The Protestant Premarital Sex Debate Through Harvard Christians’ Eyes

Intersections of Sex and Faith at Harvard

In June 2006, an organization called “True Love Revolution” was founded at Harvard College, the first of its kind to “promote respectful and open-minded discussion of issues relating to abstinence, sex and marriage.” Though True Love Revolution is a non-sectarian organization, it was founded by two devoutly Catholic seniors at the College, both of whom wanted to provide a forum for discussing abstinence as a reasonable and healthy sexual choice for college students. To many students and individuals outside the College, the message of True Love Revolution seemed fairly benign: why not have an organization that advocates thoughtful discussion of many different sexual activity options? Other students were offended by the implicit messages of the organization, however, explaining that “the very name TLR essentially invalidates the relationships of sexually-active, non-married couples, as if to suggest that abstinence is the only way to find true love.” Indeed, in many conversations with Christian and non-Christian friends alike, individuals expressed similar concerns over what they perceived as the subtle judgment implicit and inherent in many of True Love Revolution’s slogans such as “Why Wait? Because you’re worth it,” feeling that “advocates of ‘true love’ overstep the mark when they preach the value of personal decisions to the everyone on campus.”

The ideological debate surrounding True Love Revolution’s founding and core values reflect the complex socio-religious dynamic at Harvard, especially in relation to issues surrounding religion and sexuality. There are no fewer than eight active Christian fellowships currently active at Harvard and at least as many student organizations related to sex and sexuality. However, despite the large number of students associated with either or both of these types of student organizations, there is little overlap or discussion between these groups. Though True Love Revolution is an officially non-sectarian group, many of its members are devoutly Christian. TLR is thus one of the only examples of a group representing an implicit connection between these two types of organizations at Harvard. And while TLR provides a forum for pro-abstinence people of all faiths to discuss the secular sociological, psychological, and relational effects of premarital sex, its non-sectarian nature limits it from deeply engaging with the theological underpinnings of the pro-abstinence argument to which many of its members ascribe.

The disconnect between Christian fellowships and sexuality-related groups on Harvard’s campus reflects a larger issue in the lives of many young Christians at Harvard struggling to find ways to relate their faith and beliefs to their opinions about and experiences with sex and sexuality. Indeed, for many Christians at Harvard, premarital sex is a very difficult topic to discuss with Christian friends, within their fellowships and churches, and especially with Christian leaders, because different Christians’ beliefs about the acceptability of premarital sex, as well as their adamancy about the rightness of their beliefs vary widely. Even when premarital sex and sexuality are discussed openly, many young Christians only seem comfortable discussing the issues in theoretical terms, fearing that their own personal practices and experiences may be judged harshly by peers and leaders.

This divide is certainly not unique to Harvard Christians–it is a debate that permeates virtually every Christian community in America, and one that is rooted in much larger theological disputes. Some Christians believe, as theologian L. William Countryman argues in his book Dirt, Sex, and Greed that, “the Bible takes sex more or less for granted and does not explicitly lay out a theological or philosophical understanding of it…sex, in other words, is not central.” Others, however, take the opposite view. As evangelical religious historian Lauren Winner explains, “the bottom line is this: God created sex for marriage, and within a Christian moral vocabulary, it is impossible to defend sex outside of marriage.” Though Winner herself takes a much more nuanced approach to the issue, Pat McLeod, one evangelical leader at Harvard explains that, “evangelicals have demonized this issue, because it’s one of the few issues that they feel like really can separate Christians from the world–that we have a different sexuality.”

McLeod and many other evangelicals at Harvard disagree with this prevalent evangelical approach arguing that, whatever their beliefs may be about the morality of premarital sex, it is not a uniquely grievous sin and should not be framed as such in evangelical communities; yet, many of them cite the tendency in many evangelical communities to make one’s sexual decisions the defining factor of what it means to be a Christian. Indeed, it is clear from the many arguments throughout American churches and courtrooms over issues such as same-sex marriage, abstinence-only education, and family planning that many Christian communities do believe sexual politics should be a priority. As a result, tensions generally run very high in Christian arguments about sex and sexuality.

