True Love Waits: What My Youth Pastor Did Right

Do you feel that?

We are heading towards the middle of February and that means love is in the air.

So I bet you have guessed already what this article is about. That's right!:

Abstinence, waiting until marriage, True Love Waits, kissing dating goodbye, purity rings, purity balls, purity itself, and of course my exact specifications of how far is too far! 

I guess you could say I am more of the 50 Shades of White Hot Holy Purity variety. 
I am actually not joking. Though I might sound like a sheltered homeschool kid from the late 90's my sexual ethic has changed very little since being a teenager (which was, consequently, the late 90's). Yeah, I'm in to the whole "wait to have sex until marriage" thing. I believe sex is covenantal, uniting people's entire beings—body, mind, emotions, and spirit. I also believe sex is both personal and communal but not private, meaning sex happens personally between partners but the act of sex itself is not a secret and thus not "private". The non-privateness of sex is self-evident with the consequences of sex very often having broader effects on an entire community (e.g., people who have sex usually live together and of course there's the babies!). A lot of my thinking is drawn from Lauren Winner's book Real Sex.

But the main reason I would say my views on sex have not changed drastically since I was a teenager is my youth pastor gave me a strong and healthy foundation. I was very much a youth group kid in the 90's and for a season had a dynamic, charismatic, and solid youth pastor in Dave Mudd. He currently pastors Alpine Chapel, a church in Lake Zurich, Illinois. Honestly, I have not spoken with him for years, but his impact on my life has stayed with me till today.

Over the past several years much war has been waged on the "True Love Waits" and "sexual purity" movements, very often from former Evangelical women who had awful sexually repressed lives as teenagers at the hands of hypocritical youth leaders. I in no way want to diminish their stories but will simply let them stand as they are.

You can read a few of them here. I encourage you to do so:
The Purity Comlex: Are men really less affected than women?
My First Blatant Encounter With the Dark Side of Purity Culture (which is written by a man but focuses primarily on the stories of women)

Instead of lambasting these accounts, all I hope to add is a counter-narrative, an account of a youth pastor and a youth group who taught their young people right, even if not perfectly. My main point is this: teaching kids to keep sex within the marriage relationship does not mean they are being sheltered, shamed, or sexually repressed, that in fact quite the opposite can occur, that denying yourself sexual pleasure for a season of your life does not equate with an outright denial of yourself as a sexual, physical person.

Many of these articles focus on the phenomenon known as a "True Love Waits Weekend" where youth groups would take Friday and Saturday retreats to focus (sometimes all together and sometimes with boys and girls separated) on when and when not to date, how to date, "keeping pure", lusting, masturbation (at least with the guys), somewhat detailed sex talks, pornography, restoring a "second (spiritual) virginity" and usually ending in making some kind of pledge/covenant toward purity using a pledge card and a "purity" ring as tangible physical reminders:

Yes, I signed one of these. Three of them, in fact. And on my wedding day I signed over the lease to my wife.
Oh, you didn't know I was a meme? Well now
you do: Making Myself Into A Meme

In total I attended 3 True Love Waits Weekends (with 2 different youth pastors), wore my Virginity Ring (as my high school friends liked to call it) until I got engaged, and even took my Bible to school most everyday until I graduated. And I should also mention I went head deep in numerous Evangelical sex/dating books such as Joshua Harris' I Kissed Dating Goodbye, Dr. Raunikar's Choosing God's Best, and the extended audio teachings of Pastor Dale Crall. Yes, I know, I was an unmatchable Youth Group Dweeb. I was the full-package ladies, as my wife can attest. 

I can honestly say these weekends were formative and transformative times in my life, as were the ongoing influences of Dave Mudd (my youth pastor) and other young adult male leaders in the youth group. Sure they gave us lots of sex talks and continually set forth the boundaries for dating and having physical relationships, but they also lived it out in front of us. Despite their own imperfections, I can honestly say no touches of hypocrisy came out from them, not even when Dave Mudd's marriage fell apart, he had to quit being our youth pastor, and our very large youth group (anywhere from 200-500 kids depending on when you attended) nearly imploded as a result.

