Imagine for a moment, that you are sitting in the pew of an Independent Fundamentalist Baptist (IFB) church. You are 16 years old and sitting next to you is your 17-year-old girlfriend. As with any normal teenager, you are sitting as close as possible to your girlfriend and the two of you are holding hands.
The pastor is getting ready to preach and he asks everyone to turn to 1 Corinthians 7:1,2. With a thunderous voice, the pastor says, THE BIBLE SAYS:
Now concerning the things whereof ye wrote unto me: It is good for a man not to touch a woman. Nevertheless, to avoid fornication, let every man have his own wife, and let every woman have her own husband. (1 Corinthians 7:1,2)
and THE BIBLE ALSO SAYS:
Abstain from all appearance of evil. (1 Thessalonians 5:22)
All of a sudden, the pastor turns your way, looks at you and your girlfriend, and then slowly turns back to his sermon notes. You feel guilty, so you unclasp your hand from your girlfriends and you scoot a few inches away from her — safely avoiding fornicating in the pew.
Welcome to just-another-Sunday-morning service at First On True Faith Independent Fundamentalist Baptist Church in Fundistan, Ohio.
In the real world, teenage boys and girls hold hands, put their arms around each other, and kiss each other. We also know that some of them engage in intimate sexual activity. But at First On True Faith Independent Fundamentalist Baptist Church, any physical contact between unmarried teenagers or unmarried young adults of the opposite sex is strictly prohibited. And
The thinking goes something like this: fornication, the intimate sexual contact between unmarried people, is a SIN. Committing fornication requires physical touching, so the best way to avoid fornication is to keep unmarried teenagers or single young adults from touching each other.
Over the years, I am embarrassed to say, I told countless teenagers that no girl ever got pregnant without holding hands with a boy first. I repeatedly told them that holding hands leads to familiarity, and before you know it, you’ll be having sex. So the answer is this: no touching.
When I was a teenager in the 1970s at Trinity Baptist Church in Findlay, Ohio and First Baptist Church in Bryan, Ohio, my pastors and youth directors preached against boys and girls touching each other. Now, this doesn’t mean we didn’t touch each other, it just meant that we did our touching away from the sight of our pastors, youth directors, deacons, and other church adults.
We turned it into a game. The pastor said we couldn’t touch each other, so while choir practice was going on, we would find out-of-the-way places to neck. It was almost like a challenge: we dare you to catch us.
From the age of 14 until my wedding day, I kissed a few girls, put my arm around them, and held their hands. But that’s where it stopped. Both my wife and I were virgins when we married in 1978. I violated the letter of the no-touch rule, but I certainly kept it until my honeymoon (albeit, had we waited any longer to get married, we likely would have rounded third and slid into home).
Polly and I attended Midwestern Baptist College — an unaccredited IFB institution — in Pontiac Michigan. The college had a strict no-touch rule. The rule was called the six-inch rule (about the width of a hymnbook). Young men and women were expected to keep six inches away from each other at all times. Failure to do so resulted in severe discipline, including expulsion.
Living in a dorm filled with normal, hormone-raging, heterosexual men and women made the six-inch rule a real challenge. Most of us learned how to discreetly break the rule, and when we went out on double dates, we learned to date with couples who were six-inch rule-breakers as we were.
Sandra, a regular reader of this blog, shared in a comment about her time at Hyles Anderson College:
About the gateway issues with card playing . . .I’m not psychologist but I do believe if you restrict normal human behavior in one way, normal human behavior will come out in another. When at Hyles Anderson we were all told to not touch the opposite sex. I mean, no hand holding (which was fine with me and the IFB church I was in before I left for HAC). But no touching through a pen either, like tapping on a shoulder.
We are social beings and I do believe we need touch to stay alive. When at HAC, since all of the women were not allowed to touch a man on his hand or to tap his back with a pen, guess what happened? The dean of woman (Miss Belinda) said she noticed a LOT of petting going on between the women. In chapel, women would sit next to women and they’d pet each other’s hair, they’d stroke each other’s leg. And she was right – all of that behavior was happening. But my question is why? Probably due to the human need for basic touch. Since the women were not allowed to hug their own blood brother on campus, nor to hold hands for 5 seconds, nor to tap a man on the back with a pencil. . .is it any wonder that the women found a way to get physical touch in their lives? It is normal to want a hug and to rub someone’s bad when they are hurting. By repressing opposite sex touching, they encouraged same-sex touching and it was very evident.
Ponder for a moment being exposed to this kind of environment. Is it any wonder that people coming out of the IFB church movement often have to deal with emotional, mental, and sexual dysfunction?
