About that ‘How Should Christians Have Sex?’ Article and the Exvangelical Problem

Some “exvangelical” leaders need to find real healing from conflicts with family and church, rather than trying to find solutions through punditry.
on Jun 18, 2019

At first, I thought I liked that New York Times article from Katelyn Beaty. And not just because of its oh-so-sensually clickable headline, “How Should Christians Have Sex?”1

A few of my friends shared this article. Most who did seemed to have positive response to it.

So did I, at first, mainly because I saw it as another expression of my annoyance with the “romance prosperity gospel.” For example, I have previously written about this:

At best the Romance Prosperity Gospel is hazardous. But I may go so far as to call it wicked. What else can describe the claim that “God makes this promise to you” when He has not made that promise? Yes, the RPG may be better than sexual impurity. But it compares poorly with God’s real promises, emphasizes anecdotes over God’s Word, and harms single Christians.2

Then I thought about the article. And, if I had time, I’d write more about why I ultimately choose not to be a fan of it.3

But Gregory Shane Morris (of Breakpoint) got there first. And I think I (mostly) agree with his gut reaction.

First, for those just arriving to this new web-scene, Morris summarizes:

Beaty opens her piece by implying that promising not to have sex until marriage (you know, the sine qua non of Christian sexual morality) is creepy and unhealthy. She explains that her decision at age 14 to sign a “True Love Waits” pledge imposed “a psychological burden” that she and her peers “are still unloading.” She submits purity balls, purity rings, and “Wait For Me Journals” for the scorn of Times readers, and repeats the familiar complaint that purity culture taught young Christians that if they only behaved themselves, God would bring them the perfect spouse (a claim Ben Shapiro calls “Gumball Machine God,” and which I’ve examined at length, here).

As Morris seems to echo, I feel that Beaty’s article is softer and less inflammatory than many other “exvangelical” articles. Yet her strange love-hate relationship with “purity culture,” does come across as frustrating. How does Beaty expect to get the moral results without church leader’s clear call to self-discipline (with some possibly silly cultural side effects, such as “True Love Waits” merch)? Has Beaty worked to disentangle, biblically, the church’s cultural oddities—like mushy journals, and some false promises about perfect wedding-night sex—from the promises that the Bible actually gives us, starting with “you will get perfect happiness in Christ”? I think Morris is right to let that frustration show in his response.

Anyway, read Morris’s whole piece, although Morris does wrap it up quickly.

He’s also probably more charitable in not challenging what is, I believe, a core problem with many (not all) of these “exvangelical”-style articles. Frankly, these show at best a pretty clear display of the writers’ own unresolved conflicts about church, family, and other challenges (sometimes even trauma). And, at worst, it’s a display of willingness to monetize this unresolved tension or recovery for fame and profit.

Perhaps I know only enough to be dangerous about the topics of biblical peacemaking, conflict resolution, and even counseling. But here are some fairly brief thoughts on this growing trend of “exvangelical” articles and aspiring thought-leaders.

First, if you really do have a “psychological burden” (Beaty’s words), caused by evangelical church-related conflict, then you’ll not find the healing you need by becoming a Big Pundit Cheese.

Here, I do assume in good faith that people who write exvangelical articles really are talking about psychological burdens.

But this impulse among exvangelical voices reminds me a lot of some people who claim to have had certain bad experiences with, say, alcohol abuse or family conflict. However, instead of actually getting help to work through these experiences and come to some resolution, they instead act as if that they can find healing from that experience by helping others who have had similar bad experiences.

Unfortunately, such a person has not actually healed from this experience by growing stronger in Christ and the gospel.

If not, then by seeking fake “therapy” on their own terms, they only risk a continuation of the cycle that works against them.

Even worse, they could be volunteering to act as the blind who lead the blind.

Second, the appropriate place for healing from “evangelical” conflicts is not in this kind of punditry.

People may use these exvangelical articles as a language to describe their stories, as an early stage of coming to grips with aby real trauma.

But this kind of material is more like the early “law” of the Old Testament. Such articles and other materials can only reveal the problems; they are an introductory, 101-level part of the healing process. They cannot actually resolve these problems or help us heal from them—much less make us happier or strong enough to lead others in dealing with similar problems.