In her article “Protestant Views of Sexuality,” religious sociologist Letha Scanzoni stresses the crucial denominational distinctions that exist in modern-day Christianity. In distinguishing mainline Protestant and evangelical sexual philosophies, Scanzoni explains that, “most evangelicals agree…that sex is not something evil, but is a good gift of God… that God has provided guidelines in Scripture for the use and expression of human sexuality, but warns of its abuse…[and] that Biblical norms do not support premarital sex.” In contrast to predominant evangelical sexual doctrines, Scanzoni explains that most mainline Protestants move beyond sex as either procreative or unitive (i.e. creating a permanent emotional bond): “Mainstream theologians, Biblical scholars, and ethicists are likelier than many evangelicals to rethink matters of sexuality…Some have concluded that ‘there is no biblical sex ethic…The Bible knows only a love ethic, which is constantly being brought to bear on whatever sexual mores are dominant in any given country, or culture, or period’.”

Thus while evangelical sexual philosophies, for the most part, still do not approve of premarital sex, many mainline Protestant denominations have become very accepting of the practice. These denominational doctrines are, for many young Christians, one of the most influential factors in shaping their own sexual ethics. As a result, the challenge of facing differences in Christian doctrines can be a major source of tension in the spiritual, social, and personal lives of Christian young people.

The Debate Over the Bible

We can trace many of the disparities in sexual ethics back to foundational differences in hermeneutical analysis and disagreements about the proper role of the Bible in Christians’ lives today. In the particular arena of sexual ethics, the debate among Christians over how Scripture should be read into modern American Christianity has become increasingly bitter and divisive.

On the one hand, the predominant mainline Protestant perspective–supported by many mainline Protestants and some evangelicals–argues that the New Testament sexual strictures are written to a culture whose societal structures are extremely different from our own today. They argue that it therefore seems truly implausible that the same moral laws that applied to first century societies are meant to apply in the most literal sense to us in the twenty-first century. For example, slavery is condoned in the New Testament, yet we no longer believe it is acceptable simply because the Bible suggests that it is. Furthermore, in a more general sense many of these Christians argue, as Harvard Chaplain Countryman does, that:

Sexuality like every other important aspect of human life, should be clearly related to the center and goal of that life, the reign of God. The life of the world to come, characterized by a joyful reverence and love, is already the standard by which our growth in faith and hope is measured in this life…If the reign of God is central, to be sure, other things can no longer make that claim. Sex, in other words, is not central–nor is knowledge, wisdom, money, power, success, security, one’s job or family or marriage, even oneself. None of these things is wrong, in and of itself. They become wrong only at the moment when they become ultimate goals for us.

Countryman summarizes well the arguments of the many Christians who believe that premarital sex is really not a black and white issue for Christians. While they recognize and believe that the Bible lays down moral guidelines for how Christians are meant to treat one another, they also argue that the gospel liberates Christians from endlessly toiling after legalistic means of spiritual purity and cosmic worth. In light of the freedom the gospel provides, these Christians believe that it simply does not make sense to continue to read the Bible as a set of binding ethical laws. Therefore, while they believe that Christians should pursue Christian ideals of love, respect, equality, and mutuality in all of their relationships, they do not believe that the Bible’s literal moral stipulations on sex are the sole way Christians can genuinely pursue those relational ideals.

On the other hand, the predominant evangelical argument, supported by many evangelical and some mainline Protestants, claims God designed sex and sexuality in a specific way at the beginning of the Bible and that humanity’s ideal existence originates from the way in which God created humans in the first place. As evangelical pastor and Harvard Chaplain Russell Schlecht explains As evangelical pastor Schlecht explains:

We are built foundationally upon the pre-existent word of God…so this then sets the terms for God’s engagement with the world, and then our engagement with Him. He is the one who is initiating, and we are merely responders to the pre-existent word, so the creation comes out of that and all of the mandates come out of that as well…I quite obviously have a high view of scripture… So when God sets the terms for what relationship is between him and man and between man and man, that is our default. So God then has said that it is not good that man should be alone, and then he creates woman out of man, and the very first, not formalized necessarily, “marriage” exists, it is exclusive at that point. And essentially from that you have flesh added to the bones of what marriage looks like, what sacred order is, as God-law comes and essentially adds form for us to adhere to, in the fallen state of the world.

