Sex is a good thing. For all human history, human beings have had sex and been aware of their sexuality. It is a fundamental function of creation to reproduce that God instituted from the beginning. But sexuality is not simply about reproduction. It is about the awareness and expression of our bodies. We are spiritual beings, but we are also natural beings. God created us that way on purpose. If we were meant to be all spiritual, we would have been created like angels, but God made us from the earth on purpose. Jesus Christ came to us IN THE FLESH, not as a spiritual principle, a vision, or a disembodied being. Jesus was circumcised on the 8th day according to Jewish law, as all Jews were. This was a sexual act with spiritual meaning that is literally at the heart of the Old Covenant. Unfortunately, as New Covenant Christians we often overfocus on the spirit and miss the fact that the New Covenant is literally made because of Jesus’ BODY broken for us and blood shed for us. It is Jesus’ humanity, not spirit that is the sacrifice that reunites us with God. The conversation is different depending on your stage of life. Believers who are married with kids need to have different conversations than single believers in early adulthood, or teenagers, or those who are divorced, or single after the death of a spouse. But regardless of our age or station in life we need to do a better job having these conversations as Christians. Here are 3 major reasons why Christians need to talk about sex.
God created us to be sexual beings
Every person was designed to be sexual, and that goes far beyond having sex. When God created Adam and Eve, they were meant to relate to one another sexually and their relationship to be closer than parent to child in future generations. They were naked and unashamed of their bodies (Genesis 2:24-35). There are any number of reasons why believers are ashamed of their sexuality today, many of them unfortunately from bad teaching in churches. But that is not the design of God. We were created to relate to one another sexually BEFORE sin entered the world.
Christian sexuality is meant to be different
A lot of our confusion, angst, shame, sorrow, and frustration with reconciling our sexuality with our faith is because of a Biblical principle that Christian sex is meant to be different than sexuality for those who don’t follow Christ. The covenant between God and Abraham made Israelite men sexually different from their neighbors in other nations (Genesis 17). The Law of Moses set up sexual limitations and regulations that were meant to distinguish Israel from other nations. The principle always pushed toward relationship with God reflected in our sexual relationships with others. The word used in scripture is holy, but to translate that our modern culture we might say intentional, purposeful difference that honors God. Paul picks up this Jewish principle in the New Testament by articulating a vision of sexual relationships that is monogamous, mutual, caring, and loving that reflect Christ’s love. We have often been caught up on the restrictions and missed the vision in the church. We have to be responsible with our sexuality because we are accountable to God in a different way as followers of Christ. We are called to be vulnerable, loving, and intentional with our sexuality in a way that is different than the world around us.
We should love and not fear our sexuality
1 John 4:18 reminds us that perfect love casts out all fear. The world has set false standards that promote fear, violence, and mistrust in sexual relationships. We have no need to rehearse the many ways popular culture, corporate interests, and sociopolitical forces use and abuse sexuality. Often their goals are to use sex to make money and create false intimacy. But for many believers we have been taught to fear sexuality to maintain holiness. It has caused believers to have arrested development, face shame and ridicule, leave churches, and seek unhealthy sources to define their sexuality. We rarely speak of the difficulties many newly married Christian couples face around sexual expectations, communication, and formation because of ignorance, self-rejection, and fear. We do not talk about the struggles teenagers face with loving their bodies instead of hating and fearing them. We do not deal with the choice to not have sex as young adults instead of treating sex as an uncontrollable inevitable impulse. We are afraid of the word intimate because we have been taught it is dirty. Our bodies are not beasts to be tamed. They are part of us to be loved. Paul Himself would agree with this, treating our bodies as a Temple of God means loving and tending to them with the utmost care (1 Corinthians 6:19-20). Not fearing and avoiding them as we abuse them and let them be abused by others. But Jesus loves us. He loves our bodies. He wants us to love God with our bodies just as we do with our minds and hearts. And we make sexual choices that build intimacy and protection with our romantic partner. We do not discuss the why of a holistic view of Christian sexuality which sets us up for pain before and during marriage. But we should talk about sex. We should love our bodies and our sexuality. We should define what sexual holiness means as believers in terms of what we choose to do instead of what we feel we can’t do. We should honor God’s design for sexuality by loving our neighbors as we love ourselves, sexuality included.
