Paul and Sexual Sin
by Herb Drake

Copyright (c) 1998, Herb Drake.

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The late Jewish scholar Robert Gordis, who had a very ecumenical view of Christianity in general, had a great distaste for Paul. He felt that Paul's disproportionate criticism of sexual sin betrayed a misunderstanding of Judaic teaching and was directly responsible for tendency of the medieval church to regard virtually all sex as "dirty" and allowable only as a vehicle for procreation. In fact, Gordis regarded the attitude of the medieval church as the very sociological root from which many of the problems in modern society (divorce, remarriage, abortion, etc.) could be traced. (This writer is sympathetic to Gordis' point, but feels that both he and the medieval church greatly misunderstood Paul).

The more liberal Christian churches appear to have accepted Gordis' thesis completely, as one of the most obvious tendencies within that group is to regard the Pauline corpus as having no authority because of its perceived "politically incorrect" views in a number of areas, including its strict condemnation of sexual sin. This challenge to Paul demands an answer--why did Paul single out this one category of human disobedience to God and make such a big issue out of it? After all, Christians can be equally accused of a great array of other sins. Surely God's grace is just as ample in one sin category as it is in any another. So, to put it simply, "What's the big deal?" Why should we listen to Paul's advice on sexual sin?


The Greek New Testament had one word that covered all the bases of sexual sin, pornaia, from which the English word "pornographic" can trace its roots. The many references to "fornication" in the King James New Testament are indicators of pornaia in the original text. The Arndt/Gingrich Greek English Lexicon of the New Testament defines pornaia as "prostitution, unchastity, fornication, of every kind of unlawful sexual intercourse." Paul used the word in 1 Cor. 5:1, 1 Cor. 6:13, 1 Cor. 6:18, 1 Cor. 10:8, 2 Cor. 12:21, Gal. 5:19, Eph. 5:3, Col. 3:5, and 1 Thess. 4:3. Pornaia is one of the Judaic sins specifically carried into the Christian sin catalogue in Acts 15:20 and 29. The word was used by Jesus in Mt. 15:19 ("For out of the heart come evil thoughts ...") and Mt. 5:32 and Mt. 19:9. In Revelation, pornaia is often used, as it was in the Old Testament, as a symbol of idol worship because the church that seeks other gods is behaving just like a wife that seeks other sexual partners (see Ezek. 16, Hos. 1-3).

Paul's Zero-Tolerance Policy

In 1 Cor. 5:1-5, Paul chides the Corinthians for their tolerance in keeping a man who is guilty of sexual sin in their fellowship--he demands that he be immediately excommunicated. But the passage found in 1 Thess. 4:1-8 is perhaps the strongest statement. It is a complex passage, and I have diagrammed the center portion of it in an attempt to articulate what the apostle was attempting to do (please bear with me--I am not expecting you to understand Greek! But the diagram is necessary to show the structure of Paulís argument).

Paul begins the passage gently, complimenting them for living a lifestyle that pleases God. He then tells them that they need to learn to do this even more, reminding them of his original teachings to them that were "through the Lord Jesus." He then begins 1 Thess 4:3, as shown in the upper left-hand corner of the diagram, with this forumla that uses the language device called "apposition" (the "=" signs):

The will of God = your sanctification = (four infinitives)

The four infinitives are shown in the diagram to the right of the numbers 1, 2, 3, and 4. Infinitives, you will recall, are verbs in a noun form, usually prefaced in English by the word "to." In the Greek, however, the following form applies:

The will of God = your sanctification = that you #1, that you #2, that you #3, and that you #4.

Paul then concludes the passage even more strongly, telling them that the "Lord is an avenger in this [matter]" (he threatens them with divine judgment, in other words), that they had been called by God to live a holy, rather than impure life and, finally, that the one who rejects this important teaching is not rejecting Paul but rejecting God! In few other places does Paul bring out such big guns to make a point!

