25 Nov 2021
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.
14 Feb 2019
There probably isn’t a more controversial passage in the New Testament than Romans 1. Pro-gay advocates refer to this passage, and five other passages in the Bible, as “Clobber Passages.” Those who advocate for gay marriage in the Church explain away Paul’s argument condemning homosexual behavior, while traditionalists lean in on it with a glaring spotlight.
But I would argue that both sides are not seeing clearly here.
I want to sound a note of caution about how we use Romans 1. Romans 1, particularly verses 26 and 27, is rightly recognized as an important text in the church’s discussion of homosexuality. So what’s the problem?
It’s this: it is dangerously easy for the effect toward which orthodox or traditionalists use this passage to be the opposite of what God intends. Even we can use the passage wrongly.
When we read Romans, we hear it in solidarity with the original audience. It is a letter to Christians about the gospel. After his greetings and other introductory matters, the Apostle Paul sets the trajectory and agenda for the remainder of the letter in verses 16 and 17—the apparently foolish gospel which is the power of God to salvation, salvation offered to both the Jews and the Greeks the same way: by faith. This is ultimately what he is arguing in the whole letter. It forms the broadest context.
To begin his argument, Paul broadens his view. He starts in verse 18 by talking about “all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men.” He’s talking about the world here. Paul’s scope here is much wider than the church—wide enough to include Fox News, CNN, Ellen, Jimmy Fallon, China, the E.U., North Korea, New York, Venezuela, Planet Fitness, Lady Gaga, Snapchat, Walmart, and on and on. This is our culture, the world’s culture, the diverse mass of humanity descended from Adam.
That’s the point—fallen views make sense in a world with no divine reference.
What does Paul have to say about this broadest category of people and culture? He says that the judgment of God upon them is visible; he uses the word “revealed” (1:18). In other words, it’s on display. How so? In three ways.
First, God’s existence and humanity’s accountability to him is obvious to everyone who can perceive anything (1:19-20). Second, everyone—the great mass of humanity and culture—has decided to deny God’s existence and make created things ultimate (1:21-23). Third, God lets fallen humanity develop and live out the worldview that flows logically and inevitably from that fundamentally flawed starting point—(1:24ff).
This is where Paul brings in homosexuality. Why? The reason is in the answer to this question, “What sort of conclusions flow logically and inevitably from a worldview in which all of nature is disassociated from God?” The answer: ironically, all sorts of “unnatural” conclusions.
Ironically, but inevitably, when humans make nature merely “Mother Nature” and not any kind of creation, they redefine and manipulate “nature” according to their desires, resulting in conclusions that are patently un-natural. Remember, Paul is speaking about, but not to, the broader world here. He is not speaking to that broader world where these unnatural conclusions are held forth as truth; of course, they would not agree that their views are patently unnatural.
That’s the point—fallen views make sense in a world with no divine reference. But to those who have been called out of atheistic or agnostic darkness into light the unnaturalness is clear. And to those to whom it is clear, Paul’s point is this: isn’t all this exactly what one would expect in a world opposed to God? God lets denial of his existence play out to its obvious consequences. Of course! No wonder Paul shines a spotlight on the “unnaturalness” of homosexuality. (Cue the traditionalists at this point saying “Amen!”)
Oh, but wait.
Paul continues his list of the consequences of a God-less worldview. As his list continues, we begin to hear some things that are a little less obviously “unnatural.” We still hear “Amens” now and then, but they are more subdued, less confident. We still see some easy consequences to condemn: “evil,” “murder,” “haters of God,” “heartless,” “ruthless.” But mixed in are, “covetousness,” “strife,” “deceit,” “gossips,” “boasters,” “disobedient to parents.”
Yikes! The thought that ought to be whispering in the minds of Paul’s Christian audience—in our minds—is, “Uh… if these are the outworkings of a God-denying worldview, and their existence is a sign of God’s judgment, then how do I account for these things in my life in spite of my claim to know God?”
That is exactly what Paul intends you to think. It should be troubling. It should be jarring.
If we, as Christians, are smug as we approach the end of Romans 1, we are missing the point. And if we are really committed to missing the point, we stop at the end of chapter 1.
But Paul didn’t put any chapter break here. In fact, the first word in what we call “chapter 2” is, “Therefore….” Here is the conclusion of his argument: “…you, oh man, have no excuse.”
If we, as Christians, are smug as we approach the end of Romans 1, we are missing the point.
No excuse. Bam! We are brought full circle back to verse 20 of chapter 1, where it was said of the God-denying world, “they are without excuse.” At least when they do these things it is a logical consequence of their worldview. But if we do them—and we do—it proves something that should stop us in our tracks and terrify us. It proves that what is wrong with us is so bad that we too continue to rebel against God while claiming to acknowledge him.
What, we should ask ourselves, is worse—to live in godless ways consistent with an atheistic worldview, or to live in godless ways in betrayal of a professed acknowledgement of God?
What is the application here? How should this affect us? It should bring a deep humility that precludes judgmentalism.
I am not saying that Romans 1:26-27 means anything different than we’ve always thought. My caution is this: if reading Romans 1 leaves you feeling anything but uncomfortable, humbled, and convicted—in short, in desperate need of mercy—you are not reading it correctly.
And if all of us do not hear Paul’s message correctly, we are ill-prepared to understand the gospel and to help others do so as well.
My boys attend a local public school in North Carolina where legislation around transgender issues and public restrooms was a national issue in 2016. Their school ran a CNN Kids news program on the transgender debate. They came home and said with confusion, “Did you know sometimes girls want to come into the boy’s bathroom?” I asked how that came up, and they mentioned the transgender news story. I did a web search for the video transcript.
This incident led me to think about how to have these kind of conversations with our kids. I came up with five principles and four key objectives.
Principle One: Don’t over-react to a conversation prompt; your initial response to a conversation prompt signals to your child whether the conversation is safe or alarming.
