I was pleased to see the publication of the article ‘Talking Sex’ in Briefing #312. After giving some talkson 1 Corinthians 7 during the past year at a couple of different churches, I was saddened to hear many women say that they had never heard someone speak on sex and relationships before in a helpful and concrete way. Some of these women had been in church all of their life, and many were grandmothers. So when I was asked recently to give a seminar for female ministry trainees at a preaching conference, I chose the topic ‘Preaching on Sex’.
As I began to prepare for the seminar, I asked a number of ministers for advice: What did they say when they taught on this topic? I quickly realized why so many Christian women had heard little or no teaching on sex and relationships. Most of the ministers I asked said they hadn’t taught on it. Some laughed, then avoided the question and changed the topic. Of those I asked, only three responded with material for me to consider. The wisdom that those three men were prepared to share was invaluable, both for me and for the women in the seminar. I’m sure many of the other men would have had great things to say as well, so it was a shame that more of them weren’t prepared to say what they think. Even some thoughts about what they want women in their congregations to hear and understand about men would have been good.
One of the men that responded to my request for advice was the anonymous author of the article in Briefing #312, so that article was very helpful to me in my preparation for the seminar. However, there are a few additional things that are helpful for women to keep in mind as they teach on the topic of sex and its related issues, so I offer the following and hope it is of some help for some women. It is my seminar from the AIM (Australian Institute of Ministry) and Preaching Conference 2004, slightly adapted. If you are reading this, it would be good for you to have the Briefing article from #312 open in front of you so you can refer to it.
1. Why teach on this topic?
If I wake up in the morning and ask myself, “Do I feel like going for a walk this morning?”, what do you think the answer will be? If I ask myself, “Do I feel like having a quiet time?”, what do you think the answer will be? More often than not, the answer is likely to be “No”. Yet these are things I need to do in order to keep myself physically, mentally, emotionally and spiritually healthy. So I don’t ask myself whether I feel like doing them—if I did, I would hardly ever do them. I need to do them whether I feel like it or not.
Preaching on sex is similar to walking and having quiet times. It is good for our health, and for others people’s health. It is necessary primarily for our spiritual wellbeing, but also for our mental, emotional, and physical wellbeing. But preaching on sex is one of those things, like exercise and quiet times, that we can easily avoid doing because it is very difficult. We can find a million excuses not to do it. We can avoid the topic for a long time without any obvious ill effects. But this does not mean that everything is ok, does it? When we stop exercising, it does affect us. When we stop listening to God and meditating on his word, it does affect us. And we are not the only ones concerned: What about the spiritual health of others—the women at your church? The teenagers in your youth group?
It’s no use just waiting until your rector preaches on the topic—he may never do so. Most of you now are employed as teachers of the Bible to women and/or teenagers, and many of you will be Bible teachers in the future, or lay leaders. So that is what you need to think of yourself as. Many people will think of you as a counsellor, or a secretary, or an administrator. But you are a Bible teacher. If your boss does preach on sex and relationships, then that’s great, but it’s no excuse for you not to do so. Rather, it is a wonderful opportunity for you to also speak on it to the women or to the youth. Sometimes with this topic, there are certain advantages to only having women in the room (as there are advantages to only having men in the room). It is also a wonderful opportunity for you to learn much from God’s word that will help in life and ministry—more than you can ever imagine—whether you are single or married, and whether you remain single or get married in the future.
Preaching on a topic like this is also a brilliant help in building your relationships with women at church. The guys who preach at church are able to relate, albeit on a large scale, to many people on any given Sunday, merely by preaching. It is a very economical way to minister. You are able to minister to many people at one time, People get to know you as you preach, and feel they have a relationship with you. They may follow-up with you on the things you raised in your sermon. For most women however, our ministry is more intensive. We don’t necessarily minister with as many people in one given week. Relationships take more time. There are most likely fewer of them, but they may be at a deeper level—although this is, of course, a generalization and not true in every situation. Preaching occasionally to a group of women (and I personally do not advocate preaching to a mixed congregation) will help you in your relationships with them—especially on a topic like sex.