Rather, such exvangelical or church-critical materials must lead to the Gospel, that is, Christ’s life/death/resurrection, rightly applied to our own stories of personal sin and subjection to others’ false beliefs and sinful actions. In this gospel application, we can begin healing:

  • We can understanding the bad and good of the “evangelical culture.”
  • We can overlook people’s unintentional sins where we can.
  • We can leave other false teachings or sinful actions to the God who avenges wrongdoing.4

Here’s the catch: this healing doesn’t happen over the internet, or with articles, or by finding people who share our same grievances with particular Christian cultures. Instead, we can only get this healing with help from wise and caring sisters and brothers in the faith. This can only occur in real-world personal and loving environments (perhaps including but not limited to trained biblical counselors). And that means that the biblical counselor may also (gently and after earning our trust, I hope) point out areas where we ourselves must strive, in the grace of Christ, to fulfill the biblical ideals to which we insist that other Evangelicals in Power uphold to the letter.

Third, neither the original article itself, or any of the pushback from critics, should be taking the overt Gospel for granted.

Here’s what I mean.

If you agree with this article and identify as a Christian, ask yourself: Do you have anywhere in the back of your head a thought like, “Oh, well, we don’t need to talk about that ‘God’s law fulfilled in the perfect life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ’ stuff, because we already know that”?

If you even have a hint of this thought, well, you might want to consider empathizing with that graceless youth-group speaker who treated a single person’s lost virginity as if it were a shattered mirror, impossible to piece back together. Do you see what happened there? In order to fix what he felt was a Big Problem (promiscuity), that “purity culture” guy didn’t ground his teaching in the gospel. But then, in order to fix that other Big Problem (purity culture), mightn’t we also fail to ground our teaching in the gospel?

Gospel-ignoring is the very deadly error that led to (so we claim) any excesses with “purity culture” in the first place.

Ignore that, and we are doomed to repeat the same errors.

Fourth, ultimately, if Christian writers/leaders makes it their chief end to fix problems, while ignoring the gospel, they will not even fulfill their own goals.

They’ll just be repeating the supposed “purity culture” mistake: trying to fix problems, while ignoring the divine Solution.

They’ll become part of the cycle of legalistic problem-fixing, even while being painfully self-aware about the evils of legalism.

And, they’ll end up (despite all good intentions) enabling their own unhealed “exvangelical” readers. Many such readers may not even be reading the article to learn from it, but may instead see the materials as a simple accessory to adorn the reader’s own personal story.

Fifth and finally (for now), in such instances, I think we need to identify a recurring fallacy.

Perhaps we might call this fallacy argumentum ad exvangelical.

It would describe, simply, the fallacy of claiming, “I feel hurt by Christian group/the Church/’evangelical culture,’ therefore I have moral authority to speak against any of these.”

Yes, I would call this a fallacious argument, even if the person has suffered real hurt.5 But I would not then condemn the fallacy-maker or walk away, satisfied, having hurled the epithet in some internet comments section. Instead, I would hope that I can tell this person: “I’m very sorry you were hurt that way. Have you considered these methods of finding healing from that experience?”

This person doesn’t need to be a Big Pundit Cheese.

They also don’t need nasty critiques like “oh, poor little snowflake” or “get over it.”

Instead, they need expressions of firm correction that are immediately coupled with sincere offers of care. In the context of the real Church. In the context of the real gospel. And, most importantly, in the context of a perfect loving Savior, by whose wounds we are healed.6

  1. Media tip: writers rarely write their own headlines. Even less often would they have a say in their own article’s SEO-baiting URL, which the Times comically reduces to (…)sex-christian.html .
  2. See my article “Rebuking the Romance Prosperity Gospel,” Christ and Pop Culture, July 23, 2013. I do believe that this message was often “caught,” and occasionally it was specifically taught, in evangelical circles from the ’90s even to the present. Lest you think the phenomenon exclusively an old one, see the evangelical movie Princess Cut (2015), which explicitly endorses the “romance prosperity gospel.” Kevin McCreary reviews (and often biblically challenges) the film’s themes in his review.
  3. Admittedly, I am not a reader of the author’s other work, which perhaps adds a more positive spin. I also recognize that the Times, like any newspaper, will have particular editorial needs and requests for a writer to shape her/his material for those needs.
  4. Romans 12:14–21
  5. How much more so if they are simply exaggerating the claim, or even using the claim as a guise for their other grievances against Christianity.
  6. 1 Peter 2:24.
E. Stephen Burnett explores fantastical stories for God’s glory as publisher of Lorehaven.com and its weekly Fantastical Truth podcast. He coauthored The Pop Culture Parent and creates other resources for fans and families, serving with his wife, Lacy, in their central Texas church. Stephen's first novel, a science-fiction adventure, launches in 2025 from Enclave Publishing.
  1. Well, at the very least I agree with the assertion that purity rings aren’t that helpful, at least not for the majority of people. A person’s moral convictions and desire to follow God are probably more important. Having a purity ring as a teen wasn’t a huge problem for me, but it was definitely unnecessary and slightly weird. Like, most people weren’t jerks about it, but the fact that the purity rings are worn on one’s ring finger makes it awkward since people don’t usually understand why it’s there.

