Has True Love Waits Harmed the Young?

In recent days, several authors have received attention in the media for proclaiming that the “evangelical purity culture” has harmed young people. One of those authors, a former pastor, invites adults to send her their discarded purity rings so she can melt them and form a sculpture of female genitalia. The sculpture will be used to promote her new book.

Since (humanly speaking) I am considered a cofounder of True Love Waits, I must consider the possibility that this movement harmed rather than blessed a young generation. Ignoring the criticisms that sincere writers have raised would be intellectually dishonest.

If I were a woodworker and if my daughter loved playing softball, I might use a lathe to create a custom bat for her. However, what if a mugger stole that bat and then bashed a girl while taking her purse? I would deeply grieve that something I made was used to harm someone. I would grieve, but I would not feel guilty.

Inviting teenagers into a lifetime of sexual holiness and purity, if consistent with Scripture, is a beautiful thing. When someone takes that message, twists it, and then uses it to bash the young, I grieve—probably more than anyone. But I do not feel guilty, nor do I second-guess the rightness of the original message.

I am well aware that, using the words “True Love Waits,” some leaders twist the beauty of sexuality and present it as dirty and ugly. Others proclaim that all the responsibility for chastity rests with girls and that they alone bear the shame for all sexual failures. Others want to banish all those who stumble to a lifetime of guilt and self-loathing.

I have spent 49 years seeking to bless a young generation. I grieve that distorted messages have harmed some teenagers. And I doubly grieve when I learn that some have carried pain into their adult years. But that grief does not cause me to doubt the beauty and the rightness of the original True Love Waits (TLW) message.

In 1992–1993, Jimmy Hester and I were employees at LifeWay Christian Resources. In those days, the culture was focused on reducing the social and personal consequences of teenage sexual involvement. In the faith community, teenagers and their parents and leaders were looking for something positive and proactive rather than only reactive.

The idea for TLW came to Jimmy and me during several coffee break conversations. Because we were on break, all we had on which to record our ideas were cafeteria napkins.

At the same time, I was serving as a part-time youth pastor. Jimmy and I agreed that I would present the core TLW message to the teenagers and parents in my church. Fifty-three teenagers responded positively to the original message and indicated that they wanted to be identified with a new movement. No one could have guessed that the movement would sweep through 100 denominations and national student organizations in the U.S. and 100 countries worldwide.

If you strip away the distortions, here is the original TLW message:

  1. TLW is an invitation to sexual purity and holiness among teenagers who believe that God exists, that He defines ultimate truth, that He is the author of the Bible, and that the Bible communicates ultimate truth without error.
  2. TLW is an invitation to teenagers who believe that God came to earth in human form, that He died on the cross to pay the cost for sin, and that He now offers forgiveness to all because of His sacrifice.
  3. TLW is an invitation to teenagers who have accepted the forgiveness Christ now offers by faith, repenting of their sins and turning from a life centered on self to a life centered on Him.
  4. TLW affirms the biblical standard that all sexual expression should take place only between a husband and wife in a biblical marriage. Expressions that involve sexual organs are sexual expressions.
  5. TLW affirms that Christ-followers embrace and follow biblical standards related to sexual expression because they love, respect and adore Him; because they have decided to follow Him; and because they are full of gratitude for His sacrifice on the cross.
  6. TLW affirms that a life of sexual purity and holiness is prompted by the greatness of Christ and the power of the Gospel and not by moralistic instruction or behavior modification.
  7. TLW affirms that children need to hear from birth about the goodness of sex as one of God’s best creations.
  8. TLW affirms the biblical standard that Christ-followers do not dwell on lustful thoughts toward someone to whom they are not married.
  9. TLW affirms that boys and girls have an equal responsibility to follow biblical standards in all relationships.
  10. TLW affirms that no one follows God’s callings perfectly, including the leaders and participants in the TLW movement. We serve a God of second chances.
  11. TLW affirms that Christ’s death on the cross makes forgiveness for sexual sins possible. God continually picks up His children, dusts them off, and sets them on their way again without shame.
  12. TLW affirms that Christ-followers who never marry can have rich and full lives and exalt Christ as they live a lifetime without sexual expression.

Multitudes of adults report that the TLW message was an important factor in their sidestepping sexual sin in their teenage years. Multitudes of single adults continue to embrace and live out that message. Multitudes of married adults report that the absence of scarring from their teenage years is a major factor contributing to the beauty and joy of their current sexual expressions. Christ be praised.