Our sexuality is part of our very being. Each one of us is created as a sexual being. Our sexuality and the gift of sex is one of God’s good, precious gifts to us. However, it is an area of life where there is much confusion, guilt, pain, and heartache, both for the believer and the unbeliever.
2. Before teaching on sex
If you had to teach on this topic, what would you say? Take a few minutes now to write down some things.
One way of working out what to say is to think about related topics. You might not spend much time on some of the related topics—maybe only a sentence or two—but you need to acknowledge the various issues. Take, for example, preaching on 1 Corinthians 7. At the beginning, Paul commands married couples to keep on having regular sex with their spouse. For some people, the whole idea of having sex with their spouse is horrendous. You can acknowledge this—and I think you have to—rather than just repeat Paul’s command. For example, this is part of what I said in my 1 Corinthians 7 talks:
For some of you, the very thought of having sex with your spouse is depressing. You haven’t had sex with your husband for years. It seems easier not too. It’s easier emotionally. You are bored with sex. You don’t think your husband finds you attractive. Worse still, he tells you that you’re not attractive. Your sexual relationship has become abusive in some way or another. Maybe you have tried to get professional help for your sexual relationship, and your spouse doesn’t want the help. God knows each of our situations and what we are trying to do within them; how we are trying to be faithful. For some of us, it is much easier to hear what this passage says (i.e. to have regular sex with our spouse) then it is for others. Just like any other part of our relationship, there will be times when it is really hard work, and it seems easier to give up. That is exactly what Satan wants us to do. But please listen to God’s word.
If you are teaching on 1 Corinthians 7, with its emphasis on regular sexual intimacy, then you also need to acknowledge that sometimes not having sex with your spouse is outside of a person’s control for one reason or another, for example illness (whether mental or physical), unemployment, suffering, grief, or something else which is affecting libido. Another issue may be that their spouse is struggling with homosexuality. You don’t have to talk a lot about these issues, but you need to flag them so that women have permission to talk to you later about them. This also makes it as easy as possible for women to hear what you have to say.
Thinking about related issues also helps you anticipate what questions people may have, some of which you will answer and address throughout your talk, and others which may arise in aquestion time or on comment slips, or in conversation during the weeks and months after you have given the talk. A year after giving the first talks on 1 Corinthians 7, women are still asking me about masturbation.
Related topics include: singleness, courting, marriage, divorce, remarriage, widowhood, polygamy, contraception, submission, image of God, infertility, child raising, adultery, the Trinity, roles of men and women, masturbation, homosexuality, bestiality, pornography, modesty, rape, abuse, de facto relationships (and co-habitation, if speaking in some countries), step-families, blended families, the definition of family, family background, cultural background, career, future, and love. But the key topic to come to understand when teaching on sex is faithfulness.
Another helpful thing to do before you teach is to go through your church roll and try and think about the different situations the women are in, remembering at the same time that we will never know exactly what happens behind closed doors. Women in a student church are (mostly) in a different situation to women in a regular suburban parish, and if you are a visiting speaker then there may be some differences to your own church situation regarding marital status, etc.
Resources we have and need to use
Key passages include Genesis 1-3, Hosea, Malachi 2, 1 Corinthians 6 and 7, and Ephesians 5. Do the hard work of exegesis and exposition. Don’t leave it to the last minute. Try and come to God’s word with an open heart and mind. Some things that we read may be a surprise for us, and some may be very hard for us to accept. Be aware that we can deceive ourselves to such an extent that we can pretend God is saying something different than what he is actually saying. Recognize your own situation and see if you are reading your own prejudices into Scripture.
Some things drive us to prayer more than others. Preaching on this topic should drive you to prayer. If it doesn’t, then I worry about what it is that you will say. You should be anxious, to a certain degree. Last year I had an operation. The surgeon came and saw me just before I went in to theatre. She said to me, “Are you nervous?” I responded, “No. I trust you, and I have thought a long time about the worst possible outcomes.” I then asked her, “Are you nervous?” What would you want her answer to be? Your first thought might be that you want the surgeon to say that they aren’t nervous. But a surgeon who says they aren’t nervous is a surgeon who is either lying, or has become too complacent. She said, “Yes, I am nervous. I am always nervous before an operation.” Her nervousness made her careful. Her nervousness made me feel even more secure in her.