So now I want to turn to some of the basic premises the critics of purity culture put forward and counter their claims with how Dave Mudd taught and modeled those same tenets of purity culture.

Here are some of the basic claims made against purity culture:
1. That boy's/men's lusting was out of their control, that they "can't help themselves", and girls/women have a responsibility to dress modestly.

2. That there is a double standard between men and women, where on the surface it seems both are held to the same sexual standards, but in reality keeping a relationship "pure" falls entirely on women, since, again, "men can't help themselves."

3. That young people are guilted and shamed and goaded into not having sex, with the female body being over-sexualized (and thus over-controlled). At the same time females themselves are seen as less prone to sexual desire or wanting to have sex, and males, who are seen to have a natural, strong sexual drive are let off easy when they fail to uphold the standards for sexual purity. In other words, "Son, it was a sin but just try harder next time. After all, it's in your nature..." and "Daughter, girls don't struggle like boys do with sex. That's why it's your responsibility to not lead him into sin. After all, we know they can't help themselves..."

4. That young people (especially women) were either made to feel dirty and shameful about their bodies and thus about sex or they were filled with unreasonably high expectations of how glorious the wedding night, expectations that led to deep disappointment and years of sexual frustration

Let me say a couple of things first, as a precursor:

1. I don't doubt, as one commenter on this article said, that: "'Purity culture arose within the Christian tradition with the aim to regulate and control women *and* men’s bodies.' [But] If you read the early theologians and canon law, you’ll find that Christian attitudes toward sex, marriage, and virginity were permeated with a sexual double standard that very definitely disadvantaged women, often with explicitly misogynist rationales." I will freely admit my lack of knowledge in the area of Church history and European history of the body, though I can certainly see their point as evidenced by our culture's current (though changing) understandings of female sexuality. Please know though, when I use terms like "sexual standards", "purity", and "chastity" I do so as applying equally to both sexes.

2. I certainly grew up in a Complementarian as opposed to Egalitarian church culture, which means the different sexes are seen to take on different God-given roles when it comes to family and ministry life, but to my recollection both sides were always held accountable to the same standards when it came to sin and adhering to the Bible. Personally, I am a ComplemEgalitarian, but I do not want to get into that right now. (Essentially, I believe in being fully Biblical, also acknowledging the innate differences between the sexes, while also acknowledging the utter complexity of humanity, and the work God calls us all to, despite our sex. [that was intentionally brief and convoluted]). 

Now on to my counter-narrative:
On points 1 and 2, part A—personal responsibility and the "double standard": I am not exactly sure what what all the girls talked about when they had their separate sessions (which is why I asked some women I know to reflect on their own stories for me), but never was I taught that I couldn't help myself, regarding sex. I was taught personal responsibility and I was taught to take my desires to God—not to repress them ("take every thought captive to obey Christ", 2 Corinthians 10:5). Some might equate any denying of sex for oneself with repression but as a Christian I see a vast difference between them (more on that in my third point). Sure, as Complementarians, we were taught that I, as the man, was the spiritual leader of the relationship, but that is not what I am arguing for here. Instead I am arguing that to my knowledge both boys and girls were held accountable for their actions and both were called to sexual purity, as far as my leaders understood purity.

On points 1 and 2, part B—girls dressing modestly: Let's face it. Boys can't help themselves! AMI right?! I am poking fun here, but there is a truth to this statement I want to expound on. I know for a fact, based on my memory, that girls were highly encouraged to "dress modestly" but were also fully allowed to be stylish in our youth group. Looking back I would like to think our leaders were doing the best they could to protect the young men and the young women in our church by asking the girls to dress to certain standards, while also acknowledging that girls like to dress in the styles of the day and yes, even be somewhat "sexy". As leaders it is no easy balancing act to do so, and no, they were not perfect at it, but still, they tried to strike a balance between modest and stylish.

