Down To Earth Discipleship    .    Getting real with issues facing young Christians today

Open letter to evangelical churches

arising from:

Down to Earth Discipleship

Some practical aspects of Christian discipleship for unmarried young adults

(A pastoral book first published in 2007, by Ian Hore-Lacy and Will Jones, © 2015)

This MS amended to January 2015.

In the course of several years writing this book we (the authors of the book) have been concerned that in some, and anecdotally many, evangelical churches in the UK, Australia and elsewhere there is an unhappy and disconcertingly large underclass of single people in their 20s to 30s. Also there are many young people who are inadequately guided through early relationships and for whom their sexuality is a burden more than a joy. This has come to include those who have been drawn into pornography, developing some level of addiction to it. From our pastoral experience we believe that a major contributor to this situation is the teaching, or more often lack of it, on God's creation of us as sexual persons and how this should suitably play out in relationships before marriage. While other factors bear on this question, such as different numbers of men and women in many churches, this open letter comments on the situation as we have encountered it and ventures some suggestions.

We continue to see the first problem manifest in two related respects: the expectation that an invitation to any 1:1 occasion is tantamount to a suggestion to 'go steady' (having ticked a lot of boxes), and second that any going steady (exclusive) relationship which breaks up is seen and felt as a failure, rather than a success (enabling both to move on to more suitable matches, drawing upon the wisdom and self-knowledge gained). The first creates great apprehension on both sides and a measure of social paralysis, the second in stigmatising those who break up is possibly one reason that Christian marriages fail as often as others (statistically) - the feasibility study of courtship does not allow a thumbs down without stigma and real loss of face in this Christian community.

In a church context with captive audience who are known to be interested (to say the least) it should be possible to define some issues, without actually making rules (in unhelpful ways that some evangelicals are prone to!).

A stark contrast
A good starting point is to acknowledge the contrast between the young unmarried people in the church community and the world around. This has grown conspicuously wider over the last few decades - since the time when many older church leaders were growing up and establishing their own life partnerships in marriage.

For very many teenagers today the main initiation or rite of passage from childhood into adolescence is their first sexual intercourse. This is seen by them as confirmation of their biological and social maturity, providing a sense of identity with a taste of intimacy at one level. Genital sexual activity is an integral part of adolescence for many, and this easily and naturally carries through to the 20s. However, conscientious Christians will draw upon an understanding of sex which gives it a very special place in a lifelong partnership and hence which places heavy restraints on their participation or indulgence in this premaritally. As a result they may feel deprived and be seen by non-Christian peers as wimps or losers, or even inviting questions abut their sexuality.

The church sometimes implicitly reinforces this negative perception with its teaching and yet does not reliably supply alternative - let alone more meaningful - rites of passage or group identification. Confirmation following infant baptism hardly compares - socially, emotionally or memorably! Nor generally does mature age baptism. This is a challenge to which your authors have no comprehensive answer, but acknowledge as a major factor framing the issues we discuss.

Church teaching on sexual relationships often assumes that those to whom it is addressed have grown up in full knowledge, if not full adherence to, Christian constraints on sexual expression outside marriage. But we must consider that it is the norm for those coming to faith post teenage to be very sexually experienced and without any sense of wrong in that. Hence it's important that they be greeted by the church with something more positive than accusatory finger wagging and authoritarian bible verses about casual sex (which are largely irrelevant anyway, if they are applied to a steady faithful relationship). The need is to commend and persuade of a better way of understanding and practicing sex.

Our book is written so as to expound the good sense in behaviour that is in tune with the way we are made, in God's image, and as sexual beings. The argument is mainly from that base, not a succession of texts. It does not attempt to canvass all that the Bible might say on the issues covered (though there are plenty of relevant references). It does aim to be obviously faithful to biblical teaching and principles.

We consider that a high quality of Christian fellowship with wholesome social interaction is the principal real alternative to sexually-active uncommitted relationships, and the most basic one (which is why we devote the first chapter of the book to that). Something based here and which comes close to a general rite of passage in evangelical churches is commissioning and mentoring in youth leadership. This can signify a spiritual adulthood in taking responsibility for younger people, with opportunity for practical expression of love in service. But if not all are invited or conscripted to this, it is only a partial answer.

Regarding the progression of romantic relationships, in any church, we need a shared understanding of what is normal by way of dating, courtship, etc. It cannot just be a shared reaction against what is normal elsewhere in society. We need to define an envelope of "normal" behaviour and interaction, with anecdotes of all that is outside it.

Any church that expects its young unmarried young members to be chaste and stay out of bed with one another and also to avoid the allure of porn, but doesn't properly address masturbation as lust control and sexual management is really short-changing its young flock. Too often the activity is simplistically conflated with lust. Churches sometimes find it easier to give young people guilt trips about masturbation than to focus on lust, in line with the Bible and common sense.

Young Christians are possibly more vulnerable to porn that their peers, due to the curiosity factor which is not assuaged in the normal course of life. With ease of access to the internet this can easily lead to powerful attraction and escalating consequences.

Compared with the condom culture of today, Christians do relationships the other way round, working towards a sexual consummation some distance away rather than treating sex as a sort of qualifying round or entrée in a relationship. The hedonistic enjoyment of sex has probably not changed for thousands of years, unless constrained by social or religious taboos.

Summary and perspective on sex
One of the most exciting things about how we are made is our sexuality, adding a dimension to some relationships which stimulates our whole being. This is fraught with potential for the richest experiences of our lives, or the most debilitating ones. Christians should be more positive and joyful than anyone about sex, after all they claim to know the One who invented it! However, it also follows that they will have more concern than most about the designer's views on its proper enjoyment, as distinct from the many other ways it is approached and even idolised in a fallen world. It is clear that God designed sex for relationships, not just recreation. It is equally clear that many of those who reject God, or at least discipleship, do so because of a contrasting approach to sex. For the Christian, sexuality is part of spirituality, not separate, let alone opposed to it as in some traditions.

