As a child of the 80’s I grew up without a personal computer in my home or a cell phone in my pocket. I want you to picture with me a scene from the 80’s where a dad goes into his son's room and spreads pornography magazines around the room. When his son asks him, “Dad, what are those?” The father responds, “I don't want to talk about it. I just want you to remember two things: “Don't ever look at these magazines! Don't ever do what's in those magazines! Because if you do you might mess up your life and not get to go to college. That would be tragic because you are bright and have a successful future.”
That would be the worst parental approach in every aspect for teaching a child about sexuality. First, it would create access to porn and a corrupt vision of sexuality. Second, it would not provide a positive framework to understand sexuality. Third, it would appeal to self-interest as the motivation for right sexual behavior. But is that not largely the approach of a majority of parents in our churches today? Except today's approach is far worse. Parents today do not provide porn magazines but many do provide a 24-hour-a-day virtual sex show that kids can carry in their pocket. To state it bluntly, parents who provide their children unmonitored access to the Internet are guilty of parental negligence.
Teaching children a cruciform sexuality
Taking every thought captive to obey Jesus (2 Cor. 10:5) includes sexual thoughts. The sexual liberationist abstracts sex from God and the gospel of Jesus Christ. Sex, for them, is about personal self-expression and self-fulfillment. Consequently, their pursuit of sexual satisfaction is a never-ending treadmill of vain experimentation. Within this impoverished worldview, pornography makes perfect sense. The Christian father who refuses to teach his children a biblical view of sex joins the sexual liberationists in abstracting sex from God, albeit from the opposite direction.
The approach of many Christian parents in teaching their children about sexuality is a combination of a Pharisaical and Sadducean theology and worldview. The Pharisees viewed the Scriptures as a collection of abstract moral laws and largely defined spirituality by a list of restrictions. Thus, a Pharisee would tell their child, “Just say no!” The Sadducees were aristocratic defenders of the status quo and what they perceived as the good life. Consequently, a Sadducee would teach their child to understand sexuality in terms of living out there cultural hopes and dreams for a successful life. Worldliness is the problem with both of these approaches.
Worldliness is not a word Christians use much anymore. There is a sense in which that is a good thing because the way many Christians have defined worldliness is at odds with the biblical testimony. We often think of worldliness only in terms of moral behavior. People with the right behavior are the good guys and inherently morally superior. People with the wrong behavior are the bad guys and inherently morally inferior. But in 1 and 2 Corinthians, Paul uses the term in a completely different way. According to Paul, there are those who live based on word of the cross, which is the wisdom of God. There is also the wisdom of the world, focused on personal strength, gifts and abilities. Those who are determined to view the world through the lens of Christ crucified have their identity in Christ and his kingdom. Those who live based on the wisdom of the world focus on self-interest and self-satisfaction, finding their identity in personal achievement.
The dividing line between the Christian and the world is not found in moral superiority but a crucified Messiah. We are all guilty sinners in need of a Savior. We cannot discuss sexuality on the world’s terms, and then simply attempt to tack Christian morality on at the end of the discussion, because the Christian parent’s goal is not good kids; it is gospel kids. The gospel is to redefine every category in our lives including our thoughts about sexuality (2 Cor. 10:5). Worldliness is defining the world outside the lens of the gospel and according to Paul, worldliness comes packaged in both conservative and liberal morality.
A legalistic or self-interested approach to cultivating sexual purity in your children does not work because moralism and legalism both feed the flesh (1 Cor. 6). You cannot feed the flesh and domesticate it at the same time. “Just say no, and be a good kid,” is not a Christian approach to sexuality. We do not want our children simply to have a correct view about what to say no to, but a comprehensively Christ-centered view of sexuality. A Christian approach is not built on repression but on delight, and the beauty and mystery of the gospel. Below I outline eight trajectories for parents and pastors to use in teaching children a gospel-centered view of sexuality.
1. Sex education is vital
In God's creative act humanity is given a profound distinction as God's image bearer. “So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them” (Gen. 1:27). As male and female, humans are distinctly gendered image bearers commanded to procreate. “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it, and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over every living thing that moves on the earth” (Gen. 1:28).
Scripture describes the uniting of a man and a woman in a complimentary one-flesh marriage relationship in Genesis 2:24: “Therefore a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and they shall become one flesh.” Marriage and the marital act of sexual intercourse are a part of God’s natural created order, but their purpose points beyond the natural order to the cosmic mystery of the relationship between Christ and the church. The apostle Paul explains the gospel purpose of marriage and sexual intercourse when he asserts, quoting Genesis 2:24, “Therefore a man shall leave his father and mother and hold fast to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh. This mystery is profound, and I am saying that it refers to Christ and the church” (Eph. 5:31-32).
Marriage and the marital act cannot be separated from the mystery of the gospel. The gospel is the reason the two exist. Biblical clarity about marriage and sexual intercourse help create an environment where the gospel becomes more intelligible.
2. “Sex” is what you are, not what you have
Consider Anthony Esolen’s explanation of the meaning of the word sex and its relationship to marriage and sexual intercourse:
“The wedding is a symbol of the union of differences: the generations, certainly, and separate families, but most strikingly, man and woman. The very word sex derives from Latin sexus, denoting that which separates; it is cognate with a whole host of words for severance, such as (in English) schism, scissors, sect, shed. It is a mark of our degeneracy that the ugly term ’having sex’ has come to mean the marital act, with the once delicate term ’making love’ similarly denoted. What man and woman do in the marriage bed is not ’have’ sex; the sex, that is the separation, they are provided with already. What they do is to unite, across the separation. And unless man and woman unite — and, given their differences, it always amazes me that they can — the culture cannot survive” (Sanity & Matrimony: Ten Arguments in Defense of Marriage, Touchstone, July/August 2010).
As divinely designed, gendered image bearers, we must celebrate our gender identity to faithfully image God in the world. God makes clear in his word that our gender distinctiveness shows us something important about his nature. Thus, teaching your children a biblically healthy sexuality begins at the very beginning, with teaching them to celebrate and embrace God's design and distinctive gender roles. A parent’s example is the child's most important teacher in understanding Christian manhood and womanhood. Also, teaching children to embrace their masculinity or femininity, and praying for them in terms of their gendered identity are important and formative.
An example would be, “God, thank you that you made Luke a boy. Help him to live for you and surrender every ounce of his masculinity to you for your glory and the spread of the gospel.” Or you might pray, “God, thank you for making Lydia Grace a girl. You have blessed me by putting her femininity in my life. Help her to delight in growing into womanhood and to serve you as she learns what it means to be a woman who honors God.”
NOTE: The remaining trajectories will be in part two of “The birds and the bees: The gospel and your child's sexuality.” This will publish Monday, June 2.