by John Ellis
Rebecca was alternately excited and mystified by the beautiful alabaster box her missionary grandmother had sent for her 17th birthday. Written in her grandmother’s familiar, shaky hand, the accompanying note added to the mystery, “Remember, dear, this can only ever be opened once.”
Gently placing the alabaster box on her bed side table, Rebecca puzzled over the meaning of her grandmother’s note while admiring the delicate beauty and intricate patterns of the alabaster box. Assuming it contained a precious perfume or spice, Rebecca determined to preserve the alabaster box intact for a special day.
Several months later, as her senior year in high school was winding down, Rebecca found herself home alone studying for finals. Diligently pouring over her history notes, Rebecca was surprised when the doorbell rang. Matt’s sheepish grin greeted her as she opened the front door.
“I know I should’ve called first,” Matt apologized. “But I really need help studying for the Calculus final.”
Rebecca and Matt had been dating since the 10th grade, when Matt’s family had moved to the area and joined the church Rebecca’s dad pastored. And it wasn’t unusual for Matt to show up unexpectedly at her door for help with homework. Usually, though, her parents were home. Not this time, and Rebecca knew that she should politely decline Matt’s request.
“What can it hurt?” she thought as she opened the door wide enough for Matt to enter. “I mean, we’re just going to study.”
After about an hour of intensive study, Matt threw his hands up in the air, sighed in disgust, and fell backwards onto Rebecca’s bed that was covered with text books, paper, and pencils.
“I give up,” he moaned. “I’m never going to get it.”
Having heard this same sort of self-deprecation from Matt before, only to see him ace the test, Rebecca laughed as she playfully poked him.
“Don’t give up now. You’re about to get it.”
Matt laughed as he grabbed her arm pulling her to him.
In the past, whenever faced with the urge to kiss, the couple had thankfully been stopped by other circumstances, usually because other people were around. Not this time.
Alone in Rebecca’s room on her bed, they gave in to the temptation. As Matt rolled Rebecca over, her elbow jostled the bedside table. The tinkling crash of the alabaster box hitting the floor jarred Rebecca out of the moment.
As she wiped up the spilled perfume and collected the pieces of her grandmother’s gift, Rebecca sadly reflected on her grandmother’s note. While rueful that the gift was ruined, Rebecca was thankful that it was only the alabaster box that had been ruined.
“Thank you, God, for keeping me pure today.” Rebecca prayed.
The above story is my attempted abbreviated re-creation of a story I haven’t read in three decades. No doubt, my blatant plagiarism contains some errors. My apologies to the author, whomever that might be. I’ve also attempted to remain true to the original story’s thematic tone and objective.
Years ago, when first reading it, the story of the alabaster box added to the mysterious yet privileged mythology of sex in my young mind. As a young heathen, I read the story about how that teenage girl almost made a terrible mistake and ruined her life, and I was fascinated by it for all the wrong reasons. The author, of course, had an objective far removed from my curious youthful lust. The purpose of the short story was to warn about how sex outside of marriage can ruin your testimony and will definitely make you “less than” those who remain pure and unblemished for the wedding day. You can only lose your virginity once, after all. A broken or unsealed alabaster box is no longer as precious and desired as it was during its unblemished state.
Published in an independent Fundamentalist Christian magazine, the story of the alabaster box sums up much of the teachings on sex and purity within broader evangelicalism. As Aimee Byrd explains in her book Why Can’t We Be Friends?, “Often … abstinence teaching within the church focuses on man-centered gratification that has nothing to do with true purity. Purity is treated as a commodity for ultimate blessing: if you maintain your virginity until marriage, you will be blessed with wonderful sex and a happily-ever-after relationship. Don’t be fooled – this is the prosperity gospel, in which God’s holy standard exists only to reward you for your great victory.”
In a nutshell, while claiming that sex outside of marriage is a sin, the purity movement teaches that avoiding sex before marriage makes for a better marriage. Being impure creates problems in your marriage and damages your testimony. Teaching that it’s a sin to have sex outside of marriage, the purity movement frequently focuses on a man-centered moralism.
For the record, I believe that the Bible clearly teaches that sex outside of the bounds of marriage (between one man and one woman) is a sin before God. However, I disagree with the tactics of the purity movement and believe that it fails to adequately articulate why sex outside of marriage is a sin. In fact, growing up, I was never actually taught why sex outside of marriage is a sin. I did hear lots of stories, anecdotes, and illustrations similar to the alabaster box story, though.
