October / November 2018 - Vol. 100
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Sexual Purity: Beyond Legalism
When people grasp God’s intentions in giving his commandments,
they can put their whole hearts into obeying him

by Steve Clark
This article was originally published in Pastoral Renewal, a journal of the Sword of the Spirit, addressed to pastoral leaders across the various churches and traditions. It draws from wisdom that God is giving to leaders throughout the churches and it offers approaches that have been tested by experience. It speaks in loyalty to God's word, in concern for all of the Christian people, and in confidence that God is opening ways for a profound pastoral renewal in the churches. -ed.
As pastoral leaders, we should not simply tell people what God’s law forbids. We should teach them the principle that one ought to understand God’s intention in giving his commandments.  When people grasp God’s intentions, they can put their whole hearts into obeying him, not just being satisfied with eliminating the serious violations of the commandments, but also shaping the way they live in every respect in order to arrive at his purposes.

Ideal of a well-ordered life
For instance, with regard to sex, it is particularly helpful for people to see that the Lord holds up for us the ideal of a well-ordered life.  When sex is properly ordered in marriage, it strengthens family life. That, in turn, strengthens the life of the church and society.  Bringing sex into proper order involves individual self-control, mastery over our desires.  From a Christian standpoint, this is a positive ideal.

In getting this ideal across, we are working against the modern view that any form of sex is okay as long as it is “fulfilling,” which generally means as long as it gives pleasure.

From a scriptural perspective, this is a degraded view of sex. It treats sex as something an animal does rather than as something that a human being does.  Animals follow their instincts.  Human beings use their minds to understand God’s purposes for life, and make their decisions in line with those purposes.  The Lord is calling us to communicate this vision to the people we are leading.

Another important principle to teach is this: That which shares in the nature of what is forbidden is likewise forbidden. We need to do more than merely try to avoid the grossest violations of God’s law. We should also exclude behavior that goes part way to violating the law, even while not perhaps violating it in its fullness.

“Making out” (“necking,” petting) is an example.  Many Christians today would say that, while fornication is out (or, as they would put it, “going all the way” is out), it is alright to make out for a little recreation, or for personal exploration, or to assuage our sexual desires. But the traditional Christian view is that making out constitutes engaging in fornication or adultery.

For one thing, it is only common sense that making out does not assuage sexual desires. God specifically designed it to arouse them, not assuage them.

For another, there is an integrity to the scriptural understanding of sexual relations, which includes all those initial activities which are a natural part of intercourse. Thus, Scripture often refers to the sexual act by simply mentioning the first stage of it: for instance, “uncovering nakedness” (see Leviticus 18).  That phrase does not mean simply having no clothes on.  It means the kind of unclothing that involves moving toward having sexual relations.

Scripture teaches an appropriate distance between men and women
Scripture also uses the expression, “approach a woman” (Leviticus 18:6,19).  This implies that there is an appropriate distance between men and women, and that to violate it is already to enter on the process of fornication.

“Not touch a woman” is another biblical expression for sexual relations (1 Corinthians 7:1).  It does not mean shaking hands, but the sort of touching that is the beginning of the process of sexual relations.

From this scriptural perspective, engaging in the initial stages may be less serious than doing everything one could possibly do in the act of fornication. But just because a person does not bring the sexual act to completion does not mean that he or she has not begun to commit fornication.

Ignoring the spirit or purpose of the law
It is interesting that many modern people who claim to abhor “legalism” actually take refuge in a kind of legalism when it comes to sexual morality. They seek to make space for everything that stops short of a full-scale violation of the letter of the law, and do not consider the spirit, or purpose of the law.

One of the clearest signs of this sort of thing is the question: “How far can I go and not sin?”  It is already the wrong question, indicating that the person who asks it is not yet living the life of a disciple who puts his or her mind, heart, spirit and strength into loving the Lord and accomplishing his purposes.

The right question is: “What can I do to be fully in the right place in this area?  How can I live my life in all respects in a way that most corresponds to God’s purpose and God’s order for this area of my life?”

Avoiding situations and behavior that lead to violating God's law
A third principle is this: What leads to violation of the commandment should be avoided if reasonably possible; what leads to keeping it should be done if reasonably possible.

For example, we should avoid immodesty, uncontrolled thoughts, pornography, hanging out with the wrong people, going to the wrong places, and so on.  Those things lead us and others into trouble.

Take immodest dress, for example.  Dressing immodestly may or may not affect the person who is doing it, but it certainly affects some other people.  We should lead people to be concerned not only for keeping themselves in the right place, but also for helping others to stay in the right place.

Developing a sound and positive pastoral approach to dating and courtship
The positive side of the principle means that we should build into our life together in the church things that will help us fulfill the purposes of God’s commandments. We want to further the right use of the sexual capability that God has put in us.

An example of a positive response would be to develop a sound pastoral approach to dating and courtship.  First Thessalonians 4:3-8 instructs us to abstain from sexual immorality and to enter marriage in holiness and honor, not in the passion of lust like heathens who do not know God.  How might we help the members of the church do just this?

Teaching the Christian view of marriage and qualities of character needed
A key element of a pastoral strategy would be to teach the Christian view of marriage, with its responsibilities – which is a model of marriage that many Christians today do not understand.  On this basis, we can encourage singles to think about the qualities of character that they and their spouse would need.

In personal pastoral care, we can steer them away from making a decision to marry mainly on the basis of emotional attraction, and help them focus their attention on objective issues, such as personal readiness and common vision, that are crucial for a successful marriage.

And we can guide them through the courtship process in ways that abet sober, prayerful decision-making, and away form approaches that tend toward indulging emotional infatuation or sexual temptation.

We will treat the Christian view of marriage and what it needs in a later article.

“Sexual Purity: Beyond Legalism,” (c) 1989, 2018 Stephen B. Clark, first published in Pastoral Renewal, Volume 13, Number 4 (January / February 1989): pp 4–7, Ann Arbor, Michigan, USA. Used with permission.

> See other articles by Steve Clark in Living Bulwark

Steve Clark is past president of the Sword of the Spirit, an international ecumenical association of charismatic covenant communities worldwide. He is the founder of the Servants of the Word, an ecumenical international missionary brotherhood of men living single for the Lord.

Steve Clark has authored a number of books, including
Baptized in the Spirit and Spiritual Gifts, Finding New Life in the Spirit, Growing in Faith, and Knowing God’s Will, Building Christian Communities, Man and Woman in Christ, The Old Testament in Light of the New.

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