Few topics prove as sensitive and yet as controversial as sexuality. The topic generates a lot of interest; sadly, few conversations regarding sexuality prove very profitable. Most people understand their sexuality according to the terms of their culture and the world; few challenge the perspective and the narrative they are told regarding their sexual desires and the proper exercise thereof. Unfortunately, this remains true even among God’s people: they have heard all sorts of lessons about sexual purity and holiness and may have a desire to maintain sexual integrity, and yet deep down they often maintain the same prevailing assumptions and attitudes about sexuality as most of the rest of the people in our culture. The challenges with this situation are evident: Christians may profess a different standard of conduct than many other people in the world, yet they often are just as guilty of adultery, viewing of pornography, and involvement in various forms of sexually deviant behavior as those who do not hold to the Biblical standard.
The problem is not found in exhortations toward sexual purity and holiness, although we would do well to make it clearer that there is much more to holiness than just sexual purity (e.g. 1 Peter 1:15-16). The problem is within the conflict between the imperative of sexual purity and holiness and maintaining an understanding of sexuality informed by worldly, societal standards. This conflict exists because the understanding of sexuality promoted vigorously within our culture and society is really counterfeit: it pretends to seek to provide the mystical experience and satisfaction within sexuality but is not rooted in nor does it respect the true purpose of human sexuality as designed by its Creator. Therefore, societal concepts of sexuality are fraudulent: they suggest to offer what they cannot provide because they are incomplete, settling for physical pleasure alone when sexuality was designed to provide emotional and relational fulfillment as well (Genesis 2:24, 1 Corinthians 6:12-20, Ephesians 5:31-32). Of all the different ways in which society promotes counterfeit forms of sexuality, perhaps none is as detrimental, dehumanizing, and yet pervasive as the reduction of sexuality to the physical, animalistic impulse. It is very hard to seek to maintain sexual purity and holiness if one views sexuality as merely the satisfaction of a desire, akin to eating when hungry or scratching an itch!
The desire for sexual satisfaction does exist, and it is one of the primal, basic, and in many ways “animalistic” impulses of humanity. Many people feel the desire acutely, perhaps feeling as if the sexual desire is greater than all other desires. Yet people are different: some are not nearly driven as much by sexual desire, but may always want to eat, or are greedy for money and/or power. Few indeed are those people who do not strongly feel any of the basic impulses of humanity, and even then, much of that is due to our abundance of food, drink, and material blessings. If food and/or drink became more scarce we would learn just how powerful those desires are as well! Regardless, humans were created with sexual desire to develop and maintain a strong relationship with a member of the opposite gender (Genesis 1:26-28, 2:24). The physical impulse was placed within us not merely to be satisfied but to direct us toward relational unity with our spouse (Genesis 2:24, 1 Corinthians 6:12-20, Ephesians 5:31-32).
The emotional and relational aspects of sexuality, however, can be divorced from its physical aspect, and this is what we see done so powerfully within our society. Different forces are at work promoting this trend, whether consciously or unconsciously. The scientific establishment bears much of the responsibility: many scientists really promote scientism, a religious dogma suggesting that there is no god, no real meaning to life or the universe, and humans are just overdeveloped animals. For many scientists all things must be seen, understood, and explained through the evolutionary/Darwinist prism: sexual behavior is no different. Sexual conduct is analyzed in terms of its evolutionary implications. To this end scientists provide certain explanations for different types of behavior: adultery, for instance, is explained as men attempting to father as many children as possible with as many women as possible so as to perpetuate his lineage, and women as attempting to have children with the best genetic heritage while receiving care from the most competent male provider. Scientists can and do caution that these explanations are not meant to be justifications, but that does not stop people from internalizing these ideas as being true. Since there is no attempt at understanding adultery in moral terms, the emotional and relational consequences of adultery are not discussed; it is all about physical calculations, spoken of no differently than had baboons or squirrels been the subject of conversation. These theories and explanations leave very little room for a dignified view of man as made in the image of God (cf. Genesis 1:26-28): according to the scientific standard and viewpoint, we are just animals. In such an environment, who should be surprised to hear a song with the chorus, “you and me baby ain’t nothing but mammals / so let’s do it like they do on the Discovery channel”? Such is the fruit when the scientific perspective is magnified to the detriment of all others!
Whereas some scientists may have decent motives for their work, many other forces promote sexuality reduced to animal impulse for far baser reasons. Sexual impulses are primal and transcend all sorts of boundary markers: ethnic, linguistic, geographic, cultural, and so on. Sex, therefore, sells. But it is not true sexuality which sells; you cannot graphically display an emotional, spiritual, or relational connection. But you can graphically display the human body, and marketers, advertisers, and salesmen constantly bombard us with highly sexualized imagery in order to entice us to buy their products, remain loyal to their brand, watch a television show or movie, and so on and so forth.
The ultimate illustration and expression of sexuality reduced to sexual impulse is pornography. Pornography provides all of the physical aspects of sexuality without human interaction: the viewer experiences the mental and physical sensations consistent with sexual experience without any real connection at all with anyone else. Here we have sexuality reduced to its most basic self-seeking impulse toward satisfaction, little different from scratching an itch or eating when hungry.
