The extent of appropriate sexual interest and involvement outside of marriage is an important question young adults face. It is also a question of concern to any Christian regardless of age or marital status. Our sexuality, in all its dimensions, is a wonderful gift from God, to be enjoyed and appreciated. Indeed, it is much more than a gift: it is an essential component of our personality and is as ever-present as our consciousness. The physical expression of our sexuality, just as our use of any gift, needs to occur in the right contexts.
While the Bible puts any kind of extra-marital sexual intercourse clearly off limits, it is less explicit about other expressions of sexuality. Instead, in the area of sexual activity, Scripture places a heavy emphasis on mature, righteous behavior patterns that fully recognize one’s own strengths and weaknesses. It also stresses the need to avoid becoming a stumbling block for others. Although the Bible is not specific about the activities it proscribes short of intercourse, it is very clear about the need to build edifying personal relationships that honor God. Thus, no one should pursue sexual activity right up to the very limits of temptation and morality. The appropriate question to ask is never “How far can I go?,” but “How far should I go?” I suggest that careful consideration of one’s thoughts and actions in the sexual sphere can be used to develop a sort of “moral friction” – a strong sense of moral discretion – to help avoid these problems before they start.
The theological concepts implicit in epithymia (eh-pee-thee-MEE-ah: “lust”, “passion”) and other words in New Testament verses concerned with sexual thought and activity provide a good biblical basis for developing “moral friction” in these areas.
Exploring the Meaning of “Passion”
While Paul makes a strong case in his letters against porneia (“sexual immorality, literally, “fornication”; see Rom. 13:13, Gal. 5:19, I Tess. 4:3-5), he is concerned about other areas of sexuality as well. He warns against “youthful passion” (neoterikas epithymia, II Tim. 2:22), “evil passion” (kaka epithymia, Eph. 5:5), “lustful passion” (pathos epithymias, I Thess. 4:5), and “desire” (pathos, Col. 3:5; basically equivalent in the context of this passage to “lustful passion”). He also condemns “uncleanness” (akatharsia, Rom. 4:20, II Cor. 12:21, Gal. 5:19, Eph. 5:5, Col. 3:5) and “licentiousness” (aselgeia, Rom. 13:13, II Cor. 12:21, Gal. 5:19).
The proscriptions are presented basically as lists of activities the Christian should avoid (e.g. “Let none of the following be named among you:…”). However, in contrast to the clear proscriptions against adultery and fornication, there is no explicit systematic theology that elaborates the morality of sexual activity short of intercourse. Therefore, in exegeting the passages where this issue seems to be addressed, one has to take a primarily hermeneutical focus.
There are basically three stages in that process. First, one has to examine the etymology of the various words mentioned above for their principal meanings. Second, one has to clarify and explicate the concepts the words represent. Third, one must show how these concepts define the overall framework of the relationships people should develop among themselves, and between themselves and God.
As one can tell from reading the passages mentioned above, these words about activities or conditions to avoid are often grouped together. This simultaneous appearance suggests that the concepts are similar in terms of their problematic nature, as well as in terms of the behaviors they represent. “Passion” is one of the most frequently used words and also one of the most useful in terms of the specific inferences one can draw from it about sexual activity.
Epithymia and its Modifers
In classical Greek philosophy, epithymia or “passion” refers to the waywardness of a person in conflict with his or her rationality. This waywardness was thought of more in ethical than in religious terms. In the Septuagint the word was frequently used in descriptions of greed (Num. 11:4) and of adulterous desires, such as in the stories of Potiphar’s wife and Joseph (Gen. 39), David and Bathsheba (2 Sam. 11::2) and Job’s self-control of wayward glances (Job 31:1) (Brown 1975: 457). Occasionally the word is used for positive desires, such as to seek God’s righteousness (Isa. 58:2) or to see friends (I Thess. 2:17).
Epithymia is rarely used in the Gospels, but Paul uses it in a variety of places as an expression of the sinfulness that rules non-Christians and often ensnares Christians. Paul sees in “passion” the driving power of a person’s fleshly nature that permeates the pre-Christian self and continues to tempt one after one becomes a Christian. Paul notes that when someone submits to these desires, these desires can essentially guide the whole personality (Rom. 1:24, Eph. 4:22) (Brown 1975: 457-8). When this occurs, even the highest and noblest impulses can be transformed and directed by the base urges of our fleshly nature.
