This morning we’re starting a new series on ‘The Bible and Present Problems’. And my title is ‘Sexual Confusion’. You’ll see that, and my headings for this morning, on the service sheet.
Now, I have to say I don’t really want to talk about this. But I’m in good company, because that’s exactly how Jude thought about it. This is what Jude 3-4 says:
Dear friends, although I was very eager to write to you about the salvation that we share, I felt I had to write and urge you to contend for the faith that was once for all entrusted to the saints. For certain men whose condemnation was written about long ago have secretly slipped in among you. They are godless men, who change the grace of God into a licence for immorality and deny Jesus Christ our only Sovereign and Lord.
What kind of immorality is uppermost in Jude’s mind? Verse 7 makes it clear that it’s sexual immorality that’s the big problem that’s plaguing the church:
Sodom and Gomorrah and the surrounding towns gave themselves up to sexual immorality and perversion.
Jude would rather talk positively about all that Christ has done. But instead, he has to talk negatively. Why? Not because he’s being sidetracked on to a totally different topic that’s got nothing to do with salvation. No. It’s to safeguard the salvation of his hearers, and to safeguard their witness to Jesus in the world.
The problem is that the gospel itself is being horribly twisted and distorted until it’s made to appear that it supports a sexual free for all. Maybe they’re saying, ‘God made us the way we are so how could he disapprove of what comes naturally to us?’ Or, ‘God loves us so how could he possibly condemn us, however we want to behave?’ Or, ‘God has set us free by his grace, so we’re free to live just how we like.’
The same voices are echoing round our society and our church today. So we too need to hear the negative message that safeguards the wonderful positive message of forgiveness in Jesus for us sinners and of grace and power for living in obedience to God. That’s the kind of grace we need – not a licence for immorality.
Let it be said before we go any further that every one of us is a sinner in need of forgiveness when it comes to this area of our sexual lives. Whether it’s by thought or word or deed, we’ve all messed up. With some the mess is more visible than with others. But that’s no measure of how great the mess is. We all need forgiveness. And when we kneel before Jesus, he does forgive us and set us on our feet again. Our society desperately needs to hear this message of grace. That’s why it’s so imperative that we hear God’s voice clearly, and diagnose accurately the cancer of immorality that denies Jesus and eats away at our culture. So I have five headings, as you see.
Firstly, OUR CULTURE: CONFUSION, CHAOS AND CATASTROPHE
We live in an age of sexual confusion, chaos and catastrophe. Here are two examples from the news just over the last few days.
One headline said: ‘Contrast in neighbouring areas on abortion. Teenagers opt to keep their babies.’ The report says: ‘More pregnant teenagers in one area of the North-East are opting to become mothers than anywhere else in the country.’ It says that in more prosperous areas where girls have higher aspirations, most pregnant teenagers have their babies aborted. I quote: ‘Teenagers choices were based on their personal situation rather than their moral views on abortion.’ Choices based on personal situation replace the biblical moral absolutes that have guided our culture for centuries. Preganancy becomes the unfortunate side effect of personal pleasure. And human life becomes expendable for the sake of personal fulfilment.
Here’s another recent headline: ‘B and B denies gays a double room.’ The report goes on: ‘A homosexual couple who tried to book a double room in a Highland guesthouse were offered twin beds instead because the owner refused to ‘condone perversion’.’ A spokesman for VisitScotland said, ‘We are confident this kind of attitude is not mirrored across the vast majority of Scotland.’ One could rephrase that: ‘We are confident that biblical sexual ethics have disappeared from the vast majority of Scotland.’
A personal example along the same lines: we have a flat that we let out. We make it clear that we will only let the flat to a couple if they are married. We will not let it to a co-habiting couple. We, too, do not want to condone a practice that is ultimately deeply damaging. We think marriage needs all the support it can get. So far the worst we’ve had is some snide comments from agents. But we’re beginning to wonder how long our policy will even be legal.
A report a while ago contained these figures:
The number of births outside marriage remained at 5% for 400 years but has now leapt to 32%. Every week 3000 children experience the divorce of their parents. 200,000 mothers never see their children. 700,000 children never see their fathers [and I’ve read that 85% of those in prison come from fatherless families]. 74,000 schoolgirls under 16 now go to Family Planning clinics. But listen to this: 75% of children believe that marriage should be forever.
The sexual culture in which we live our lives is in confusion and chaos leading to catastrophe.
