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I asked my students if they experienced any helpful conversations about sexuality in church or youth group. Most said no. They may have learned about abstinence and purity. They may have heard sexually active people described in metaphors of chewed gum or tape that lost its stickiness or a flower whose petals have been plucked. They may have been told to just say no to building the fire of sexuality outside the fireplace of marriage.

They do NOT receive much help in discerning what makes a healthy relationship, or how to say no when they feel pressured, or how to identify the stage in a relationship when it might be okay to say yes. How might the church help its teenagers think about some of these questions?

Their culture shows them rom-coms where two beautiful people work out a conflict and live happily ever after. Instagram shows them women who are thick and thin in all the right places and proportions. Porn (yes, some are watching it) shows them mechanical feats of sexual prowess without real relationships. A hook-up culture suggests that they can have the sex without the trouble of dating and emotional connection.

Often the only sex education they receive in school is abstinence, and this is frequently taught with unhealthy doses of fear. “Don’t have sex, because you will get pregnant or a sexually transmitted disease, and if you get an abortion you will be scarred for life, and if you have sex you will be ruined and no nice man will every want you.” I am not making this up.

Perhaps the church could provide some healthy alternative models. We might start with the Song of Solomon, interpreted literally as a love poem, rather than metaphorically as a discourse about God’s love for the soul, or Christ’s love for the church!

The Song features two lovers who do not appear to be married, because they are always looking for each other and a place to be alone. They delight in one another’s beauty and bodies, although they do have a weird way of expressing it. (“Your teeth are like a flock of shorn ewes …”) While some references to sexuality in the Old Testament sound perfunctory, (“he took her and went in to her,”) the Song actually celebrates the joys of romance and discovery.

Timing, is important, however, and at one point in the Song the woman says, “Do not stir up or awaken love until it is ready.” But that’s the tricky part, isn’t it? How do we know when love is ready? What are the stages of relationships? What is required for intimacy? How well should couples know each other?

Before this conversation, though, should be a discussion of what makes a healthy relationship. Is there trust? Honesty? Connection? Can they be themselves with a partner? Can they work through conflict in a healthy way? Can they talk about birth control?

Since many relationships are unhealthy, teens should be aware of the danger signs. Is a young person feeling pressured? Is one partner constantly putting down the other? Is there any hint of violence? Is one partner unable or unwilling to speak openly with the other?

Parents might dismiss adolescent relationships as starter boy/girlfriends or as puppy love, but if the early relationships are unhealthy, there is a good chance that the later ones will be also.

The Bible contains some significant stories about sexual violence and incest and lack of consent, and those can lead to some powerful conversations in youth group.

I once met with a group of teens to talk about some of these stories (Genesis 34, 38, Judges 19, 2 Samuel 11-13), and the students seemed uncomfortable and did not say much. I concluded that it was not my wisest move to spring such challenging stories on students I did not know. I learned later that when they met that evening with their youth group leader, they had an honest and extensive conversation about the issues raised by the texts. When teens feel safe, they will talk.

It is also important for the church to provide teens with a more realistic view of sexuality in the Bible. The culture of the Bible was very, very different from our own. Women in the Old Testament were property. They belonged to their fathers, until such time as the father handed them over to their husbands. Women did not have much choice about who they married or what they did. Their main role in life was to produce children. Rules about sexuality were designed to preserve a woman’s purity and financial value. Since we no longer sell our daughters for a herd of cattle, perhaps we could update our ideas about abstinence.

Five hundred years ago, Martin Luther wrote in his commentary on Genesis that women should marry at fourteen, and men at sixteen or seventeen. It didn’t matter if they were poor, Luther said, because God would provide. That is not advice most of us would give to our children today! As the culture changes, our guidelines about relationships need to change also.

My students want to feel affirmation and love. Don’t we all? That affirmation should start in the family, and be reinforced by the church. “You are beautiful, my beloved, truly lovely.” (Song of Solomon 1:16) When they hear themselves valued for all their many gifts, not just external beauty, they will learn to value themselves and others, and this will form the basis for healthy relationships in the future.

And one day they might utter these words of love from Song 4:1. “Your hair is like a flock of goats, moving down the slopes of Gilead.”

Lynn Japinga

Lynn Japinga teaches religion and women’s studies at Hope College in Holland, Michigan. In her spare time, she enjoys swimming, weight training, reading, and walking her stubborn but affectionate grand-dog, Wrigley.


  • Jodi VanWingerden says:

    Yes, yes, yes!

  • Marie says:

    I’ve spent over 1000 hours teach sex ed to middle school students. Thank you for sharing your thoughts and experiences! Each one of these students is a precious, sexual being — and I want them to understand and enjoy that about themselves and their partner. I also take some of those nonconsensual Bible stories and ask “What is going on here? Who is making decisions? How is God present in this story?” My favorite story of consent is the angel Gabriel talking to Mary about being the mother of Jesus — Mary consents to God using her body and her life in that way, and then she becomes pregnant. It’s beautiful.

  • Mary Kansfield says:

    Lynn, You have stepped into deep water by asking questions we should all be asking our children and grandchildren. Certainly questions about sexuality should be incorporated into church school curricula. Yet, parents and grandparents should not be afraid to speak openly about sexuality with their offspring. This is a helpful essay.

  • Kathy Davelaar VanRees says:

    Thank you, Lynn. Lovely article.

  • Kim J Van Es says:

    Thank you, Lynn. Please write youth curriculum on this topic.

  • This is a wonderful perspective. Thank you. With our unwillingness to speak honestly about sex, children will only learn about it from our national media and the messages from those sources aren’t very helpful.

  • Dan Mouw says:

    Does anybody know of resources to supplement the sex “education” offered in your child’s school? My 8th grade son has so far received zero real instruction and I don’t have hope that will improve in high school. Do any organization exist in west Michigan that teach sex education with a liberal Christian perspective?

    I would define liberal Christian perspective as teaching abstinence is best, but explain the realistic pro and cons and give students the tools to be safe if they choose not to wait until marriage. Even if they wait until marriage, that information is still absolutely required once they are married.

  • Rowland Van Es, Jr says:

    Another important topic in this area is domestic or intimate partner violence. Even the Song of Songs in 5:7 says, “The watchman found me as they made their rounds in the city. They beat me; they took away my cloak, those watchmen of the walls!” These were watchman who she knew and had seen her way back in 3:3. Then and now, adolescents need to be taught about autonomy and the right to say NO and the need to listen & STOP. The Presbyterian Church (USA) tried to develop a more liberal sex ed curriculum but it was voted down.

  • Lena says:

    Today’s culture may be different than the culture of Bible times, but the repercussions of not following the Bible’s instructions about sexuality are just as harmful. Intamacy with another person outside of marriage binds the two people together with a strong emotional connection that is hard to break.
    We should teach our young people what the Bible instructions- how they respond is up to them. We do not need a “new” message.
    This blog might be useful for RCA churches, who now following mainline denominations by using “creative theological imagination” to instruct people, not the Bible. However, for CRC churches, we are still holding fast with Biblical instruction (or at least the majority of us). Remember, HSR was primarily.meant to keep church teaching Biblical, not to “punish” or exclude others people. This blog shows why the HRS is important.

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