Birds, Bees, and Bible Verses

The Church has a sex problem. David Ayers, professor of Sociology at Grove City College, is deeply concerned. In After the Revolution: Sex and the Single Evangelical, Ayers argues that you too should be very worried about all those singles in good, God-fearing evangelical churches. He marshals an endless array of bar graphs to show you exactly why you should be as alarmed as he is. Naturally enough, he ends with a 13 point action plan. This book is a call to arms. As Ayers notes in the introduction, “I do not apologize if I alarm and even at times stir up anger by communicating hard truths.” 

What exactly is the problem? Evangelical singles sure are having a lot of sex. As one of the surveys Ayers uses reports, 80% of never-married evangelical singles between the ages of 23 and 32 have had sexual intercourse. If you think that is alarming, the survey also notes that 59% of the same group has had three or more sex partners. If you want more data, Ayers has it for you. The quick summary: no matter what question you ask about sex, evangelical singles are having a lot of it. Indeed, as Ayers notes with great alarm, evangelicals look a lot like mainline Protestants and Catholics on these questions.

The problem is not just that evangelicals are having a lot of sex; they also believe it is not bad to have a lot of sex. Is sex between unmarried adults always or almost always wrong? Less than half of evangelicals under the age of 60 think so. Over half of single evangelical men think they will cohabitate at some point in the future. If you find this alarming and want more, Ayers has many more bar graphs for you.

Why is there so much sex among singles in evangelical churches? Ayers has three explanations scattered through the book. First, the general culture has changed. The sexual revolution was a real thing; in surveys, people born after 1960 report having more sex outside of marriage than people born in the 1930s. That general cultural trend has infiltrated the church. Ayers isn’t really satisfied with this explanation. The church is supposed to be the bulwark against cultural trends. Shouldn’t being a part of an evangelical church mean that you aren’t trying to emulate the endless array of videos showing beautiful, happy people indulging in amazing, consequence-free sexual activity?

Ayers then brings out his second explanation. People in evangelical churches are not really evangelicals. Armed with his handy array of charts, Ayers documents that on survey after survey, evangelicals get the wrong answers on an array of basic theological questions. According to one survey, only a fifth of adults who attend evangelical churches hold a “Biblical worldview.” Now, the phrase “Biblical worldview” is obviously a bit vague so Ayers digs in. Nearly two-thirds of evangelicals reject the statement, “Which faith you embrace matters as much or more than simply having some faith” and three-quarters reject the statement “God is the basis of truth.” In other words, when someone claims to be an evangelical, it does not mean what you think it means.

The third reason Ayers offers for why evangelicals are having so much sex is clearly the one he thinks is the most important: evangelical churches are not doing enough to tell singles that they should not be having sex. That, after all, is why Ayers wrote this book. If only evangelical singles knew that God does not want them to have sex outside of marriage, if only they knew the facts about sex outside of marriage, then the problem would be solved. Ayers is emphatic: “We must unfold these truths about sex repeatedly, in age-appropriate ways.” He asks about evangelical singles, “How many believe that they can engage in oral sex without fear of [sexually transmitted infections]? Another widely accepted falsehood.” Somebody needs to tell evangelical singles this sort of thing. 

Ayers is also greatly concerned that single evangelicals do not understand which sexual activities are forbidden to them outside of marriage. He chastises unmarried evangelicals for the “hair-splitting casuistry” in defending sexual activity other than actual fornication. It is a kind of “weaseling,” Ayers notes, to think things like “fondling and oral and anal sex” and masturbation are OK. Why are those things wrong? All those activities “naturally lead to full physical union and, at the least, physical titillation leading toward it.” 

On the one hand, people in evangelical churches do not understand Christianity; on the other hand, people in evangelical churches have internalized the sexual mores of the society in which they live.

Ayers begins the book asserting that his argument relies on the Biblical text; when noting the Biblical prohibitions on adultery and fornication, he is on solid ground. But on these other activities which are not quite fornication, where is Ayers drawing the line? He does not say. Is kissing permissible? On the lips? On the shoulder? What about hugging? Holding hands? Those things also cause physical titillation leading towards sexual intercourse, so are they also prohibited outside of marriage? Where is the Biblical evidence for drawing the line wherever Ayers draws it? How does Ayers avoid his own charge of hair-splitting casuistry by drawing this line wherever he happens to draw it? Where in the Bible does Ayers find the rule governing which parts of another’s anatomy it is permissible to kiss? Clearly, Ayers is making an extra-Biblical judgment call on which sexual activities short of fornication are disallowed. It is difficult to see how Ayers is using the Bible to demonstrate that, for example, contraception is perfectly fine, but masturbation is not.

