When Pastors Give the Sex Talk

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!

  • Matt

    good word, bro.

    i like to remind the youth at our church that we should approach this topic from a question of “how holy can i be (and help my dating partner be) in response to the gospel?” and not “how far can i go?”

  • Kevin Subra

    As far as Point 3 is concerned, is it not “biblical” to consider Genesis 1 in light of the fact that sexuality has a primary purpose in procreation, even though it provides pleasure and fulfillment? Also, the order of creation, if relevant, shows that marriage came before intimacy.

  • Chris Castaldo

    This is a great book. How refreshing to see an exegetically credible, redemptive historical, culturally relevant volume on Christ-centered intimacy. Thank you!

  • mel

    I would point out that emotional intimacy is foreplay for women. It’s not merely saving your body for your husband but all the parts of your heart. If you have fallen love more than once you can’t help the mental comparisons.

    • LauraA

      Are mental comparisons a bad thing? I do not understand this logic.

  • Al

    Contraception and sterilization have all but separated sexual intercourse from procreation. If this “sex talk” were given 60 years ago, it would’ve mentioned babies, babies and more babies! Today, it’s given in Margaret Sanger’s Planned Parenthood — that is, sterile — context. The way we keep our “sex talk” fresh is when we mention the fruit of marriage. Without being fruitful and multiplying within the context of Holy Matrimony, will there even be a next generation to carry forward the Gospel?

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  • John

    Good. This is, on the whole, excellent advice. Thank you for it and thanks to the GC for posting it.

  • paul

    #5…I totally agree…Christians who are dating and want to be totally done with all school (masters, PhD…)before marriage are setting up a marathon of sexual-denial for themselves.

    I’d also add that this is also the time to invite those youth who have struggled with having a same-sex attraction to come and talk with a pastor or trusted adult leader about it…the world has a ready made script for this and it goes like this: “you feel this way because you’re gay…go with that.” And the church is eerily silent on this. we need to bring a loving biblical perspective this this area of youth teaching and counseling as well.

  • dan

    Great advice. You seemed to struggle finding resources to help you fully develop your talks. Can you recommend some or can we get a sample of how you have put together one of these talks? An audio or PDF would work great.

  • shown grace

    Jay, your former students are indeed smirking.

  • Jared

    Encouraging young people to get married young seems to promote the idea that they should get married because they can’t control their sexual desires/urges. Too many may then view the reason for marriage as primarily to satisfy their own sexual desires–not a good reason for marriage.

    • Wade Thomas

      “To the unmarried and the widows I say that it is good for them to remain single as I am. But if they cannot exercise self-control, they should marry. For it is better to marry than to burn with passion.” 1 Corinthians 7:8-9.

      • Jared

        If this is the answer, I pity those who can’t control themselves and get married only to get laid. I’ve heard people actually say the reason they are getting married was to have sex. I hardly think we can proof-text 1 Cor 7:8-9 and forget about the rest of the Bible and how marriage is discussed.

        • Wade Thomas

          Fair enough. I don’t know that I’d go so far as to say I pity them, but I see your point. Are you sure it’s proof-texting, though? Doesn’t that seem to be exactly what he’s saying?

          • Jared

            Well, perhaps it isn’t proof-texting. As there was no commentary or context given, I can’t tell. If the passage was quoted as a reason to justify sex as a primary reason for marriage, then that would be proof-texting since that discards the rest of the biblical teaching of marriage. If it was quoted to support the view that marrying young may be beneficial if the person is burning with desire, but views marriage with a fulsome biblical understanding, then I would not call that proof-texting. My concern is that, if people marry young because they are burning with passion, they must understand the priority they are to place on their lust/passion given what marriage is and represents.

            • Wade Thomas

              The verse just popped into my head. I certainly don’t think sex is the only, or primary, reason to get married.

  • Andrew W

    A thought:

    These days, parents “set their children up for life” by choosing a good school or helping choose a good tertiary institution. Once upon a time, parents “set their children up for life” by choosing or helping choose a suitable wife or husband.

    A sign of changing priorities?

    • Aimee Byrd

      Good point, Andrew. I’ve been making the point on my blog that we need to better educate our youth on picking a spouse. Seems we just let them “follow their feelings” in this area with no wisdom attached. One thing I’ve started with my middle-school-aged daughter is a mother-daughter book club every summer.

