I'm not a theologian, but people ask me theological questions all the time. I study theology and talk about it a lot, so people who study and talk about it less come to me with topical questions. Among the most popular of these topics is sexuality. Specifically masturbation. Lots of young people—guys and girls—are concerned about masturbation because, frankly, they masturbate and feel as though they shouldn't. Perhaps because I play in a punk rock band and am not an intimidating, middle-aged pastor or a hip youth leader with a goatee, and perhaps because it feels safe to draw the cloak of the internet over themselves when they ask, they come to me with questions.
One dude wanted to know if it was “okay” (as a Jesus-follower) to masturbate as long as he could accomplish it without lust. Another young lady wanted to know if it was okay to be around her boyfriend naked as long as neither of them were sexually aroused. I told the young lady two things: That I believed it was foolish for her and her boyfriend to parade around each other in the nude and that if they did so and weren’t sexually aroused why in the world were they dating?
In Paul’s first letter to the church in Corinth—in what we’ve labeled the 6th chapter—he addresses one of the macro problems among the Corinthian believers and he calls it porneia. For Paul, a first century Jewish rabbi turned subversive missionary for Jesus, the greek word “porneia” is sexual immorality. Paul builds his theology of sexuality from the hebrew scriptures and in his mind what does not look like Genesis 2 looks like porneia. In Genesis 2 a husband and his wife are naked and they “feel no shame.” Throughout the bible, the trajectory of scripture continues to emphasize Genesis 2:34-35.
“That is why a man leaves his father and mother and is united to his wife,
and they become one flesh.
Adam and his wife were both naked, and they felt no shame.”
God loves sex. After all, he made it up. Before what Christians call “the fall” (when Adam and Eve sin for the first time) you have a man and his wife, naked and unashamed. Long after the fall you have husbands and wives naked and unashamed. God even chose to inspire Solomon to write an eight chapter erotic sex poem with explicit language that celebrates boob groping and oral sex. It’s right there in the Old Testament. Holy, inspired scripture. God loves sex. Who knows sex better than the guy who made it up? Who knows our sexuality better than the guy who created us? Why the heck does he put such strict limitations on it?
I know a couple that got married. The guy had been pretty promiscuous for a season in his life, the girl was a virgin. Years later, the guy can’t help but compare his wife, her body, her lovemaking, to the girls he’d been with before. Years later, the girl thinks about the fact that she reserved her sexuality for her beloved, but her beloved had belonged to others first. She thinks about this and cringes. Another couple I know had sex for years before they got married. They thought they were doing the wrong thing, but once they had started it seemed hard and almost silly to suddenly stop. The damage had been done. Now that they’re married, the guilt wracks the wife. Even now, in their marriage bed, she looks back on the years before with regret and shame and she feels guilt when her husband touches her.
Even in sitcoms comedic moments come out of couples who ask one another: “What’s your number? How many people have you slept with?” And these fictional, secular characters are torn with grief and frustration when they discover the person they love has been in the arms of other men and other women and we laugh.
So here you have Paul, writing a letter to a new church in a culture where pederasty is commonplace and where one of the big problems is new believers having sex with temple prostitutes. Paul tells the Corinthians “hey, bad news, anything outside of Genesis 2 is sexual immorality.” Paul writes to a city that gives Las Vegas a run for its money and says it’s all porneia.
Feeling up your girlfriend, having sex with your fiancé, masturbation, porn… It’s all porneia. Not because God hates sex, but because God has simply designed something better. God sees a boyfriend and girlfriend fooling around on the couch and scoffs that they have settled for a cheap, pathetic imitation of something wonderful. And when we settle, we rob the real thing of its true glory.
Forget the sad, silly youth group slogans like “true love waits” and the old, out of touch, white abstinence activists and that whole thing where Britney Spears was all about virginity when her first record came out. Forget the conservative “christian” politicians and those rules on church trips that kept you from sitting next to a member of the opposite sex in the rental van. Imagine this instead: A man and a woman, in love, on their wedding night who can look at one another and the husband knows that no one has touched his wife the way he is about to. The wife knows with certainty that no other woman has seen her husband’s body. When they kiss and when they touch and when they celebrate God’s incredible gift of wild, uninhibited, passionate sex, they experience it together for the first time. They imagine no one else, they compare one another to no one else because they have no basis of comparison. A couple like this will have the best sex. They’ll have it for years and years and years.
That’s why God says that everything else is a distortion of the real thing. That’s why God says don’t touch anyone else, don’t look at anyone else, it’s all porneia.
Paul starts his argument against sexual immorality in 1 Corinthians 6:12 with a quote: “Everything is permissible for me.” Since there’s no such thing as quotation marks in greek grammar, I can’t count how many times I’ve heard Christians use this quote as a literal permission slip. What Paul is doing is having an “imaginary” conversation with the Corinthians, using what we think are popular ideas and sayings in Corinth, and then refuting those ideas. Paul says: “Yeah, you think everything is permissible, but I’m telling you don’t be mastered by anything!” (The NIV and ESV include the proper quotation marks.)
I think we as Jesus-followers have a really tough time convincing ourselves that God’s “rules” are more than just a set of “holy laws” and are actually a map to freedom, to the most excellent way of living. Righteousness isn’t just a sort of human holiness for priests and evangelists. Righteousness is the truth that Jesus promises will set us free. But we don’t want it.
God promises us that he can set us free into a world of incredible joy and possibilities and we tell him that he’s a slave driver who burdens us with arbitrary rules that we can’t achieve and that we want to remain in our prisons where we’re “free” to do whatever we want.
Among the scariest of these prisons is the prison of porneia. The bible talks about fighting sin, standing your ground against temptation, being victorious over it. But Paul writes to the Corinthians and says something different about one particular sin. He says that when it comes to sexual immorality: flee. Flee. Run for your life. Be afraid. Be very afraid. Don’t stand and fight, run for your life. Get rid of the laptop you use to look at porn. Dump the girlfriend you’ve been fooling around with. Run for your life. You are damaging and destroying a deeply important part of who you are—your God-given sexuality—and yes there is redemption and there is hope but there are also scars. And consequences.
But he goes on, in verses 19 and 20. The spirit of God lives in your body. God’s spirit lives inside the very body that you defile with porneia. Don’t screw it up. Why? Because we were bought with a price.
In the first century Greco-Roman slave market, a completely socially acceptable way to deal with an unwanted pregnancy was to carry the baby to full-term then birth and abandon it outside the city gates where it would eventually die of exposure to the elements. Sex traders would shop amongst the discarded infants and raise them into a life of sexual slavery. Abandoned babies become children who are raped and beaten and sold as prostitutes. But in Paul’s metaphor, a good master visits the sex market one afternoon and buys a young lady and brings her under his roof not for sex and not for slavery but for protection and for hope and a future.
To Paul, that’s us. We stand, broken and disgusting, in the sex market and the good master—Jesus—rescues us. We were bought with a price and we belong to a good master. “Therefore honor God with your body.