(Editor’s Note: This is an excerpt from Preparing Your Teens for College by Alex Chediak available from Tyndale House Publishers, 2014. It appears here with the permission of the author and publisher. For more information and a lengthier excerpt, visit Alex’s site.)
A Biblical Understanding of Sex
Our teens need to have a biblical understanding of sex in order to navigate the challenges that await them in college. For starters, let’s define the term, not on an anatomical level but at a foundational level. Here’s how pastor and author Tim Keller puts it:
Sex is perhaps the most powerful God-created way to help you give your entire self to another human being. Sex is God’s appointed way for two people to reciprocally say to one another, “I belong completely, permanently, and exclusively to you.”1
And that’s true. But Keller (and the Bible) would go a step further. Sex is a physical picture of a spiritual reality: God wants to dwell among and deeply know his people. God invented sex not just to propagate the human race and to give us enjoyment but to be a picture of the salvation story—Jesus Christ laying down his life for us (his bride) to bring us back to God (see Ephesians 5:25-27; 1 Peter 3:18). Gerald Hiestand and Jay Thomas say it well:
God created sex to serve as a living portrait of the life-changing spiritual union that believers have with God through Christ. . . . God created the physical oneness of sex to serve as a visible image, or type, of the spiritual union that exists between Christ and the church.2
At stake in our sexuality is nothing less than our representation of Jesus Christ’s relationship with those who follow him.
Maybe you’re saying, “This all sounds great for an adult Sunday school class, but is it really practical to explain this to our teens?” While I wouldn’t expect the same level of interest from a 12- or 13-year-old as from a 17- or 18-year-old, I do believe teens need a big-picture perspective on what sexual intimacy represents if they’re going to win the battle for purity in college and throughout their adult lives. And a biblical understanding of sex is the best antidote to the culture’s sexual lies. Our culture believes that sex is all about me. My desires. My satisfaction. It’s about using others, not serving them. But the Bible tells us that sex is all about God and his glorious work in bringing us into relationship with him. In the context of marriage, sex is about giving ourselves to serve our spouse (see 1 Corinthians 7:3-5).
A BIBLICAL MOTIVATION FOR PURITY
A biblical understanding of sex leads to a biblical motivation for abstaining until marriage. I fear that sometimes we motivate teens to sexual purity in small, even worldly ways, rather than in big, biblical ways. I have friends who grew up in Bible-believing churches that faithfully preached chastity, but the rationale was “Hey, you wouldn’t want to get pregnant, or get someone pregnant, or contract a sexually transmitted disease (STD). And watch out for those condoms! They’re not as effective as your health teacher says they are.”
The problem is it’s assumed that teens know that sex before marriage is a sin and little to no explanation is given as to why it’s a sin. Of course, we should want our teens to avoid out-of-wedlock pregnancies and STDs, but neither of these is an explicitly Christian goal. You don’t have to believe the Bible to want to avoid those things. Moreover, this argument doesn’t confront the cultural lie that sex is all about self.
If our teens know something about how human sexuality is meant to represent the permanent, spiritual union between Jesus Christ and his bride, it gives meaning and motivation to the prohibition on sex outside of marriage. Sexual intimacy in any context besides marriage dishonors God by telling a lie about how Jesus Christ relates to his people. And it massively disrupts our relationship with God (see 1 Corinthians 6:12-20). In contrast, the fear of the Lord teaches us to hate all evil (see Proverbs 8:13), to abstain from sexual immorality (see 1 Thessalonians 4:3-7), and to be holy because God is holy (see 1 Peter 1:13-16).
Once our teens understand what sex is, what it represents, and why it must be reserved for marriage, they’ll be better able to understand that there is a whole range of behaviors that are sexual in nature and that therefore must all be reserved for marriage. I fear it’s too easy for those with small, worldly motives for “staying pure” to cut corners, focusing on how close they can get to the edge without falling off. For example, ministry leaders in Christian college settings will confirm that a significant number of professing Christian students (like their non-Christian counterparts) do not consider oral sex to be sex. Why not? Because it doesn’t fit their overly narrow definition of “sex.”
But if they had a more comprehensive understanding—one rooted in the perspective summarized above—they would see that of course oral sex is sex. It’s the giving of oneself to another person in an incredibly intimate way. Like-wise, a lot of other physical acts would fall into this category.
Which leads us to the age-old question Christian teens and singles ask: How far is too far before marriage?
AN OBJECTIVE STANDARD FOR PURITY
But your teen might ask, “Isn’t that legalism?” We should anticipate this response. Many Christian teens will recognize that “getting physical” with someone they don’t really know is pure lust and clearly wrong. If they struggle at this point, remind them of 1 Corinthians 6:12-20, the forgiveness available in Christ, and that their past behavior need not determine their future. For others, the clear line of purity gets fuzzy when they develop a mutual attraction. Maybe they agree to be “exclusive,” to be boyfriend and girlfriend. They begin to see this other person as “special”—more than a friend but less than a spouse. So things get a bit physical (i.e., sexual), but they tell themselves, It’s not like we’re having sex, Things aren’t getting out of hand, and We know when we need to stop. And they tell others, “Don’t judge us—you don’t understand.” (As if we never lived through those years.)
Teach your teens what’s wrong with this logic before they’re in the throes of temptation and every ounce of their being wants to believe they have the right to decide “how far is too far.” The idea that Christians are allowed to set their own sexual standards, as long as they accomplish the goal of avoiding intercourse, is dangerous and misleading. . . .
This is not legalism. It liberates our teens from being captive to their own subjective standards, which can be profoundly flawed, especially in the heat of the moment. And we can really help them as parents, because if you’re married, I’d imagine that the boundaries of propriety toward other women or men are pretty clear for you. If our teens are to relate to young men and women “in all purity” (1 Timothy 5:2), they need to have this same clarity.
Alex Chediak is an author, speaker, and professor of engineering and physics at California Baptist University. Alex has been involved in mentoring students for many years. He has published numerous articles in Boundless (Focus on the Family), Trak (God’s World News), and Christian College Guide (Christianity Today). He is the bestselling author of Thriving at College (Tyndale House, 2011). Alex and his wife, Marni, live with their three children in Riverside, California. Visit Alex’s site or follow him on Twitter: @Chediak.