What Is “Sexual Holiness” Anyway?

It’s more complicated than just “don’t have sex until you’re married.”

John Wesley described holiness as love of God and neighbor, which is Jesus’description of the greatest commandment (Matthew 22:34-40). But whendistorted, holiness is used as a synonym for morality, when holiness is really about being more and more in love with God and with humanity.

In the area of sexuality, specifically, morality too easily becomes an idol, whether it’s premarital virginity, marital chastity orheterosexuality. People follow hard after it, measure their worth by itand are sometimes devastated when they offend it. Moreover, Christiansteach others to measure their worth by morality rather than by theirbelovedness. When sexual morality is elevated to an idolatrous place, it diminishes people’s sense of being loved and being able to love,instead of being put in its place by love.

So, what does a rich view of sexual holiness entail?

1. Individual and corporate

Christians are called to holiness in all areas of life, both personal andcorporate. Personal sexual holiness includes how a person cares for hisor her sexual feelings, thoughts and actions. My views areconservative—I’m a “sex only within marriage between a man and a woman”kind of Christian—but I am well aware that Christians of good faithdisagree about the meaning of personal sexual holiness. Maligning thosewith whom we disagree, even to the point of questioning the validity oftheir faith or salvation, is counterproductive and damages the witnessof our religion as a whole, which is supposed to be comprised ofbelievers from many times and places united in their devotion to Jesus,not to a set of beliefs about sexuality.

The world in which Christians all agree about sexual issues is an imaginary one. Love of God and neighbor, the heart of holiness, has to bepracticed in the real world in the midst of these disagreements.

2. Christ-centered and Holy Spirit–centered

When the Holy Spirit (or a particular representation of the HolySpirit) is emphasized to the exclusion of Christ, sexual holiness can be misconstrued as whatever seems right or feels right to a person. On the other hand, when Jesus (or a particular representation of Jesus) isemphasized over the Holy Spirit, Christians can coerce themselves andothers into behavioral compliance with Jesus’ moral teachings to theneglect of cultivating personal spirituality and conscience.

Costly discipleship avoids, on the one hand, cheap grace that permits moralexcess and, on the other hand, rigid moralism that occludes mercy andjoy.

3. Development and end

The “end” of a holy life is to be like Christ. When it comes to sexualholiness, however, the end is often misperceived as a life station(heterosexual marriage) instead of a quality of life (Christlikeness).For some, marriage is not a viable or even a desirable state.

The “end” of life is to be holy, but the development of holiness neverends. It’s just as important, therefore, to emphasize Christlikeness inthe development of a spiritual life, not just as the end. It can betempting to judge a person’s present state in terms of an ideal futurestate, which isn’t right; in fact, it’s haughty. Sober judgment allowsroom for each person to develop over time and for others to understandthat person’s current context, history and future hopes.

4. Crisis and process

Salvation is described by some in crisis terms: at a low point in life, a personreceived Christ and received instantaneous transformation. Othersdescribe it as a process, perhaps not remembering a single moment ofreceiving Christ; since birth or early childhood, their life with Godhas been unfolding.

With respect to stewardship of our sexual lives, some elements of sexualitymay change instantaneously through religious experiences, such as prayer or through effort of the will or through life changes such asmarriage. Other times change happens more slowly as part of an embedded process. After sexual trauma, such as assault, for instance, a personmay find healing in his or her emotions, which links to relationships,which links to behaviors, thoughts and feelings. Still other times,sexuality doesn’t change much at all. Holiness develops simultaneouslyas crisis and process.

5. Blessing and suffering

Loving Jesus means receiving many blessings but also sharing inChrist’s sufferings. When sexuality is seen in all its dimensions, itis evident that, regardless of sexual orientation or identity,many people experience both blessing and suffering over time, andperhaps even simultaneously.

A person may have a strong marriage with an enjoyable sexualrelationship but be suffering in their physical sexual health. Anotherperson may have tension or even torment about their sexual behaviors atpresent but may have peace in their memories of the past and in theirhopes for the future. Remembering that Jesus experienced both blessingand suffering can help remind us to expect both in our sexual lives.

6. Separation and incarnation

With respect to the world, holiness requires separation at times and, atother times, meaningful, redemptive engagement. A Christian may seek tobe at the same time separate from the world in some ways and deeplyengaged in other ways. We can work toward holiness by making our culturalengagement thoughtful, aware, intentional and justice-oriented and by moving away from that which is selfish, thoughtless or hurtful to others.

