Is the Bible out of touch with contemporary sexual mores?
First Thessalonians 4:3–8 seems to be so, for three reasons: First, it frames Christian conduct in terms of “holiness,” a word contemporaries typically use ironically rather than sincerely. Second, its prohibition of “sexual immorality” seems quaint, given the prevalence of extramarital sex and widespread use of pornography, even among Christians. Third, its warning that the Lord will “punish” the sexually immoral seems heavy-handed, as if God is a pleasure-hating killjoy just waiting to send unmarried, sexually active couples to hell.
Consider, with this last point in mind, verses 6–8:
The Lord will punish all those who commit such sins, as we told you and warned you before. For God did not call us to be impure, but to live a holy life. Therefore, anyone who rejects this instruction does not reject a human being but God, the very God who gives you his Holy Spirit.
Of course, the more interesting question is not whether these verses are out of touch with contemporary mores—which they certainly seem to be—but whether what they say is true. This is not merely the more interesting question but the most important one.
Let’s take a closer look at these verses, one phrase at a time.
First, “the Lord will punish all those who commit such sins.” Lord, here, refers to Jesus Christ, not God the Father. According to the Nicene Creed, “[the Lord Jesus Christ] will come again to judge the living and the dead,” a statement that mirrors biblical language (e.g., Acts 10:42; 2 Tim. 4:1; and 1 Pet. 4:5). Jesus’ involvement in the judgment of sexual immorality should warn us of the seriousness of our sexual behavior.
Second, punishment is warranted because sexual immorality violates a divine standard: “God did not call us to be impure, but to live a holy life.” God is not a pleasure-hating killjoy. God created sexually differentiated human beings, and he commanded—commanded!—them to have sex. The question, then, is not whether sex is good or bad, but, rather, in what context sex is best. And on that score, the Bible sends a consistent picture: The lifelong marriage of a man and a woman is the proper moral context for an active, pleasure-filled sex life (Gen. 1:27–28; 2:20–25; Matt. 19:1–12). When we see that sexual immorality violates a divine standard, we see why punishment is warranted: “anyone who rejects this instruction does not reject a human being but God.”
Third, obedience to God is possible. The missionaries write, “God…gives you his Holy Spirit.” Notice that the Spirit is holy. When God’s Spirit flows through your life, heartfelt, joyful obedience to God’s standard for sexual morality—or any other issue—becomes increasingly possible.
And that’s good news! No matter where you are today with regard to sexual immorality, no matter what you’ve done in the past, God forgives you, calls you to a new and better standard of living, and makes a life of holiness—in all things, not just sex—possible.