Thursday, January 3, 2013

Sexual Morality, Part 2

Q: Thank you for this discussion regarding sex and it being appropriately confined within a "marriage". But you indicated that God views a couple as married once they have sex. So what happens in the case of premarital sex with multiple partners? Is a person only considered married, in God's eyes, to the first person they had sex with? What happens if someone, that's a virgin, has sex with someone that's not? Should the former consider themselves married while the later considers it an adulterous affair? There must be a Scriptural answer to this can-of-worms.

A: This question was pulled from the comments on the original post on Sexual Morality. If you haven't yet read that post, it is beneficial to give it a read to understand what ground has already been covered.

The commenter's questions are good ones, and they are right to point out that this is indeed a can of worms! Bucking traditional wisdom, however, we are in fact going to "open" this issue and see what happens! I should warn you ahead of time, that what follows is not likely to win me any popularity contests.

As mentioned in the previous post, the consummation of the physical act is what "marries" a man and a woman in the eyes of God. However, there is also a societal understanding of what a "marriage" is that is beyond simply the physical act, but includes much of what we'd understand to "constitute a marriage" in our own culture -- things like taking care of each other, living together, tax benefits, etc.

It becomes extremely difficult to keep these issues separated, but they are different and must not be mingled (pun only partially intended). Keeping God's view of the union between a man and a woman and societal views of that union must be taken separately to fully understand what the Bible teaches.

According to our current law in the United States, marriage is confined to one man and one woman nationally (with some States allowing for "marriage" or a "civil union" between partners of the same gender). Polygamy is currently illegal in the United States, too.

However, God is not bound by man made laws and you'll find that different places have different understandings of the "civil" or "legal" side of what does and does not constitute a "marriage." God's view is simpler and has already been covered -- the physical act of intercourse binds two individuals together spiritually for the duration of their lives (that is, the "bond" is cancelled once one or both partners dies; e.g. 1 Corinthians 7:39).

With that out of the way, let's begin tackling the questions that the commenter raised: So what happens in the case of premarital sex with multiple partners? Is a person only considered married, in God's eyes, to the first person they had sex with?

It should be stated again that "premarital sex" is only possible when viewed from the human perspective of marriage as a legal/civil union. As stated in the previous post, from God's perspective, there is no such thing as "premarital sex"! Therefore, when the physical act is consummated, the person is "joined" or "married" to their partner... this is both a physical and spiritual reality (although the spiritual reality endures far longer than the physical!).

God is not concerned about the ceremony, the dress, the tuxedo, and the cake. This is why, traditionally, the consummation of the marriage should take place after the ceremony! Regardless of the ceremony, the reality of this understanding is that you are spiritually joined to each and every person you have ever physically been joined to. This is why it is beneficial that you only be joined to a person whom you have made a commitment to stay faithful to 'till death do you part. The failure to keep the physical act safely within the context of a legal marriage results in complications and problems down the road as the fruit of this "sin."

While our man made laws do not recognize multiple spouses as being legitimate, the Bible has no problem referring to multiple "wives" in situations where the culture allowed for such (e.g. 1 Samuel 1:1-2; or Solomon and his many concubines). The cultural allowance for such a reality is really inconsequential -- God designed marriage to be between one man and one woman, so any variance from this design (whether legal or not) is "adulterous" and sinful.

God consistently emphasizes "holiness" and "purity" throughout His laws. If the male and female counterparts of our human race are designed to be joined together in a special way - For this reason a man shall leave his father and his mother, and be joined to his wife; and they shall become one flesh (Genesis 2:24, NASB) - and if this joining is permanent, then something gets defiled when this new entity is then joined with another.

Think of mixing two liquids together - one glass of blue liquid and one glass of yellow liquid. What happens is that when they are "married" they become something new: green. You can "divorce" this new creation by separating the liquid back into their original containers, but they are still green because they've been fundamentally changed into something different. If you mix this green with something else, it will change again as it is being joined with something else that will further change the substance again.

