The other day after watching the news, my nine year old daughter asked me what “pre-operative transgender children” were. I seriously doubt that the conversation that resulted would have been necessary twenty years ago, but how many of us, 20 years ago, would have believed that people who were against biological males being allowed in ladies bathrooms and locker rooms would be called bigots, that homosexual marriage would be legal nationwide, or that one of America’s premier constitutional lawyers would be fighting for the legalization of polygamy in the Federal courts, or that all of these things would be discussed as though they were perfectly normal in the news?
Today’s Christians are living in the midst of what I can only describe as sexual anarchy, or perhaps a time of ever deepening perversion might be a better description. But regardless of what we call it, our children are being routinely exposed to more and more sexual material at a younger and younger age. As a family, we had to massively accelerate the pace at which we informed our own children about things like abortion and homosexuality simply because with the increasing degeneration of our culture they were already encountering these issues in print, on the news, on the radio, on bumper stickers, bill-boards, and via discussions with peers and relatives and we wanted them to have a bible-based apologetic grid in place through which to filter what they were seeing and hearing. Many of our children’s friends have encountered or are struggling with the consequences of sexual sins such as adultery, fornication, and pornography in their families and I’ve counseled more than one family in our own congregation whose sons were struggling with pornography at ages that would have been unheard of in the past. [In 2005 the average age at which a child would first be exposed to pornography was 11 but now, largely due to the proliferation of internet accessible devices, it may have dropped as low as 6. ]
In 1900 a Christian child could probably grow to adulthood without ever hearing homosexuality or abortion being discussed, but today, with the mainstreaming of sexual sin, Christian parents are likely to find themselves having to either exegete every newscast on the radio for their children, or attempting to cut themselves off from society entirely, and when I say “cut themselves off from society entirely” I’m not using hyperbole. Even the evangelical subculture that we once considered “safe” when it came to sexual sin, can’t be considered safe anymore. Consider the following statistics. In 2014 a survey revealed that 77% of Christian men aged 18-30 view pornography at least monthly, 32% admitted to being addicted to pornography, and 35% of the married Christian men in the survey admitted to having had an affair. Other surveys indicate that only 11% of single Christians are waiting until marriage to have sex (and those stats dovetail with my own experiences in marriage counseling). When it comes to divorce, while Christian divorce rates are nowhere near as high as those outside the church, the attitudes towards divorce within the church are changing very quickly. Most evangelicals are becoming more amenable to the idea of no-fault divorce, and I find fewer and fewer evangelical churches willing to use church discipline in cases of unbiblical divorce. At this point in time the majority of children born in the USA are born outside of wedlock, and with the eradication of the cultural stigma, we are now also seeing an eradication of the stigma within the church as well. I’ve often heard pastors describe the new lack of stigmatization as a good thing because they feel that will result in fewer abortions amongst Christians. In other words we’re not going to stigmatize fornication, lest that stigma lead to murder.
This shift of attitude within the church towards sexual sin isn’t limited to divorce and out of wedlock births, its spreading to cover almost every dimension of sexual sin, but especially homosexuality. We are seeing more and more professing evangelicals arguing that we need to end our opposition to homosexuality and embrace homosexuals. For instance, a Presbyterian Church in America (PCA) presbytery just declared that homosexual desires aren’t sinful, and that a “same-sex attracted” student at our denominational seminary can continue moving towards ministry as long as he promises not to act on his desires – an approach that both the bible (1 Cor. 7:9) and history indicate will not work.
So while I’m mindful that discussions of how and when to teach children about sex and sexual perversion can and do still make Christian parents very uncomfortable, it simply isn’t possible for us to adopt a “let’s not talk about these subjects” approach any longer, and I’m convinced that while it may once have been possible not to discuss these subjects from the pulpit in the past, it was never right not to do so.
Several years ago, I did a review of how Presbyterian and Reformed expositors preached on the seventh commandment (“You shall not commit adultery”) in the past, and what I found was, for me at least, very interesting. While their preaching never descended to the level of being prurient, lewd, or unsavory, by and large the 16th and 17th century Puritans pulled no punches when preaching on this commandment. They clearly felt that Adultery was a sin that particularly afflicted Britain and then later America and so they preached quite a bit on it. They had no problems identifying particular kinds of sexual sin, explaining why they were sinful and they explaining exactly what God’s word had to say about them. Remember also that they did this in an age when children’s church did not exist, and each of these sermons had children of all ages listening to them. Their attitude was that these children were undoubtedly observing the sins of the society they lived in and therefore it was their duty to point them to the remedy for those sins at an early age. They also clearly felt they had a vested interest in exhorting their children to avoid not only the sins of adultery, but the practitioners of adultery from the earliest age.