We need to pray for wisdom, sensitivity, and courage. There will be many things you will be tempted not to say (for example, things related to divorce). You also need wisdom so that you don’t just generalize from your own experience. God allows us to go through certain experiences, and hopefully we learn from them and so can help others. He also gives us other people’s experience and wisdom to learn from.
When I was preparing this seminar, I asked some people for wisdom about what to say. God has given us many wise men and women, so use them. Don’t let your pride or your embarrassment stop you asking for help.
Be warned though, that some people you ask for ideas on this topic will just laugh, or not say anything. We can’t allow our uncomfortableness about this topic to stop us from talking about the topic, or sharing ideas with others who are speaking on it. Obviously you need to be very careful in how you speak to someone of the opposite sex about it, in terms of specifics and details. Of the people I asked, these three men responded:
- Keith Condie, who lectures at Moore Theological College. I felt fine asking him for any wisdom he had because he had asked me for the last two years to speak to the second year students on female masturbation.1 Keith wrote back with some very helpful points regarding relationships. This was especially valuable, given his psychological expertise.
- I also asked the anonymous author of the article ‘Talking Sex’ in Briefing #312. What he said to me was brilliant so I would highly recommend you read the article (which was based on his advice to me). He also was a fairly easy person for me to ask as he is a trusted friend, and I knew that he had taught about it from the pulpit.
- Another person I asked was someone I had never met, and it was absolutely nerve-racking. It was a bit of gamble, but that’s the beauty of email and the internet—whether we live in Sydney, or somewhere quite remote in Australia, or overseas, we have access to resources because of email. I had started reading Christopher Ash’s book, Marriage: Sex in the Service of God (IVP, Leicester, 2003). I had never met him, but I found the book absolutely brilliant. On the back of his book, it mentions where he is ministering in England (although he has moved since I ran this seminar). I did an internet search for his church and found out a bit more about him and what he believes. I then emailed his church, explaining who I am and what I wanted, and he sent me some extremely helpful, wise counsel on the topic. I was extremely nervous emailing him, especially when I didn’t receive an answer immediately. I got paranoid that he might think I was some kind of weirdo, but then I thought, “Christopher has written a whole book on marriage, so hopefully he will be fine with it.” And he was. He was extremely gracious and kind.
We have many resources around us, so use them. I tried to ask men and women representing different ages, cultures, and ministry situations.
Remember that preaching on sex is, in many ways, the same as preaching on anything else. We can be so freaked out by the topic that we get ourselves in a mess by wondering how we will preach on it. But we preach on it like we do most other things—hopefully all other things. We use God’s wisdom, his word. You might use a similar structure to any other Bible talk—explain the point, show us where you got it from, illustrate it—whatever your style is.
3. Preaching on sex
- Use a full text and stick to it so that you don’t say things offhand. This is different advice to what most people will tell you about preaching. But most women teach to a large group irregularly, especially on a difficult topic like this. It’s therefore important to be more prepared and more careful.
- Be careful of using real illustrations.
- If you are being taped, make sure you listen to it before others do, in case you have said too much in an illustration, or said something too offhand, or a joke went too far. You have control as to whether the tape gets used.
- Use of testimonies before you speak can be helpful, but make sure you know what they will say. For example, once when I spoke on 1 Corinthians 7, we had one woman speak about how she and her husband had separated for a time. We also had another woman speak about the abuse she suffered in her first marriage, and her subsequent divorce and remarriage.
- You need to work out a definition of sex and tell people what it is up front. You may choose to use the phrase ‘sexual intimacy’ instead of ‘sex’, but whatever you choose to use, make sure you define it up front, and remind people throughout the talk. This is especially important with 1 Corinthians 7. So you might say, “When I say sex, or sexual intimacy, I don’t just mean sexual intercourse. I mean a much broader definition of sex. Some sexual therapists refer to this as ‘outercourse’. So I mean intercourse and outercourse.”
