Does Appearing Pure Matter?
- Tuesday, March 27, 2012
We rarely talk about it.
We figure that if we do it right, nobody else will see, and nobody else will know. Or, we’re so jaded by the culture around us, we don’t even think about it.
What is it? Maintaining an appearance of sexual propriety while dating.
Time was, even the glimpse of a woman’s ankle was supposedly enough to make a male heart flutter with excitement. If you were single and traveling with another person of the opposite sex, you went with a chaperone. Shucks, even sitting together in a parlor required the presence of a chaperone.
These days, most men have to see a lot more than ankles before their heart starts fluttering with excitement, and only the most provincial of cultures still require the accompaniment of at least a third wheel when unmarried people are together.
Indeed, the loss of privacy isn’t an entirely new phenomenon!
Keeping Up Appearances?
Changes in cultural standards can be both good and bad. One of the reasons the BBC’s Downton Abbey television series has so beguiled Americans likely involves our bemusement at arcane codes of presumed modesty that were more charade than conviction. Evangelical singles today can progress through a healthy dating relationship without gratuitous rules designed to enshrine the presumption of sexual purity. Nevertheless, although our popular culture tells us otherwise, should the way we do the things we do—whether it’s dating, or anything else—still retain an accommodation for how other people think things look? Even if that’s different than the way they really are?
It sounds so legalistic, but perhaps that’s because we’re taking more of our dating cues from the world around us, rather than the God who desires our good and his glory.
For example, if you and a good friend of the opposite sex decide to take a road trip together, just the two of you, the complexities of sexual attraction and compromising situations may never come up. The fact that you could appear to be a sexually-active couple, according to the standards of conventional contemporary society, may be the farthest thing from the truth.
But if truth can be defined as the impression we convey to others, then how far do we need to go to keep up moral appearances? To say nothing of allowing ourselves to slip, however unintentionally, into a sexually provocative environment?
Should we bother with appearances and assumptions, anyway? Believers in Christ enjoy grace, so who cares what other people think?
Depends on who the “other people” includes, doesn’t it? Even if the impressions we convey are unintentional, and nobody else on Earth is watching, God still looks at our heart. Is sexual purity only a consideration when it comes to intercourse, or is there more to it? God says there is. And even though his grace saves us, it’s not a license to sin (Romans 6:1-6).
God wants us to “avoid every kind of evil” (1 Thessalonians 5:22). And the key word here is “every,” not just the convenient or obvious.
God wants us to “flee from sexual immorality” (1 Corinthians 6:18). This doesn’t mean we dawdle on the periphery of sexual compromise, but that we run in the opposite direction.
God commands us, “Do not cause anyone to stumble” (1 Corinthians 10:32). If your friend is going to get exasperated with you because you want to advocate for your sexual integrity, then how much of a friend are they?
Let’s face it: we modern evangelicals don’t like contemplating passages like these because they’re so countercultural. Countercultural in the sense that they seem anachronistic compared with not only secular culture, but also modern churched culture.
Most of us have become experts in justifying how and why we do the things we do. If we’re not careful, however, can’t we risk changing the intent of scripture? Instead of humbly evaluating overly-harsh, Puritanical interpretations of Bible passages on sexual modesty because they’re too old-fashioned and unpopular, we assume our general respect for progressive nonchalance will suffice. Even in our churched culture, it’s easy to assume that since we’re saved, we don’t need rules to tell us how far we can go without becoming sexually compromised.
Why should I care if other people stick their nose into my business, anyway? If I know my intentions are honorable, isn’t that all that matters?
What if we can’t afford—or don’t want to waste money on—two hotel rooms if we take a trip together? Isn’t frugality a biblical virtue?
Why does sexual purity matter so much anyway?
The Frog in a Pot of Water
Ask that last question of the increasing number of children being born out of wedlock. In 2009, for the first time in America’s history, more children were born to unwed mothers under the age of 30 than married mothers. And while many middle-class evangelicals have ignored the news, maybe that’s because our largest demographic—white folk—have been leading the charge. During the past 20 years, white women who start college but don’t complete it comprise the fastest-growing segment of illegitimate birth-givers.
Granted, many factors contribute to this grave trend in our society. But chief among them involves our increasingly ambivalent regard for sexual purity.
And like everything else, it all starts with the basics: those innocuous, almost invisible decisions we make about how we structure our time with the opposite sex. After all, many of our destructive behaviors don’t just materialize out of thin air, do they? They start small, even as innocent choices. And the more comfortable we get making those choices, the more we become like frogs in a pot of water. You’ve heard this before: plop a frog in a pot of boiling water, and it will leap right out. But place a frog in a pot of cool water, then slowly turn up the heat, and the frog will let itself get cooked to death by acclimating to the ever-dangerous water temperatures.
Perhaps one of the ways God allows us to evaluate sin behaviors is by showing us how that behavior looks from the perspective of somebody else. It’s not necessarily to shame us from a particular behavior in the eyes of other people—since God is our only eternal judge—but to give us a benchmark by which we can consider the virtue of our own actions.
In 1 Peter 2:11-12, the apostle sums this up succinctly:
“Dear friends, I urge you, as aliens and strangers in the world, to abstain from sinful desires, which war against your soul. Live such good lives among the pagans that, though they accuse you of doing wrong, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day he visits us.”
How we single believers in Christ interact with the opposite sex isn’t about us. It’s not about rules for propriety or spirituality. It’s not even about how other people think about us. It’s about God and his glory.
If we set God’s glory as our objective, and work backwards, maybe our need for sexual purity will seem less legalistic, and more worshipful.
After all, it’s his appearance we’re supposed to be keeping up.
From his smorgasboard of church experience, ranging from the Christian and Missionary Alliance to the Presbyterian Church in America, Tim Laitinen brings a range of observations to his perspective on how we Americans worship, fellowship, and minister among our communities of faith. As a one-time employee of a Bible church in suburban Fort Worth, Texas and a former volunteer director of the contemporary Christian music ministry at New York City's legendary Calvary Baptist, he's seen our church culture from the inside out. You can read about his unique viewpoints at o-l-i.blogspot.com.
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