I recently spoke to a group of a few hundred high school students at a youth conference. It probably won’t surprise you that during the Q&A session, they had a lot of questions about rules and boundaries.
How far can we go in a dating relationship?
Is it wrong to have oral sex before you get married?
What shows and movies are okay for Christians to watch?
Is masturbation wrong?
These students aren’t the only ones asking questions like this. Recently at another event, someone texted the question, “What are the physical boundaries before marriage – AND PLEASE BE SPECIFIC!!”
Many of the guidelines around how we steward our sexuality seem broader rather than specific. “Avoid sexual immorality; honor God with your body, don’t entertain lustful thoughts.” Yes, there are some very specific things God tells us not to do like, “Don’t have sex outside of marriage, don’t commit adultery, and don’t have sex with the same sex.” Ironically, even these few clear “thou shalt nots” are under debate in some Christian circles. However, these broader guidelines leave a lot of room for “gray areas” of what it actually looks like to honor God with our sexuality.
We live in a culture that promotes self-fulfillment and pushes back on rules. For many people, specific boundaries around sexuality trigger memories of purity culture and legalism. Isn’t it better just to teach high-level principles of pleasing God and leave people room to figure out the specifics?
The New Testament Pharisees were notorious for taking a good, godly principle and creating micro rules that became burdensome. Some Christian communities have done likewise with rules about sex. You may have grown up with micro rules like:
- Girls must wear skirts/dresses with hemlines below the knee.
- Boys and girls must maintain 6 inches of distance between each other.
- Every date before marriage must be chaperoned by a parent.
- Any form of kissing is sinful before marriage.
- Men and women shouldn’t dance together.
- It’s wrong to watch a show with a rating greater than PG.
- You should never have a meal alone with the opposite sex, other than your spouse (even in a business context).
While rules like the ones mentioned above have fallen out of fashion even among most conservative Christian communities, we may be overreacting to the point of neglecting the wisdom of embracing boundaries when they are actually necessary. I’d like to suggest two specific cases in which rules are not onerous or legalistic, but can actually express the heart of God and be a gift to us on the journey toward sexual integrity.
We need rules while developing discernment.
When my children were little, we had a lot of rules to keep them safe, rules that are totally unnecessary as they’ve gotten older. For example, we told them not to touch the stove, not to run in parking lots, to go to bed at a certain time, and to eat their vegetables before getting a piece of bread. These rules were necessary because our kids didn’t have the capacity to think through safety and wise living. It’s just common sense that a 4-year-old has very different boundaries than an 18-year-old. Rules are necessary while a young person develops the maturity to make independent, wise decisions. A mature and wise adult may eat their bread before their broccoli or go to bed late at night, but they do so with full knowledge of how their body best functions. They have the experience and discernment to make such decisions without rules.
This same principle applies spiritually. The author of Hebrews used the metaphor of babies versus mature Christians when addressing the early church. “You need milk, not solid food! Anyone who lives on milk, being still an infant, is not acquainted with the teaching about righteousness. But solid food is for the mature, who by constant use have trained themselves to distinguish good from evil.”
Paul echoed similar themes in his letters. He taught about love for God and others replacing our need for the law. As we grow and mature, many rules become unnecessary because we are more surrendered to the Holy Spirit who leads us to do God’s will. The greater the maturity, the less need for specific rules.
While we are learning and growing, we need clear boundaries. It’s unhelpful to tell someone who is 100 pounds overweight to lose weight or even to give general guidelines like, “Watch what you eat and exercise.” Losing 100 pounds happens when a person has a plan and accountability to that plan, which is what has made programs like Weight Watchers so popular. Learning new habits and lifestyles takes structure, discipline, and accountability.
Now let’s apply this to sex. It’s not helpful to tell a 16-year-old, “Don’t look at porn or sleep with your girlfriend” without providing direction, tools, and accountability, which will include rules. And biological age is not the only determinant. Most of us, no matter our age, have not been discipled in our sexuality. In the absence of maturity, we may still flounder in sexual brokenness, shame, and bondage to sin. We need rules in place while we address the deeper issues leading to maturity. That’s the key. Rules alone will keep us stuck as infants and may breed resentment. Instead, rules and accountability should be the scaffolding that allows us the space to mature in our discernment of right and wrong with increasing surrender to the Holy Spirit.
We need rules in our weakness.
Many years ago right after I had written my first book, I attended a 3-day conference for Christian writers and speakers. I was super excited about learning how to develop my skills and broaden my opportunities. Within the first few hours of the conference, I was overcome by a sense of darkness in my heart. Much of the casual conversation with fellow aspiring authors and speakers were about:
How many books have you written?
How many copies has your book sold?
Have you been on such and such program?
Do you have an agent?
By the end of the day, I was in my hotel room sobbing. Why? Because I recognized the danger of the evil in my heart. The questions these women were asking each other were not wrong at face value. I’m sure the conference was an encouragement to many of those who attended. But to me, it evoked my weakness of pride. It is something I had always struggled with, but as a budding author, my drive to be known took off with a vengeance.
The Lord dealt with me very directly in that hotel room. I was not to again seek out conversations and events focused on promoting me or my platform. In the coming months, the Lord impressed on me other “rules.” Don’t check your Amazon ratings and reviews. Don’t ask your publisher about your book sales. These boundaries were not to restrict me, but to remind me that ministry is about God and not about what people think about me.
More than twenty five years later, I still live by many of these same rules. I don’t think I’ll ever outgrow them. Why? Because I know my weaknesses. There are certain areas in which I’ve learned that I can’t trust my flesh, and so I set a boundary.
Sexual integrity means not simply adopting the rules other people put on you, but learning to guard yourself against your weaknesses. Paul wrote in Romans 13:14, “Put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh, to gratify its desire.” Before I sin, I often “make provision for my flesh” just like cooking food before eating a meal. There are things that are not in themselves sin, but they set us up for sin to overtake our weaknesses.
There are shows you know you should not watch and books you should not read (even if other Christians think they are perfectly okay). Perhaps you should never own a smartphone or have a computer in a private space. Maybe you should never travel with a specific co-worker or kiss someone you are dating–not because it’s wrong, but because you know your own weaknesses.
Honoring God with your sexuality will look different for each one of us. This is why Paul encouraged the early church to not only honor their own personal convictions but also to make room for the convictions of others.
Not all sexual rules are legalism or holdovers from purity culture. While Pharisaical rules have hurt many, the absence of necessary boundaries has left many in its own wake of destruction.
Java with Juli: (Bonus) #236 Pursue Wholeness, Not Purity (member exclusive)
Image by Anna Keibalo via Unsplash