Principle Two: Do research and get what information you can about the subject before engaging the larger discussion; it is better if your child doesn’t feel like an “informant.”
Here are a few preliminary thoughts I had going into the subsequent conversation.
Principle Three: When we speak to our children we need to discuss the things that help our children navigate their current social world.
My boys were 9 and 11 years old; 3rd and 5th grade. I wanted to keep in mind their social and cognitive development as we talked. This was not our first conversation about sex and sexuality. If, as parents, we only talk about the subject of sex and ethics reactively, it will distort the message our children hear. Jesus will come across as a defensive guy. The duration of the conversation was about 20 minutes over dinner, a time when we often talk about things that happened at school.
Principle Four: Listen. The most important thing we offer in awkward conversations is comfortable, open-ended questions and silence.
With those things being said, there were four key objectives I had going into the conversation with my boys. I will share the fifth principle at the end.
- I wanted to know what they think as much as teach them what I think.
The most important part of this conversation is what I learned from them, not what they learned from me. That’s not to downplay my influence as a parent, but the most important information transferred was my awareness of how my boys were processing the information they received.
The biggest long-term impact I will have on my boys is shaping how they think as much as what they think. Conversations like these are times when I get a litmus test for how they respond to awkward-controversial subjects, how perceptive they are about moral dilemmas, the degree of impact authority figures (like teachers) have on them, and what kind of logic they use to support their beliefs.
- I wanted them to be BOTH biblically informed AND personally compassionate.
I wanted my boys to be both thoroughly versed in God’s original design and increasingly equipped to care for others in a broken world. My boys love biology, so we talked about how gender is ingrained in every cell of our body as either an XX (female) or XY (male) chromosome. They love to ask, “Whose nose do I have? Whose eyes do I have?” Tying the conversation to something they were familiar with and enjoy was an important way of making it less awkward.
We talked about gender being part of God’s design (Genesis 1:27) and that God’s design was good. I wanted them to know they should enjoy being boys and strive to grow into mature men who care for and lead their families well. I also wanted to communicate that it’s okay if they think girls have cooties right now [attempt at humor], but they should always respect women and treat them with honor.
Don’t over-react to a conversation prompt; your initial response to a conversation prompt signals to your child whether the conversation is safe or alarming.
We talked about how, because of the Fall (Genesis 3), we live in a broken world where many things don’t work the way they’re supposed to and everything falls apart. One result of this is that some people don’t feel comfortable in their own bodies; some people feel fat even when they’re very skinny, some people feel scared when there is no threat, and some people feel like they should be a boy when their body is a girl or vice versa.
I tried to make clear that it is important not to profile those who experience gender dysphoria as sexual predators. We talked about how it’s not the person who is confused about their gender that would take advantage of this law. Instead, the concern is that people who want to abuse children would take advantage of these laws.
We emphasized that we should never make fun of someone who is suffering. We should never call people names that make them feel embarrassed or ashamed. Whenever we hear people doing these kinds of things to others, we step in and help the person who is being picked on. This was the primary application of what it meant to love God and love others (Matthew 22:37-40) well in their current social context.
We don’t have to agree with someone or understand their experience to love them. We believe that everyone is made in the image of God and deserves our honor and respect. If they’re hurting, we try to represent God’s compassion. If they’re sinning, we let them know of God’s forgiveness through the gospel. If we’re not sure, we listen and ask questions.
- I wanted them to learn how to honor authorities with whom they disagree.
I want my boys to be well-versed in the art of disagreement – the ability to be skeptical or disagree while showing honor to the person with whom they disagree. I affirmed how they handled themselves in the classroom, listening respectfully and bringing their questions to my wife and me. Even when they were uncertain, they made wise choices about how to respond.
We talked about how there was a great deal of debate on this topic in our country, so that is why this was a topic discussed at school. We talked about the good values of those that want open bathrooms are standing for , that no one should be discriminated against for things they did not choose.
We talked about how one of the challenges of government is balancing personal freedom (i.e., choice of restroom) with the collective good (i.e., privacy and safety in public restrooms). I was surprised how much they were interested in and followed this point.
The main point here was that just because someone has a different view from us, it doesn’t mean they’re bad. It also doesn’t mean we’re bad if we disagree with them. It is important to know what you believe and why. It is important to be able to articulate and defend what you believe. It is equally important to listen well to those with whom you disagree and honor their leadership when God has placed them in that role.
- I wanted them to be sympathetic to the reality that even good legislation can have unintended consequences.
Our conversation may have had as much to do with politics as sexuality. It is easy for kids (and adults) to begin to think that good rules would make a good world, that the problem with the world is that we just haven’t figured out what the best rules should be. We talked about how often laws have unintended consequences.
We talked about why we don’t need better rules as much as we need a Redeemer. Jesus wasn’t just a teacher (although he was the best teacher). Jesus came as our Savior. He knew we needed a new heart, not just better thoughts.
At the end of the conversation, when my boys asked me, “So, what should be done about the bathroom thing?” my best answer was, “I don’t know. I know that God’s design of men and women is good. I know there is a lot of pain and brokenness in our world. I know I want to love well anyone God gives me the chance to befriend and that it’s not mean to think about safety in private places like restrooms. But when it comes to this law and its possible unintended consequences, I’m not sure.”
Principle Five: Our children need to hear us say that sometimes the best answer is “I don’t know” because they need to have the freedom and courage to say “I don’t know” when they’re uncertain. It also makes the things we are sure about seem more solid, if we are willing to admit our uncertainty on things that are less clear.
This was the gist of our conversation and the intentions for the various points of emphasis. I hope it’s helpful for other families as you consider how to have similar conversations.
This blog post also appears in our Fall 2018 harvestusa magazine, along with other articles for parents and families.
