The eyes are rolling already, beginning with the long-winded sighs of “Here we go again. Another article on sexual immorality.” Christian ethics has historically always highlighted and focused on sexual sins and immorality, and sometimes at the expense of other sins. But if we are truly honest, our problems with the emphasis on sexual sin is not really the exhortation to abstain from sexual immorality. Perhaps our problems stem from the way that purity movements wielded the call to purity as an ethical tool to lord over one another and, in the process, glorify ourselves in our legalism. With that recognition in mind, it is our purpose here to understand why the Biblical authors place an emphasis on sexual immorality, which is revealed in the covenantal context of marriage, and the purpose of sexual union in this context. Furthermore, we will echo the instruction of Paul in 1 Thess. 4:1-7, which reveals an important designation that we, in our call to sexual purity, often miss: the antithesis of impurity is not purity; it is holiness.
Sexual Union as Covenantal Oath Sign
The focus of Biblical sexual ethics centers on the role of sex within its covenantal context. Broadly speaking, in Ancient Near Eastern Covenants, formal covenants were initiated by a description of the covenant parties’ relationships [e.g., Gen. 15:7; Ex. 20:2], followed performative stipulations, or obligations, of the Covenant [e.g., Gen. 17:10; Ex. 20:3-17], and generally associated with an oath sign which ratified the covenant [e.g., The passing between the meat in Gen. 15; Circumcision in Gen. 17, etc.]. Similarly, marriage is revealed as a covenant between a man and a woman, a covenant that has its own form of ratification ritual. In Marriage as a Covenant, Gordon Hugenberger expounds on the creation of Woman (the proper name of Eve before Gen. 3:20) and the speech of Adam following his awakening. At the creation of Woman, the declaration of Adam constitutes a marriage ceremony. Explaining the details of the passage, he notes,
“The third person reference in Gen. 2:23, with God’s presence, asserted in the immediate context, implies that Adam was addressing his affirmation not to Eve, nor presumably to himself, but to God as witness… (Hugenberger, 202).”
Understanding this detail helps to establish that the declaration of “bone of my bone” and “flesh of my flesh” are not simply declarations of joy, but they more formally establish the description of the covenant parties’ relationship and they are further reinforced by the stipulations that “a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and they shall become one flesh [Gen. 2:23-24; cf. the use of ‘bone and flesh’ imagery in other Biblical covenants, i.e., Jdg. 9:1-3; 2 Sam. 5:1-5; 2 Sam. 19:8-15].”
The absence of any explicit oath ritual in Gen. 2 has led to various explanations concerning the identity of the marriage covenant oath ritual. One popular suggestion is the identification of the “bride price” [e.g., 2 Sam. 3:14] with the oath sign; however, Hugenberger notes that this payment functions as a betrothal gift, not the consummation of marriage (Hugenberger, 246). The identification of sexual union as a covenantal oath sign is reinforced by the stipulations of Deut. 21:10-14 in marrying a captive and the rite of levirate marriage in Deut. 25:5, both of which reveal the status of marriage follows the sexual union of a man and a woman [for a parallel example of levirate marriage, vid. Gen. 38:8,18]. The marriage of Jacob to Rachel in Gen. 29:21-28 provides another passage that attaches a consummated marriage with the sexual union.
When we understand the covenantal background of sex, it is easily recognized why such importance is placed upon it by Biblical authors, especially the Apostle Paul. Symbolically, the marriage covenant is regarded as an earthly parallel of Yahweh’s covenantal relationship with Israel [cf. Hosea 1-3; Mal. 2:10-11], and His continued fidelity with the Church [Eph. 5:22-33]. Such symbolism recognizes the beauty and goodness of sex within its proper covenantal context, and it helps us to understand its proper place in our everyday lives. Sexual immorality, both in and outside of marriage, distorts the symbolism of God’s own fidelity toward his covenant community. And quite literally, the expression of the sexual union outside the confines of marriage minimizes the covenantal union that God intended to subsist between a husband and wife. In distorting a sign of a covenantal union, we diminish the union itself, distorting who we are as Imago Dei, and we demean the Image of whomever we use for our own self-gratification and pleasure. We fail to experience the fullness of the fidelity and beauty of this covenantal oath sign.
The Antithesis of Impurity: Holiness
Paul’s exhortation for the Christian community at Thessalonica to abstain from sexual immorality not only provides key instruction on sexual ethics for the Church today, but it also critiques our often-misguided attempts at mandating purity. Historically, the purity movements of the ’90s and early 2000’s focused on the legalistic policing of others, reducing Biblical sexual ethics to simple proof texts, wielding each verse and passage as a means of declaring oneself to be pure in contrast with others. This application of purity echoes the Pharisee’s prayer in Luke 18, “God, I thank you that I am not like other men, extortioners, unjust, adulterers…” rather than the prayer of the tax collector, “God, be merciful to me, a sinner!” Paul, in 1 Thessalonians 4, doesn’t command the Christian community to lord their ethical standards over each other. Rather, he encourages each person in their community to “control his own body in holiness and honor… [1 Thess. 4:4b]. Furthermore, the antithesis to sexual impurity is not purity but holiness. As Paul later notes, “For God has not called us for impurity, but in holiness [1 Thess. 4:7].”
We should all walk in holiness, recognizing that the call to abstain from sexual immorality is not a call to establish legalistic lines and boundaries, which prove to be easily moved, but rather to repeat God’s command for us to be “Holy as I am Holy [1 Peter 1:16; cf. Lev. 11:44-45].” The call to holiness is not about our ethical lordship over each other. It’s not about the rules and boundaries we set up. It’s about an indwelling, a relationship we have with God. We are called the holy ones [Gk. αγίος], not because of our holy works but because that which dwells in us is holy. And being consecrated, in union and relation with the Spirit, we ought to reflect that holiness. When viewed in this fashion, we come to recognize our own human failings, and in those failings, we are reminded of the God who forgives us of our sins. We are as the woman caught in adultery. We stand before the grace and love of Jesus. We are not condemned but, nevertheless, commanded to go and sin no more.
Therefore, as we go about our week, let us pray that God would earnestly call us to live out holiness. That the Spirit which has freed us from our sin may enable us to walk out of that freedom in holiness [1 Peter 2:15-16]. And in our desire and pursuit of holiness, we would encourage each other graciously, seeking to edify one another in love.
Hugenberge, Gordon. Marriage As A Covenant: Biblical Law and Ethics as Developed from Malachi. Eugene: Wipf & Stock Publishers, 2014.