The following is an edited transcript of Russell Moore's podcast Signposts.
I received a question from a teenager who told me he had committed sexual sin, and is trying to think of what steps he should take next. He seems genuinely repentant and broken over this. And I also received a question from a parent of a teenager, who had also discovered their teen in sexual sin and are trying to figure out how to address it as parents. This isn’t the same family! But both this teenager and these parents are grappling with how they should respond to sexual sin.
First, I want to address to this teen, and anyone who might be in the same situation he’s in. First of all, you should know the weight of what has happened. In some time periods that may not have needed to be emphasized as much, but this cultural moment sees sexual expression as intrinsic to one’s authenticity and well-being, which is not the biblical view. Our culture still sees that there are issues of right and wrong, but it usually restricts those categories to the issue of consent (and culture is right that anything without consent is wrong). So we have to recognize that if we’re looking at the world from God’s perspective, sexual immorality is a serious issue. Paul says in 1 Corinthians 6 that sexual immorality, unlike other sins that are outside the body, is committed against our own bodies. There is something inherently disordered with sexual immorality, so you’re right to feel the weight of this.
And one thing you may be tempted to do is comfort yourself with the knowledge that no one became pregnant or contracted a disease or is being promiscuous. There are all kinds of ways to think of yourself as having dodged a bullet regarding earthly consequences. But you need to understand that God has designed sex to preach, and to sing, and that what sex teaches is the gospel of Jesus Christ. Ephesians 5 teaches that the one flesh union of husband and wife, with covenant and fidelity and permanence, reflects the gospel. What you have done falls short of that, so you’re right to feel the weight of it.
But I would also say: Feel the weight of your sin, and also receive the gospel and feel liberation from it. Now, you shouldn’t feel liberation if you are “sinning so that grace may abound.” But if you are consciously turning away from this sin and refusing to walk in it, the Bible says that God is faithful and just to forgive your sin and cleanse you from all unrighteousness. If you’re repentant, God is not angry with you or looking to punish you, so receive the liberation from that.
Then there are practical steps you should take, because, and I’m speaking out of experience of dealing over the years with many people involved in various types of sexual sin, it is really difficult to start down the path of sexual immorality and to turn away from it. It happens, and the Spirit is enough to do this, but it becomes very difficult. What you want to make sure to do is notice where all your vulnerabilities are so you can protect yourself from them.
So let’s assume the other party in your sexual immorality is a Christian and is as repentant about this as you are. I think you and she need to talk about why this happened and what kind of boundaries are not in place that enabled this to happen. Also you need some outside accountability. We have one mediator, the man Christ Jesus. You don’t need a priest other than Jesus. But you do need counsel and accountability, especially because sexual sin is a sin of the passions, and when the passions start firing, it is really easy to forget our spiritual commitments and rationalize everything away.
If your parents are Christians and can provide some spiritual sustenance for you, then go to them. Now, not everybody has parents like that. Many have unbelieving parents who don’t understand why you’d want to avoid sexual immorality. Or it may not be safe to talk to your parents about this because of how they’d react. If that’s the case, find someone else to talk to honestly about this, maybe your pastor or youth pastor—someone who is able to check on you and ask if you’re putting yourself in vulnerable situations. So don’t put yourself back in those situations that you can easily fall back into sin.
Now it may be that there needs to be a breakup. If the other person does not see this with the kind of spiritual gravity that you do, it will be a very difficult battle to gain victory over this, because the other person will be pulling you, even subtly, in the opposite direction. If they don’t see this as seriously as you, you may need to breakup, and especially if this person is unbeliever.
Now, to the parents:
First, you also should feel the weight of this. There are far too many parents, including evangelical parents, who assume sexual sin is just part of growing up, particularly when it comes to boys. Feel the weight of this sin against God. And I can tell from the question that these parents get this.
So I want to move on and say: Don’t be shocked. Don’t communicate to your child, “I can’t believe what you did,” or even worse, “I can’t believe you did this to us.” Too many parents take their children’s sin personally, because they don’t understand the weight of sin and temptation and they expect their child to always make the right moral decision in challenging moments. There is no sin except what is common to man. There are extreme sins, but your teen is not inventing a new sin here, so don’t be shocked by this.
Secondly, look at the sort of boundaries that are in place. Having said that, I know there will be some parents who will not have been really involved in their teen’s life and relationships. So they’ll just assume, “This is all their fault.” Those parents need to ask themselves “Where have we left our child vulnerable?” But there will also be parents who blame themselves for every aspect of this. And they’re going to assume, “If we only had the right set of guardrails everywhere then we could have prevented this from ever happening.” If you’re that type of parent you should give grace to yourselves.
