The story begins at my beloved alma mater and provider of my two graduate degrees: Princeton Theological Seminary. In his blog, PTS alum Timothy Dalrymple fired the first salvo with a post entitled “The Young Christian’s Guide to Sex at Seminary.” Within, he offers some observations well in keeping with some of the rumors I had heard during my years there:
The point here is not really about sex. Yes, intramural sex was distressingly common amongst the people I knew at Princeton Seminary. So were drinking and at least recreational drug use. There were many times – many – when we would watch one of our friends, drunken or cussing or talking profanely about women, and we would say: “Can you believe he’s going to be pastoring a church in a year?”
He went on to reflect on his perceptions of the school and offered some comments relative to the discipline of obedience.
At Theoblogy, Tony Jones shot back with concerns that Dalrymple’s assertions were somewhat anecdotal. He referred readers to a theological/ethical discussion of the issue by Scott Paeth. Paeth claimed that:
Clearly the sexual mores that he [Tim] took for granted coming from his [conservative evangelical] background and outlook aren’t reflective of every Christian (even, I suspect, every evangelical Christian). They certainly aren’t reflective of the sexual mores that I grew up with, or experienced as being widespread in two mainline seminaries (including PTS).
Traditional sexual ethics, he says, are just not that relevant. He claims sexual fidelity isn’t meant to be a central part of Christian ethics and that there are other more important things for Christians to be worried about. Paeth writes
…if Tim’s obedience to the command of God required him to abstain from premarital sex (a triumph that he’s sad to see so few of his peers achieved), then is it disobedience for him to take a loan, keep his money in savings, refuse to share all of his goods in common, drive a car? Or would he reply, that these things aren’t that big a deal, and aren’t really all that relevant to his Christian life? Would he say than there are more important things to worry about?
Dalrymple continues his reflections on his blog “Philosophical Fragments,” and I suspect many more are writing on this as well.
Coming to this from a Pentecostal/evangelical youth ministry perspective, I have strong sympathies with Dalrymple’s struggles. I do believe that sexual fidelity is an important part of the Christian life, even as I agree with Paeth that there are many other vital elements as well. My concern, though, stems from the fact that we have elevated SEX and sexual mores to the highest level of godliness itself. And in most corners, this tends to come down to a simple binary: virgin or not?* From the pulpit and in our actions and reflection on sex, we’ve focused so much on the ideal that we give the impression that every true Christian is perfect on this count. Sex? That’s that big sin.
Student in the youth ministry gets drunk? Bad, but kids do make poor decisions.
Pornography? Confess, get accountability, and move on.
Student smokes a little weed? Talk to them about making good choices.
Student cheats on a test? Honesty is important, you know.
Student has sex? They have lost their virginity, thrown away their precious gift, etc. We don’t tell them this to their faces after the fact, but we imply this all the time with our preaching and teaching and actions. We sometimes run the danger of the making the whole purpose of youth/adult ministry the avoidance of pre-marital sex rather than the discipling of the simul justus et peccator.
From what does our teaching about sex derive? Do we have things out of balance?
*Not to mention the fact that the simple binary of virgin/not creates a bizarre world of “what constitutes sex” that allows that justification of just about anything besides the traditional act itself. An older article about “Bristol Palin and Trouble With Christian Sex” sheds some light on this. Though I disagree with a number of its assertions, some of its points are right on.