      Jay, would your book be good for this kind of thing–middle school girls? I like your purpose of laying out the theological groundwork for marriage. Last summer we did Girls Gone Wise, by Mary Kaissen. I find that many of the books written for middle-school girls are high in the cheese-factor, so we read read the ones written for a mature audience. It’s not like they don’t hear far worse in an immature context at middle-school.

      • Jay Thomas

        Yes, indeed. The book might be a bit technical for younger kids, but we wrote this with teachers and parents very much in mind, so I hope that it can be a tool to promote purity and wisdom, even to younger teens.

  • Noah

    The idea of remaining single for the sake of the kingdom should be included as well.

    • laura grace

      As should the idea of this being an extraordinarily rare choice for which most people are not equipped.

      • Noah

        “for which most people are not equipped”- Bible ref.? Not equipped, or not willing? The fact that few people choose it does not mean that they are not equipped for it. In my view, marriage is too much of an expected outcome for a normal, “eligible” person. The Bible clearly gives two options. Paul didn’t say (and I’ll grant it that he qualified the marriage admonition I’m referring to as during a “present distress”), It’s better if you don’t marry, but this is an extraordinarily rare choice for which most people are not equipped.”

        I’m not anti-marriage, but selective singleness (not by less-than-desirable default) is hardly given a place at the table. Many don’t consider singleness as they should because they don’t consider eternity as they should. Not that I live up to a perfect mentality on this by any stretch!

        • laura grace

          How about, “It is better to marry than to burn”? If you haven’t been equipped with the ability to resist sexual temptation permanently, you’d better be on the lookout for a mate.

          Paul, in speaking to a group of people undergoing famine and persecution, said he wished they could all remain unmarried as he was because it would be easier not to have a marriage to worry about in such a difficult time — the implication being, of course, that he knew they all could not, and in fact he follows that with an admonition for people with strong sex drives to marry. Most people have a desire for companionship and intimacy and, yes, sex. Those people ought to marry, because they are not equipped to do otherwise. That’s pretty much exactly what Paul was saying.

          • Jared

            I find that argument to be a red herring and an implied false dichotomy. If you feel you haven’t been equipped with the ability to resit sexual temptation permanently, you’d better pray to God, because whether you get married or not, you’re likely to continue in adulterous pursuits (such as pornography) if you don’t work on your relationship with God as a priority but instead put your hope in marriage to ease your temptations.

            I acknowledge we are created to be social people and live in community and intimacy. Nevertheless, I continue to have concerns with how people perceive (or at least describe) this hunt for a mate–as a selfish means to quench one’s lust. This is perilously close to proof-texting if that is, in fact, the conclusion to draw from your post. We need to take the full biblical teaching about marriage into account. And, yes, sex is part of that. But why do so many continually focus on getting married to get laid at the expense of what marriage is and represents from a holistic, biblical view?

            • laura grace

              Oh man, ok, I see what you’re saying. No way, I totally do not believe that it’s ok to wife-hunt or husband-hunt as a way to satiate one’s lust. Not at all. Please don’t think that’s what I’m saying!

              Rather, I think people who choose a ministry and a life where marriage isn’t wise or even an option need God’s supernatural gifting to enable them to exist long-term without the companionship of marriage.

              I think, though, brother, that it’s equally dangerous to ignore or minimize the fact that Paul did just straight-up say that it’s better to marry than to burn. I take that to mean that if you desire intimacy, you’d better seek marriage, not selfishly (which I would hope would go without saying for Christians, right?) but in a godly way. You can call that a false dichotomy, but you’ll have to take it up with the man himself. ;)

          • Noah

            @laura “If you haven’t been equipped with the ability to resist sexual temptation permanently, you’d better be on the lookout for a mate.”

            To further Jared’s point, no one can be sure that they have this ability unless maybe they are a eunuch or something of that sort. So by this logic, each and every adult with any amount of libido should be looking for a mate. Paul did not use the “burn” verse to encourage every person with any amount of libido to look for a mate. That’s misreading the passage.

            Paul was likely single, and he had to beat his body into subjection. It wasn’t like there was no temptation there and no chance of him ever yielding to temptation, but he stayed single because he had a greater purpose. This doesn’t mean that God can’t have great purposes for the married; however, singleness offers particular benefits for service and does not just have to be relegated to eunuchs, a super-sanctified category that doesn’t exist, and people that haven’t found a mate despite their great desire to do so.

