Skip to content

Cultural Adolescence or Biblical Youth: a Religious Parent’s Challenge

Introduction

In the last century, social and cultural changes in Western culture and America in particular have drastically altered parenting for religious homes, both Jewish and Christian. This paper will address the specific challenge posed by the emergence and extension of Adolescence as a distinct lifecycle stage, and the problems it presents to a biblical lifecycle.

The Jewish people are unique in the world in one important way. They are a people specifically chosen by God to serve as a light to the nations. The biblical texts both express this function and serve to reinforce this purpose for Israel as the chosen people of God. Israel is a people with a culture (way of life) that was formed and directed by God through the Covenant at Sinai so that Israel’s peoplehood, language, historical narrative, way of life, and homeland are all revelatory. They were and continue to be part of special revelation along with the inspired Holy Scriptures and the person of Yeshua.

A systematic examination of the lifecycle of Israel as commanded and described in the Scriptures demonstrates a bio-psychological development within the covenanted cultural context that is similar to and distinct from other traditional cultures. The impact of the biblical content on Western civilization through Judaism and Christianity cannot be overstated. Western Civilization was formed through a mixing and merging of Judeo-Christian influence into the Greco-Roman foundations of the West. The connection between the Jewish lifecycle and the parallel Christian lifecycle in all their denominational variations can be easily demonstrated both in the stages from birth to death and the rites of passage that transition those stages. In their historical and traditional form, these include naming and dedication ceremonies for infants, formal religious training during childhood, and rituals of entrance into adulthood around the time of puberty. Bar and Bat Mitzvah in Judaism and Confirmation in Christianity are formal entrances into spiritual and social adulthood in those communities. The child puts away childish things and begins the responsibilities, both religious and social, of an adult.

The Biblical Period of Youth

The Bible calls this period of life Youth (derived from Hebrew na’ar). Several passages (Prov 5:18, Isa 54:6, Jer 2:2, Lam 3:27) indicate this as a time focused on betrothal and marriage, raising children, and subsistence work responsibilities. It is therefore a stage of Young Adulthood and serves as a time of establishing one’s own household connected but separate from one’s parents. The period lasts from puberty (12 or 13 years of age) to around the age of 30. The Scriptures have much to say about this period and the primary message is to establish the direction of one’s life.

Rejoice, young man, during your childhood, and let your heart be pleasant during the days of young manhood. And follow the impulses of your heart and the desires of your eyes. Yet know that God will bring you to judgment for all these things. So, remove grief and anger from your heart and put away pain from your body, because childhood and the prime of life are fleeting. Remember also your Creator in the days of your youth, before the evil days come and the years draw near when you will say, “I have no delight in them.” (Eccles 11:9–12:1 nasb)

Childhood is followed by young manhood (Young Adulthood) where the direction of one’s life is to be set. Following the ways of one’s heart and the options that one sees is a statement of self-direction, but knowing that God will bring one to judgment for all these things reminds the young person of accountability as an adult before God. For Judaism, this time of putting away childhood and embracing adult responsibility before God and man is entailed in becoming Bar Mitzvah. The term meaning “son of the commandment” is not the idea of a remaining a child but of becoming an adult. Confirmation in Christianity follows the same pattern. A child is instructed (catechized) in the way that he should go and at Confirmation makes the vow that the God of his parents is now his God and the faith of his ancestors has become his own. These rites of passage are placed at puberty. The body has manifested through secondary sexual characteristics and functions that it is now capable through physical maturation to procreate within holy matrimony as instituted by God at the creation of man and woman.

Marriage as found in the Torah has two stages. Betrothal (Kiddushin), the first stage, involves a contract (ketubah) and vow of marriage so that the couple becomes man and wife. Divorce was required to end this stage, and in the event of death the survivor was considered a widow or widower. The couple, however, does not live together or engage in sexual relations until the second stage (Nisuin) when they would celebrate through a marriage supper and live together from that time as man and wife and begin a family. During the first stage the man prepared a place for the couple to live and the woman continued in her father’s house, preparing herself as a bride. The focus of childhood and parenting was to raise boys to be husbands and fathers, and girls to be wives and mothers. Occupational skills were included to make a living but the focus was marriage and family.

