Thursday, July 19, 2012

Thoughts on Chastity

The Most Unpopular Virtue

Chastity is the most unpopular of the Christian virtues.  There is no getting away from it; the Christian rule is, 'Either marriage, with complete faithfulness to your partner, or else total abstinence.'  Now this is so difficult and contrary to our instincts, that obviously either Christianity is wrong or our sexual instinct, as it now is, has gone wrong.  One or the other.  Of course, being a Christian, I think it is the instinct which has gone wrong.

Embodied Apostasy

Sex is, in Paul's image, a joining of your body to someone else's.  In baptism, you have become Christ's Body, and it is Christ's Body that must give you permission to join His Body to another body.  In the Christian grammar, we have no right to sex.  The place where the church confers that privilege on you is the wedding; weddings grant us license to have sex with one person.  Chastity, in other words, is a fact of gospel life.  In the New Testament, sex beyond the boundaries of marriage - the boundaries of communally granted sanction of sex - is simply off limits.  To have sex outside those bounds is to commit an offense against the Body.  Abstinence before marriage, and fidelity within marriage; any other kind of sex is embodied apostasy.

Defending Ourselves Against Chastity

 ... the gospel of redemption will be an offense, no matter how carefully modulated, no matter how cleverly dressed up in the finery of modern ideals of freedom and rational responsibility.  Therefore evangelism has no reason to hide the hard demands of the gospel. ...

Only by taking the severe and dangerous risks of obedience to something beyond our comprehension can we have the freedom to participate in divine glory.  For this reason Christian freedom requires a spiritual ambition that is very much at odds with the postmodern age.  Such ambition does not throw up protective walls to block the demands of the gospel. Instead spiritual ambition forsakes prerogatives, renounces the rights and privileges of intellect and will.  All defenses against the transforming power of grace are removed ...

The moral challenge of evangelism is, then, to nurture an ambition that has the courage of obedience, the courage to draw as near as possible to redemptive power by tearing down the walls of defense.  Without doubt, this can be done in any number of ways, but I wish to end with a final word.  It is hard truth that pastors know but do not wish to hear: Unless you preach chastity, and the easy chastity of sex governed by commitment and love but the hard chastity taught by St. Paul, you will fail to meet the moral challenge of evangelism in this postmodern age.  This is not because sex is the most important dimension of the Christian life; it is because sexual freedom is the most cherished, most morally sanctified, and most Petronian moral commitment of the postmodern age.

Sexual freedom is crucial because it has two aspects.  It encourages the agitation of our passions, always distracting us from ourselves, and at the same time this postmodern sexual freedom insists that we should do absolutely nothing to alter the immediate demands of our lust.  In this way our age runs from chastity for the same reason that St. Augustine, in his Confessions, reports that he always ended his prayer for chastity with the plea, "But not yet!"  As Augustine knew, if we can change this altogether fundamental part of our lives, a part woven into the fabric of instinct, then the defenses against redemptive change are down.  If the perfectly normal and natural needs of the body can be directed toward God, then surely the higher faculties of will and intellect can as well.  If something so "impossible" is indeed possible, then who knows what might happen next? ...

We adopt critical cliches and habits of distance because we do not want to risk being ravished by a transforming truth.  We do not want to submit the raw material of our lives to God so that we might be melted down and reformed into something very different.  Thus, we defend ourselves against chastity not because we are prideful and self-confident hedonists, not because we find great joy in the confusing labyrinths of sexual desire and satisfaction, but because we are fearful that once the invasion of grace begins it will not relent until the capitol falls.

~ R. R. Reno,"Postmodern Irony and Petronian Humanism"
in In the Ruins of the Church (2002)

[An earlier version of this chapter appears in First Things as "American Satyricon."


G Lyell said...

Thanks for having the courage to take this on. My cynical side wants to ask the question - What would St. Paul say if he were here to pen an epistle to the Episcopal Church?