That said, I believe something key is missing in the anti-purity culture's critiques of "forcing" young women to dress modestly for the sake of their weak male peers' minds, which is that the actions of individuals in a community or groups within a community affect the community as a whole.  Therefore, when it comes to Christian community both men and women (boys and girls) have to take responsibility for that community. There has to be mutual responsibility. Young women need to acknowledge how utterly difficult it is for a young man to keep his head in the right place when girls dress a certain way or certain areas are exposed or accentuated in certain ways. In the same way young men need to acknowledge that in all reality it will never matter how women dress and he can always find a way to lust after them, to "have impure thoughts" and thus he has to be in the constant process of resting in God and giving his thoughts to God, something my youth pastor taught me constantly. By the way, a healthy, Jesus-rooted understanding of lust has many similarities to the word "covet", which would mean lusting after another person sexually is to desire to own them when they do not belong them (assuming husbands and wives "own" each other in the healthiest understanding of that term possible).

The life of the Christian community is complex and multi-layered and that should be reflected in the standards leaders expect their people to follow. So, there should have been more talk in my youth group for males to dress modestly as well (I think the subject might have been brought up a couple of times in passing), where instead we, as boys, were emphatically taught to "not mess with girls' emotions", because, you know, girls are more emotional. In some senses it is a cliche to say girls/women are more emotional or more emotionally manipulable and yet there is a lot of general truth to the sentiment. Boys can be just as emotional and just as manipulable, though perhaps in different ways. Again, the combined layers of our individual culture's views on gender and sexuality along with the innate characteristics of the sexes are incredibly complex, but if both sexes are taught mutual responsibility toward each other and both sides are held mutually accountable for their actions then the culture is healthy. Simply put, I am arguing my youth pastor, while in no ways perfect, intentionally aimed for such a culture: mutual responsibility and accountability.

On point 3—shaming young men and especially women into not having sex: Though my youth pastor did not have the vocabulary or background to articulate it at the time, I believe his overall ideology would be considered classic Christian chastity, which in simplest terms means rightly ordered sex and desires. All Christians are required to be chaste, to have sex under the right circumstances or not have sex at all (as expounded upon in these articles by Lauren Winner: Sex in the Body of Christ and Sweet Chastity.)

I do not remember feeling guilted or goaded into not having sext before marriage. Instead I remember feeling encouraged and challenged to strive for what God wants for my life and to put my faith in God and walk with God daily in order for that to happen. Again, we can go back and forth about what purity is and whether sex before marriage is wrong or not, but that is not what I am talking about here. I am talking about the church environment within which we were encouraged to be pure.

Take for example the concept of a "second virginity" or a "restoration of your purity". Again, taking the belief in a moral purity or holiness as a given within Christianity, the idea of God restoring to you something you had lost or was taken from you is entirely liberating. It is a new start: with God and with other people. Instead of seeing girls pushed into a guilt complex, I saw young women taught to assert themselves, I saw them leave with a new freedom, I saw them given substantial support by other young adult women, and I saw them draw closer to God.

Finally, I think it is helpful to compare my youth group culture to some of the other environments I found myself in as a kid, environments where I would say I received lots more guilt to adhere to certain standards than in my youth group. I am led to think of my tennis coach and my choir director during high school, both of whom are intense men that took their jobs incredibly seriously, even if it was only high school. I remember my choir director slamming doors multiple times when the choir was talking too much and I remember the judgmental look of disappointment from my tennis coach when he found out I was not practicing enough in the off-season. I remember all that pressure I felt to keep being better and to meet their standards, and I look back on it all and am incredibly thankful. They pushed me to be a better person, because they knew what it took to be great at something, and I, being only a kid, did not know. I needed them to push me and to "guilt" me. 

