In what is one of the first New Testament books written, St. Paul says, “Finally, then, brothers, we ask and urge you in the Lord Jesus, that as you received from us how you ought to walk and to please God, just as you are doing, that you do so more and more. For you know what instructions we gave you through the Lord Jesus. For this is the will of God, your sanctification: that you abstain from sexual immorality; that each one of you know how to control his own body in holiness and honor, not in the passion of lust like the Gentiles who do not know God; that no one transgress and wrong his brother in this matter, because the Lord is an avenger in all these things, as we told you beforehand and solemnly warned you. For God has not called us for impurity, but in holiness” (1 Thess 4:1-7).
It immediately becomes obvious that Paul focuses upon sexual conduct as he talks about walking in a way that pleases God. What we find in this early letter is something that is repeated again and again in the letters of the New Testament (Rom 1:24-27; 1 Cor 5:1-13; 6:9-20; 7:1-9; Gal 5:19-21; Eph 5:3-6; Col 3:5-6; 1 Tim 1:8-11; Heb 13:4; 1 Pet 4:1-6). The New Testament writers admonish the early Christians against adultery, fornication and homosexuality. Sexual purity stands out as a significant part of the Christian life.
This emphasis is the all the more obvious because of what has happened in our world since the “sexual revolution” arrived during the 1960’s. We live in a world that this awash in provocative and sexually explicit images – in print, on television and on the internet. Pornography has embraced each new technology, and now online use has exploded. Much of the music in our culture focuses upon sex. It is considered “normal” for couples who are dating to have sex. Cohabitation has become common and ordinary. Homosexuality receives ever growing acceptance as institutions such as the media and higher education promote it, and marriage is “redefined” to include same sex couples.
The Church faces incredible challenges a she seeks to be faithful to God’s Word. She faces the challenge of catechizing youth in a world where everything around them says that they should use sex in any way they want. Cohabitation presents tremendous pastoral challenges, and in many places pastors for all intents and purposes ignore the problem, because to do otherwise risks the angering of the couple (and their parents) and the loss of congregation members to the congregation down the road whose pastor is willing to ignore it.
Can the Church really be expected to hold to the instruction provided in Scripture about sexual conduct in a world that overwhelmingly contradicts this teaching? Isn’t this asking too much? When considering this issue, it is helpful to consider the setting in which the New Testament texts were written.
Kyle Harper has written a book entitled From Shame to Sin: The Christian Transformation of Sexuality in Late Antiquity. In his glowing review of this important work, noted scholar Peter Brown has provided a helpful summary of Harper’s research. In the Greco-Roman world sex outside of marriage was extremely common and acceptable, as long as it was sex with the right kind of person. Brown writes:
What mattered, in Roman law and in Roman sexual morality, had little to do with sex. It had everything to do with whose bodies could be enjoyed with impunity and whose could not be touched without elaborate formulas of consent.
The joys of sex were there for all. Harper shows how the puritanism of the Romans in relation to their own spouses has been greatly exaggerated. But the primary school of sexual endeavor remained, to an unusual degree, the bodies of slaves—along with the bodies of the poor and of prostitutes, who were all too easily sucked into the gravitational field of dishonor associated with outright slavery. Then Harper sums up his feelings: “The laws deflected lust away from the freeborn body, and slaves provided a ready outlet.”
This is the setting the New Testament writers addressed. And their message was uncompromising, even though it directly contradicted the operation of the culture. Brown goes on to say:
It no longer mattered, to Christians, with whose bodies, from which social categories, and in what manner sex might happen. From Paul onward, for Christians, there was right sex—sex between spouses for the production of children; wrong sex—sex outside marriage; and abhorrent sex—sex between same-sex partners. Wrong sex of any kind was a sin. And a sin was a sin. It was not a social faux pas, deemed an outrage in one situation and accepted in another.At the beginning of the twenty first century an alternative ordering of the moral frontiers within society has become not only thinkable, but it has in fact become dominant. Once again, the Church preaches and teaches a message about sex that opposes the culture. But that fact does not change what the biblical texts say. It does not change God’s will and ordering of creation. If we are to be faithful to God’s Word, then we must once again be uncompromising. We must accept the costs of doing so because “success” can only be measured on the basis of our fidelity to God’s Word.
Seldom has so great a simplification been imposed on a complex society. The unexpected victory of Christian norms in the fourth, fifth, and sixth centuries was so thorough that any alternative ordering of moral frontiers within a society became unthinkable.