Our understanding of the place of sex has lost its Biblical moorings. We need to tie up to the Bible once again. And I’ll mention three areas of the Bible’s teaching: gender recognition; gender roles; and gender relations. So my second heading is this:
Secondly, GENDER RECOGNITION
One of the areas of increasing sexual confusion is even over the existence of clearly distinguished sexes. So, for instance, Big Brother at the moment is featuring a man who thinks he is a woman and who has had so-called ‘sex-change’ surgery. And this kind of deep confusion is now written into the statute books. Recently the Gender Recognition Bill completed its passage through Parliament.
This is legislation that allows a man – with a perfectly normal male body – to become a woman in law. It allows two biological men to marry each other. You can get yourself better informed about this if you have access to the internet by looking at the Christian Insititute website, which is at christian.org.uk.
The Bible is quite clear about the fundamental issue here. Genesis 1.27 says:
So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them.
And that clear combination of unity in God’s image and distinction in relation to sex is a continuing theme that runs through the Bible. Cultural markers that maintain the distinction should not be flouted – such as clothing that is culturally appropriate for one sex rather than the other. These markers will vary from culture to culture. But they are clearly recognised.
So a transexual, or a transvestite, will deliberately swap the markers of one sex for those of the other. But this kind of behaviour flies in the face of God’s intention for men and women. It will be the behaviour of only a tiny minority. But the acceptance of it by the wider society, not least in the media and in leglisation, is another symptom of the sexual confusion and chaos that is characteristic of a godless and ungodly society.
What is the right response from believers? To be clear about the Bible’s teaching. To be compassionate in our dealings with people who struggle in these ways. And at the same to bear witness to a wayward culture that there is another way – God’s way – which is altogether healthier, because the maker knows what works best for us, and what is best for us is his intention. That’s gender recognition. Then:
Thirdly, GENDER ROLES
If men and women increasingly find it difficult to relate to each other anything like harmoniously, what is the alternative? And in particular, how, according to the Bible should men and women relate to each other in marriage in such a way that the marriage will not only survive but thrive?
The place to begin is for both husband and wife to relate rightly to Jesus. If our hearts are on fire for Christ, and we’ve been humbled by his searching gaze and his grace and forgiveness, then that’s the best basis for a marriage.
But then there’s the added dimension of what we might call the ‘headship’ of the husband and the ‘helpership’ of the wife. Paul discusses this in Ephesians 5. Verse 22:
Wives, submit to your husband as to the Lord.
Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church.
This helpership is expressed when a wife submits to the leadership of her husband. And the headship of the husband is expressed when he loves his wife.
This is so counter-cultural that it’s hard for our hackles not to rise when we hear this. But Christian living is increasingly deeply and decidely counter-cultural in relation to the values of the unbelieving world. Here is one area where the rubber hits the road.
1 Corinthians 11.3 says:
Now I want you to realise that the head of every man is Christ, and the head of the woman is man, and the head of Christ is God.
So Christ is not only the model for headship. He is the model for submission. The head of Christ is God. Is Jesus downtrodden? No. Does Jesus tell his Father plainly what he wants? Yes. Submission is not suffering in silence. Is it humiliating for a wife to take Jesus as her model? Of course not.
Different does not mean inferior. Men and women are equal in the sight of God. We have to hold together both the equality and the complementarity of the sexes. And we must recognise that the submission of which the Bible speaks is voluntary, not forced. Submission is a matter of willing obedience to the will of a loving God.
One of the main benefits of this Christ-like submission is that it makes for unity in the marriage. If a wife isn’t at certain points prepared to submit her will, then the alternatives are these: one, the victory of the strongest or stroppiest personality; two, continual conflict; or three, going off in different directions. All of them undermine or destroy the unity and health of the marriage.
But then the leadership of the husband is also patterned on the example of Christ. Ephesians 5:25:
Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her to make her holy…
This is a headship of self-sacrificial care for the good of the wife, whatever the cost. And that puts all us husbands to shame.
In fact it’s my conviction that the loss of this pattern of loving headship and Christ-like helpership as the accepted ideal for relations between husband and wife is one of the major factors in the catastrophic epidemic of divorce and family destruction in the middle of which we live, and which affects so many of our lives so deeply and so painfully.
But haven't men oppressed women in appalling ways down the ages? They often have. And that's because the Biblical pattern has been ignored, not because it's been followed. The ugly parody of submission and headship that we sometimes see displayed shouldn't cause us to chuck the beautiful biblical original into the wheelie-bin with it.
How should husbands and wives relate to each other? In a Christ-like way that flows from a close relationship with Jesus. That’s gender roles.
But what about relationships between the sexes apart from marriage? That’s my fourth heading. So:
Fourthly, GENDER RELATIONSHIPS
Here are three Biblical guidelines for how men and women should relate.
