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

Adultery in the Heart

“Ye have heard that it was said, ‘Thou shalt not commit adultery’: but I say unto you, that every one that looketh on a woman to lust after her hath committed adultery with her already in his heart” (Matthew 5:27-28).

Jesus is working through a theme, and it is getting more uncomfortable.

In Matthew 5:27-28 Jesus presents the second contrast between “what was heard” and what “I say unto you.” The first such contrast in Matthew 5:21-22 involved murder and hatred, insult, and derision of one’s brother; Jesus extended the principle to discuss the significance of reconciliation and the need to find grace before judgment (Matthew 5:23-26). While He quotes Exodus 20:13 from the Law of Moses in Matthew 5:21, He has no quarrel with the substance of the teaching, but insists that there is greater application and deeper concern than just the surface matter of the actual killing of another human being. The mental and emotional conditions of separation, alienation, judgmentalism, anger, hostility, etc. are just as wrong as the action when committed. Such instruction was in contrast to the standard of righteousness of the Pharisees which is under critique throughout this section (cf. Matthew 5:17-20).

This second contrast involves the next of the Ten Commandments, “thou shalt not commit adultery” (Exodus 20:14). As before, Jesus has no quarrel with the command itself; when making His contrast He is not attempting to justify or commend adultery in any way. Yet, as with murder, so with adultery: the final action is but a realization of previous thoughts and desires. Jesus’ declaration means that it is not enough to just not commit adultery: to look at a woman with lustful intent is to commit adultery with her in the heart, and Jesus declares such thinking as its own form of covenant betrayal (Matthew 5:27-28).

Jesus’ theme has become apparent: to observe the letter of the Law and avoid the outwardly sinful behaviors is well and good, but true righteousness demands not just a reformation of behavior but also a reformation of thought and feeling. Under the Law, and certainly in the Pharisaic system of thinking, one might be justified if they did not commit adultery even if they secretly harbored fantasies of doing so; in the Kingdom of God the fantasy is a transgression as well. Since how you think and feel dictates how you act, if you would act righteously, you must also think and feel righteously; if you sin in behavior, you have most likely already sinned in thought and feeling beforehand (Mark 7:14-23, James 1:13-15).

Jesus’ main point is fairly clear and understandable, yet many questions are asked in modern times about how we might apply it. For instance, what about single people? Jesus does not speak in terms of “fornication” in action or in the heart (understood as “sex before marriage” or “sex by unmarried people” in thought or action) since most people, by the age of sexual maturity, would have already been married. Nevertheless, on what basis would this principle not apply to those who are unmarried, who remain just as much under the commands to avoid lascivious behavior and to keep their vessel in sanctification as those who are married (Galatians 5:19-21, 1 Thessalonians 4:2-8)? They must take care to not allow lustful thinking to overtake them. Likewise, many ask whether this means that it is wrong for a man to appreciate the aesthetic beauty of a woman whom they see, or vice versa for females. To this we emphasize what Jesus says: He does not make a blanket statement saying that any man who looks at a woman commits adultery in his heart, but it is those who look at women with lustful intent who commit adultery in their heart (Matthew 5:28). Men well know the moment where the thought process goes from aesthetic appreciation toward something darker; one can have the aesthetic appreciation and then work diligently to keep the mind away from where it might go under such circumstances. These days some are willing to justify divorce on the grounds that a husband has viewed pornography and thus has committed adultery in his heart and thus the wife can divorce him for sexually deviant behavior (Matthew 19:9). While lustful thoughts toward other women and pornography are absolutely sinful and have no place in a marriage such viewing is not actual contact with another person or creature and therefore does not fit the definition of the term porneia and it is dangerous to justify a divorce for such a reason!

Yet we do well to take seriously what Jesus says about the dangers of adultery in the heart. It is its own form of betrayal, either of one’s present spouse or the spouse one intends to have one day. Humans have always yearned for fantasy realms in order to escape the challenges and difficulties of their present reality, and that is also true in terms of relationships. One can always imagine a better relationship with another: for men the focus tends to be on sex and that is why pornography has become such a large business. For women it tends to focus on other aspects of the relationship and such is why romance novels have become such a big business. Such escapism easily leads to separation and alienation in the marriage relationship, and it is a small step from thinking about what it would be like to be with someone else to actually committing the act of adultery. Not for nothing does Solomon say the following:

Drink waters out of thine own cistern, And running waters out of thine own well. Should thy springs be dispersed abroad, And streams of water in the streets? Let them be for thyself alone, And not for strangers with thee. Let thy fountain be blessed; And rejoice in the wife of thy youth. As a loving hind and a pleasant doe, Let her breasts satisfy thee at all times; And be thou ravished always with her love. For why shouldest thou, my son, be ravished with a strange woman, And embrace the bosom of a foreigner? (Proverbs 5:15-20)

Let us take Jesus’ instruction to heart, finding satisfaction in our spouse and not in fantasies about others, maintaining not only our bodies but also our minds and feelings in sanctification and holiness to the glory of God!

Ethan R. Longhenry

Adultery in the Heart