While that approach might make many modern Christians uncomfortable, those Puritan preachers were actually following the biblical example. For instance, as the people entered into the land of Canaan, they were coming into a land that was filled with unbelievers who practiced many different abominations in the service of their false gods. Not only did they sacrifice their young children to gods such as Molech, causing them to “pass through the fire” (Lev. 18:21, Deut. 18:10, 2 Kings 18:3, etc.) but they also routinely practiced ritual prostitution as a form of worship which they believed would cause the gods themselves to procreate and make their land and harvest fruitful. This practice of ritual prostitution became a snare to Israel when they entered the land, so that Balaak the king of Moab on the advice of Balaam, who knew only too well the weaknesses of Israel, while he was not able to defeat them in the field of battle was able to lead the nation of Israel into sin by it, for instance we read the following account:
NKJ Numbers 25:1 Now Israel remained in Acacia Grove, and the people began to commit harlotry with the women of Moab.
2 They invited the people to the sacrifices of their gods, and the people ate and bowed down to their gods.
3 So Israel was joined to Baal of Peor, and the anger of the LORD was aroused against Israel.
4 Then the LORD said to Moses, “Take all the leaders of the people and hang the offenders before the LORD, out in the sun, that the fierce anger of the LORD may turn away from Israel.”
5 So Moses said to the judges of Israel, “Every one of you kill his men who were joined to Baal of Peor.”
6 And indeed, one of the children of Israel came and presented to his brethren a Midianite woman in the sight of Moses and in the sight of all the congregation of the children of Israel, who were weeping at the door of the tabernacle of meeting.
7 Now when Phinehas the son of Eleazar, the son of Aaron the priest, saw it, he rose from among the congregation and took a javelin in his hand;
8 and he went after the man of Israel into the tent and thrust both of them through, the man of Israel, and the woman through her body. So the plague was stopped among the children of Israel.
Keep in mind that all these things, both the sins of Israel and the remedy for them, were committed in the midst of the camp of the people, before the eyes of the young ones.
So thinking on these things and knowing what he did about their sinful tendencies, it is hardly surprising that we hear Moses saying:
In Deut 18:9 “When you come into the land which the LORD your God is giving you, you shall not learn to follow the abominations of those nations.”
What would be the safeguard against falling into these abominations, which were so commonplace in the surrounding culture? The answer is sound teaching of the word of the Lord with all of its warnings and examples:
Deut. 11:16 “Take heed to yourselves, lest your heart be deceived, and you turn aside and serve other gods and worship them,
17 “lest the LORD’s anger be aroused against you, and He shut up the heavens so that there be no rain, and the land yield no produce, and you perish quickly from the good land which the LORD is giving you.
18 ” Therefore you shall lay up these words of mine in your heart and in your soul, and bind them as a sign on your hand, and they shall be as frontlets between your eyes.
19 “You shall teach them to your children, speaking of them when you sit in your house, when you walk by the way, when you lie down, and when you rise up.
20 “And you shall write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates,
21 “that your days and the days of your children may be multiplied in the land of which the LORD swore to your fathers to give them, like the days of the heavens above the earth.
22 ” For if you carefully keep all these commandments which I command you to do — to love the LORD your God, to walk in all His ways, and to hold fast to Him —
23 “then the LORD will drive out all these nations from before you, and you will dispossess greater and mightier nations than yourselves.
Moses taught that all of these things that they had passed through and experienced must be taught to the next generation, lest the fall into the same sins:
Deut. 4:9 ” Only take heed to yourself, and diligently keep yourself, lest you forget the things your eyes have seen, and lest they depart from your heart all the days of your life. And teach them to your children and your grandchildren,
10 “especially concerning the day you stood before the LORD your God in Horeb, when the LORD said to me, ‘Gather the people to Me, and I will let them hear My words, that they may learn to fear Me all the days they live on the earth, and that they may teach their children.’