The stage that follows Youth is one that focusses on community position and service. Because the household (marriage and family) are already well established, people could now focus on serving the larger community. Priests began their rotation of ministry (Num 4) and several prophets, including Yeshua, began public ministry at the age of thirty (Luke 3:23). It is likely that this was also the pattern for leadership in the early Yeshua communities, as the requirements for overseers and deacons included being married and having demonstrated good parenting (1 Tim 3). If people were married and having children in their late teens, their children would be raised and ready to marry when the parents were in their thirties.

The goal of parenting in Torah is to make mature Jewish men and women who will marry and be fruitful, raising their children in the faith as part of the covenanted community of faith (the people of Israel; Deut 4:10, 6:4–25, 11:19). Christianity paralleled this in their catechesis and parenting of children. This was not only in the land but the focus of the community in Diaspora.

Thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel, to all the exiles whom I have sent into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon, “Build houses and live in them; and plant gardens and eat their produce. Take wives and become the fathers of sons and daughters, and take wives for your sons and give your daughters to husbands, that they may bear sons and daughters; and multiply there and do not decrease. Seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the Lord on its behalf; for in its welfare you will have welfare.” (Jer 29:4–7)

While many cultures have rites of passages from childhood to adulthood and attach marriage to this young adult period, we must remember that the lifestyle content of Israel is based on covenantal commands and these serve as revelation to the nations.

American Adolescence

American culture in its formative stage drew from the established European culture with its Protestant and Enlightenment influences. The founding fathers were influenced by the Jewish historical narrative and that influence helped shape the American experiment. The traditional American lifecycle, both religious and cultural, was Infancy (birth to age 5 or 6), Childhood (age 6-12/13) Young Adulthood 14-30, Middle Adulthood (30-50) and Elder Adulthood (50-70/80), following the biblical statement in Psalm 90:10. Laws regarding adult privileges and responsibilities as well as age of consent for marriage in many states reflected, in general, this pattern. Especially in rural America of the 18th and 19th centuries, the notion of direct movement from childhood to adulthood was the norm, as was marriage. In the period prior to World War II, most people attended elementary school, learned a trade, and married. It was not unusual for marriage to take place in the mid-teens.1

During the 19th century, Western culture was fully embracing modernity. Secularism became an increasingly attractive alternative to the religious worldviews of the past. The intellectual direction of the Enlightenment, incredible advancement in science, and the emergence of the behavioral sciences (anthropology, sociology and psychology) brought a new perspective to American culture. Anthropology (Darwin) gave us an alternative to creation in the theory of Evolution. Sociology (Marx) gave us an economic way to see progress toward a better world without waiting for a religious “kingdom to come.” And Psychology (Freud) freed us from the notion of sin and guilt before God by explaining the workings of the unconscious. Together, the behavioral sciences would establish social science theories as a replacement for Judeo-Christian theologies. The religious reaction to this new secularism took many directions. Traditional Jews largely rejected Modernity and its secularism and separated their communities from this influence. Reform Jews embraced the idea that the secular and religious could co-exist. In Christianity, the fundamentalist-modernist debates split American Christianity into liberal theology, which embraced secularism and science and required a less literal view of the Bible and the promises and function of Israel, and conservative theology, which resisted, at least until recently, secularism and scientific theories that challenged what was called the plain reading of the Biblical texts.

In the 20th century, the modern behavioral sciences began to look at the phenomenon of what would become called “adolescence.” In 1904, G Stanley Hall published Adolescence: its Psychology and its relations to Physiology, Anthropology, Sociology, Sex, Crime and Religion. Hall was the first of many to focus on adolescence as a time of biological and cognitive stress and chaos in the life of a teenager. The idea that adolescence was biological and inevitable was challenged by anthropologist Margaret Mead, among others who began research on adolescence, parenting, and coming of age rituals, trying to understand this period between childhood and adulthood. Her work Coming of Age in Samoa (1928) would be largely responsible for the rejection of biology as the cause of adolescent stress and even gender roles and sexuality, arguing that these are culturally constructed and can be changed. Later, Erik Erikson, a developmental psychologist, argued in Identity: Youth and Crisis2 that each period of development has its own crisis and the crisis confronted between childhood and adulthood, in the period of adolescence, is one of identity. He added that each crisis, like the identity crisis, is symbiotic with human institutions, like the stage of adolescence, because they have “evolved together.”3