Consider now that only one partner (or glass from the above metaphor) is joined to another, then the defilement will alter the "mixture" and make it something less than pure. The more additions that are made to the mix, the less pure it is.

Many people struggle with intimacy in their marriages and are unsure of the root cause. Much of this can be traced back to "adulterous" relationships - either from the past or from the present.

Remember, that according to Jesus in Matthew 5:28, even looking with lust is committing adultery in your heart. This is why pornography is such a disastrous scourge - something that so many people think is "no big deal" and that is even acceptable among many who call themselves Christians!

God was not kidding when He warned in the book of Hebrews:

Marriage is to be held in honor among all, and the marriage bed is to be undefiled; for fornicators and adulterers God will judge. (Hebrews 13:4, NASB)

This may seem like a long answer to a short question, but No, you are not only viewed as married to the first person you had a sexual relationship with. In God's view, you are "joined" with all of them until death dissolves the bond!

Some may object to this saying, if this is true, then there are tons of people who are adulterers that don't even know it.

Sadly, yes.

In fact, that passage from Matthew 5 teaches that people who have only had one sexual partner, and even virgins, can be adulterers!

In a culture where sex is used to sell everything from alcohol to lawnmowers, is it any wonder why the divorce rate is skyrocketing? We have failed to keep the marriage bed undefiled by allowing, at the very least, our eyes to feast on flesh, and the result is a diminished capacity for sexual fulfillment and intimacy within even the confines of "faithful marriages." God hates divorce (Malachi 2:16) and we should too. It's painful. It's disastrous. And we are fooling ourselves if we think it will get better by further joining ourselves to another partner and mingling more people into the mix!

Before you get mad at me (too late?), it is important to understand that Jesus taught this same principle to His disciples and they thought it was hard, too.

He said to them, "Because of your hardness of heart Moses permitted you to divorce your wives; but from the beginning it has not been this way. And I say to you, whoever divorces his wife, except for immorality, and marries another woman commits adultery." The disciples said to Him, "If the relationship of the man with his wife is like this, it is better not to marry." But He said to them, "Not all men can accept this statement, but only those to whom it has been given. For there are eunuchs who were born that way from their mother's womb; and there are eunuchs who were made eunuchs by men; and there are also eunuchs who made themselves eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of heaven. He who is able to accept this, let him accept it." (Matthew 19:8-12, NASB)

Jesus taught that re-marriage is adultery. The disciples said this was hard to accept, and Jesus responds by referring to three categories of "eunuchs." A eunuch is someone who is unable to engage in the physical act of sexual intercourse.

Some are unable to engage in this act because of some birth defect or trauma. Others are unable to engage in this act because they have been physically altered (i.e. via castration). The third category of eunuch is one who disqualifies themselves from ability to engage in intercourse for the sake of the kingdom of heaven (i.e. becomes celibate to not be an adulterer).

Jesus knew this was hard, so he finished by saying "He who is able to accept this, let him accept it." Jesus taught a lot of hard stuff ... very rarely does he add this disclaimer! This is one of his hardest teachings!

This truth can sometimes cause people to panic, especially those who have had multiple partners in the past and those who have been re-married. If that's you, you should take a moment to meditate on the glorious truth of Romans 8:1. It may also be helpful to read What is Salvation? Part 1, and thank God for His amazing gift of salvation from the penalty from our past sins!

Instead of trying to convince ourselves of our purity before God, we should rejoice in the fact that He did all the work to make us pure in His sight despite our disgusting mess:

For we also once were foolish ourselves, disobedient, deceived, enslaved to various lusts and pleasures, spending our life in malice and envy, hateful, hating one another. But when the kindness of God our Savior and His love for mankind appeared, He saved us, not on the basis of deeds which we have done in righteousness, but according to His mercy, by the washing of regeneration and renewing by the Holy Spirit, whom He poured out upon us richly through Jesus Christ our Savior, so that being justified by His grace we would be made heirs according to the hope of eternal life. (Titus 3:3-7, NASB)

God is interested in faithfulness and purity in His people - and He has saved us from the power of sin (see What is Salvation? Part 2 for more on this) so that we will walk in holiness now. This means that regardless of our past discretions, we should strive to walk in purity before Him now and for the rest of the days He chooses to give us by the power of His Holy Spirit.

