Clarity and discretion

When the New Testament deals with sexual morality, it does so unfailing clarity and reassuring discretion. Take, as an example, the instruction of the apostle in 1 Thessalonians 4:
Finally then, brethren, we urge and exhort in the Lord Jesus that you should abound more and more, just as you received from us how you ought to walk and to please God; for you know what commandments we gave you through the Lord Jesus. For this is the will of God, your sanctification: that you should abstain from sexual immorality; that each of you should know how to possess his own vessel in sanctification and honor, not in passion of lust, like the Gentiles who do not know God; that no one should take advantage of and defraud his brother in this matter, because the Lord is the avenger of all such, as we also forewarned you and testified. For God did not call us to uncleanness, but in holiness. Therefore he who rejects this does not reject man, but God, who has also given1 us His Holy Spirit. (1Thes 4.1-8)
In this section, Paul - despite the implications of many translations - is not making the preacher's mistake of announcing the end of his material, before producing about the same amount again. He is making clear that he is shifting his focus: "As for the rest . . ." He now advances from countering his critics to counselling his converts, with a particular concern for the practical embrace of his teaching. The Thessalonians needed instruction in the application of what they knew, and it may be that Paul has in mind at least three groups within the church who each need some particular counsels. In doing so, he identifies two areas in which the saints ought to be distinctive in any time and place: sexual purity and loving fraternity, with the whole matter of holiness resolved into a matter of God's calling. It is the first of these that concerns us.

Paul begins with the divine command. He urges them - a sincere request - and exhorts them - rousing them to action - in accordance with certain commands issued with Christ's own authority. He writes as a mouthpiece of his Lord to those who are in Christ, reinforcing things already taught. He has already made plain that the preaching of God's Word is not a human but a divine declaration (1Thes 1.5, 2.13), and now underscores it. Faithful pastoral ministry is never a take-it-or-leave-it matter: holiness is not a desirable option but a divinely-mandated obligation for saints. Paul is not ashamed to communicate divine commands with authority, and to impress them on men's souls. Paul wants these believers to "abound more and more," not static and stagnant but advancing in godliness, walking and pleasing God.

Then Paul becomes more specific: "For this is the will of God, your sanctification" (1Thes 4.3). Set apart to God in principle, that distinction is to be worked out in practice, and Paul is quite willing to address the application of the divine will to the particular struggles of the saints in Thessalonica. Perhaps some of them had begun to resent these 'impositions' (perhaps Paul is felt to be imbibing a legal spirit from somewhere?), or they have begun to waver in their sense of the weight of these obligations, or have begun to evade them, perhaps drawn away by temptation.

The core of Paul's concern is that the Thessalonians saints (he makes no particular distinction between men and women) should avoid sexual immorality entirely. His language is broad and absolute. Such sin is not to be found among the saints: Paul is prohibiting the entire range of sexual aberrations which are contrary to the divine design and purpose for his creatures.

We do not need to suggest that the modern age has somehow advanced beyond the ancient world in its perversions and demands a different mode of address. There is nothing new under the sun (Ecc 1.9), and first century Greece was as confused, carnal and licentious as twenty-first century Europe. The declaration of Demosthenes, offered some centuries before, was fully in evidence: "We have mistresses for pleasure, concubines to care for our daily body's needs and wives to bear us legitimate children and to be faithful guardians of our households." Faithfulness and self-control were alien notions, while sexual sin of all sorts was widely accepted, readily available, occasionally, pompously criticized, hypocritically practiced, religiously condoned and promoted, often encouraged, and generally defended. The Thessalonian believers had not grown up in a sheltered environment: though most might have been Jewish converts or devout Greeks (see Acts 17.1-4), this was the world out of which they had been saved, and doubtless - like the Corinthians - Paul might have said of a few of them, "such were some of you" (1Cor 6.11), for these were men and women who had turned to God from idols (1Thes 1.9).

Paul's point to these believers is that sinful sexual activity and relationships of any kind before, outside or against marriage as God has ordained it, are entirely forbidden by God. The saints are to be marked by radical restraint from sin and real purity in practice, regardless of the norms and pressures of the culture.

Do we not feel the impress of this call to holiness in a society similarly marked by unrestrained and enticing sexuality? The circumstances may have changed, but the challenge remains: men and women are bombarded with images, words, invitations, prompts, enticements and temptations designed to stir up our sexual appetites and to drag them outside of God's appointed boundaries.

But notice Paul's restraint. To be sure, there are occasions when he does list sins, and often among them are found sins of sexual immorality, some distinguished from others, for example in 1 Corinthians 6: "Do you not know that the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived. Neither fornicators, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor homosexuals, nor sodomites, nor thieves, nor covetous, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor extortioners will inherit the kingdom of God" (1Cor 6.9-10). What Paul does not do is discuss or describe these sins in detail.

