Monday, January 22, 2007

Explaining Biblical Morality to Teenagers

Last month a Christian friend asked my advice about defending Biblical purity to his teenage sons and daughters and their friends. How do you articulate the reasons why casual dating wrong? What is the best way to defend the Biblical sex ethic? By God's grace my answers hit the nail on the head for the family and helped them enormously, so I’ll post it here in case anyone else can benefit from it. This is what I said:
I am in total agreement with your position on relationships. As our older children become interested and involved in relationships, I’ve also been forced to explain our ethos and clarify the reasons behind it. I’ll share the approach I’ve taken.
Whenever I tell my children that intimacy is inappropriate without a clear possibility of marriage, or that casual dating is wrong, or that modesty is important, I always try to emphasize that this is because I take a higher view of love, romance and sexuality than those with looser standards. This is such an important point to emphasize since those who maintain Biblical standards of purity and integrity are frequently accused of being repressive or of having a pessimistic view of sex. But in reality, it is those who are casual with their sexuality who do not have a sufficiently high regard for it.
So the starting point has to be an affirmative one. If the restrictions are not seen within this positive context, then everything the parent says will just be perceived as repression, legalism, over-restriction, and so on. This is something that was impressed upon me when I was researching about the betrothal and courtship movements where the starting point can tend to be  predominantly negative.
Building on that, the problem with casual dating is that it trivializes relationships and treats our sexuality as unimportant. When two people are simply pursuing a relationship as a means for personal pleasure, it offers a sort of ‘emotional foreplay’ that provides the pleasure of a relationship without the responsibility of a relationship. That is hardly good preparation for marriage. Because we have been created in the image of God, casual relationships cannot fulfill us and will always leave us feeling empty even if they provide a temporary thrill.

If you look at the pioneers of the sexual liberation movement and the founders of radical sex education, they say in their writings that the most effective tactic for subverting all sexual norms was to first get people to think of their sexuality in a common and casual way. It is scary that many Christians approach relationships in a way that implicitly encourages a casual approach to sexuality, even if they still hold to the external standards of Judeo-Christian morality. As long as they stop short of jumping into bed with someone of the opposite sex (or wherever they happen to draw the line), many Christians see nothing wrong with a casual approach. They think that as long as you don’t have sex before marriage then you are keeping to the Biblical sex ethic and you’re fine. This is ethics by subtraction, which leaves a moral vacuum that makes the young person a prime target for sexual temptation. It also means that the person can approach members of the opposite sex with all the wrong attitudes and they think it’s fine because they haven’t actually 'done' anything immoral. But in reality, the do’s and don’ts of Biblical morality spring forth from a whole attitude about how we approach members of the opposite sex – it’s an orientation of honour, responsibility, care and love in the 1 Corinthians 13 sense. It’s a mindset that puts such a high premium on sexuality, love and romance that the thought of squandering these things in a careless and flippant way should fill us with horror.
Seen in this way, purity, sexual reserve and modesty need not be indicative of an under-sexed temperament, as is often thought; rather, it is an acknowledgement and preservation of one’s sexuality as a gift from God. Purity is not a matter of negation, but of affirmation: affirming the sacredness of sexuality and committing to preserve the sense in which it is set apart and cherished.
In the long run, this is the truly erotic option. It’s parents like you and me who are opting for the genuinely erotic option for our children. We are saying that sex is a Big Deal and should be treated like a Big Deal. We are saying that the sexual rite is ‘holy’ in the sense that it is set apart. What it is set apart from is the ordinary and the common; what it is set apart for is the covenant of marriage. On the other hand, those who are so sexually active that they give no second thought to a one-night-stand, and are consequently treating sex like it is no big deal, ultimately end up finding the activity less pleasurable (and there is a large body of anecdotal evidence to bare this out).
Although these observations build on the foundation of the Bible's teaching on sexual morality, if you needed an apologetic to actually establish that foundation, I would address the scripture's teaching more closely.

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