- Although you get trained not to apologize before a talk, before preaching on a topic like this you do need to acknowledge that this is a very hard topic for many people to listen to. For some, it will be easy. Be sensitive to those around you. We don’t necessarily know what is happening in someone else’s life. Acknowledge that there will be important things that you aren’t able to address because of lack of time, or because of human weakness—and apologise for that. It’s important for you to remember that you never can know 100% what is happening behind someone’s closed door—not just the door of their house, but the door of their bedroom particularly. It may be a very sad picture.
- Preach what the Bible says. Be confident that God knows what the issues are.
- Recognize that God will equip you for the task.
- Despite how you are feeling about your own present situation (to a degree), you still need to preach.
- Read the article in The Briefing #312.
- Speak about visual temptations. We often hear that this is a problem for men, but there are also a number of women who struggle with it in different ways. They may struggle with wanting someone to look ‘perfect’ (whatever that means), or they may struggle with pornography. Pornography may be more of an issue for women now with easy access to it on the internet. When women hear that it is only a male issue, it can make it all the more difficult for them to discuss the problem or get help.
- Speak about the fact that many couples are not having regular sex with each other, and many of them have no good reason for it. Many of them aren’t having sex because the wife doesn’t want to be sexually intimate. The Sydney Morning Herald tells us that sleep is the new sex. God gave us sleep, but he also gave us sex. You can’t do the two at the same time.
- Humour, used appropriately, can diffuse tension and lighten the mood.
- Be very careful with question time. I would be very reluctant to have an open, live, question time. We need to protect people. If you pay attention during question times at church, you’ll notice that women often personalize their questions. They may feel very emotional after a talk on sex and relationships, and so we need to protect people as far as we can, so that they won’t ask things that they might regret. For example, they may talk about their husband in an unfavourable light and then regret it later. But you definitely need to give people an opportunity to ask their questions (perhaps get them to write them down and put them in a box—that way, they can be anonymous). You can either answer questions at the end of the talk, or follow up on them at a later date.
- Have a reading and resource list that everyone receives. Also, if you have a paper on something like masturbation, or homosexuality, make sure everyone gets one on their seat or on the way in, so that people don’t need to ask for it.
4. After Preaching on sex
- Have follow-up organized: use response/comment cards. Have older, wise Christians within the congregation available to help. Have some phone numbers for counsellors on the outline so that people don’t necessarily have to ask you.
- Listen to people’s feedback and try not to get defensive. Be thankful for more wisdom. Most of them will just be glad that you have spoken on the topic, but they might suggest you add something next time (e.g. the suggestion for me to include something on female masturbation when I first gave the first 1 Corinthians 7 talks).
- Make necessary changes for next time.
- It is emotionally very exhausting to speak on anything, let alone on sex and relationships. Praise God for the wonderful men we have who are so faithful in preaching God’s word week in and week out. Be more appreciative of them, and pray for them.
- Normally, whenever I teach a large group of people, I always feel afterwards that I shouldn’t be in formal, full-time paid ministry. This may not be true for you. Satan would love it if we stopped teaching God’s word. Be aware of his schemes.
- Thank God for the wonderful opportunity to share his word. Thank God for his wisdom on relationships and sex, and his good gifts to us in sex and relationships. Thank God for his complete faithfulness, and pray that you will be a woman who is sexually faithful.
1 Keith gives a lecture to the Ministry 2 students on masturbation. He outlines different Christian views, and the pastoral implications of each. A couple of years ago, a married woman asked him if he could arrange for a woman to speak to the students about female masturbation. He had heard that I raised it in my 1 Corinthians 7 talks, so he asked me. I had never imagined speaking on masturbation, but if you know Keith Condie then you would trust him with your life, and if he thinks it is a good thing for people to hear, then I would trust his opinion. After the first 1 Corinthians 7 talk I gave, several of the young divorced women asked me about it. I thoughtlessly hadn’t raised it. They were too embarrassed to articulate the issue by name, but when I said, “Do you mean masturbation?” they said, “Yes. Is it ok?” So between Tuesday and Thursday in that week, I did a lot of reading on the topic (if you do a CD-ROM search at Moore College library, you will find some helpful articles which cover a range of views, both historical and current). If I had been more thoughtful, they wouldn’t have needed to be embarrassed about raising it.