Sexual Purity in a Hook-Up Culture
Family North Carolina MagazineJuly/August 2007
by Daniel R. Heimbach, Ph. D.
The Bible says that “among you there must not be even a hint of sexual immorality, or of any kind of impurity . . .because these are improper for God’s holy people” (Eph 5:3). At the same time, Hugh Hefner, founder of the Playboy Empire, has “tried to show there is another ethical way of enjoying sex without being married.” These are two views on sexual purity that are mutually exclusive.
We may not think of sexual purity every day, but it matters as much to relational life and marriage as the flow of blood matters to our bodies. Physical life is sustained by blood flowing inside proper channels, but is threatened when those channels are broken. And as we must keep blood inside proper channels to sustain physical life, so we must keep sex inside proper channels to sustain relational life and marriage. In both cases, losing integrity spells disaster by threatening what sustains life.
Sex pleases because God made it that way. But while God made sex pleasing, that does not mean we should pursue sex any way we please. In a hook-up culture, people pursue sexual pleasure in many ways that God abhors. It therefore is important for us to realize that, while God made sex pleasing, it is not truly goodnot morally purejust because people happen to like what they feel or experience.
This is why the Bible strongly warns against trusting natural passions when it comes to sexual purity. “Do not think about how to gratify the desires of the sinful nature” (Rom 13:14). “Live by the Spirit, and you will not gratify the desires of the sinful nature” (Gal 5:16). “Those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the sinful nature with its passions and desires” (Gal 5:24). Rather we are to “put on the new self created to be like God in true righteousness and holiness” (Eph 4:24).
Sex is truly good and pure only when pursued on God’s terms. And while that might seem to restrict chances for good sex, it does the opposite. Those who submit to God over passion receive far more value in return than anything they deny. Honoring God over passion results in far more satisfaction than honoring passion over God.
Purity as holiness
What then defines sexual purity? God is not arbitrary, so the meaning of sexual purity must be based on something, and we will never start realizing how much sexual purity matters until we start realizing how it matters to God. The value of sexual purity in the Bible does not start with benefits provided to human life, which are many. Nor does it start with human experience or what most people either do or prefer. Instead the Bible explains that sexual goodnesswhat makes sex genuinely valuableis defined by nothing other than the character of God, which is to say “holiness.”
God commands us to “be holy, because I am holy” (Lev 11:44, 45; 19:2; 20:7, 26; 1 Pet 1:16). All moral purity is a matter of holiness. We are exhorted to “be holy in all you do” (1 Pet 1:15), and that includes sex along with everything else. Thus all sexual purityall truly good sexis defined by the holiness of God. That’s it. And defining sexual goodness other ways leads to corruption whether by sensation, popularity, or even family stability or health. True sexual puritythe real measure of sexual valueis defined by the holiness of God. Nothing else.
Principles, Prohibitions and Promises
So far we have learned that holiness defines sexual purity. But how does holiness affect sexual behavior? What does keeping sex holy look like? Thankfully we are not left to guess because the Bible is filled with answers falling into three categories that may be classified as: (1) principles, (2) prohibitions, and (3) promises. And while these categories are distinct they are also linked because each affects the others. Seven principles characterize the positive value (the real goodness) of what holiness requires for sexual purity. Sixteen prohibitions preserve the value of what holiness requires for sexual purity, thus protecting sexual holiness from corruption. And four promises bless or reward keeping the prohibitions protecting sexual holiness from corruption.
Careful examination of Scripture reveals at least seven positive principles that characterize the value of sexual holiness in God’s plan for human flourishing. First, truly holy sex is personal. God made sex for a relationship uniting persons. Sex is corrupted by treating the personal as if it is not. There is always something missing and wrong with sex that denies the relational, that reduces persons to objects, or that turns sex into something mechanical.
Second, truly holy sex is exclusive. God wants the sexual relationship between persons to be so special it cannot be shared with anyone else. And that means something is missing and wrong with treating a partner in a sexual relationship as if he or she could be replaced, with group sex, or with having sex with anyone who comes along or agrees to a price.
Third, truly holy sex is profound. God designed sex to unite partners at the deepest level of life. It is not trivial or marginal but something at the core of human existence. And because intimacy affects relational depth, there is always something missing and wrong with sex that denies the value of intimacy, that diminishes the significance of gender identity, or that treats sexual activity as simply entertainment or “no big deal.”
Fourth, truly holy sex is productive. God made sex to serve purposes beyond sex itself. It is not a commodity for consuming, but a capacity for producing. It provides a means to achieve worthy results. Holy sex does not always produce biological children (as when a couple is infertile or a wife passes menopause). But it should always produce something in a marriage relationship that overflows in blessing to others, and there is something missing and wrong with sex for no reason than itself.
Fifth, truly holy sex is selfless. It is never selfish or self-centered. God made sex very pleasing but not to be squandered selfishly. Sex should satisfy but not be self self-satisfying. Self-centered selfish sex never pleases God, and there is something missing and wrong with sex that is more self-pleasing than it is pleasing to God and to others affected by a person’s sexual behavior.
