15 Changes to Make in How Christian Culture Sees Sexuality
— 8 Strategies for the Church and 7 Tips for Singles
Strategies For the Church
1. Stop talking about virginity.
What you have experienced sexually is not a mark against your morality. What you haven’t experienced is not a mark against your social status. Remove the stigma against both. Remove the arrogance and egotism in both.
Celibacy is not a reason for either shame or for congratulations. Having sex doesn’t damage you, change you irrevocably, or mean that you “lost” something. Who you are RIGHT NOW is the only thing that matters. Be who you know you’re meant to be. Be obedient to God. Be that childlike version of yourself that you think you can’t get back to. You can. You absolutely can.
2. Stop using “waiting” language.
Don’t EVER teach, preach, or speak in terms of singleness as a passing-through-zone toward marriage. Marriage is not the destination. Christ is the destination. Be very careful with your language.
We’re “waiting.” We’re “saving sex for marriage.”
Don’t say it.
Seriously. It isn’t helping anyone, and it keeps married and single Christians alike in a dangerous mindset.
Single people are not holding the reins on their sexuality “until” they get married. We are not called to deny our sexuality; we are not called to suppress a healthy, godly, normal part of ourselves. (Listen to what I’m saying and what I’m not saying here.)
Marriage is not a graduation from celibacy. They are parallel paths. Both require sacrifice and can face you with unavoidable pain. Both can be fulfilling, emotionally and sexually. (More on that later.)
3. There is no such thing as “giving away pieces of your heart.”
When we bond with someone sexually and then lose that relationship, it can hurt very much. It can also heal.
4. Never associate sexual pain, necessarily, with sin.
Some people will move through singleness and sexual relationships multiple times in their lives–divorce; death; broken relationships. Sometimes it’s not a result of their sin. If it is, there is grace. You can grieve things that you helped break, and you can heal from brokenness in ways you didn’t expect.
5. Stop saying “God designed sex for marriage.”
(Stick with me.)
Instead, say “God designed sexuality for LIFE.” Emphasize that sexuality is a universal human experience rather than orienting everyone in your congregation toward something that may or may not happen, without giving them any information on what to do with their sexuality when they aren’t married.
Instead of saying, “Sex is a gift from God that is good in the context of marriage.” Say, “Sexuality is good–a gift from God that is most healthily enjoyed in different ways depending on whether you are married or single.”
Work to remove sexual denial language from your singles groups.
Sexual intimacy with another person in a covenant relationship is one expression of your sexuality. If you are single, you have others. Your sexuality is a beautiful, rich, nourishing gift–not something to be suppressed. Sexuality is not “good in marriage,” but “bad in singleness.” Sexuality is a wide, intricate, complex part of being human. It involves much more than just sex, and the overemphasis on married sexuality is damaging to the Body of Christ. Sexuality has healthy expressions in marriage, and it has different healthy expressions in singleness. (Again, more on this later.)
6. Stop elevating marriage.
Edit: I debated over whether to amend this point, since it was the one that seemed to cause the most contention. Several commenters–married and single–found it validating and on-point. Several others found it harsh and generalizing. I don’t want the statement to lose its emotional resonance with those whose voice it represents; I believe that voice should be given a platform, and that Christian culture should be attuned to it, so I won’t delete the section. but I would like to qualify it:
Marriage is not a bad thing. It’s not something that should stir up resentment or jealousy. Being married doesn’t automatically make you a bad person. But there is a culture in the Church that overemphasizes the significance of marriage. In trying to “reclaim marriage” from a secular culture that diminishes it, we have put it on a pedestal so that it eclipses the goodness of being single. And there is a culture that systemically protects married Christians from feeling bad about pride and sexual entitlement.
That is such a dark thing that, at least at the time of this edit, I feel that a somewhat aggressive tone is warranted. I don’t intend to be ungracious. But Christ turned over the tables of the money-changers. Biblically, sin that marginalizes people is among the most destructive and grievous.
The following statement does not aim to attack the institution of marriage. It does not aim to attack married couples in a generalized way. It is aimed at denouncing systemic, cultural norms that I believe are widespread throughout some sectors of evangelicalism.
I apologize for any lack of clarity in the unamended original content. If you are a married believer, I would please ask that you simply reflect honestly about whether any of the following applies to you, and whether you need to embrace any adjusted convictions.
No, your marriage doesn’t make you special.
Stop saying, “Marriage is harder than being single.” Stop acting like marriage is a reward for your faithfulness.
And NEVER say, “I’ve learned things in marriage that single people can’t learn.”
The justifications for this are endless, but the bottom line is that it’s wrong. Don’t allow this in your churches. Don’t allow this in your communities.
