This a Guest post from Geoff Chapman, an old friend of mine who is Pastor of St. Stephen’s Church in Sewickley, Pennsylvania. It is much longer than my normal posts but well worth sharing.
Desire, Celibacy, Homosexuality: Hard Questions and Gospel Answers
Christianity brought a revolutionary attitude towards our sexual capacities. It is the idea that sex is good and sacred and holy, a gift of our good and sacred and holy God, meant not to be a master over our lives, but a servant of his blessing in our lives.
Sex has four purposes in the scriptures. It is meant to be an expression of lifelong love between a man and a woman, a renewal of your marriage covenant, a start for your children, and a sign that points to God.
The Bible teaches that whole body giving is meant to be joined to whole life giving. You can’t say “I love you – let’s sleep together” and in the morning take off. That’s not making love; that’s unmaking love. Because whole body giving is meant to be joined to whole life giving. And that union is meant to result, from time to time, in new life making, and all of that is meant to point you and your family to a greater life and a greater love that can fill this life and outlast this life.
These purposes are meant to go together, and if you pull them apart, sex will turn on you and pull you apart. That is why sex is boundaried in the Bible: because it is so important and so powerful. So sexual union is meant for marriage between a man and a woman. It is not meant for outside of marriage, or for before marriage, or to break marriage.
But the Christian attitude about sex digs deeper than the boundaries; it digs into the area of desire. Here is a typical paragraph from the Apostle Paul:
For this is the will of God, your sanctification: that you abstain from unchastity; that each one of you know how to take a wife for himself in holiness and honor, not in the passion of lust like heathen who do not know God (1 Thess. 4.3-5)
Paul talks about holiness and honor in the marital bedroom, and he contrasts that to lust. Sometimes people ask me, “If sex is for marriage, does anything go in the marital bedroom?” No, lust does not go in marriage. Lust in the bedroom is different than holiness and honor in the bedroom. Lust will degrade your marriage. Don’t do anything that degrades or defiles your spouse. Holiness and honor in the bedroom will bless your marriage.
Jesus gives something of the same warning:
“I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lustful intent has already committed adultery with her in his heart.” (Matt 5:28)
Jesus and Paul both use the word, ‘lust’. Lust is the word, epithumia. ‘Thumia’ is desire, and epi-thumia is over-desire. Excessive desire.
What they are saying is that even though your sexual capacity is a good gift from God and meant for your blessing, you can’t just follow every sexual desire you have – because your desires are fallen and they can’t be trusted. They can quickly become an ‘over-desire’. When sex turn to lust, it becomes a master instead of a servant. Sex is a terrible master. It goes where it wants and when it wants and drags you along. You won’t like where it takes you in the end.
In an interview* a couple decades ago Helen Gurley Brown, the long-time editor of (the sex magazine) Cosmopolitan said, “I’ve always said there are three great things in life … One is sex.” The interviewer said, “What are the other two?” She said, “Who knows?” She is saying sex is the most important thing. When asked about love, she said, no – that is complicated, ‘difficult’. “Just Sex.” That is ‘over-desire’. Paul says, be sure not to let that happen in your life. Not in your marriage, not outside of marriage.
Let me give you an example* of how that can happen. You might say, “I’m going to get married because I love sleeping with this guy.” You think, ‘The sexual chemistry is great, so the marriage will be great.’ But then you find out you’re not in that marriage for that person, not the whole person.. You’re in that marriage for sexual pleasure, or for looking good when you are out together, or for feeling like you are finally someone because you have someone ‘hot’ on your arm.
But soon enough you find out that there is far more to them then your sexual chemistry. And maybe you’re not so hot about that. Maybe you find out that you don’t respect them, and you don’t look up to them. You are not best friends. And then the sexual chemistry wears off – and it becomes too much work, to work through all the problems. Most people just cut and move on. That’s what lust does.
So lust has to be tamed, has to be transformed. Jesus’ points the way with some bracing words:
“If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away. For it is better that you lose one of your members than that your whole body be thrown into hell. And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away…” (Matthew 5:29–30)
When he talks about ‘tearing out’ and ‘cutting off’, he is giving a measure of the importance of the issue. Be ruthless with lust, be relentless. Don’t make any accommodations to it. Don’t flirt with it. Don’t make friends with it. Walk away from it.
When he speaks of the eye, he is talking about a key pathway to your mind and your thoughts and your fantasies. Don’t give room to sexual fantasies. Don’t watch pornography. Don’t look someone up and down with sexual desire. When he talks about your hands, he is talking about what you do with your body. Remember – your body is holy, sacred, ‘meant’ for the Lord.