And so, the biblical practice was to warn the young children of the covenant about these sins and their consequences from the earliest age, so we hear the following words of the wise father giving counsel to his young son:
NKJ Proverbs 5:1 My son, pay attention to my wisdom; Lend your ear to my understanding,
2 That you may preserve discretion, And your lips may keep knowledge.
3 For the lips of an immoral woman drip honey, And her mouth is smoother than oil;
4 But in the end she is bitter as wormwood, Sharp as a two-edged sword.
5 Her feet go down to death, Her steps lay hold of hell.
6 Lest you ponder her path of life — Her ways are unstable; You do not know them.
7 Therefore hear me now, my children, And do not depart from the words of my mouth.
8 Remove your way far from her, And do not go near the door of her house,
9 Lest you give your honor to others, And your years to the cruel one;
10 Lest aliens be filled with your wealth, And your labors go to the house of a foreigner;
11 And you mourn at last, When your flesh and your body are consumed,
The Reformers, Puritans, and Scots Divines followed a similar practice, like Israel they taught their children these about things from their youth, so that they might grow up able to distinguish the right practices of the people of God from the abominable practices of the cultures that they were in the midst of. The children of the world might practice abominations from a young age, but not the sons and daughters of Israel, and they were to know why, and what would surely happen if they did. In the same way, the children of our age will inevitably grow up witnessing abominable things, and most will adopt the same filthy modes of speech and action, viewing as perfectly “normal,” but god forbid that the same would happen to the children of believers. But if our children are to grow up profoundly different from the children of their culture in their thought, speech, and action, it will only because we have systematically taught them according to the word of God.
Now at this point, I need to make an important observation. As I reviewed past reformed preaching about sexual subjects, I did notice that sermons dealing with adultery in a direct manner began to dry up in the 19th century. Now this wasn’t the case with all preachers, many still taught as biblically and as vigorously as ever, but by and large there is an unmistakable strain of prudery that began to creep into Reformed preaching during the 1800s. Certain sins aren’t mentioned and certain words, biblical words, begin to be evacuated from the preaching language, and it seemed to me that they found themselves at the point where for fear of offending delicate sensibilities the seventh commandment was essentially whitewashed.
I initially thought I was perhaps being hypersensitive in making that observation, maybe it was just that the sound sermons that harkened back to the strong preaching of the Puritan era, weren’t being published as much as others – maybe it was the publishers who had become unbiblically prudish. But then I began to find that Reformed expositors in that age had begun to notice the absence as well, for instance the great Southern Presbyterian theologian, R.L. Dabney wrote in his Systematic Theology published in 1871:
“A supposed obligation of propriety and delicacy has usually kept our pulpits silent concerning the sins of unchastity, and hence, no doubt, in large part, the shocking callousness and unsoundness of public opinion concerning the sins of its breach. It is my opinion that this omission should be corrected by the pastors. When I say this, I would not by any means be understood as encouraging ministers to disregard any sentiment of delicacy or propriety which may exist. On the contrary, all such sentiments, where not positively false, are to be honored by him, and he should be, in all his conversation, the model of delicacy. But there is a guarded and holy way of discussing such subjects, which clearly reveals chastity and not pruriency as its temper, and purity as its object. This is the style in which the pastor should speak on these difficult subjects.”
R.L. Dabney was a man of decorum and piety, and if he felt the absence of sound preaching on this matter, then I do not doubt it existed.
At this point it’s worthwhile to spend a moment discussing three of the problems that will inevitably result from not discussing issues of sexual sin in the pulpit, or in teaching in Sunday School.
1) It’s counterproductive: As Dabney points out, the absence of preaching on a matter simply encourages the multiplication of the sins not being preached against. No sin goes away by ignoring it, and breaches of the Seventh Commandment are probably the most common of all sins that afflict Christian congregations and officers of the church. Balaak knew that he couldn’t beat Israel on the battlefield, but he knew that he could weaken or even perhaps destroy Israel using sexual sin as his weapon. In the same way today, the World and the Devil know that many evangelicals who will fight to the death over subjects like the inerrancy of the Bible and the Virgin birth can be bested or even destroyed using sexual immorality as a weapon.
