Opinion: The way we teach sexual abstinence before marriage needs to be re-examined

Guess where one pastor printed his portrait?

Commentary | Courtney Ray

Guess where one pastor printed his portrait?

It's time for our families and churches to re-evaluate how we teach about premarital sex.

While we should continue to teach abstinence and God's plan regarding sexuality, a more comprehensive approach in teaching people to think critically is necessary to foster good decision-making. Merely teaching abstinence is not enough.

One young church-goer was a financially secure, emotionally stable, ivy-league graduate from a loving Christian home. Not exactly the poster child for unplanned motherhood. Yet, she found herself pregnant and unmarried. When asked why she hadn't used some form of contraception, her answer was interesting, but upon examination, unsurprising.

All her life, she had heard, understood, and believed the church's teaching on the sanctity of sex only within marriage. But she felt there was a difference between premeditated and "accidental" transgression. She believed having sex outside of marriage was wrong. Taking precautions would be "planning" to do it anyway, which would be more wrong than if it "just happened."

Who knows how frequently these "accidents" happened or whether her pregnancy was the result of one errant decision inserted in a lifelong pattern of chastity. Really, it's irrelevant. What is significant is the fact that her rationale is not uncommon.

Many young people are embarrassed or ashamed to seek answers about sexuality within our church communities. They either get misinformation from less reliable but more approachable sources like peers or the Web, or they don't take responsibility for critically thinking about sexual behaviors.

Not everyone has had a parent who was ready, willing and able to have these discussions with them. Even open and frank parents are most likely not the only source sought out for answers to questions of sexuality. Media, peers and other role models provide a constant stream of information about sex.

To help counterbalance some of the negative things they might be hearing, the church should be ready to lend its voice in shaping the perspectives of our youth and young adults.

Families and churches should work together on this. This issue demands our attention because we all know youth and young adults in our churches who've had sex resulting in unplanned pregnancies and sexually transmitted diseases. They've heard the sermons, lectures and Bible studies advocating abstinence before marriage. Yet they've decided to have sex anyway. The key phrase is "they've decided."

The first time I learned one of my unmarried young parishioners from a previous congregation was going to have a baby, I admit I was upset. I began reviewing my ministry: what should I have said or done differently? How could I have made the message of sexual purity take root? What had I done wrong? And if I felt all these emotions, I can only imagine how the parents felt.

Finally, a colleague reminded me: no matter what anyone is taught, ultimately, they're in charge of themselves. I couldn't bear the guilt of someone else's choices. Everyone makes their own decisions. In that light, how can the church ensure that our young people and singles make decisions that are the most well-informed and well-educated?

I believe, practice, and teach sexual abstinence, but I also observe many youth and singles choosing to have premarital sex anyway. By making abstinence the full extent of our message, our church does a disservice.

There are congregations outside of our denomination trying to creatively address this dilemma. Some set aside times for health professionals to come answer questions and provide information on contraception access and usage. Other churches conduct STD screenings for the community and congregation. They provide condoms for those in attendance. I know of one pastor who talks to his teens individually about relationships and dating. He stresses biblical principles of sexuality and that abstinence is the best choice. After discussion and prayer, he gives them a condom with the church information and pastor's picture printed on the wrapper! He hopes that even if they choose to disregard Biblical council, they'll have the condom and use it. One of his young congregants later testified about an instance with his girlfriend where arousal was high but reason was low -- having a tangible reminder of his conversation with his pastor gave him enough pause to contemplate his actions. He and his girlfriend decided not to have sex.

I'm not necessarily advocating these particular methods. Yet, I'm tired of our churches being home to young women contracting cervical cancer, young men covertly self-medicating genital infections, "healthy-looking" people unwittingly spreading venereal diseases, and parents ashamed to admit their child's sudden illness is a complication of AIDS. At the very least, we can make people aware of individuals within our congregations who are safe, non-judgmental sources of information. Whatever they decide, people deserve the ability to be pointed to the right places for health resources -- including condoms.

There are those that believe this is tantamount to advocating premarital sex: by giving young people a "safety net," they'll believe sex has no consequences. I disagree. True, engaging in pre-marital sex isn't the best option. However, should we compound errors by allowing them to become accidental parents, become exposed to carcinogenic pathogens, and contract STD's? Some say yes: "they should experience the brunt of their actions, come what may!"

But not even God does that. We each have a choice to fully follow God or to disobey -- beginning with Adam and Eve's choice in Eden. God's design for them was clear. Still, they had free will. They elected a course that wasn't in God's plan for them. Nevertheless, God provided a pathway to mitigate the repercussions of those choices -- for them and for us.

If some people make the unwise choice to have premarital sex, even if they use contraception, they won't experience it unscathed. There are long-lasting emotional and spiritual consequences. How is it "better for them" to additionally endure physical (and sometimes financial and educational) penalties, if those might be avoided or lessened?

We should teach discernment and critical thinking. And we should also provide comprehensive resources to facilitate good decisions. Sometimes people make choices we disagree with. But in the end, the choice is theirs.

--Courtney Ray is associate pastor of the Tamarind Avenue Seventh-day Adventist Church in Compton, California, United States