Yet much more is going on. Depersonalized sexuality is inhuman sexuality. This is true even on a biological basis: human sexuality is quite different from most forms of animal sexuality. For most animals, sexuality is instinctive: when females are able to procreate, they give off visual or olfactory signals toward that end. Males may engage in all sorts of competitive behavior with other males, but when mating time has arrived, the act is rather instinctual. It requires little mental activity and need not suggest any long-term connection between the male and female. For most animals, sexual behavior is purely procreative. But this is not so for human sexuality. While we are learning that human females do give off certain signals during ovulation, humans participate nevertheless in sexual behavior at times when fertilization is unlikely or impossible. The human mind must be quite active in order to participate in sexual behavior, and both human men and women are shaped differently from animals in such a way as to foster greater connectivity in sexuality. Therefore, even on a biological level, human sexuality is different from animal sexuality: animals engage in sex for procreation, but humans engage in sex for connection.
Therefore, if we deny the relational aspect of sexuality, our sexuality is not truly human. We experience the disconnect when someone attempts to excuse their sexual behavior by saying that it is “just sex.” They mean, of course, that their sexual behavior is not designed to lead to any sort of real relationship, and seek to deny that there is any emotional or relational consequence to their sexual conduct: “just sex” is imagined to be two people putting body parts together in order to experience physical pleasure.
In reality, none of this is entirely new. It is not as if the physical aspects of sexuality have been disconnected from its emotional, spiritual, and relational aspects only within the past two hundred years; the problem is likely as old as humanity. Consider what Paul says to the Corinthians in 1 Corinthians 6:12-20:
All things are lawful for me; but not all things are expedient. All things are lawful for me; but I will not be brought under the power of any. Meats for the belly, and the belly for meats: but God shall bring to nought both it and them. But the body is not for fornication, but for the Lord; and the Lord for the body: and God both raised the Lord, and will raise up as through his power. Know ye not that your bodies are members of Christ? shall I then take away the members of Christ, and make them members of a harlot? God forbid. Or know ye not that he that is joined to a harlot is one body?
For, “The twain,” saith he, shall become one flesh.”
But he that is joined unto the Lord is one spirit. Flee fornication. Every sin that a man doeth is without the body; but he that committeth fornication sinneth against his own body. Or know ye not that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit which is in you, which ye have from God? and ye are not your own; for ye were bought with a price: glorify God therefore in your body.
The word the ASV translates as “fornication” is the Greek porneia. There is no one English equivalent which fully captures the meaning of porneia: it is often translated “sexual immorality,” but perhaps “sexually deviant behavior” best captures the essence of the term. The word can and does refer to a range of sexual behaviors which deviate from the norm: adultery, pedophilia, homosexuality, bestiality, polygamy or polyandry, etc. Even though the word has this range of meaning, for Paul and his audience, porneia had one main referent: that which a man did with a porne, a prostitute/harlot/whore.
In the Greco-Roman world of Paul and the Corinthians, three expressions of sexuality were common and commonly accepted. Marriage existed, but sex with one’s wife was not intended to be fun: that was for procreation and perpetuation of the family. This attitude was so ingrained that the Greek author Herodotus, writing of a Lydian ruler named Candaules, finds it worth mentioning that he had fallen “passionately in love with his own wife” (Herodotus, Histories 1.8). Some Greeks in particular felt that the best sex was with prepubescent boys; such pederasty was glorified in Plato’s Symposium. But the sex that most men would have for pleasure with women would be with the “female companions,” or hetairoi, in drinking parties, or with the porne the prostitutes in town. Brothels were quite common in the ancient world; archeological evidence for them is unmistakable and abundant.
In 1 Corinthians 6:12-20, Paul provides a critique of porneia with the porne, the prostitute. He declares that the body is not meant for sexually deviant behavior, but for the Lord (1 Corinthians 6:13); he will conclude by declaring how our bodies are temples of the Holy Spirit who is present with us and how we have been bought with a price (the blood of Christ), are therefore not our own, and thus we should glorify God in our body, which ostensibly means that we should not come together with a prostitute (1 Corinthians 6:19-20). Thus, Paul does emphasize sexual purity and holiness. But what about 1 Corinthians 6:14-18?
Paul explains the need to flee sexually deviant behavior, declaring that the one who commits sexually deviant behavior sins against his own body. We understand the imperative to flee sexually deviant behavior, but how is it that the sexually deviant person sins against his body?
1 Corinthians 6:18 is ground zero in debates about sexuality and rules. Everybody seems to accept the logic of Paul’s statement: every other sin is committed outside of the body, but porneia is against the body. Therefore, many people reason that many sexual “sins” are not really that “sinful” in comparison with murder, stealing, lying, cheating, fraud, etc., since those participating in those sexual behaviors are consenting adults, and their sins are not necessarily causing harm to others. As of this writing, this argument would not be tolerated in terms of pedophilia, bestiality, incest, or rape, since such behaviors do not involve consenting adults. Society still somewhat frowns on adultery, but its prevalence means that few speak out strongly against it. Yet society has come to fully justify premarital sex and homosexuality, and will no doubt soon also include bigamy, polygamy, and polyandry in this list as well.