Christian purity culture promotes a social hierarchy that simply isn’t biblical. Married believers sit at the top. Entirely celibate Christians are noble monastics. Porn users are several tiers down. And God help the fornicators.
Married Christians, your entire social sphere will validate your sin in this. Will validate your “right” to relish your marriage in a possessive, hierarchical way.
It’s entitlement. Honestly, it’s the same kind of entitlement that we single people struggle with when we grieve being alone and demand that God give us what we desire.
But you’re in the greater danger: We feel the damage it does to us. You don’t. You’ve covered over that pain by slapping the Holy Spirit’s name on top of a so-called covenant union that, in some sense, may not really better spiritually than an extended hookup. Your community will support you in your entitlement. Your theology will protect you.
You will have to fight very, very hard to resist that temptation. Because no one is going to hold you accountable. Your single friends would. But you’ve gotten half of us to buy into the lie ourselves. And the other half is too worn out to fight you and the entire cultural tide.
So introspect tonight, and consider this–deeply and honestly:
Many of you chose to be married BECAUSE you wanted the power it gave you. Because you lost social power in high school and college for “waiting.” Now, you get to claim all the goodness of sex that you “waited” on–except you get to do it “God’s way.” That is a very dark reason to get married, and if you want that sickness purged from your marriage and from your spirit, you are going to have to grieve the fact that you are using another person’s body the same way bodies are used in high school locker room talk.
No contract, no ceremony, no covenant can protect you from that.
It is going to have to hurt you the same way it hurts your single friends that your sin has been destroying their community.
7. NEVER say that being single means you have more time to give to the church.
The “gift of singleness” is not extra free time. Now, there are plenty of single adults who have bought into the belief that they’re all a bunch of lazy schlubs who have it easy. Purity culture has convinced them of that.
And there are plenty of others who are genuinely content being single and are able to see the single journey as a life of freedom. Nothing wrong with that.
But in reality, I have to spend just as much time on my relationship with myself as any married couple has to spend together. I have to manage and nurture my sexuality. I have to go on dates. I have to socialize with friends. I have to process my day either in my community or in my own head.
I would venture to say that most single people have to devote time to those things–an amount of time comparable to a married couple’s family time and intimacy time–or they will not be healthy.
If a married couple’s relationship is going to be healthy, the husband and wife will manage their sexuality together. They will socialize together. They will process their day together. Single people have to do the same things.
To ask singles not to practice these forms of self care is to deny them basic human rights. It is to push them into a self-destructive mentality that pastors actively work to protect their married congregants from.
You wonder why you have so few singles in your church? It’s because they’re depressed. They don’t have community. Church would be the best way in the world for them to get community. But the community they would have at your church would make them more depressed than if they just felt lonely.
Singles need to be encouraged, just like your married parishioners, to take time to enjoy life as sexual beings; as relational beings. They need to have theological resources developed for them to learn how to do that healthily. Do NOT tell them that they need to serve more. They don’t have time. They’re too busy healing from your garbage.
Are there singles who have tons of energy and tons of time? Sure. More power to them. But don’t value them more than the people who don’t. Don’t rank them higher. They aren’t godlier–they’re just lucky.
People who are struggling and people in lament have much to offer your church. Create space for them. Healthy singles who are devoting more of their time to mental health space and/or socializing–to their great benefit and to the joy of their worship–have much to offer your church. Make their lives easier, not harder. Don’t interpret the way they spend their time as wasteful. Make them feel welcome to engage in those practices with your community.
8. If you’re going to let people who were married at twenty-two teach your singles classes at church, then you’d better let some single people teach your married classes.
Marriage does not provide you with extra experience or understanding, relevant for leadership, that singleness can’t give you. Life provides you with experience and understanding. We should all pay attention to the lessons it teaches us, without assuming someone on a different journey isn’t learning the same lessons.
Tips For Singles
9. Arousal/attraction to someone is not lust.
When Jesus says “If a man even looks at a woman to lust after her, he has already committed adultery in his heart,” He is not talking about sexual arousal. Sexual arousal is a normal, healthy, beautiful part of being a human being that we do not need to feel any guilt or shame over.
The Greek idea that we translate as “lust” is probably a much more possessive, intentional, obsessive thing than simple arousal or attraction. The Bible isn’t explicit on what the difference is–where the line is. You are not going to find an algorithm to help you parse that out. You are simply going to have to be deeply honest with yourself. Pay attention to your mind. Read Scripture and learn to align yourself with its mentality. Enjoy your sexuality as it flows through you, and even as it allows you to feel connected to other people. When you desire something that you can’t have right now, relinquish control and face the pain of that. This process is not altogether different in marriage than it is in celibacy.