In Paul’s schema, the person who walks by the Spirit has the power to resist such desire (Gal. 5:16, cf. Rom. 8:9ff), because the Spirit replaces desire as the determining power in one’s life (Eph. 4:23) (Brown 1975: 457-8). Much of this same understanding of epithymia is reflected in the Pastorals and in the Johannine epistles.
Words juxtaposed to epithymia provide useful amplification. “Youthful” (neoterikas) in classical Greek was most often used simply to designate an age range of a group of people (approximately 20-30 years old) to differentiate them from the “elders” (presbyteroi or gerontes). In classical Greek, the term many times connoted immaturity or inexperience. In the Septuagint, the word was used mostly to denote age, while in the Apocrypha and intertestamental literature it connoted inexperience, immaturity, and susceptibility (Brown 1976: 674-5).
Neoterikas is infrequently used in the New Testament. There, neo– compounds refer to youth as opposed to age or the “new self” in Christ (Mt. 9:17, Mk. 2:22, Rom. 7:6) (Brown 1976: 675-6). In the II Tim. 2:22 reference, it seems reasonable, based on the available evidence, to accept “youthful passions” to signify those that are impulsive, immature, and not subject to much self-control. As an admonition to Christian adults (and specifically to Timothy), Paul in II Tim. 2:22 is probably advising people not to be subject to the adolescent passions that may reoccur in adulthood. Paul advises Timothy to “flee” (feuge) these passions, indicating one should avoid any semblance of involvement with them. In the complete passage, Paul contrasts “youthful lusts” with the goals of faith, love, peace, purity, and peaceableness with one’s community (II Tim. 2:22-26). These contrasts suggest that “youthful passions” are dysfunctional not only for one’s own spirituality but also for the spiritual health of others.
A few other words are sometimes used to modify epithymia. “Evil” (kaka) when used with epithymia suggests passions that separate humans from God and bring them under judgment. Activities that are kakai are often pursued against one’s own will. (Brown 1975: 564). “lustful (pathei) passions” in I Thess 4:5 seem to refer primarily to adulterous desires, or desires for one’s spouse that may not be thoughtful or considerate.
“Uncleanness” (akatharsia) is a term Paul uses most often to connote the absence of righteousness and of purity of the heart, though he does occasionally employ the term in discussions of ritual cleanliness and Christ’s relationship with the Law (Brown, 1978: 106, 475). “Licentiousness” or “sensuality” (aselgeia) is used infrequently in the New Testament. Primarily it suggests indecent conduct, debauchery (Mk. 7:22, Eph. 4:9), or sexual excesses (II Pet. 2:2, Rom. 13:13) (Arndt and Gingrich, 1957: 114). In reference to practices in the Hellenistic world, Paul uses aselgeia to refer to the nature of unregenerate humankind whose actions are determined not by a commitment to God, but by natural passions epithymiai) (Rom. 1:24, Gal. 5:19) (Kittel 1965: 428-9).
It appears that most of the passages concerning sexual immorality, apart from condemning adultery and fornication, proscribe general rather than specific behaviors. The verses discussed above suggest that most human passions are vehicles that, unchecked, can lead one away from a righteous and sanctified life. They suggest one should not toy with these passions on the naïve assumption that temptation can be as easily avoided one minute as the next. Also important is the concept that the carnal self would indeed prefer no boundaries, in this or in other areas. A third important concept here is that since Christ provides protection from such temptations through the Holy Spirit, Christians must be sure to make use of that power by continued reliance on God’s help rather than on their own strength.
Defining the Problem
Nevertheless, after examining these general proscriptions, one is still left with no clearly delineated bounds for desire or sensuality. Therefore, further thought needs to be given to how to determine personal boundaries in one’s sexual life. This is important because our sexual nature is always present whether we acknowledge it or not. Finding a place for this part of us, in the proper context, is an important issue.
Dealing with the drive to greater levels of sexual intimacy is a common problem, and exercising sufficient control over this desire the principal challenge. Clergy often note (particularly those who counsel teenagers) that many Christians find themselves unable to withstand the heavy influence on permissive sexuality present in our culture (see, e.g., Alcorn, 1985: 222; Abraham, 1985). In succumbing to this influence, couples often emphasize the sexual aspects of their relationship out of proportion to other dimensions. As a consequence, important psychological and spiritual aspects of the couple’s interaction – aspects which should be emphasized first and should form the foundation of the relationship – are seriously neglected.
