Teaching Sex and Gender Rightly

November 30, 2022

Scott Yenor

Washington Fellow

Guidance for Christian Schools

This essay was originally published by American Reformer on November 11, 2022.

Most Christians have simply gone along with the ideas and opinions of the sexual revolution. One reason for this loss of Christian orthodoxy on sexual matters involves confusion about the roles of church, family, and school. Churches must address the whole council of God, including sexual ethics, while calling sinners to repentance. Families are called upon to train up their children in the way of the Lord, which includes in the ways of marriage, sex and family life.

These overlapping jurisdictions are especially complicated when education itself is thought to be the job of the state, neither family nor the Church. The idea that schools generally, and public schools in particular, are the primary educators of children, bubbling around since the 1800s, has become a principal dogma of the American regime. America’s public sex education system arose many years later, but for the same reason. 

The intellectual founder of American public schooling is Horace Mann, a German emigre. Mann recognized first that the natural tie between parents and children was the obstacle to establishing state-led public schooling. “We who are engaged in the sacred cause of education,” Mann wrote in his Eighth Annual Report of the Massachusetts Board of Education, “are entitled to look upon all parents as having given hostages to our cause.” Parents were, as Mann wrote, “too poor or too neglectful” to do an adequate job guiding children toward educated citizenship. Montana and California adopted laws that prohibited “upbraiding” teachers when students were present.  The upshot of this movement–mandatory public schooling–was achieved, more or less, in the 1910s, though limits for parental rights were soon established by the Supreme Court. Private schools and homeschooling were still options thanks to Meyer v. Nebraska (1923) and Pierce v. Society of Sisters (1925). 

After ceding the task of education to schools, parents were prepared to cede responsibility of teaching sex education to public schools in the 1970s. Reformers made exactly the same arguments. Schools were competent; parents were incompetent. The Sex Ed revolution began with what now appear to be modest claims. Kids were ignorant about how people got pregnant. Kids didn’t know the risks of sex. Parents were not doing their job. As a result, they said, America has a public health crisis. State-directed sex education concerned with preventing pregnancy and venereal diseases would stem the tide. Much opposition arose to the hiring of experts to direct sex education in public schools, but it had a tough time as long as Sex Ed Revolutionaries pushed the values of public safety and health. 

Parents relinquished their duties as much as public schools usurped them. Yesterday students were forced to learn Euclidian geometry; today they must read Gender Queer and Heather Has Two Mommies. As honorable Americanism has changed, so has public school curricula and sex education in particular. The result has been a well-documented, cascading change in what schools teach about sex and gender.

Since as many as 90% of Christians have their children in public schools, they cannot really escape its effects. Christian schools, even those that operated in loco parentis, responded to this revolution by adopting the public-school model of education with a more Christian sex education or abstinence training, or with no sex education, for the most part. Even classical Christian schools washed their hands of sex education.

As no one was tending the garden, weeds have popped up everywhere. Christians of all stripes have increasingly adopted the principles of the sexual revolution with each generation.

No one has documented the decline of Christian orthodoxy on sexual matters better than David J. Ayers, a professor of sociology at Grove City College. In his recent book After the Revolution: Sex and the Single Evangelical and in a series of articles on American Reformer and elsewhere, Ayers uses survey data to show how Christians, and especially young female evangelicals, are abandoning Christian sexual ethics in thought, word, and deed.

On issue after issue practicing evangelical Christians are better than pagans and the lesser churched, but they have nevertheless moved in the direction of America’s new sexual ethic. In the book, Ayers shows that white evangelicals and black Protestants are more likely than other groups to think sex before marriage is always wrong or almost always wrong. Only 40% of the current generation think so, however, which is down from a much higher number in earlier generations. Unmarried and divorced evangelicals tend to think sex out of wedlock cannot be wrong. Christians of all varieties think cohabitation before marriage is acceptable, though black Protestants (47%) and white evangelicals (35%) are least likely to. He also shows that significantly fewer female evangelicals now think homosexual sex is always wrong, and in general fewer evangelicals than in the past disagree with the idea that sex between two adults of the same sex is unacceptable (only 45% of females and 54% of males). Younger Christians of all varieties are much more open to living together outside of marriage than older ones.