But look and see if there are sufficient boundaries to help your child. If you need to, own this and communicate to your teen that you will help them. But as you do this, make sure you don’t unintentionally cut your child off from you. For disappointed parents, there’s a tendency to back away from the child and give the cold shoulder. But your teen needs you to be closer, not farther away.
So model the gospel. If your child is repentant, whether this is physical sexual immorality or pornography or whatever, model the grace you’ve received. That means not taking on a somber persona where every time you talk to your teen, you're talking about the Bible and sexual immorality. But you are showing your child that the parental love is still there, the relationship is still there, and you will get through this. Make sure you’re communicating this kind of grace. Especially if either your child is apathetic about this sin or is crushed beneath shame, you have a gospel opportunity here. This isn’t the last time your child will need to hear this from you. Your child will sin against God in all sorts of ways.
We need to know that God takes sin seriously. And we need to know God does not hold our sin against us but has nailed it to the cross of Christ, and we are free to walk in resurrection life. We can come boldly before the Father because we are hidden in Christ. This doesn’t give us license to continue in sin. It gives us a sense of what a loving Father we must have, who intervened in our own personal self-destruction, to give me the life of his own Son and fill me with the presence of the Spirit to ensure that my body is a temple of his presence. We all need to hear that, and your child needs to hear that right now.
Listen to Signposts podcast audio.
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Publication date: March 6, 2017
Last night news broke that the White House officially rescinded President Obama’s executive order regarding transgenderism in public schools. This is a good decision that corrects outrageous and coercive directives. Children should not be turned into pawns of culture war experimentation. As a conservative evangelical, I’m glad to see this action.
At the same time, the cultural conversation on gender identity issues requires more than good policy. It demands a gospel-centered response from the church.
Ultimately, the transgender question is about more than just sex. It’s about what it means to be human. Poet Wendell Berry responded to techno-utopian scientism with the observation that civilization must decide whether we see persons as creatures or as machines. If we are creatures, he argued, then we have purpose and meaning, but also limits. If we see ourselves, and the world around us, as a machine, then we believe the Faustian myth of our own limitless power to recreate ourselves.
This is, it seems to me, the question at the heart of the transgender controversy. Are we created, as both the Hebrew Scriptures and Jesus put it, “male and female,” from the beginning or are these categories arbitrary and self-willed? Do our bodies, and our sexes, represent something of who we were designed to be, and thus impose limits on our ability to recreate ourselves?
The Sexual Revolution has always whispered promises of this kind of godlike self-autonomy. After a generation of no-fault divorce, cohabitation, ubiquitous pornography, and the cultural unhinging of sex from marriage and marriage from childbearing, it only seems inevitable that Western culture is now decoupling sexuality from even its most basic reality: gender. If human sexuality exists solely for our self-actualization and satisfaction, then it makes no sense to impose restrictions based on something as seemingly arbitrary as gender.
This, ultimately, won’t work. There are good reasons to put boys and girls in different bathrooms and locker rooms and sometimes sports teams, reasons that don’t impugn the dignity of people but uphold it. Sex-differentiated bathrooms and sports teams and dormitories for men and women aren’t the equivalent of, say, a terrorist Jim Crow state unnaturally forcing people apart based on a fiction, useful to the powerful, that skin color is about superiority and inferiority. Every human being knows that there are important, and necessary, differences between men and women. Without such recognition, women are harmed and men are coarsened.
Moreover, the move here toward severing self-identity from biological reality will hardly stop at “gender.” If anything, there’s much more of a case to be made that one can feel to be a different age than one’s doctor’s exam or birth certificate would show. That’s relatively indifferent if all that this means is “You’re only as old as you feel” or “I’m a Millennial trapped in a Gen-X body.” It’s something else entirely if chronological self-identity is mandated for military service or the drinking age or the age of consent. People and neighborhoods and nations and cultures cannot live this way.
So how should we as Christians respond?
First of all, we should never mock or belittle those suffering gender identity disorders. These are our neighbors to be respected and served, not freaks to be despised. They feel alienated from their identities as men or women and are seeking a solution to that in self-display or in surgery or in pumping their bodies with the other sex’s hormones. In a fallen universe, all of us are alienated, in some way, from who we were designed to be. That alienation manifests itself in different ways in different people.
Christian congregations that seek to be faithful to the gospel must teach what’s been handed down to us, that our maleness and femaleness points us to an even deeper reality, to the unity and complementarity of Christ and the church. A rejection of the goodness of those creational realities then is a revolt against God’s lordship, and against the picture of the gospel that God had embedded in the creation.