It is in relation to sex that the Christian understanding of humans being made in God's image, and the behaviour appropriate to this understanding, departs markedly from our cultural norm, which even at its best is tainted by the Fall. Sex is an important area where one's natural inclinations may be socially acceptable but neither express kingdom values nor witness to anticipating God's renewal of creation.

Humans are created in God's image in bodies which are biologically part of the animal kingdom. This raises some issues in relation to sex.

Sex is a good and necessary biological activity throughout the animal kingdom, which is part of God's good creation. But humans in God's image are designed to enjoy sex as a one-flesh, exclusive lifelong union of two complementary people. The potential for being able to do this is eroded by behaving simply or largely at the animal level sexually, with relatively little restraint on its enjoyment before entering a committed lifelong relationship. That unrestrained enjoyment can still be a good thing according to social mores, but often isn't, and it is better for all - and appropriate especially for Christians - to hold off until the commitment of marriage. As well as conforming to the one-flesh unique relationship set forth in Genesis 2, this in fact expresses the relationship between Christ and his church described in Ephesians 5. Some see the analogy extending to the ecstasy of sex being a foretaste of that when we are fully united with Christ. Certainly marriage is the nearest human equivalent of the relation among the persons of the Trinity.

A problem and challenge is that whereas in the animal kingdom there is no significant delay between puberty and full-on sexual activity, for humans there is often a relatively long delay, perhaps a couple of decades, before the permanent marriage bond. For most people this is filled to some extent with sexual activity ranging from casual sex to faithful long-term relationships, even cohabitation (which raises the question of when one calls it "marriage"). But for anyone with a high view of human marriage as designed by God, this erodes the role of sex within marriage and devalues the currency. Coital sex ceases to be special and unique within that marital relationship.

This biologically anomalous long period leading to marriage is appropriately filled with social engagement, often charged by our sexual inclinations, and which leads towards selection of a life partner. In human society and personal social development as humans it is an important and enjoyable phase of life. But restraining the sexual urges for many years is for many a great challenge! It can feel like a curse arising from the very powerful goodness of our created sexuality which our culture constantly reminds us of! An obvious provision here is masturbation, and Christians more than most should have a positive view of the need for freedom in this, whether they personally enjoy it within the important constraints of self-control and minimising lust, or whether they find it more helpful for those reasons to abstain. Solo masturbation is simply an activity at the biological level, it is not sex - which is fundamentally relational. But that doesn't make it bad or wrong, any more than all the other animal functions and activities at that level (eating, sleeping, exercising, etc). Our associated thoughts of course may be sinful, and that issue needs to be addressed, along with cultural prejudices - see section 2.2 and chapter 4.

Sex within marriage is such an important part of our human nature created in God's image that we need to direct our behaviour so as to give full expression to it in due course, and resist the strong inclination to indulge it at a largely animal level, though even that may express much of the goodness of God's creation at the biological level. Better to be fully human as designed! This distinction is so basic for Christians that we need to have more than just a few rules to steer through the promiscuous cultural context today.

Attitudes to sexual experience
Our focus is on unmarried Christians in their late teens and 20s. Any such person will properly have hormone-enhanced relationships as a major interest or even preoccupation, and this will likely have been their experience since puberty. The challenge in the church is to affirm this sexual dimension of relationships while encouraging self-control, rather than communicating negative attitudes to sex.

In response to the worldly approach which cheapens sex by hedonism and selfishness, the church has often managed to turn something which is positive, good, wonderful and emotionally and socially fulfilling into a threat or even an object of dread for some of its unmarried members. For many, their sexuality has become more fraught than fun.

If a young Christian finds that their church context is petty and strictured rather than providing wholesome fellowship and credible teaching and encouragement in this area, then they may go in any of three unhelpful directions: the first is to suppress their sexuality, the second is to become absorbed and stimulated by porn, the third is to follow their natural inclinations in getting laid without much restraint rather than trying to remain in line with God's purposes, so that they are then likely to stay outside the church. All three are tragic.

One effect of this wide difference between many older adolescents inside and outside the church is that for any Christian who is meaningfully connected to his or her peers, there is tremendous pressure to compromise. They see sexual enjoyment mostly without any immediate downside. Another effect is that we must assume that any adolescent or young adult converted to Christ is likely to be sexually experienced or degraded by porn. Both these considerations need to affect what we teach and how.

On the compromise aspect, a survey commissioned by the Evangelical Alliance and reported by the Christian Medical Fellowship in July 2001 found that a third of young evangelical Christians believed in living together with a partner before marriage. This evidently shocked church leaders, who expected fewer than 10 per cent to support cohabitation. In total, 33 per cent of Christians aged 18 to 35 supported living together, compared with 82 per cent of non-Christians.

Arguably the church needs to be very much more positive about faithful premarital sexual relationships which lead to marriage, as distinct from its attitude to promiscuous casual sex. If it is seen to conflate the two its credibility is compromised. Cohabitation is widespread, and while there is a strong case to be made (as in Chapter 2) that this is much less than ideal, neither it nor other exclusive sexual relationships are wholly negative if they are embarked upon thoughtfully and possibly with a view to likely marriage commitment a year or two further down the track.

Cohabitation needs to be seen as de facto marriage, and to be taken as leading to the celebration and confirmation of commitment which marriage is. The church needs to encourage the couple to ground their loving in a commitment which is not merely a contract, but which is supported by wider community in everyday life and which acknowledges the transcendent dimension built into God's design for the one-flesh union. At the same time there needs to be pastoral recognition that there is some tentativeness involved, and hence the prime exhortation may need to be to "make up your minds", and allow for the possibility that the partners will go their separate ways.

Church communication on sexual relationships
(Here and in the book we use the term to mean relationships which are enhanced and energised by a person's sexuality. We do not imply intercourse.)
While it is not too hard to give advice to individuals in this context, the challenge of crafting teaching within the church which is both biblical and wise, not to mention persuasive, is far greater. It is hardly surprising then that your authors have encountered much evidence of deficiency or failure in compiling the book over several years.