Deeds follow thought. As Ayers’s book shows, more Christians of all varieties have sex before marriage, live together outside of marriage, and practice oral and anal sex. There has also been an alarming rise in lesbian and bisexual relationships among evangelical females. 

Given the predominance of ideologies associated with sexual liberation, congregants question whether churches should oppose sexual liberation. Blood is thicker than doctrine. When pastors refuse to marry cohabiting children these days, parents get upset and go to a different church. When daughters go lesbian, parents are more likely to leave a church that upsets their relations with their children.

Part of raising children is letting them know the enormity of violating Christian sexual ethics—all believers must choose truth over children when the two come into conflict. Blood cannot be thicker than doctrine. The history of Christians dealing with sexual sin has been effaced, and it must be recovered in and through the Church. Parents must prepare themselves and their children for how difficult this will be in today’s world. Whether it is an extended family member bringing home a same-sex lover or children or friends living together before marriage, many will face open defiance of Christian sexual ethics. Paul’s counsel “not to associate with sexually immoral people” in the church (1 Corinthians 5:9-11) cannot be repeated too often, though it will be painful to implement.

Churches and pastors certainly shepherd their flocks in sexual matters, as Paul taught the Corinthians and still teaches us today. A “sexually faithful church,” Ayers suggests, must teach biblical sexual ethics, have a leadership that supports pastors who emphasize doctrine over family ties, have upright leaders, and so on. 

Such lovely counsel just scratches the surface of the problem, since families too are charged with a biblical mandate to oversee the raising of their children. Churches must also instruct parents to their primary duty to raise their children. Families can only resist sexual liberationist Americanism if they consciously struggle against it, hopefully with the assistance of some other institutions (schools and churches). This increasingly means recommending parents away from our corrupt and corrupting public schools. 

Many Christian families send their kids to Christian schools to fix this problem, on the assumption that those schools are solid or better. Schools operate on behalf of families (in loco parentis, as it is said), not on behalf of churches. Parents and schools, however, have not necessarily thought through what a sex education adequate to our times might look like.

Here are some general principles.

1. Do not Believe the Hype. The legend of parental incompetence is just as false as the aspiration of school competence. Do not be gaslit into thinking that parents cannot do the job. Do not trust public authorities to do it consistently with Christian sexual ethics. Sex education is a social movement concerned with replicating the sexual revolution. “Up until 1920,” writes Charles Donovan of the Family Research Council, “there is no history of sex education. We managed as a race to ‘replicate’ ourselves quite well for centuries with nowhere near the level of family disruption we have to day and we did it without ever there existing any classroom sex education.” This does not mean that there is no sex education broadly understood, but it does mean that public supervision of sex education should be greeted with utter suspicion.

2. Sex Curriculum on the Right Premises. Nearly all sex education curricula is infused with at least some of the principles of the sexual revolution, namely that children are sexual from birth, that sexuality is central to human identity, that sexual desire is clean and healthy as long as no one represses it. Christians have often responded to this with abstinence education, which does not necessarily deny these premises, but encourages people to persist amidst temptations until marriage. Any education in sex must see man as fundamentally sinful and saved and it must depict sex, while good in itself, as tainted by sin in a fallen world. No one needs to learn how to have children through sex education. Its place in curriculum comes from the elevated important sex is assigned in the rank of goods. Christian institutions should not mirror this overblown elevation of sex in the order of goods, but rather show that erotic desires point to a ladder of loves reaching to heaven.