The changing authority from religious truth to social science theory argued that parents were ill equipped to understand their children’s needs, and a whole new set of professionals in education and mental health stood ready to help raise the next generation. The theories and conclusions of the behavioral scientists now portrayed the period between childhood and adulthood as a real and distinct stage of life called adolescence, which transitions a child naturally and culturally into adulthood. The advice of the behavioral sciences was that this period could though volatile and chaotic, could become less problematic if parenting styles and cultural attitudes were altered appropriately. Educational institutions, parenting styles and methods, and social support systems needed to be changed to make this a smoother and ultimately a longer process.

The Popular Response

In the decades following World War II, the theories of the behavioral sciences combined with the theories of education and began to reshape public opinion and social institutions to incorporate this new stage of life into the American lifecycle. Adolescence was now real and these young people, now called “youths,” were not adults, they were “kids” who needed to avoid the stress and struggle of growing up too early. This made sense to their parents who had grown up during the Great Depression and spent their late teens and twenties fighting World War II. Following the war, they had married and rapidly became parents of the baby boomers.

This war generation of parents wanted life to be easier for their children. They were open to the argument that Margaret Mead and others suggested that adolescence needs to be extended with additional education and a push toward later marriage and fewer children. Pushing children to grow up too rapidly was behind teenage pregnancy, drug use, suicide, and crime. Their kids would have more and become more than their parents. These parents decided they would make sacrifices for their children, including the idea of both mom and dad working so the children could have what the parents never had. Perhaps their children could be the first in the family to go to college. Marriage should and could wait. That made sense because the war generation found marriage and parenting difficult. Certainly marriage would be easier if entered later and in better financial shape. And with the advent of the birth control pill in 1960, the boomer children could have fewer children, which promised an economic advantage to the next generation.

The cultural shifts that were happening at the same time created a new social structure for living. The rural populations were moving to cities, and suburbs were all the rage. New neighborhoods were springing up around all the major cities and people could have the American dream—a house, a secure job, and a better life for their kids. At the beginning of the 20th century, the culture had begun embracing a more secular public life. Religion had divided over the rise of secularism into liberal and conservative theology. The Bible was rejected by those who were fully secular. Liberal theology fully accommodated secularism, science, and reason. Conservative theology retreated into evangelism and public morality, and the idea of home discipleship and spiritual formation lost its former place.

Technological advances brought home appliances, improvements in automobiles, and most importantly of all, popular media. Radio and TV were becoming the norm in every home and, with the advent of transistor radios, the Baby Boomers were able to access distinct “youth culture” media in movies, music, and magazines, which was created for “Youth” and was largely unknown to their parents. A generation grew up with their own generational worldview that was different from their parents in almost every way. This separation gave way to the youth movement in America with a rejection of institutions and anyone over thirty. Adolescence was now a self-driven phenomenon.

The Civil Rights movement also contributed to youth identity. Racism, sexism, nationalism and other evils of American society were the focus of morality to this new generation. Many became part of the new secularism and others stampeded into the Jesus movement, which allowed Christianity without established and organized religion. With access to radio and television media this young generation had a front seat to watch and participate in the transformation of America from a melting-pot assimilation focus to a new multicultural focus of pluralism. The dynamics of this worldview shift set the stage for major changes in the next generation.

The Baby Boomers parented their children very differently than the war generation. They “outsourced” more of the parenting while they pursued their own career and success. Latch-key kids and participation in every possible kind of activity to keep the children busy when not in school were common experiences. This generation would be part of a shift from rugged individualism to radical individualism and would be taught that their feelings and self-esteem were the truest part of themselves. By the end of the 20th century, social institutions were intentionally secular and pluralistic, demonstrating an increasing dismissal or open hostility toward those who hold to a Biblical worldview or morality such as conservative Jews or Christians.

