This is the last topic I thought I would ever address in a public forum, not least in a published book. But alas, God opens doors and calls us through them. So here I am, encouraging my fellow pastors to make sure—even if you’re no longer serving in youth, university, or young adult ministry—to keep your sex talk fresh, handy, and well thought out.
A little more than a year ago I was a college pastor. The topic of dating, purity, and romance seemed to be an ever-present area of commentary, question, and struggle. (Many of my former students are smirking right now, thinking that I am the one who kept bringing it up.) As I prepared to teach a series on romance, dating, and marriage, I was taken aback by the lack of theological depth among evangelicals on this topic. Many books and essays (on the left) properly noted that dating cannot be found in the Bible, but then wrongly concluded that therefore the Bible has nothing conclusive to say on this topic.
Alternately, many (on the right) offered strong convictions defended by sordid statistics, pragmatic concerns, and plain old legalism. Where was the gospel? While I did note several good treatments on the practical “how to’s” of dating and maintaining sexual purity, I noted a dearth of articles and books that dealt with the topic from a theological, gospel-rooted perspective. I also found that many pastors hesitated to get any more specific about sexual boundaries than telling Christians not to have sexual intercourse before marriage. Such lack of clarity left unanswered the age-old question: How far is too far?
Bearing these challenges in mind, here are some preliminary suggestions on how you can keep your sex talk fresh.
(1) Use your role as a senior pastor to influence the youth of the church.
If you are a senior pastor, even though your time might be spent in pan-church leadership, your voice is often held in high regard, even by the youth. The whole church listens to your preaching. You have the ear of parents, youth leadership, and even the youth themselves. Your teaching on sexual purity influences the theology, convictions, and culture within your church. This is a very important topic precisely because it is tied to the nature of the gospel (as I will explain). Because of that connection, the pragmatic issues are very important. Please address it with your people—all of them—especially parents and young people. This shouldn’t be a topic relegated to the youth ministry.
(2) Don’t be unduly fearful about getting pinned with the ‘biblicist’ label.
It’s pretty trendy now to throw around the “biblicist” critique. And few things attract that critique like talking about how the Bible informs our perspectives on dating. Dating was not a cultural category in the ancient world, we’re told, so we can’t use the Bible to help us navigate this area. However, I am still holding on to the conviction that, while Scripture does not directly address a lot of things, it provides a theological picture that frames all of life. True, dating is not addressed in the Bible. But then again, a lot of things are not in the Bible. Scripture frames the issues and limits the possibilities for all aspects of relationships, particularly as it relates to sexual ethics. So if there is something about our contemporary practice of dating that contradicts a clear Scriptural teaching on the nature of sex, sexuality, and marriage, then we have to note that and speak with biblical authority.
(3) Focus on the ‘why’ as the basis for the ‘how’ and the ‘what.’
Many recent critics of the “principles for dating and purity crowd” are turned off by the pragmatism and moralism found in a lot of the conservative literature. They can also sniff out dodgy proof texting. So when talking about sex and dating, get to the heart of the matter and do it with exegetical thoughtfulness. Ask the question: Why is sexuality reserved for marriage? The answer lies in the heart of the gospel, namely, Jesus’ relationship with his people. In Ephesians 5:31-32, Paul quotes Genesis 2:24, making a statement about the typological significance of the sexual and marital union of husband and wife. Sex and marriage “refer to Christ and the church.” Sex and marriage are earthly realities modeled after the spiritual union between Christ and his church. Thus all of the Bible’s commands regarding sexual ethics tie back into the living reality of Christ’s relationship with the church. This typological significance explains the “why” of sexual purity. There is a logic to sexual purity that is deeply theological and compelling, not just pragmatic. Stay on that line.
(4) Help people see there is more to sexual activity than intercourse.
Oral sex, petting, and passionate kissing are all sexual activities. As the Bible’s sexual ethic calls for us to reserve all sexual activity for the marriage relationship, these activities are clearly out of bounds. (If anyone doubts that passionate kissing is a sexual activity, one need only think about it against the backdrop of a family relationship. Brothers and sisters don’t passionately kiss precisely because passionate kissing is sexual.) In fact, I have never met a young couple who started to be expressive in overtly sexual ways who did not struggle with the temptation to consummate that sexual activity.
Let me put it this way: does a married couple make out for 30 minutes, and then go for a walk? No! Or at least, not typically. When you start to be sexual, on principle, you awaken within yourself a desire for consummation. Sexual forms of kissing are a form of foreplay. Beginning foreplay with no intent of consummation is a poor plan for purity. Three times in the Song of Solomon, the bride of Solomon says, “I adjure you, O daughters of Jerusalem, that you not stir up or awaken love until it pleases” (2.7; 3.5; 8.4). When we legitimize sexual activity (such as passionate kissing) outside of marriage we are saying to our young people, “Here are the keys to the new car. You may get in. Buckle up. Put the key in the ignition. Turn on the electrical system. Start the engine. But just don’t actually drive anywhere.” We are enabling our young people to tease their emotions and bodies in ways God has not intended, and it’s no wonder so many are living compromised lives.
(5) Prepare and encourage men and women to consider marrying young.
I can see the winces now. The divorce rate is so high already, you say. But let me ask you to consider the following: Has the marriage age been pushed back, even among Christians, for biblically important reasons? Too many young people in their later 20s and early 30s are forgoing marriage because they either lack the maturity for marriage, or because they don’t want to be hamstrung by the attending responsibilities. But would it not complement the theological design for marriage, and the practical concern for sexual purity, for singles to enter into the marriage relationship earlier, where their natural urges are satisfied and they can be all that God wants them to be?
Contemporary dating relationships are too often a means to snack, softening the sexual hunger that God has designed in us yet can only be satisfied in the holistic context of marriage. Parents and pastors, one of the best things you can do is talk both about the beauty of sex and the gift of marriage, and then encourage your kids to date—not as a way to practice for marriage and curb their sexual hunger—but rather as a means of finding God’s chosen spouse, in a manner that honors the gospel.
Again, pastors, sex is a very important topic precisely because it is so tied to the nature of the gospel. Please address this topic head on with the people in your church, especially parents and young people. Keep your sex talk fresh!