This means that if you are married, you should remain faithful to your current spouse. You do not have less of a connection to them than you did to any previous sexual partners, even the "first." In fact, the Scriptures indicate that the mingling of your spirit and flesh with a new partner has "defiled" your previous spouse to you in the case of prior marriages (see Deuteronomy 24:1-4; notice that even if the subsequent marriage is dissolved via death, v. 3, still they should not come back together!).

If you are unmarried, you should consider staying that way as the unmarried person has advantages in their walk with Christ - see for example 1 Corinthians 7:1, 8, 32-35. This is especially true if you have had previous sexual partners and/or have been married previously.

As I've already said, this teaching isn't going to win any popularity contests!

Finally let's try and address the last two specific questions that were raised: What happens if someone, that's a virgin, has sex with someone that's not? Should the former consider themselves married while the later considers it an adulterous affair?

Really, the answer to the first question is simple: they are joined together just like anyone else. The problem is that there will be extra complications for the "non-virgin" partner, which will in turn affect their relationship with the "virgin" partner and make it difficult for them to find pure, unadulterated intimacy with each other as a result of the past "mingling" of spirit/flesh.

Anyone who has had multiple sexual partners or who has engaged in gratifying their various lusts through pornography or even romance novels can attest to the fact that these decisions do not simplify their life but rather complicate it! In addition, these things often cause dissatisfaction with our partners and a growing void that needs to constantly be "satisfied" (regardless of how fleeting and temporary these fixes may be) instead of fostering a sense of lasting joy and fulfillment (which is God's good design for the marriage bed).

Those who save themselves for marriage often find intimacy to be much easier, but pornography and other forms of "romantic/sexual" fantasies can breed the same problems as a result of adultery (of the heart).

Lastly, the person who wants to take the Bible at face value should view every sexual encounter as "marriage" regardless of the number of previous partners. The final question unfortunately mingles the categories of God's perspective and man's. An "adulterous affair" is any sexual relationship outside of the confines of a "legal marriage." Adultery from God's perspective is much harder to avoid.

The can of worms is really more complicated than it even seems, because each of these questions requires follow up questions, clarification, and qualifiers. Has the "virgin" also remained pure in their thought life? Have the hypothetical partners above entered into a legal "marriage" via a ceremony, or are these simply illicit sexual encounters? If these are simply examples of promiscuity then we have been discussing the wrong issue, since this is better described by "fornication" and not "adultery." Neither class of sexual sin is dealt with lightly in the Scriptures (e.g. both are listed in 1 Corinthians 6:9), despite their differences.

If this view that I'm presenting regarding adultery is accurate, then virtually no one can claim that they have kept the 7th commandment: Thou shall not commit adultery.

This is terrible news, because 1 Corinthians 6:9 states that no adulterer will inherit the kingdom of God!

Praise God for His amazing gift, that through Christ we may receive the righteousness that we need:

He made Him who knew no sin to be sin on our behalf, so that we might become the righteousness of God in Him. (2 Corinthians 5:21, NASB)


It is only by being rescued from our sins and walking in the power of the Holy Spirit that we can hope to walk in purity before our God. We have fallen woefully short, but His grace abounds!

The Law came in so that the transgression would increase; but where sin increased, grace abounded all the more, so that, as sin reigned in death, even so grace would reign through righteousness to eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord. What shall we say then? Are we to continue in sin so that grace may increase? May it never be! How shall we who died to sin still live in it? Or do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus have been baptized into His death? Therefore we have been buried with Him through baptism into death, so that as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life. (Romans 5:20-6:4, NASB)


Tuesday, January 1, 2013

Sexual Morality

Q: The Bible teaches people to abstain from “sexual immorality.” How am I supposed to know what this means?