On February 10, 2012, rapper Too $hort posted a video on XXLMag.com, a hip-hop website, where he gave “Fatherly Advice” to middle-school and high-school boys on sexuality. The disgusting, misogynistic, dehumanizing, and graphic nature of his comments do not bear repeating here, but his comments made me wonder about the consequences of reducing sexuality to merely a physical concept in the absence of virtue. Thankfully, the video was removed and Too $hort offered an apology for offending people. The rapper, however, offered no apology for the way in which he advised young men to touch the bodies of young girls.
The whole episode reminded me that I am not convinced that Christians do a good job of telling young people what to do with their bodies other than say “no” to them. As a result, I am beginning to wonder if abstinence programs are even helpful for developing moral maturity. While abstinence rightly places sexual intercourse within its proper context — marriage — it fails to construct a moral theology of the body. Perhaps this is a good opportunity for Christians to return to teaching chastity.
Some of the early teachings on chastity date back to church Fathers like Tertullian (c. 160 – c. 225 A.D.) who made a serious case for bodily self-control (some argue he went too far). The teaching has faded, but some contemporary authors continue to make a case for chastity. For example, Duke Divinity School scholar Lauren Winner sought to reintroduce the ancient subject for a postmodern generation in her 2006 book, Real Sex: The Naked Truth about Chastity and Bible teacher Paul Tripp offers a challenging perspective on the reality of sex and commitment in his 2010 book, What Did You Expect?: Redeeming the Realities of Marriage.
For the sake of brevity, the Roman Catholic Catechism provides a useful and succinct introduction to chastity that is helpful even if one does not agree with Catholic doctrine (I will adapt the teaching in this article). The Catholic teaching begins with the recognition that we are sexual beings whose “physical, moral, and spiritual difference and complementarity are oriented toward the goods of marriage and the flourishing of family life.” That is, the mutual support between the sexes is lived out as we recognized are complimentary need for mutuality.
The vocation of chastity, then, is defined as “the successful integration of sexuality within the person and thus the inner unity of man in his bodily and spiritual being. Sexuality, in which man’s belonging to the bodily and biological world is expressed, becomes personal and truly human when it is integrated into the relationship of one person to another, in the complete and lifelong mutual gift of a man and a woman.” Chastity as a vocation does not require that one divorce one’s body from one’s passions but that one strive for maturity in the virtue of self-control — a skill needed before and after marriage (Prov. 25:28; 1 Cor. 7:5; Gal. 5:23; Titus 2:6; 1 Pet. 5:8). In fact, “the chaste person maintains the integrity of the powers of life and love placed in him. … Chastity includes an apprenticeship in self-mastery which is a training in human freedom. The alternative is clear: either man governs his passions and finds peace, or he lets himself be dominated by them and becomes unhappy.” What develops and matures young people in their moral reasoning and virtue is the conscious and free choice to use one’s body for the good. Not simply to say “no” to sin but “yes” to holiness (Deut. 7:6). Moreover, we are not to be mastered by any sin but are called to intentionally pursue holiness (1 Cor. 6:12). Abstinence does not teach this virtue.
For Christian young people, the knowledge of one’s union with Christ, a commitment to obedience to God’s commandments, exercise of the moral virtues, fidelity to prayer, and a daily requesting and reliance on the Holy Spirit, and so on, gives one what is needed to inaugurate one into the vocation of chastity. The active work of the Holy Spirit enables us to permeate the passions and appetites with mature moral reasoning that is consistent with what the Bible teaches.
