Unpacking harmful teachings and how we can regain God’s vision for sexuality

Written by Rebecca Gregoire Lindenbach

What is a Christian sexual ethic? How would your youth or young adult group leader define it? Your pastor? The guy who works at the gas station down the road?

Odds are, their answers would sound pretty close to what I was taught back in high school: Don’t have sex until you’re married, and then, once you’re married, go for it.

This is often what our parents, pastors, and mentors told us. Whether it was a half-eaten chocolate bar, non-sticky tape, or—as I was told in my youth group at 14—a half-eaten box of gummy bears, we were warned that our purity was of utmost importance, but easily lost.

That answer is simple: We know who’s good, and who’s not. It’s easier to be proud of ourselves for withstanding temptation. We can channel the fear of going too far into motivation to stay on the straight and narrow.

The main draw of this virginity-based sexual ethic is that it promised good rewards: Do everything right, and married sex will be amazing. But did anyone ever ask if this approach actually works?

Two other researchers and I decided to explore that question. We surveyed 20,000 Christian women to get to the heart of what helps sex lives thrive and what primes them for disappointment. We published our results in The Great Sex Rescue (Baker Books, 2021).

Want the Cliff’s Notes version? Much of the evangelical Church’s advice for sex may have led to more harm than good. Our survey found that many evangelical teachings on sex correlated with fewer orgasms, less arousal, less emotional closeness, and more sexual pain.

One of the most shocking results from our dataset is that among couples who have only ever had sex with one another, the women who were virgins on the wedding night were 17.7 per cent more likely to experience sexual pain than the women who slept with their now-husbands before they said “I do.”

As Christians, our research team faced a difficult question: Why were couples who “did everything right” more likely to experience worse sex than those who broke a few rules? Does this mean the end of a Christian sexual ethic?

I don’t believe so. I think it means we need a richer ethic. Seeing sex as bad or good simply based on marital status reduces sexuality to a mere list of actions that are acceptable or not. This doesn’t get to the heart of God’s design for sex: a pleasurable, intimate, and mutual “knowing” of one another.

When we act out our sexuality as God intended, the result should be that our partners and ourselves are humanized, dignified, and respected. A Kingdom-oriented sexual ethic should be about so much more than just waiting until you’re married to have intercourse.

1. Our sexual ethic shouldn’t change based on marital status.

For those who get married, their sexual behaviours may change but the reasons for those behaviours should stay the same. The reason we don’t have sex on the first date is the same reason we do have sex with our spouse: because we want to affirm the humanity of the person before us. On that first date, this means respecting the other person by controlling your sexual urges. In marriage, it means celebrating your relationship and loving your spouse through sex.

Seeing our sexuality as one of the ways we can love our neighbours also frees us from the all-or-nothing thinking of the virginity-focused ethic. If you had sex when it wasn’t wise, you haven’t lost it all. You still have endless opportunities to honour others and yourself going forward.

We heard from so many women who told us stories like this one: “After I had sex once I felt that I had crossed a line and there was no going back. So even if I didn’t want to have sex with subsequent boyfriends, I felt I didn’t have a choice: I was already not a virgin, I was damaged goods.” Of course, we should strive to honour God with our bodies and minds. But we need a sexual ethic that sees our purity as more than our virginity status.

Furthermore, pat answers like “Sex is bad until you are married” callously ignore the reality of rape, both in and out of marriage. We heard from many date-rape survivors who didn’t understand that they had been assaulted until years after the fact. Their abstinence-based sexual ethic didn’t leave room for nuanced conversations around coercion and consent.

And although many women experience horrible, degrading marital rape at the hands of abusive husbands, the red-light-green-light sexual ethic frequently ignores and silences these women by giving the impression that all sex within marriage has God’s blessing.

Imagine what it would look like if our sexual behaviour was shaped by a desire to affirm the imago dei in ourselves and the people around us. Rather than fear-based abstinence, our motivations for maintaining our sexual boundaries would be transformed. That’s not a shame ethic, it’s a life-affirming one.

2. A biblical sexual ethic is focused on serving the other person. It isn’t focused on finally collecting your dues.

Let’s revisit that stat about virgins on their wedding nights who are 17.7 per cent more likely to experience sexual pain. Why does this happen?

Well, if a Christian couple sleeps together before they’re married, typically, it’s because they were making out for hours and hours before finally giving in. In other words, they had sex because their bodies wanted to. In contrast, for couples who saved sex until the wedding night, that first time having sex is often not the culmination of hours of foreplay. Rather, it can feel a bit more like a scheduled Google Calendar event. You’re excited, you want to do it, but it’s also a lot of pressure. Time’s up—your body is no longer your own.

The way we talk about sex in the church is antithetical to how God actually created our sexuality to be best expressed.

One of our biggest findings in The Great Sex Rescue is that when a woman feels forced to have sex—even if her partner isn’t the one forcing her—it can be traumatic. Often, these women’s bodies freeze up and sex really hurts.

But what would happen if, instead of being taught, “Don’t have sex until you’re married,” we were taught, “Wait to have sex until you’re married and then take it slow”? What if, instead of being scared into waiting until the wedding night, Christian sex resources talked about how a biblical sexual ethic upholds the dignity of each person, whether you’re single or married?

What if our premarital counselling sessions included tangible information about how to make sex feel good for women? What if we were told that even after marriage, we’re expected to treat one another with the utmost respect, and it is inappropriate to coerce, manipulate, or guilt your spouse into giving you sex?

Yes, this approach is more nuanced and doesn’t fit as nicely cross-stitched on a pillow. But it means that the 16-year-old who has sex with her boyfriend doesn’t feel she’s lost her worth. It means that the couple who has sex before marriage doesn’t need to have panic attacks that they have ruined their marriage before it even started. And it means that abuse victims will be told that all rape is wrong—including rape in marriage. Most importantly, it frees us to simply turn around and change course when we feel we’ve gone too far, rather than dooming us to endless guilt and shame.

There is no reason why people who believe what the Bible teaches should have worse sex lives. However, our research suggests some of our evangelical teachings about sex aren’t leading to sexual satisfaction or Christ-centred love.

God created both men and women with the ability to enjoy sex. But so often, our red-light-green-light approach promotes a reductionist view of sex that’s void of nuance and prone to harming the very people it seeks to help.

We need a Christian sexual ethic that is based not on virginity status, but on whether our actions are humanizing, dignifying, and respectful for both parties. That is an ethic we can carry with us from entering puberty at age 12 to our first date at 17, and it’s an ethic that still applies even after 24 years of marriage.

The Great Sex Rescuethrough research of over 20,000 women, invites you into a conversation to discover how we can truly “have life, and have it to the full”—even in the bedroom.

Want to discuss this topic with your small group? Check out the downloadable conversation guide for this article.