10. There is no algorithm for sexual fulfillment. There are only people and their journeys.
Both marriage and singleness can be deeply, woefully unfulfilling. You have very little control over this, and there is no algorithm or “path of wisdom” that will definitively protect you from hurt. Joy and pain are just a part of life. Be obedient to what Scripture teaches. Most of the rest, you have to work out for yourself.
11. No two people’s journeys are the same.
If you think you understand how sex, marriage, and singleness feel for someone–always be ready to expand your perspective. Not everybody feels the same things during sex. Not everybody connects deeply with everyone they sleep with. Not everyone has the same experience of singleness. Learn to listen more than you teach.
12. Find ways to ENJOY being a sexual person.
I will say it again: If you are single, enjoy being a sexual person.
Connect with people. Like them. Find them beautiful and provocative. Let their personalities give you butterflies. If things feel good in a sexual way–because you glanced at something that excited you; because you felt a connection with someone; let yourself feel good–without guilt.
You do have to take responsibility for managing your sexuality well.
13. Think “Sexual Management” NOT “Sexual Suppression”
Feelings are not dangerous. Learn to guide them. They are not your enemy. Learn to enjoy them. They are not evil. Rest in them. Find solace in them. Find delight in them. Your sexuality is a gift–not exclusively for marriage, but for YOU.
The way you feel sexually will sometimes be bright and beautiful. It will sometimes be tense and frustrating. It will sometimes feel like painful loss or emptiness. Having sex doesn’t really change this, doesn’t diminish it, doesn’t amplify it. Being celibate doesn’t change it, doesn’t diminish it, doesn’t amplify it.
Each relationship; each season of singleness will change the color of those feelings–sometimes significantly. Sometimes in surprising ways. But each relationship; each season, married or single, will contain them all. All pleasures and pains are fleeting.
Learn to shepherd those vapors well.
There is a difference between feeling aroused and “being tempted” to do something that could be unhealthy, harmful, or immoral–for you or someone else. Establish boundaries where you need them to be healthy, but don’t operate from a position of fear. Be mature enough to remain in conversation with yourself. Don’t look for the moral system that will allow you to stop engaging in self-reflection. Always stay engaged.
14. It’s not about release.
Both mainstream culture and Christian purity culture perpetuate a myth: that orgasm is the only way to experience sexual fulfillment; that sex is about “release” of tension. We train ourselves to pursue “release” through physical stimulation instead of learning to guide and channel our sexuality internally. Learn to pay attention to your feelings, and learn to let them flow. Learn to guide them toward satisfaction.
What does that look like?
15. Focus on the How.
One of the biggest questions youth pastors, college ministers, and singles ministers get asked is, “How do I stay pure?”
How do you do celibacy? Is there a way to do it that’s fulfilling?
I’ve alluded to this throughout the article, but I want to take a stab at answering this question in a way that I’ve never heard anyone answer it before. It might not be a magic bullet, but it’s an avenue that is rarely talked about–or even considered.
In Eastern philosophy–including traditions which are a rich part of Christian history–there is an idea called sublimation. Sublimation is the taking of mental, emotional, or sexual energy and moving it within your mind. We do this all the time with our feelings: Sometimes we don’t want to feel sad, so we turn our sadness into anger instead. Our minds wander while we’re at work or in class, so we bring our thoughts back to focus on whatever task we’re working on.
Sublimation, in the sexual sense, is taking your sexual feelings and gently pushing them–like redirecting the flow of water. You may be familiar with something along these lines: In church, we’re often taught to “bounce our eyes” and “take our thoughts captive.” These are ways of “pushing” or sublimating sexual feelings.
The problem is, the strategies expressed in evangelical culture aren’t always the healthiest. We usually just wind up pushing our feelings down. We don’t work them out. We don’t experience them. We don’t enjoy them. And seasons of celibacy become a major drag.
Here’s the problem–and I’m going to potentially get a little awkward here: We have bought into a belief that is prominent in Western culture: that the goal of being a sexual person is to . . . have an orgasm. We believe that fulfillment can only come through climax, and that climax can only come through physical stimulation.
But the human mind is incredibly malleable, capable of creating avenues of self-expression we’ve never previously conceived. As it turns out, there are resources not only in Hinduism and Buddhism that talk about sublimation, but also in Jewish mysticism and in Eastern Orthodox Christianity. There has also been some Western literature on the subject (particularly from Freud and Jung). There are few doubts as to the reality of the practice.
Some nerdy stuff:
Emily Kim, Veronika Zeppenfeld, and Dov Cohen studied sublimation in their 2013 article, “Sublimation, culture, and creativity” in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. They found that, when faced with anger or sexual desires allowed Protestant participants to be more creative, producing higher volumes of art, poetry, and sculptures.
