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Published Date: September 5, 2022

Published Date: September 5, 2022

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Preaching Porneia

As an Anglican priest who fields inquiries from people looking for a new church, I have often been asked, “Do you preach biblical sexuality?” I’ve come to understand that what people are really asking is, “What are your views on homosexuality?” For many in the church, there is little attempt to magnify the topic of sexual immorality beyond this hot-button issue.

Defining sexual immorality in such a narrow way, however, does not reflect the biblical voice regarding sexuality and sexual immorality. The Bible has a lot to say about how our sexuality can be twisted and corrupted. In fact, the word used for sexual immorality is porneia—a blanket term covering a wide array of corrupting activities. Limiting porneia to a singular sin of our choosing, whether that be homosexuality, pre-marital sex, or marital infidelity, is simply bad biblical interpretation.

A Narrow View of Porneia Promotes Privilege

We do a disservice to the church when we uphold a narrow definition of sexual immorality. We unwittingly endorse a gradation of sinfulness: highlighting certain sins while downplaying or ignoring others. This creates a deep inequality within the church as some people are privileged to never hear their sins aired from the pulpit.

Think about it. In most churches, for most Sundays, heterosexual men and women can be confident that they will never hear a sermon calling them out for their sexual sins. While the preacher potentially rages on about the immorality of homosexuality and promiscuity, rarely will a pastor discuss something like the rampant rise of porn use among men and women.

Of course, behind the issue of porn is the issue of lust. Popular television shows such as Outlander and Game of Thrones, for example, include graphic depictions of sex and rape. Nudity is becoming more and more common on television and in movies. The 2013 movie Nymphomaniac, starring Shia LaBeouf, Willem Dafoe, and Uma Thurman, boasted scenes of unsimulated sex. Such television and movies are never classified as porn by the mainstream media, or from the pulpit. This implies there is no immorality attached to viewing them.

When we turn to the world of literature, we find that the romance genre is a multibillion-dollar industry. Harlequin Romance, popular among heterosexual married women, boasts that two books are sold every second worldwide.1 On top of this, the erotic literature genre continues to grow exponentially.

While we may argue whether these things are porn, biblically speaking, they are porneia. Sexually driven programs and literature are designed to elicit lustful fantasies and imaginations. Rarely do they house sexuality within a committed marriage. Adultery, fetishism, coercion, and abuse are constant themes.

Whenever the church shies away from speaking about porneia, in all its forms, the only thing we’re protecting is privilege, and the only thing we’re expressing is hypocrisy. The church ought to preach against the sin of porneia in all its forms. Below are a few examples of how we may tackle the more robust issues of lust, sexual immorality, and porneia. These could help guide a sermon, Bible study, small group discussion, or even simply a discussion between two believers.

Example One: Lust in Matthew 5:27–30

You have heard that it was said, “You shall not commit adultery.” But I tell you that anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart. (Matt. 5:27–28)

Jesus highlighted the spiritual destructiveness of lust in the Sermon on the Mount, the epitome of his kingdom ethic. For Jesus, lusting after someone was indistinguishable from the physical act of adultery. Any time we turn to lustful voyeurism, through movies, magazines, literature, or the plethora of internet porn, we engage in sexual immorality. The fact that no physical adultery takes place is not the point.

The issue at hand is not just in lusting after someone who is not our spouse, thereby suggesting that lusting for our spouse is acceptable. Jesus is blunt: lust is contrary to God’s intention for biblical sexuality. Lust is not simply the noticing of beauty. Lust twists human sexuality in upon itself. Lust only concerns itself with self-gratification. What matters is our desire, and the satisfaction of that desire. The result of lust, therefore, is that we reduce others to mere objects of our desire. Identity, respect, consent, and mutual satisfaction rarely matter. (Case in point: read about David and Bathsheba in 2 Sam. 11). Lust is antithetical to love, for love has to do with mutual submission, service, and self-giving.

We might explore how turning to representations of lust divorces sexual expression from the context of committed marriage. The continual proliferation of porn, resulting from Hollywood’s constant blurring of the boundaries between what is acceptable and what is vulgar and obscene, occurs at the expense of our committed relationships. If we are to take Jesus seriously (and we are), each time a married person consumes porn or erotic literature, it is an instance of spiritual, emotional, and relational adultery. Essentially, Jesus says, we have broken one of God’s central commands and have violated the covenant of marriage.

Lust is incredibly destructive to our life with God. The sin of lust is implied whenever the Bible discusses porneia. Lust is a destructive force that lies behind all matters of sexual sins, and thus all in the church are called to repentance. Together, let’s encourage a system of peer-based accountability. We should explore a challenge to delete apps or sites through which we are tempted to look at porn and movies or shows that have sexually explicit images, as well as avoid romance novels and other erotica.