Individualized Adulthood

By the 1980s, the path from childhood to adulthood for the majority of Americans included Adolescence. The culture expected it, and churches and many synagogues had embraced it with youth groups, which were, in fact, adolescence ministries that accommodated the new stage of life. The boomers and their children began to strongly believe the old traditional lifecycle model was gone. In fact, it continued in many Jewish and Christian populations (Haredi and Amish, for example), but they tended to live in isolation from the popular culture and media.

The standard American lifecycle now looked significantly different. Instead of raising children to be adults, which usually was defined as getting married and raising a family, the culture and parents raised children to be adolescents and expected that this period would be a normative and necessary part of growing up. Adolescence was now a given and this time of life should not be encumbered with thoughts of marriage and family. The focus of life would become economic security and significance through career, which meant that marriage and family must wait. Adulthood was not entered through marriage but through education and career.

Religion (Judaism and Christianity) had always viewed gender, marriage, sexuality, and reproduction as parts of a whole. They could be discussed separately but they remained interrelated concepts. The new radical individualism, secularism, and relativism created by the behavioral sciences and propagated by educational institutions and popular media saw these concepts differently.

Sexuality in Western culture had been strongly influenced by Judeo-Christian notions of holiness, which had become identified in American culture as morality. The behavioral sciences, rejecting moral absolutism, argued that sexuality is subject to cultural relativity and therefore cannot be considered universal with regard to right and wrong. Sexuality is, however, medical and psychological. Science and social science can research and understand sexuality. And as such, it can and should be addressed independently and without regard to marriage, reproduction, or even gender. It is an aspect of behavior that can best be understood through the idea of “orientation.”

“Sexual orientation” is a term that focuses on the target of sexual desire. The initial orientations that were identified were heterosexuality, homosexuality and bi-sexuality. Early researchers expected that homosexual and bi-sexual orientation had been suppressed by Judeo-Christian morality and that if given a chance, the numbers of people so orientated would be increased. Sexual orientation was initially thought to be biological in nature but soon a new paradigm in “Identity” would change this perspective.

The identity shift was that gender could now be viewed as only cultural and psychological. Traditionally, gender, like sexuality, had been understood as biologically determined. Now it was understood as part of psychological identity which could be separated from biology completely. The notion that sex is biological but gender is psychological became standardized in the behavioral sciences. The Publication Manual of the American Psychological Association (Sixth Edition) defines gender as cultural and sex as biological. This gave rise to the idea of being transgendered. The biology (body) might be in conflict with the psychology (identity). In the past modernity saw this conflict as a psychological problem. If your identity was mismatched to your physiology, you would receive counseling to bring your identity in line with your genitalia. With the advances in plastic surgery and hormonal therapy, the conflict is now viewed as a medical problem. The discrepancy between identity and physiology is now rectified through surgery, changing the body to match the psychological identity. When gender as psychology is combined with sexual orientation, the behavioral sciences discovered several more combinations. These include:

1. Male identity with heterosexual orientation. (Straight male)

2. Male identity with homosexual orientation. (Gay male)

3. Male identity with bi-sexual orientation. (Bi-sexual male)

4. Female identity with heterosexual orientation. (Straight female)

5. Female identity with homosexual orientation. (Lesbian)

6. Female identity with bi-sexual orientation. (Bi-sexual female)

7. Male identity in female body with heterosexual orientation. (Transgendered Straight male)

8. Male identity in female body with homosexual orientation. (Transgendered Gay male)

9. Female identity in male body with heterosexual orientation. (Transgendered Straight female)

10. Female identity in male body with homosexual orientation. (Transgendered Lesbian female)

This list is not complete and new combinations are often being suggested. Adolescents are encouraged to explore and engage in sexual activity based on whatever identity and orientation is emerging in them. That sexuality, however, is independent of marriage and also independent of reproduction, which is accomplished through birth control of various types.