05 Jul 2018
Christians considering “change” and SSA (same-sex attraction) must think in biblical categories. According to the Bible, the allegiance of our hearts is the biggest area needing change. The essence of the gospel is that although we were his enemies, God reconciled us to himself through Christ, not counting our sins against us (2 Corinthians 5:14–21). God initiated relationship with us and that becomes our core identity. “Who I am” is no longer based on my sexual attractions, desires, or behaviors. Increasingly, it’s not on me at all—my life is radically reoriented around him. Ironically, God’s created intent of romantic love is to point to this greater reality, this ultimate relationship (Ephesians 5:31–32). The way lovers (at least while “falling in love”) abandon their self- interest for the sake of their beloved, beautifully reflects (as in a mirror dimly) God’s self-giving love toward us in Christ and invites us to respond similarly.
Second Corinthians 5:14–15 powerfully describes this reality: “For the love of Christ controls us, because we have concluded this: that one has died for all, therefore all have died; and he died for all, that those who live might no longer live for themselves but for him who for their sake died and was raised” (emphasis added). The beloved of God in Christ becomes our identity and the controlling factor in our lives. In Jesus, we find the “treasure in the field,” the “pearl of great value,” and everything formerly prized is counted “as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord” (Matthew 13:44–46; Philippians 3:8).
The opposite of homosexuality isn’t heterosexuality—it is holiness. To be holy means to be set apart for God. This is what it means that we are reconciled to him. He is our God, and we are his people. To be a disciple means taking up a cross, willing to lose my life for his sake, believing his promise that in so doing I will actually find abundant life. Thus Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote, “When Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die.”¹
A Biblical View of Change
The hope of the gospel is that God does what is impossible for us: he gives us a new heart that understands our need for his grace and embraces Christ by faith. The Holy Spirit at work in this new heart enables us to obey. And, as we examined above, obedience flows from affection for God in response to his love for us. Although the new heart we are given when we come to Christ by faith is “instantaneous,” the outworking in our lives is a lifelong process.
The truth is that temptation, struggle, and loss will be a lifelong reality, not just for the SSA struggler, but for everyone who lives in this fallen world. Jesus taught that in this world we would have trouble, but we can take heart because he has overcome the world (John 16:33). Although it is necessary that temptation comes (Matthew 18:7), God promises that all the trials and suffering in this life have purpose (James 1:2–4; 1 Peter 1:6–8). He promises there will always be a way out of temptation so we are able to endure it (1 Corinthians 10:13).
So to speak of change biblically means in Christ we now have the ability to obey God, aligning our life to his will and design. Transformation means we are no longer slaves to our desires. By his Spirit, God empowers us to obey—in the face of ongoing temptation and the tug of our flesh. Listen to how Paul describes this battle: “For the desires of the flesh are against the Spirit, and the desires of the Spirit are against the flesh, for these are opposed to each other, to keep you from doing the things you want to do” (Galatians 5:17). As we live in relationship with him, and equally important, as we live authentically with others in the community of Christ, the Spirit of God reins us in and, even though we “want” to continue pursuing sinful activities, his hand restrains us in love as we surrender to him. In fact, the relational aspect of our faith is so important that living in obedience is described as the demonstration that we know Christ (1 John 2:1–5). In other words, when we know him and experience the blessing of that relationship, we obey. Not because it’s easy, but because he is worth it.
God wants to change our perspective on sex. He wants us to learn that all of life, including our sexuality, is ultimately about knowing, following, and glorifying him.
The issue is not whether we are heterosexual or homosexual or any other prefix of your choice. Remember, the opposite of homosexuality is not heterosexuality, but holiness. Ultimately, we are called to be Christo-sexual. We submit our desires and affections to Jesus, learning how to manage our bodies “in holiness.”
¹Dietrich Bonhoeffer, The Cost of Discipleship (New York: Touchstone, 1959/1995), 89.
This blog is an excerpt from our minibook, Can You Change If You’re Gay? by Dave White, published by New Growth Press. To purchase this minibook, and other resources from Harvest USA, click here.
19 Oct 2017
I’ve been watching youth culture for almost thirty years. I’m convinced that there’s no visible cultural shift that’s been faster, more significant, more widespread, and more life-altering than our beliefs and behaviors regarding sex and sexuality. And if culture refers to the way that we define and live in the world, then the road map we’re following in today’s world is pointing our kids to a sexual ethic void of borders and boundaries, with the exception (at least for the time being) of labeling anything non-consensual as “wrong.”
The life-shaping cultural soup that our kids swim in 24/7 tells them that when it comes to sex, you can do whatever you want, however you want, whenever you want, wherever you want, with whomever you want. To be “sex positive” is to be authentic and true to your desires and feelings in the moment.
Over the course of my years watching culture, I’ve looked for ways to effectively engage in conversations that might challenge kids to rethink the cultural narrative in light of the biblical narrative on God’s good gift of sex and sexuality. One valuable tool we have at our fingertips is the cultural artifact of popular music, which happens to be one of the more voluminous ingredients in the cultural soup. So, why not use it to our advantage?
Perhaps we can take a lesson from the missionary approach of the Apostle Paul. In Acts 17 we read of his encounter with the Athenians and their pagan culture. Before challenging their cultural narrative with the biblical narrative, Paul took the time to look carefully at what they held near and dear (v. 22-23). He kept his eyes and ears open, listening to their beliefs and behaviors before confronting their beliefs and behaviors with the Gospel. Then, when he opened his mouth to speak the truth, he did so in ways that reflected his knowledge of their culture.
The life-shaping cultural soup that our kids swim in 24/7 tells them that when it comes to sex, you can do whatever you want, however you want, whenever you want, wherever you want, with whomever you want.
When it comes to talking to kids about sex and sexuality in today’s world, it’s not enough to know the ins and outs of biblical sexuality. We must also know the ins and outs of what culture is teaching our kids on these matters so that we might be able to celebrate and affirm where the culture might be getting it right (and that happens from time to time), and where the culture might be getting it wrong. That can only happen when we are committed to taking the time to listen carefully.