Jesus is introducing us to chastity, which is purity of heart and mind and body. Chastity is meant for everyone, whether we are single or married. I first ran into his teaching on chastity as a young Christian. I was reading the beatitudes, and I came to this one: “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God.”(Matt 5.8)
I was crushed, because I knew that I was not pure in heart. I knew I had been forgiven, but I knew my mind was a mess, and that lust was way out of control. After a couple of hard years, the verse changed. Instead of a word of judgment (you are not pure, you will not see…) it became a word of promise (I will make you pure in heart, and you shall see…). It began to give me great hope that he could give me, even me, his own kind of purity.
Chastity has two special places where it is meant to grow: in a married life, and in a celibate life. We have talked about marriage a good bit; today I want to say something about a celibate life.
A New Place for Chastity and Celibacy
“I wish everyone were single, just as I am. Yet each person has a special gift from God, of one kind or another. So I say to those who aren’t married and to widows—it’s better to stay unmarried, just as I am. But if they can’t control themselves, they should go ahead and marry. It’s better to marry than to burn with lust.” (1 Cor. 7:7–9)
Celibacy was almost unknown in the ancient world until the arrival of Christianity. In traditional societies everyone headed for marriage; marriage brought status and meaning and children and security to life. If you were single in a traditional culture, you were at risk. There was almost no place for you.
And then Christianity comes along, and Paul taught that life-long singleness for Christ is a blessed life. A fulfilled life. No one had ever taught something like that before – and they didn’t just talk it; they lived it. Jesus was single and sexually inactive. Chaste. Celibate. Paul was single and sexually inactive. Chaste. Celibate. Those two are the primary founders of the Christian faith. Jesus lived a perfect life, not missing any important thing. He lived the greatest life ever lived.
The NT tells us over and over that we will become like him! Chaste. Pure. In the resurrection, Jesus taught, there will be no sex, no marriage; it will all be swallowed up in something far greater. We will all be celibate!! We will all be his when the groom comes for his bride!!
Paul taught that in this life there was great advantage to a celibate life for the Lord. He calls it a ‘gift’ – one of the great gifts of the kingdom. (Lots of people ask for the gift of marriage. I don’t know too many who pray for the gift of a celibate life for the Lord.)
It is a gift because it brings us into the healing freedom of setting sex aside, of taking it off the throne and growing into the great gift of chastity. Most of us who have been caught in the sexual brokenness of the culture and come out of it have found that a season of celibacy was part of God’s cure. For me, I had to welcome the gift of celibacy before I could welcome the gift of marriage.
It is also a gift because it makes room for single-minded devotion to the Lord. In this paragraph Paul is encouraging people to be open to the gift of a celibate life:
“I want you to be free from anxieties. The unmarried man is anxious about the things of the Lord, how to please the Lord. But the married man is anxious about worldly things, how to please his wife, and his interests are divided. I say this for your own benefit… to secure your undivided devotion to the Lord.” (1 Corinthians 7:32–35)
Marriage, Paul knew, has its challenges and distractions. There is a wonderful story of a nun who had entered a devout and single life for Christ. He showed her a vision of crosses, and he asked her to pick the one she would bear for him – who had born the greatest cross for her. She saw one that was extra heavy, and she said, “I will take that one, Lord, and carry it for you.” He said to her, “No, that one is for those who are married. You must choose another.”
Paul is aware that marriage has its crosses. I remember when my brother became a monk with its rigorous life of prayer and self-abandonment. A couple years later I married Becca, and he worried that I had chosen an easy life. We started to have children, and I think Bec and I went well over a decade without sleeping through the night. Often in the middle of the night I thought of him and wondered if he, too, was up. No one avoids the challenge to lay your life down for Christ.
Celibacy is also a gift because it point to the sufficiency and fullness of Christ. It is a sign that your joy and security and meaning and provision and deepest friendship and most intimate love will be found not in the normal network of a human family, but in Christ alone.
Everyone has seasons in life when you get to walk in celibacy. Maybe it is a season for a few years of healing before marriage, like I had. Maybe it is a season in marriage, or at the end of marriage where circumstances, illness, or age take their God-given course, and you know it is God-given. Maybe it is a voluntary season of celibacy in marriage for the sake of prayer. All of these are possibilities.
Or – you may be given the gift of a whole life there, a life of chastity and celibacy and singleness. I think God is going to restore the gifts of chastity and celibacy to his church, calling many, many people today in this crazy sex-worshipping culture to chaste lives. Some of us, I think a growing number of us, are going to be called to the great gift of celibacy as a sign to this addicted world of the freedom and joy and purity and sufficiency of Christ.