Anna Lisa Crone processes the philosophical conversations on sexuality and sublimation between early 20th Century Russian Orthodox thought and western psychology (i.e. Freud) in her book, Eros and Creativity in Russian Religious Renewal.
And Vladimir Moss, in The Theology of Eros, traces the rich history of sexuality theology in the east from the early Greek Fathers through the Fathers of the Russian Orthodox church. Some of the foundational ideas related to sublimation go back to Gregory Palamas (Triads; Philokalia) and John Chrysostom (in the 4th century!).
The existence of sublimation is why an exclusively release-oriented view of sexuality is damaging: it keeps you from seeing alternative methods of sexual expression. And repressing sexual feelings is damaging–we recognize that intuitively. Our modes of sexual expression are not divided between YES and NO.
We have been taught that fulfillment can only happen one way. And we forget that, probably before or during adolescence, we trained our brains and bodies to respond in that one way.
We close ourselves off to options, and we get caught in the cycle of pursuing things that only make us lonelier. Hookups. Dating app swiping. Pornography. Short-term-long-term relationships. Sexual repression. Ring-by-spring in Bible colleges. Marriage the first chance we get–without really thinking of the implications surrounding sharing a life and raising a family with another person.
In Western ideologies, sublimation is thought of as changing sexual energy into another type of energy. Feeling aroused? Go work out. Sweat it off. Or channel it into art or music. You could call it “Sexual-to-non-sexual sublimation.” (This is the same kind of sublimation Freud wrote about, and it’s usually the only kind that shows up in Protestant conversations about sexuality.)
But sexual-to-non-sexual sublimation may be dissatisfying to many people who choose or are otherwise experiencing celibacy.
It is, potentially, another form of social oppression: If we must express our sexual desires in non-sexual ways, it denies celibate people the fullness of sexual being. Saying “go work out” is no different from saying “bounce your eyes.”
And there is nothing in Scripture that says that singles must be denied sexual fullness. Again–sexual feelings are not sin. So if we can find fulfillment sexually, without sin–there is no reason for guilt.
The key goal of Christian sublimation, then, is reorienting your mind toward a pursuit of the desire’s fulfillment–NOT toward its elimination. If you want to do that without external stimulation, it has to happen cognitively–mentally. You have to get in tune with your feelings and gently shepherd them toward satisfaction. Expect it to be slow, and expect it to take practice.
Give yourself time and space to meditate, and try to guide your thoughts:
a) away from using another person’s body as an objectified release valve,
b) away from feelings that you sense may be indulgent or self-centered, and
c) toward felt spaces where the feeling gets better and better; fuller and fuller; brighter and brighter; more and more innocent.
Don’t be embarrassed by what you feel. Remind yourself that Scripture makes no moral statement about sexual feelings. Allow your feelings to ebb and flow as they want to. Allow the many parts of your heart to connect, to weave together. Feel excitement at discovering parts of your inner self.
As you guide yourself through this process, always moving toward fulfillment, eventually it will reach a peak–a sense of completion.
Sometimes this will result in spontaneous, physiological climax. Sometimes it will result in purely mental feelings of fulfillment–perhaps even euphoric feelings, and then perhaps even stronger than regular climax. Other times, the tension will just dissipate quietly.
Like with sex, sublimation is something your body and mind have to learn how to do. Everything has to synchronize. You have to figure things out. You have to figure out how you work. It’s private, personal, and yours.
Christ is our prize. But we receive Him in physicality. The Incarnation is physical. The Cross is physical. The Resurrection is physical. Communion and Baptism are physical. Marriage is physical. Celibacy is physical. He meets us in each one. Marriage encounters Christ in the other. Singleness encounters Christ in the self.
Your body is your own, and its sexual nature is just as much a picture of Christ’s love for you as sex is. You are the steward and shepherd of your body; its guide; its nurturer. Your sexuality as a single person is a space for expression. You get to have that.
Just like in sexually active relationships, there are some aspects of sexual experience that will be colored very differently if you use sublimation as a way of enjoying and expressing your sexuality. People who were married young may not understand the experience. Their sexuality has become oriented toward a particular mode of expression.
But married believers may experience sublimation less frequently and to a lesser degree–just like singles experience certain aspects of sexuality less frequently and to a lesser degree. Married sexuality operates in a different mode. It’s a good mode. It’s not a reason for inequality. It’s just different.
There are two ways to get the most out of your sexuality . . .
. . . two ways that are the optimal, most enjoyable options for being a sexual human being.
Either you have a near-perfect relationship with someone you love, experiencing pleasure exactly as much as you want to, in exactly the ways you want to, and you both want the same things for the same amount of time and for the same reasons, so that everything is perfectly in sync for the rest of your lives.
You accept that life is more complicated than that. Life is a journey. Have empathy for others. Give yourself and the people around you grace as we all navigate being human together.