Sexual dimensions of a relationship should never be pursued unless the psychological and spiritual foundation of the relationship has been firmly built and is being adequately maintained. The foundation should be grounded in complete respect for the other person and their individuality. Such a foundation provides the basis necessary for a mutually edifying relationship. Sexual activity is no substitute for spiritual and psychological intimacy. Indeed, psychologists have shown that sexual activity without a firm basis in spiritual and psychological intimacy can be virtually meaningless.
If a couple has had difficulty building or maintaining this critical foundation, they should realize that a healthy Christian relationship cannot and should not be established through exploiting sexuality. One has to exercise good judgment in evaluating the quality of a relationship’s foundation and be aware of the tendency to let sexual interest lead one to assume incorrectly that the foundation is already as sturdy as it needs to be. Coping with the challenge of sexual feelings in a healthy, well-established relationship remains a challenge.
The question of setting limits to sexual activity is intrinsically tied to the concept of healthy and unhealthy sexual thoughts and actions. What, for example, is “lust”, and how can one define it in an operational way? To what extent is sexual activity between a man and a woman healthy and appropriate? How can one know when one is about to go “too far”?
A General Moral Framework for Sexual Thought and Action
The answers to such questions will obviously be subjective, and Christians need to define their own boundaries with careful thought, prayer, and awareness of the Scriptures. The earlier examination of biblical terms about sexual thoughts and behaviors, however, suggests that the central factors in maintaining control are a continual awareness of and search for purity, righteousness, and godliness in one’s own life and a desire for peace and edification in the lives of the people with whom one comes in contact.
To develop a personal moral framework in this area, one needs to give serious thought to one’s own understanding of “desire”, “uncleanness”, and “licentiousness”. Each person needs to determine what kind of behaviors these terms cover and how one can best avoid running afoul of these problems in relationships with people of the other sex. Considering the other person’s needs and spiritual health to be of equal or greater value than one’s own is an important underlying assumption of this orientation.
All of the terms, but particularly epithymia, suggest that when someone senses that passions are in control and will-power is fading fast, he or she is going “too far”. Developing and maintaining this self-control and an awareness of one’s own limits in periods of passion is the critical first step in defining a personal moral framework for sexual thought and action.
This mature, refined sense of self-awareness and self-control can only be developed through thought, introspection, prayer, Bible reading and discussions with Christian friends. Without time and effort spent working through these issues and one’s feelings about them, one is very likely to foster passions that are “youthful” and “evil”. These passions are those that may be oriented only toward self-gratification, passions that are essentially uncontrollable, or passions that are dishonoring to God or not edifying to one’s fellow human being(s). Passion can certainly be spontaneous, but it need not be impulsive in the sense of needing immediate gratification or gratification only in the particular way the person feeling it desires.
A mature, refined sense of self-awareness should lead a Christian to develop thoughts and passions that edify, or at least do not interfere with, his or her own spirituality and the spirituality of those with whom one has contact. In short, a mature, refined sense of self-awareness, within the context of biblical limits, is the foundation for a “mature” passion.
A mature passion for another person may be likened to the passion we are to have for God (Isa. 58:2) – a passion infused with purity, holiness, and other-centeredness. In terms of a romantic relationship, those mature thoughts and passions would be ones that seek righteousness, that put the other person first and encourage his or her spiritual growth, and that in no way create a stumbling block for the other person’s Christian walk. Mature thinking about passions gives the pros and cons of sexual activity their appropriate weight. Age and experience usually facilitate, but do not guarantee, that mature decisions will be made in this area. Adults of all ages make immature decisions about sexual activity.
The Metaphor of “Moral Friction”
Friction is often an undesirable force. It is desirable, however, in its metaphorical sense concerning sexual morality. I would assert that “moral friction” consists of a value system that is sufficiently well-developed and well thought-out that it can make fine discriminations among the experiences with which it comes in contact. The healthier and more well-developed one’s moral framework, the finer the moral judgments one can make among the sexual experiences and temptations with which one is confronted, and the more friction – or moral discretion – one can apply in actual experience. An understanding of what “youthful” and “evil” passions are provides a healthy, mature, biblical basis for developing this necessary moral framework. With such a framework in place, one should not have to worry about being unable to resist temptations one has decided beforehand to avoid.