3. Stigmatize the Don’ts and Praise the Do’s. Human affections are hugely important in the realm of morality. What is thought to be good and beautiful will be done. What is thought to be bad and ugly will not be done. Within our own families and schools, all the do’s and don’ts have to be seen the right way. Positive images of marriage, drawn from Scripture, should be emphasized. Negative images of fornication, immodesty, lack of chastity and such should also be drawn. Parents and allies must do the praising and the stigmatizing. It is difficult to love the good without separating oneself and hating the bad.

4. The Do’s Must Be Connected to Marriage. Teaching the do not’s of sexual ethics, hard enough in our time and place, must point to a way of what to do with one’s entire life. Few institutions are willing to step onto this controversial ground, since there are indeed several ways to live the Christian life. However, in the absence of guidance on these matters Americanism has filled the vacuum. More damage is done to Christian sexual ethics indirectly than directly, more problems caused by what is left undone rather than what is done. Christian sexual ethics serve the end of marriage, so that no one can accept the lies and half-truths that undermine marriage.

5. The Vision of Marriage Must be Thoroughly Sexed. Education is too often thought to be merely the imparting of knowledge, which can be done the same way to boys and girls alike. Christian education would thus reproduce the same androgynous outcomes as other schools. This must be rethought. Boys and girls have different destinies within marriage—and Christian schooling must show these different destinies with more than just different uniforms and different bathrooms. Images of godly womanhood and manhood should pepper curricula—not just faithful Christians who just happen to be men or women. Boys and girls are tempted by different vices, and instruction should take that into account. Boys and girls should be pointed to different sets of virtues, as depicted in the graph below. Having the same academic expectations makes sense. Having the same expectations when it comes to the virtues of character is a recipe for the decline of Christian marriage.

Christian schools, in partnership with families, are in a position to lead the way in implementing these issues. Revitalization of family life in Christian families and schools means reconstructing what has been destroyed and remembering what has been forgotten. Schools need beauty, not just home economics. Schools need to cultivate self-respect and honor, more than shop classes. Though womanly and manly pursuits should not be forgotten, the cultivation of male and female virtues—not an androgynous future—should accompany academic mastery. Toward the goal of teaching manly and womanly virtues, our classical Christian school has followed a list of virtues and expectations for young men and women. Those are listed below. 

There is always sex education because all schools peddle some understanding of the good life. Promoting the Christian life must take precedence over promoting Americanism—and when that is done the problem of sex education will be subsumed in a larger and truer moral universe.

* * * * * *

A Man of Honor . . .

An honorable man conducts himself with courage: 

  • He does not fear the opinions of men, but does right regardless of who is watching.  
  • When he errs, he owns it without seeming sheepish, making excuses or acting slippery.
  • He stands up for the weak. 
  • He conducts himself with confidence, looking in the eyes those to whom he speaks.
  • He is not timid in asking questions and he graciously accepts any answer given.
  • He takes criticism with grace, yet remains confident since he is in Christ. 

An honorable man has drive and diligence:

  • Carpe Diem—He is never apathetic, wishing to love the Lord God with all his heart, mind, soul, and strength.
  • He is responsible and works hard to complete tasks with excellence.
  • He does not overcommit or underdeliver.
  • He has a strong sense of duty.
  • He paces himself to endure.

An honorable man is humble and respectful:

  • He has a healthy understanding of his strengths and weaknesses.
  • He errs on the side of underestimating his contribution.
  • He serves others: opening doors, offering others to go before him, speaking in turn.
  • He respects the chain of authority and upholds it.

An honorable man is kind and merciful:

  • He is happy for the successes of others. In fact, he works to ensure that others succeed.
  • He seeks opportunities to love those who are difficult to love.
  • He forgives all things and lives at peace with all men, so far as it depends on him.

An honorable man has self-control and reverence:

  • He knows when humor or playfulness is appropriate.
  • He conducts himself with solemnity in ceremony and reverence in matters of God.
  • He expresses good manners (opening doors, removing hats, shaking hands)
  • He does not show off:  His motives are not to draw attention to himself.  Examples include dressing or grooming to be noticed, or desiring to be noticed for his possessions, his grades, etc.
  • He eats, drinks, plays, and works in moderation: e.g. He is not excessively interested in video games, technology, cars, or any other materials or practices.
  • He is responsible and takes ownership for tasks: For example, he volunteers for duty and makes sure it gets done. 

