This week I will be preaching on 1 Thessalonians 4:1-8. In this text God calls his people to a theological sexual ethic that is meant to be a stable call to holiness for his church in a world with a sexual ethic that is always shifting. The apostle Paul is clear in this text that what he is purporting to communicate to the church, is a sexual ethic that comes from God.
This theological sexual ethic is simple to state but intentionally leaves a lot of need for interpretation. The church is instructed to “abstain from sexual immorality.”
I think it is informative to consider that Paul did not lack words in his language for various sexual acts to prohibit. If he had wanted to, he could’ve easily given a list. But in this text where Paul is calling the church to be set apart unto God, he tells them to set a distance between themselves and porneia.
Translators often use the phrase “sexual immorality” to translate the word porneia. I believe that by keeping this generic, Paul is intentionally reminding the church in Thessalonika that they are to keep their distance from even the general vicinity of sexual sin. He is not saying that sex is bad. He is not even saying sex is dangerous. He is certainly not setting up “safe sex” or “consensual sex” as the high water mark of sexual ethics.
Instead, he is setting up holiness as the standard for sexual ethics. A lot could be said about the word Holiness, but at the end of the day one cannot do a study of the word holiness in Scripture without walking away with some sense of God’s rightful claim on a life. When a person comes to faith in Jesus and acknowledges Him as their King, they recognize his rule and they give him their allegiance. This is why it matters, that Paul tells the people of Jesus that this is the command of Jesus. If one truly considers themselves a “Christ-follower” then it would be reasonable to assume that they would want to follow Christ. And Paul declares here that Christ wants his followers to stay far away from sexual immorality.
In all of this, the primary observation that has moved me to blog about this subject pertains to the application of this teaching to the wrong group. Paul doesn’t even launch into this teaching to the Thessalonians until he has established that he is speaking to Christ-followers. Further he spent a couple of chapters praying for them, explaining his love for them, and thanking God for the good he sees in them. In other words, a theological sexual ethic makes sense to those who are called to holiness, recognize the love of God in Christ, and have given Christ their allegiance.
A person that doesn’t have that foundation will likely be confused, troubled, and maybe even quite angry about the theological sexual ethic that is built up in the pages of Scripture. And it is for for good reason that they will be upset. Paul says in verse 5 that knowing God makes the difference! Those who do not know God cannot be expected to have a theological sexual ethic! They will indeed have some form of sexual ethic because God has created all to recognize our need for correction and boundaries. But the sexual ethics of our world around us usually begins with mankind and works outward. Paul’s sexual ethic starts with God and works outward. His will is that we abstain from sexual immorality.
But the church has done a huge disservice to the cause of Christ by demanding a strong theological sexual ethic on a culture that doesn’t even know God. And so I find it ironic that everything comes back to the central mission of the calling of the church. And even a blog about sex, can conclude with a call to the church to get back to our mission: to introduce others to the Holy God who loves us and is concerned with human flourishing for His own glory! Only the one who knows God in His love, grace, mercy and holiness will be able to make heads or tails of a truly theological sexual ethic.