But this also means that we will love and be patient with those who feel alienated from their created identities. We must recognize that some in our churches will face a long road of learning what it means to live as God created them to be, as male or female. That sort of long, slow, plodding and sometimes painful obedience is part of what Jesus said would be true of every believer: the bearing of a cross. That cross-bearing reminds us that God doesn’t receive us because of our own effort but because God reconciled us to himself through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus.
Second, we must bear witness to the goodness of what it means to live as creatures, not as self-defining gods and goddesses. God created us as human, and within humanity as male and female (Gen. 1:27). We are all sinners, so we chafe against having ourselves defined by a Creator, and not by ourselves or our ideologies. Our nakedness shames us, because our physical difference reminds us that we are not self-contained. Man needs woman, and woman needs man.
We must also resist the temptation to buy into the Sexual Revolution’s narrative. I don’t just mean that we accommodate ourselves to the sins and heresies of the movement, although that’s always a danger too. I mean the danger is that we assume that the Sexual Revolution will always be triumphant, progressing upward and onward. To assume such is to assume that the Sexual Revolution will be able to keep its promises. It can’t. It never has. If Christians see ourselves as people who are “losing” a culture rather than people who have been sent on a mission to a culture, we will be outraged and hopeless instead of compassionate and convictional. If we do not love our mission field, we will have nothing to say to it.
We should stand against any bullying of kids who different from other children, for whatever reason. Children with gender identity issues are often harassed and marginalized. They should be loved and protected. Schools can do this without upending all gender categories. More importantly, churches and Christians can do this. We should hate the bullying of our neighbors, especially children, even more than the outside world hates it.
We Christians believe that all of us are sinners, and that none of us are freaks. We conclude that all of us are called to repentance, and part of what repentance means is to receive the gender with which God created us, even when that’s difficult. We must affirm that God loves all persons, and that the gospel is good news for repentant prodigal sons and daughters, including for those who have trouble figuring out which is which.
Portions of this article were published previously.
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Publication date: February 24, 2017
Recently I received an email from a reader with a good question. Since there are so many orphans in our world, he asked, and since Christians believe that caring for these orphans in their distress is a gospel issue–should Christian couples consciously stop conceiving children and focus instead on orphan care?
It’s a good question, one that takes seriously the gospel’s demands. But I believe the biblical answer here is straightforward. No, Christian families should not intentionally limit their conception of children for the sake of orphan care.
The people of God, it seems to me, are perpetually pulled toward replacing a “both/and” ethic with an “either/or.” Don’t get me wrong. The Scripture is often “either/or.” It is either God or Baal, either Jesus or Mammon, either Spirit or carnality. A “both/and” ethic in any of these places leads to disaster. But think about how often a “both/and” ethic is wrecked by a false “either/or.” The Scripture teaches both grace and obedience, both mystery and clarity, both Jesus’ humanity and Jesus’ deity, both local discipleship and global missions. To choose one in opposition to the other leads to a false choice that winds up tearing down the whole conversation.
I am glad that this reader sees the Christian imperative to care for orphans and widows. I’m glad he sees it through the grid of the gospel of Christ. I’ve spent years of my life calling for such a vision. But prohibiting our bodies from conceiving children doesn’t actually accomplish what we may assume it does.
Family isn’t simply an incidental matter of biology. Family is built on an already existing pattern, the pattern of the gospel. That’s why our adoption in Christ means we ought to care about the adoption of children. The gospel leads us to the mission, and the mission leads us to back to the gospel. That pattern is missional, yes, but the pattern is also incarnational. Both matter.
Adoption, in Scripture, doesn’t form a different type of family. This isn’t an altogether unique sort of relationship. Instead, in the gospel, we are adopted “as sons” (Romans 8:15; Galatians 4:5). This language of “sons” is really important because God has already trained humanity to recognize the concept of fathers and sons, parents and children, and he has done so through procreation.
At the very beginning of the biblical story, God commands humanity to “be fruitful and multiply” (Genesis 1:28). Then God, almost immediately, takes us to the “begats” of the various genealogies. God’s favor and God’s mercy are seen in the birth of children, which the Scripture everywhere regards as blessing.
Why? Well, this is because procreation (like marriage) is a picture of the gospel. God’s love for us took on flesh, in the person of our Lord Jesus (John 1:14), an Incarnation that causes us to be “begotten” as the children of God (John 1:12; 3:6-7; 1 John 5:1). The love between Jesus and his church is fruitful, and it multiplies. He stands before his Father, with his people, and proclaims, “Here I am and the children God has given to me” (Hebrews 2:13).
Adoption only makes sense in light of procreation. A child who is adopted is adopted into an already existing concept, that of parents and children. Scripture uses both archetypes, that of adoption and that of procreation.
