What are we to do? I suspect that’s a question many Christians have been asking lately. The rapid sexual descent of our culture either has or will force every Christian to seriously ask it–Christians who might otherwise be content to play the part of the ostrich with their head stuck firmly in the sand. It is remarkable to me that less than ten years ago a presidential candidate couldn’t run on a platform that endorsed same-sex marriage and today there is an all-out societal celebration of sexual immorality. Bob Dylan, who was not, according to my knowledge, a prophet or the son of a prophet was, nevertheless, quite right: “The times they are a-changin’.”
What is a helpful Christian response? Should we stop baking cakes and taking wedding pictures? Should we sign petitions and organize boycotts? Should we position ourselves on the nearest picket line and protest? Should we sit and reminisce about the good ole days? Should we board up the doors and windows of our church building and fearfully hide in our corners? Without deciding the merit of these responses it does seem, at least to me, that many ordinary Christians have found themselves completely unprepared for this cultural milieu. That’s not universally true, but by and large the impression I get is that many have been caught unaware. Unfortunately, that often promotes knee-jerk reactions rather than careful interaction. And if we merely shoot from the hip we won’t be doing ourselves or the cause of Jesus any favors.
Personally, it’s precisely here that I think Paul gives some help in what he wrote to the church in Corinth. In particular the fifth chapter is one that I have often returned to as I try to think through these difficult issues. I have been surprised to see how instructive and timely it is:
We Are Confronting Nothing New
The motivation behind what Paul writes in the fifth chapter is a case of serious sexual immorality. In fact, it was so serious he wrote that it wouldn’t even be “tolerated among pagans” (v 1). In the context it was an incestuous relationship: “a man has his father’s wife” (v 1). Sexual immorality–a broad term referring to any sexual deviance not in the context of one man and one woman bound together in the covenant of marriage–is nothing new. Go all the way back to the seventh generation and we read of Lamech who “took two wives” (Genesis 4:19). There was Sodom and Gomorrah (Genesis 19:5) who “pursued unnatural desire” and “serve as an example by undergoing a punishment of eternal fire” (Jude 1:7). There’s the twisted situation between Lot and his daughters (Genesis 19:36), Gibeah’s terrible crime (Judges 19:22-28), Eli’s wicked sons (1 Samuel 2:22), and the universal unrighteousness of the Gentiles as their idolatry–the erasing of the binary distinction between Creator and creature–led God to give them up to “dishonorable passions” (Romans 1:26)–the erasing of the binary distinction between male and female. Sure, today’s conversations about sexuality are saturated with pop-psychology, critical identity studies, “scientific” research, and the attempt of the masses to annihilate all distinctions. But it’s the fruit of the ever-exisiting root, it’s as old as sin itself. In that sense, we’re not confronting something new but something that has been written on the DNA of Adam’s fallen race.
We Need to Distinguish Between the Church and the World
Paul is very clear in this chapter that there is a significant difference between the church and the world. Look at the various ways he expresses it: “among you” and “among pagans” (v 1), “old leaven” and “new leaven” (v 6), “world” and “brother” (vv 10-11), and “outsiders” and “insiders” (v 12). That type of language probably isn’t popular in our day of inclusivity, but there’s no question in Paul’s mind that there is a great divide among all humanity. It’s an unfriendly divide that dates back to Genesis 3:15: “I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and her offspring,” and continues to be one that differentiates between those in the church and those in the world. If we fail to make this distinction we will only add to our confusion.
We Need to Mourn Over Our Sin
One of the many problems in Corinth was that this church refused to take action against the man who was involved in the incestuous relationship. Paul goes as far to say that in tolerating his sin they were “arrogant” (v 2). That seems backwards to our way of thinking. We’re often tempted to believe that it’s the humble approach to not confront sin, and write off such confrontation as having a Pharisaical or “holier-than-thou” attitude. But tolerance of sin doesn’t come from biblical humility. It comes from a sinful arrogance–that arrogance that is contrary to true Christian love (1 Corinthians 13:4). Rather, it’s mournful humility (v 2) that does the extremely difficult work of confronting sin. And it begins with confronting the sin in the church. In an intriguing omission, Paul says nothing of taking action against the woman involved. Some commentators note this is probably because she wasn’t a Christian. It will not do to try and address the sexual immorality of the world if we are arrogantly entertaining it within the church by one “who bears the name of brother” (v 11). Through the use of biblical discipleship and discipline we need to confront the sexual immorality that is all too common in the church (e.g. pre-marital sex, pornography, adultery, etc, etc), even if that means doing the painful work of “[delivering one] to Satan for the destruction of the flesh” (v 5).
We Need to Interact With the World
Paul had written a previous letter to the Corinthians (which we don’t now have) where he warned them “not to associate with sexually immoral people” (v 9). Apparently, this had been misunderstood by the church and so Paul qualifies it: “not at all meaning the sexually immoral of this world, or the greedy and swindlers, or idolaters, since then you would need to go out of the world” (v 10). So what did Paul mean? The non-association here is relevant only to the sexually immoral who bear the name “brother” (v 11). But that policy–if I can call it that–doesn’t extend to our association with the world. Of course, there are forms of association with the world that are forbidden (see 1 Corinthians 6:13, 7:39; 2 Corinthians 6:14), but Paul’s point here is that we can and even must associate with a world that is full of sexually immoral people. That doesn’t mean we condone their sin–even Paul was upset by the idols in Athens (Acts 17:16). But Paul realizes he doesn’t yet have the right to judge the world: “For what have I to do with judging outsiders? Is it not those inside the church whom you are to judge? God judges those outside. ‘Purge the evil person from among you'” (vv 12-13). Paul is content to leave the judgment of the world–meaning their sentence and condemnation–to God. As one commentator wrote: “The church takes the world as it finds it.” Again, that doesn’t mean we don’t proclaim God’s judgment against all unrighteousness. That is the background of our eager gospel preaching (see Romans 1:15-18). But, to put it simply, we don’t judge the world in the same way we are to judge the brother or sister who persists in sin. Or, to say it this way, we don’t expect the church to be like the world, but we also don’t expect the world to be like the church.
This is by no means a comprehensive answer to the difficult and complex questions Christians are facing. But I think it helps lay the groundwork for a certain paradigm of thinking as we confront a culture that increasingly normalizes and celebrates sexual immorality. But whatever our response will be, let us be cautious to heed the words of Jesus and be “wise as serpents and innocent as doves” (Matthew 10:16).