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Sexual healing

Religion | Writer Lauren Winner once counted herself among the many young evangelicals who approve of premarital sex. Now repentant, she's offering a roadmap for returning to a biblical sexual ethic

Issue: "John Bolton: Take cover!," May 7, 2005

The sexual revolution continues: About 65 percent of American teenagers have sex before they finish high school, and the number of unmarried couples living together has shot up tenfold between 1960 and 2000. Sexual morality has also collapsed among Christians, with one survey finding that two-thirds of single Christians have not practiced chastity. A 2003 study of young people signing abstinence pledges found that, while the vows did postpone sex, 61 percent eventually broke their promises. Of the 39 percent who kept their pledges, 55 percent said they had oral sex, which they didn't consider to be sex.

The problem is not just behavior, but changing beliefs to match behavior. One study of "born again" Christians distinguishes between "nontraditional evangelicals" (who have had a spiritual experience but who are less interested in church and doctrine) and "traditional evangelicals" (who go to church more and have a higher view of Scripture). Among the nontraditionals, 46 percent say there is nothing wrong with premarital sex; 26 percent of traditionals say the same. Meanwhile, 19 percent of nontraditionals and 13 percent of traditionals see no problem with adultery.

Writer Lauren Winner, as a teenager and then a young adult, went with the flow, viewing sex as a normal part of dating and of premarital relationships. Then she became a Christian. But, as with many others her age, conversion did not change her sex life: "I knew, dimly, that Christianity didn't look kindly on premarital sex, but I couldn't have told you very much about where Christian teachings about sex came from." She read the Bible but thought biblical prohibitions against sexual immorality only applied to sex without love or a committed relationship.

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Then one day she participated in the rite of personal confession in an Anglican church, and when her confessor told her she had sinned sexually, "something sunk in." She studied the Bible on the subject, prayed and, after a long struggle that included slips and backsliding, discovered the spiritual discipline of chastity. At the same time, Ms. Winner was becoming a popular Christian author. Her book Girl Meets God (2002), a memoir of coming to faith, is a work of apologetics and evangelism that speaks powerfully to postmodern young adults.

In the midst of her struggles over the issue of chastity, she wrote an article on Beliefnet.com, "Sex and the Single Evangelical," that recounted her then-current sexual involvement with her boyfriend and called for evangelicals to reconsider their teachings about sex. Now Ms. Winner recognizes that "it is only God's grace-and not my intellectual apprehension of the whys and wherefores of Christian sexual ethics-that has tutored me in chastity." Her new book, Real Sex: The Naked Truth about Chastity (Brazos Press), calls for a return to genuine sexual morality as taught in the Bible and offers specific suggestions.

She says, "I write for those of us who have no memory of chastity," and declares it a spiritual discipline, like prayer, Bible reading, fasting, and accountability to the community of the church. Christians today tend not to bother about controlling any of their desires and have forgotten the classic disciplines of self-control and self-denial for the sake of a closer relationship with Christ. A key to recovering chastity, she argues, is to recover the other spiritual disciplines.

"In Real Sex," she told WORLD, "I contextualize chastity as one of many ascetical spiritual disciplines, disciplines in which we renounce something in order to attend to God in a particular way." Fasting, for example, "is a time-honored Christian spiritual practice, not because food is evil, but because refraining from food can clear out space in which we can focus on God in a particular way."

Can we really expect today's relatively self-indulgent Christians to embrace spiritual disciplines? Ms. Winner hopes so, because "these are tools that God gave us to help us become more like Him. . . . As the church, we tell the story of Creation and redemption, and we speak to one another about sexuality's place in that story. But we also live the story through confession and confrontation [and] embroider the story with practical tips that help people manage desire."

A funny thing happened as Ms. Winner was writing her book. She got married: "Actually I worked on the book for about 5 years, and was only married for the last 3 months of that! Initially, I set out not to mention marriage at all in this book. For many of my own single years, I cringed when Christians talked about marriage. I was sick of hearing about nuptial bliss, sick of feeling like I wasn't participating in authentic Christian life because I wasn't married. . . . The book I write, I thought, won't have any of that. It will be the real deal about singleness, and it won't make anyone feel icky by prattling on about marriage.

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