Morality Ch. 8: Sexual Immorality

Can a converted sexual hedonist ever feel clean again? Most New Testament converts came from a more licentious lifestyle than a porn star. They found a solution.

When I was a teenager a friend told me about an embarrassing experience of “evangelism.” His church decided that the best way to attract new members was to stand and sing on the church steps. Predictably, they were largely ignored, but then a “lady of the street” who was walking past stopped to look up at them. My friend climbed down to give her a printed invitation to the church. When he returned to the group he was met by a scowling elder and the reprimand: “We aren’t looking for that sort of member.”

Ancient Jews were much more horrified by sexual immorality than even the most conservative Christian today, but if early Christians had separated themselves from anyone who was sexually immoral, the church would have grown very slowly. In Roman society, boys were encouraged to experiment sexually from a young age – at about fourteen years, parents gave them a ring of manhood that was often engraved with an erect phallus. It is unlikely that any male got married as a virgin – though, hypocritically, all girls were expected to be virgins when they first married.

Prostitutes were everywhere. Corinth, for example, was a sailors’ city, with all the amenities they demanded and a reputation to match. But it was not much better elsewhere because most Roman cities emulated the vices of their capital. In the ruins of the upper-class provincial town of Pompeii, where many rich Romans had their holiday villas, there are twenty-six buildings that appear to be brothels – one for every sixty homes. Prostitutes were found even in morally principled Palestine, especially after the Roman soldiers began their occupation shortly before Jesus’ birth. Jesus isn’t just being metaphorical when he calls his contemporaries an “adulterous and sinful generation” (Mark 8:38), and we shouldn’t be surprised to read in the Gospel accounts that prostitutes were among his listeners.

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Internal filth

The Pharisees were particularly aghast when Jesus ate with “tax collectors and sinners” (Matt 9:11). Tax collectors were bad enough – they had collaborated with the occupying army in return for a rich lifestyle. But much worse were the “sinners.” These were women, and perhaps boys, whom the tax collectors provided for the “pleasure” of their dinner guests, just like their new overlords the Romans did. While most Jews strenuously avoided contamination with anyone or anything they regarded as sinful or impure, Jesus mixed with everyone. He wasn’t concerned to keep himself ceremonially pure and didn’t even worry about preserving his reputation. He loved people from all walks of life and wanted to show them the love of God. Jesus tells the Pharisees their concerns about physical impurity are misdirected because sin does not originate from external contamination, but “evil thoughts … sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery ... come from inside” (Mark 7:21-23).

Jesus isn’t trying to annoy these religious leaders. He is trying to shame them into repentance. Those people whom they call “sinners” do at least recognize their need for forgiveness, and large numbers do repent. The early church contained many who had been grossly sexually immoral. Because it was the normal sexual lifestyle of Roman society, those who weren’t sex workers themselves had probably been their clients. Almost every New Testament letter warns against sexual immorality because of the many believers who could easily slide back into their former habits.

What did the church do when believers fell into sexual sin? In serious cases, such as the believer who was sleeping with his stepmother, they were expelled from the fellowship (1 Cor 5:1-5). However, this wasn’t permanent – Paul urges the Corinthians to let the excluded member back in after he’s had time to repent (2 Cor 2:5-7). Many other believers in Corinth were guilty of sexual sin, but thankfully to a lesser degree. Paul reminds them that the “sexually immoral [and] adulterers” are not part of the kingdom and then says: “That is what some of you were, but you were washed and sanctified and justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ” (1 Cor 6:9-11). Jesus has forgiven them, and that is good enough for Paul. Nevertheless, a few verses later he has to remind them that visiting prostitutes is wrong now that they are Christians (vv. 15-20).

A one-woman man

In contrast to ordinary believers, church leaders had to be totally free of sexual sin. The young evangelists Timothy and Titus are warned not to appoint anyone who is in love with money, alcohol, violence, or sex, and Paul says that a leader should be (literally) “a man of one woman” (1 Tim 3:1-12; Titus 1:6-9). This phrase was a male version of the Latin univira (“one-man”), which was commonly used to describe faithful wives. No one but Paul used this male version of the phrase – it would have been nonsensical because almost no Roman male could or wanted to be described as a one-woman man. In ruling that Christian leaders should be unfailingly faithful to their wives, the church was therefore making a dramatic stand.

Can sexual sin be totally forgiven? King David discovered that sexual sin can have endless consequences – he sent Bathsheba’s husband to certain death at the most dangerous part of the front line. But David also finds forgiveness through painfully sincere repentance, as Psalm 51 testifies. There is also room for repentance when Israel commits “adultery” with other gods. Even after God is forced to divorce Israel because of her persistent refusal to stop being unfaithful, he still urges her to repent and offers to marry her again (Jer 3:1-14; 31:1-4; Isa 62:4-5).

Neither the Old nor New Testament puts blame on sex workers themselves. The enticing wayward woman of Proverbs is criticized, but she is a married woman (Prov 5:1-20). However, temple prostitutes (the qedeshah) aren’t criticized, though those who sell women into this trade and the men who use them certainly are criticized (Deut 23:17; Hos 4:14). Former sex workers were accepted back into society, and any Israelites, including the religious Levites, could marry one. It is true that a priest couldn’t marry a prostitute – but then he couldn’t marry a widow or a rape victim either, so this had nothing to do with any guilt perceived in the woman (Lev 21:7). Rahab is described as “prostitute” (zanah) in Joshua 2:1; 6:17 and (in case the reader has forgotten) in 6:25. According to Jewish tradition, she later married Salmon, the grandfather of King David, and she is named in the genealogy of Jesus (Matt 1:5).

Both Testaments therefore have the same commands to avoid sexual immorality, and in both cases this was countercultural. The ancient Near Eastern world and Roman society were even less concerned about sexual immorality than modern Western society, as far as men were concerned, though of course wives had to remain pure. In Israel and the church, both sexes were expected to follow a path of sexual purity, though both fully accepted someone who repented. That this command is changeless and countercultural means that it is timeless.

What to do with offenders?

The church has been rightly castigated for its many sexual scandals, which we now recognize have occurred because the command against sexual immorality has not been followed. Checks on church workers and volunteers now enforce the vigilance that should have been present before. However, this new climate can also make us much less accepting of offenders, even if they truly repent. Just as offenses remain on a register, they remain as a permanent blot on someone’s record. This can make us reluctant to accept people with a questionable history, even in a church that preaches forgiveness.

It is vital that we protect our children and vulnerable adults from predators, but it is also vital for the church to recognize the possibility of genuine repentance and new life. Accepting someone with a history of sexual sin into our church is no different from welcoming someone who repented from fraudulent business practices or repeated dangerous driving. They can all reoffend, and the responsibilities we do or do not give them need to reflect that possibility, but with sensible guidelines and willing cooperation on both sides there is no reason why past convictions should marginalize people in God’s family.

God was willing, as a husband, to forgive even the gross, repeated adultery of Israel. He promised not only to forgive her, but even regard her as if it had never happened, because the prophets say that he wanted to marry her as if she were a virgin again! (Isa 62:1-5). He has not only commanded forgiveness after immorality, but demonstrates that his forgiveness is unlimited toward those who repent.

This was previously published in a similar form in Christianity magazine

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