Example Two: Children’s Purity in Matthew 18:6

If anyone causes one of these little ones—those who believe in me—to stumble, it would be better for them to have a large millstone hung around their neck and to be drowned in the depths of the sea. (Matt. 18:6)

The church needs to further explore how our unchecked sexual immorality impacts children. The sexual exploitation of children is one of the most vile and heinous sins of our day. Yet sexual immorality, as it relates to children, is not simply about abuse or trafficking. Like all matters relating to porneia, the issue is much more far-reaching. The average age at which a child is first exposed to porn is eleven.2 Having porn in the house, or failing to monitor a child’s cell or internet usage, is setting up these “little ones” to stumble.     

Viewing porn at such a young age shapes the way that children view relationships between women and men. Porn often shows women in degrading, sexually exploitative, and even violent scenarios. Thus, a child’s understanding of women, femininity, and sexual equality becomes darkened and deeply skewed. Similarly, porn endorses images of toxic masculinity.3 Research has shown that exposure to porn increases male aggressiveness.4 Porn teaches children that normative sexuality is a relationship between aggressive male playboys and docile, submissive women, conquered by men’s sexual magnetism. As children internalize these roles, they unconsciously grow into an unbiblical picture of themselves, and others. Thus, not only has their conception of sexuality and marriage been affected by porn, but the very basis of their own self-identity is also deeply impacted.

When guarding children’s personal, social, and sexual development, we must remember the expanded definition of porneia. Lust is more than porn. It is about the television shows we watch, the books we read, and the language we use. Furthermore, like all matters of life and faith, we are our children’s teachers. It is not enough simply to keep porn out of their reach; we must model a true and biblical expression of sexual morality.

Example Three: Ramifications for Women in Luke 10:38–42

As Jesus and his disciples were on their way, he came to a village where a woman named Martha opened her home to him. She had a sister called Mary, who sat at the Lord’s feet listening to what he said. (Luke 10:38–39)

Finally, we should highlight how the entire framework of biblical equality is undermined in mainstream porn and lust. This is a natural invitation to look at the wider issue of gender equality.

Why is it, for example, that we fail to ascribe Mary the status of “disciple”? In Luke’s account of the dinner at Martha’s home, Mary is clearly depicted this way. As Jesus teaches, Peter and the other disciples recline before him. This is the posture of discipleship that Mary enters. What is more, she is welcomed, received, and affirmed by Jesus. Yet so often we use the language of “devotion” rather than “discipleship” when we describe Mary.

Recognizing Mary as a disciple on par with the Twelve opens a larger discussion of biblical equality in the church. Does the church perpetuate antiquated gender stereotypes? Does the church live out the biblical truth that “nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Gal. 3:28)? At your church do the men do the yard maintenance, but the women vacuum the sanctuary? Reflecting on these matters can make it clear that sexual immorality is anything that takes us away from the equality rooted in our shared createdness. Women and men are equal disciples of Jesus.

What might this say about the topic of equality in church leadership? Are there women in positions of leadership? Men in positions of service? A further example can be taken from Paul’s use of the word synergos in Romans 16:3. Here Paul describes Priscilla and Aquilla as his “co-workers.” Before we are too quick to dismiss any association with church leadership, we must recognise that, only eighteen verses later, Paul uses the same word to describe his protégé, Timothy (16:21). Why do we exalt Timothy to leadership but not Priscilla?

Porneia is not simply about sex. Ultimately, teachings on sexual immorality are about justice. The systematic inequality existing between women and men is a sin just as much as adultery or porn. These are topics that Jesus addressed in his ministry; thus, they are the evils the church should be tackling today.          

Concluding Thoughts for All Christians

When the church narrowly confines the language of porneia to one hot-button issue, like homosexuality, we unwittingly endorse the notion that we can engage in other sexual sins in a safe and harmless way. After all, sermons condemning homosexuality often contrast it with heterosexual marriage, the perceived bastion of sexual righteousness. Yet by equating sexual righteousness solely with heterosexual marriage, we inevitably conclude that other expressions of sexual immorality have no affect on our righteousness. We speak against the sin of one type of immorality while embracing another (unconsciously or consciously, as the case may be).

The moral and theological issues regarding sexual immorality are deep and complex. Theologically speaking, the increasing sexual voyeurism of late-night television, the telling of dirty jokes, and the lust-filled undercurrent of modern entertainment work against our devotion to God. They damage our relationships and distance us from God. Thus, to be a church committed to biblical sexual righteousness, we must speak honestly about the evils that plague us.

This article is from “The Problem of Porn,” the Autumn 2022 issue of Mutuality magazine. Read the full issue here.

Notes

  1. How a Fur Trader Trapped Harlequin Romance Novels,” CBC Radio, 16 April 2020.
  2. Amy Steele, “Porn Viewing Starts as Early as Elementary School,” Youth First, 5 June 2018.
  3. Silva Neves, “What Is Toxic Masculinity,” Talking Sex and Relationships (blog), Psychology Today, 12 March 2021.
  4. Dong-ouk Yang and Gahyun Youn, “Effects of Exposure to Porn on Male Aggressive Behavioral Tendencies,” The Open Psychology Journal 5 (2012), 1–10.