Dehumanizing Deviance

Flee fornication. Every sin that a man doeth is without the body; but he that committeth fornication sinneth against his own body (1 Corinthians 6:18).

But it doesn’t hurt anyone, or so they say.

Few cultural shifts have proven so stark and happened so quickly as the ethos surrounding sexuality in the Western world. Within a generation ideas and behaviors once generally condemned have been not only tolerated but accepted into the mainstream. Cultural sexual morality has taken its cues from Epicureanism and libertarianism, preferring individual autonomy, privileging consent as the primary basis for justification of conduct, and encouraging whatever one desires to accomplish as long as no harm is done. As a result, among other things, many Westerners have become quite comfortable with frequent sexual behavior outside not only of marriage but even relationships (manifest primarily in “hookup culture”) and the widespread acceptance and even encouragement of the use of pornography.

The Apostle Paul warned the Corinthians about such things. He recognized that porneia (translated “fornication” above, also “sexual immorality”; best as sexually deviant behavior) was a sin different from other sins. Whereas other sins are committed “without” or “outside” the body, the one who commits porneia sins against his or her own body (1 Corinthians 6:18). But how, exactly, can this be?

Does Paul refer to sexually transmitted diseases (STDs)? It would seem to make some sense: such diseases are the consequence of sexual behavior, and practicing porneia puts one at higher risk of contracting a STD. Nevertheless many people commit porneia and never get a STD; likewise, many are chaste but contract STD from less-than-chaste partners. Perhaps Paul has something else in mind?

Perhaps we get a clue from an earlier detail: Paul says that one who is joined to a prostitute (Greek porne) becomes one flesh with her, as it is written in Genesis 2:28. The reference to Genesis 2:28 is in the context of marriage; Paul indicates beyond a doubt that “two becoming one flesh” refers to the act of sexual intercourse.

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So what is the difference between marital sexual intercourse and this porneia, that which is done with a porne, or prostitute? In marriage a man and a woman “cling to one another”; God has joined them (Genesis 2:28, Matthew 19:4-6). God intended for that union to be an covenant featuring intimacy, in which a man and a woman, both made in God’s image, can become completely intimate and “naked,” physically for certain, but also emotionally, mentally, and spiritually (Proverbs 5:15-20, Malachi 2:14-16). The importance of the marriage covenant is underscored by its metaphorical use in describing the relationship between YHWH and Israel and Christ and the church (Hosea 2:1-23, Ephesians 5:22-33); as God is one in relational unity, and we are made in God’s image, so we humans are searching for unity in relationship, and the most important such relationship we develop is with our spouse with whom we are joined in a covenant seal by God (Genesis 1:26-27, Matthew 19:4-6, John 17:20-23, Acts 17:26-28, Romans 1:18-20, Ephesians 5:31-32).

Participation in porneia, however, is done outside of the confines of relationship; such is why it is best defined as “sexually deviant behavior,” involving a person becoming one flesh with one with whom God has not joined. The one committing porneia is gratifying desires, impulses, and lusts without reference to relational connection or intimacy. This is especially evident in terms of cavorting with prostitutes, the primary means by which porneia was committed in the ancient world: the behavior features a financial transaction, a bought and paid for experience, without any care at all for the feelings or welfare of the prostitute. The one committing porneia is using the prostitute for his or her gratification.

And so it may well be that such is the means by which the one committing porneia sins against the body: in so doing, he or she has disconnected the satisfaction of physical desires from the emotional/mental/spiritual relational dimensions of sexuality. In gratifying such desires one’s sexuality becomes less recognizably human and more animalistic; sexual behavior is no longer about becoming truly intimate with another person than it is the gratification of physical lust. In most respects, therefore, porneia proves itself a parody of what God intended for human sexuality; it proves to be a dehumanizing form of deviance, separating the physical from the relational, commodifying human connection, and often rendering its adherence incapable of a healthy and intimate sexual relationship within the covenant of marriage. Truly, indeed, a sin against the body!

Prostitution remains a big business in modern Western culture; “hookup culture” is becoming just as prevalent, and we are seeing generation after generation suffering from the disconnect. Many people who have been caught up in “hookup culture” find it difficult to maintain healthy sexuality in a marriage covenant; it proves difficult to bring together what they have separated in their conduct for years. Far too many are settling for a pathetic parody, a counterfeit sexuality, one which hinders them from fully satisfactory sexual relations within the marriage covenant.

These days we see an even more pernicious temptation which is similar to porneia: pornography. Pornography is not strictly porneia since at no time do two become flesh; sadly, the use of pornography is often even worse because of it. The one who searches out pornography is not only divorcing physical gratification from relational connection; they divorce physical gratification from any kind of connection at all! They seek gratification from pixels on a screen and/or vibrations from a speaker; it is all about them and their desires. We are beginning to see a generation of people who have fried out their brains on pornography; many find it almost impossible to even participate in actual sexual intercourse on account of it!

