Paul manifested great concern for the Galatian Christians who were in danger of seeking to be perfected by the flesh after having begun in the Spirit (Galatians 3:3). For most of the letter that concern centers on following after the Law of Moses and falling from the grace of Christ in the process (Galatians 1:6-5:15). Yet Paul maintains the same concern in terms of behavior, warning the Galatian Christians against pursuing the works of the flesh in Galatians 5:19-21:
Now the works of the flesh are manifest, which are these: fornication, uncleanness, lasciviousness, idolatry, sorcery, enmities, strife, jealousies, wraths, factions, divisions, parties, envyings, drunkenness, revellings, and such like; of which I forewarn you, even as I did forewarn you, that they who practise such things shall not inherit the kingdom of God.
The temptation to practice sexually deviant behavior was strong among the pagan Gentiles; even though uncleanness can refer to any sin which would render a person impure, Paul applied the concern specifically in areas of sexual uncleanness. Paul then completed his triad of sexual concerns with lasciviousness.
Jesus spoke of lasciviousness as one of the evil thoughts within a man which defile him in Mark 7:21-23. Paul considered lasciviousness as inconsistent with walking in the light of day in Romans 13:13. Paul yearned for many among the Corinthians to repent of their participation in sexually deviant behavior, uncleanness, and lasciviousness in 2 Corinthians 12:21. Paul would further condemn lasciviousness as the behavior to which the Gentiles gave themselves up in their alienation from God and the depravity of their minds in Ephesians 4:17-19; Peter pronounced a similar condemnation in 1 Peter 4:3-5. Peter expressed how Lot was sorely distressed by the lasciviousness of his neighbors in 2 Peter 2:7. Jude warned Christians about those false teachers, likely of a Gnostic variety, who would turn the grace of God into lasciviousness, and deny Jesus our only Master and Lord in the process (Jude 1:4); Peter explained how similar false teachers would seek to persuade recent pagan converts to participate in lascivious conduct in 2 Peter 2:18.
The New Testament supplies many witnesses who strongly condemn lasciviousness; the Apostles associated the practice with pagan Gentiles or false teachers living in debased and depraved ways. Yet what is involved in lasciviousness?
“Lasciviousness” is not a term you normally encounter. Sensuality, lustfulness, wantonness, filthiness, depravity, licentiousness, promiscuity, debauchery, lewdness, even luxury represent other terms used to translate the term used by Paul in Greek, aselgeia, defined by Thayer as the following:
Unbridled lust, excess, licentiousness, lasciviousness, wantonness, outrageousness, shamelessness, insolence.
Whenever we come upon a Greek term which may be expressed in such a wide range of translations, we must recognize that the core concept cannot be fully expressed in any English idea. Aselgeia, like akatharsia (uncleanness), features an alpha privative, expressing a negation of a term, most likely “not seemingly” or “not becomingly”: the core idea, therefore, involves a loss of shame in an individual, who has no problems freely engaging in sexual activity, excessive consumption of food and drink, and fully committing his or her life to the pursuit of pleasures. The Gentiles of the Roman world were known for these things, frequently engaging in drinking parties and orgies and many other shameful deeds. These were done without even a hint of a conscience; in fact, it could be said for the men in the Roman world that you were strange if you did not engage in adulterous relationships. The prevalence of erotic imagery painted on the walls of many houses at Pompeii and in the drinking vessels of the Greeks and Romans attests to the widespread nature of such lustful, wanton behavior.
Paul most likely did not intend to provide a strict, specific delineation among all the various sins which he condemned as “works of the flesh” in Galatians 5:19-21; we can find many points of redundancy and overlap among them, and participation in many of them took place together in concert. For our purposes we can highlight three specific domains of concern manifested in the triad of sexual works of the flesh in Galatians 5:19: porneia (sexually deviant behavior) focused on the sexually transgressive behaviors prevalent in the Gentile world; akatharsia (uncleanness) focused on the spiritually (and sometimes even physically) defiling consequences of sexual transgression; and aselgeia, lasciviousness, focuses on the mentality and desire which fueled the sexually transgressive behavior and its consequences.
In Christ it is not enough to repent of sinful sexual behaviors; giving space to sinful sexual desires, whether acted upon physically or not, is considered committing adultery in the heart (Matthew 5:27-30). Such is why we maintain the use of the otherwise antiquated term “lasciviousness” for aselgeia: lasciviousness involves being inclined to lustful desire and sexual arousal for anyone to whom God has not joined a person in marriage (cf. Hebrews 13:4).
The modern Western world proves as saturated with lasciviousness and sensuality as did ancient Rome. We live in an age with easy access to all sorts of pornographic imagery. Sensual, lascivious dancing and cavorting is prominently featured in music videos, teenage dances, and collegiate parties. Clothing is tailored to cheekily reveal parts of the body so as to stimulate the sensual imagination of others. While some shame comes upon those who participate in pornography, those who participate in sensual dancing or who wear revealing clothing feel little to no shame anymore, and in society no shame comes upon those who consume pornographic or sensual forms of entertainment. People in society do not think these things to be a big deal and consider it part of the natural order of things. Our society has truly been given over to a debased mind in these matters!
What Paul says about sexually deviant behavior in 1 Corinthians 6:18-20 has application to lasciviousness. While some aspects of lascivious behavior may lead others to sin, the person who wantonly indulges in lascivious and sensual entertainment or behavior is primarily sinning against himself or herself. Truly, indeed, what has been seen cannot be unseen: pornography especially has become the predominant means by which most young people in the Western world learn about sex and sexuality, and their desires and expectations are shaped by what they see in porn. The core concept of porneia, that which one does with a porne or prostitute, is morally abominable, but it at least involves becoming one flesh with another person (1 Corinthians 6:16): with exposure to pornography, the mind and body experience all the arousal of sexuality without any contact with any person. All the person consuming pornography has are pixels on a screen; their sexuality is being literally dehumanized and depersonalized. Those who consume pornography must forget how the pixels on the screen most often represent a living human being who has hopes, dreams, her or his own thoughts and feelings, family members, etc.
Not every person is tempted to commit every sin; few are those among us, however, who can honestly and sincerely say they have not been tempted to participate in lasciviousness, or who have not been overcome by lasciviousness. Statistically almost every man under the age of 50 has viewed pornography. Most men with heterosexual inclinations would confess the strong temptation to lust for women, and in many cases no matter how much the woman’s clothing would reveal. Many women have also viewed pornography and participated in various forms of sensual behavior; many women wear specific forms of clothing in specific circumstances to attract sexual attention from men. Sexual desire between a husband and wife whom God has joined in marriage is a good thing, and the reason why God made us with sexual desires (Genesis 2:24, Matthew 19:4-6, Hebrews 13:4). And yet maintaining purity in sexual desire can prove challenging for those who would serve God in Christ, and especially in the midst of such a decadent, depraved culture as our own. May we seek to find contentment in God in Christ, maintain the proper use of sexuality in the context of marriage, and avoid all forms of sexual temptation and transgression to obtain the resurrection of life!
Ethan R. Longhenry