Sixth, truly holy sex is complex. It has many dimensions, and we must never deny any. We have not only bodies but also minds and souls, and sex is designed to unite on all levels. Sex never engages the physical without also engaging the mental, emotional and spiritual, and something is missing and wrong with sex that pretends either to reduce sex to one dimension or to isolate one dimension from another.
Seventh, truly holy sex is complementary. Sex unites beings made for one another. Men and women are equally human, but we are not identical. And where we are different, we are different in ways designed to fit or complement each other. This union of corresponding sexual differences is part of God’s plan for human life, and sex that either denies or tries to confuse relationships of corresponding union is never holy and always impure.
The second category in the way holiness affects sexual behavior involves a number of prohibitions, and knowing the principles characterizing the value of sexual holiness helps us to appreciate what the sexual prohibitions are there to protect. They explain what makes sexual purity so worth protecting and what is at stake if the prohibitions are rejected. Careful examination shows that every one of God’s sexual prohibitions protects one or more of the principles characterizing the positive value of truly holy sex.
Lists may differ, but biblical prohibitions guarding the integrity of sexual life include the following:
- No sex outside of marriage
- No sexual worship
- No sexual commerce
- No homosexual sex
- No sex with animals
- No sex or marriage with near relatives
- No pedophilia
- No sexual violence
- No lustful desires
- No intentional gender confusion
- No sex during a woman’s period
- Strong opposition to divorce
- Strong opposition to spiritually mixed marriage
- Opposition to indecent exposure
- Opposition to polygamy
- Opposition to fellowship with sexually immoral Christians
The final category in God’s approach to sex involves promises rewarding those who guard sexual holiness, that is who keep sex inside the channels for which it is designed.
The principles characterize the positive value (the real goodness) of what holiness requires for sexual purity. The prohibitions preserve the value of what holiness requires for sexual purity, thus protecting sexual holiness from corruption. And four promises reward keeping the prohibitions protecting sexual holiness from corruption.
First, God promises that sexual holiness leads to abiding joy. God exhorts husbands to “rejoice in the wife of your youth” (Prv 5:18), which promises joy to those who practice sexual purity on his terms. Righteousness is again connected with joy where the Bible says “the prospect of the righteous is joy” (Prv 10:28), and of course the sort of righteousness God has in view includes sexual purity. But we must not confuse God’s promise of joy with human pursuit of sexual pleasure. Joy is not the same and is far better than pleasure. Pleasure is momentary, while joy endures. Pleasure flees pain, while joy transcends pain. And pleasure is fundamentally sensual, while joy is fundamentally spiritual.
Second, God promises that sexual holiness leads to genuine satisfaction touching all levels of sexual union. God promises that husbands who guard sexual purity in marriage will be satisfied (Prv 5:19), and David testifies that submission to God will never disappoint because he “satisfies your desires with good things” (Psa 103:5).
Third, God promises that sexual holiness leads to exemplary honor. Scripture reveals that without sin Adam and Eve “felt no shame” even while naked (Gen 2:25), but that sexual corruption causes lasting shame (Prv 6:32-33). By contrast, sexual holiness is “honorable” (1 Thes 4:4). Marriage and God are both “honored” by sexual holiness (Heb 13:4; 1 Cor 6:20), and God honors those who honor him (1 Sam 2:30; Psa 84:11; Prv 3:35; John 12:26) which of course includes those who honor God by guarding and respecting sexual holiness.
Fourth, God promises that sexual holiness leads to pure allure. Sexual holiness creates power to attract a marriage partner worth having. The hook-up culture reduces sexual attraction to lust, which treats people as objects, mocks fidelity, and empties sex of all meaning and significance beyond momentary sensations. But while immodesty makes sex worthless (literally worth less), the pure allure of modesty inspires members of the opposite sex to think a relationship with you is worth forsaking all others. Modesty does not say “No” to sex. Rather it says “No” to sex outside marriage and a powerful “Yes” to sex with the right person at the right time protected by marriage. King Solomon says his beloved has “captivated my heart with one glance of your eyes, with one jewel of your necklace” (Song 4:9). Her modesty captivates the heart of a king because he sees that intimacy with her is “a garden locked up . . . a sealed fountain” (Song 4:12), it is a treasure guarded, protected, and kept in reserve only to be given to the man she marries.
Fox Television launched a reality game show in 2001 called Temptation Island. In this game, young singles tried to break up couples who came to the game in committed relationships. These couples were not married but were selected because they were in a relationship heading toward marriage. The executives at Fox Television believed it would be entertaining to watch how couples heading toward marriage were affected by efforts to weaken and destroy, rather than to strengthen or encourage, the formation of deeper commitment and fidelity. Paul once exhorted Christians to “walk as children of light” in the darkness of a culture filled with sexual corruption (Eph 5:8). That exhortation is now more relevant than ever.
Dr. Daniel R. Heimbach is Professor of Christian Ethics at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary, and is a fellow of the Research Institute of the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention. For a complete version of this article, please visit www.ncfamily.org
Copyright © 2007. North Carolina Family Policy Council. All rights reserved.