By Philippa Lowe
At 16, Anna* started dating a wonderful 21-year-old from her church. She had spent time in foster care and, tragically, had been sexually abused from a very young age. Fifteen years later, Anna listened to an interview with MoS on Open House and contacted us with her story. After hearing it, and asking her permission, I am compelled to write this for all churches, pastors, and, in fact, anyone who attends church.
16-year-old Anna and her 21-year-old boyfriend had unprotected sex. It was the first time Anna had had a sexual encounter since being abused as a child. She fell pregnant. So, good on them, they owned it. No hiding, no sneaking around. They turned to the person they trusted to help and support them: their church minister.
They were told that they had to repent to God, and also to their church community. Anna said:
“At this point, being a 16-year-old teenager I had no idea what this meant. I soon found out that on Sunday we had to be at the three services our church held, stand up and say we had sinned, we were stepping down from the ministries we were in and to tell everyone that I was pregnant.
“This has brought a lot of shame to me. Christian people in the church treated us so badly and I have carried this with me for the past 15 years.”
Now 31, Anna shared that she and her boyfriend got married when she was 17. They are still married today and have two beautiful daughters. But the shame has stopped her from doing God’s work. The shame she felt from her church compounded her shame from sexual abuse:
“I was never allowed back up the front in ministry again. It was always behind the scenes and that made me feel they were ashamed of me, which made the shame and embarrassment worse,” she said. It led her to attempt suicide.
Shame and sin
There is a MASSIVE difference between shame and sin. Why, oh why, did Anna and her husband – and way too many others – have to endure this?
Yes, the Bible teaches sex outside of marriage is a sin. In the Bible, while there is an expectation that sex is to be saved for marriage, it’s not the be-all and end-all of sexual ethics. We get so caught up in the importance of not having sex before marriage we end up making virginity and purity the gods.
It’s a sex-negative perspective that ends up in one place only: shame. Why? Because none of us live sin-free lives! If we did, God wouldn’t have given us Jesus.
Jesus going to the cross is not about making us feel shame for our sins, but about freeing us from shame. The shame for what we have done, or what others may have done to us.
We need to stop viewing the absence of sex as the goal. Instead, make sexual faithfulness the goal. And sexual faithfulness doesn’t simply happen inside marriage. It happens towards ourselves and others, no matter our marital state.
Tom French wrote this well in an article MoS recently shared: ‘In singleness, in relationships, in friendships, in marriage… sexual faithfulness encompasses not just not having sex before marriage, but how you treat people you’re not even in a romantic relationship with. It encompasses how you navigate sexual tensions and power dynamics. We are called to sexual faithfulness towards all people, no matter how we feel about them. Faithfulness is not about pride and guilt, but about pursuing love and honour in all our relationships.’
Pursuing love and honour in all relationships. It is profoundly counter-cultural, God-honouring decision.
It was only last week that Anna truly understood that God had forgiven her and her husband 15 years ago for their having sex outside of marriage. How terrible the Christians she knew at the time could not. How damaging that the greatest, lavish forgiveness we have received as Christians in Jesus death on the cross could not be extended to a young couple who were in desperate need of love, care, and support.
As Christians and in churches, we must guard against this sex-negative culture that generates shame. It happens each time we tell a young woman to wear long shorts to swim at youth camp while the boys are okay in budgie smugglers. Each time we tell boys that their sexual desires are uncontrollable (that’s why the girls need long shorts, apparently) whilst telling girls they should have none. In the bizarre, no-touch, side- or triangle hugs that happen awkwardly between genders.
Elevating the conversation to positive sexual faithfulness liberates everyone. It doesn’t mean the youth of the church will suddenly leap on each other and have sex – which is why I think churches and Christian parents worry talking about sex so much – but because it empowers and expands the conversation.
The focus can’t be the narrow one of not having sexual intercourse, or of doing or wearing something that might lead to sexual intercourse! But rather what sexual faithfulness IS according to God and what He is doing to bring healing, wholeness and delight.
He cares enough to protect us in a sinful world. It is significant that in Gen 3:21 He made garments of skin for the man and his wife: to lift the shame they were feeling about their nakedness. That is our model: to shine the light and lift shame, not keep people in darkness.
Yes, the Christian faith teaches that sex is for marriage. The aim is that married sex testifies – radically – to the way God is faithful to his people.
Anna and her now husband came forward as teens, they were transparent about sin, and wanted to make the relationships right with God and with their church community. That is exactly what Jesus offers. They ought to have been honoured for their honesty, supported and put back into ministry sooner rather than later – not made to feel shame for the first fifteen years of their marriage.