Sex, Sin, Society and Church
My recent blog about Gay Marriage provoked a bigger response than anything else I have posted. That’s probably because its an issue that is very “live” at the moment and because it seems to be that people are polarised about it. Reading the responses to it I can see that there are really two issues which were dividing people
The nature of mission. Is it the mission of the Church in promoting the Kingdom of God to argue for and defend legislation which enshrines Christian morality in a culture? Or is it our mission as the Church to embody the Kingdom and so make it tangible and then invite people to repent and enter it?
The second issue surrounds sex and sin, are sexual sins in a different category from other “sins” and is homosexuality a particularly serious sin, effectively in a category of its own as uniquely abhorrent to God?
I thought given the response I have had and the many private messages thanking me for writing what I did or cosigning me to the hottest corner of hell, it might be worth reflecting on that second question in the wider context of what the Bible says to say about sex.
When it comes to sex and the church I think probably we could say that the Church has gone through three phases when it has come to its position on sex.
WRONG ABOUT IT …. Many of the attitudes of the first Christian theologians were deeply influenced by strains of Greek philosophy which saw the physical body as evil and therefore looked at sex as being a hindrance to true spirituality which was meant to be free from bodily desires. Augustine in particular took the Church’s teaching on sex in the wrong direction. It would appear he had a very strong sex drive which he struggled to control and this when coupled to the influence of Greek thinking caused him to come to some conclusions which were deeply damaging to how the Church came to think about sex and sexuality. Basically Augustine taught that sex was how original sin was passed on in the human race (not a thought calculated to get you in “the mood” with your spouse!) and so should be avoided except to produce children and even then he gave the distinct impression it would deeply sinful to enjoy the experience. So the church’s teaching about sex became just plain wrong, it saw sex as opposing real spirituality, involved in the perpetuation of sin and to be avoided if possible and especially if you wanted to be in any sense “holy” (hence the ban of clergy being married which continues to this day in the RC Church and the idea that nuns can be more holy because they never have sex)
EMBARRASSED BY IT … Following the Reformation the Protestant part of the Church rejected some of these false ideas about sex. (Martin Luther, a former monk went and married a former nun, to make a point and several children) However I think during the Victorian era and until fairly recently the church has said very, very little about sex. Largely I think because in common with much of society pre the swinging sixties, it was embarrassed by it. I grew up hearing at least 2 sermons a week and must have heard tens of thousands of them and many “talks” in youth groups and none of them touched on the big “S” word. When I think about it with all the sexual shindigs David and some of the other Patriarchs got up to, preaching through the Bible whilst missing out the “naughty” bits was quite an accomplishment, Song of Songs was definitely not in the functional canon of the evangelical church when I was growing up. It was no wonder the “wedding night” was confusing in more ways than one for Christians.
OBSESSED BY IT … The switch seemed to be flicked in our culture in the 60s and ever since then our society feels like it has been a bit obsessed by sex. Sex and Sexuality are in “your face” topics today, you can hardly open a magazine, turn on the tv or even look at an advertising hoarding without been confronted by it. A soft porn book on sado masochism has become a publishing phenomenon for women and internet porn has become normal for many men. In response the Church has got a bit obsessed as well in condemning all this. The wider culture thinks all we talk about is how we are opposed to various forms of sex. In the 60s premarital sex was condemned roundly from the pulpit and today the petitions that are being passed around are about opposing Gay Marriage. Its becoming a defining issue for how people perceive the Church, to the extent that if you ask someone outside the church to describe the church, homophobic tends to be prominent in that description. Whether its true or not the general public thinks the evangelical church is obsessed with being anti sex and especially Anti-Gay.
What I wanted to do was reflect a little on sin, sex, society and the church and for what its worth put over my position on several the main issues. Let me say first of all that I believe if you approach the Bible as a whole and look at what each of its different sections, Creation, books connected to Israel as a nation, the prophets, OT Wisdom books, the Gospels, NT Letters and Revelation say what emerges is this. Sex is God’s gift and is good, it is given to humanity before the Fall, its part of the creation God thought was good. Therefore it is logically to deduce that God thought up sex complete with orgasms and that should give us cause to stop, think about the kind of God who would come up with that and give Him thanks for a great idea! The Bible goes on to teach that sex not only produces children but leads to the deepest level of intimacy and expression of love possible for human’s to share. Sin when it entered the world makes an impact on every area of our lives and that includes sex and sexuality. The stories of the OT reinforce the truth that our human brokenness is often experienced in relation to our sexuality. The Bible is bold, explicit and forthright about sexual sin and its consequences. In summary I would say that overall God’s standard is a life long loving heterosexual committed marriage which is the only context for sex and anything that deviates from that is regarded as sinful and wrong.
So let me address a couple of issues I see coming up regularly
ARE SEXUAL SINS MORE SERIOUS?