A: This is a very observant question, as there are a number of passages throughout the Scriptures that explicitly condemn "sexual immorality" without a description of exactly what this means! As a result, you will find a great range of answers to a question like this, especially amongst different denominations.

Unfortunately, many of the disagreements in this particular area are not based on careful examination or exegesis of the Scriptures, but are really a product of personal preferences and cultural mores. While some of these "definitions" are probably better than others, it is always dangerous to allow our culture to interpret the Scriptures instead of the Scriptures interpreting our culture (Romans 12:1-2) -- especially when living in a "sex crazed" culture such as ours!

Sex is a touchy topic, and unfortunately one that is not discussed much within the Church. That probably seems strange... but I mean exactly that: the Church should talk more about sex than it does, because when the Church fails to allow the light of the revelation of God to shine in different areas, we should not be surprised to find that these same areas drift into darkness.

When a society moves into moral relativism (a direction in which the United States is moving further and further with each passing moment), sin abounds. We are not the first to "experiment" with doing what is right in our own eyes. Just take some time to read through the book of Judges sometime to see what can happen when everyone does what is right in their own eyes ... it isn't pretty!

Instead of walking in the darkness, Jesus calls us to follow Him and walk in the light (John 8:12). The Church has been entrusted with the revelation of God (Jude 1:3) and is supposed to serve as the "pillar and support of the truth" so that believers may know how to conduct themselves, both in the Church and in the world (1 Timothy 3:15; 2 Timothy 3:16-17; Colossians 4:5). Therefore, when the Church stops teaching on sex, this important area of human experience drifts into darkness. We sometimes think we are being "proper" by failing to talk about such things, but in reality the Scriptures have a lot to say about sex! To fail to discuss matters relating to human sexuality is to fail to teach the full counsel of God.

Some think it is good and right to ignore topics relating to human sexuality because they believe that sex itself is inherently sinful. Some have even based this "teaching" on passages such as the following:

Behold, I was brought forth in iniquity, And in sin my mother conceived me. (Psalm 51:5, NASB)

However, this is not the best way to understand this passage. Instead, David is pointing to his depraved and fallen state, expressing that he himself was "in sin" from the moment of conception, not that his conception was a result of a sinful sexual act by his parents. The whole Psalm is about David's personal guilt and the interpretation that this is describing "sex" as sinful is simply forced. The NET Bible has a good note on this passage which is worth quoting in full:

Heb "Look, in wrongdoing I was brought forth, and in sin my mother conceived me." The prefixed verbal form in the second line is probably a preterite (without vav [w] consecutive), stating a simple historical fact. The psalmist is not suggesting that he was conceived through an inappropriate sexual relationship (although the verse has sometimes been understood to mean that, or even that all sexual relationships are sinful). The psalmist's point is that he has been a sinner from the very moment his personal existence began. By going back beyond the time of birth to the moment of conception, the psalmist makes his point more emphatically in the second line than in the first.

In fact, to interpret this passage to mean that sexual intercourse is inherently sinful causes severe problems with the rest of the Scriptures. God created humanity in His image and commanded that they be fruitful and multiply, which is essentially a command to have sexual relations since that is how human beings reproduce! God does not command us to sin.

Similarly, in the New Testament, the Scriptures teach that it is not beneficial for married couples to abstain from sexual relations for a long period of time:

Now concerning the things about which you wrote, it is good for a man not to touch a woman. But because of immoralities, each man is to have his own wife, and each woman is to have her own husband. The husband must fulfill his duty to his wife, and likewise also the wife to her husband. The wife does not have authority over her own body, but the husband does; and likewise also the husband does not have authority over his own body, but the wife does. Stop depriving one another, except by agreement for a time, so that you may devote yourselves to prayer, and come together again so that Satan will not tempt you because of your lack of self-control. (1 Corinthians 7:1-5, NASB)

Notice two things about this passage: First, Paul writes under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit that "because of immoralities, each man is to have his own wife, and each woman is to have her own husband." The solution to "sexual immorality" is not to abstain from sexual relations, but to have a healthy sexual relationship with your spouse. In this passage Paul is explicitly teaching that the best antidote to sexual immorality is a healthy dose of moral sexual behavior!

