The Westminster Shorter Catechism states that the seventh commandment “requireth the preservation of our own and our neighbor’s chastity, in heart, speech, and behavior” (Q&A 71). Said differently, the seventh commandment calls for more than mere restraint from sexual activity outside the one-flesh union of marriage. It also calls for sexual purity in thought and speech.
As once-taboo expressions of sexuality become mainstream, and as colleagues, friends, and even family members share news of a pending “no fault” divorce or a same-sex or cohabiting heterosexual relationship, more and more Christians—especially when friendships and family ties hang in the balance—feel an urgency to sympathize instead of condemn, to support instead of separate, to affirm instead of deny. And yet, we are still left to wrestle with the biblical text.
Jesus affirms that from the beginning, “God made them male and female, and the two will become one flesh.” A qualified elder must either be single and chaste or a one-woman man—the “husband of one wife.” Jesus restores dignity to a woman caught in adultery, but also tells her that she must stop committing adultery (John 7:53–8:11). To the scribes and Pharisees, he calls for a deeper and truer application of the chastity principle. Even lust—fantasizing about women in general versus covenantally desiring one woman in particular—comes from an adulterous imagination (Matt. 5:27–30).
With pornography, the hookup culture, and nonconventional expressions of sexuality becoming mainstream, classic biblical teaching is becoming less popular in our late modern times. Yet, if the true relevance of Scripture is that Scripture shows no interest in being relevant—that is, it shows no interest in being adapted, revised, or censored in order to stay current with the ever-shifting times—then the sex question is one with which sincere believers must wrestle. We must remain committed to being countercultural where the culture and the truth are at odds with one another. This, and this alone, is what will make Christians truly relevant in the culture.
Jesus, who was a lifelong unmarried and celibate man, affirmed sex within the male-female marital union. He invented sex. Sex is not a no-no. It is not taboo. It is a gift that invites husbands and wives to taste Eden together—naked and without shame, known and embraced, exposed and not rejected. Proverbs invites a husband to find satisfaction in his wife’s breasts. Song of Solomon pictures a husband and wife as admiring and adventurously enjoying one another’s naked bodies. Paul, also unmarried and celibate, says that except for short seasons of prayer, able-bodied husbands and wives should give themselves to one another sexually. History will culminate in consummation between Jesus and His bride, the church—a “profound mystery” that every believer, married and unmarried, can anticipate in the new heaven and new earth. And yet porneia—the Greek umbrella word for sexual immorality—represents any departure from the male-female marital union.
Why is Scripture seemingly so liberating about sex inside heterosexual marriage, but so limiting for every other setting? Tim Keller says that it’s because sex is the most delightful and the most dangerous of all human capacities. Sex works a lot like fire. It can warm, comfort, and purify. But if not handled with care, it can also burn, infect, scar, and destroy. I have seen this play out in scores of pastoral situations over the years. “There is a way that seems right to a man,” says the sacred proverb, “but its end is the way to death” (Prov. 14:12).
So then, what is the way forward on this issue? I’m going to propose something out of the box. What if we Christians, especially those of us who want to be salt and light to the culture but who still affirm the ancient Judeo-Christian vision for sex, became more concerned with the biblical sex ethic “in here” than the one “out there”?
The wise and lovely Madeleine L’Engle helps us with her reminder that “We draw people to Christ . . . by showing them a light that is so lovely that they want with all their hearts to know the source of it.”
The telling of the light will backfire where there is no showing of the light. Rather than condemning “sex in the city,” what if we shifted our concern to being and becoming the “city on a hill” that Jesus intends for us to be?
What if we affirmed that being unmarried and sexually chaste (like Paul and Jesus) is a noble, fruitful, and “far better” calling? What if we started repenting of marriage-olatry, shifting our emphasis toward the marriage to which all other marriages are but a shadow—the mystical union between Jesus and Bride, which is inclusive of believing husbands and wives, as well as widows and widowers, divorcees, and other unmarried men and women? What if we focused on redeeming sexuality inside the church first, repenting of pornography, coarse joking, immodest behavior and dress, and other habits that objectify the image of God? What if we became intentional about reducing divorces where there are no biblical grounds, and nurturing love, lingering conversation, hand-holding, fidelity, forgiveness, and living face-to-face (in intimacy) and also side by side (on mission) inside marriages?
For unless and until we become this kind of countercultural community among ourselves, any zeal for biblical chastity “out there” will fall on deaf ears. And rightly so.