Sadly these sins against the body are not restricted to those in the world; pornography is already an epidemic among the Lord’s people. Statistically speaking it is almost certain that all men middle age and under have seen pornography; by the same standard half of them have seen pornography in the past month. Likewise, statistically speaking, young men are exposed to pornography by age 12. Teenage girls throughout America are frequently pressured to send naked pictures of themselves (called “sexts”) to teenage boys who frequently distribute such pictures to other boys in order to enhance their social standing. A whole generation of young people has learned about sexuality through pornography, and they believe that what they see in pornography is “normal.” Little wonder, then, that their expressions of sexuality tend to degrade and dehumanize women!

We must resist these trends toward dehumanizing deviance. We must treat those damaged and wounded by what they have seen and those whose intimate relationships have been betrayed on account of these things. And we must work diligently to train young men and women to understand the importance of holistic human sexuality incorporating the physical and the relational within the covenant of marriage and warn them that what has been seen cannot be unseen and will profoundly change one’s understanding of sexuality. Porneia and pornography certainly do hurt people: those who participate in them! May we turn away from porneia and pornography and affirm God’s purposes for human sexuality in marriage!

Ethan R. Longhenry

Dehumanizing Deviance

Dismemberment

“And if thy right eye causeth thee to stumble, pluck it out, and cast it from thee: for it is profitable for thee that one of thy members should perish, and not thy whole body be cast into hell. And if thy right hand causeth thee to stumble, cut it off, and cast it from thee: for it is profitable for thee that one of thy members should perish, and not thy whole body go into hell” (Matthew 5:29-30).

If anyone were not yet stunned and shocked by Jesus’ words they certainly would have been by now.

Jesus makes this startling declaration in Matthew 5:29-30 in the midst of what is popularly called the Sermon on the Mount. Since Matthew 5:21 He has been making a comparison and contrast between what the Israelites “had heard” in the Law of Moses and its bare minimum standard of righteousness and what “I say to you,” expressing God’s higher standard of righteousness, the one beyond that of the scribes and Pharisees (cf. Matthew 5:17-20). He first compared and contrasted the command to not kill with the higher standard of not only not hating but even seeking reconciliation and terms of peace (Matthew 5:20-26). Most recently Jesus began contrasting what the Law said about adultery with the higher standard of not even looking upon a woman with lustful intent (Matthew 5:27-28). Then He starts talking about personal dismemberment: if the right eye or hand causes a person to stumble, they should remove them, for it is better for one part of the body to perish rather than the whole to be cast into the Gehenna of fire (Matthew 5:29-30)!

Jesus’ illustration here in Matthew 5:29-30 has been one of the most abused and distorted of all the things He said and did. Some people have gone to the extreme of actually blinding themselves or chopping off their hands. Others use this passage to mock Christians in their devotion to God, declaring that if they really took Jesus literally and seriously, they should be dismembering themselves! Is Jesus serious here? Should people really dismember themselves in order to avoid hellfire?

Let none be deceived: Jesus is not actually suggesting that His followers should dismember themselves. While there will be a resurrection of both the just and the unjust, and the unjust will be cast into the lake of fire, actually tearing out the eye or cutting off the hand will not effectively help a believer avoid stumbling and temptation (cf. John 5:28-29, Revelation 20:11-15). Paul puts the challenge well in Colossians 2:20-23: asceticism does not intrinsically help us avoid the indulgences of the flesh. Furthermore, neither our right eye nor our right hand cause us to stumble; they are but servants of the mind, and the stumbling into sin which would occur is on account of the mind and its decisions (James 1:13-15). A blind man or armless man can still stumble into lust.

So if Jesus does not actually intend for anyone to dismember themselves, why does He speak as He does in Matthew 5:29-30? He speaks so as to shock people. He speaks so as to make clear the severity of stumbling and the temptations of sin. Does the right eye, on its own volition, compel us to lust and covet and thus sin? No, but it is easy to give into the temptation to look upon a woman to lust and to do so frequently. Does the right hand, on its own volition, lead us to take what is not ours? No, but once we have seen with our eyes and have lusted in our hearts it is much easier to reach out and grab what is not for us to have.

These are easy sins to have. Lust has become no less of a problem 2,000 years later; modern man has no lack of opportunity to commit adultery in his or her heart. We are becoming too easily sexually desensitized; what once was recognized as sexual deviance is far too often becoming acceptable or even the norm, and many forms of sexual behavior once generally deemed sinful is being accepted and normalized as well. Pornography and romance novels abound as channels of escape. “Hookup culture” provides easier access to opportunities for sexual behavior. To stand firm for sexual purity and holiness requires profound effort from both men and women, husbands and wives; it is always far easier to give into lusts and desires just like everyone else.