    Also, one time there was this creepy guy flirting with me, and although he didn’t know what the ring actually was, he basically commented on it in a way that was an extension of his creepy flirting. So, the purity rings can invite a lot of uncomfortable conversations. Honestly, I’m kind of glad the ring broke a couple years before college.

    As far as any naive idealism someone can have about waiting until marriage…that can at least partially be avoided by encouraging caution and an understanding of what marriages actually take to work. Growing up, I heard ideas like the perfect spouse coming to those that wait, but the warnings about the need to choose a spouse carefully drowned the worst of the idealism out. We need to emphasize the fact that a lot of the responsibility to make good relationship and behavioral choices is on the individual.

  2. notleia says:

    Purity culture was/is about emotional “purity” as much as physical. They made it a thoughtcrime to even get crushes, because supposedly you would be “giving away pieces of your heart” and cheating your ordained spouse. That stuff will MESS you UP.

    You come off as a bit callous for expecting people to just get over it because it’s dumb crap, Burnett. You want them to stop talking about it because it shouldn’t be a problem in the first place, but that doesn’t erase the years of damage and probable crap marriages that came about because of it. A lot of people find healing by talking about it, and wanting to prevent the problem from happening again is a good thing, even if you disagree with their methods. Of course, I has a bias because I think you’re sweeping it under the rug and hoping it will go away without you having to do any work.

    • Howdy again, notleia. As always, my thanks for reading.

      Purity culture was/is about emotional “purity” as much as physical. They made it a thoughtcrime to even get crushes, because supposedly you would be “giving away pieces of your heart” and cheating your ordained spouse. That stuff will MESS you UP.

      Yes. It will. It did. Because it’s not biblical. As noted above, I called this the “romance prosperity gospel.” Other authors have figured it out. Josh Harris himself figured it out, and has taken steps to address the damage.

      You come off as a bit callous for expecting people to just get over it because it’s dumb crap, Burnett.

      That’s the risk of addressing these issues in article form, (insert gangster-style over-familiar use of notleia‘s real last name). But no, I don’t expect people to just “get over it.” You’ve projected this onto what I’ve read. As seems your frequent wont. Yet you keep returning. Thanks!

      Anyhow, I clearly finished with: “… They need expressions of firm correction that are immediately coupled with sincere offers of care. In the context of the real Church. In the context of the real gospel.” If this sounds callous, I’m at a loss. But I doubt I’m alone. What, exactly, would you suggest as an alternative to these steps toward healing from the damage of false teaching? “Bitter internet comments” are, at best, a very early first step! 🙂

      You want them to stop talking about it …

      I feel like you’re hearing this from someone’s voice, but it is not mine.

      What I’m saying here is not “these people need to shut up.” I’ve literally said, “We are not required to treat these folks as our moral betters. But these people do need more caring responses from Christians.”

      A lot of people find healing by talking about it, and wanting to prevent the problem from happening again is a good thing …

      I agree.

      Of course, I has a bias because I think you’re sweeping it under the rug and hoping it will go away without you having to do any work.

      Clearly this is how you feel. You are, however, associating me with this sinful approach based on something that is not what I actually believe or written about in this article or in my body of work. It is the same mental association that another (older) kind of Christian makes when he thinks that “going to the movies = sinful corruption by the world.” This kind of association is not a Christian thing to do, or a non-Christian thing to do. It is a very human thing to do. And, alas, I’m unsure I’ll be able to help much with it with a comment in the comments section, though I hope I’m at least clearly communicating.

What say you?