More seriously, your subject reminds me of two Matt Kennedy sermons which were posted a couple of years ago. They are based upon 1 Thessalonians 4: 1-8, and address the issue of sexual purity. You can find them at:

Bryan Owen said...

Thanks for the comment, G Lyell, and for the link.

I, too, have sometimes wondered what it would be like for the Episcopal Church today to receive a letter from St. Paul. No doubt, he would have much to say! But I frankly doubt many of us what care one way or the other about what St. Paul might think. The actions of General Convention carry more authority.

Anonymous said...

Like #1 said, thanks for the courage to post these. I was particularly struck by Dr. Reno's point about needing to tackle the issue of unchastity in preaching and teaching. I just avoid it most of the time but in doing so end up giving the field over to our culture's hedonistic tendencies. It's easy to forget how saturated we are with very unchaste assumptions, and they remain unchallenged until the church speaks up. Maybe I need to preach a mini-series in the fall. Lord grant me courage and faithfulness.

Stephen Silverthorne+

Bryan Owen said...

Hi Stephen. I, too, have not ventured into this territory in my preaching and teaching. My guess is that you and I are hardly alone in our silence about all of this. I don't think I've ever once heard this topic raised in any capacity since I returned to the Episcopal Church back in the mid-90s. And if Reno is right, then anyone raising this topic needs to be prepared for some serious blowback!

Our church's silence stands in sharp contrast to much of the New Testament, particularly the epistles, and especially the letters of the apostle Paul. As I read through Paul's letters, I'm struck again and again by how often the topic of sex and self-control comes up. If I'm reading Paul rightly, then for him one of the most basic differentiating markers of the baptized is their cultivation of the virtue of chastity and their refusal to participate in the various forms of sexual hedonism proliferating the surrounding culture. I think he would have harsh words for any one in the church who would seek to relax the Gospel's stringent demands in this area!

Anonymous said...

I couldn't agree more. I have done some preaching on this in the past, but not in a few years at least. Partly, that's because we're so immersed in unchastity that we're like fish who don't know they're wet. Sometimes I find myself so deadened by the constant cultural bombardment, I almost forget how dangerous it is.

I'm also mindful of the fact that sex seems like an obsession to some conservative preachers. As if chastity were the sum total of Christian witness. It's a caricature of course, but there is some real cultural memory of the days when anything sensual was suspect, even within the bounds of marriage. Perhaps this causes some anxiety in preachers like me.

The problem is that we aren't there anymore. I don't think excessive prudishness is a big danger today. Now, we live in a world more similar to 1st century Corinth, where men in the church see little problem uniting themselves to prostitutes. For the most part, today this is probably in its high-tech form of pornography, but it still presents the same problem. We forget that eros is a very powerful force, which if given free reign can lead us very far astray indeed.


Bryan Owen said...

Very good points, Stephen.

I'm reminded of an Episcopal priest who, in a brief article on marriage, says this:

"Sex is good, and in marriage it is great. I wish to call all people to use their God-given gift of sexuality for relationships that are mutually fulfilling, joyful, committed for life, faithful and sanctifying, recognizing that there are stages on the way to discerning marriage, and accept that for most people sex is part of that discerning. Yet, I urge all people, as much as possible, to save sexual relations for the person they will love most in life. And if you wish to get married, we would be happy to talk with you!"

" ... there are stages on the way to discerning marriage, and accept that for most people sex is part of that discerning."

It's difficult to imagine a clearer accommodation to a culture that rejects the virtue of chastity, or a clearer rejection (by a priest!) of the church's historic teaching about sex outside of marriage.

Anonymous said...

Sad, but I fear it's a typical accomodation. We lack the moral courage to preach something which challenges our core cultural assumptions, so we resort to nagging. Sure, go out wherever eros leads you, since our culture says we should, just "be loving" about it. And this is supposed to draw people to the gospel? Nobody likes a nag.


Bryan Owen said...

"Nobody likes a nag." Very true, Stephen!

Whether it's by nagging or silence, my sense is that on the whole, this is an area in which the church has failed very badly.