Similarly, when promoting faithfulness and purity, Paul is entirely clear but properly discreet, for example, in 1 Corinthians 7:
Now concerning the things of which you wrote to me: It is good for a man not to touch a woman. Nevertheless, because of sexual immorality, let each man have his own wife, and let each woman have her own husband. Let the husband render to his wife the affection due her, and likewise also the wife to her husband. The wife does not have authority over her own body, but the husband does. And likewise the husband does not have authority over his own body, but the wife does. Do not deprive one another except with consent for a time, that you may give yourselves to fasting and prayer; and come together again so that Satan does not tempt you because of your lack of self-control." (1Cor 7.1-5)
Notice that these examples come from his communications with the proverbially lascivious Corinth where - if anywhere - Paul might have found a reason to be graphically explicit in his denunciations of sin and encouragements to purity and legitimate pleasure.

But nowhere do we find Paul offering examples, charts, diagrams, tables, and detailed recommendations for saints pursuing godliness positively and negatively, nothing that would sully or titillate the minds of men and women striving to leave sin and pursue holiness. For some, there are impurities from which God has spared them, and generally speaking they do not need to have these notions introduced. For others, there are impurities from which God has saved them, and they do not need or wish to have them paraded through the imagination again.

This same spirit continues as Paul continues to press home his point. He develops the matter positively (calling for legitimate possession) and negatively (contending against lustful passion). Some suggest he is calling for self-control in our own bodies, others that he is telling us to find sexual satisfaction only in the legitimate relationship with a spouse. Either way, the principle is clear: our motives to and means of satisfying the God-given sexual appetite must be governed by God's Word and not by our own unguarded appetites, like those who have no thought of God (compare Rom 1.24-32), Gentiles who have never known the restraining and purifying influences of divine truth.

Paul points out that sexual immorality is abusive in all manner of ways and relationships, a gross breach of love. It takes advantage of people: the weak-minded or thoughtless husband whose wife longs for loving leadership; the neglectful or bossy wife whose husband craves a gentle embrace; the vulnerable or ignored woman whose emotions can be so readily manipulated; the hungry or struggling man whose appetites can be so easily inflamed. It defrauds brothers, soiling and damaging what rightfully belongs to another, robbing spouses of their mutually-assured property (1Cor 7.4), prospective spouses of the purity of their husbands and wives, partners in sin of their chastity, the church of her reputation and therefore society of a testimony to the distinctiveness of saints in communion with God.

The apostle closes with some motives for us. We must consider God's judgement, who sees and knows all things, even the thoughts and intents of the heart, and who will avenge those who are robbed by such iniquity - he will deal with the offenders, if not in time, then ultimately in the day of Christ's return. We must consider God's calling, for believers must consider who and whose we are, and that God has called us not to uncleanness but to holiness. We must consider that we are God's possession: we belong to him, having been bought at a price, and he has given to us his Holy Spirit, to make us and keep us clean, to produce increasing godliness in us. To indulge in sexual immorality is therefore not a rejection of human teaching but of God himself at the very heart of his intentions for and dealings with his people.

These things need to be remembered by believers when our eyes, desires, and imaginations begin to wander, lest our heads turn, our hearts burn, and our hands reach for what God has put beyond us. None of us are immune to such sins, and some of us are prone to them, and God's judgement, calling and possession need to be pressed into our consciences if we are both to recover from sins committed by us and to be restrained from sins excited in us.

But notice that Paul sends this message with both clarity and discretion. I should not imagine that anyone is left in any doubt of what Paul means, but neither are we exposed to anything graphic, vulgar or coarse. I put this in the context of a conversation with a friend the other day, in which he mentioned a conference which he had attended. I asked him how it had gone. He was very positive. He mentioned a particular name. "I know of him," I said, "What was his theme?" "Oh," he responded, "his speciality is sex." If that doesn't give slight cause for concern, kindly text me an explanation of what should. I can imagine preachers seeking to specialise in preaching Christ, preaching holiness, or preaching God's glory (not that those are remotely mutually exclusive) but the idea of specialising in preaching on sex seems somewhat remote from New Testament practice. Even in the Old Testament the occasional graphic language and imagery was generally intended to shock the unrighteous rather than train the faithful (however one interprets the more descriptive passages of the Song of Songs, it takes some effort to bring it down to the level of a sex manual).

Paul shows us what is required for a faithful pastor-preacher in an environment like ours. His clarity rebukes those who would avoid such necessary topics if we are to be "blameless and harmless, children of God without fault in the midst of a crooked and perverse generation, among whom you shine as lights in the world" (Phil 2.15). At the same time, his restraint rebukes those who - perhaps out of a sincere intention to equip the saints - manage to introduce filth which may both befoul and entice the struggling and unwary. In this, as in so much else, Paul provides us with a helpful model.