Our focus has been on people in their late teens and 20s, after attitudinal and related problems have sometimes become chronic at a social level. While no church teaching on any subject can be expected to achieve full effect on all hearers, it seems that in this area there are some failures arising from a variety of identifiable causes, which we note below.

The following are some of the messages which we have found coming across to young unmarried people from their churches, whether intended or not:

  • Sex is an awkward rather than wonderful part of the way we are created by a loving God.
  • Sexuality is fraught and anything sexual is to be feared and avoided as far as possible.
  • All sexual thought or arousal is lust and should be avoided.
  • Masturbation is simply wrong.
  • Dating one to one is wrong, or at least very unwise, in case you get carried away.
  • The only permitted way to get to know members of the opposite sex is in groups.
  • Any physical contact in dating is wrong, even a kiss may be fraught.
  • A going steady relationship is destined for marriage unless something major derails it.
  • It is best to marry early rather than mature first.
  • Holiness of life requires one to repress sexual thoughts as much as possible.
  • Rules of conduct, rather than trust and self-control, are the church's preoccupation.
  • Curiosity about sex is unhealthy.
  • We do not suggest that these are all totally wrong - each makes some sense in certain circumstances or to some degree - but there is a lot of nonsense here and widely perceived they tragically seem to cripple many young Christians emotionally and socially.1 Some of the unhelpful nonsense arises from some American books which are promoted informally or by youth workers in place of sound teaching. (We recommend three or four rather good books on the subject, which happen to be American!)

    Regarding the curiosity about sex, there needs to be open and frank teaching which removes at least part of the attraction of pornography. Porn has become a major issue, especially for young males in the church, and it requires an intelligent response from and in the church.

    Our broader concern is twofold: the disincentive for too many young Christians to engage in romantic relationships, and the disincentive to be thorough in the romantic feasibility study leading to engagement (with the strong possibility of breaking off). The fact that in any situation many rise above the problems and find their way into happy marriages can obscure the dilemma of those who don't. The church need to make explicit those social expectations which promote healthy and gently progressive romantic engagements without unreal expectations or anxiety.

    So, we suggest the following ten points as being a high priority to communicate among younger adult members of any church:
    1. Expect to have (ie. in your thinking allow for the strong possibility that you will have) some 3 or 4 significant faithful romantic relationships before you find, and are confident in deciding upon, your life partner.
    2. As well as socialising as much as possible in mixed groups, seek 1:1 opportunities with attractive members of the opposite sex simply to get to know them a bit better, and without either party having any expectation of it turning into a relationship (hopes are OK, not expectations!). Avoid trying to tick a lot of boxes at this stage.
    3. Relax and enjoy these evenings or days simply for their own sake, while keeping under control within boundaries. To a degree you make such a relationship as you enjoy it - it's not just a matter of matching up characteristics.
    4. Boundaries on physical intimacy need to be established by each person, and when in relationship, by each couple, but default is the waistline. At the same time, don't over-react to the norms of non-Christian peers. Sex is not dirty or merely sensual, but enjoying/ indulging prematurely is unwise, wrong, and often fraught. (cf ch 2 of book)
    5. If you and your friend get keen on one another feel free to make it openly an exclusive faithful relationship, without commitment.
    6 As this proceeds, make a rational evaluation of your prospects together long-term - in effect, a feasibility study. Socialise as 'an item'.
    7. If, after a while, you decide that your future long-term is not together, break it off. You and your friends should see this as a positive step, not a failure. Move on.
    8. Overall see the whole process as a progressive relaxed continuum from nothing to engagement, not as very few big and daunting steps.
    9. Beware of reading too much into any conversation or invitation!
    10. Relax and pray!
    These all arise from chapter 3 of the book.

    The following attempts to summarise the main points we aim to make in the book on these, and which are relevant to church leadership. In some cases much of the point of our writing is in the nuances and qualifications, which may be evident in the extensive footnotes consisting largely of relevant extracts from the book. (However, the footnotes total 1800 words, the first half of the book dealing with all this is over 40,000 words.)

    The basic perspective
    Human sexuality is wonderful and needs to be affirmed and enjoyed to a very full extent by unmarried young people. This requires a good deal of self-control for Christians, who should delay its consummation until marriage, and operate within limits meanwhile in order to fully enjoy God's design within marraige later on.

    A sexual aspect of enjoying others' company is proper, including arousal and excitement, even though it cannot be given free rein.2 It's bizarre that Christians should sometimes be accused of being negative about sex (as distinct from particular about its proper context).

    As already noted, for many teenagers, experiencing sexual intercourse is an integral part of adolescence, whereas for Christians it actually belongs as part of adulthood, along with responsibility for another person in marriage. That is a very basic difference, with our concept of sexual union being outside of the range of adolescent sex - from recreational to provisionally committed. This means that when we are talking about sex with young people we and they may really be talking about quite different things. In the eyes of the hedonistic young person, single Christians (especially in adolescence) will inevitably be seen as having a deprived and impoverished life. But in fact the social acceptance of adolescent sexual experimentation cuts right across the development which that stage of life is all about - adolescent brains are a work in progress, with great flux of values and of ability to make considered judgments.

    The primary need is to establish what are appropriate limits to thought, in the sense of mental preoccupation. This is perhaps the greatest challenge for the individual and is not helpfully done in much Christian literature on relationships. We have approached this by attempting to define lust, making it clear that it is a pattern of thought which is illegitimate or at least very unhelpful for Christians.3 It does not include all sexually motivated thought, nor simply arousal. We recognize the real difficulty in any such definition, however.