Now Ayers is free to write whatever book he wants with whatever judgment calls he believes are true, but it is worth noting that a book like this may harm the cause he champions. Perhaps I am acutely aware of this because the set of students I teach is quite different than the set of students at the explicitly Christian college where Ayers teaches. Many of Ayers’ students are engaged in sexual activity, but they still have at least enough attachment to the church to be attending Grove City College. Mount Holyoke, where I teach, is a secular college. I have talked with numerous students over the years who have grown up in evangelical households but have walked away from the faith because of the issue of sex. In talking with them, one thing is painfully clear. For them, being in a church means having the beliefs on sex that Ayers is promoting. Church is not about Christ crucified or salvation or forgiveness; church is entirely about having a certain set of beliefs about sex. 

Would you go to a church if the primary message was forbidding certain sexual acts? Of course not. Yet, this is exactly what many college students, who spent 18 years going to an evangelical church, believe their church to be. It is well worth asking how this could happen. Presumably, other things were discussed during those 18 years; presumably many of the married adults in the church who taught Sunday School would be surprised to find that teenagers in their church firmly believe that church equals condemnation of sex. Yet, this is exactly the message these students have received.

Here then is an acute problem facing evangelical churches today. There is a real tension between Ayers’ second and third explanations for the sexual behavior of evangelical singles. On the one hand, people in evangelical churches do not understand Christianity; on the other hand, people in evangelical churches have internalized the sexual mores of the society in which they live. What is the church to do? Spend too much time emphasizing sexual sins and you will alienate people who have little grasp that there is more to Christianity than prohibiting sexual activity outside marriage. Spend too little time talking about sexual sins and you may inadvertently send the signal that God is unconcerned with sexual activity.   

This debate about how to approach matters of sex within the church is not a new phenomenon. Long before the Sexual Revolution, C.S. Lewis devoted one of the chapters in Mere Christianity to sexual morality, noting “Chastity is the most unpopular of the Christian virtues.” His argument is stark: sexual relations within marriage or total abstinence are the only practices consistent with Christian morality. But Lewis concludes that chapter with this:

Finally, though I have had to speak at some length about sex, I want to make it as clear as I possibly can that the centre of Christian morality is not here. If anyone thinks that Christians regard unchastity as the supreme vice, he is quite wrong. The sins of the flesh are bad, but they are the least bad of all sins. All the worst pleasures are purely spiritual: the pleasure of putting other people in the wrong, of bossing and patronising and spoiling sport, and back-biting, the pleasures of power, of hatred. For there are two things inside me, competing with the human self which I must try to become. They are the Animal self, and the Diabolical self. The Diabolical self is the worse of the two. That is why a cold, self-righteous prig who goes regularly to church may be far nearer to hell than a prostitute. But, of course, it is better to be neither.

Ayers’ solution to the problem of sex and the single evangelical is to increase the amount of time a church spends talking about sex. I am not convinced this approach is the right one. While we both believe that the church should help people draw closer to Christ and encourage people to refrain from sinful activity, the question is about the means. What is the best way to achieve those twin goals? Ayers is focused on correcting the outward acts of sexual immorality. I’d suggest that before anyone will hear the message about external behavior, it is first necessary to guide them into a fuller awareness of the extent of what Christ has done. If someone rejects the statement “God is the basis for truth,” what purpose is achieved by repeatedly saying, “God thinks fornication is wrong”?

Oddly, Ayers provides the evidence that the sort of teaching on sex he advocates has little to no impact on the sexual activity of evangelical singles. In the list of 13 action items, Ayers discusses virginity pledges, a widespread practice in evangelical circles of convincing teenagers to sign a piece of paper pledging to refrain from premarital sexual activity. These programs are widespread, so there is data on how well they work. Ayers’ conclusion: “All research agrees that the majority of virginity pledgers do end up having sex before marriage; in other words, most break their vow.” He is thus “leery” of a program that encourages teenagers to make vows they will later break. It is not clear how he sees this evidence on the futility of education plus a virginity pledge and yet insists that churches must redouble their efforts in sex education.

Lust is clearly a problem in the church; it is, after all, one of the seven deadly sins. But so are envy, gluttony, greed, pride, sloth, and wrath. Is there some reason lust is the most important sin that churches need to address? Shouldn’t the church also spend at least as much time emphasizing sloth and the TV-watching evangelical? Or gluttony and the married evangelical? Or wrath and the politicized evangelical? These are also ways that the general cultural environment is having a bad influence on people within the church. Isn’t the church sending a rather odd message if it spends a disproportionate amount of time singling out sins related to sexual activity?

The Church really does have a sex problem, but the problem is not just the sexual activity of single evangelicals. Another problem is that many churches have allowed the conversation about sex to displace conversations about Christ. Ayers is presumably alarmed when he sees churches proudly displaying a rainbow flag at the entrance of a building, signaling that the right sort of people are welcome there to hear the right sort of message affirming their beliefs on sexual activity. Churches without those flags are all too often making exactly the same mistake of putting sexual matters front and center with the politics reversed.