Yet, as Paul is making clear, there is more to sin than just hurting other people. Sin, in general, degrades humanity. If God made mankind in His image, righteousness and justice are therefore truly human endeavors, while all sin thus must be inhuman and degrading (cf. Genesis 1:26-27). So what does Paul mean that porneia is committed against the body?
One answer that immediately might come to mind is sexually transmitted diseases; STDs are certainly consequences of sexually deviant behavior. Yet is this all Paul has in mind? Not likely.
Sexually deviant behavior here is seen mostly in terms of sex with prostitutes, and sex with prostitutes is really sexuality reduced to animal impulse: it is all about pleasure. In 1 Corinthians 6:16, Paul associates sex with a prostitute with the meaning of sex expressed in Genesis 2:24, but what does that mean? It surely does not mean that one becomes married to a prostitute: Paul is seeking to underscore the seriousness of the connection that happens during sex. The two are becoming “one flesh,” but not to cement a relationship. Neither person involved would show much concern for the welfare of each other; sex here is reduced to a business transaction. It is “just sex” as much as it could possibly be, and it proves lacking in every meaningful way. By engaging in porneia with a porne, or prostitute, a man is dehumanizing his sexuality, separating the physical pleasure derived from sexual behavior from the mental/emotional/spiritual aspects which are intended to cement a relationship. When sexuality is no longer used to cement a relationship, it will be hard to use sexual behavior to cement a relationship. The conscience is seared; the man has sinned against his own body.
Therefore, perhaps what Paul is saying is that when we engage in sexually deviant behavior, reducing sexuality to the animal impulse, we sin against ourselves because we are dehumanizing ourselves in terms of our sexuality. In such circumstances, we are not using sex as a means by which we relate and connect with another; we are just using sex to satisfy a physical impulse, little different than satisfying hunger or thirst or scratching an itch. Unlike food, drink, and itching, however, sexuality was designed to be much more than something akin to pushing a lever in order to get the pellet. But if we treat sexuality like it is just a physical impulse, and we keep pushing down on that level to get the pellet, our consciences and minds are seared, and it becomes very difficult to be restored to a full appreciation of sexuality, not just in terms of the physical, but in terms of the emotional, spiritual, and relational aspects as well. Whether we want to admit it or not, once we engage in sex as reduced to its animal impulse, we have degraded ourselves and dehumanized and depersonalized our sexuality.
This is the battlefield on which so many Christians are being slaughtered by the Evil One. Christians find themselves constantly tempted to degrade their sexuality into subhuman forms: pornography, premarital sex, our modern “hookup” culture. We can emphasize sexual purity and holiness all we want, but the temptation is strong to satisfy pleasure. If Christians continue to view their sexuality in ways little different than society, then they will express their sexuality in ways little different than society. If the big concern with sin is only to make sure that we are not hurting other people, how can we make it clear that premarital sex is dangerous? How can we communicate how harmful pornography really is? Why should we be surprised to see so many men enslaved to pornography and women hurt in so many ways in marriage because of it if we do not address the root problems of the counterfeit sexuality peddled by our society?
True sexuality honors God and His intentions for mankind; true sexuality points to relationship, wholeness, and integrity. Any sexuality which degrades and dehumanizes is a counterfeit sexuality, and sexuality reduced to animal impulse is the worst. When sexuality is reduced to the animal impulse, humans find themselves even more separated from God and one another than before. We might yearn to find connection in sex, but its hollowness and meaninglessness exacerbates the pain. Ultimately, such behavior impacts the way we look at the world. The object of sexual desire is now judged entirely by physical and superficial concerns; their minds and feelings mean little. Pornography turns humans into mere pixels on a screen for pleasure; who the people are and what they feel are entirely irrelevant. If we succumb to these degrading and inhuman forms of sexuality, we find ourselves rather permanently scarred, for we have sinned against our own bodies. By reducing our sexuality to animal impulses, we have rejected God’s purpose for sexuality in ourselves, even if only for a short time, and its impact will extend far beyond the activities in which we engaged.
We like to think that sexuality is just another part of life, but we all know that sexuality is special. Impacts are more severe whenever sex is involved. Perhaps this is because human sexuality was designed for such a unique and uniquely important relationship, between a husband and wife, fostering and cementing their connection. Few desires intertwine the physical, mental, emotional, spiritual, and relational aspects of life like the sexual desire does. Therefore, sex can never be “just sex.” Pornography can never be just a “harmless diversion.” We either properly channel our sexual desires in order to connect with our spouse and experience human sexuality as intended, or we improperly channel our sexual desires, often disconnecting the physical from the mental, emotional, and spiritual, and degrade and dehumanize our sexuality in the process. Let us reject the counterfeit sexuality of sexuality reduced to animal impulse, always remembering that sex is more than just body parts coming together, and seek to honor God through our proper use of sexuality in connecting with our spouse!
Ethan R. Longhenry