On Raising Teenagers: What the Bible Says

Debby and I taught our kids they should abstain from sex until marriage and that marriage was to be a lifelong, monogamous, male-female relationship. But I guess we didn’t because none of our kids believe that as adults. After much Bible study and prayer, Debby and I don’t either.

I remember how angry our teenage daughter was when she found out Debby and I had not followed the abstinence course ourselves...not even remotely.

As a kid, I wasn’t taught that sex should be reserved for marriage. It was the 1960s, and I don’t think I’d ever even considered that concept. When Debby and I started dating at 17, we waited a few weeks to have sex because I’d read somewhere that it was better to get to know each other first. We were sexually active from 17 (we got married at 21) and I never felt ashamed or guilty of that fact.

In our mid 20s, we began attending the conservative church where Debby grew up. It was there that I first heard the teaching of abstinence. It made sense to me, and like many parents, I embraced the idea of helping my kids avoid unnecessary pain.

Our daughter became sexually active in her mid-teens, feeling a mixture of guilt and rebellion. Worse than that, though, she was unprepared to handle aggressive teenage boys and all the attention she was receiving from adult men. She engaged in many destructive teenage behaviors, which she’s fortunate to have survived.

She’s now a charming adult with a colorful history, but things could have been so much worse for her. If I was raising a teenager again, I’d do it differently. Here’s what the Bible says, what the Church says, and what I’d do differently raising teenagers today.

The Bible stipulates in several places that women should be virgins at marriage. It never mentions any similar requirement for men. This can’t just be an oversight. God isn’t knocking the heel of his hand into his forehead and saying, “Oh man, I forgot to mention that men should be virgins at marriage too.”

In previous chapters, we learned that the ancient culture required women to be sexually pure, both prior to and in marriage, so the lineage of the children would be uncontested. Men had no similar requirements. And since men tended to marry in their mid-20s, sex with slaves and prostitutes was a normal occurrence.

The Bible was written in that cultural context and didn’t address the need for pre-marital purity for men. In fact, there is no Hebrew or Greek word for sex prior to marriage. In those times, marriage wasn’t similar to what it is today. With women in a role like slaves, comparisons between Biblical marriage and our contemporary marriages almost don’t make sense.   

So how did we get the idea that the Bible requires sexual purity prior to marriage? The King James Version of the Bible often translates pornea as “fornication.” People tend to define “fornication” as sex prior to marriage. Hence many pastors preach that the Bible prohibits sex prior to marriage.

Pornea seems best translated as “sexual sins,” and those sins aren’t clearly defined. I believe God intended his followers to consider the cultural context of the Bible at the time it was written and to consider the cultural context of the current times when interpreting its teachings. Through those two considerations, the Holy Spirit can give you guidance for how you should live.

Therefore, I don’t see any strong Biblical commandment prohibiting sex before marriage. The Bible tells us often not to be sexually immoral but doesn’t define what that means. God seems to give us some grace here.

What the Church Says

The Church, historically and today, offers much less grace when it comes to rules of sex and marriage. The vast majority of churches teach that sex is allowable only between a man and woman in a Christian marriage. But if the Bible isn’t clear about this, where did the idea come from?

The early Church cultivated a strong anti-sex viewpoint. Some leaders wrote that total sexual abstinence was required of all Christians. Others taught that sex was meant for procreation only. On a more positive side, the early Church also helped end the common practice of sex with early adolescent boys and girls (whether slaves or prostitutes). Christian men were also told to stop having sex with slaves and prostitutes, which was a radical idea at that time.

Church leadership, then as now, was a difficult job. Even if we try to strongly incline toward grace, an organization like a church can’t be a “free for all.” If the Pastor says he feels the Holy Spirit telling him to take in a concubine in addition to his wife, the church Elders will need to pass judgement on  those shenanigans. Someone needs to decide who’s allowed to teach the children and what to teach them. Christian congregations still exist that teach sex for procreation only—though there are very few as men tend to be pastors—and congregations also exist that share my freethinker views.

The vast span of beliefs held by Christian churches gives Christians an opportunity to worship in a place that shares their beliefs about sex. I don’t imagine most folks spend much time struggling through why they believe what they believe about sex, but raising teenagers tends to get those questions frothing.

What Will You Say?

If you have kids nearing their teenage years, how well informed do you want them to be about the following?

1.     The mechanics of sex and various types of sex

2.     Pressures to be or not be sexual

3.     Feelings, attitudes, and values about sex

4.     Homo-erotic feelings, a lack of sexual feelings, etc.

5.     Rape and abuse in all its ugly forms

6.     Alcohol, drugs, and sex

7.     Sexually transmitted diseases and levels of protection

8.     Pregnancy prevention and levels of risk

9.     Locations for sexual activity and the risks involved with particular locations

10.  What consent means and how is it given throughout the process of sex

Think about all the teenagers who commit suicide, are raped, or become pregnant. Knowledge about sex will help your teen better navigate these risky years. This can’t just be a one-time, “birds and bees” talk. It needs to involve years of increasingly detailed and specific discussions between parent and child.

Think about how you convey your love of God to your children. You don’t tell them one time and then check it off your list. Hopefully your entire life models your love of God and you fill in the words as needed. God ordained sex as a beautiful way to procreate and to grow in love and enjoy each other. We need to teach that to our kids.