    We distinguish four broad categories of relationship involving sexual intercourse prior to marriage:

  • Casual sex outside of any faithful relationship, and where no enduring or exclusive relationship is intended,
  • Exploratory sex with a view to possibly starting a relationship,
  • Sex within a steady and faithful relationship but without long-term commitment,
  • Sex as part of cohabitation - short of a formal life commitment.
  • We note that the first - casual sex - is clearly contrary to any notion of its role that is arguable in Christian circles. It degrades the notion of enduring and ennobling union and there is plenty of biblical material to counter it. The second is in practice no different. The third, in a faithful relationship, is harder to relate unambiguously to biblical injunctions, since the intention is not transience and nor is it any more self-indulgent than possible within marriage. We comment on the biblical pointers at some length. The last, cohabitation, is arguably what marriage actually means and therefore we maintain that the commitment should be formal and permanent, not a test drive with an escape clause.

    Early marriage is not necessarily or generally an appropriate answer to the challenge of managing our sexuality into the 20s. In the context of Paul's advice to the Corinthians for those bursting with sexual energy, hungering for intimacy of that kind and having a plausible partner, it may make sense. But it needs to be balanced sensibly with the person's social and vocational level of maturity, and Paul's exhortation to the Thessalonians that each should learn to control his own body in a way that is holy and honourable - while allowing all the other attributes which contribute to a successful marriage to develop.

    So how does a young Christian actually manage and enjoy his or her sexuality pending that marital consummation? Or for some, longer term? The control and management of sexuality needs to be taught much more fully than it commonly is, and not simply as a set of rules. As one 23 year old guy put it: "remember it's not just about 'keeping your virginity' but about the place of all sexual expression, penetrative or not. Unless the special nature and uniqueness of all sexual expression is emphasised, young people simply won't see the point of resisting. Each Christian group or church must be active in encouraging, expounding and reaffirming these values of restraint and expectation of later fulfillment amongst its members, since they will receive precious little assistance outside it." And to what extent is masturbation appropriate or is that in fact a deficiency in self-control? Even without porn indulgence, this is inevitably a bigger issue for young Christians than for others and is addressed later.

    Effectively denying one's sexuality and repressing every sexual thought is not a proper or wholesome way forward. There is a spectrum between repression of sexually-charged thought and mental indulgence of lust, and each person needs to work out where he or she should aim to be around the middle of it in the light of their own nature and conditioning. It is right and proper for our sexuality to be a significant feature of many kinds of relationships and bottling it up for years is not a healthy prelude to marriage. Romantic interest in the opposite sex then becomes intimidating because of a false notion of sexual purity. Self-control is not the same as repression.

    Christians do need to keep very much in mind that sex as given by a loving and bountiful Creator has both bringing-together and procreative aspects. A proper Christian view acknowledges both equally, even if procreation is deliberately delayed for some time after marriage, and then controlled. Sex is also sacramental.

    Control and management of sexuality needs to be taught well in the churches so that sexually charged relationships may be enjoyed appropriately.

    Encouraging sound personal standards
    We acknowledge that many evangelical churches are not simply grappling with the negative vibes about sex as mentioned above, but also have a significant incidence of routine premarital sex and occasional pregnancies. We assume that the main reason for the first is deliberate sin and for the second is getting carried away without being prepared for it. However, we wonder whether there might not also be other reasons connected with inadequate teaching and modelling of wholesome sexual relationships.

    Young people need help to define their boundaries while being socially active. They need to be aware of the likely consequences of not doing so (beyond the obvious) and of the opposite - being so "safe" that they avoid any sexually stimulating encounter.

    Specific boundaries of physical behaviour are not appropriate to be laid down as law by a church or its elders or youth ministers, to be taught as applying across the board. Advice and guidance on boundaries needs to be related to the individual or sub group. The only clear boundary with scriptural authority is: no sexual intercourse outside of a marriage relationship.

    Talking about boundaries applicable to private time together must not detract from the emphasis that durable relationships are best built with a major ingredient of public socialising and also shared ministry.4

    Teaching and modelling social relationships
    There needs to be a relaxed, open and progressive continuum of relationships in a church community all the way through to marriage. This requires a good deal of trust from church leadership and common sense. The model we often encounter is deficient in the early stages, creating a significant psychological hurdle to get into the system. It goes from almost nothing to something which can be akin to engagement in one leap.

    At a social level, this awkward way male-female relationships are done is the biggest problem we see in churches, and we each have had numerous conversations arising from it or touching on it. It is a problem which desperately needs tackling, first by adequate and sound teaching as alluded to above, and secondly by very specifically encouraging a full range of social interaction of the kind we describe, and which in many ways is simply common sense. Younger people need to be able to see progression in this being worked out in the church community as a relaxed, exciting set of interactions which involve almost everybody at some level or other and issue in long-term relationships after earlier stages of flux. Also there must be no stigma attached to breaking off a romantic relationship. 5

    The church situation often seems to be an overreaction to the secular norms of casual sex and of couples sleeping together because this is seen as basic for a relationship to be at all serious. However, there is plenty of scope for taking a firm line on promiscuity without clamping down unduly on sexually-charged interactions.

    There is a school of thought that says one should not "date" or spend time socially with members of the opposite sex unless one is seriously and currently intent on finding a partner for marriage. That can be extreme and inappropriate we suggest. Prima facie we are all - in those early years - on a trajectory towards marriage, and the more socialising we do with a little bit of hormonal charge the more we will be able to know ourselves, understand others and gain a greater maturity in sexual relationships. This then puts us into a much better position to look around intelligently and make a more sensible choice of life partner when we are ready to do so. So the main thing early on in a relationship is for individuals simply to relax and enjoy one another over weeks and months while they check out and reflect upon the longer term possibilities.

    It is just not good enough for the church to react to the promiscuity of many outside it by discouraging or even clamping down on social engagement with the opposite sex. There is a great need for each of us to learn to manage our sexuality without yielding to every urge but at the same time enjoying the special excitement it brings to relationships. Especially for those embarking upon adult life without having grown up with opposite-sex siblings of similar age, the church family has great potential to nurture this maturing. It needs to do so without people feeling that it's improper to enjoy one another unless the contact or date is part of a earnest game plan angled towards marriage as soon as possible. We need to encourage young adults and youth to lighten up and enjoy singleness!