Secondly, Paul teaches that to abstain from healthy sexual behavior for too long is not a good thing, because this creates opportunity for Satan to tempt us through our lack of self-control.

However, this still doesn't fully answer the question of what is "sexually moral" behavior. Paul seems to be operating on an assumption that his readers understand what is appropriate sexual behavior and what is not and he is not interested in giving a list of "approved sexual behaviors." In fact, the Scriptures consistently take this tact -- never resorting to explicit uses of imagery or language that will arouse the various lusts and impulses of the flesh. The Scriptures are not meant to tempt us, but to train us in righteousness and holiness and to point us to Christ.

As a result, we can have some difficulties if we are expecting that the Lord will simply provide a list of "approved" sexual acts. This would be borderline pornographic, which is why I believe we do not see such a list.

Some groups have made the error of attempting to validate certain sexual behaviors through finding "examples" of such behavior that are not explicitly condemned as sinful in the Scriptures. An example of this is the teaching that polygamy is a valid practice based on the actions of the Patriarchs (e.g. Jacob). This is a serious error, since the Bible records faithfully the sinful acts of many people. It is sobering to realize that there is only one person in all of Scripture who was without sin: Jesus. Everyone else -- every "hero" of the faith -- is terribly sinful compared to a righteous God. To interpret what happened in the lives of sinful people, especially in narrative accounts, as what ought to happen is a mistake.

To make better sense of all of this, it is good to turn our attention to the heart of the question above: How are we supposed to know what "sexual immorality" is? The Scriptures define both negative ("Don't") and positive ("Do") commands and affirmations. To best understand the negative (abstain from sexual immorality) it is helpful to understand the positive; namely, what is the scriptural definition of "sexual morality"? If we know what is "sexually moral" then we know that anything outside of this is "sexually immoral."

The definition of sexual morality is given very early in the Scriptures:

For this reason a man shall leave his father and his mother, and be joined to his wife; and they shall become one flesh. (Genesis 2:24, NASB)

As a part of God's very good original creation, and in order for the Man (both male and female, see Genesis 1:27) to fulfill his purpose multiplying over the face of the earth and of ruling over the earth and subduing it, there was given the institution of "marriage between a man and a woman."

One man, one woman, for the purpose of fulfilling God's plan.

Have you ever thought about the fact that the sexual relationship between a man and a woman is the most powerful creative act that human beings can engage in? The sexual act is the only way that the most amazing creation of our God (another human being) can be formed! No wonder this powerful act can be so dangerous when corrupted from its original design and intention!

If we understand this passage to be the definition of "sexual morality" -- i.e. the moral place for sexual relationships is within the monogamous confines of a relationship between one man and one woman -- then we can see that the Scriptures do not need to condemn polygamy when it is described later in Genesis (and throughout the Scriptures) because it has already defined sexually moral behavior and polygamy falls outside of that scope!

Likewise, if we understand that this is how the Scriptures define the moral sexual relationship, now we can understand the seeming "silence" of the Scriptures on issues like "premarital sex." I've heard some claim that the Bible doesn't ever condemn premarital sex, so therefore, sex before marriage isn't part of "sexual immorality."

However, can you find a Scripture that defines a marriage ceremony like what we practice today? I bet you can't....

How does the Bible define "marriage"?

There are a number of passages that could be quoted, but perhaps the clearest is found in Deuteronomy 21:13b -- ...and after that you may go in to her and be her husband and she shall be your wife. (Deuteronomy 21:13, NASB)

This passage explicitly states that the consummation of the physical act of intercourse is what joins a man and a woman together as husband and wife! So why doesn't the Bible discuss "premarital sex"? Because there is no such thing!

The moment the physical act is consummated, the two are joined together in the eyes of God until the death of one or both partners. God is serious about sex!