Yet sexual sin has always been easy to pursue; such is why Paul must speak of it constantly (e.g. 1 Corinthians 6:9-20, Galatians 5:19, 1 Thessalonians 4:1-8). And in His own way Jesus is also trying to make this clear in Matthew 5:29-30 by setting forth the severity of the consequences of giving in and following the prevalent sexual currents of society. Lusting might be easy; it might seem fun; yet it condemns the whole body to Gehenna, a vivid illustration of hell based upon the burning trash heap outside the walls of Jerusalem. If it would be better for us to dismember ourselves than to find ourselves cast into Gehenna, then we really need to take these challenges, temptations, and causes of stumbling very seriously!

One thing is for certain: few if any have forgotten Jesus’ exhortation in Matthew 5:29-30. It is a very memorable illustration! We should not miss the point: no, Jesus does not want us to dismember ourselves, but Jesus says what He does as He does for very good reasons, and we should not so downplay a literal application that we diminish the force of the illustration. Sin comes with serious consequences, and lust and other sexual sins are certainly no exception. If it is better to pluck out our eye than to give into looking at a woman with lustful intent, then we should recognize how important it is to make the decision to keep our thoughts pure. If it would be better to chop off our hand than to reach out to take what is not ours, then we should certainly understand how important it is to make the decision to be blameless in our interaction with our fellow men and women. Let us strive to serve the Lord Jesus and avoid Gehenna!

Ethan R. Longhenry

Dismemberment

Wisdom in Avoiding Immorality

My son, keep my words, and lay up my commandments with thee. Keep my commandments and live; and my law as the apple of thine eye. Bind them upon thy fingers; write them upon the tablet of thy heart. Say unto wisdom, “Thou art my sister”; and call understanding thy kinswoman: that they may keep thee from the strange woman, from the foreigner that flattereth with her words (Proverbs 7:1-5).

We understand that Scripture provides great direct instruction and commandment, and for that we should be thankful. We can also learn much from Scripture not just from the words themselves but how the authors have expressed themselves.

A great example of this is the connection in Proverbs between heeding the instructions, commandments, and laws of the parents and avoiding sexual immorality. We see this connection in Proverbs 2:1-19, 5:1-23, 6:20-35, and 7:1-27; Proverbs 9:13-18 provides a complementary image, the way of Woman Folly. This connection and emphasis happens far too often to be merely coincidental. What is God communicating to us through these proverbs?

Perhaps the challenge is in the sin itself– sexual immorality. There are constant warnings in Scripture against participating in it, and it seems to be at the head of every list of sins (cf. Matthew 5:28, 1 Corinthians 6:9-10, Galatians 5:19-21, Ephesians 5:3-6, etc.). It is a source of constant danger– it is easy for desire to be directed wrongly, and Satan and the world always provide plenty of temptations to do so.

Consider what Paul says in 1 Corinthians 6:18:

Flee fornication. Every sin that a man doeth is without the body; but he that committeth fornication sinneth against his own body.

This is the same apostle who tells us otherwise to “stand firm” against the fiery darts of the Evil One (Ephesians 6:10-18), but here he tells us to run away. It seems so cowardly to run away, does it not? Why would he provide such instruction?

Perhaps he had in mind the story of Joseph in Genesis 39:7-20. Potiphar’s wife tempted him to commit sexual immorality, and Joseph resisted day after day. But then the day came when she grabbed him by his clothing, and he would either fall into sin or run. He did the righteous thing and ran away, and received the consequence of being cast into prison on the basis of false allegations.

It does believers no good to attempt to minimize the danger and challenge posed by temptations to sexual immorality. It is a sin that people easily justify and rationalize. “Good” people who would never think of sinning against their neighbor may have no problems with many forms of sexual immorality because it “does not hurt anyone.” How many have been guilty of sinning against themselves! How many have fallen for various temptations to sexual immorality, and have reaped nothing but misery and pain! How many wish that they would have known better!

Thus we can see why God wants to emphasize the value of wisdom– the fear of God, the knowledge of His commandment, following His instruction. It is only through clinging to God’s truth and wisdom that we will be able to overcome temptations to sexual immorality. It is only when we have decided to love wisdom and not the “foreign woman” that we will be willing to run away from temptation and not be seduced into it. It is only when we fully understand the consequences of sexual immorality that we understand that it is never worth it and thus should be avoided at any cost.

It is no wonder, then, why the father wants to instruct his son to temper passion and cling to wisdom, and it should be the same instruction we give to our children. We must make it clear that the path of sexual immorality leads only to pain, misery, and perdition. Temptation will be strong, but we must resist and, when necessary, run away.

If we cling to wisdom we will avoid every kind of immorality– sexual immorality and “general” immorality, holding firm to the teachings of the One True God while resisting all the temptations of the world (cf. 1 John 2:15-17). Let us learn from the exhortations of God: let us love wisdom and repudiate all immorality!

Ethan R. Longhenry

Wisdom in Avoiding Immorality