“Self-mastery is a long and exacting work,” says the Catechism. “One can never consider it acquired once and for all. It presupposes renewed effort at all stages of life. The effort required can be more intense in certain periods, such as when the personality is being formed during childhood and adolescence.” Self-mastery is ordered to the gift of freedom. Our union with Christ in the pursuit of chastity enables us, then, to be fully human. Chastity leads those who practice it to become witnesses to their neighbors of God’s fidelity, loving kindness, and the power of the gospel (Rom. 1:16). The call to chastity is simply a fruit of the Spirit (Gal. 5:22-23).
Chastity is for everyone.
All baptized men and women, single or married, are called to the vocation of chastity. Sexual wholeness is living according to God’s articulated design for human beings and applies to married couples and singles in the same way. Abstinence does not teach this. As a man who can relate to sexual temptation (Heb. 4:15), but who never sinned against His call to a chaste life, Jesus Christ is the perfect example of living out the vocation of chastity.
Growth in chastity includes the reality of failure, repentance, and renewal. This is why the gospel and work of the Holy Spirit is so central to the sustaining of such a vocation and why it is unsustainable in the best possible way outside of one’s union with Christ. Chastity is violated with things like adultery, pornography, rape, sex outside of marriage, sexual abuse, and so on.
In the end, if chastity were a dominant teaching in urban America, it would not only address sex before marriage but would create a culture of sexual virtue that honors God, best fits with how God designed human beings to live, and would serve as a powerful example of what is means to live knowing God’s Word is true. Abstinence education is well intentioned but fails to develop young people into morally mature followers of Christ. True love does not wait. True love loves God and neighbor by saying “yes” to God’s better way (Matt. 22:36-40).
When it comes to sexual issues, our teens are depending on us for more than just the standard “how-to / don’t-do” talk. Parents, churches, and youth leaders must go deeper — emotionally and spiritually. PART 3 IN A SPECIAL SERIES.
Earlier this year, in Parts 1 and 2 of this series, we looked at urban teenagers’ attitudes about sex, and their behaviors and practices that reflect those attitudes. Part 2 ended with a question about how parents and churches can fill the gap in teens’ knowledge about sexual health issues and thereby prompt a change in their behavior. We now tackle that tricky subject.
There’s good news and bad news about what inner-city teens seem to know about sex. The good news is that parents and church leaders rank very high on their list of people who can influence what they know and think about sexual issues. The bad news is that neither parents nor churches are doing a particularly good job of cashing in on their credibility currency. Here are some principles to consider as we all ponder how to help our teenagers recover lost ground and gain solid footing in areas of sexuality.
Principle 1: Changed Behavior is the Result of a Changed Mind. With so many programs, theories, and strategies jostling for ideological supremacy when it comes to reducing teen pregnancy and making a dent in teens’ sexual risk-taking, people of faith sometimes forget The Source of all wisdom — the Bible. Our source tells us that we experience transformation as a result of a renewed mind. Therefore, it stands to reason that we can expect youth to behave differently when they think differently about love, sex, marriage, intimacy, and relationships. Some would object, “We can’t just beat kids over the head with the Bible.” True in most cases, but that doesn’t mean parents, pastors, youth ministers, and others can’t or shouldn’t explain and demonstrate biblical principles in an authentic, consistent way, showing clear relevance between those principles and their everyday lives. The 2008 Faith-Based Urban Youth Workers Focus Group study (YWS) results support this reality. Youth workers surveyed indicated:
The only reason given for not doing it [having sex] is that the Word says it. The real reason is not talked about. No one explains that God has created you as a sexual being, etc. Sex is about what is in your heart.
So how would this work on the streets with the kids? It means rather than just saying “The Bible says don’t have sex unless you’re married,” maybe we should talk about the fact that they have been created as a unique person with gifts, talents, and abilities and that their sexuality is just one part — albeit an important one — of who they are. Giving teens a context for their urges and passions can help them see a bigger picture that encompasses more than their next hook up.