Real Life Problems
To the extent one intentionally focuses thought on the sexual appeal of the other person, in these cases, one can say that lust occurs. Such is the case since the desire for the other person grows out of a wish for self-gratification rather than from any concern for the well-being, preferences, or spiritual life of that other person. A key operative concept here is the nature of the passion involved – that it is primarily self-centered and immature, not stable and other-centered. The sexual interest here is oriented primarily, if not solely, on pleasing oneself. A second key concept, as discussed at several points earlier, is whether one has control over that passion. Knowing that the feeling is wrong is important, but controlling the feeling is just as essential.
The sense of Matthew 5:28 (“Anyone who lusts after a woman commits adultery with her in his heart”) seems to reflect this concept of appropriating the object for one’s own needs, a sexual action out of the bounds of a biblical sexual relationship. Since the desire in such cases is for self-gratification, the desire itself needs to be curtailed so that it doesn’t continue to occupy one’s thoughts. The ability to curtail such desires is the essence of self-control absent in epithymia. Since lustful passions are often impulsive and seek immediate gratification, one can argue that they also fit the “youthful” characterization, so that by controlling lust, one is indeed controlling a “youthful passion”.
Another way to think of the sinfulness inherent in lust is to remember that God created humans as whole individuals – a unity of body, mind, personality, etc. – and that He wants us to appreciate one another as whole people. Last, because it focuses attention on only one part of a person – his or her body – demeans the creation and dishonors the Creator.
What about developing limits on sexual activity itself in romantic relationships? We need biblical guidelines to help individual Christians to establish limits that are sensible, manageable, and, most of all, that honor God.
A solidly Scriptural approach to this issue would necessitate the individual’s giving prayerful thought and consideration to the personal significance of Paul’s admonitions about passion, the spiritual self/carnal self relationship, self-control, and sensuality.
Second, one would also need to think about how to develop a sufficiently refined moral framework – a healthy amount of “moral friction”. It is important to set one’s limits in advance to avoid “going overboard” and to be able to assess candidly the degree of self-centeredness in one’s interest in a member of the opposite sex. In building a healthy relationship with someone, one needs to ask the question, not of how much one can “get away with” and still please God, but what is the most wholesome, righteous, mutually edifying course of action to take as one pursues a relationship with another person. In essence, the best question to ask becomes, not “How far can I go?”, but “As a Christian, how far should I go?”
A third clear criterion is always to put what is best for the other person above one’s own needs or desires, always seeking to do no harm to the other. This criterion also involves being careful never to pressure the other person in ways that would dull or quench your mutual sensitivities to biblical standards of interpersonal behavior.
Fourth, the couple would do well to continue to discuss occasionally whether each was satisfied with all aspects of their relationship. Any such discussion would need to be pursued with a continued mutual sense of how the relationship can give the most glory to God and how both partners could continue to edify one another as Christians and as human beings.
- Abraham, Ken. 1985. Don’t Bite the Apple ‘til You Check for Worms. Old Tappan, NJ: Fleming Revell.
- Alcorn, Randy. 1985. Christians in the Wake of the Sexual Revolution: Recovering Our Sexual Sanity. Portland, OR: Multnomah Press.
- Arndt, William, and Wilbur Gingrich. 1957. A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature. Chicago: University of Chicago.
- Brown, Colin. 1975. Dictionary of New Testament Theology, vol. 1. Grand Rapids: Zondervan.
- _____. 1976. Dictionary of New Testament Theology, vol. 2. Grand Rapids: Zondervan.
- _____. 1978. Dictionary of New Testament Theology, vol. 3. Grand Rapids: Zondervan.
- Kittel, Gerhard, ed. 1964. Theological Dictionary of the New Testament vol. 1. Tr. Geoffrey Bromley. Grand Rapids: Zondervan.
_____. 1965. Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, vol. 3. Tr. Geoffrey Bromley. Grand Rapids: Zondervan.
The author would like to thank Gilbert Bilezikian, Gretchen Gaebelein Hull, and Catherine Clark Kroeger for their comments on an earlier draft of this article. Responsibility for the content of the article, of course, is entirely his own.
This article has been excerpted from a longer study, “Moral Friction on the Slippery Slope: Making Decisions About Sexual Thought and Action.”