Re-read Genesis 2:24 -- For this reason a man shall leave his father and his mother, and be joined to his wife; and they shall become one flesh.

There is no need for an "officiant" and witnesses and a party or any of that stuff ... once they are "joined" they are one. This doesn't diminish the importance of a ceremony and the rest, but it does point to the fact that marriage is not exactly the same in the eyes of God as it is in the eyes of our society. The ceremony is supposed to point to the commitment to stay faithful to each other. However, even our laws represent an understanding that the "marriage" is only valid if it has been consummated.

If this positive understanding of "sexual morality" is right, this helps us to understand the negative commands even more clearly as there are some things which God commands that be refrained from even within the confines of marriage. The Law recorded several prohibitions regarding sexual conduct that applied to the nation of Israel in particular. The Church is no longer under the Law, but these principles are still valuable for us to understand (2 Timothy 3:16-17). Space does not permit us to examine each of these in great detail, but it is worth a prayerful read through the Pentateuch (i.e. the first five books of the Hebrew Bible: Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy) to see how God discusses sexual relations between husbands and wives.

There is one final aspect of Scriptural teaching in the New Testament that must be understood as it relates to "sexual morality." Jesus defined the 7th Commandment to be more than simply the outward act of marital unfaithfulness by extending it even to the thoughts and intentions of the heart.

You have heard that it was said, 'YOU SHALL NOT COMMIT ADULTERY'; but I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lust for her has already committed adultery with her in his heart. (Matthew 5:27-28, NASB)

Simply put, this means that God intends for 100% of all sexual fulfillment to be had within the confines of the marriage relationship. This includes physical, emotional, and mental fulfillment. Since this is the case, it makes even more sense why God would inspire Paul to write what was already quoted above from his letter to the Corinthians:

But because of immoralities, each man is to have his own wife, and each woman is to have her own husband. The husband must fulfill his duty to his wife, and likewise also the wife to her husband. The wife does not have authority over her own body, but the husband does; and likewise also the husband does not have authority over his own body, but the wife does. Stop depriving one another, except by agreement for a time, so that you may devote yourselves to prayer, and come together again so that Satan will not tempt you because of your lack of self-control. (1 Corinthians 7:2-5, NASB)

Sex is not sinful by itself, and it is not wrong to be enjoyed. In fact, there is an entire book devoted to the joy of sexual morality in the Scriptures: Song of Solomon. As a result of the overtly sexual nature of this book, it has been debated as to whether or not this belongs in the Scriptures (since it seems to clearly be talking about sex), and once it was decided that it would be inappropriate to remove this book from the canon, various "spiritual" interpretations were suggested (especially by Christian believers) that make the book about something other than sex (most often, as an allegory for Christ and the Church).

I am in agreement with John MacArthur about the proper interpretation and handling of Song of Solomon. MacArthur wrote a good 5-part blog post (the first part is available here, and the interested reader can find the links to the next parts at the bottom of that page) in response to the opposite error of making the Song a "how to manual" with commands to engage in certain explicit acts by another famous pastor, which is worth reading in its entirety.

The major point is this: the Scriptures define "sexual morality" as the complete (100%) fulfillment of all sexual activity (whether physical, emotional, or mental) within the confines of a marriage between one man and one woman. Other scriptural prohibitions regarding sexual activity should therefore be understood as applying to the marriage relationship and further defining and restraining sexual fulfillment. These restrictions are not meant to prohibit sexual activity, but instead to properly focus all sexual activity in a way that is God-honoring and holy. Failure to operate within these parameters as created by God is to be "sexually immoral."

Sex is a gift from God, and when understood and used properly it is a beautiful thing. As the most powerful creative act that human beings can engage in, it is also extremely dangerous when perverted and used outside of the parameters of "sexual morality." Hopefully, this helps shed some light on this topic so that you may walk in holiness and purity before your God!

1 Thessalonians 4:1-8

(A follow up question was asked in the comments and addressed in Part 2)