An important point to keep in mind here is that knowledge is not the same as a changed mind. Simply slogging through facts and figures about STDs and showing a 17-year-old boy how to use a condom does not translate into renewed thinking. When a teenage girl decides she doesn’t want to be alone with her boyfriend in his apartment any more, that’s a mind shift that results from her internalizing the principle that she should manage her relationship to avoid situations that will put undue pressure on her ability to resist a sexual advance. In the faith community, that’s known as not making provision for the flesh (see Romans 13:11-14). On the streets, that’s called handling your business.
Principle 2: Go After the Root, Not Just the Fruit.
“[P]rograms should address and enhance self-esteem. ‘If your self-esteem is non-existent, you’ll do lots of things because you don’t think you’re worth anything. Until you grasp your worth, you get pregnant to fill that gap.”
“In general,…funding for programs should be focused on helping young people with the range of challenges they face. …[C]urrent programs are ‘not getting to the core of the problem.'”
The YWS participants quoted above understand that trite messages don’t cut it with today’s technologically savvy, yet emotionally wounded urban teens. And thoughtful educators are joining parents and other faith-based leaders who know that the best sexual health education is whole-person education. It’s no longer sufficient to only stress teaching teens to focus on risk-reduction techniques. Clearly that has not worked. One of two Black teenage girls having an STD is living proof of that. Risk reduction is giving way to risk avoidance, reflecting a much-needed concern for young people’s emotional and spiritual selves in addition to their physical health. So parents and the church must switch from managing consequences to dealing with root issues. But this approach requires some housecleaning for adults as well.
Many parents themselves are more afraid of their daughter getting pregnant than they are of her devaluing herself and growing up insecure and emotionally damaged. Let’s face it — we’re much more likely to hear, “Don’t come home with no babies” than we are to hear, “Don’t come home heartbroken and with intimacy issues.” Of course, neither outcome is desirable, but why don’t we express as much concern for our teens’ emotional wellbeing as we do for pregnancy and disease?
The church suffers from the same mindset. We ask, “Why are so many girls in youth group getting pregnant?” rather than, “Why are so many of our teenagers driven by lust, and why are they lonely and depressed?” It shouldn’t necessarily be an either/or proposition, but it is a matter of emphasis. The reasons surely are complex, but we must work through them if we realistically hope to bring true transformation to our youth.
Whether we rise to this occasion or not, parents and the church are in fact in the best position to address root issues in a teen’s life. For one thing, a school environment, and to a lesser extent a non-faith-based community program, isn’t necessarily the best social space to discuss some of the conversation that would likely surface in discussions about root issues. It’s much less likely that a teenage girl in an inner-city school is going to open up about her family history that’s contributing to her sexual acting out.
Conversely, the natural rhythms of family life, and the spiritual focus of a church are natural places to discuss emotional responsibility, intimacy, the real-life realities of romantic love, and other related concepts. We just need to take advantage of this dynamic.
Principle 3: Know the Deal and Keep it Real. Uninformed adults trying to talk to teens about sex is a waste of time. The Medical Institute for Sexual Health (MI) suggests that parents educate themselves about the incidence of teen sex and what their kids are learning in their school sex education class. Other experts counsel that parents find out what their teens listen to and watch. There are certainly plenty of websites, books, brochures and other media to help answer these questions. But from personal experience, the best way to tune in to the mind and heart of a teenager is to simply listen and observe. Listen to how young people describe their friendships, the reasons they give for liking certain kinds of music and movies; and observe their emotional responses to the events in their lives. It’s not always easy to get kids to talk, but the more you sincerely listen the more they talk.
But what about those kids whose parents are bogged down working two jobs, or they don’t even know their parents, or they rarely know where their parents are? These are the tough cases, but this principle still applies. Here is where the church and faith-based community groups can help. Organizations and ministries with experience working with the hardest urban youth — groups like Fuller Youth Institute, Urban Youth Workers Institute, the Center for Parent & Youth Understanding, and others — echo the same refrain: young people want to be heard. But they want to interact with adults who know something about their day-to-day experience and who are available to them. But often churches suffer from the same adult absenteeism as do individual families. Another instance where adults need to do some soul-searching.
