It Isn’t Really About Sex
Harvest USA is a ministry focused on issues of sexuality and gender. It’s not surprising, then, that people often ask us for advice on how to respond to our current culture. How do I get beyond complaints and diatribes about non-Christian ideas in the world around us? Should I engage in political action? What must I do when my neighbors and colleagues push non-Christian views? How do I raise kids in this environment? How do we keep the Church from capitulating in the area of sexuality?
These are urgent and complicated questions. I believe the beginning of an answer to them is one of perspective: It’s not really about sex.
How we address those outside the Church
Throughout the Bible, concern for sexual morality is directed inward, to God’s people, not outward to the world. It is most often associated with expressing holiness, by which is meant being set apart to belong to the LORD. It is always assumed that the people and cultures of the world will be sexually immoral, and, even when that fact is mentioned, it is usually in the context of calling Christians to self-consciously differentiate themselves in that respect. So, for instance, the lists of sexuality rules in Leviticus are framed by, “You shall not do as they do in the land of Egypt, where you lived, and you shall not do as they do in the land of Canaan, to which I am bringing you. You shall not walk in their statutes” (Leviticus 18:3). Sexuality was one significant area of application of the principal of having been set apart to belong to God: “You shall be holy to me, for I the LORD am holy and have separated you from the peoples, that you should be mine” (Leviticus 20:26).
This is exactly the way sexual morality is framed in the New Testament as well, but with the added expectation that even while our beliefs and practices will be radically different from those outside the Church, we will be living and working in close association with them every day. Paul writes, “I wrote to you in my letter not to associate with sexually immoral people—not at all meaning the sexually immoral of this world…since then you would need to go out of the world” (1 Corinthians 5:9, 10). Peter also says, “For the time that is past suffices for doing what the Gentiles want to do, living in sensuality, passions, drunkenness, orgies, drinking parties, and lawless idolatry” (1 Peter 4:3). Significantly, the Church is not told to go out and scold the world, or even to try to reform their practices. Instead, we are to focus on being distinctly different.
One implication of this is that we need to be soberly realistic about the sexual practices and views of the non-Christian world we live in. I suspect that we have spent too much time and emotional energy processing shock and disappointment at every major step of cultural decline into sexual license, but this should never surprise us. In fact, in the Scriptures, the reaction of surprise is expected from the other direction: “With respect to this they are surprised when you do not join them in the same flood of debauchery, and they malign you” (1 Peter 4:4). It is the world that should be shocked at what we don’t do! If moral decline in the culture around us seems like our biggest concern, we need to ask ourselves what it is we are really hoping for—a world outside the Church that approximates godliness just enough that we can comfortably and respectably partake in its benefits? That is never promised to us by our Lord; it is a counterfeit gospel.
Am I suggesting that God’s rules for sex don’t apply to unbelievers? Of course not. But God has not given us the job of being his morality enforcers. “For what have I to do with judging outsiders? Is it not those inside the church whom you are to judge? God judges those outside” (1 Corinthians 5:12). And listen to how Peter continues: “…but they will give account to him who is ready to judge the living and the dead” (1 Peter 4:5). Notice to whom they are to give account—“to him,” to Christ. They are not accountable to us, nor are we their judges.
However, we do have some responsibility to those who are outside the Church. How does Peter express this? He concludes, “For this is why the gospel was preached even to those who are dead…” (1 Peter 4:6). What is our role when they are shocked at our views on sexuality? We are to proclaim the gospel. When it comes to sexuality, our focus is primarily inward; when it comes to evangelism, our focus is primarily outward. This has the potential to give great freedom in how we respond to developments in our culture. In our interactions, our priority is not how we can inform or convince them that their sexual views and practices are wrong. Our priority is to show and tell them about the plan and promise of God to give eternal life and joy in Jesus.
How we address those inside the Church
If, in speaking to the world, we can err by focusing on sexuality rather than the gospel, there is a similar error we can make in speaking to our own—and I’m thinking especially here of our young. Whether we like it or not, our children are hearing persuasive messages from our culture about sex every day. We absolutely must counter those sexual messages. However, just as it is true that our response toward the world is not really focused on sex, but the gospel, so also in our counter-persuasion toward our kids our main point is not about sex, but the gospel.
Why is this? Because we need to make clear to our kids that the real issues are infinitely bigger than sex. In biblical Christianity, sex is a picture of the gospel, but it is not the gospel; in the unbelieving world, sex is salvation. So, the question to answer in refuting the world’s messages about sex is not, “What is sex?,” but “What is salvation?” Where do we turn to find that which is of highest value? What provides goodness and life to the fullest extent? What brings ultimate joy and human flourishing? The world’s answer is, “Sex, unhindered by any outside inhibition and guided by individual internal impulse.” Notice here that our message to our children cannot merely compare and contrast the world’s and God’s rules for sex. The equation is not, “The world says that X, Y, and Z are okay when it comes to sex, but the Church says that only A, B, and C are okay when it comes to sex.” That framing of the question may involve true statements of the Christian do’s and don’ts, but it misses the main point. We ought to frame it this way: “The world says that the highest life is attained by your expressing yourself—especially your sex and gender—according to your impulses and desires, but the Church says that true, abundant, and eternal life is only found by trusting and loving Jesus.” Do you see the difference? That answer does not even mention sex, and it also answers the fundamental error of the world’s messages about sex.
One thing that is implicated here is the temptation to try to convince our young people to choose Christian sexual rules based on an experiential comparison with the world’s prodigality. This is the message that, “Christian sex is the best sex. If you will only keep yourself pure until marriage and then commit to sexuality confined to marriage, your sex life—and you—will be happier.” Granted, there may be some truths contained in that sentiment that are worth saying. Many of the promises that the world makes of the unlimited pleasure and personal fulfillment to be found in freeform sexual expression are, at best, exaggerations and, at worst, outright lies. There are experiential benefits in a lifelong, faithfully monogamous marriage that are impossible in a less committed relationship. Nevertheless, if this is our only or most important argument, it will be largely unconvincing. It will be unconvincing because it concedes the terms of the discussion to the world. In the world’s framing of the discussion, the question of sexuality is a cost-benefit equation limited to the time between birth and death. On these terms, Christian sexuality is a hard sell. Sure, we can name a few benefits, but, if we are honest, we must admit the significant costs of repeated self-denial, deferred hopes, a radical restriction of options, and, for some, lifelong loss and loneliness. Put bluntly, in a world without resurrection, Christian sexual morality is nonsense. “If in Christ we have hope in this life only, we are of all people most to be pitied” (1 Corinthians 15:19).
That is exactly why we cannot accept the world’s terms of discussion. This issue is not as small as this current life; it is infinitely bigger. Why in the world would we make such restrictive—in the world’s view, repressive—commitments in regard to sexuality? Because we have found something of infinitely greater value. We have found Jesus, the Creator himself become one of us, the source and giver of all that is good, giving us intimacy with God and the promise of an indestructible, unending, glorious life in a recreated universe. Everything good in this life is but a dim hint of the eternal joy promised to us in Christ. And sex? Sex is just one of those dim hints of the life to come. What about the standards that define our sexuality? They are not mere restrictions, mere arbitrary deprivations to enforce an other-worldly mindedness. They are meant to cause sexuality to mirror and display our Savior’s faithful, covenantal, lavish, and costly love for us. Do we simplistically give our kids an alternate set of rules about sex we hope they will choose over the world’s views? Or do we show and tell them about something and someone who is worth every ounce of our love and allegiance?
So, whichever direction we face—outward to the world or inward toward our own—it isn’t really about sex. It’s about the gospel.