An honorable man desires true love, not lust:

  • He respects women, not looking at their outward appearance but at their entire beauty, within and without.
  • He does not let his desires control him.  He takes all thoughts captive to Christ. 
  • He flees sexual temptation.

An honorable man is patient:

  • He does not show frustration when others are weak or fail.
  • He helps those who are slower or weaker.
  • He encourages those who are struggling with competence.
  • He is slow to anger, and when angry, he does not pervert a love of justice into a judgmental attitude. E.g. Anger over watching someone cheat on a test and get away with it should not turn into judgment that harbors bitterness toward that person or the school.

An honorable man is generous:

  • He offers his time, aid, and money to anyone with a need.
  • He is concerned with the welfare of others before himself.

An honorable man has integrity:

  • His word is worth more than his welfare. 
  • When in doubt about the issue of integrity, he seeks the counsel of godly men.
  • He is loyal to his institutions (family, church, school, and friends).

An honorable man is cheerful:

  • Others are made comfortable in his presence.
  • He is optimistic and proactive in doing his duty.

An honorable man’s primary identity is as a servant of Christ:

  • He has a strong sense of duty to people and institutions in authority.
  • He is loyal to his community and his friends: He assumes the best of those in his company.
  • He is always acting with a sense of purpose.

A Woman of Honor . . .

An honorable woman encourages virtue in others:

  • She dresses and behaves modestly.
  • She does not encourage sinful desires in others (avarice, envy, or lust).
  • She does not spread rumors or gossip.

An honorable woman loves the beautiful:

  • She adorns herself and her surroundings with tranquility and beauty.

An honorable woman is humble and respectful:

  • She is persuasive but not forceful or demanding.
  • She respects those in authority over her. 
  • She does not make excuses.
  • She is courteous to all.

An honorable woman is kind:

  • She thinks of others first, and is sensitive to those around her.
  • She is happy for the successes of others. She works to ensure that others succeed.
  • She seeks opportunities to love those who are difficult to love.

An honorable woman has integrity:

  • She is honest and forthright, but not confrontational.
  • She is not manipulative.

An honorable woman has self-control and reverence:

  • She brings joy through positive words and optimistic encouragement.
  • She kindly encourages those who need correction.

An honorable woman is competent in managing affairs:

  • She takes it upon herself to make those around her comfortable.
  • She does her work effectively, diligently, and efficiently.

An honorable woman is courageous:

  • She defends the weak and the poor.
  • She stands up for righteousness. 
  • She proactively stops gossip when she hears it.

An honorable woman forgives:

  • She forgives indefinitely. Bitterness results in ugliness, which she will not abide.
  • She does not spread idle words or have a judgmental spirit.

An honorable woman serves and supports (Proverbs 31):

  • She is diligent and cheerful in the service of God and man.
  • Her optimism and cheerfulness permeate the home.
  • She is loyal to her authorities, family, and friends.

An honorable woman has a gentle and quiet spirit (1st Peter):

  • She is not loud or overbearing.
  • She is patient with all, especially children.
  • She is noticed for her tenderness and mercy.

An honorable woman fears the Lord:

  • She is always mindful of her Lord, and his line of authority (Christ, church, government, father, mother).

“But mark this: There will be terrible times in the last days. People will be lovers of themselves, lovers of money, boastful, proud, abusive, disobedient to their parents, ungrateful, unholy, without love, unforgiving, slanderous, without self-control, brutal, not lovers of the good, treacherous, rash, conceited, lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God— having a form of godliness but denying its power. Have nothing to do with them.

They are the kind who worm their way into homes and gain control over weak-willed women, who are loaded down with sins and are swayed by all kinds of evil desires, always learning but never able to acknowledge the truth.”

2 Timothy 3:1-7