If we idolize procreation, as though family were merely about bloodlines, we repudiate the gospel that has saved us. But if we turn away from procreation altogether, adoption is no longer adoption “as sons.” The metaphor then attaches merely to a living arrangement, not to the natural family. Adoption is more, cosmically more, than a living arrangement. The adoption of children makes sense in light of the begetting of children.
Before we can care for orphans, we must ask why there are orphans in the world. The answer includes a variety of reasons, from divorce to poverty to warfare to natural disasters and the list goes on and on. The best thing that can happen for orphans is for children to be welcomed and wanted, to be received as Jesus always receives little children.
Before we can love children as orphans, we must love children as children.
The congregation that disciples its own members and cares for those immediately around, but refuses to join with Jesus in reaching the ends of the earth is not a faithful church. Likewise, the congregation that sends missionaries all over but refuses to love its own local neighbors is unfaithful. In either case, an “either/or” leads to error. It should be “both/and.”
I do not believe Christian families should permanently incapacitate their procreative capacity. Even apart from Christian disagreements about contraception or family size, we can all agree that the birth of children is pictured by God as blessing not burden (Psalms 127:3). Further, we ought not see the potential future love for birthed children as some scarce commodity, that then must be taken away from the children we adopt or foster. Love isn’t a commodity, and it isn’t parceled out. Love isn’t limited, and it isn’t a barrier to ministry.
Love “bears all things…endures all things” (1 Corinthians 13:7). Have babies, and love your babies. Minister to orphans, and pray for God’s wisdom in how best you might care for the orphans and widows in your neighborhood and around the world.
Yes, marriage and family do inhibit the freedom one has to do certain things in ministry. The Apostle Paul celebrates those who give up family for the sake of ministry, but this, in the apostolic example, entails a giving up of marriage itself (1 Corinthians 7:1). Once there is marriage, one cannot simply cut apart the conjugal realities for the sake of ministry.
It might be that God will not give you children biologically, and instead will spur you all the quicker toward adoption or foster care. It could be that God will show you how to welcome children both by adoption and by the more typical way. And it could be that your love for the children you welcome by birth might be the signal to your church and your neighbors to love children, and thus welcome children who have been orphaned.
It’s “both/and,” not “either/or.” Adopting for life doesn’t demand accepting the knife.
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Publication date: February 15, 2017
The abortion rate has fallen to its lowest level since the Supreme Court legalized the practice in the 1973 Roe v. Wade decision. The news comes from a study by the pro-abortion research group, the Guttmacher Institute. How should Christians, and our other pro-life allies, receive this news?
On the one hand, we ought to celebrate. God has called us to lives of gratitude, to acknowledge God’s goodness to us. Certainly, when there is less of something as violent and unjust as abortion, we ought to give thanks and pray for the trend to continue. We also ought to see behind this the ongoing power of the pro-life witness in this country.
Certainly, there are multiple factors behind any rise or decrease in virtually anything in American life. But the fact that abortion is still a contested issue in America is due to the tireless advocacy of a vibrant pro-life movement before and after Roe. The power the pro-life movement has is the power of witness. In communities all across the country, the pro-life movement has appealed to the conscience, bearing witness to what our culture wants to keep invisible: our shared humanity with unborn children.
The pro-life movement has matched this witness with action. In communities all across the country, women in crisis receive ministry at churches and pregnancy resource centers of various kinds. This ministry is holistic, addressing needs that are spiritual, relational, psychological, and economic. In addition to this, churches and organizations are working to create alternatives—such as networks to promote adoption and foster care. The pro-life movement hasn’t simply told the truth about abortion but has also followed up with compassionate action.
We should celebrate all of that. At the same time, though, we ought to have mixed feelings. Our celebration should be joined to lament. Even one abortion ought to prompt us to grief. Every life lost, every life harmed, rips at the image of God himself. Every life lost is a horror and an unspeakable tragedy. The rate of 14.6 abortions per 1,000 women of child-bearing age is better than what it has been, but it is still so terrifying in scope that we should weep. And then we should press forward, making the case everywhere that human life does not consist in its “usefulness” or in its perceived power. Human life bears inherent dignity because human life reflects the life of God himself.
We should celebrate advances when they come, but we should groan inwardly, as the Bible tells us to, until the creation is set free from this bondage to death. That means we should work to protect life, and we should long not only for the falling of abortion, but also for the abolition of the Fall itself.
Join me January 26-28 in Washington, DC, at the Evangelicals For Life conference. You can find more information on Evangelicals For Life here.
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Publication date: January 18, 2017