      • Jared

        This type of thinking can potentially lead to one lowering his/her standards just to find a mate and not seriously considering if God is calling one to be single for His kingdom (one could also include childlessness as a calling–I abhor the decision of many missionaries who stick their children in boarding schools for God’s kingdom, abdicating their biblical responsibility to parent their children–I’m a missionary’s kid, by the way). Perhaps most detrimental, this type of perspective could lead to depression about, desperation over, and discontentment with one’s situation of being single, ultimately finding its home in one’s bitterness against God because they haven’t found a spouse. I heard someone who was single say, “Better to be single and wish you were married than married and wish you were single.” While I don’t think there is any problem in objectively wishing to be married, I do know that this was coming from a place of consoling his depression and desperation over not being married. My thought in response was, “It is best to be content in God regardless of your situation and wish for God’s will to be done.”

        • laura grace

          OK, just no.

          Contentment is a heart problem, not a situation problem. If I struggle to be content as an unmarried person, I will struggle if/when I marry. My ultimate joy and fulfillment are in Christ, not in my circumstances, and if I behave otherwise during my single years, what I need is rebuke and encouragement to find my identity in Christ, not counsel to consider if perhaps God is calling me to a lifetime of singleness. Your friend has a bitter *heart* that needs to change because he’s living in ingratitude to his good and loving Father, and though it might be brought about by his singleness and the poor counsel he’s received about it, it’s silly to think that he’d be the most contented single person in the world if only he could feel called to singleness.

          Besides, how is God going to “tell” me that he wants me to be single for the rest of my life? How will that call be borne out? What if I’m single until I’m 40 and then a godly man begins to pursue me? Do I reject the advances of a good and godly man because I had some “feeling” fifteen years ago that I was meant to be single?

          If a person chooses, for the sake of the Gospel, to remain unmarried, that’s fine. But as I said above, I think this is a vanishingly rare scenario, and occurs only for very specific circumstances like ministering in a violently anti-Christian society or working with nomadic peoples, and must be accompanied by the absence of the “burning” sexual desire Paul refers to as a proper impetus for marriage.

          • Jared

            Surprisingly, given the beginning of your post, there isn’t much I disagree with. :) I never said that he’d be the most contented single person in the world if only he could feel called to singleness. That is ludicrous. I agree with you that contentment is found in our identity in Christ and is necessary in *all* circumstances. There is nothing wrong with seeking a spouse if done for the right reasons. If the end game is merely to satiate one’s lusting, then they should consider getting the right perspective (and probably getting right with God and being content in singleness) before they mess up a potential spouse. One can be content in singleness while still desiring a spouse. These are not mutually exclusive. This goes to your point that if one is not content in Christ in one’s singleness, they are likely not going to be content in Christ when they get married.

            • laura grace

              Agreed, on all counts! :D

              But I still think the so-called “gift of singleness” is made-up, unbiblical nonsense and that lifelong singleness for ministry purposes is a very, very rare scenario. I think much of our time and energy on this topic would be better used teaching young men how to locate, date, and marry a godly woman, and teaching young women how to respond in a godly way to godly men!

  • Paul

    @noah… Just remember that in Genesis 2:18…the first “not good” thing about creation was that Man had no suitable companion.

    • Noah

      Marriage definitely is a good thing; I don’t dispute that. Selective singleness for the cause of Christ is also a good thing.

      I Corinthians 7:32- I want you to be free from anxieties. The unmarried man is anxious about the things of the Lord, how to please the Lord. But the married man is anxious about worldly things, how to please his wife, and his interests are divided. And the unmarried or betrothed woman is anxious about the things of the Lord, how to be holy in body and spirit. But the married woman is anxious about worldly things, how to please her husband. I say this for your own benefit, not to lay any restraint on you, but to promote good order and secure your undivided devotion to the Lord.

      I affirm that said, “not to lay any restraint on you”, and he expounds more in following verses, but we shouldn’t just discount the gist of what he’s saying here.

      I think that Protestants and the like have over-corrected from the Catholic error of requiring celibacy for priests, etc. We are also immersed in a culture that constantly plays love songs to us while we eat, shop, use a public restroom, often as if they contain the ultimate end-goal to life. Not to mention movies, tv, and books that echo that idea as well.

      • Noah

        edit 7:32 to 7:32-35

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