Tim Keller, Rachel Held Evans, and the Virginity of Young Christians

There is a fascinating tale of a brief Q & A with Tim Keller at the Christ and Pop Culture blog.  When asked about obstacles to revival, Keller pointed to fornication.  In other words, it is difficult to spiritually awaken people who have hard-wired a particular sin into their lives and have essentially committed to it.  If repentance means a large structural change, such as ending a co-habiting, sexual relationship, then it becomes that much less likely.

The part of the exchange that especially drew attention was the following:

Keller illustrated the point by talking about a tactic, one that he admittedly said was almost too cruel to use, that an old college pastor associate of his used when catching up with college students who were home from school. He’d ask them to grab coffee with him to catch up on life. When he’d come to the state of their spiritual lives, they’d often hem and haw, talking about the difficulties and doubts now that they’d taken a little philosophy, or maybe a science class or two, and how it all started to shake the foundations. At that point, he’d look at them and ask one question, “So who have you been sleeping with?” Shocked, their faces would inevitably fall and say something along the lines of, “How did you know?” or a real conversation would ensue. Keller pointed out that it’s a pretty easy bet that when you have a kid coming home with questions about evolution or philosophy, or some such issue, the prior issue is a troubled conscience.

Now, in my view, what Keller said is a very pastoral insight.  It is the kind of thing you learn from long experience dealing with church members and their children.  It also happens to be the kind of thing many of us have observed in our own lives.  For example, one of my very best friends had long been on fire for God.  When he became disappointed with his marriage, he suddenly became an expert critic of the Bible and questioned the concept of God’s authority.  We can see, in that instance, that the life circumstance prompted the doubts.  The values he had long embraced precluded leaving his wife.  So, he worked on deconstructing those values and justifying new ones.  One might also recall Augustine, whose conversion was held up to some degree by the fact that he had a mistress.

John Stonestreet of Summit Ministries and Prison Fellowship posted the story to his Facebook page and prompted feedback from Rachel Held Evans, who has become a successful writer on Christian topics, notably her experience as a Bryan College student and then again on trying out “Biblical womanhood.”  She took offense to what Keller said and wrote the following:

I’m often asked to speak on the topic of why young people leave the church. This. This is why young people leave the church. Because our questions aren’t taken seriously, because our value tends to be linked inextricably to our virginity, because our ideas are dismissed as silly.

I want to address one piece of what Rachel had to say.  ”[O]ur value tends to be linked inextricably to our virginity . . .”  To argue that the church has made something of a fetish out of virginity for young people is to essentially argue against the lordship of Christ and against the value of sexual purity.

When you are in high school and college, sex is the prime locus of the fight for sanctification.  It is the battle that is appropriate to the age.  You are on the edge of marriage during those years.

In the Christian understanding, sex is a marital act.  It is fitting that you and your spouse should have it in common only with each other.  To remain a virgin prior to marriage is to align oneself consciously with God and the church in viewing ourselves as uniquely and wonderfully human (in the image of God).  It is to renounce the reigning cultural logic which follows the popular lyric, “You and me, baby, we ain’t nothing but mammals, so let’s do it like they do on the Discovery Channel.”  In remaining virgins, we deny that we are at the mercy of animal instincts and assert that we are capable of adhering to higher laws than those which are merely biological.  To marry as a virgin is to demonstrate submission to God, love for one’s future spouse, and to offer up a witness to the world.

The church does us no disservice in emphasizing these points.  Rather, to the extent we embrace these teachings we experience a richer and fuller life both in obedience to Christ and in greater intimacy with our spouses.

5 thoughts on “Tim Keller, Rachel Held Evans, and the Virginity of Young Christians

  1. I want to point out that the reason Rachel Evans’ ideas are often dismissed as silly is becuase … her ideas are almost always silly. She’s analogous to the adolescent version of Mary in Downton Abbey — utterly convinced of her self-righteousness and superiority, and constantly the victim of her own short-sightedness, immaturity, selfishness, and provincial outlook.


  2. Pingback: Sermon Grist File « St. Mark's Lutheran

  3. Dr. Baker.

    Thanks for the charitable, pastoral reading of the post and for the insightful follow-up analysis. I did appreciate Evans’ follow-up clarification and allowing me to speak my piece about the article. She was very gracious about that. Still, it’s nice to see that I’m not alone in thinking Dr. Keller’s analysis to be spot on.

    Derek Rishmawy

  4. The elephant in the room with something like this, though, is what do you do when someone still is a virgin and begins to have these questions in college, as was my case. Evans point, it seems, was that even if the cause of the questioning was some external (or even sinful) factor, the presence of such a factor does not therefore invalidate the question.

  5. “When you are in high school and college, sex is the prime locus of the fight for sanctification. It is the battle that is appropriate to the age. You are on the edge of marriage during those years.

    This is another reason so many young people are leaving the church: many of those who retain their virginity will never marry.

    I know old people can’t get that through their head, but its not like its easy to find someone who’s waiting for marriage or respect someone who is. If you aren’t willing to throw it away on a one-night-stand, then your chances of marriage in the modern world are very slim (at least in some denominations).

    Now that may be fine: maybe someone is so totally committed to the Lord they are willing to live the rest of their life a virgin if they must. Because they’re not going to settle for someone they consider promiscuous (that is settle for someone not a virgin when they’ve retained their virginity).

    HERE IS WHERE THE REAL PROBLEM COMES IN: The church only respects virgins until 18, or maybe 21. After that they start to insinuate a person must be fornicating or be a homosexual if they haven’t found the right person to marry yet. They treat singles as sinners, assuming they can’t possibly be virgins at 26, 27, 30, or whatever. They treat virgins after 21 as second or third class citizens. They can’t take seriously Paul’s urging (where is it Romans 7 or 1 Cor 7?) that everyone be like him (a virgin) unless they just can’t control themselves and have to marry to “avoid fornication.” That’s not respected in the churches: either you marry, or we treat you like a weirdo and a sinner, and ultimately run you out of the church. Now it may not be that a church runs someone out intentionally or kicks them out, but they will run most virgins out by preaching that makes Christianity into a parenting system: Christianity is all about raising kids. That runs virgins out of the churches. They get tired of hearing about what they will never have, especially considering the reason they will never have it is that the church local was not capable of convincing enough Christians to stay virgins, which is why they can’t find a fellow virgin to marry.

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