First, how we should not relate. We should not relate to each other following the ways of the unbelieving world.
So I tell you this, and insist on it in the Lord, that you must no longer live as the Gentiles do, in the futility of their thinking.
We must understand that the Christian life is bound to be counter-cultural. We belong to Jesus. Our value system is now profoundly different from that of the world – pleasing Christ is our supreme concern. So we’ll behave differently. That’s what marks us out – the way we live. Or it should. We won’t use each other. We’ll love each other.
Secondly, men and women should relate to each other as members of God’s family.
In 1 Timothy 5.1-2 Paul advises Timothy on how to treat those within the fellowship he leads. He says he should speak to older men as if they were his father. Then he says:
Treat younger men as brothers, older women as mothers, and younger women as sisters, with absolute purity.
How should we treat someone in the generation above us? Like a father or a mother to us. What about the generation below us? Like a son or daughter. How should we behave towards our peers in our own generation? As if they’re our brothers and sisters – with absolute purity. So -
Thirdly, men and women should relate to each other with total purity.
Jesus calls us to total purity in our thought life, in the words we speak, and in the way we behave – the things we do. Ephesians 5.3:
But among you there must not be even a hint of sexual immorality, or of any kind of impurity…
Now maybe you think, “Surely total purity is completely impossible?”
Yes and no. Being tempted is not sinful. Giving in is. Will we all sin? Yes. And forgiveness is available from God when we turn away from our sin. But whenever we’re faced with a situation in which we are tempted to sin, we always have the option of taking the route of purity.
So what’s the implication of that for our sexual relationships? God’s standard of total purity is clear and basically very simple: sex is for marriage between a man and a woman for life. It is not for any other relationship.
Why is that God’s rule for us? Because he loves us. He knows what works for us, because he made us. He gets angry when we break the rule because breaking it damages us and it damages those involved with us. Jesus wants us whole, not in pieces. He wants us healthy not hurting.
That’s why those who, as Jude says, ‘change the grace of God into a licence for immorality and deny Jesus Christ our only Sovereign and Lord’ are so devastating both for church and society. So, for instance, two events within the Church of England have gone hand in hand recently.
The first is the appointment of the Dean of St Alban’s Cathedral. Jeffrey John was installed as the new Dean yesterday. He is in a homosexual relationship that he says is now celibate. He is unrepentant about the fact that it wasn’t before. He continues to be a vociferous supporter of the view that the church should view some homosexual practice as acceptable, even holy. The Bishop of St Albans said he was ‘overjoyed’ at the appointment.
This is not a marginal issue that affects only the one percent or so who want to engage in exclusively homosexual relationships. It is the tip of an iceberg of rejection of biblical sexual standards that will sink our society.
So, for instance, at the same time as that appointment was being made, a motion went before the General Synod of the Church of England for people living together to be given the same legal status as married couples. The report in the Church of England Newspaper read: ‘Synod to be asked to bless cohabitation. The Church of England could overturn its traditional teaching on sex outside marriage… by giving its approval [to this motion].’ Whatever the intricacies of the motion, that’s the message it’s giving. The General Synod passed the motion.
Jesus wants us healthy not hurting.
… among you there must not be even a hint of sexual immorality, or of any kind of impurity…
How should men and women relate to each other? Not as the unbelieving world does; as members of God’s family; and with total purity.
And that brings me to my final heading:
Fifthly, GOD’S COMMUNITY: CLARITY, COMMITMENT AND CONTENTMENT
We live in a culture that’s awash with sexual confusion, chaos and catatstrophe. We all get caught up in it. We all need forgiveness. And through the forgiveness that God gives through Jesus, we enter on to a different path of life.
A path on which our God-given gender is clearly understood and recognised; a path on which we can begin to learn to live out our equal but different gender roles without them being distorted or denied; a path on which, as men and women made in the image of God, redeemed through Jesus, indwelt by the Holy Spirit, we can relate to one another as brothers and sisters, as parents and children, as husbands and wives, as friends, in the way that God intends.
In other words we can begin to look like God’s community – God’s family – the family that, by sheer grace, we really are. And we can begin to find out that when we do follow God’s ways, he doesn’t constrain us and oppress us and leave us embittered and unfulfilled.
Rather, we discover that God’s community is characterised (not by a fog of lies and confusion but) by clarity about what is best; (not by relationships that last only as long as they serve our needs but) by commitment to one another and to what is best for one another; and (not by an endless desparate search for more happiness or pleasure but) by contentment – not without a lot of struggles this side of heaven – but contentment none the less, because we know that we’re on the right path, the path of blessing for us, blessing for those we love, and blessing for the society of which we’re a part.