Let's back up a bit to the formula in verse 3. Paul is invoking God's will and setting it equal to "sanctification," which is the noun version of the adjective "holy." In this way he begins the passage in a very positive way, not speaking of sin but rather speaking of pleasing God through one's lifestyle. Having done that, he sets that holy lifestyle to equal the four, parallel infinitives:

1. That they abstain from pornaia.
2. That they learn to control their bodies.
The word here is not actually "body," but "object" or "vessel." Scholars have struggled with what Paul intended to say here, and there is some ancient evidence that suggests that the apostle was using a euphemism for genitals. The operative words are "know how to" and "control," however, and in the context of pornaia, and view of the object "holiness and honor," the word "body" probably comes close to saying what Paul had in mind. In modern English, we might just paraphrase him as saying, "Learn to control your hormones!"
3. That they not wrong their brother or sister...
The word translated "wrong" means "overstep or transgress," so it suggests an invasion of one individual by another.
4. That they not take advantage of their brother or sister in this matter.
As the diagram indicates, this infinitive is coupled with the prior one and shares the same object. Scholars dispute whether the word "this" belongs here, as there is no demonstrative pronoun but just a definite article. Some say that "matter" can refer to other aspects of lifestyle, such as business dealings within the church. But the fact that the first two infinitives are very clearly associated with pornaia convinces this writer that Paul is still following the same thread. Also, Paul concludes the passage (v. 8) with an appeal to be holy rather than impure, the latter verb very often being used in connection with sexual immorality in other Pauline passages (e.g., Eph. 4:19). Also, for him to suddenly change the subject in the midst of this complex passage would seem highly unusual. So, with the majority of scholarship, I view all four infinitives as referring to sexual sin.

Paul could hardly have used stronger terms for condemning sexual sin. He as much as calls down God's judgment on church members who commit sins of this class. When one turns to 1 Cor 6:9-11, where the word pornaia does not appear but rather a long list of serious sins of which several are pornaia, Paul says "none of these will enter the kingdom of God. And this is what some of you used to be." Since the Thessalonian church was a gentile church, it is very likely that many to whom Paul wrote 1 Thessalonians may have practiced pornaia prior to joining the church as well, and this is not a matter that concerns the apostle at all. But Paul is absolutely definite that sexual sin is one thing that absolutely must be left at the door when one becomes a Christian. He insists, in other words, on a zero-tolerance policy for this one particular class of sins within the church, making no comment whatsoever about the same behaviors as practiced by outsiders.

Confirmation that such a policy was in force may be seen in the book of Romans, a book that had a purpose that had nothing to do with pornaia per se, but rather was intended to bring gentile and Jewish Christians together (a point developed elsewhere). Paul begins Romans with an affirmation of the gospel (Rom. 1:16) which reveals to church insiders a righteousness from God (Rom. 1:17) just as natural revelation reveals to outsiders the wrath of God (Rom. 1:18-23) because outsiders worship the creature rather than the Creator. Paul then launches into a severe attack of some of the pornaia sins (Rom. 1:24-32) to illustrate his point that those that worship the creature deserve the wrath that is revealed because they are rejecting the Creator's good design. Since this attack has nothing to do with the main purpose of Romans, since these pornaia sins were very commonplace in Rome, and since Paul's whole purpose in writing Romans is to bring elements of the Roman churches together, there is no way that Paul would have chosen to illustrate his point by an attack on the pornaia sins unless he was completely confident that the zero-tolerance rule had been followed; otherwise, a number of his listeners would have been so upset that they would have completely rejected Paul's whole message. In other words, had church discipline been as wishy-washy as it is in today's institutional churches, Paul would surely have illustrated his point in a different way rather than risk alienating a part of his audience.

Why Single Out Sexual Sin?

Paul's uneven emphasis on sexual sin persisting within the church cannot be explained by any recourse to Paul's Rabbinic training. Critics such as Robert Gordis may operate from that assumption, and thus accuse Paul of having an excessive zeal for the Levitical Holiness Code (Lev. 20). Even though Paul surely would have understood the Holiness Code very well, it does not seem to this writer that this is Paulís real motive for singling out sexual sin for particular emphasis. Indeed, Paul's whole attitude as apostle and evangelist to the gentiles was always to reach out to those who practice all kinds of the pornaia sins, just as he insisted that they discard that behavior when they accepted Jesus Christ.

One can turn to Paul's theological discussion of sexual sin in 1 Cor. 6:12-17, in which he shows how promiscuous activities grieve the Holy Spirit and violate the intentions of God as put forth in Gen. 2:24. But this argument hardly seems adequate to explain the tremendous emphasis that the apostle places on sexual sin throughout his letters.

The key to the problem lies earlier in the 1 Thessalonians letter, in 1 Thess. 2:1-16, and especially 2 Thess. 3:7. Paul lived a lifestyle that he intended others to use as their model, and he wanted other Christians become good models as well. To be a right model is the same thing as being a right witness, and Paul understood "witnessing" very well (see 1 Cor. 8--because of one's witness, the Christian should avoid certain practices even when convinced that they are not a sin).

