Holiness and Sexuality

In August David Peterson gave the Mathew Hale Public Lecture for 2015 entitled “Holy Book and Holy Living” at the Mathew Hale Library in Brisbane. This is his abridgement of his lecture.  Copies of the full text of the lecture may be purchased from the Library.

Rev Dr David Peterson is a New Testament scholar, formerly Principal of Oak Hill Theological College in the U.K., now back at Moore College in Sydney.

In the debates that have taken place about homosexuality and gay marriage, many Christians have sold out to secular values. Critical to the whole matter is the question of biblical interpretation and authority.  It is clear from Paul's broader teaching about marriage and sexuality that he was one with Jesus in endorsing the principles of the Mosaic Law and applying them to believers under the New Covenant. A good example is found in 1 Thessalonians 4:1-12.

Discerning the will of God

When Paul first shared the message of the gospel with his predominantly pagan converts (1:9-10), he gave them specific ethical guidelines (4:1, 'how to live in order to please God'). And he did this 'by the authority of the Lord Jesus' (4:2), as his commissioned representative.

The apostle regarded the will of God as the ultimate guide to human behaviour. In line with biblical teaching, he therefore declared that the essential will of God is that his people should be holy in all their conduct (cf. Leviticus 11:44-5; 19:2; 20:7; 1 Peter 1:15-16). But what that means in practical terms needed to be explained, since the apostle did not regard Christians as being under the written code of the Mosaic law (cf. Romans 7:1-6; 2 Corinthians 3:1-18). Paul endorsed and re-presented Old Testament ethical teaching in ways that are relevant and applicable to Christians living in the Gentile world.

Bodies devoted to God's service

Paul's first point is that holiness must be exhibited in the sexual realm. This is consistent with Leviticus 18, where regulations about unlawful sexual relations come first in a section about ethical holiness (Leviticus 18-20). The command that a man should not  'have sexual relations with a man as one does with a woman' is found in 18:22.  'Chastity is not the whole of sanctification, but it is an important element in it, and one which had to be specially stressed in the Greco-Roman world of that day.'1

Various forms of extra-marital sexual union were widely tolerated and some were even encouraged. Sexual indulgence was often associated with the practice of religious cults and there was no widespread public opinion to discourage immorality.  It hardly needs to be pointed out that contemporary Christians find themselves in a similar ethical environment. But when the gospel is introduced into a culture it demands a new way of life in those who believe it.

Paul's claim that holiness must be expressed by abstaining from sexual immorality (1 Thessalonians 4:3, Greek porneia) is explained in vv. 4-7, where it appears that any form of sexual relationship outside marriage is covered by the term.2 If our bodies belong to the Lord, we are no longer free to use them selfishly or in accordance with the accepted values of the time. They must be kept or controlled 'in holiness and honour' (ESV, cf. 1 Corinthians 6:20; Romans 12:1).3 Those who have come to know God in Jesus Christ will treat their bodies as his property.

Love and holiness

Paul warns against the social consequences of sexual indulgence in v. 6.  Christians must beware of trespassing against brothers and sisters in Christ by behaving covetously. This theme is developed in vv. 9-10, where a close link between holiness and love is made.  By crossing forbidden sexual boundaries, we may enrich ourselves at someone else's expense. Husbands, parents, and other family members are all hurt when someone is seduced into an improper relationship.  The Lord Jesus himself is 'an avenger in all these things' and will inflict the appropriate judgment on those who disregard his will (v. 6b; cf. 2 Thessalonians 1:6-10).

Love of neighbour was central to the demand for holiness in the Mosaic Law (Leviticus 19:18). As in Leviticus 18-19, love and sexual purity come together in 1 Thessalonians 4. Love for those who are struggling with sexual temptation does not mean lowering the standards that God has set for his people. As a fellowship of believers we are bound to support and help those who struggle with sexual temptation or failure.

Conclusion

In current debates among Christians about sexuality, holiness hardly ever surfaces as the controlling idea. Fundamental to this notion is the challenge to be different from the culture around us in values and behaviour. Biblical authority is also dangerously challenged and undermined in these debates. If, in our desire to show love to those who are same-sex attracted, we abandon the biblical teaching about marriage and sexuality, we dishonour God, obscure his best intentions for humanity, and show the world that the Bible is no longer to be taken seriously. It is merely the play-thing from which to formulate a new version of Christianity suitable for the people of the 21st century.

 

1 Frederick F. Bruce, 1 & 2 Thessalonians (Waco: Word, 1982), 82. He discusses the sexual mores of the Greek world more fully on pp.86-87.

 

2 Cf. Horst Reisser, New International Dictionary of New TestamentTheology Vol. 1 (Exeter: Paternoster, 1975): 497-501. The word group can describe various modes of extra-marital sex 'insofar as they deviate from accepted social and religious norms (e.g. homosexuality, promiscuity, paedophilia, and especially prostitution)' (p. 497).

3  'To control his own body'(ESV, NIV) is a more appropriate rendering of the Greek in this context than 'to take a wife for himself' (ESV margin) or 'to live with his own wife' (NIV margin).