Real Sex: The Naked Truth about Chastity

As someone who has been involved in youth ministry for almost four decades, I can tell you that I have read dozens of books on Christian sexual behavior, looking for solid guidance in this area of great concern for both teens and their parents. Because the subject scared them to death, parents often demanded that the ministries of the church instruct their children in chastity.

Real SexLet me rephrase that–the demand actually was closer to a command to keep their teens away from sex. Teens themselves would frequently ask the question I came to call the CMLCD–Christian Morality’s Lowest Common Denominator: Can I do x or y sexually and still be a Christian? Two very bad assumptions were embedded in that question: first, that to be a Christian depended on one’s behavior; second, that the Christian life was a matter of negotiating between secular and religious codes rather than living to the glory of God.

Some of the books I found were good. Some were horrid. Many tried to scare young people into abstinence with information about sexually transmitted diseases. Many talked about God’s design for sex within marriage. Some recognized that sexual discipline is really hard. Most seemed to say that sexual purity is only the avoidance of sex. With this as background, I was refreshed by Winner’s treatment of sex and chastity. She says, “I did not write this book because I want to challenge or overhaul the traditional Christian teachings about sex, but rather because I want to challenge the way the church typically helps people practice those teachings” (15, italics mine).

A young woman in our church who also appreciated Winner’s book said this to me: “What does the ‘proper’ expression of physical intimacy look like? The church does a horrible job of teaching about this, and I have come to the conclusion that it is not at all surprising that we have so many sexually frustrated single Christians walking around. The church can’t even approach the topic from a healthy point of view, let alone offer single Christians the opportunity to discuss their struggles.”

Real Sex offers the opportunity to talk about real sex, and does so by placing sex and chastity in relationship to marriage. In Winner’s words, chastity “is not to sit passively by and simply avoid sex; it is to participate in an active protection of a created good” (118). That “created good” is marriage, and its protection involves both single and married people. This is controversial in today’s culture, where it is commonly assumed that the condition of marriage depends only on married couples–how they keep their vows, how they grow together and love one another. How other people live should not affect their relationship. But Winner does not put the responsibility on married people alone. She brings all relationships under a mutual accountability within the church, claiming that the church sets out extremely high duties for the single people among them. As this book unfolds its understanding of the “created good” of marriage, it is, by turns, funny, literate, deeply theological, and full of hope.

Winner grounds her vision theologically (despite her disclaimer that she is not a theologian), biblically, and ecclesially. Among her theological assumptions is a very Reformed understanding of the second and third uses of the law. “It is a law that invites us into the created order of marital sex …a law, in short that cares for us and protects us… . Life lived within the contours of God’s law humanizes us and makes us beautiful. It gives us the opportunity to become who we are meant to be” (42). She roots her understanding of the divine importance of sex in the fact that we have been created with bodies, and since those bodies are sexual, our sexual lives matter to God–both in design and in practice.

Biblical texts are woven throughout this book, but more importantly, Winner understands scripture to be a “map of God’s reality,” not a book of rules. Biblical morality will never be viable if it is a legalistic statement of prohibitions; it must be seen not only as demand, but also as good news to humanity. Part of the good news is that in a world and church awash in unpredictable feelings and emotions that serve as the basis for moral decisions, the Bible can provide grounded guidance based on that map of God’s reality. Reading the Bible this way increases both freedom and responsibility as Christians try to live in ways that honor God and reflect their salvation. It is less helpful for those who earnestly desire more concrete help in determining what behaviors might be appropriate or sinful. Even for those readers, however, Winner helps us understand the sexual choices we make do not have to destroy us or our future relationships. (I think it is important to note here that Winner is talking about mutual relationships, not sexual acts that are non-consensual.)

Ecclesially, she assumes that our sexual conduct is not, in fact, a private matter lived out behind closed doors. This is probably the strongest emphasis in her book. In speaking about “Communities of Chastity,” she says, “like most spiritual disciplines, chastity is better practiced in a community than alone.” She develops a vision for what that might look like across the generations and stages in our congregations. In a powerful recovery of the Greek plural of Romans 12:1, where we are commanded to present our bodies as a living sacrifice, she states that whether married or single, this offering is something we do together. The doing of that means that singleness will bear witness to those who are married that our lives must have a “vacancy for God.” Since there is no “other” on whom the single can depend, that dependence must be on God. Likewise, those who are married are called to demonstrate to the whole community God’s covenant love put into practice in very tangible, down-to-earth, even boring ways.

Quite frankly, Real Sex is about much more than sex. It is about the transforming power of the gospel and the shape of the community in which that transformation takes place. “To practice sexual chastity is not to guarantee our own personal purity or righteousness. It is rather to strive to do sex, to have relationships with other people, and to comport our bodies and our desires in ways that perfectly love God and worthily magnify His name” (156). It is a winsome invitation for Christians to actually enter into the messiness, reality, and joy of the community of Christ.

Eunice McGarrahan is interim associate pastor at Vienna Presbyterian Church in Vienna, Virginia.