Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Do Abstinence Pledges Work?

My wife and I have been looking for a purity ring for some time for our daughter Hannah. She is now 13 and it has always been our goal to be very proactive when it comes to issues of sexuality and moral purity. We've also considered taking her through a program that ends with the signing of an abstinence covenant. This is what makes this article written by Covenant Seminary Professor, Anthony Bradley so interesting. In it he shares how statistics show that young people who sign abstinence pledges are no less likely to have premarital sex than those who don't.

It honestly doesn't surprise me that this is the case, but it was pretty eye-opening to think about. In the article Bradley points out that covenants like this can be legalistic and don't really address the heart of the issue behind good moral choices. The more I've grown to understand the Gospel, the more I've realized that moral transformation does not come from rules and signed documents. The root of our growth comes from us being Gospel-disciples, understanding more deeply from God's Word who God is, what He's done in Christ, and who we are as a result. If this is the case, then helping our children to grow in their understanding of God's grace and in their love for Jesus Christ is the best way we can set them up for moral success.

The biggest problem isn't the moral covenant, but the fact that so many hide behind those covenants as some form of magic modern chastity belt. To be frank, moralistic authoritarians who primarily nurture their children with strict rules and regulations tend to raise either future moralistic authoritarians or moral anarchists.

Statistics show that signed pledges don't solve the problem. If this is the case, then let's put our energy into that which really makes a difference. Below is a clip from Anthony's article.

A recent abstinence pledge study has produced competing interpretations of pledge effectiveness. What the media seems to miss is that the study—conducted by Janet Elise Rosenbaum, published in the journal Pediatrics, and titled “Patient Teenagers? A Comparison of the Sexual Behavior of Virginity Pledgers and Matched Nonpledgers”—is about sexual behavior in young people after high school. The latest findings reveal that five years after abstinence pledges are made, pledgers and non-pledgers alike are equally promiscuous. The sexual behavior of young adults five years after taking abstinence pledges should not surprise us, regardless of their constrained sexual activity during their high school years.

The study also demonstrates that teens from supportive religious communities are much less likely to engage in premarital sex in high school. But is being less bad necessarily good? Here’s an idea: Let’s stop teens from making pledges altogether. The problem in our divorce culture is that marriage has been devalued to the point that abstinence until marriage makes less and less sense to many people.

I have never been a fan of abstinence pledge programs and generally see them as pharisaical and utilitarian when churches adopt them. In general, these programs are designed for teens to get through high school without losing their virginity, as if losing one’s virginity at 16-years-old is morally inferior to losing it at 21-years-old outside of marriage. Deep spirituality, however, should not be confused with participation in extra-biblical church programs. Many parents seem more concerned about their children’s sexuality than their children’s love for Jesus and dependence on the Holy Spirit. If teens are not in love with Jesus, what’s an abstinence program on a Sunday night, with pledge cards, purity rings, workbooks, and an annual conference going to accomplish in the long run?

(HT: Institute)


Tina Marie said...

Thanks for posting, Scott. Having worked with teenagers, both middle and high school, I have had many frank discussions about sex and sexuality. My personal findings, which are by no means scientific and are only based in my personal experience is this: Many students who sign abstinence pledges only abstain from intercourse. Many are still sexually active, stretching the grey area. Furthermore, the pledges generally engender guilt, not from the Holy Spirit, rather than conviction.

I'm with you when it comes to equipping teens to make healthy choices. If they love their God and long to live in deep relationship with Him as one who loves them unconditionally, the choices they make will be influenced by this great love.

Scott Sterner said...

Tina. You have a unique perspective with your experience. I have heard that teens have now normalized all sexual behavior leading up to full intercourse. It is so sad and disturbing. There is certainly no magic bullet for this issue but, like you, I am hopeful that people don't get caught up in methods that do more damage than good. Thank God for His grace which both saves and sanctifies us. Pray for the children!

James said...

This subject has many facets that deserve more research and publications than Christian leaders have given. But as far as a a parent's perspective of pedagogy . . .

Christina and I are thinking ahead, of course, and we'll still have to do some more research and see what else happens on the way that proverbial bridge to cross. One thing we intend to do, though, is allow our daughter to enroll in the public school's sex education. My Iowa high school offered it, it was quite complementary in firming up my convictions to my unofficial pledge. Research has shown that a more comprehensive sex education does better to limit sexual activity than abstinence programs, I believe.

Just some thoughts.

Kristyn said...

As parents, now in the arena of dating/courtship of a college age child, I can not urge you enough to capture your children's hearts at a young age and help keep them tender to listening to the Holy Spirit. There is no pledge that is strong enough to hold as this. We have seen first hand the benenfits of walking the road together, not requiring something of them, but watching them choose to make good choices and making themselves avalaible to be accountable for those choices. This is far greater than a pledge. This is disipleship.

Anonymous said...

When I first heard this on the news, my reaction was WHAT? Then thinking back to when I was a teen (and yes, I can remember that), having attended a very, very fundamentalist Baptist church (no movies, no dancing,etc)and being part of a very close knit highschool/college youth group, there was a lot going on. And like former President Clinton there were many definitions of "having sex".

I can remember one of the messages from Doug Schillenger where he talked about over-hearing a group of Parkview boys discussing our girls. It was an opportunity that he took advantage of to teach about respect, choices, love and how loving God influences our relationships.

I think today our kids are numb to what they see and hear that they don't even realize what they are seeing and hearing. - Nancy

Scott Sterner said...

Just thought I'd do a quick follow-up...

James, Carrie and I also chose to allow our kids to experience sex education in the public schools. We do feel it is important to accompany it with our own teaching though. Contrary to the typical Evangelical response to fornication, our view has not been to teach primarily from the aspect of the dangers of sex, though we have made those dangers clear (idolatry, STDs, addiction). Rather, we have tried to teach sex as the treasured jewel that God intended it to be. The idea being that if people treasured sexuality as much as God did in his creation of it, they would be more likely to honor it.

Kristyn, I agree that the ultimate key is our kids hearts being captured by God. In the context of that sincere relationship their sanctification will blossom.

And Nancy, as research shows yesterday's kissing is today's oral sex. It is sad and troubling how far things have progressed in this regard.