At the Center for Parent/Youth Understanding (www.cpyu.org), we endeavor to allow popular music to serve as a tool that pulls back the curtain on the “spirit of the age.” By listening carefully to the music, we begin to unfold and see the maps that guide our kids. Then, we work to bring the light of the Gospel to bear on the realities that exist. A simple way to hear the music speak and to frame a response is to utilize what we call a “3(D) approach.” We begin by Discovering the worldview woven in and through the musical piece. Then, we work to Discern how that worldview affirms or conflicts with the biblical worldview. Finally, we Decide how to best respond to what we’ve Discovered and Discerned.
Singer Ed Sheeran’s song, “Shape of You,” offers a great example of how to use music to spark conversations on sex and sexuality. Pre-released as a single digital download on January 6, 2017, this Caribbean-flavored dance song from Sheeran’s album “÷” (Divide), has already topped the charts in 30 countries (including the U.S.), and just might wind up being the most-listened-to song of the year. Find the song’s lyrics online and give them a read. Then, go to YouTube and watch the official video for the song. Then take a look at how we’ve broken the song down using our 3(D) methodology (see below). Finally, take what you’ve learned and use it to spark discussions with the kids you know, love, and have been called to lead!
Discover: What is the message/worldview?
- The song’s title is a straightforward reflection of the song’s message. The song and video depict and promote a quickly-formed mutual male/female relational connection prompted solely on the basis of visual/physical attraction.
- In the video, Sheeran and his female interest cross paths while training in a dimly lit boxing gym. In the song, Sheeran sings of his deliberate quest to hook-up in a bar: “The club isn’t the best place to find a lover/So the bar is where I go/Me and my friends at the table doing shots/Drinking fast and then we talk slow/Come over and start up a conversation with just me/And trust me I’ll give it a chance now.” With inhibitions lowered due to alcohol, the couple agrees to dance.
- The dance leads immediately to each of them declaring a desire for a sexual connection. He sings to her, “Girl, you know I want your love/Your love was handmade for somebody like me/Come on now, follow my lead.” She follows his lead while discouraging any getting-to-know-each-other through conversation: “Say, boy, let’s not talk too much/Grab on my waist and put that body on me/Come on now, follow my lead.”
- The encounter quickly leads to a hook-up: “I’m in love with the shape of you/We push and pull like a magnet do.” Sheeran tells us that continuing sexual encounters based on visual attraction precede love: “Although my heart is falling too/I’m in love with your body/And now my bedsheets smell like you/Everyday discovering something brand new.”
- Reflecting and promoting current cultural trends regarding sex, dating, and love, Sheeran puts a dating relationship following a week’s worth of sexual encounters: “One week in we let the story begin/We’re going out on our first date.” The song ends with Sheeran singing his mantra of physical attraction: “I’m in love with your body/Oh-I-Oh-I- Oh-I-Oh-I.”
Discern: How does it stand in light of the biblical message/worldview?
- Culture is bombarding our kids with hyper-sexual messages that lead them to equate “love” with sexual activity of all kinds. “Shape of You” both reflects and promotes the message they hear, specifically that there are no boundaries when it comes to sexuality, except for mutual consent. When it comes to sex, you are to “follow your heart” and your emotions, pursuing physical intimacy by doing whatever you want, wherever you want, however you want, whenever you want, with whomever you want. Increasingly, dating may now follow sexual hook-ups (which are increasingly random and anonymous). Contrary to these beliefs, the reality is that sex has been created by God as a good gift that He’s given to humanity. The Scriptures are clear from Genesis to Revelation: Sex is a wonderful and good thing that has its place: shared between one man and one woman within the context of a covenantal marriage (Genesis 2:24). Sex also has its divinely-ordained purpose: consummation of marriage, procreation, intimacy, and pleasure. We are to flee from any sexual activity which is outside of this place and purpose (Colossians 3:5; Galatians 5:19-21; I Corinthians 6:18).
- The Bible defines “lust” as a strong attraction and desire that can move in either a good or evil direction. In this case, Sheeran is promoting indulgence and servitude to the lusts of the flesh, which the Bible states are not of God and which war against the soul (Ephesians 2:3; I John 2:16; I Peter 2:11). Indulging lustful feelings is not only immoral, but it selfishly sabotages personhood (both of self and other), our flourishing, and the potential for full relational intimacy (both now and future).
- Culture puts a premium on physical appearances. Our boys are growing up in a culture that encourages them to view females as nothing more or less than sexual objects. Our girls are learning that they must center their lives and identities on creating a sexually attractive visual persona that is attractive and pleasing. Identity is now found in curating one’s self to satisfy “sexual consumerism” where we display ourselves, window-shop, purchase, consume, and then quickly dispose of that which is no longer novel. The Scriptures tell us that we have been made by God and for God. Finding our identity in anything other than Christ is idolatry (I John 5:21; Exodus 20:3-6). While humans mistakenly idolize outward appearances, we must rewrite the cultural narrative by cultivating inward character and hearts bent on faithful obedience to God (I Samuel 16:7; Proverbs 31:30).
Decide: What do I do with it?
- You can be assured that the overwhelming majority of kids have seen and/or heard “Shape of You.” The song’s video treatment is relatively tame, using the boxing gym as a metaphorical representation of the song’s lyrical content. We recommend showing the video to students and then talking about the song’s lyrical messages, contrasting those messages with the message of the Scriptures on sex, sexuality, love, identity, personhood, objectification, and dating.
- Ask students to evaluate how Sheeran’s song reflects the movement towards “expressive individualism” (being faithful, true, and authentic to one’s self) in our culture, as opposed to following the way and will of Jesus Christ (being a faithful, true, and obedient follower of Jesus).