Because of our relationship to God, Schlecht argues, Christians must understand all human interactions including sexual relationships, in light of how God initially created humanity and human sexuality. Furthermore, Schlecht and similar Christians argue that the Bible, and traditionally orthodox interpretations of the Bible, areis really the only connections humanity has to an understanding of God’s divine intentions for the world. Even if those intentions seem foreign to our present society’s belief systems or our personal experiences, Christians must prioritize what the Bible implies is the most ethical way of handling life’s situations. The underlying question in determining personal ethics thus becomes whether Christians are going to contextualize away all biblical dictates that do not agree with their personal reasoning, desires, and current understandings of the world. Evangelicals like Schlecht contend that Christians should contextualize passages, but not at the expense of dismissing literal meaning within the Bible’s sometimes confounding moral direction. Therefore, while they do not generally argue that properly ordering one’s sex life is the most crucial aspect of a Christian’s existence, it is an arena in which they believe God lays out a clear, if complex, picture of His intentions for humanity over the course of the Bible. Thus, if Christians desire to follow God wholly, they should bring all aspects of their lives in line with biblical norms.

Christians agree that the Bible provides a vision of humanity’s relationship to God and shows the moral and spiritual purpose of humanity’s temporal existence. Yet mainline Protestants argue that the Bible is still a profoundly historical document and Christians must re-evaluate many of the literal rules and guidelines put forth within the context of modern understandings of science, psychology, and personal autonomy. Meanwhile, evangelical Protestants argue that Christians cannot pick and choose which guidelines to follow on the mere basis of our current understandings of the world, as they believe the Bible presents an over-arching truth that is applicable regardless of which era we are living in. Thus, while both of these Christian groups claim to believe in the moral authority of the Bible in modern society, they have very different conceptions of how the moral and ethical structures present in the Bible should interact with the modern world.

The Relationship of Theological Differences and Moral Debates

This theological divide over the moral authority of the Bible is problematic for Christians on both philosophical and practical levels, and is certainly a worthy topic of discussion. Yet, one glance across the headlines of many American newspapers announces clearly that these are not the issues currently gripping America’s Christian communities. As theologian Miguel De La Torre argues in Lily Among the Thorns,

Believers are no longer divided over issues of doctrine, but rather over issues concerning sex. Once upon a time, questions about issues such as transubstantiation…tore the church apart, spawning new denominations. Today, such doctrinal issues have been replaced by questions concerning women’s autonomy and the type of sex one can engage in. Few sitting in the pews properly know their denomination’s Christological doctrines, but they do know where their church stands on premarital sex, homosexuality, and the ordination of women.

While I argue that the debate among Christians about the morality of premarital sex is a microcosm of a much larger theological and hermeneutical divide over the correct relationship between Scripture and modern society, these key differences are not what most Christians are debating. In fact, the arguments that are taking place in modern Christianity have almost nothing to do with these important theological divides–instead, many Christians focus on relentlessly arguing about specific sexual practices and politics. And the debate is bitter indeed.

Perhaps by virtue of Harvard’s liberal intellectual environment in which students and leaders alike must learn to respond to a myriad of different perspectives, the extreme factions of this argument become somewhat more muted at Harvard. For example, evangelical leaders at Harvard tend to adopt gentler pastoral techniques in discussing sexuality, and are careful to emphasize that while premarital chastity is important it is also theologically unsound and unwise to suggest that chastity determines a Christian’s moral or spiritual goodness any more than any other ideal. Yet interviews with students at Harvard suggest that outside of Harvard’s ivy walls other evangelicals continue to demonize sex as a dangerous force that must be reigned in and limited by strict puritanical dictates in order to “protect society from the destructive nature of an unchecked sexuality.”

Despite their comparatively moderate views, Harvard’s evangelical leaders and students alike recognize the fractures within their Christian communities resulting from black-and-white messages presented by some members. They lament the fact that throughout much of evangelical Protestantism the spiritual significance of sexual purity is so overblown that few people feel that they can talk openly about struggles they may be having with sex and sexuality. In many evangelical communities, almost no other moral issue is discussed as exhaustively and negatively as sexual ethics.

Thus, while many of the evangelical leaders and students at Harvard strive to explain their pro-abstinence in terms of pursuing love, respect, and relationship in the way they believe God intended, they recognize that many evangelical communities legalistically focus on avoiding sin and keeping oneself pure, implicitly ostracizing those in their communities who do not live up to the unbearably high standards.