    We assert that the sexual buzz that one gets from encountering an attractive person is meant to drive us into social engagement with such persons. That engagement, starting along the continuum we have sketched, is appropriate, enjoyable and an essential part of growing each person's self-control, social skills and basis of understanding which eventually equips individuals to decide upon suitable life partner. The sexual charge which drives it is God-given for precisely that purpose. Invoking Jesus' words about adultery in the mind just because a guy gets hot and hard in the process is ridiculous. Of course there are levels of indulgence in mental fantasy which should be firmly restrained, but not to the extent of avoiding such stimulation altogether. There is a wide area of wholesome social engagement with the opposite sex which is driven by the excitement of one's sexuality at a level between repressed self-neutering and unconstrained lustful fantasy (or more than that). We suggest that too many in the church react against the possibility of lust by effectively promoting the self-neutering and thus severely limiting the potential for healthy relationships to develop.

    Consequently there arises a disconcerting social problem where some young people find that embarking upon romantic relationships with other Christians is daunting because of the entrenched hang-ups which arise from inadequate or simply weird teaching. Instead of relaxed interaction with clear acknowledgment of boundaries, there is awkwardness and uncertainty arising from particular teaching which puts a negative gloss on much of what we would consider healthy and normal in romantic relationships for Christians. This provides a strong incentive for romantic relationships to be pursued outside the church community.

    There is a common situation where girls especially feel that their main romantic opportunities have passed so they fill (or pretend to fill) their diaries with all sorts of busy stuff, much of it social in some sense, but not retaining a clear sense of priority to allow for meaningful opportunities to interact with the opposite sex - occasions for potential romance. This may express a sense of denial or even be displacement activity, but at the level of our practical account it is plain silly.

    A major practical help in discipleship, and particularly in the area of sexual relationships, is same-sex accountability partnerships.6

    Lust, masturbation and pornography

    Lust is ubiquitous as the primary fallen expression of sexuality, masturbation is a secondary issue, but today pornography has become a major problem andchannel of lust, polluting the minds of many people, including many Christians.

    We don't think it is at all appropriate for the church to take a strong line on masturbation, given that it is not mentioned in the bible. However, lust is clearly mentioned, particularly sexual lust, and dealing with that is a very proper focus in ministry, especially youth ministry. Masturbation is relevant, since it may be an indulgence of lust or a short-circuiting of it. It may also be a prophylactic for some. Self-control is a fruit of the spirit, and that may also bear on the issue of masturbation.

    It seems that the question of masturbation is generally not dealt with in the church at all well. This makes it all the more of a distraction to many young people, even into their 20s. In the book we try and put a little distance between it and sexual relationships, by dealing with it in The Body chapter. But today the issue of internet pornography obtrudes on what used to be more straightforward, introducing varying degrees of addiction to visual representation of distorted sex, requiring moral blindness and giving rise to a huge challenge which is so far inadequately recognised, let alone addressed, in many churches. The matter is discussed in section 2.5.

    From the point of view of ministry to youth and young adults, it cannot be assumed that any individual is unaffected by porn, and free of attraction to it. Therefore the question should be raised in any teaching, and individuals should be gently challenged on it. Attraction to porn is not confined to males, and by some reports is becoming nearly as prevalent among young females, with even greater burdens of guilt and shame.

    It may be useful to sketch some adolescent profiles of guys relevant to lust, masturbation and pornography, in order to focus on how to address the porn issue with different young people concerned:

  • 1. Around puberty, establish a relaxed attitude to masturbation with perhaps a routine as self-pleasuring and/or short-circuiting lust (to deal with it), and subsequently find that porn does not become a strong attraction. In late teens the freedom to enjoy masturbation leads either to almost abstinence from it as best means of minimising lust, or to long-term (premarital) enjoyment of it, using it to derail lustful trains of thought. Lust is generally under control, though always a challenge.
  • 2. Around or before puberty start looking at porn so that a strong attraction to it develops which then from puberty becomes inexorably associated with masturbation and lust. Even after closing the door to porn, any masturbation brings back porn imagery and sense of guilt and/or shame. Lust is a major challenge.
  • 3. Around puberty develop a strong sense that masturbation is shameful and wrong, maybe stigmatised by the church. Later, secret access to porn becomes attractive and porn sessions usually culminate in frenetic masturbation. Lust is then very much linked to porn, guilt and shame, and is a challenge even after closing off the porn.
  • 4. Around puberty develop a strong sense that masturbation is inappropriate, maybe stigmatised by the church. Porn is avoided sufficiently not to become a significant issue. Lust is real, but dealt with in normal self-discipline, and masturbation abstinence in general is no big deal.
  • 5. A fifth profile is intermediate, with a lesser level of porn than in 2 or 3, involving up to a couple of years casual involvement short of addiction in mid to late teens, then putting the brakes on and withdrawal, and continuing as in 1 on the lust and masturbation fronts. (For the non-Christian who is happy to indulge a bit of lust the occasional recourse to porn which is well under control can be lined up here.)
  • The challenge arising from 2 or 3 is the same, primarily countering porn attraction or addiction after abandoning secrecy and seeking the help of friends. Mixed socialising with plenty of hormonal stimulus from that coupled with pleasant social interaction is also very helpful. Masturbation probably should be off the agenda as far as possible for some time. Recovery from 3 is easier than from 2, but with confronting the problem and using accountability software the road back may not be too long. (The seriousness of addiction in either case can be measured by the number of years before taking strong action, the length of porn sessions, and their frequency.) After recovery the profile may look like 1.

    The implications for the church youth ministry of 1, 3 and 5 are obvious, in the need to focus on lust, not masturbation. However, selling that message needs to be with the understanding that some kids will be embroiled in 2, and that 4 is possible (but unrealistic to assume that it is appropriate or sensible for all). Within youth fellowship or CU structures, accountability software should possibly be the norm, and accountability partnerships of some kind absolutely vital. But any heavy church or parental opprobrium or stigmatizing of masturbation is then likely to increase the chances of porn being attractive, and the likelihood of it becoming a personal problem.