- Show the video to parents and youth workers, demonstrating how a cultural artifact serves to mirror current beliefs and behaviors. Specifically, describe the current cultural order of relationship building (hook-up, conversation, dating relationship). Then, teach them how to use “Shape of You” as a springboard for engaging in narrative-shifting conversations in a manner Jesus himself used: “You have heard it said that. . .” (the erroneous cultural narrative)… “but I tell you…” (the corrective of the biblical narrative).
- Ask students to consider this quote from Lord Acton in relation to “Shape of You,” from a talk that Os Guinness gave to Cambridge University students: “Freedom is not the permission to do what you like. It’s the power to do what you ought.”¹
Note: This blog originally appeared as an article titled “An Exercise in Cultural Discernment: From Bar to Bed..and Other Lies” in the Fall 2017 harvestusa magazine.
09 Jan 2017
“What’s wrong with changing your gender if your body is sick—if your body is wrong for you?”
How’s that for a question to answer? The question’s larger context was this: If you’re sick, you go to the doctor and get help. If you lose your leg, you get a prosthesis. If you’re depressed, you take medication. So what’s wrong with changing your gender if your body is sick, if something is wrong with it?
Ellen Dykas and I went to a coffeehouse talk for young adults at Calvary Church in Souderton. Calvary has a terrific discussion event called Living Room Tuesdays, where, according to their website, “these meetings are meant to be a safe place for young adults to discuss issues, ask questions, and learn how the Bible directs us to respond to these issues.” As John McCants, the Pastor of Young Adult Ministries (who, BTW, is totally in sync with this age group!) said to us, “We’ve got to get Christians thinking well on these subjects. We don’t want to be stupid!”
So, yes, it was a safe place to open up and talk about transgenderism. But what came through was the fact that this is, indeed, a very hot topic. And one rife with confusion, courtesy of our culture’s pervasive post-Christian views of gender and sexuality.
After an hour of interactive discussion with John McCants, we took questions. Lots of questions. Questions that really couldn’t be answered with a simple yes or no, do this or don’t do that. Wisdom questions and conscience questions, particularly about how to intersect faith with living our Christian lives “out there” in the marketplace.
Then, near the end of our time, came the question at the top. Upon hearing it, I recognized the cultural mindset behind it. If someone feels this way, then why do Christians find fault with it, especially if, for them, it might be a life or death issue? There are lots of things we fix or change in life, so why shouldn’t transgenderism just be another one?
Our churches need to get these cultural issues on the table for discussion, to air them out, and to help people see the wisdom of God’s design in making men and women his image bearers.
Lurking behind this individualistic framework is our culture’s insistence that truth and reality are arrived at from my own personal experience. And if there is no God, then who I am (identity) and what I do (purpose) are entirely up to me.
Tragically, it’s a mindset that has infiltrated the church. While Christians should respect people’s life experiences, we must also be a people who believe that who we are and what we are here for is determined by God, who has put into place both design and boundary lines so that we might live well.
I couldn’t go too deep into a cultural worldview discussion at that point (we were wrapping things up after two long hours!), but this is what came to my mind. I acknowledged the deep struggle someone might have with aligning their biological sex with their sense of gender, but more foundational than someone’s distress is this issue: Does God have a primary claim on who we are, or are we in charge of choosing whatever seems right for us?
Then I said: Since when is being male a disease to be cured? Since when is being female a medical condition that needs intervention? If there are no biological complexities involved like intersex complications, why would you do this to an otherwise healthy, normal body? Why do we intervene in other “body dysmorphic” issues like anorexia but not this one?
With someone who is literally starving but believes she is overweight, we properly locate where the struggle is: The person’s mind and heart, which has become influenced by self-destructive impulses, erroneous beliefs, and cultural distortions of what a body should look like.
Why would we not do the same with a gender-confused person? We need to help that individual live well within his or her “assigned gender,” to learn that being male or female reflects the image of God and his purposes for our lives.
There’s more to be said about the issue of transgenderism, but Calvary Church in Souderton, PA, is on the right track. Our churches need to get these cultural issues on the table for discussion, to air them out, and to help people see the wisdom of God’s design in making men and women his image bearers.
Go to this link to see the videos on this discussion, as well as follow-up videos from the second time we had a similar discussion at Calvary.
14 Jul 2016
As the church steps into the trenches of the sexual struggles with which her people are wrestling, it is encountering a new reality and new challenges in how to do faithful ministry. As the culture continues to push into the church, the following “givens” impact how Christians are thinking about sexuality:
- Increasing cultural acceptance of homosexuality, especially among millennials
- Growing acceptance of a genderfluid and genderless society
- An awareness of Christians who experience same-sex attraction (SSA) but confusion about how to help them
- Legalization of gay marriage
- The encroachment of pro-gay theology and its inroads into the evangelical church
- The trend toward casual sexual relationships and co-habitation
- The ubiquity of pornography and the steady erosion of biblical sexual ethics
All of the above signals the need for churches to think strategically about how to “do ministry” as the culture continues to push into the church. John Freeman has spoken to church leaders and presbyteries, helping to bring awareness of the pressing issues that need attention. John highlights four things churches must address.
1. Leadership—insuring everyone is on the same page
While leadership certainly means your key leaders—pastors, elders, deacons, etc.—it also includes your leadership volunteers like women’s leaders, youth leaders, Sunday school and adult teachers, small group leaders, and so on. The importance of all leaders being on the same page, theologically and pastorally, has never been more critical. Asking the following questions will (hopefully) result in dialogue and clarification.
Do you know your current leaders’ views on sex and sexuality? Considering the “givens” listed above, how do you approach your leadership in determining what they believe and where they might be feeling pressure to change? We used to take it for granted that leaders would adhere to biblical sexual ethics, but some are changing their views and remaining silent about it. How do you get everyone on the same page?