When it comes to athletic, artistic, and scientific achievements, our culture tends to raise on a pedestal those who sacrificed, endured hardship, and for years went without in order to reach a level few would dare to go, but when it comes to people making seemingly extreme spiritual or religious decisions in order to reach a lasting achievement people are often labelled as extremists, backward, freakish, and cult-like.

Honestly, I do not think they were really guilting or shaming me. Instead, they wanted what was best for me. My tennis coach wanted me to be the best tennis player I could be, my choir director the best singer, and my youth pastor all that God had created me to be.

On Point 4—either sex is dirty or the expectations are too high
I can say without a doubt sex was never portrayed as dirty in my youth group. All our desires were acknowledged as good, natural, and God-given. But we were given a model of what rightly-ordered sex looks like. We were told "Listen, everything you are feeling is great, but if you act on those feelings now, chances are you're going to find yourself in a world of hurt. Sure, it will be pleasurable, but that's not what God would want for you. We're not saying have no sex. We're simply saying no sex for now and HERE is where God intends for you to have sex," with HERE of course being marriage. Of course post-Evangelicals can say all they want on the non-virtue or non-necessity of waiting to have sex before marriage, but that is not what I am arguing for here. Instead I am talking about our bodies and the act of sex itself being dirty, something never taught in my church.

I also remember sex being talked about as an being an incredibly pleasurable and glorious experience. Sex should be amazing! we were told. But I do not believe we were given unreasonable expectations. While we did not get any talks on specific sexual techniques (I had to do much reading on my own to teach myself how to pleasure a woman), I do not believe youth group would have been an appropriate venue or time to do so anyway. We were too young to get into all that (very important) stuff anyway. I do remember being taught that sex was something both partners would have to work at and get better at over time. I believe at one point it was even acknowledged that the wedding night was not going to be the glorious experience we all thought it would be. We were taught to lower our expectations in a healthy reasonable way.

To conclude, I know this is not the fully story but it is my story and I hope others hear it. 

In acknowledgment of these limitations I asked a number of women to share their own stories, some of whom attended my youth group and some of whom went to their own True Love Waits Weekends or who grew up within Evangelical purity culture.

You can read their own stories in their own words here:
True Love Waits: A Woman's Perspective

Here also as a resource are a number of articles with critiques of purity culture:

The Answer to Shame is Not More Sexual Shame

I Waited Until My Wedding Night To Lose My Virginity And I Wish I Hadn't

The Purity Comlex: Are men really less affected than women?

My First Blatant Encounter With the Dark Side of Purity Culture

Virgins Until Marriage: How Women Who Waited Feel About Their Choice

Why Young Christian Aren't Waiting Anymore

Inside Edition Reporter Reveals Why She Waited To Have Sex Until Marriage (this is a positive article)

Related Articles:
"Little Boys With Their Porno": Arcade Fire's Search For Love in the Reflective Age
Our Birth Story


Jaz said...

Although not quite as sheltered as you, I was a 90's true love waits type of girl. I am no longer Evangelical or even Christian for that matter (I think I'm a pluralist). I probably agree with about 80% of what you wrote. I waited and have been happily married for almost 15 years. I feel I have to thank Evangelicalism and purity culture for that. In a nutshell I plan to teach my kids that it would be beneficial if they waited, at the very least wait until your mature enough to support yourself and are in love, and masturbation is o.k.

Jaz said...

Although not quite as sheltered as you, I was a 90's true love waits type of girl. I am no longer Evangelical or even Christian for that matter (I think I'm a pluralist). I probably agree with about 80% of what you wrote. I waited and have been happily married for almost 15 years. I feel I have to thank Evangelicalism and purity culture for that. In a nutshell I plan to teach my kids that it would be beneficial if they waited, at the very least wait until your mature enough to support yourself and are in love, and masturbation is o.k.