Stop What You’re Doing and Read this Post on Christian Sex

This post is part of a Patheos symposium on the Future of Seminary Education.  You can see all of my posts in this symposium here.

Late last week, Tim Dalrymple published a doozy of a post, complaining that his classmates at Princeton Theological Seminary were indiscriminately jumping the sack with one another.  He then goes on to make generalizations about Christians more liberal than he, based on his anecdotal experience at Princeton.

Princeton wasn’t my favorite place in the world, to be sure.  But in my two years on campus, I never knew of an instance where a student had casual sex with another student.  Not to say it didn’t happen, just to say that it wasn’t flagrant in the sense that Tim writes.  So, my anecdotal experience negates and therefore nullifies Tim’s.

Does that render Tim’s points moot?  Insofar as he bases his conclusions on this anecdotal evidence, yes it does.

However, Tim argues that liberal Christians and conservative Christians have different mores regarding sexuality.  That seems a thesis worth investigating.

Well, Scott Paeth has, and he has brilliantly.  An ethicist and theologial at DePaul University, Scott writes:

Since reading [Tim’s post] I’ve given a lot of thought to Tim’s main points, and I think that while he elaborates on some important issues, his diagnosis stems very strongly from his confessed “evangelical with conservative leanings” point of view. Clearly the sexual mores that he took for granted coming from his 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). But Tim’s blog post gave me pause and caused me to wonder why that is. I’ve come up with several possibilities, none of which, I think, exclude the others, and all of which may contribute to the liberalization of sexual mores among Christians in general and seminarians in particular.

Let me pause for one moment just to note that I suspect that Tim would like to think that his position represents the normative base point for Christians in the early part of the 21st century, and can’t figure out why folks in seminary have deviated from that base point. I think the truth is the opposite. Tim’s very sincerely held believe is, and has been for a very long time (I’d guess since at least the early 20th century), very far from the norm among Christians. However, it took until the 1960s before people were willing to be more open about the rarity of actual adherence to the principle of premarital chastity (I remember reading a statistic at one point that fully 50% of all childbirths in the middle ages were undertaken in  relationships that were, as they say, “without benefit of clergy”). Tim’s position is the outlier, and has been for a very long time.

Do yourself a favor and read the Four Reasons that Scott uses to explain to Tim why conservatives and liberals disagree on sexual ethics: Scott Paeth: Sex for Christians.

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  • Tony, I just posted a comment on Scott’s blog and said this there, but I think the reason you weren’t privy to the stuff Tim discusses is because you didn’t live in the dorm and you spent more time with PhD students than M.Div students. But just so you know, I can absolutely attest to what he’s talking about. If I may not completely follow him to all of his conclusions, I think it’s worthwhile to think about what that means sociologically and theologically. I’m interested to see where the conversation goes…and also, whether this happens at other seminaries?

  • Alex

    There’s also an even broader discussion to be had here, which is: Why do conservative churches use sexuality and gender mores as the litmus test for “true Christianity” as opposed to say, responses to poverty or even just theological concepts?

    It’s interesting how there’s been this “ecumenism of traditional sexual morality and gender roles” that has arisen over the past few decades, where the Catholic Church and many Christian bodies that have traditionally been very anti Catholic (Mormons, LCMS and WELS Lutherans, Southern Baptists, Evangelical Free Church) have come together over a common agenda of opposing same-sex marriage, premarital sex, sex education, and abortion, and supporting traditional, pre-1950’s gender roles, including and especially no women pastors.

    I hope that there can be a broader discussion of this topic (or, if there already has been one, that you could point me to it.) Because, while I have seen a lot of frustration about conservative churches’ focus on sexuality and the negative effects it has, I have seen less discussion about WHY exactly it is that they pick that issue to the detriment of all others.

  • Stephen Hood

    “Life in Lubbock, Texas, taught me two things: One is that God loves you and you’re going to burn in hell. The other is that sex is the most awful, filthy thing on earth and you should save it for someone you love.”

    Quote from Butch Hancock

    Substitute Lubbock, Texas, with conservative Christian and you have the view that I grew up pushing against a little further east in the suburbs of Dallas. Creating a helpful sexual ethic is difficult wherever one falls on the theological spectrum. My view is the conservative position is naive and causes people to live with too much shame. I’d rather the church promote a healthy monogamy based in mutual affirmation, fidelity, and love, and not worry about the term of the relationship or whether the church has blessed the relationship and called it a marriage. I’m also hard pressed to find a biblical case for the restriction of sex only within the context of marriage. I know Paul wrote that “it is better to marry than to burn,” but that text has always seemed to me to be a call to an aesthetic life and not an endorsement of marriage. I want Christians to be healthy and not crazy and I think a hard line sexual ethic often leads to the failure of discipleship.