I have yet to be a member of a Presbytery in the PCA, where I have not been present at a meeting in which a minister of the Gospel – often a theologically sound man – has been deposed from his office for violations of the seventh commandment. Believe it or not, I have never seen a man deposed for a violation of any other commandment. This is the point at which the devil knows he can most effectively strike the shepherd and scatter the sheep.
The absence of preaching that Dabney correctly identified, took a toll not only in his own age, but in the following ones. As biblical teaching on these sins evaporated, in favor of a whitewash, Western culture began to gradually coarsen while the evangelical Christian community simply became naïve in many instances. As a result, many an upstanding young Christian lad exposed to the sins of the big cities for the first time, was bowled over by them. The experience of thousands of American youth raised in strong Christian families but exposed to decadent French culture and all its temptations in the First World War was summed up in the popular saying of the time: “How you gonna keep ’em down on the farm, now that they’ve seen gay Par-ee?”
The sins and debauchery of the roaring twenties are more than partially attributable to the mealy mouthed and weak preaching of late 19th century early 20th century liberal Christianity.
2) It isn’t biblical: The Bible is very strong in its condemnation of these sins even in the lives of the great patriarchs, it exposes and condemns the drunkeness of Noah, the concubinage of Abraham, the adultery of David, the rape of Tamar, the homosexuality of Sodom and later the tribe of Benjamin and so on. Sin hasn’t changed in the intervening time. The sins of that time are still very much the sins of this time, and we too need to expose, in a “guarded and holy way”, these sins and the biblical remedy for them.
3) It makes preaching the gospel harder: The Bible frames the relationship between Christ and his people in terms of marriage, it has always been so. God’s people have always been his bride, and he has always been their faithful husband. Therefore going after other gods is condemned as spiritual harlotry, it is spiritual adultery. If we do not understand how terrible physical adultery is, or even what it is – and keep in mind this was a sin punishable by death under the OT Judicial Law – we will never be able to understand how awful spiritual adultery is.
Additionally while this is not a theological benefit, children who have been taught about sexual sin and it’s cause from an early age have fewer delusions about the motives of men’s hearts. To date, on the occasions pedophiles have tried to get close to my own children, they’ve immediately suspected their motives and acted accordingly. They’ve known for a long time that there are perverted men and women who are sexually attracted to children, and we believe it’s made them appropriately wary and careful. In a time when men are now being admitted to women’s locker rooms, toilets and changing rooms, that kind of caution is becoming more and more necessary for children of all ages.
Teaching on this subject is also necessary that if we are ever going to overcome the tendency to treat sexual sin as normal in the church. Sexual immorality no longer shocks our society, but it should shock Christians, we should be shocked by these sins as much as the ancient Israelites should have been shocked by the abominations of the surrounding Canaanite people.
I am convinced that rather than avoiding the subject in their sermons, pastors should be talking about sexual sin without getting unnecessarily graphic. After all, when we speak of murder there is no need to discuss all of the ways you can kill someone in order to make your point. A good rule of thumb in discussing sexual sin is simply not to go further than the bible, but not to fall short of its descriptions either. Give the sins their biblical names, and allow parents to fill in the specific details as the Lord leads them.
Above all, as we teach children about human sexuality, we need to make sure our emphasis is not on sexual sin but on the beauty and the sanctity of the one flesh relationship between man and wife, and how the devil’s counterfeits can never hope to rival that relationship. We need to emphasize both the importance and integrity of the union between man and wife, and how in biblical marriage we have an analogy for the vital union of believers with their Savior Jesus Christ.
Perhaps the greatest danger in not teaching our children about the nature of sexual sin is that they will not sufficiently understand how the sins contained under the heading of adultery rend, tear, obscure, cheapen and destroy the vital relationship between husband and wife, and if that happens then I am convinced that the true beauty and spiritual significance of passages like the following will be lost on them:
23 For the husband is head of the wife, as also Christ is head of the church; and He is the Savior of the body.
24 Therefore, just as the church is subject to Christ, so let the wives be to their own husbands in everything.
25 Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ also loved the church and gave Himself for her,
26 that He might sanctify and cleanse her with the washing of water by the word,
27 that He might present her to Himself a glorious church, not having spot or wrinkle or any such thing, but that she should be holy and without blemish.