    Routine teenage masturbation among Christians seems to be a partial antidote to later porn attraction, diminishing the appeal as outworking of lust > porn > unhealthy addictive masturbation with the mental pathways fully aligned to unreal images. That teenage activity with some attention to tackling lust can then acquire more self-control and become a healthy masturbation routine or be superseded by late teen abstinence. But where porn becomes a significant attraction before puberty, there are no established escape routes for lust and the whole porn-masturbation maelstrom ensues, requiring a great deal of effort to break free.

    If during adolescence there is a sense of freedom re masturbation, rather than simply shame and guilt, then there is a very much better change of avoiding being drawn into porn addiction. Where masturbation is not a usual option and importantly where there is not a sense of freedom to resort to this to divert lust (as in profile 3 above), then if a guy is going to yield to lust, there is a sense that he might as well do it properly, with a bit of adrenaline maybe and the prospect of a fulfilling visual feast capped off by a climactic thrill. As Martin Luther said: if you are going to "be a sinner [then] sin boldly," or "let your sins be strong". Church teaching needs to focus on lust and self-control, not masturbation, allowing it to be expressed and experienced in a variety of ways from simple self-pleasuring to short-circuiting lust.

    As discussed in chapter 2, Christians more than anyone should appreciate and enjoy their sexuality. Premarital sexual experience for Christians should include enjoyment of the hormonal buzz socially, of arousal, and the freedom to masturbate - or not, according to what is personally most helpful in minimising lust. Youth ministry should encourage a freedom to masturbate without any sense of shame and guilt, while expounding the difference between good sexuality as created by God and lust which is the primary fallen expression of it. Masturbation itself is discussed more fully in 4.3.

    In general the church should probably address the dangers and consequences of alcohol excess, drugs, nicotine, gambling and pornography all together, as a set of different lifestyle hazards which need to be well understood - three chemically-initiated, two behavioural. Probably only porn is a live issue for most, but it may be helpful to put it in the context of other potential addictions which are better recognised, so that "don't go there" can be understood to apply equally strongly to all. Furthermore, in the light of evidence that porn access often starts at about the age of 11, these questions need to be addressed early.

    Although we have some minor reservations, the web site Teenage Boys Under Attack is very valuable and we would like to see it recommended to every boy in every church youth group.

    The Bible's teaching on self-control and what we allow to fill our minds and hearts is central to how we understand these matters.7 Pornography should be rigorously avoided.

    We suggest that pastorally the church needs to avoid taking an unduly strong stand on any aspects of Christian behaviour that are not hugely significant, and pushing standards that do not allow for the full spectrum of young people, from the inert to the passionate high-hormone types. Church teaching which stigmatizes masturbation is likely to be profoundly unhelpful in encouraging a wholesome understanding of sexuality.

    Making a big deal of masturbation, along with the other secondary matters mentioned, may mean that the church is self-selecting for wimps, or simply low-testosterone types - a rather serious form of self-abuse at the corporate level, and arguably enough of a problem already.

    We have been encouraged to put forward these thoughts which arise from writing the first half of the book. We do so from the privileged position of detached critics, not having any responsibility to actually deal with all this in a real live church with a wide variety of people, personal issues and prejudices! Writing a book is relatively easy compared with that.

    However, we hope and pray that the above points will provide a helpful alert on what we see as a social and sometimes spiritual tragedy within otherwise admirable evangelical churches, and also a stimulus to grapple with these issues better. We exhort church leadership to be bold rather than reticent in approaching the question, and the advent of easy free porn means that it must be tackled early in teenage years, with reinforcement of the social modeling of course continuing into the 20s.

    We also hope that the book itself might be a useful resource in assisting this process. In due course, it may be in print. We invite comment via the feedback provision.

    In mid 2009 we added discussion questions to each section, so that the book may be used as a resource in mentoring, with an agenda to some extent formed by the mentoree selecting sections to cover and discuss.

    We do not write only on these issues! For instance the book offers some strong encouragement to active hospitality, intercessory prayer and organized personal stewardship and it finishes by underlining the need for sound exegesis, explicit hermeneutics and a coherent epistemology. All of these too need much teaching and reinforcement in our churches!

    Ian Hore-Lacy
    Jon Horne
    Will Jones

    The Book's Table of Contents

    Appendix to letter:

    The Book Authors:
    The book draws heavily on the views and insights of those in the front line of Christian living as active and involved young adults with pastoral involvements. Several people were involved collaboratively through much of the manuscript development, all of the younger ones being in the same age group as the intended readers, and (then) unmarried. The main two are listed here by way of acknowledgment.

    Ian Hore-Lacy is rich in years, married with four grown-up progeny (2 sons, 2 daughters). He is engaged in some pastoral ministry and mentoring in Australia and UK out of which the main subject matter of this book arose. He has been a youth worker and intervarsity staffworker, then teacher and environmental scientist and now works in a public communications role based in London for the nuclear power industry. His most recent Christian book is Responsible Dominion, a Christian approach to sustainable development (Regent College Publishing 2006).

    Will Jones is in his early 30s and married to Becky. He has been involved with church and university campus ministry at Coventry, UK. His honours degree in mathematics has led to PhD studies in philosophy and politics at Reading University after a transition year at Warwick University with a theology diploma from Wycliffe Hall, Oxford. He now works for the Coventry Diocese.

    In addition, early in the formative process of the book, two others were actively involved:

    Helen Barratt as a young doctor in London with a Masters degree in Bioethics has been involved in student ministry both at Imperial College and All Souls church, London. She married David in 2007 and currently works as a public health doctor in London, while completing a PhD in health services research and policy.

    Jono Green is in early 20s, and joined the project to complement the others for a teenage readership. He has been engaged in schools ministry with Youth for Christ, was married to Laura in 2009 and is now Australian co-ordinator of Youth Alpha.