Are all sins equal or are sexual sins more serious? That’s a question I want to answer by sitting on the proverbial fence and saying NO and YES. Paul, especially when he is talking about sex in society as a whole, says sin has consequences but on a level with other sins. So in 1 Tim 1:9-10 He talks about
“Lawbreakers and rebels, the ungodly and sinful, the unholy and irreligious, for those who kill their fathers or mothers, for murderers, 10 for the sexually immoral, for those practicing homosexuality, for slave traders and liars and perjurers—and for whatever else is contrary to the sound doctrine”
In those verses gay sex and sex outside marriage is put on a par with lying and murder. I don’t think Paul’s list is exhaustive of “serious” sins just descriptive of typical sins. So adultery, premarital sex and gay sex are no worse and no better than lying.
Now I am going to contradict myself because Paul hints in 1 Cor 6 that there is a sense in which sexual sins are in a different category from other types of sin. Look at this passage
1 Cor 6:15 “Don’t you realise that your bodies are actually parts of Christ? Should a man take his body, which is part of Christ, and join it to a prostitute? Never! 16 And don’t you realise that if a man joins himself to a prostitute, he becomes one body with her? For the Scriptures say, “The two are united into one.”[d] 17 But the person who is joined to the Lord is one spirit with him. 18 Run from sexual sin! No other sin so clearly affects the body as this one does. For sexual immorality is a sin against your own body. 19 Don’t you realise that your body is the temple of the Holy Spirit, who lives in you and was given to you by God? You do not belong to yourself, 20 for God bought you with a high price. So you must honour God with your body.”
Paul to me is suggesting that because of the indwelling presence of the Holy Spirit in the life of the believer sexual sin is uniquely serious for the BELIEVER because in some sense we are involving God in the physical act because He is present in us in the act.
What I take from that very quick sex survey is that for those outside the Church sexual sins are serious, as serious as every other sin. Lets be clear Scripture says sin has consequences both in this life and the next. Yet for those of us who are Christians and have the indwelling presence of God himself in our lives through the Holy Spirit, sexual sin is uniquely serious. Now that made me think, most of our rhetoric about sex is aimed towards those outside the church. We mount campaigns to make non Christians adhere to Christian morality but I am not aware of many campaigns to awaken believers to the seriousness of sexual sin for them. Yet my experience as a church leader is that most of the most difficult situations I have faced and those which have damaged the church most have all been connected to sexual sin by believers. That made me think that perhaps this is an issue where Jesus’ warning about dealing with the plank in our own eye before making a big issue of the speck in someone else’s is very relevant. The emphasis of Scripture’s teaching on sin, that its serious but especially serious for God’s people, should cause our emphasis to be perhaps more focused on calling for holiness amongst God’s people than attacking the immorality of those outside of the Kingdom of God.
IS HOMOSEXUALITY UNIQUELY SINFUL ?
A variation that I often hear on whether sexual sins are “especially” sinful is that of all sins homosexuality is uniquely abhorrent to God and so especially to be opposed by God’s People. One responder to something I wrote said. “it’s plain to see that homosexuality is sexual malpractice on another level.” Well I just don’t see that as being plain at all. Homosexuality is indeed condemned as sinful, but is there any evidence its condemned as being sexual malpractice on a different level?
In the OT it is condemned specifically two places.
Lev 18:22 “Do not practice homosexuality, having sex with another man as with a woman. It is a detestable sin. 23 “A man must not defile himself by having sex with an animal. And a woman must not offer herself to a male animal to have intercourse with it. This is a perverse act. 24 “Do not defile yourselves in any of these ways, for the people I am driving out before you have defiled themselves in all these ways. 25 Because the entire land has become defiled, I am punishing the people who live there. I will cause the land to vomit them out. 26 You must obey all my decrees and regulations. You must not commit any of these detestable sins. This applies both to native-born Israelites and to the foreigners living among you.
Immediately preceding verse 22 are laws which make incest within families sinful and as you can see above after dealing with homosexuality the passage goes on to talk about bestiality. In verse 24 all these sexual sins are linked together under “any of these ways” The clear implication is that homosexuality is not singled out as being especially perverse its one of a range of behaviours which are beyond God’s standards when it comes to sex. Lev 20 is virtually a rerun of chapter 18 and again homosexuality is listed not on its own but with incest and bestiality as being detestable.
The story of the destruction of Sodom in Genesis 19 is another passage often appealed to as proving the uniquely serious way God views homosexuality, as its the only time fire comes from heaven to destroy a city. The inference being that Sodom was destroyed because of its homosexuality. There is no doubt homosexual acts were part of the motivation for God’s severe judgement on this city but its certainly not the case it was the sole or perhaps even primary cause. In the narrative there is the idea of gang rape being involved and also something we don’t take seriously but which was hugely important for those in the ancient world, the violation of hospitality. The issue of whether gay sex was the sole cause of judgement is put beyond doubt in Ezekiel
Ezekiel 16:49 “Sodom’s sins were pride, gluttony, and laziness, while the poor and needy suffered outside her door.”