Human reproduction as a result of sexual behavior has always had implications in religious and cultural perspectives. The status of one born outside of marriage in pre-1960s America had social, legal, and inheritance implications. With the advent of “The Pill” in the 1960s and the subsequent medical approaches to “test tube babies” and more recently cloning, reproduction can now also be separated from marriage, sexuality, and gender. Medical technology allows new possibilities for the making and shaping of the next generation. And for many, the idea of reproduction at all is being dropped. Many millennials are deciding not to have children and are content to have “fur babies” (pets) as family, giving some grandparents the possibility of “fur grandchildren.”

With sexuality, gender, and reproduction easily separated from each other, it is not surprising that marriage must be redefined as “only companionship” and the stuff of romance and the pursuit of being happy ever after. The religious notion of a lifelong covenant between a man and woman joined together by God and being fruitful by multiplication is becoming less acceptable even in many religious circles. At best it is an option, but it is no longer the religious norm or the intent of parenting.

Adolescence is now the transition period between childhood and career. Career, not marriage and family, is the pathway to adulthood. This increasingly requires staying in the parents’ home and under their economic dependence through college and perhaps graduate school. Building financial security and finding a significant career are now the sign and goal of becoming an adult. If marriage and family are to remain in the equation at all, they must be placed lower on the priorities and cannot interfere with these new primary goals. Marriage and family are now options only.

Implications for Religious Communities

The biblical focus on young adulthood as the time to establish one’s household through marriage and family has been largely pushed aside in Messianic and Evangelical communities. The ideas of secularism, relativism, and radical individualism, and the belief that education alone provides the pathway for financial security and career significance have been syncretized into our congregations and worldviews. But this assimilation into the secular has its implications. Even the contemporary idea of the secular is problematic.

The biblical worldview knows nothing of secularism. It understands false gods and false understandings of the true God, but that is quite different. Secularism, in its present form, is a “no-god zone” where naturalism operates independent and outside of the divine. The Bible, as understood by traditional Judaism and Christianity, has no concept of a no-god zone. All of creation is upheld by his Word, Power and Spirit. The Bible knows the holy in distinction to the common but not holy in distinction to secular. We have lost biblical categories of reality and replaced them with secular ones like sexual orientation and psychological gender. We should not be surprised, then, that our conclusions about these things will follow, sooner or later, the conclusions of the culture we live in. That is the process of assimilation.

Beyond the worldview implications are the practical implications. The next big crash in the American economy may very well be an educational bubble. Student loan debt is growing larger than the job market and salaries. At best, students will be paying off loans for decades. The thought of combining student debt together with marriage and raising children can be overwhelming. Many couples simply give up on marriage and live together while they try to figure out how to survive. This compromise of marriage is common, even among those who profess a religious faith. Even if they marry, many couples put off starting a family because they both need to work to pay off student loans and pursue their careers.

The result is that marriage, even if wanted, is being put off by most young people until their late twenties, and starting a family to the mid- or later thirties. This widely recognized trend has implications for religious families. First, birth defects, pregnancy complications, and infertility problems are increasing. Human reproduction is optimized in the latter teens and twenties. At age 32 female fertility decrease begins and fertility falls rapidly after 37.4 Other problems are more common at later ages. More special needs children are being born to mothers aged 35 or older and such children are more costly to raise.5 It will become more difficult to drop to one income while still in debt so that more attention can be paid to parenting.

If young couples have children in their mid to late thirties and their children do the same, grand parenting will start around the age of seventy. In times past, it was common for people in their forties and early fifties to be grandparents. The special connection between grandparents and grandchildren is acknowledged in the Bible and celebrated in the testimonies of families in traditional Judaism and Christianity. The third generation aspects of the community of faith will be lost by extended adolescence and delayed marriage. The impact of this may be incalculable. Fewer children will experience the faith through the lives of their parents and grandparents.

The rituals of Bar/Bat Mitzvah and Confirmation will continue. But they will be little more than parties and meaningless time markers. The depth and richness of transitioning into spiritual maturity within family and community will be lost. The celebrations will cease to be psychologically real as reinforcement of Jewish and Christian identity. The next generation will be less communal and more hyper-individualistic, everyone doing what is right in their own eyes (read feelings) and convinced that they are better off without the necessity of marriage and family.

