I remember going to the Disciple Now retreat at my church in junior high. The focus was sexual abstinence. I respected my youth minister and knew that he loved me, so when he started to lay out the ethics of Christian sexuality, I bought in. He said, “No sex before marriage.” Check, I was going to wait. He said, “No porn.” Check, I was going to try to avoid it. He said, “No staring at the girl with the voluptuous body and no sexual thoughts.” Check, I was going to try my best. The trust and credibility of the youth leader played a large role in my attempt to live within biblical parameters for sexuality.
But then two days after the retreat, it hit me. I am 15 years old. Statistics say that I am not going to get married for at least 10 more years. I am a raging ball of adolescent hormones. The next 10 years are going to be a miserable season of sexual restraint. Furthermore, if I’m lucky, I may succeed for one week in living up to these standards.
I felt miserable. Undoubtedly, many young Christians experience similar feelings of despair when they evaluate the challenging road before them in obedience to God’s standards for sexuality.
When churches lead classes related to sex education, they often present sex as a category unto itself. The conversation usually involves teaching the Bible’s standards on sexuality with emphasis on waiting until marriage. Then the class involves a disclosure of the consequences of violating God’s law. An anatomy lesson may get thrown in. Finally comes the inevitable debate: “How far is too far?” The most hopeful word usually involves the pleasures of sex within marriage.
All of these details are valuable aspects of helping kids embrace a healthy Christian approach to sexuality. However, we must also explain how sex fits within the broader context of biblical theology. If we don’t, we set students up for failure, frustration, and despair.
Sex is just one small piece of a broader classification of relational intimacy, both with God and man. Genesis 2:24 and Matthew 19:5 say that a man and a woman become “one flesh” through sex in marriage. Paul echoes this concept in 1 Corinthians 6:16 when he says that a man who has sexual intercourse with a prostitute unites himself to that woman. The Bible discusses sex with the language of intimacy, portraying it as a way that husbands and wives bond powerfully.
Too often, though, we portray sex as the ultimate avenue for intimacy, similar to the way the world elevates sex. Then, as Knox Seminary professor Jono Linebaugh put it, we “dangle marriage out there like a carrot,” telling kids that one day they will enjoy this supreme gift of intimacy.
We do young people a disservice when we elevate sex above other forms of intimacy and fail to position it within the broader category of relational intimacy. We may think that teenagers who hear how great sex is going to be in marriage will leave excited about their wedding day. In reality, they are feeling frustrated and confused about how to deal with their deep need for connectedness here and now.
We often misunderstand teenage (and human) sex drive as nothing more than the need for biological release. We tend to believe that teenagers think about sex all of the time simply because of the onslaught of hormones that they encounter during adolescence. But beneath these physiological realities resides a deep, human desire for connection.
Teens, like anyone else, struggle with loneliness and isolation, and they desire intimate communion. We should affirm their desire for sex as a reflection of their deeper longings for intimacy with both God and other people. When we fail to help young people understand how sex fits within the broader category, we do nothing to help alleviate these longings.
What about the kids who never will marry? What about the kids who experience same-sex attraction and want to pursue celibacy? By elevating marital sex and failing to properly contextualize it, we suggest that their struggles with loneliness and longings for connection never will be satisfied.
The Bible expresses various forms of intimacy in both human and divine relationships. Jonathan and David shared deep communion in their friendship throughout 1 Samuel. Paul expressed an intimate bond, forged through ministry service, with numerous people in the churches to whom he wrote his letters. He encouraged friendly, platonic affection in Romans 16:16. The relationships in the church in Acts were tight to the point of attracting non-Christians into their community. The connectedness runs deep in all of these examples, and sex is not involved.
However, no deeper communion exists than the one we enjoy in our union with Christ. The Lord provides various ways to enjoy this oneness with God, including prayer, worship, Bible study, and the sacraments. Those who have tasted the sweetness of deep connection with the Lord will affirm that communion with God is the ultimate, most satisfying kind of intimacy.
Offer youth this hopeful, God-centered perspective: your desire for sex really is a desire for deep connection with God and people. You do not have to wait until marriage to experience and enjoy intimacy. It is available for you here and now in your relationship with Christ and through vibrant friendships. Perhaps sex will be one of many ways that you enjoy intimacy at some point in your life. However, sex is only one way. Better options exist before and even after marriage.