When we take the gospel seriously, we not only correctly understand the nature of sexual immorality, but we must also become proactive in taking corporate responsibility for the sexual maturity and sexual problems within our local church.
A well-known church received a stern letter in the spring of A.D. 54 when they failed grievously in this understanding and responsibility. As you know, that same letter sent to the Corinthians is written to us.
Imagine opening your email to find this message from a highly respected church leader: “It is actually reported that there is sexual immorality in your church, and a kind of sexual sin that’s not practiced among unbelievers: a man is cohabitating with his father’s wife. And you are proud! Instead, you should be deeply sorrowful” (see 1 Corinthians 5:1–2).
Our response to sexual sin within the church reveals a lot about our own spiritual, relational, and sexual maturity, as well as those with whom we fellowship.
Let’s say that on a typical Sunday morning, the secret sexual sin of a respected elder is exposed to your congregation. Many in attendance might respond with shock and dismay and start asking, “How could there be sexual sin in our Bible-believing, theologically correct, growing church?” Given our high moral standards, the tacit assumption is that behind closed doors we are living sexually mature lives.
“Privatized spirituality is at the root of privatized sexuality.”
Privatized spirituality is at the root of privatized sexuality. For the past twenty-two years, I have focused on the problems of pornography and adultery within the church in America, and I see sexual sin from a unique perspective. Numerous indicators tell us that it is in our midst. I also know for a fact that there is a kind of sexual sin not tolerated by society tolerated in our churches.
Typically, sexual sin doesn’t happen overnight. I’ve seen it hidden for five, ten, or twenty years, and even longer. Nobody suddenly falls into a one-night stand or starts looking at pornography in adulthood. There is longevity in the process of falling into sexual sin, and then you can have years in which the sin is kept a secret from everyone. I would suggest that the first assessment needs to be both personal and corporate by asking ourselves the question, “What have we been doing personally and corporately to address sexual sin in the life of our church?”
Ignorance of the problem because it is hidden from view is no excuse.
We need to ask the question again and again. “How could such a thing happen in the first place?” And here’s the caution: don’t limit your understanding to commonly accepted explanations. Don’t just blame the sexual culture, the easy access through digital devices, or someone’s sexually promiscuous past. Yes, we live in a different world technologically, but Corinth had all three of those explanations. Wanton sexuality was common. There was easy accessibility to prostitutes in the temple. Sexual immorality was a part of their previous non-Christian lifestyle. I would strongly suggest that there is more to understanding the cause of sexual sin among Christians. And it has to do with all of us.
Sexual sin is not just the problem of the sinner, but of the whole church. Whatever it might say of the guilty one’s faith, it says just as much of the church’s faithfulness. Now we may want to blame sexually disinterested wives and then say, “Men are sexually hardwired.” The problem of sexual dissatisfaction in Christian marriages is important, but it is related to the bigger problem of spiritual, relational, and sexual maturity.
Sexual Sin and Community
Paul clearly saw sexual sin differently, so when he challenges the Corinthians, he does so by confronting the theology at the root of their behavior. “‘All things are lawful for me,’ but not all things are helpful” (1 Corinthians 6:12). They believed they could do what they wanted with their own bodies (1 Corinthians 6:13–20). They had the great Bible teachers of their day: Paul, Aquila, and Apollos, but still, every one of us “must pay much closer attention to what we have heard, lest we drift away from it” (Hebrews 2:1).
“Sexual immorality and adultery, although done in secret, are corporate affairs.”
A sex-saturated culture poses a serious challenge for many reasons, but if we get beyond the fact that sex is accessible, affordable, anonymous, and addictive, we can see that our culture, like in Corinth, is a conduit that feeds our view of freedom and of the self that can lead us into a radical militant sexuality. The culture feeds our nature that believes in the sovereign self whereby we think we can establish greater meaning for our lives from our free sexual choices.
We live in a time in which people think they can choose whatever truth about sex they want to believe, do whatever they want sexually, and that no one has a right to question their sexual expression. The Corinthian culture was vastly different on the surface. But at the core, there is that same conduit that leads to the same erroneous conclusions: The body is permitted to have everything that it desires.
If it is pleasurable, why not do it?
If it is therapeutic, why not do it?
If it is spiritual, why not do it?
The more we believe that we have the freedom of choice sexually, it follows that we make choices without adequately considering others.
And if we are not careful, our spirituality and sexuality will diminish our godly interest in others. Whether a sexual act is “right” must be a corporate decision too. If I think it is right for me, I need to ask, is it “helpful” (1 Corinthians 6:12) or does it benefit? Looking at the context of verse 12, it may mean, “to our own benefit.” However, later Paul writes, “not all things are helpful . . . not all things build up. Let no one seek his own good, but the good of his neighbor” (1 Corinthians 10:23–24). Paul also brings this principle out in 1 Corinthians 8:10–11 in terms of moral harm to the weaker brother. God designed sex as a relational activity for his own glory, not as an individual private act, nor the act of using another’s body selfishly.
The implications on the life of the church are huge, for we are responsible for one another spiritually and sexually. We correctly teach, and expect, that the marriage bed be “undefiled” (Hebrews 13:4), but God-designed responsibility has another level that is often neglected. Paul teaches and exhorts couples not to be sexually indifferent. “The husband should give to his wife her conjugal rights, and likewise the wife to her husband” (1 Corinthians 7:3). We must address sexual indifference because it directly relates to being spiritually, relationally, and sexually mature.
While sexual intimacy between a husband and a wife is private, sexual immorality and adultery, while done in secret, is a corporate affair. The arrogance of the Corinthians was a huge factor in the existence of sexual sin in their church. They simply didn’t address the problem. The initial appropriate corporate response to sexual sin is to “mourn,” then take action (1 Corinthians 5:2). When we think of ourselves first, we are less likely to proactively address hidden sexual sin. Once it is exposed, typically we overreact.
A Community Battle Charge
Here’s one of the most important points I have come to learn. The hiddenness of sexual sin does not absolve us of corporate accountability for the sexual sin in our churches.
“The battle against sexual sin and lust is a battle charge given to the whole church community.”
I believe we are corporately responsible for one another’s spiritual, relational, and sexual maturity. “See to it that no one fails to obtain the grace of God” (Hebrews 12:15).
We have a responsibility to oversee one another in spiritual matters. “Put on then, as God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, compassionate hearts, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience, bearing with one another and, if one has a complaint against another, forgiving each other” (Colossians 3:12–13).
And we have a responsibility to oversee one another in relational matters. “See to it . . . that no one is sexually immoral” (Hebrews 12:15–16).
That’s the bottom line: we’re in this together. The battle against sexual sin and lust is a battle charge given to the whole church community. The writer of Hebrews and the apostle Paul will never let us abstract sexual sin in the life of one member from the overall health of the local church. We expose sexual sin for what it is, humbly deal with sexual sin when and where it appears, together shine the light of God’s truth and expose sexual sin, and rejoice in sexual health and wholeness.