Do you know if your leaders are struggling here? As important as what they believe, do you know if some of your leaders are struggling here? People, and especially leaders, hide sexual struggles. How can you call them to be honest, and in what ways do you help them? We know that when leadership falls sexually, it deeply injures the church and how people see Christ.
How will your leaders approach sexual issues pastorally? Key leaders have the greatest influence, so it’s more important than ever to make sure they believe fully in what the Scriptures say and will speak that compassionately to those who struggle. Sometimes that’s not easy to do, but true compassion is grounded in speaking God’s truth, not in defining truth as we wish it to be.
How would your church address a leadership candidate who experiences same-sex attraction? As we call believers to openness and honesty about their sexual struggles, we should expect to find men and women who live with same-sex attraction and are living faithfully according to Scripture. When they pursue leadership roles in the church, what help and assistance do they need?
2. Membership—confronting complex issues
The culture greatly influences church members. Confusion is growing as pro-gay theology, rooted in secular thought, influences believers who know too little of Scripture. How will your church in this new reality address some of the following scenarios?
What if someone identifies as a gay Christian? Is this a private matter known only to some, or is this becoming public? Do you know what this person means by adopting this identity label?
What about someone who supports gay marriage and homosexuality? Again, is this a private opinion or an advocacy position? What is a pastoral approach to members whose views are in opposition to Scripture? What if someone with these views wants to join your church?
Are you talking about sex and sexuality to prospective members in your membership classes? Do you approach the issue from a discipline angle, or first from a Christian worldview perspective? Or do you not mention the topic at all, and if so, why not?
What if a same-sex couple comes to faith (one or both)? What if they are legally married? How do you approach the complex situation of pastorally shepherding a family, particularly when there are children, when the parents are legally married?
What about church discipline? While recognizing the complex issues involved with sexual sin, where might church discipline come into play as someone is being shepherded through the ups and downs that go with this struggle? Is there an approach that is more helpful, or less so?
3. Church Culture—what kind of church culture do you want to nurture?
Do you have a sense of the culture in your church in how it relates to the culture “out there?” How does your church address the new reality of sexual issues that are prominent in the culture? How do you speak about them publicly, from the pulpit, in Sunday school classes, in the things your church writes? There is a big difference between churches that speak harshly about sexual issues and those that say hardly anything at all. The first approach leaves people hiding, and the other leaves people in confusion. That we need to talk about these issues has never been more critical, but the words we use (or do not use) are equally important. How do you speak to those who are opposed to his ways; and to those who are confused about what Scripture says; and to those who want to obey but struggle to submit to the Lordship of Christ in this area? Our approach, our words, our faithfulness to Scripture, and our presence with those who struggle are the many ways we show who God is to them.
4. Policies and Procedures—possible dangers ahead
Two seismic changes have transformed the landscape for ministry: the legalization of same-sex marriage, and the use, or threat, of non-discrimination laws and regulations, known as sexual orientation and gender identity ordinances. Churches with a history and tradition of opening their doors to the community for weddings and receptions, local community events, outside groups that use the church to meet—all of these connections may become problematic in light of the increasing use of anti-discrimination ordinances.
These new laws and court rulings mean that churches must carefully think about ministry in three key areas.
While this issue gets a lot of press, the reality is that the First Amendment seems quite solid in protecting ministers from performing same-sex marriages. However, the matter is more uncertain if your church has been open to hosting outside weddings and receptions. What steps can your church take to remain open to traditional weddings while not hosting wedding events that oppose biblical truth?
Building usage by outside groups
Apart from weddings, building use for other outside events might become more difficult, particularly for churches that rent their facilities or allow them to be used by the community. The challenge for churches that want to remain invested in their local community is to determine how to both invite and define that involvement, in ways that will avoid potential lawsuits.
Anti-discrimination laws regarding employment are another new reality that is increasingly stepping on religious turf. Churches that discipline ordained staff for misconduct are again protected by the First Amendment. But addressing non-ordained staff behavior is not so clear. What if a staff person comes out as transgender, or a staff person legally marries someone of the same gender? Gender fluidity and sexual orientation are major battlegrounds for employment law today. The area of employment law for religious groups seems to be up for grabs today. How churches will be affected is not yet clear, but they should now find ways to try to protect themselves while also shepherding staff who are struggling in these areas.
We’ve just scratched the surface on a few of the crucial issues churches are facing with these new realities. Harvest USA can help! We can help you think through these issues and conduct a healthy conversation among your leaders.
Contact John Freeman at email@example.com to get the conversation started.
07 Jul 2016
In January 2016, Ellen Dykas returned to Taiwan, East Asia, to teach a two-week course entitled “Biblical Sexuality and Ministry to Strugglers.”
I was going back to Taiwan to speak to twenty-nine students who all spoke Chinese. Back to China Reformed Theological Seminary in Taipei, to help train men and women preparing for ministry. They came from Taiwan, main-land China, Indonesia, Malaysia, Canada, and Australia. I had been there before, in 2013, when I first addressed sexual struggles in Asia, and I was eager to return. I hoped to meet up with some students who I taught three years ago. As a teacher, you always wonder if anything you said or taught made a difference.
Upon arriving, I learned that Taiwan was considering legalizing gay marriage. The news dismayed my students, and I gave them insight into what Christians in the USA faced when the Supreme Court legalized gay marriage last summer. We found common ground as Christians living so far from each other: As sexual sin outside of God’s design becomes the norm, standing firm for biblical truth may cost us more than it has in the past. We agreed that ministry would need to be more strategic and nuanced than ever before in order to speak into the culture.
But we also concurred that ministry still needs to be relational and personal, appropriately caring for each individual. I met up with one of my students from 2013 and heard her story of parenting her gay-identified daughter. She expressed fresh sorrow over her daughter’s life, but shared with me new insight about the faith to which God is calling her as she loves her daughter in a new way. She recalled my teaching from three years ago, that telling her daughter to “Stop!” would not lead to true repentance. She began learning how to engage her daughter relationally while also holding true to God’s design for sexuality and relationships. It is so good to know that God uses even my words to strengthen his people!