  • Emily

    As someone who went to Columbia and therefore thinks everyone at “that other school” was way more conservative than we were, I have to laugh at Tim’s accusation towards those “liberals.”
    My perspective:
    Did people have sex? Yes. Did people drink? Yes. Did I? Yes, on both accounts.
    Did I judge people for the same behavior. Of course.
    Am I going to dare suggest that any of us should not live into the calling that God has for our lives because of this behavior? Absolutely not.
    Where I believe Tim fails, as do many other conservative Evangelicals, is that he somehow equates the whole of our being to our sexuality. Is it a part of who we are? Certainly. Should we strive to seek sexual health and balance? Yes. Should all of who I am and what I am capable of be summed up in my sexual behavior? Absolutely not.

  • I went to Fuller. It isn’t only princeton that has this stuff going on. They probably just talked abou it more than the Fullerites.

  • Jill

    Intesting timing, Tony. I am just sending you my dmin paper on… Chastity as a spiritual disicpline. I’ve read all of these points in these blogs. Can’t wait to hear your response to mine!

  • i would say tim is way more accurate than you think…

  • IzakduT

    I am from South Africa and in my context I have to say that the same issues are burningly alive in ou churches. My opinion is that the church has for a long said sex before marriage is wrong but have never really made clear why. Not sure they even know themselves.
    In my personal reading of the Bible it seems to me that sex equals marriage. Do you differ from me on this?

  • Scot Miller

    When Bill Clinton was having his little problem with Monica Lewinsky, I was teaching at a conservative Evangelical/Southern Baptist college in Texas where no ministerial student ever had sex outside of marriage. When they claimed Clinton lied when he said, “I did not have sexual relations with that woman,” I had to point out that they more than anyone should understand exactly what he meant: “Oral sex and anal sex don’t count as ‘sexual relations.’ Only vaginal intercourse counts as ‘sex.’ And if I don’t have vaginal intercourse, I can still say I’m a virgin.” (I remember being surprised to learn that some students would refuse vaginal sex but agree to perform anal sex so they could still maintain they were virgins until they married. Yikes.)

    So in my experience at least some conservative/Evangelical/Southern Baptist Christians are self-deceived when it comes to having sex.

  • Study after study from social scientist indicated:

    the actual incidence of pre-marital sex & adultery is no higher among progressives than conservatives

    what is different is the public admission of said relationships

    tim’s smug condescending point just seems sad

    • ben w

      Bob C – honest question here: can you provide some of the sources of those studies? I don’t doubt that it could be true, but I’d just like to study the stats for myself.

      I noticed that Scott only quoted his remembrance of a statistic about “the Middle Ages” – which was a wide swath of time and the height of Dead Religion. Hardly a strong point showing that Tim’s sexual ethic is not really the normative teaching for the majority of Christian history.

      • Mark Regnerus, a sociologist at the University of Texas at Austin, published a summary of research is his book “Forbidden Fruit: Sex and Religion in the Lives of American Teenagers”

        Although 74 percent of white evangelical teenagers are opposed to premarital sex, more evangelical teens are sexually active than almost any other major religious group, including mainline Protestants, Jews, and Mormons. The average age for an evangelical to lose her virginity is 16. And half of these kids are not using protection. Compare that with 69 percent of non-evangelical teens who report using contraception every time they have sex.

        The states with the highest divorce rates and the highest teen pregnancy rates are all red (where people are, obviously, more likely to be evangelical conservatives than social liberals). The states with the lowest divorce and teen-pregnancy rates are all blue.

  • Basil

    For what it’s worth, my radar goes up in discussions of sexual morality, since they are often followed by denunciations of homosexuality, as a proof of our general moral decline, which in turn leads to further incitement to discrimination, bigotry and violence against gays.

  • ben w

    (First off, dead religion is dead religion. Whether is conservative or liberal. Faith that is in word and creed only, and not in deed, is dead. Granted: Dead Religion is rampant in Conservative churches as well as Liberal churches.)

    Tony, you really find Scott’s explanations “brilliant”? Here’s what I gathered from the article:

    The traditional / conservative sexual ethic is dying out because:
    1. Sex is a rather trite thing to my generation.
    2. The biblical teaching doesn’t apply because it’s old & antiquated (e.x. – see it’s inane teaching on homosexual acts!)
    3. Other things are important in our eyes (see #1)
    4. Conservatives disobey this same ethic, as they do all biblical ethics.
    5. (I can’t really decipher Scott’s point here… Is that why you called it four reasons?)