The interesting thing for me in that verse is that not only is homosexuality not referred to in relation to the destruction of Sodom the sins which are enumerated belong to a category I would describe as evangelical Christianity’s “acceptable list.” Despite it being a very prevalent sin among Western Christians I don’t know of anyone who is currently arguing that Christian morality should be kept enshrined in secular law arguing for a law against gluttony. Come to think on it, many of the people who fill our churches are a tad overweight and yet when was the last time you heard a sermon about fire falling on Sodom for gluttony with the obvious implication God is just waiting to rain hellfire down on people committing the same sin today? Why is it that we focus on homosexuality when it comes to Sodom and its sin and frankly ignore, gluttony, laziness and apathy to the plight of the poor? Perhaps because they are sins which are too close to the church for comfort? So not only does this story not put gay sex in a special category of one when it comes to serious sins it actually links judgment to some sins which are prevalent in the church and which if the truth be told we largely turn a blind eye to!
Moving on the NT is there any hint there of homosexuality on being on a particularly serious category of sins, especially when compared to heterosexual sins? Well have a look at 1 Cor 6
1 Corinthians 6:9-10 “9 Don’t you realise that those who do wrong will not inherit the Kingdom of God? Don’t fool yourselves. Those who indulge in sexual sin, or who worship idols, or commit adultery, or are male prostitutes, or practice homosexuality, 10 or are thieves, or greedy people, or drunkards, or are abusive, or cheat people—none of these will inherit the Kingdom of God.”
Adultery and homosexuality are mentioned in the same sentence, no special category and worryingly that acceptable sin of greed is added to the list as is being abusive and any one who has attended more than a few church business meetings will know that’s not a sin which is completely unknown among Christians! Again I don’t see any evidence that “it’s plain to see that homosexuality is sexual malpractice on another level.”
The final passage that is often appealed to place gay sex in its own category attracting God’s particular displeasure over other sins, sexual or otherwise is Romans 1:18-28 Paul talks about male and female homosexuality and warns that it will attract God’s judgment. However the real sin that Paul is perhaps suggesting as particularly serious is that of unbelief, of rejection of the knowledge of God, which Paul says is the source of all the other sins including homosexuality.
He sums up this section about sin by again linking homosexuality with some sins which fall into the “turn a blind eye to” category for most Christians
Rom 1: 28 “Since they thought it foolish to acknowledge God, he abandoned them to their foolish thinking and let them do things that should never be done. 29 Their lives became full of every kind of wickedness, sin, greed, hate, envy, murder, quarrelling, deception, malicious behaviour, and gossip.”
Perhaps one of the foremost evangelical biblical experts on Romans, James Dunn in his commentary after looking at this passage in Romans 1 makes this remark
“The climax of Paul’s analysis of man’s fall and its consequences, if climax it is, is a picture of the general disorder of human society. The envy, deceit, whispering behind backs. heartless ruthlessness and so on manifest human corruption quite as much as, if not more, than homosexual acts. Such homely everyday vices which poison human relationships are as much a sign of man’s loss of God as sexual perversion”
OK let me ask, ever been asked to sign a petition to make envy, quarrelling, malicious behaviour or gossip a criminal offence? Anyone heard a sermon saying that gossiping is a particularly serious sin in God’s book more serious than other sins? Again I can’t help but wonder why out of this list of sins that homosexuality is picked out as being more serious than the others? I just checked again, no underlining, or yellow marker around the section about gay sex in this passage in the original Greek! I can’t help but conclude that we as evangelical Christians have concluded that there are some sins we think aren’t really that serious (mainly the sins that come easily to us) and homosexuality which is really, really serious (mainly because its not our sin) The problem is that the Bible consistently rather than differentiating between those sins actually links them as being on the same level! I can find no evidence in the whole of Scripture of homosexuality being put in a special category of abhorrence to God on its own. We have created that category not Scripture and its an expression of our prejudice not good biblical exegesis.
OK that’s probably long enough, I’ll follow this up with a post looking at how Jesus, who as God incarnate is surely our model, responded to those caught in sexual sin who were outside the Kingdom of God.
Oh James! Thankyou! Thank you Again for your insight, your candor, and your disciplined thinking and writing. I came here looking for your article preceding this one. I had a friend on the fringe of church life ask me about the ‘homosexuality and the church’ question. I did my best, but wanted to offer him your wisdom……..
BTW, my 20 year old grandson Liam has asked if I would travel to Europe with him! We are travelling by train around Germany next month! The nearest we’ll get to you is Munich. Ev and I still enjoy our memories of the Royal Mile with you, and our jaunt to Cargill-Burrelton to enjoy Stevie Thomson’s family hospitality!