One more thought on this. If you are called to live alone, it will not be a life alone, for he will meet you there, walk with you there, and you will find that those great love poems of the Bible were really written for you and for him, our real lover, our true love. And we will meet you there, because chastity and celibacy take community. I love Wesley Hill’s (a gay man living a celibate life) call to covenanted spiritual friendships. God will draw us together for the sake of his chastity.
I have mentioned desire and celibacy today, now homosexuality. You will notice that I have put off to my very last paragraphs any comments about homosexuality. That is because the emphasis in the Bible is largely elsewhere: on sex itself, on the body, on human desires, on the Gospel, on chastity and celibacy and marriage, and on God’s healing. The primary difficulties with human sexuality in our culture are to be found in the heterosexual community, not in the gay community. That is true in the Bible’s emphasis, and it is true in our culture today.
But the Bible does have important and clear guidance on homosexuality, and so I want to make a few comments under three headlines.
Homosexuality Is Not God’s Design
The scriptures do not single out homosexual behavior, not do they overlook it. Paul’s paragraphs here are matched by similar paragraphs in other NT letters and by multiple paragraphs in the OT. He writes:
“do you not know that the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived: neither the sexually immoral, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor men who practice homosexuality, nor… will inherit the kingdom of God…” (1 Cor 6:9–10)
Sometimes people note that Jesus had nothing specific to say about homosexuality. But Jesus’ own words on sexual behavior were anchored in the most important words in scripture about human sexuality:
“He answered, “Have you not read that he who created them from the beginning made them male and female, and said, ‘Therefore a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh’?” (Matt 19:4–5)
His point is that God’s design can be clearly seen in the gender complementarity of men and women, of male and female. The design of our bodies has intrinsic moral meaning. Don’t over-ride it. Honor it. God meant it. That why Christians have for 2000 years been clear about homosexuality being outside God’s design and intent. That is why today we are against gender change procedures. It is ‘contrary to nature’ as St Paul says.
Its Origin Is Complex
“For their women exchanged natural relations for those that are contrary to nature; and the men likewise gave up natural relations with women and were consumed with passion for one another…” (Rom 1.26-27)
There is a great deal of discussion on whether it homosexuality is inborn, or produced by circumstances, or embraced by choice. I have thought and read a lot about this, and I do not know. But I suspect that it is a convergence of all three. That is my best guess.
But the scriptures remind us, and the human body teaches us, that it is a condition of life that is not natural. Part of Paul’s argument against homosexuality makes exactly this point – note Paul’s phrase, ‘contrary to nature’. Again, the design of our bodies has moral meaning. Don’t over-ride it. Honor it. God meant it.
Change Is Certainly Possible
“And such were some of you. But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God.” (1 Corinthians 6:10–11)
No one is saying that it is easy, but it is possible. That is the witness of Scripture and 2,000 years of Christian experience. Most of the things in your life that you want to change are deeply seated and complex in their origin. Think of anger, or chemical addiction, or anxiety, or unforgiveness, or bitterness. Most of them grow in us by an interplay of genetic predisposition, environmental influences and personal choices that grew into settled habits.
Paul looked out over his church and said, ‘Such were some of you, but…” with repentance, with the forgiveness that comes from Christ, with a new love at the center of our souls, with the power of the Spirit, with the help of the body of Christ – God changes lives. Some of the change will lead to celibate lives for Christ. Some will lead to marriage for Christ. Don’t lose your confidence in the power of the gospel to change lives. “Such were some of you, but…”
I want to say four final things, then I want to show you a picture.
At St Stephens:
We are committed at St Stephens to Christ’s life of chastity and to his ministry of healing sexual brokenness. This must start with us, among our leaders and our people; we are committed to helping you find that and live that: Christ’s Healing, Chastity, Community, Compassion and Clarity. They all go together and we start here.
In Your Life: For some of us, many of us, this sermon series has poked around into some uncomfortable areas. Please don’t blow it off. Respond to Christ’s invitation. Come to him. Some of us know there are things that need to be left behind. It is important to leave some things behind. Repentance does that. Some of us are trying to pull God’s purposes for sex apart and take what we want and leave what we don’t like. Don’t do that any more. Some of us have some apologies to say. A word on that: if you are in a complex situation where your apology might do more harm than good, come to your pastors for help. We would love to help.
