Standing in front of a crowd of young Christians at an urban church, John Freeman, Founder of Harvest USA, talked about the need for faithful believers to live with sexual integrity according to the Scriptures. A young man interrupted him with, “You must be kidding! You can’t expect us to live like that today! It’s not possible! ”
While taken aback by the interruption, John thanked him for his honesty and proceeded to tell the crowd, “Yes, God expects that from you. He will give you what you need to live like that. Your life will be much richer for it.”
Two thousand years ago, the apostle Paul stood before a group of believers and delivered much the same message. His letter to the church in Thessalonica hints that Paul received similar pushback.
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. Therefore whoever disregards this, disregards not man but God, who gives his Holy Spirit to you. (1 Thessalonians 4:1-8, ESV)
If the church today is going to help her people live faithfully, we need to follow Paul’s example in two ways. First, we must not retreat from proclaiming the importance of living within God’s design for sexuality. Second, we must go beyond proclamation to actively teach people how to walk in sexual integrity. Both of these must go together, or the church will fail in her duty to be a redemptive community where men and women grow into the character of Christ.
Paul proclaimed that how we live with our bodies matters, and our struggle to live faithfully in these bodies is a battle God wants us to fight.
The importance of living with sexual integrity is stressed seven times by Paul. Seven times he says, in essence, that our sexual behavior reveals our spirituality—that how we live sexually is a barometer of our faith.
Verse 2: For you know what instructions we gave you through the Lord Jesus. Here Paul reminds the church of his past instruction to them, instruction that was not mere personal opinion.
Verse 3: For this is the will of God, your sanctification: that you abstain from sexual immorality . . . Here Paul links personal growth in faith with sexual integrity.
Verse 4: . . . that each one of you know how to control his own body in holiness . . . Paul hints here at how hard this can be, and that we need to learn to do so.
Verse 5: . . . not in the passion of lust like the Gentiles . . . Paul exhorts them to not live like those who base their relationships and life on fleeting and changeable desires and emotions.
Verse 6: . . . that no one transgress and wrong his brother in this matter, because the Lord is an avenger in all these things . . . Sexual sin can deeply harm another person, and the Lord will not ignore selfishness and injustice.
Verse 7: “For God has called us . . . in holiness . . .” Sexual integrity is a specific call for all believers.
Verse 8: . . . whoever disregards this, disregards . . . God, who gives his Holy Spirit to you. Again, Paul says this is not his personal opinion and that God has given us help, the Holy Spirit, to enable and empower us to live faithfully.
No one escapes sexual struggles and sin by dealing with it alone.
Paul’s emphasis counters cultural messages we hear about sex today. We hear that sex equals life, that a life lived without sex is tragic, and that our sexual identities define the core of who we are as human beings. But even for those who resist this cultural siren song, just living in this sexually-saturated world makes sexual integrity incredibly difficult.
Does it encourage you to know that this was difficult for first-century Christians also?
The situation in Thessaloniki existed at other churches as well. In his first letter to the Corinthian church, Paul addressed incest, prostitution, sex outside of marriage, sexual promiscuity, distorted views of sex within marriage, and same-sex attraction. But in the face of stark cultural differences (and, yes, probably protests from newcomers to the faith), Paul upheld the gospel on this matter. He didn’t flinch in saying how important sexual integrity was, even as he saw them struggle to attain it.
But Paul was not merely reinforcing the Old Testament moral law about sexual behavior, nor adding new rules to the early church. Yes, God’s moral law was not overturned in the new covenant, but now there is a far bigger picture to comprehend in Christ: Jesus has brought about a new creation through his life, death, and resurrection. Living in increasing holiness demonstrates that we are a part of this new life; we are part of a new creation bringing about God’s Kingdom on earth. Therefore, God wants us to see something in this struggle for sexual integrity. He wants us to depend upon the Holy Spirit, whom Jesus has given to us, to empower us to fight this battle, and he wants us to know that he embraces us even as we struggle.
The New Testament tells us there is no ideal, pure church. A faithful church will be one where strugglers are present, because Jesus came to save sinners. The church is where Jesus invites us to take his yoke and learn from him (Matthew 11:29). Learning takes time, progressing through stages of growth and maturation, with numerous detours of struggle and failure. But change and growth will come as we more fully grasp in our hearts the message of the grace and truth of the gospel.
But we will never get beyond this reality: A healthy church is not one without problems; it’s one where problems are addressed openly, with the gospel.
Today, some use ever-present sexual struggles as evidence that we need to rethink what the Bible says about sex. But what is unpopular now was unpopular then. God is still calling his people to holiness with their sexuality, according to his design. We are to pursue obedience even when we struggle—especially as we struggle. It has always been a fight worth fighting. To ignore this part of shepherding God’s people is to ignore what the entire New Testament thought was important—that how we live with our bodies matters.
But Paul goes beyond merely telling us that this is important. We need more than just words of expectation and exhortation.
So, beyond just telling believers that they need to live in a certain way, we see Paul willing to step into their struggles. Growing in sexual integrity requires the church’s involvement with strugglers.
Paul hints at this in the first verse when he introduces the subject of fighting for sexual integrity: Finally, brothers, we ask and urge you. . . that as you received from us. . .