Adam and Eve ate from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, which wasknowledge too great for them. We’re like Adam and Eve when we get lifefrom our knowledge of good and evil, setting ourselves as judge ofothers and of ourselves. Maybe human sexuality isn’t created to be aplace of fulfillment or perfection but one of rest and calm. When hopeis placed in God instead of in getting it right, we can be like a quiet child on a mother’s lap. Peace and stillness doesn’t come frombeing perfect but from loving and being loved by God and neighbor.

Taken from The End of Sexual Identity: Why Sex Is Too Important to Define Who We Are by Jenell Williams Paris. Copyright (c) 2011 by Jenell Williams Paris. Used by permission of InterVarsity Press, P.O. Box 1400, Downers Grove, IL 60515, www.ivpress.com.

70 Comments

84,914

Guest commented…

If this article and some of the comments here are an accurate picture of what American christianity has become, you guys are in trouble. Relativism, humanism and no understanding of Jesus Christ as Lord of one's life and not just saviour. You judge the value and authority of God's word according to how well it fits your experience and society's norms. That is so terrible.

84,914

Guest commented…

My Bible has Strong's Greek Dictionary. The word pornos is translated to fornication or sexual immorality in scriptures such as
1 Cor 6 v 18 "
Flee from sexual immorality. All other sins a man commits are outside his body, but he who sins sexually sins against his own body."and Heb 13: 4"Marriage should be honored by all, and the marriage bed kept pure, for God will judge the adulterer and all the sexually immoral."The concordance states that the word means all the following: harlot, whoremonger AND fornicator. Porneia, which you refer to means all the following: harlotry, adultery, incest AND fornication. From the above it is clear that both words are broad and encompass all forms of sexual immorality.So this disproves your point.In addition, interpretation of a word in the Bible can't be done by looking at the word in isolation. One must examine the word in light of the entire scriptures and God's character as revealed in scripture. Therefore, the Bible given its numerous exhortations for sexual purity (example 1 Tim 5v 2) and against sexual immorality (1 Cor 6 v 18) is clear on how a christian must conduct themselves sexually.I therefore disagree completely with you that scripture is unclear on issues of premarital sex. Heb 13: 4 is as clear as it gets, in my opinion. We do not judge what is right or wrong according to our experience or even according to our moral conscience because the Bible states that our consciences can be defiled (Titus 1: 15). We judge what is right or wrong according to God's word. The Bible.

So whether or not you feel that the premarital sex you engaged in was sinful is beside the point. God's word is clear on the kind of sex that is right and pure, within the confines of marriage between one man and one woman.

James

2

James commented…

Hmm.... I'm not sure what exactly is being communicated here. On the one side I understand what you are trying to get at ultimately, but on the other your explanations and opinions are so general that I can easily imagine someone making unwise and wrong decisions as a result. I'm not sure what your position is on morality, as if it is something in opposition to holiness, but that's what I'm receiving as a general reader. In your opening paragraph it appears you are making the statement that holiness does not include moral conduct. Or at the very least, with the argument from point #1 in your article, I can safely conclude (from what you presented) that sexual morality is defined in many different ways (which I agree). However, because it is defined in many different ways, you seem to argue that Christians ought to distinguish themselves/define, or discern proper sexual behavior by their love for God and others. In other words, "love for God and others should define for us what is right and wrong,permissibleand impermissible". This idea is wrong. I am not sure what you believe and that my description is accurate of what you believe, but MOST certainly THIS is what your article is communicating to me, and I'm sure many others. Christians ought to make discerning positions concerning sexual holiness.... and to make sure that every position they hold is held up by scripture AND motivated by a love for God and others. Yours is an opinion, and although I can see that your fighting against two extremes you're also communicating that Christians ought to hold a neutral stance concerning sexual holiness. If you wanted to fight against legalistic Christians who place their identity in their sexualconduct/purity, then it would be good to challenge them by redirecting it back to Jesus, since he is the one we ought to place our worth in. But if you challenge them merely by claiming that there are multiple views on this issue, then not only are your arguments rooted in subjective opinion, but are not based in scripture, which is our ultimate source of truth and measure to discern wisely. I would really reconsider this article. I'm not a Nazi Christian! but I do believe you ought to base your opinion based on what scripture has guided us towards and determine the right course of action based on ALL of what scripture has to say, not just a few verses. Please respond!!

James

2

James commented…

BOOM!! I totally agree. LOL I thought there was only one page when I wrote my comment, but I guess there's more I should have read XD

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34

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