughts, honoring marriage, having godly (not sexually manipulative or misleading or flirtatious) friendships with members of the opposite sex… all those are part of sexual purity for me as a single woman.

    And your last (non-run-on) sentence is one of the BIG reasons I have such a problem with so much Christian teaching on sexuality and abstinence. It's like we tell people, “Sex is sinful, disgusting, horrible, and wrong, and you should should save it for your spouse.” WHAT??

    I think it's a problem with our understanding of sin, too. We tend to think of sin as “bad things” instead of as anything that doesn't fit God's design and purposes. So sex within marriage is beautifully God-honoring, but outside of marriage is not God-honoring. There are all sorts of good things that we are meant to embrace only at certain times, and if we try to wrest control from God and take those things in our own timing, that's when it becomes a sin issue.

    Wow… long comment. Apologies.

  19. Pingback: A Stolen But Super Cool Idea | A Wilderness Life

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