When you are constantly told that normal human desire is sinful, you are bound to suffer psychological damage. Being normal heterosexuals, we could only suppress our desires for so long, so we found creative ways to get around the rules and the ever-watchful eyes of those charged with keeping us from fornicating.
As single students at Midwestern, Polly and I artfully evaded the no-touch police all but one time. Here’s what happened the time we got caught.
I was on the college basketball team. (Don’t read too much into that. The team was the equivalent of an intramural club.) One day during practice I slapped at a basketball and severely dislocated a finger. I was rushed to the emergency room and the doctor was able to fix the dislocation. I’m left-handed and the dislocation had occurred on my left hand.
Every male student was required to wear a tie to class. I found it very difficult to tie a tie with one hand, so one day I asked my fiancée to tie my tie for me. In doing so, we broke the six-inch rule. Someone anonymously turned us in for breaking the six-inch rule. We had to appear before the disciplinary committee to answer the charges against us.
We each received 50 demerits for breaking the six-inch rule. We were warned that if we broke the six-inch rule again, we would be expelled from school. Little did they know that we had been breaking it for quite some time.
Most dormitory students lived for the weekend. Students could only date on the weekends. Double dating was required and no student could go farther away than 10 miles from the dormitory.
Most students tried to adhere to the rules for a while. Some, like my Polly and I, kept the six-inch rule religiously until we went home for our first Christmas break. While home on Christmas break, we were allowed to act like normal young adults who were in love. We held hands, kissed, necked, and pretty much acted like any other couple mutually infatuated with one another.
Once the genie was out of the bottle, it was impossible to put her back in. When we returned to Midwestern in January 1977, we realized we could not continue to keep the six-inch rule. So, for the next 18 months, we sought out couples to double date with that had the same view of the six-inch rule as we did. We had to be very careful. Choose the wrong couple to double date with and we could end up getting expelled from school.
Rules such as the six-inch rule put the dormitory students in a position of having to lie and cheat just to be able to act like normal young adults. Many students ended up getting campused (not allowed to leave the campus or date) or were expelled because they broke the six-inch rule.
Fornication was quite common among dormitory students. There was always a lot of gossip about who was doing what, when, and where. During the spring of my sophomore year, many of us rented apartments in the Pontiac area. We were all planning to get married over the summer, and since apartments were hard to come by, we rented them as soon as we found them.
The apartments turned into a big temptation for some couples. They began using the apartments as safe places for sexual activity. I could give you the names of several well-known preachers and their wives who lost their virginity at one of these apartments. Some of these preachers are now known to rail against sexual immorality. It seems they have forgotten about their own immorality many years ago.
Is it any wonder that many of us who were raised in this kind of sexually repressed environment require counseling? Being told over and over that certain basic human needs and desires are sinful leads to overwhelming guilt and despair (and remember masturbation was also a sin).
This is one of the reasons why I think the IFB church movement (and Evangelicalism, in general) is psychologically harmful.
How about you? Did you spend your teenage years in an IFB church? Did you attend an IFB college? How did you deal with the no-physical-contact rule? Please share your thoughts in the comments.
Bruce Gerencser, 65, lives in rural Northwest Ohio with his wife of 44 years. He and his wife have six grown children and thirteen grandchildren. Bruce pastored Evangelical churches for twenty-five years in Ohio, Texas, and Michigan. Bruce left the ministry in 2005, and in 2008 he left Christianity. Bruce is now a humanist and an atheist.
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Amazing what the lady wrote about her experience at HAC; they were sooooo concerned with keeping the opposite sex from having contact, they were forcing the girls to “become gay”, lol
While teenagers my girlfriend (now wife) and I would kiss, hold hands, pet, and what not at my house. We were always inside and careful not to do those things in front of any religious leaders.
However every time I went into church, I was overcome with guilt! My heart would race and I just knew the pastor or youth leader had caught us some how. I just waited to be called out on it.
So many times at church, I confessed my “sin” and vowed not to do it again. Only to give in to temptation again the next time I was alone with her!!
My ACE school of eight years, from age six to fourteen, had a six inch rule. I went to a regular high school after that (which was a Godsend! 😉 but it still took me a long time to behave ‘normally’ around girls, especially the ones I had a crush on (which was every second one).
It’s true what is said here though, that other ways are found to compensate. And during my time in ACE I witnessed all manner of sneaky stuff going on in the shadows, especially from some of the new teenage boys coming in for a year or two. The girls who’d been there for longer had no idea how to say no to them basically grabbing what they wanted. It was bizarre to watch how easily they were taken advantage of.
