Question from a reader:
I’ve read some of your material that discusses how the church’s teaching that sex outside of marriage is “bad” leads to violence. The Bible talks plenty about fornication and lust, etc. What exactly is your view on premarital sex and heavy petting when two single people are dating?
Hi Susan (name changed) –
I appreciate your question and your courage to send it to me. My stance can be very frustrating to those who have believed the sexual abstinence message was all that youth needed to understand about their sexuality in order to prepare for a dynamic deeply connected and intimate relationship across adult their married life. This is the dominant sexual message – youth describe hearing “don’t have sex until you get married …” … and then silence around all other sexual and relational issues. At best a few more get “don’t ….” and “Sex is beautiful when married.” That is it. Less than 3% of youth grow up in homes where sexuality education and relational education are an ongoing open integrated comfortable conversation between them and their parents or other family members that unfolds month by month, year by year. Yet it is this kind of ongoing open sexuality conversation that research reveals delays sexual involvement as well as helps youth mature in a way that allows them to sustain a truly intimate marriage later in life.
The bottom line is that
1. This silent “don’t” form of “sex education” is not working to help youth know or understand why sexual intimacy needs to be delayed. In fact it has been horribly detrimental to the sexual and emotional health of thousands. The statistics reveal that the typical evangelical youth involved in this (lack of) teaching and the silence and shame that coincides have intercourse on average by the age of 17 (basically the same time as those raised without religion). Those raised catholic or protestant – average age at first intercourse is 16.4 – 18. They are also much more likely not to tell anyone, not to use birth control and not to use protection. There is phenomenal pain and suffering in our Christian youth who have no-where to turn because they know all they will receive is condemnation, shame, judgment and more “don’t! type messages” – period. I have read hundreds of sexual autobiographies of Christian graduate students and they match what the researchers are saying. Sexual shame can cause the same trauma symptoms as a person who experienced sexual assault as a child.
2. Jesus never focused on behavior – unless it was behavior driven by pride, self-righteousness, power, injustice or greed. He changed hearts by meeting people where they were and by profoundly loving, seeing and accepting them. It was through the impact of his unconditional love that hearts were changed and they sought to live in a way that honored the incredible value they now believed they had. We are to emulate Christ. We are called – commanded – to love like Christ. The New Covenant based on Jesus life and resurrection never held chastity up as what made someone more spiritual – not by the Jews and not by Jesus. This idea grew out of the mind, body split that was present in elite culture after the Greek philosophers and was built upon in the form of the spirit body split of church doctrine from the second century forward.
3. The ancestry from the Hebrew people formed over thousands of years had detailed and involved relationship, marriage and sexuality training woven into their spiritual training. None of this was brought forward in the formation of the Christian church. Therefore a sexual ethic built on God’s call to us as His Beloved or to our call to love (and how to love specifically in marriage) was never developed. The sexual ethic I am proposing is less focused on “do” and “do not do” behaviors but rather on what it means to love and be loved, what it means to develop self and faith to be ready for the demands and complexity of marriage, and brings the wisdom of our Hebrew ancestors back into the fore. Much of this is absolutely consistent with God’s love for us and the love that was embodied by Christ as God incarnate. When parents teach an integrated open sexual education with life, faith and relationship education – youth delay the onset of sexual behavior until much later, are more likely to become intimate only with a person who has demonstrated their love and commitment, have fewer (if any) hurtful sexual experiences, are open with a trusted parent or family member about their hopes and struggles, and do not have the years of sexual shame which can be debilitating in marriage and life. In fact research shows that kids with this kind of ongoing sexuality and relationship education from their parents describe themselves as closer to their parents overall!
So my brief response is, you will never hear me reduce a Christian sexual ethic down to behaviors you should do or not do. I have no interest in driving youth underground where the only place they have to turn is a culture which is all too delighted with the body/spirit split so it can use and objectify the body and sexuality. I am however more than willing to dive into the complexity of what it means to develop into a sexually and spiritually healthy person who can both choose a partner well and then make that relationship remain connected through time.
If you have not read this article, I encourage you. It goes into my thought a bit more.
Thank you again for taking the time to bring this important question forward.