    I think a central difference has to be that some consider the biblical text to be normative for all matters of faith and practice, and others simply don’t. What else could Scott’s points #1 & #2 mean except that for one reason or another the biblical text should be disregarded or dismissed? Moreover, Scott’s provides no justification for his claim that Tim’s ethic is a “outlier” in Christian history. We all know that Christians fail to keep the standard they preach / teach, but I can’t imagine that anyone would suggest that anything less than Tim’s ethic has been the Christian standard for nearly all of Christian history. Just because many Christians have failed to keep it, does that mean it should be discarded? What exactly did Jesus mean when he said we are to “take up our Cross” and that “the road is narrow”? Shouldn’t we expect the road at times to be difficult?

    There can be grace for disciples that stumble into sin along the path, but don’t throw out the standard just because many fail (and now simply refuse) to follow it.

    • Ben,

      I think Scott’s post is brilliant in it’s honesty and simplicity. And in it’s pragmatism. You write, “I think a central difference has to be that some consider the biblical text to be normative for all matters of faith and practice, and others simply don’t.” I’ll go ahead and call bullshit on that. Progressives consider the Bible normative, too, but they find normativity in its themes, not its details. Conservatives who say that liberals don’t care about the Bible have never read an academic book by Marcus Borg, or they have and they’ve chosen to be dishonest.

      • Tony,

        It seems to me that the issue is a bit more complicated than a theme/details dichotomy. Conservatives believe Scripture to be the norma normans non normata. Why? Because it is in these words that Christ speaks most clearly and authoritatively, for this is the role God has appointed for Scripture in the economy of salvation (that’s why it’s “holy”). Your own comment about the “themes” and not the “details” reveals an extra-canonical criteria by which you have decided to norm what cannot be normed. Calling “bullshit” on someone because they refuse to follow a [semi-Hegelian] trajectory hermeneutic or some other path that violates the sufficiency of the final form of the canon (and the weight of tradition) hardly makes them a caveman staring at shadows on a wall. It makes them someone with at least one good dogmatic instinct.

        Disagree all you want, but be honest about the disagreement (especially if you’re going to call someone else dishonest); the Borg statement is patronizing and paternalistic. I can’t believe you’d even make an either/or statement like that and use “academic” in the same sentence.

        As for Scott’s similar statement below about the futility of appealing to Scripture on this score and the need to develop a sexual ethic on some other basis, I can only respond that this is inadmissible for a Christian theologian. Scriptural reasoning and exegetical debates have such a rich history because Christians have, throughout the centuries, refused to give up on the Word as a final authority. You can develop a sexual ethic on some other basis, but don’t bother calling it Christian and don’t expect it to last long in Christ’s church.

        I think the dogmatic and historical theology under the surface here needs to be deeper and wider!

        • Tyler,

          If you believe it’s inadmissible to take into account the incoherence of scripture on the subject of sexuality, then I’d suggest you’re not seeing what’s actually in the text, but rather projecting your own map of what the Bible SHOULD be saying by your moral compass about sex. But it doesn’t say that. There is no “Biblical sexual ethic.” It’s just not there. And anyway, it suggests that the Bible is nothing but a rule book anyway, which I think is inadmissible.

          On the other hand, OF COURSE as Christians read the Bible we should be interrogating it for an understanding of our relationship with God that has implications for the whole of our lives, including sexuality. But that’s a very different thing, and as far as I’m concerned, much healthier for the church than the “hypernomian” (as opposed to antinomian, which I’ve apparently been accused of being) stance that many evangelicals take.

    • Just a quick note to chime in here and say thanks to Tony for the link. I revised the piece between sending it to Tony and his linking to it, so that would explain the difference in enumeration, though I’d note that my #5 is really intended as a summary rather than a separate point (plus, I just was having fun with the word play).

      As for Ben’s responses, I would say that he seems to miss my underlying point (which is no doubt my fault for not making it clearer). My basic argument is that a) what evangelicals say constitutes Christian teaching on sexual ethics has never really been the norm as practiced by most Christians; b) more traditionalist teachings on human sexuality are uncompelling to large number of otherwise faithful Christians, and if traditionalists want it to be more compelling, they have to find a way to make it so; 3) the Bible is not a trump card in this argument, so you’d better develop a sexual ethic on some other basis, or at least not claim that your approach is uniquely biblical; 4) ultimately Christian ethics is a lot more about striving and grace than it is about obedience and rules.

