When the Trump administration announced in August 2017 a shift in funding from “comprehensive sex education” to “abstinence only,” the public outcry warned that the sky was falling down. Scientific reports circulated stating that abstinence doesn’t work and only comprehensive sex education can train students for success in the real world. A third approach, nurturing children for what Luther called “chaste and decent lives,” was unfortunately overlooked. It is that third approach that truly prepares the youth for success, not only in this world but also in the next.
The problems with comprehensive sex education begin with false assumptions about human nature: that “sexuality” comes in many forms; that people have a need to express their sexual identities virtually from infancy; and, therefore, that biblical morality is too restrictive. “Comprehensive” curricula proceed next to teach “how to … now” rather than “why to wait … marriage,” portraying all manner of sexual experimentation as healthy, so long as “protection” is used and the people involved are gratifying their own desires rather than being coerced.
Oddly enough, the kinds of behaviors encouraged are illegal in most states—depending, that is, on the ages of those involved. For example, if one person is 16 and the other is 15, then any sexual relationship between them could fall under the definition of statutory rape, even if the school lesson plan would be legal for them to follow a year earlier or a year later when both of them fall on the same side of the age-16 cutoff. But the gusto of gnosticism overpowers even the civil law—gnosticism, that ancient heresy that holds the soul, the seat of desire, as the highest authority in the universe and renders both the body and the body’s Creator irrelevant. Our culture’s postmodern proclivities toward same-sex marriage and transgender identities draw from gnosticism and add to it existentialism: the 20th-century philosophy that one’s choice of action can re-create one’s essence. Gone is that old idea that God created human nature long ago; instead, each individual creates his/her/its own nature simply by declaring oneself to possess a new sexual identity.
That’s where the funding used to go. The revised federal spending plan shifts monies toward “abstinence only” programs, which generally extol the value of waiting until marriage before becoming involved sexually with another person. Abstinence programs do not deviate so far from biblical morality as do comprehensive programs, but some problems still remain. For one, it’s not clear quite what “waiting for marriage” means now that the Supreme Court has redefined “marriage” to include same-sex relations. Another problem, present when abstinence education was first launched in the public schools about ninety years ago, is the shift in venue from the privacy of one’s home to the co-ed classroom and the corresponding convolution of vocations from parents nurturing their children in chastity to teachers now discussing sexual matters as casually as they do mathematics or social studies. Modesty tends to get lost when the older standards of “polite conversation” give way to classroom inquiry, and this risk is equal regardless of whether the content is comprehensive or abstinence only.
There once was, and still is, a better way. As Luther wrote nearly 500 years ago, “We should fear and love God so that we lead a chaste and decent life in what we say and do, and husband and wife love and honor each other.”
Chastity, as Luther noted in the Small Catechism, has to do both with “what we say and what we do.” The saying part can best be fulfilled not by teachers in co-educational classrooms discussing delicate matters with confused pubescent pupils but by parents nurturing their children in the fear of the Lord privately in the home (Ephesians 6:4). The doing part involves not merely an avoidance of intercourse prior to marriage but a more proactive honoring of God by how we cover our bodies (1 Peter 3:3–5), respect our neighbors (Hebrews 13:4), and develop God-fearing relationships (1 Corinthians 15:33, 2 Corinthians 6:14).
No doubt older models of courtship and marriage provide a better guide than newer models of dating, hookups, and cohabitation, but neither yesterday’s culture nor today’s culture should upstage the real standard. The Christian home, like the Christian congregation, permits no substitute for Bible history and solid catechesis.
Starting with your own children, therefore, talk of God’s Word daily (Deuteronomy 6:6–7). Learn from Joseph how to flee the unchaste advances of others (Genesis 39:8–9). Memorize God’s wisdom for protecting both body and soul from unchastity (Proverbs 5:1–23, 6:20–35). Join Job in making a “covenant with your eyes” not to look lustfully (Job 31:1). Learn similarly from Jesus that unchastity must be stopped at its root: the heart and the eyes (Matthew 5:28).
Too late? Have you committed sexual sin already? (We all have—in thoughts or words if not also in deeds.) Learn from the woman who had six husbands and from the woman caught in adultery: Jesus forgives and condemns not (John 4:7–26, 8:3–12). Meditate on how Law yields to Gospel in 1 Corinthians 6:9–11, as Paul teaches that fornicators, adulterers, and homosexuals deserve hell but that these same penitent sinners are fully washed and cleansed to inherit heaven by grace. God declares them chaste in Christ, not just for this world but for the next. Saints are nothing more than forgiven sinners whom God invites to the Wedding Feast of the Lamb, adorned now and forever as a chaste bride (Revelation 19:6–9).
See also: Critiquing a New York Times Column on Abstinence Based Sex Education (radio interview)
Dr. Ryan C. MacPherson is the founding president of The Hausvater Project. He lives with his wife Marie and their homeschool children in Casper, Wyoming, where he serves as Academic Dean and Professor of History and Philosophy at Luther Classical College. He previously taught American history, history of science, and bioethics at Bethany Lutheran College, 2003–2023. For more information, visit www.ryancmacpherson.com.