Conclusion

The first chapter of Genesis recounts the creation of the heavens and earth. But the focus is Shabbat. It is the sign between Israel and Hashem and a reminder that he is Creator and Redeemer. The second chapter of Genesis describes the forming of man and woman. But the actual focus is marriage as companionship and reproduction. These two institutions, Sabbath and matrimony, are holy. They are designed for a holy people. Secularism has replaced them with Saturday and civil marriage. But it is not to be that way among us Jews and Christians.

The religious home is the foundation of this faith. Before there were congregations there were households and families. Before there were rabbis, there were fathers, mothers, bubbes and zaydes. The biblical faith survives and is passed down from generation to generation. Human religious identity is primarily formed in the home. The faith is tested in relationships and the proof of the transfer is its presence in the third generation. Messianic Jews and Judeo-Christians must return to the words of Joshua.

“If it is disagreeable in your sight to serve the Lord, choose for yourselves today whom you will serve: whether the gods which your fathers served which were beyond the River, or the gods of the Amorites in whose land you are living; but as for me and my house, we will serve the Lord.” Josh 24:15 NASB

Serving the Lord means more than faith in him. It means to walk in his ways. The words of the Shema are not simply words to be recited. They are words to live by.

Hear, O Israel! The Lord is our God, the Lord is one! You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might. These words, which I am commanding you today, shall be on your heart. You shall teach them diligently to your sons and shall talk of them when you sit in your house and when you walk by the way and when you lie down and when you rise up. You shall bind them as a sign on your hand and they shall be as frontals on your forehead. You shall write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates. (Deut 6:4–9 nasb)

These words are to be on the heart and in the actions of each adult. They are to be taught diligently in the home, reinforced in the congregation, and transferred into each child by experience so that they become a son or daughter of the covenant and in their marriage and in their children (your grandchildren) the faith will be lived and taught until the Kingdom of Messiah comes in full.

This happens by observance of Shabbat. Children experience God in their parents as Ima lights the candles and Abba blesses the cup. Their identity is reinforced as they hear the parents bless them as a members of Israel. God is present and real to them in their home experience as Torah is lived. In that experience the words are implanted in their heart. The Seder and other Holy Day ceremonies and rituals do the same. The child experiences the words, internalizes the words, and their identity, values, and behavior are formed by the words.

There is no period of adolescence in the biblical lifecycle. Adolescence is stealing the strength and young adulthood from our children. It is robbing the future of our grandchildren. It is a major path of assimilation for the next generation. We must reclaim the biblical period of youth. This can be done in the home and congregation. At Bar/Bat Mitzvah for Jews, or Confirmation for Christians, the child must put away childish things and become an adult in the home, the congregation, and the Kingdom. We must raise our children with Jewish and Christian identities, worldviews, values experienced in our marriages, families, congregations, and community relationships. They must be raised as men and women of faith prepared to be husbands and wives, fathers and mothers, where holy marriage provides companionship to the husband and wife and reproduces the next generation. When that is done, the glory and naches of Bar/Bat Mitzvah and Confirmation will resound in our congregations.

H. Bruce Stokes, PhD, is a psychological anthropologist, theologian and pastor. He has been a participant-observer in the Messianic Movement for over thirty years. He is professor of anthropology and behavioral sciences at California Baptist University and pastor of the DiscipleCenter, a Judeo-Christian Community of Faith.


1 The material in this section and those following is a summary of an entire course related to Worldview and Epistemology and a Marriage and Family course which I teach at California Baptist University.

2 Erik H. Erikson. Identity: Youth and Crisis (New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 1968).

3 Ibid, 105.

4 The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists: 2016. Available at https://www.acog.org/Clinical-Guidance-and-Publications/Committee-Opinions/Committee-on-Gynecologic-Practice/Female-Age-Related-Fertility-Decline (accessed June 17, 2018).

5 The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists: 2017. Available at https://www.acog.org/Patients/FAQs/Having-a-Baby-After-Age-35 (accessed June 17, 2018).