Another time, one day in church a couple from a visiting youth group were sitting in the pew, and she clearly had a firm grip on his excitement through his jogging pants. I gaped at the sight, like, am I the only one seeing this? But I suppose being as how she kept her touch to just around the straining head, she was still about six inches away from the rest of him. Perhaps it was allowed? 😉
Essentially these kinds of rules do little to help anything. They’re up there with teaching abstinence, leaving sex education right out, and expecting everything to just proceed swimmingly. Naivete indeed.
Hey Aram, we did the same thing in my ACE school. I attended Accelerated Christian Education during 12th grade right when I was going girl crazy. I do not remember 6 inches, but I do remember the Bible rule – place a Bible between the boys and girls. This mentality left me aloof and unconfident around girls for years. I did not get up the nerve to ask a girl on a date until I was about 28 years old.
The sick part of all this is that natural human sensuality, the ability to feel and to be felt, is made an evil thing. Sex is bad because it can lead to dancing! How fucked is that? (Excuse the the ‘f’ word but it is so appropriate.)
And that the six inch rule still allowed touching among same sex bipeds, only displays how mad the basic premise is, that touching leads to holding and holding leads to more and more… That young women could stroke one another’s hair or hold hands displayed natural human sensuality. Boys did it other ways, in sports and slapping backs and butts and tough-guy touching. All of it is human touch, physical sharing…. Women prevented from touching boys were not being made ‘gay’ by the rule, only prevented from touching boys! They could still touch women and that is what a feeling person would do! It is hardly ‘gay’, unless you are fixed on religious views, views based on fear. It is just being alive, something fundagelicals fear too…
These rules may be imposed on physical non-touching but as far as I understand it, sexting is very very common among the young. I’m a grandmother but have a wonderful 16yo god-daughter who confides in me and my hair stands on end when she describes what goes on in the privacy of her phone and social media. Waiting for fundie-dictator-pastors to insist the bible tells them to go through the phones of their teenage members. They might learn a thing or two!
My husband and I were newlyweds when we went to a Baptist church for an activity. A lady came up to us and told us “We have a strict no-touching policy for our youth here”, and walked away. She didn’t know we were married, and later apologized of her own accord. We still get a good laugh out of it. 😉
Hey Nicole, Hearing about the rude woman mouthing off to you in the church, it made me wonder why I have listened to so much similar nonsense over the years when in a church. Why wouldn’t we just respond in the moment about how rude the creep was being and try to delve into her need to control others with such disdain! I usually just listened though, confused and hurt.
There were similar rules at my Adventist college, although not QUITE as strict.
I didn’t have to worry about no touching rules because none of the boys at church or at Christian school were interested in me anyway. I went to secular university where there weren’t rules like that. Even the most hardcore evangelical students in college did pretty much everything, particularly along the lines of the Bill Clinton definition of sex.
While attending summer Christian camp, we would sneak out most nights and meet up with our girlfriends for hours of necking, all the while being hunted by pervert preacher gestapo men scouring the property with flashlights looking for us. They never found us and their predatory ways just made our necking all the more passionate.
Evangelical Christianity takes everything or almost everything right and calls it wrong. The collective denial of healthy living is Christianity. It is lie after lie.
I knew by the time I was a pre-adolescent that it was truly good to touch a woman and that it was not good to not touch. My whole being thrilled when close to Nancy L (public school) and carrying her books home walking beside her was sweet glory. Damn church tries to wreck just about everything!
Sex is between consenting adults. The who, what, where, when ,why, and how of it is none of anyone’s business. Animals can’t consent, so that’s a non-starter. Where were headed is away from the control of human sexuality by religion.
I love reading Bruce’s blog and his writing, but I’m always a wee bit reluctant to add comments as I do not have some of the experiences that this blog encourages others to discuss and I do not want to take the focus away from those that do. But all of the above reminded me of a book called The Taboo On Tenderness – written by psychiatrist Ian Suttie way back in the 1930s and which I think is worth mentioning to people in case they are interested. It does cover religious taboos on sexual/romantic touching a little bit, but that is not the main topic. What he was mainly trying to argue (in contrast to Freud and some of the other big names in psychiatry both then and now) was that affectionate physical contact (including non-sexual physical affection) is a basic human need for ALL of us no matter what culture in the world we are from. Deny us that need and a whole host of psychological problems start to develop – problems that don’t require any more complex an explanation than that we all just needed a few more hugs.
Davie, this is so true that we need more hugs.