Sexual sin of every kind was utterly commonplace in the first century, as it is in our own culture today. Paul insisted that Christians be perceived as standing apart from this sort of thing. Each church was to discipline offenders quickly and completely. In my view, he did this so that the culture, however it might hate Christians, would at least be able to have confidence in one thing: Christians could be counted on to have extraordinary self control and would never take advantage of others for their own sexual gratification. Were this not to be the case, the church would ultimately fail in its mission to the whole world which God loved so much that he sent his only son.

Christian witnessing is for the purpose of showing the love of God and Jesus Christ. For the church to do its job, it must reach out to outsiders and show that love at every opportunity. God's love, however, should never be misunderstood or confused with erotic love. When an outsider is approached by a Christian, he or she must have confidence that the Christian is truly operating from motives centered in God's love, and never any kind of human sexual interest. Were Christians to have sexual practices that simply mirrored the world in general, their witnessing could easily be dismissed as just one more form of sexual manipulation. But by enforcing a zero-tolerance policy, the work of the evangelist would be able to flower in a climate completely free of such a misunderstanding. Even an occasional scandal could greatly damage the witness of the church (have we not seen this in the fall of so many "super-Christians" over the past few years--nearly all of the complaints having some sort of sexual misbehavior at their root?).

Returning to 1 Thess. 4:1, which starts the passage, we can now gain an understanding of what Paul means by "living to please God." It is not a matter of having God say, "Oh, what good Christians that church has." Rather, it is that the church has adopted a wholesome lifestyle without which it is incapable of functioning at all! (Cf. Rev. 2:18-29, a church that "tolerated" sexual immorality is condemned by the Lord--clearly, "tolerance" is not a Christian virtue when it means ignoring sexual sin within the church).

Modern Churches

Statistics show that the modern institutional church is not at all differentiating itself from the general population with regard to the sexual behavior of its members. Even pastors and youth workers are often caught using the church for private, perverse ends. And churches that try to enforce biblical discipline (such as that found in Mt. 18) are finding that enforcing a Pauline zero-tolerance policy toward sexual sin very difficult in today's legal climate. Church discipline can, and often is, challenged in the courts or in the media. Indeed, the only way an institutional church can properly enforce sexual morality among its members is to be circumspect in treating every complaint promptly and equally. Yet that may not be enough. Some have suggested that the only way that a church can legally enforce its rules against sexual sin is to require every member to sign a legal contract at the time of his baptism that defines in complete detail every proscribed behavior!

The house church, on the other hand, is much less likely to be the object of legal attack or a media campaign. As substantial as it may be as a part of God's kingdom--having the very "keys to heaven"--it has no official standing before Caesar. Any suspicion of sexual sin can be quickly dealt with according to the biblical guidelines of Mt. 18. If an individual refuses to repent, he or she can be simply disinvited from attending future gatherings. The church still has a responsibility to minister to the offending person (church discipline is, like God's nature, redemptive--it is to work toward a future restoration of Christian fellowship.)

Should the house church have a zero-tolerance policy toward sexual sin? You bet it should. Is God's grace sufficient to forgive sexual sin? Of course it is! But Paul was adamant that the church keep its fellowship--its koinonia,--pure. His reason was not because he wanted to single out particular sins as more serious than others, but because he wanted the church to have a right witness to the world so that it would remain an effective tool in the hand of its Lord.


Under Constantinian Christianity, the church and state were a unity. Therefore, the view of the church toward sex (that it is "dirty" and even "evil") mandated secular laws against fornication, adultery, divorce, etc. Under the "Christendom" approach to church, this made perfect sense because all citizens of the state were automatically "Christians" and they needed these laws for their own good. Sex was never to be something that was engaged in for pleasure, but was to be limited to a procreative purpose (a view still evident in the Catholic position on birth control). These laws have survived until well after the demise of Constantinian Christianity, only falling into repeal in our own era. Christian scholarship now rightly questions the medieval assessment of sex. The Song of Songs, for example, is often interpreted as a simple celebration of human sexuality (within biblical constraints) as a gift of God--a sharp break with the Catholic view that the book be spiritualized. See also Vernard Eller's article suggestion that sex within marriage has a covenantal purpose ("Covenantal Sex and Marriage," in the Vernard Eller Collection.