      Certainly Tim’s understanding of Christian ethics reflects the standard Christian teaching about sexuality as it has existed for a long time, but I don’t think it is only possible to be a faithful follower of Christ if one has or is unfailingly following it, any more than it is only possible to be a faithful follower of Christ if one keeps one’s money in their mattress rather than taking a return on interest. By making sexuality the central focus of so much discussion of Christian ethics, conservatives make themselves increasingly irrelevant to many young men and women who find this teaching to be nonsensical and unsupported, and fail to pay attention to those things that are much more central to the teaching of Christ and the building of Christian community.

      Finally, just to be clear, I do think that it’s necessary for the Church to have a sexual ethic, but that sexual ethic is cannot be the same tired approach to sexual ethics that served the church so poorly in the recent past.

      • Casey


        As to the points in your response to Ben W…
        a) Can you clarify what you believe to be an evangelical Christian sexual ethic?

        b) What does “otherwise faithful Christians” mean? That is a curious phrase.

        3) I think Ben W.’s desire is to place the Bible in a position where it is the authority and has the freedom to trump whatever is put against or over it. It doesn’t appear that he’s going to take the bait on this one.

        4) Grace implies judgment, does it not? How else could it be grace? Can there be judgment without a rule that has been transgressed? Can God’s grace toward man exist apart from man’s transgression? If it can, how? If it cannot, what has been transgressed and who made it so?


        I’ve read the Borg.

        • Casey, you raise some good questions. I’m pressed for time but I’ll try to answer them concisely.

          a) What I understand to be, in a broad sense, an evangelical sexual ethic is one that believes that sexual relationships should take place only in the confines of monogamous, heterosexual marriage.

          b) What I’m attempting to convey by that phrase is the idea that, even if premarital sex may be a sin (and I think that a credible case can be made that it is (at least in some, maybe many, maybe most, maybe even all cases), that one may engage in it while still being in other respects a faithful Christian, just as one may give in to anger, pride, or selfishness (which I know I do on a daily, even hourly, basis) while still being, in many other regards, a faithful Christian.

          3) {NB., Just sticking with your enumeration here}. You may be right, but what the hey, I’m enjoying the give and take.

          4) Yes, grace implies judgement, but judgement doesn’t imply that we’re judged for breaking rules. I think this fallacy is at the heart of much Christian teaching on sin — that sin is violation of a rule. It’s not (though rule breaking may accompany sin). Sin is a state of being, which we cannot alter without grace, and which we need grace for the pardon of. Sin isn’t something we do, it’s something we are, and judgement is therefore not judgment of our actions, but of our very existence. Similarly, Grace isn’t forgiveness of particular wrong acts, but forgiveness of an entirely wrong way of existing toward God.

          • Casey


            Thanks for answering the questions and not considering this discussion the beating of a dead horse.

            a) If not a monogamous, heterosexual marriage, what sexual ethic do you see as the ideal sexual ethic presented in the NT?

            b) We agree here, for the most part.

            3) {NB., Just sticking with your original enumeration here}. I’m enjoying it too, though I cannot speak for Ben. 🙂

            4) How does what you say about sin not being something we do square with Genesis 3? If sin is not something we do, is sin not a conscious moral decision? How would you explain 1 John 3:4? I think we would both agree that the essence of sin does not lie in merely individual acts of transgression, and that it lies in the depth of our being – our heart. But a biblical understanding of sin must include the concrete acts of personal wrongdoing against God, man’s habitual inclination toward sin, and the standard to which he is held accountable.

          • Casey,

            a) In the NT? The ideal marital situation is not to get married. But sure, second best is to get married rather than burn with lust. Clearly marriage itself is the second best situation from Paul’s perspective. If you really want to act according to the ideal, Paul says don’t get married at all. I don’t see anything in Jesus’ teaching that would contradict this. Clearly by the later stages of NT writing, marriage was simply taken for granted as the norm. But that hardly makes it the NT ideal. And nothing in the OT suggests that monogamy was the ideal there either.

            b) Very happy to hear it. One thing I want to convey is that none of these questions are open and shut cases, despite the efforts of many Christians to treat them as such. Real life, and real theology are more ambiguous than that.

            3) ;). We’ll just keep this here as a place marker, since Ben seems to be out of the conversation entirely.

            4) Here again I think we hit on a fundamental difference in how theological ethics is done. I don’t think that I have to square anything with Gen. 3 because I don’t think Gen. 3 offers any kind of “theology of sin.” It’s a story. And what the story conveys, as Christians have come to interpret it, is that Sin is a corporate human condition, not something that we individually engage in. That’s why humanity as a whole can be cursed for the actions of Adam and Eve. It’s a parable of the university human condition of sinfulness, or disorderedness in the presence of God. Not a declaration that we are sinners because we sin. It’s the contrary: we sin because we’re sinners.