The old cultural dynamic of taking care of one another needs to be reinstated among us. Our current mentality of doing just enough to take care of our own is leaving too many of us uncared for. We’ve become strangers to sacrifice, and that’s what it’s going to take to reclaim our urban teens. Maybe our son doesn’t need to play four sports and see every first-run movie the moment it hits the screen. Perhaps we could cut down on two activities and use that time to help out with the youth group at our church.
In addition to knowing what’s going on in young people’s lives, parents and church members would do well to be more open to sharing their own personal stories as they relate to sexual decisions and choices. This seems especially difficult for us. Parents don’t want to lose face as they try to direct their teens, and some old-guard congregations believe that “airing dirty laundry” simply promotes unhealthy lifestyles. Even the government understands the fallacy of this thinking. Through its “Parents, Speak Up!” campaign, the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services encourages parents to discuss with their children the importance of waiting to have sex:
Maybe you made different choices when you were young and don’t want to seem like a hypocrite. While [this reason is] understandable, you still owe it to your teen to put [it] aside. Healthy choices will better prepare your teen to deal with sex; and you need to help your teen make healthy choices.
We can use these discussions to show empathy for the pressure teens feel, and more importantly, to testify to the redeeming power of Christ. What better way to introduce them to the Christian faith?
Getting urban teens to hear and understand the truths regarding sexual lifestyles and behaviors is so critical, and we can’t afford to continue to lose this battle. It’s not about a culture war; it’s about young women and men who are looking for us to step up and make a difference in their lives.
WHAT DO YOU THINK? This article suggests a few principles that might help, but what has been your experience with this issue? Many UrbanFaith readers are parents, youth leaders, or former teens who have “been there” and have invaluable wisdom to offer. How can parents, churches, and youth ministries make inroads with urban youth on this critical issue?
Share some of your thoughts, experiences, and recommendations in the comments section below, and let us know if it would be okay to contact you for a follow-up interview. We’ll feature a roundup of some of the best stories, ideas, and strategies in a future UrbanFaith article.
• Talking to Your Pre-Teen or Teen About Waiting.
Advice for parents from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. The 4Parents.gov site also features tips and information for talking to teens about general sexual development and risky behaviors.
• Urban Youth Workers Institute Focus Group Survey, October 2008.
The purpose of these focus groups was twofold: (1) to learn from youth workers about the ethnically diverse teens they serve and to explore teens’ attitudes and beliefs about sex, relationships, teen pregnancy, and parenting; and (2) to hear from youth workers themselves about unplanned pregnancy among their 20-something peers.
• Black Youth Project, June 2007.
This project examines the attitudes, resources, and culture of African American youth ages 15 to 25, exploring how these factors and others influence their decision-making, norms, and behavior in critical domains such as sex, health, and politics.
Also be sure to check out Part 1 and Part 2 of this series of special articles by Chandra White-Cummings.
Teenagers are trying things that not only degrade them as human beings, but also set them up for possible adulthood addictions that could take a lifetime to overcome. (Persons pictured are models; image is for illustrative purposes only.)
In Part 1 of this special series we surveyed disturbing trends among urban teens when it comes to their attitudes about sex, relationships, and teen pregnancy. A 2008 study conducted by The National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy (NCPTP) spoke to a variety of urban youth workers about the things they’re witnessing among the teens they serve. A lack of positive role models, a glorification of teen pregnancy, and a failure on the part of faith institutions to more directly address the issue of sex were among the top problems they observed.
“These are issues that young adults are dealing with but the church isn’t talking about,” said one youth worker. And that’s the point of this series.
“Just talking about sex is a taboo topic for many adults. But young people are talking about it in their discipleship group. The kids are on it. They don’t want to stop talking about it.”
Those words, from a Christian youth worker who participated in a 2008 study conducted by The National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy (NCPTP), sum up the precarious spot that many urban parents, churches, and youth organizations find themselves in today when it comes to the topic of sex and the teenagers under their watch.