On the other side of the spectrum, while the mainline Protestant leaders at Harvard are accepting or even encouraging of premarital sex, they ground their beliefs squarely in biblical conceptions of love, equality, and grace, and encourage students that they lead to take decisions about sex seriously and pursue those ideals in every realm of their relationships. Yet, mainline leaders and students express concern about young Christians in their communities whose questions and concerns about the Bible’s role in their sexual and relational decisions may go unanswered. Some mainline churches, Rev. KingHarvard Episcopal Chaplain Reverend Ben King explains, are so invested in giving individuals freedom and choice that they do not recognize that many young Christians today may actually want specific moral direction from their religious communities on matters of sex and relationships. As a result, in some mainline Protestant communities, young Christians receive very little specific moral direction and have a very limited conception of the ways in which their leaders argue the Bible is meant to guide them in their moral decisions. As one student interview demonstrates to a less extreme degree, for some mainline Protestants, personal reason and experience become at least as influential as anything the Bible has to say. Thus, for some mainline Protestants, the Bible is only considered authoritative when it agrees with one’s pre-conceived moral norms, and any moral direction the Bible could provide is almost entirely mitigated by one’s own personal choices.

While the interviews I conducted with individuals at Harvard make clear that very different socio-religious and relational problems result from the imbalanced theological arguments touted by some members from both evangelical and mainline Protestant communities, the underlying cause behind these community ruptures is the same: by focusing on surface level disputes about what sexual behaviors should be allowed, Christian communities have allowed much of the theological basis for their beliefs to become extremely oversimplified or fall away entirely. While both groups claim that they know the “correct” approach to determining God’s will for today’s world, neither faction’s position is theologically-grounded enough to make that claim. As a result, neither group is adequately recognizing or addressing the social, relational, and cultural problems that result from their arguments.

Finding the Common Denominator

In spite of underlying theological and sociological divides, the Harvard Christian community has the potential for these debates to take on a very different character than they have in much of Christian America. First of all, all the evangelical and mainline Protestant Harvard leaders, and even many of the students, express well-developed theologies in support of their arguments about premarital sex. Even more interestingly, despite their different conclusions about whether premarital sex is acceptable for Christians or not, virtually all of these Christians explained that their beliefs are rooted in the same two basic theological concept: pursuing love, respect, and equality in their relationships with others, and attempting to demonstrate God’s love to the world. Therefore, although their ultimate decisions about premarital sex are different, many of the philosophical and theological bases of their beliefs lend themselves to common social projects.

Indeed, while most of the interviews began by discussing the social, spiritual, and theological reasons behind their differing beliefs about premarital sex, by the end of the interviews, virtually all of the Christians from both evangelical and mainline backgrounds were in agreement on the ways in which this and other social issues have taken on undue importance in American Christian communities. As one student explains, in words representative of many of his peers,:

If you were to make a list of doctrines and teachings and ideas that are central to Christianity and that are as nearly universal among Christians as you can think of. And then if you were to make a list of the ideas and issues that get the most attention within the Christian community–that are most debated, most spoken about–I think you would find not a lot of overlap…[For example] compare [the number of scriptures condemning homosexuality] to the number of scriptures about love, or about forgiveness, or about social justice, or about attending to the needs of others, or any number of things. How many things get much more mention within the Bible than homosexuality? A lot. How many things are mentioned by Jesus more? All of them–anything that Jesus ever said got mentioned by Jesus more in the Bible than homosexuality. The same is true of premarital sex…I think it’s an issue that gets way too much attention when we’ve got bigger work to do.

Though this student’s beliefs about premarital sex deviate from those of some of his peers, many Christians of divergent views nonetheless agree that the Christian community’s inordinate focus on sexual politics issues is not right. Reflecting on prevalent evangelical perspectives, Pat McLeod explains that, “We’ve made this one of the distinguishing things…But we don’t want to go to things like pride…Or our consumerism. Or any of these other things which are perhaps more deathly than our sexual promiscuity…so I think that’s problematic too.” Schlecht also agreed that, while he believes there is a need to discuss sexual issues more in the Christian community, it has to happen in a way that accepts and loves people rather than ostracizing them, regardless of their beliefs or practices. Throughout the interviews, Christians at Harvard emphasized the importance of prioritizing the unifying Christian theologies of love and justice, rather than focusing so much attention on the physical practices that distinguish Christians from one another.

Certainly, the divergences of opinion about premarital sex represent genuine and important theological and hermeneutical divides between different branches of Christianity. Indeed, Christian communities would serve their aims well by discussing those theological differences, as Christians should know why they believe what they claim to advocate and because those differences are at the heart of many divides in current denominational and political debates. Yet, there is a theological common denominator–prioritizing the importance of following Jesus’s two main commandments: love God and love thy neighbor. If Christians at Harvard are able to remember these common goals, perhaps they will be able to honestly discuss the theological divides separating American Christianity, while still working together to achieve greater goals in the world.

Eleanor Campisano ’08 is a Religion concentrator in Currier House.