    These with others initially provided a reality check, but went on to do much more. They contributed a lot of substantial and solidly Christian input to the book over many discussions and in later drafting, so that Ian's and Will's role became mainly that of coordinating editor.

    As co-author of this Open Letter to Churches, Jon Horne is Director of Agapé Workplace Initiative (London). He has two degrees in theology and a background in publishing and marketing. He has close involvement with All Souls church in London, and married Kathy in 2009.


    1 We acknowledge that in any church there will be the poor in spirit and socially incompetent people on a variety of parameters, including sexual relationships. Our concern here is with the chronic problems evident on a much wider front.

    2 In the Authors' Preface:
    The section on relationships is longer than the others since this is an area of obvious and pertinent interest to those in their 20s, not least the co-authors and most of the commentators. It also reflects our concern that many churches and fellowships do not present a good model for developing relationships. Some teaching, even in "good" churches, is very inadequate. Christians don't always celebrate sex as fully as the Bible suggests that our creator would like - a reaction to non-Christians who tend to devalue or deify it.

    In chapter 2 we make the points:

  • Sexuality is to be both enjoyed and controlled. Contrary to worldly assumptions, proper control and observing appropriate limits of behaviour arising from an acceptance of responsibility leads to fuller enjoyment.
  • For Christians, the fact that sexuality is wonderfully exciting has the corollary of frustration while it is not yet able to be fully expressed or experienced.
  • Enjoyment of the hormonal buzz caused by attractive individuals is entirely proper, as is arousal and excitement on account of them if not given free rein. Sexuality adds a dimension to some relationships which stimulates our whole being. This is fraught with potential for the richest experiences of our lives, or the most debilitating ones.
  • For Christians sexual intercourse belongs as part of adulthood, along with responsibility for another person in marriage.
  • Within marriage, it is reciprocal self-giving, not simply mutual self-gratification.
  • Understanding it as part of marriage and not simply an aspect of adolescence or to be enjoyed at will is both biblically supported as conveying the Maker's intention and also in line with a thoughtful approach to what it all means.
  • This means we may really be talking about quite different things when sex is the topic.
  • In the eyes of the hedonistic young person, single Christians (especially in adolescence) will inevitably be seen by peers as having a deprived and impoverished life.
  • 3 In 2.2:
    How much should we restrain our enjoyment of sexuality as single people? And what is this lust that we should avoid? - as distinct from appropriately enjoying some excitement and sexual distraction due to thoughts and even fantasies? In the sermon on the mount (Matt 5:28), Jesus says that looking at a person (in text: married woman, wife) lustfully amounts to committing adultery in the heart, which would seem to define lust as doing in the head and heart what might be done in bed with someone who is not rightly available, consummating an illicit relationship and at least temporarily possessing the person. It is threatening someone's marriage bond. This is a lot more than admiring any person's beauty and sexual attractiveness and getting a buzz out of that! Jesus is not stigmatising natural sexual attraction. Nor is he saying that we shouldn't have wholesome sexual desire for members of the opposite sex who are potential partners. But if we allow ourselves to indulge in unbridled desire to posses the person, or adulterous lust (v 29-30) that threatens a marriage relationship, then strong action and maybe drastic sacrifice is needed to remove ourselves from sexual temptation and the propensity to indulge it.

    Other biblical references, and common sense, suggest that we should understand lust a little more widely than in this well-known sermon on the mount text, applying to adultery. A workable definition might be: Lust is a way of thinking about a person which objectifies their genital sexual aspect. It spawns a strong sexual urge or preoccupation focused on physical gratification, especially (for males) a self-indulgent desire to conquer or possess someone, however briefly, especially where that liaison is forbidden. Elaborating this: lust is distinct from love, which has a whole known person as object (not just their genital potential) and which essentially seeks their good; lust is largely physically-focused and self-indulgent, and where normal sexual desire has been given free rein, perhaps mentally undressing the person and focusing genitally. More strongly, a fierce obsession to conquer or possess is the motivator, for males at least.

    Some Christians' tendency to define all sexual thought and physical appreciation of others as 'lust' is a travesty in the worst ascetic sense. Sexual attraction is basically an expression of our created sexual physiology, not a result of the fall, and there is no way we can sensibly call that bad or sinful without calling into question God's very creation. A broad definition gives bizarre scope for loading guilt trips on young people, sometimes establishing rhetorical self-flagellation as a measure of holiness. Nevertheless, countering lust is a constant challenge for unmarried Christians, as part of self-control more widely.

    There is a whole spectrum of how we can see members of the opposite sex, from psychological self-neutering through wholesome excitement to unbridled lust with its torrid fantasies. Each person needs to draw their own lines and boundaries between excitement and mild sexual arousal on the one hand and playing out genital or physical possession fantasies in the mind on the other, and decide where the brakes need to go on. Each of us is tempted differently and while male lust tends to be more blatant, males don't have a monopoly on it. With some practice of self-control, there can be an increasing distance between looking and lusting.

    4 So where does one need to draw the line for each of us in thought and behaviour? It will differ a bit from person to person, but certainly best before indulgence in lust or undue physical intimacy which gives away what we may later wish had been kept for our life partner. In particular a person's self-esteem is easily degraded if they are persuaded to give away what they have in this respect prematurely. Further comment about boundaries is in chapter 3, section 3.5.

    While a conservative approach is recommended, on the other hand drawing the line way back in the other direction so that we put up an emotional firewall may be "safe" but deprive one of the very proper pleasure of relationships between the sexes at a social level and the important learning from this. At the extreme it can amount to a denial of our sexuality and a sort of self-neutering repression leading to emotional and social disability. The main principle is that sexual faithfulness to one's future spouse starts in the first romantic relationship we have, and must guide and constrain our behaviour right through as we grow into and enjoy perhaps a number of romantic relationships.