In America: Things have changed so fast in America that we are now facing pervasive anger and hostility that will likely get worse in the years ahead. It could get very difficult. That will force us to think deeply about whether this issue is worth it. For myself, I believe we must speak and engage people on issues of marriage and sexuality and religious freedom. If we do not, we will lose the courage and the heart to speak the gospel, and if that happens, maybe God will take away our opportunity to speak the gospel. Maybe he will ‘remove our lampstand.’ If we are not in the gospel business, what business are we in?
In our Neighborhoods and our Families and our Workplaces: I would be deeply grateful if God would give us a ministry to people caught in sexual brokenness, and especially if that ministry led with Christ’s mercy. As we find it and live it, then we have a great deal to offer, and we can reach out with friendships, and open ears and real compassion, the kind of compassion that never gives up on people, that bears all things, believes all things, endures all things for the sake of Christ’s own love. (That is how I was saved…) People are suffering from all this. We don’t throw rocks, even if we have to say hard things sometimes. I like the example of Pope Francis and his words, “Who sent me to judge?” Jesus was known for hanging out with broken people. His enemies called him the ‘friend of sinners’. May we get tagged with the same taunt.
I have a picture of the gospel I want to show you:
This is a Japanese Tea bowl repaired with the Kintsugi method. The ancient story was that in the 15th century some Japanese royalty had purchased some fine pottery from Chinese craftsmen, but in due time the pottery broke. It was sent back for repairs, but the repairs were clumsy and crude. That sent Japanese craftsmen searching for a method of their own. What they came up with was a way to embrace the flawed vessel with all its cracks – and repair it with a process that would deepen its beauty by highlighting the cracks and repairs with gold and silver. It is beautiful, isn’t it?
The moment I saw this, I thought, ‘That is exactly what the gospel does!’ It brings the sacred blood of Jesus to the shattered pieces of our broken vessels and cleanses them. (‘His blood runs red, and our sins wash white’) It brings the gold of the gospel to the cracks and fissures of our lives and fits us together. The result is a beauty beyond beauty, the interplay of our failure and his mercy, of our weakness and his surpassing strength to mend all, heal all, restore all. We are made into vessels that are a treasure because they can now hold his treasure!
And such were some of you. But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God…
* I ran into these illustrations in a sermon by Tim Keller
The following resources have been of great help in developing this series:
Tim Keller, The Meaning of Marriage, esp. Ch 7 ‘Singleness and Marriage’ and Ch 8 ‘Sex and Marriage’. Tim has multiple sermons on the key texts that are available on his website; I have listened to about a dozen of them (well worth the time). He is especially good on the Gospel, coherent outlines (I’ve borrowed bits) personal pastoral realities in NYC, illustrations (often used), and culture. Tim and his wife, Kathy also have several seminars on marriage available on the same website, here.
Ryan T Anderson, Robert P. George, et.al., What Is Marriage?: Man and Woman: A Defense. The very best arguments for the classical understanding of marriage from nature and culture and reason – arguments important to be able to make, even when no one seems to be listening. Ryan Anderson and Robert George are the best spokespersons we have.
Gordon Fee, The First Epistle to the Corinthians. The best commentary I know on 1 Corinthians, carefully set in the pastoral situation then, and now. Gordon Fee taught me 1 Corinthians at Gordon Conwell, always to a full auditorium, with good reason.
An accessible introduction to what seems to be a critical and prophetic work by John Paul II. I found that issues of ‘the body’ underlay all the pastoral issues, as they do with St Paul’s approach in 1 Corinthians 6-7, so I kept returning to it.
Dallas Willard, The Great Omission: Reclaiming Jesus’s Essential Teachings on Discipleship, esp. Ch 8, ‘The Spirit is Willing, but… The Body as a Tool for Spiritual Growth’. Dallas is excellent on the place of desire and the body in Christian spiritual formation. A second resource to get at his thinking is his article, ‘Spiritual Formation and the Warfare Between the Flesh and the Human Spirit’
Dallas taught me years ago that the primary mark of modern culture is the deification of desire. Easy to remember, hard to forget, important to bring to Christ.
Rod is an Eastern Orthodox Christian, prolific (maybe 3-5 lengthy posts/day!), and engaged (with lots of helpful links for wider, even oppositional, reading) with a wide array of cultural sources and issues. His blog focuses on the interplay between historic Christianity and culture, and has some of the best comments I’ve run into on a blog of this type. Rod is intense, sometimes off, yet with the humility to admit it.
TitusONENine, Kendall Harmon’s weblog, focusing on a broad offering of TEC, ACNA, Anglican South Carolina, American Culture, and news. Great resource, not much in the comments.