Do you notice something in Paul’s appeal? This is not the language of command or a rebuke that says “Just stop it!” He does not simply tell people to do the right thing. Instead, he uses relational language. Paul addresses them as brothers and then appeals to them, We ask you and urge you. Why is Paul speaking this way?
We find the reason for his approach two chapters earlier.
But we were gentle among you, like a nursing mother taking care of her own children. So, being affectionately desirous of you, we were ready to share with you not only the gospel of God but also our own selves, because you had become very dear to us. (1 Thessalonians 2:7-8)
For you know how, like a father with his children, we exhorted each one of you and encouraged you and charged you to walk in a manner worthy of God, who calls you into his own kingdom and glory. (1 Thessalonians 2: 11-12)
You see, Paul knew these people. He loved them like a parent (like a mother and a father!). He knew his children because he spent time with them. He knew the fight was not easy, so he was willing to share his life with them. His presence with them went beyond just talking; his presence patiently walked with them as they learned to control their sexuality in order to honor their Savior.
The way to fight is in relationship. No one escapes sexual struggles and sin by fighting this battle alone. Sexual struggles and sin live in secrecy; they are killed by openness. Sexual sin lives in fear of other people; it dies when we are honest with God by being honest with someone else about our struggles.
Something more than words of expectation and exhortation are needed.
The church becomes a presence with strugglers when she acknowledges that no one has it all together. The church becomes a place of safety and hope when it is honest about the struggles Christians face and about the love and tenderness that Jesus has toward broken people. There are four ways a church can cultivate and live out that truth.
One, we need to be real about all of our struggles with sex and sexuality
Let’s get honest. The church, like all of us, works hard to look good on the outside. When church leadership doesn’t specifically name the struggles people wrestle with, then people stay hidden, and no one receives the crucial help they need.
A woman once told a Harvest USA staff person that she was visiting a church where everyone dressed up and looked good. They weren’t a bit like her; she came from a tough background. She had struggled for a long time with addictions, both sexual and substance abuse. But just as she began feeling like she was wasting her time attending this church, she came across a notice in the church bulletin: “Do you struggle with sexual sin of any kind? We want to help and walk with you as you find increasing grace and freedom in Christ. We all need help with these struggles. Call _______ to speak in confidence.”
The simple honesty of those words captivated her. She decided to stay at that church, because their honesty about the Christian life displayed their dependency upon God for the grace to live openly.
Two, we need to become un-shockable about our struggles
The attitude a church takes either invites or hinders openness. Steve Brown of KeyLife Network says this beautifully: “I don’t care where your mind has gone, what you’ve watched on the Internet, with whom you’ve slept, what direction your desires have gone, how hard you’ve struggled and failed, whom you’ve hurt or how ashamed you are. The good news is that, first, you haven’t surprised the God who gave us (this) ‘jet sex engine’ and, second, he’s not angry at you but will show you a way to live in the light. ” 1
Being un-shockable means that we don’t shame people to motivate change. That doesn’t work anyway. Being un-shockable means that we aren’t surprised by the depth of people’s sin either. If Jesus called Paul to himself, a man who decades after his conversion still called himself “the worst of sinners,” then we can also call men and women, no matter the depth of their sin, to find grace in Jesus as they live in our churches.
Three, we need to speak more of the “why” than of the “what” of sexual faithfulness
We need to go beyond merely saying what Scripture says: we also need to clearly articulate why God’s design for sex is good, why it makes sense, why it really is good for individuals, families, and for society. Simply knowing what the sexual boundary lines are is not enough—we need to articulate why we should live within these boundary lines.
This is the way to answer the young man who said sexual integrity was impossible. We’re not saying it’s easy, but we are saying learning to live within God’s gracious boundary lines—even when that might mean a celibate life—produces profoundly good fruit and, yes, even joys in that kind of life.
Four, we need to be lavish givers of mercy
Sexual struggles can go deep and persist for a long time. I love the story in Luke 7, in which Jesus eats at the house of a religious leader who is shocked when “a woman of the city, who was a sinner” (a prostitute) stands behind Jesus, weeping, then covers his feet with her tears and pours a jar of expensive perfume over his feet.
The Pharisees were shocked that Jesus allowed this sexually sinful woman to draw near to him, to even touch him because she was so defiled.
Jesus wasn’t shocked or offended. He did something that shocked the Pharisees even more—he forgave her and honored her embrace of him. Jesus understood that her embrace came as a result of her experiencing forgiveness, of being shown undeserved mercy.
Only when the church ministers out of brokenness and forgiveness can we love others mercifully. God’s forgiveness of us levels the playing field. Helping one another toward sexual integrity then becomes a shared experience of grace.
One more thing about this story. Jesus was honest about this woman’s struggles: “her sins are many.” That’s a challenge to the church. Many of us don’t like to get our hands dirty with people who have a long history of sexual struggles. But if we increasingly love like Jesus, then we’ll see more strugglers in our churches and we’ll love them well.
When the church is real about sexual struggles, when she calls people to biblical faithfulness, and when she steps into the battle with strugglers, then the gospel will shine even brighter to a world which so needs it.
- Steve Brown, Foreword to Hide or Seek, When Men Get Real with God About Sex, by John Freeman (Greensboro, NC: New Growth Press, 2014), xii.
Feel free to comment on this article. You can also contact Nicholas at firstname.lastname@example.org.