    And in 3.5:
    Setting clear boundaries on physical intimacy together in the courtship continuum is essential. These boundaries are in order to preserve for marriage that sexual behaviour which is best experienced as a sacred and special activity between husband and wife. It thus follows that the boundaries are also to avoid behaviour which will lead to regrets after a relationship breaks up, because that intimacy has been broached and too much given away.

    But the boundaries should not be set so tightly that a couple in an exclusive relationship without being committed to marriage cannot express their love and feelings physically, with some degree of tactile intimacy. This may be such that it is normally in private - the closed door (or not) is a factor in defining the boundary. A conservative boundary would be to avoid doing anything in private that you wouldn't be happy to be seen doing in public. A more common boundary is the waistline.

    5 Some churches seem to default to two distinct categories: of friendship and serious dating, with a defined step change between them. This is possibly an attempt to regulate and restrain assumed youthful irresponsibility but often seems to us to place an inappropriate constraint on normal romantic interaction - especially when there is no short-term intention of marriage. It is also an outcome of a fear about possibly not continuing a particular relationship, where the subculture causes this to be seen as a failure rather than a sensible part of the flux in the early stages of getting to know members of the opposite sex who are attractive and prospective. Similarly, some churches go so far as to actively discourage male-female interaction or dating except in a group setting, until - after a suitable length of time - the couple make a decision to 'court', a relationship very explicitly exploring the possibility of marriage. Again, there is a step change to this exclusive status which is made so serious that it is both daunting and sometimes not much short of engagement, in that breaking off is perceived as failure, and even imparting a stigma to those concerned.

    We would prefer to see a more ordinary and normal situation, which is less intimidating but requires more trust and common sense. What might it look like? A gently progressive and exploratory continuum of social interaction and deliberate choices, with acquaintance leading to faithfulness and finally commitment through evolving attachment. It is an evolving friendship at its most basic level, but acquiring a sexual buzz as it progresses. Real exclusiveness is deferred until a stage before an engagement is announced. What we might call the courtship continuum progression runs something like:

  • deliberate interaction in a group and casual social context, establishing friendships, perhaps flirting, and certainly anticipating having a lot of fun in that group context (incidentally, some arm's length discussion of relationships and how they are pursued and how they might develop).
  • making or accepting/declining individual invitations for coffee, dinner or shows, etc with someone you fancy, without this being too much of a big deal (at least for the guy), to
  • focusing attention on one person with repeat invites and hanging out together, which is starting to feel serious (probably more so for the girl), and becoming regular 1:1 contact with a sense of ongoing relationship, taking greater emotional risk with the person and starting to understand their expectations, to
  • very clear social recognition of a serious relationship (being "an item" together), increasing intimacy in sharing reflections on life experiences, faithfulness which aims to match the other's expectations, and while open-minded to considering other possibilities, extraneous invitations are withheld/declined, to
  • serious and deliberate consideration of making this a permanent match, in which case it becomes
  • engagement (provisional and public commitment) leading towards
  • the permanent covenant commitment of marriage.
  • We have not numbered the dot points above because apart from the last two, they are not really discrete stages, each flows into the next, or doesn't, in which case each party backtracks to around the second or third level and pursues other possibilities.

    The smaller the steps the easier they are to take and the less is at stake in each. Whatever the outcome of each step, the consequences should be small enough emotionally to cope with. But if the church culture is such that the very few steps are large and rather public, the stakes are higher and there can be a real sense of risking too much. In practice, relationships do often develop in all sorts of ways and kinds of steps. The problem comes when a big step is set as a social and subcultural expectation. The point is that aiming for something like this progression is more useful and less daunting than where big and well-defined steps are set forth as the norm.

    6 Sexual aspects of our lives are a prime area where we need to have an accountability relationship with a trusted friend and prayer partner (or two). In these we open ourselves very fully, unburdening regarding our lapses, and being open to interrogation regarding our points of vulnerability and potential or actual stupidity. More positively such a partner will then be able to give us powerful encouragement and support from a unique depth of understanding. This question is outlined more fully in chapter 1.

    7 In 4.3:
    Masturbation is perfectly normal and ordinary for most young single people, especially males, but it tends to be a vexed question and often a distraction for many Christian guys. It is certainly a larger issue for Christians in general than for most young people because it is their only legitimate genital activity through adolescence. For conscientious Christians, sexual gratification by sleeping around or with particular girlfriends is not an option and scruples about sexual matters heighten this concern. In this context it often becomes a serious cause of anxiety or eroded self confidence in Christian guys who are preoccupied with a notion of sexual purity which has negligible biblical basis beyond simply constraining lust.

    Masturbation is not mentioned in the Bible, so we need to look for relevant indicators. There are at least four:

  • Teaching on sex and marriage. Becoming one flesh with a complementary person in an intimate life partner sexual relationship. So solo masturbation obviously isn't sex.
  • Teaching on lust or sexual fantasies which are in the mind and heart. These often go with masturbation, so we have an issue there.
  • Teaching on self-control as part of the fruit of the spirit. Masturbation can be a battleground in this respect, so that is an issue too.
  • Teaching on our bodies, and honouring God with them. While often invoked as a reason to avoid masturbation, we suggest this is not clear-cut (unless sex itself is seen as sub spiritual).
  • Since it is not proscribed by anything in the Bible we contend that masturbation is not particularly important in itself, and does not warrant undue attention. There is a spectrum between hypersensitive hang-ups and obsessive indulgence. The latter may be an outcome of habitual recourse to lust that has become an addiction. Both extremes are undesirable and best avoided. In between there are different Christian views which can be conscientiously held, though not with equal support and perhaps not equally applicable to male and female.

    Compared with the consequences we have discussed above of promiscuous sexual activity, solo masturbation itself is relatively trivial, though not something unconnected or to be ignored. The thoughts which often lead to it are very much more significant. In moderation, and without the boost from pornography or unconstrained lust, masturbation should be seen as a God-given tool for sexual management which is useful for some unmarried people, not necessarily all.