Peter Saunders


How to combat flak from Christians for teaching biblical sexual ethics

Peter Saunders

Anyone who presents a biblical perspective on sexual ethics on the internet will come in for a lot of criticism and be called all manner of things, especially if writing about homosexuality. 

This is entirely what we should expect. 

We live in a world that is hostile to Christian faith and values and to many people biblical sexual ethics are antiquated, bizarre, naïve, unrealistic or even unchristian.

But when that criticism comes from fellow Christians it is can be more challenging to handle.

The Evangelical Alliance’s recent survey on the views of evangelical Christians in Britain reveals that there is a wide range of views on sexual morality even amongst those who accept biblical authority. 

Only 59% of 17,000 British evangelicals surveyed in 2010, for example, ‘agreed a lot’ that ‘homosexual actions are always wrong’. 14% ‘agreed a little’, 11% were unsure, 8% disagreed a little and 8% disagreed a lot. 

And yet the Bible is very clear on this issue and the stance of the Evangelical Alliance has been very strong in recent statements. The Accepting Evangelicals group, who wish to bless gay partnerships, are a very small minority indeed.

So why are so many evangelicals so unclear? There are certainly strong pressures from the prevailing culture to adopt an unbiblical view, but I suspect it really boils down to what they are being taught (or not being taught!) in their churches. 

Are evangelical pastors and teachers equally confused, or have they just been intimidated into silence by the fear of what reaction biblical teaching on this issue might generate? 

I suspect it is largely the latter. So in this blog I have given some of the usual reactions Christians give when the issue of sexual morality is raised along with some suggested responses.

As always our best guide is the Bible itself, and so I have illustrated (and linked) each point with Scripture: 

1.  It’s unloving

It’s increasingly common to be told by Christians that telling people they can’t be true to their feelings is ‘unloving’. Above all we should love one another and that means affirming and building up and not implying that other people’s behaviour is unacceptable. 

But Jesus himself said that the commands to love God and love one another are summed up the Old Testament Law (Matthew 22:37-40). The command to ‘love your neighbour as yourself’ comes from Leviticus 19:18.

But Leviticus 19 is sandwiched immediately between Leviticus 18 & 20 where most of the explicit OT teaching on sexual morality is found. And these verses are very clear that the only context for sex is within a lifelong marriage between a man and a woman (marriage).

Furthermore all this teaching is upheld in the New Testament.

Leviticus 19:18 is preceded by the command, ‘Be holy because I, the Lord your God, am holy’ (19:2) and its immediate context is 19:17: ‘Do not hate a fellow Israelite in your heart. Rebuke your neighbour frankly so you will not share in their guilt’. 

Loving God and our neighbour involves being holy, being sexually pure and being concerned enough about our fellow believers to challenge them over sin.  Real love is willing even to risk being rejected for challenging a brother or sister because you care more about their walk with God than you do about what they think of you.

2. We shouldn’t judge

Jesus says in the Sermon on the Mount, ‘Do not judge, or you too will be judged. For in the same way you judge others, you will be judged, and with the measure you use, it will be measured to you’ (Matthew 7:1,2).

But it is clear from the wider context of Matthew that this is challenging hypocritical and judgmental attitudes and does not excuse Christians from challenging one another about sin. In fact looking out for each other in this way is a Christian duty. 

Jesus commands in Matthew 18:15-17:

‘If your brother or sister sins, go and point out their fault, just between the two of you. If they listen to you, you have won them over. But if they will not listen, take one or two others along, so that “every matter may be established by the testimony of two or three witnesses.” If they still refuse to listen, tell it to the church; and if they refuse to listen even to the church, treat them as you would a pagan or a tax collector.’

The Apostle Paul is even more explicit about the need for church discipline for sexual sin:

‘ I wrote to you in my letter not to associate with sexually immoral people— not at all meaning the people of this world who are immoral, or the greedy and swindlers, or idolaters. In that case you would have to leave this world. But now I am writing to you that you must not associate with anyone who claims to be a brother or sister but is sexually immoral or greedy, an idolater or slanderer, a drunkard or swindler. Do not even eat with such people. What business is it of mine to judge those outside the church? Are you not to judge those inside? God will judge those outside. “Expel the wicked person from among you”.’ (1 Corinthians 5:9-13)

3. It is between them and God

The Bible is very clear that sin is not simply between us and God. Sin damages the Christian community because all of us are inseparably linked as members of the body of Christ. In the body of Christ we are responsible for each other and when one falls all suffer. What damages the body is the body’s business. Furthermore sexual sin damages the body of Christ in a way that other sin does not:

‘Do you not know that your bodies are members of Christ himself? Shall I then take the members of Christ and unite them with a prostitute? Never!  Do you not know that he who unites himself with a prostitute is one with her in body? For it is said, “The two will become one flesh.”But whoever is united with the Lord is one with him in spirit. Flee from sexual immorality. All other sins a person commits are outside the body, but whoever sins sexually, sins against their own body. Do you not know that your bodies are temples of the Holy Spirit, who is in you, whom you have received from God? You are not your own; you were bought at a price. Therefore honour God with your bodies.’ (1 Corinthians 6:15-20).

4. The Gospel is about grace not law

It is of course true that we are saved by grace through faith through Jesus’ death for our sins (Ephesians 2:8, 9). It is also true that we rely on his grace and power to live holy lives. But once saved we are to imitate Christ (1 Corinthians 11:1), to walk in his footsteps (1 John 2:6), indeed to imitate God himself (Ephesians 5:1). 

We are called to ‘the obedience that comes from faith’ (Romans 1:5) and to be sanctified: avoiding sexual immorality; and learning to control our bodies in a way that is holy and honourable (1 Thessalonians 4:3,4). Furthermore God’s grace and patience is intended to lead us to repentance, not to be used as an excuse for continuing in sin (Romans 2:4). Loving God and obeying him are inextricably linked: 

‘If you love me, keep my commands… Whoever has my commands and keeps them is the one who loves me… Now remain in my love. If you keep my commands, you will remain in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commands and remain in his love… You are my friends if you do what I command. ‘ (John 14:152115:9,10,14)

5. We shouldn’t be modern day Pharisees

Absolutely not. The Pharisees ignored God’s real commands and substituted their own human traditions and made up laws for them.  They were also obsessed with outward appearances rather than any change of heart . (Matthew 15:1-20) They were hypocrites.

We should certainly not be like them, but seeking outward and inward sexual purity so that our thoughts and actions are aligned with God’s will is not being pharisaical. It is rather taking holiness seriously.

6. None of us is pure

This is of course true. Each of us misses the mark and falls short and who can say they have never looked at a man or woman who is not their wife with lust, or had an impure sexual thought? (Matthew 5:27-28)

But nonetheless we are called to a life of holiness and warned about the very real dangers of deliberately keeping on sinning after coming to a knowledge of the truth (Hebrews 10:26-31). We need to be very mindful of our own vulnerabilities but this does not absolve us of the responsibility to correct and restore one another. It is rather part of bearing one another’s burdens and fulfilling the ‘law of Christ’.

‘Brothers and sisters, if someone is caught in a sin, you who live by the Spirit should restore that person gently. But watch yourselves, or you also may be tempted. Carry each other’s burdens, and in this way you will fulfil the law of Christ.’ (Galatians 6:1,2)

7. Why don’t you preach about other sins?

Sexual immorality is of course only one sin, and we should remember that true discipleship involves teaching disciples ‘to obey everything I have commanded you’ (Matthew 28:19-20). But as we can see from the above sexual purity is very important which is why so much of Scripture is devoted to it, not just in pure didactic teaching, but through the many narratives of sexual sin put there for our warning: 

‘We should not commit sexual immorality, as some of them did—and in one day twenty-three thousand of them died...These things happened to them as examples and were written down as warnings for us, on whom the culmination of the ages has come. So, if you think you are standing firm, be careful that you don’t fall!’ (1 Corinthians 10:10-12

Pastors and teachers must teach the whole counsel of God, but neglecting areas where one is likely to encounter criticism – and this is a prime example – is not being a faithful teacher. And teachers will be judged, we are told, more strictly (James 3:1): 

‘For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth disappear, not the smallest letter, not the least stroke of a pen, will by any means disappear from the Law until everything is accomplished. Therefore anyone who sets aside one of the least of these commands and teaches others accordingly will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever practices and teaches these commands will be called great in the kingdom of heaven.’ (Matthew 5:18,19

‘A curse on anyone who is lax in doing the Lord’s work! A curse on anyone who keeps their sword from bloodshed!’ (Jeremiah 48:10)

It is essential that the sword of the Spirit, God’s word, is enabled to do its work (Hebrews 4:12).

There is of course more to holiness than sexual purity, but sexual purity is nonetheless an integral and essential part of the whole.  

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