How does the church address sexual struggles in Asia? Much the same as we do, but with one very big difference: In Asia, the church hardly talks about sexuality at all. A powerful culture of shame encourages hiding and silence on an even a deeper level than what we see in churches in the USA. And the silence from church leaders is much “louder” than here, compounding the confusion and despair of Christians struggling alone.
But by offering courses like the one I taught, China Reformed Seminary is beginning to change that culture of silence. What the Asian church needs now are solid biblical resources translated into their languages.
I have one more memory to share: The seminary partners with a local biblical counseling ministry. On Saturday, between my two weeks of classes, the counseling ministry hosted a community lecture at which I was the featured speaker. You can imagine my surprise when I realized that the lecture made the front page of the Taipei Christian newspaper! Serving with Harvest USA has certainly led to many unexpected adventures!
Also, here is one last prayer request: God is expanding Harvest USA’s influence outside of the United States, and it’s exciting! I will have the opportunity to teach on biblical sexuality at a national women’s conference in Columbia this coming July 2016, but I need some special funding to make this happen. I need to raise $1500 to cover the costs, so that Columbians will be able to attend. Tax-deductible donations may be made by check to Colombia Reformed (please add a note that this is for Ellen Dykas, but do not write that on the memo line!) and mailed to: Colombia Reformed, P.O. Box 102, Lovettsville, VA 20180. Thank you!
With the legalization of gay marriage, Christians more often find themselves invited to same-sex wedding ceremonies. This poses a dilemma for believers of whether to attend an event that celebrates a life-union that God nowhere approves of in Scripture.
Declining to attend seems like an easy solution. But because it involves friendships or family connections, the matter can be quite complex. The issue is more difficult if the wedding involves a child or other close family member. (For additional insights, read our mini book, Your Gay Child Says “I Do.”)
Reaching a decision will involve careful theological reflection, an understanding of your relationship with the one(s) getting married, and earnest prayer. Here are some things to think about that we hope can help you make a wise decision.
The space for this article is not sufficient to adequately examine the scope of Scripture on this matter, but here are three scriptural principles that should guide you.
Reaching a decision will involve careful theological reflection, an understanding of your relationship with the
one(s) getting married, and earnest prayer
- Be in the world but not of it. Knowing how to engage with the world is important for Christians. Being set apart from the world (who we are and how our lives reflect who we live for) is demonstrated by our living in the world. Loving and investing [time] in our neighbor is the means by which the world comes to know God.
- Freedom in Christ. 1 Corinthians 8 and 10 and Romans 14 are key passages where Paul argues for the freedom of the believer to engage with others in society, centered around the contentious issue of that day: eating meat from an idol’s temple. For Paul, (Christian) freedom involves examining issues of motivation, concern for the impact on other believers, and the context of the situation (see 1 Corinthians 10: 23-33 and Romans 14:20-23). Freedom in Christ enables us to think through how our actions affect others.
- Faith/conscience. Paul’s conclusion in Romans 14 is that we decide on issues such as these based on conscience, and that if one remains unsettled, then it is wiser to not participate because it “is not from faith.” Christians can stand on both sides of difficult issues, so the freedom we have in Christ to discern how to live strategically in the world should move us to extend grace to those who decide differently.
After examining Scripture, which must be the basis for all decisions, here are some relationship issues that can guide you in making a decision.
- What is your current relationship to the person getting married?
Are they a casual co-worker, friend, distant relative, or someone with whom you have a closer relationship (like a family member)? Has the invitation been given to everyone in your office, department, or family? Or, has it been given to you because you have a closer relationship? These factors can help you determine how best to respond. For example, if the person is someone with whom you have a good friendship, then you are in a position to speak directly to him or her about the issue of attending. If your friend knows you are a Christian, then this becomes another opportunity (or maybe the first!) to discuss your faith and how that influences your decision.
- What would you be trying to convey by your attendance?
Some people make the distinction between supporting the person, whom they love and care about, and supporting the event, of which they don’t approve. In making this distinction, it can communicate that attendance is not an implicit approval of their marriage. This is a meaningful distinction. We do this constantly in our other relationships, communicating our differences but remaining involved in each other’s lives.
This distinction may depend on how vocal you have been about your faith. What kinds of conversations have you had? Do they know you are a Christian? Do they know your views about homosexuality? If so, your presence could actually “stun” them or really mess up the categories they may have about Christians like you? Christians, living intentionally by the gospel, can sometimes be confusing to people, causing them to rethink their positions and perhaps see new and bigger realities. That’s a good thing.
If you feel that attending would lend weight to your Christian witness, then you might go. Your attendance would be in line with your desire to pursue a relationship because you care for them, and you want to keep the relationship open to have further opportunities to share the gospel with them.
- What are you concerned about if you decide to attend?
Are you afraid that your attendance would communicate your approval? Or, are you afraid of explaining why you feel you cannot attend? Are you afraid you would not know how to act or how to talk with other guests, most who would support the marriage? There can be lots of fear involved in making this decision. Ask the Lord to guide you regarding all these issues. Fear or anxiety about disappointing someone is never a good motivator to make a decision. A better question is this: What response might cause further openness to the gospel?
- If you decide you cannot attend, could you substitute something else?
If you reach the conclusion that you cannot attend, you might consider an alternative response. For instance, giving a card or gift would still show your care for them and acknowledge that this was an important day for them (it was, but you don’t necessarily have to join in on the celebration).
If you are close to the person or couple, but still conclude that you cannot attend, then consider taking them out to lunch or dinner. Of course, this may be an uncomfortable get-together, especially if the person will feel hurt by your absence. But a quick follow-up may go a long way toward bringing understanding and another opportunity for you to share your faith. Another decision some people make is to not attend the wedding (because of the nature of wedding vows) but to attend the reception (if this is, of course, agreed upon by the wedding couple).