  • JR

    Emily, PTSEM and Princeton University are two separate schools, although the former seems to play up the ‘connection’ more than the latter.

    • Emily

      I should have clarified, I graduated from Columbia Seminary in Atlanta.

  • After reading Tim’s post, Princeton seems more tame than my seminary, I always wondered to what extent broader Christian culture realized what seminary culture is like at more “progressive” institutions

  • Thanks for posting this. As a fellow PTS alumnus (May of 08), I’m naturally intrigued.

    I posted over at the OP, but suffice to say here, my experience is quite different than the one described above.

    As a PTS alumnus (May of ’08 graduation), I feel compelled to weigh in here and offer a different experience and perspective.

    Yes, there were parties at seminary. While I was there, as an example, a few of the seminarians brewed their own beer and invited the campus to come enjoy it together after finals week concluded. And yes, there were times when people had too much to drink.

    Yes, there are varying perspectives on sexual ethics. I would say the majority affirms homosexuality within the church, and traditional conservative values such as abstinence aren’t necessarily valued by everyone. Like the author, I hold to relatively conservative sexual ethics. I abstained until marriage, for example, and was in a committed (although long-distance) relationship during my seminary experience.

    However, I do not agree at all that drunkenness, drug use, and casual sex were as common as presented here. Furthermore, on the occasions when I did witness two of those three (I NEVER saw or heard about any kind of drug use whatsoever), it was often among students who were not there to become pastors. They were there to prep for PHD work, were jointly enrolled somewhere else, etc.

    Furthermore, the administration was actively involved if/when something like this did get out of hand. Not in a punitive, Big Brother kind of way, but in a nurturing, parental sort of way. The administration cares about its students, is concerned for their well-being, and ultimately does prioritize preparing people for ministry.

    To my knowledge, the author and I weren’t enrolled at the same time. I’m not saying his experience is wrong, biased, or anything else of the sort. His experiences are his, and I trust his truthfulness.

    However, mine are different, and I thought it appropriate to share them.

  • I’ve got one thing to say on the matter: see Gaye, Marvin, “Let’s Get It On,” Let’s Get It On, Tamla Records, August 28, 1973.

    • i wonder if PTS had an old frat house turned div house…the Demon Deacons did

  • Rod S.

    Since when does not having a similar experience “negate and nullify” someone else’s experience? Uncharitable and illogical. I can’t help but think Tim’s post has struck a deep chord in you and you are responding more with emotion than reason.

    • Rod, my experience does not nullify his experience. But insofar as his thesis is based upon his experience, my experience nullifies his argument.

    • My words:

      To my knowledge, the author and I weren’t enrolled at the same time. I’m not saying his experience is wrong, biased, or anything else of the sort. His experiences are his, and I trust his truthfulness.

      However, mine are different, and I thought it appropriate to share them.

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  • Dave

    Hey guys, enough about sex. What do you guys think about the McRib sandwich? I’d like an “emergent” view on the McRib.


  • aaron

    After reading Tim’s post, and then Tony’s, I think Tim is doing what I did in high school. I was a conservative evangelical in high school who lead a bible study on campus, therefore I was in contact with other Christians a lot. There were two guys I remember who went to “liberal” churches that were mormon bashing, sex obsessed, immoral culture driven pagans in my mind. Therefore, I concluded that all liberal churches breed this type of people because they “don’t believe the bible”. However, when I experienced some of the same behavior from those within my evangelical community (including the star football player who was “Tebowing” before Tebow even went to college), I dismissed it as “struggling in their faith”. You see what I did? Basically, Tim made an unconscious judgement during seminary of a group foreign to him based on the behavior of some of them, and that shaped the lenses he viewed that community from. Looking back, I (and everyone else) in the evangelical community had our own struggles with sexuality just like my more mainline friends (some of who probably had better moral standards than myself and weren’t judgmental hypocrites like myself at the time). I have a good friend who went to an evangelical college and can witness there is premarital sex there; however it obviously goes under the radar since they sign a community agreement.

    Oh, and Tim’s article is another example of how obsessed conservative evangelicals are with sex.

  • Frank

    Aaron as Christians we should have a strong and clear voice about sex. It’s culture that’s obsessed with sex which makes it a Christian duty to provide the biblical theology of sex in contrast.

    If culture stopped being obsessed with sex the church would be too.

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