It’s simply not true that having sex before marriage will create problems in your marriage. It might, and it can. But it doesn’t have to. We shouldn’t abstain from sex outside of marriage because it improves our lives. We should abstain from sex outside of marriage because having sex outside of the bounds of marriage lies about Jesus. In their book Sex, Dating, and Relationships, Gerald Hiestand and Jay Thomas write, “Though it is true that God’s commands do often protect us from harm (though not always), Scripture makes quite clear that God’s commands are not about what works best for us but about what brings him the most glory.”
Teachings about sex should begin by looking at how the story of the Bible frames it. Doing so reveals that the Bible only recognizes three relationships regarding sex: 1. Family relationships. 2. Marriage relationships. And, 3. Neighbor relationships.
(In the next few paragraphs discussing the three relationships, I owe a huge debt of gratitude to Sex, Dating, and Relationships. Reading it over a year ago helped sharpen my understanding of what I’m about to write. For a more comprehensive treatment of the three Biblically recognized male-female relationships, I highly commend to you Gerald Hiestand and Jay Thomas’ book.)
The Bible explicitly forbids sexual relationships between family members (Leviticus 18:6-18). In the New Testament, Paul rebukes the church in Corinth for allowing one of their members to sleep with his father’s wife. Underlining the seriousness of the transgression, Paul exclaims, “It is actually reported that there is sexual immorality among you, and of a kind that is not tolerated among pagans (1 Corinthians 5:1).”
Even secular society prohibits sex between family members.
In the marriage relationship, of course, sex is not only allowed, it’s expected and even commanded. In the same letter to the church in Corinth quoted above, Paul says, “The husband should give to his wife her conjugal rights, and likewise the wife to her husband (1 Corinthians 7:3).”
The counter-culture teaching on sex in the Bible is found in its prohibition of sex within neighbor relationships. From the Old Testament law to Paul’s writings on the subject, it’s clear that sex between neighbors is prohibited by God. In fact, if “neighbors” did have sex, the Old Testament law required them to get married.
Sex is the covenant sign of the covenant of marriage. Engaging in the covenant sign presumes the covenant has been ratified and is in effect.
The Bible’s prohibition of sex between neighbors is largely what the purity movement is trying to obey and communicate. While receiving more than their share of scorn and contempt, the purity movement isn’t wrong in its ethics. Sadly, the problem is that they frequently fail to provide the reasons why the Bible forbids sex outside of the bounds of marriage.
It’s revealed in Ephesians 5:31-32, “Therefore a man shall leave his father and mother and hold fast to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh. This mystery is profound, and I am saying that it refers to Christ and the church.”
Prior to that “therefore” of verse 31, Paul writes of Christ’s love for his bride, the church.
Marriage is a covenant between a man and a woman that “refers to” Jesus’ covenant with the church. As already stated above, sex is the covenant sign for the covenant of marriage between one man and one woman. This is why it’s often referred to as “consummating the marriage.” The becoming of one flesh reveals a little of the mystery of what it means for the church to be in Christ.
In the Bible, the calls for purity in the Christian life are commands for covenantal faithfulness. So, in 2 Peter 3:14, where the words “spot or blemish” metaphorically points to the Old Testament sacrificial system and, hence, indicating purity, Peter is exhorting us to be pure in our affections for Jesus. When Jesus returns, his bride is not to be found with divided loyalties, to not be found to be clinging to identities other than our identity in Christ.
Ironically, by reducing purity to a man-centered moralism, the purity movement fails to do justice to the robustness of the word “purity” and fails to point people to the gospel of Jesus Christ.
Since the covenant of marriage and the covenant sign of sex point to Jesus’ relationship with his bride, the church, sex outside of the bounds of marriage lies about who Jesus is. It lies about Jesus’ relationship with his bride. Sex outside of marriage says that Jesus is not covenantally faithful to his bride and that his bride isn’t required to be found without spot or blemish when he returns.
Jesus has always been and always will be faithful to his bride. Our eschatological hope is rooted in his unwavering faithfulness. Marriage and the marriage bed remind us that those who are repenting of their sins and placing their faith in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus “are Christ’s, and Christ is God’s (1 Corinthians 3:23).”
Sex outside of marriage isn’t a sin because it might negatively affect our human relationships. Sex outside of marriage is a sin because it denies the gospel of Jesus Christ.
Soli Deo Gloria
 Aimee Byrd, Why Can’t We Be Friends? Avoidance Is Not Purity (Phillipsburg: P&R Publishing, 2018), 73.
 Gerald Hiestand and Jay Thomas, Sex, Dating, and Relationships (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2012), 14.