- Do one or both parties claim to be Christians?
Someone once said, “We shouldn’t expect Christian behavior from non-Christian people.” If the person or persons getting married are unbelievers, this doesn’t mean you have an unhindered green light to attend—but if someone claims to be a Christian and yet is in rebellion to God’s design and intention for how his people should live, and is celebrating it and inviting others to join in, then that is another matter.
Many would argue that even if one of the parties is a confessing Christian, attending would be entering into their delusion that the marriage union is fine with God and is sanctioned by him. But some will make the distinction that attending is not the same as approving.
As you can see, these are hard issues! Your decision must come from wrestling with Scripture, drenched in prayer, and discussed with close friends or family members. But know this: Your wrestling with this is itself evidence of your heart wanting to do the right thing to honor Christ and to open doors for the gospel. Realize that there is no ONE answer to this, but there is one thing you can count on: Like Jesus, you’ll probably be misunderstood regarding the implications of any choice you make. So, when you make your decision, know that you have made it on the basis of what will honor God, and be at peace on that basis.
Reflections on 1 Thessalonians 4:1-8: Part Two
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.
In my first post on this amazing passage by Paul, I pointed out how God places a high value on how we live before him in these bodies we have. You can read that first post here.
Again, Paul’s intent in this passage is to make it very clear that those who name themselves as followers of Christ could not engage in whatever sexual behavior they wish like the behavior that the surrounding culture promoted and permitted. But he also understood the struggle they were having in reining in attractions, desires, and behaviors which were socially OK for them.
So, after he tells them that what we do with our bodies matters to God, he gives them another compelling reason for fighting sexual sin:
How we deal with our sexuality will lead us to freedom or slavery
There are two powerful cultural forces in play regarding sexuality in our world today.
The first one is that we no longer agree on what is right and wrong. The old rules and boundaries regarding sexual behavior are now considered repressive, confining, antiquated. What matters is love, however it is expressed. As long as there is agreement between consenting adults and no one gets hurt, everything is OK.
The second cultural force is that since there is no standard of truth, we all make our own truth. Personal stories are how we discover “truth” today. The individual—me—is the primary point of meaning and fulfillment. We won’t look outside of ourselves to God or some sort of external standard to find truth or meaning. We look inside, to our own feelings and experiences. I discover truth; this is “my truth.” No one has the right to say that my truth is wrong. My story, the way I experience life, validates what is true.
The combination of these two cultural forces—that there is no right or wrong other than what I say is right or wrong—is reshaping sexuality today. Sexual expression, sexual attraction, sexual desires, sexual identity, sexual rights—it’s an “anything goes” sexuality culture. This is what is called sexual freedom.
But Paul—and indeed the entire Bible—calls this kind of life, not freedom, but slavery.
Look at verses 4 and 5, where Paul says, “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.”
What is Paul saying here? He is making clear that believers must not live lives of uncontrolled sexuality the way unbelievers do. Now, Paul is making a worldview statement here. He is not saying that all unbelievers live licentious sexual lives. Rather, he is saying that the world outside of God’s influence promotes living according to one’s passions.
He is saying to the young believers in this new church community, that though this is the world you came out of, and though you may still struggle with your sexuality, don’t give in to those desires as if it doesn’t matter what you do with your bodies.
Because it does matter.
Why? Because when you give your body over to your desires, you will find out what slavery is.
Now where do we see this? It’s understanding the key word that Paul uses: “lust.” Verse 5 reads, “Not in the passion of lust like the Gentiles who do not know God.”
Lust is an interesting word. It’s typically a word used in a sexual context, but it’s not limited to that. The Greek word that we translate lust, epithumia, simply means “over-desire” or “strong desire.” The general meaning in the NT when it is used in a sexual context is that of a “ruling desire” or an “inordinate desire.” A “controlling desire.” A desire that enslaves.
In other words, our desires, which arise from what entices us and what we ourselves want, eventually come to enslave us. And Paul is pleading: Don’t go there! Don’t give in to those over-desires. Don’t let yourself be a slave, controlled by something that brings destruction to your life. Don’t live as if God doesn’t matter to you.
We see this idea of behavior and slavery in another passage, James 1:13-15, which says, “Let no one say when he is tempted, ‘I am being tempted by God,’ for God cannot be tempted with evil, and he himself tempts no one. But each person is tempted when he is lured and enticed by his own desire. Then desire when it has conceived gives birth to sin, and sin when it is fully grown brings forth death.”
Now what is James saying here?
James is answering the question, “What causes us to sin?” His answer is that everyone is tempted from within—“by his own desire”—and that our desires, when we cultivate them and focus on them, they eventually give birth to sin.
The word that is translated as desire is the same word Paul uses, epithumia. And James is clearly using this word in a sexual context, also. In fact, James uses a sexual term that is translated as “lured and enticed.”
Now what does this all mean?
It means that we want what we desire—all behavior is based on my free will. I choose it. But at the same time, our desires rule us. The NIV translates this passage in a vivid way: “But each person is tempted when they are dragged away by their own evil desire and enticed” (v. 14).
Do you see? Behavior always has this ongoing dynamic of being my free choice while, at the same time, I’m being dragged toward it or controlled by it. A modern interpretation of this was penned best by Bob Dylan: “You’ve got to serve somebody. It may be the devil or it may be the Lord, but you’ve got to serve somebody.”
You are free to do what you want—but you will be serving somebody. And if you are not serving God, living for him, you will be a slave to desires you will not be able to control. And if that is what is happening in your life, if you are living sexually any way you want, what you think is sexual freedom is, in God’s economy, slavery.
You will be living as if God doesn’t matter to you at all.
(Looking ahead: What effect does living in slavery to my ruling desires have on me and others?)