'I tell you the truth....the prostitutes are entering the kingdom of God ahead of you’'
If you want to tell whether a particular community is peach, a coconut or tomato then the seeing how they deal with the question of sex will usually give you a very good clue.
In the life of Jesus, the way He dealt with people who didn't have it all worked out when it came to sex marked him out as being very different to the religious elite. Just take the woman caught in adultery, who the Pharisees wanted to stone but Jesus chose to restore (John 8), or the 'sinful' woman who anointed the feet of Jesus and in doing so offended the Pharisee who had invited Jesus into his home (Luke 7:36-50). Jesus seemed to have no problem being associated with people who were ‘still on a journey’ when it came to sex and relationships.
And consider the way Jesus dealt with the woman at the well, who had already been married five times and was now onto yet another relationship (and is presumably sleeping with the guy she's now living with). Someone like that turning up in a coconut community, if they were brave (or unwise) enough to actually be open about their lifestyle, would almost certainly be told that in order to get their relationship with God on track they must first repent of 'living in sin' before God is going to go any further with them. In fact there would seem to be a good precedent for treating people that way — after all John the Baptist lost his head for telling Herod that he was wrong to marry his brother’s wife (Matt 14:1-12). But Jesus reacts very differently. Rather than rejecting the woman he treats her questions and her life situation with dignity and respect (even after He’s had a divine revelation of her relationship history), and sees such a change in her that she leads a revival amongst the people in her community.
I'd also encourage you to think about the genealogy of Jesus. For a Jew the list of your ancestors was incredibly important, so much so that when Herod the Great wanted to cover up the fact that he was only a half Jew, and so didn't appear in the official genealogies, he had all the records destroyed. Yet as we read the genealogy of Jesus in Matthew 1 there is something very unusual about it. First of all it contains women (who in both Jewish and Greek culture had no legal rights), which was highly unusual. But more than that the women in it include Tamar who committed adultery with her Father in law (Gen 38), Rahab who was a pagan prostitute (Josh 2:1-7) and Bathseba who was seduced by David while she was still married to Uriah (2 Sam 6:11-12). And then of course there were the questions around Jesus own conception, with the rumour put out by the Jews that He was the illegitimate child of a Roman soldier.
Through his birth, life and his genealogy we see that Jesus is happy not only to be associated with men and women, and with Jews and gentiles, but also with people who don’t have it all worked out when it comes to sex. He has truly come to be a saviour for all, and that includes people who sexually don't fit in with what we think is right. That was very different to the Pharisees, who only seemed to be able to condemn people and point out their faults. As Michael Wilcock says in his commentary on Luke 'The formal religion of the Pharisees had no real answer to the problem of sin, and could only respond with disapproval and condemnation. But Jesus could actually do away with sin, and in this deepest sense bring salvation and peace' (The Message of Luke - p90).
As we've already seen, being peachy doesn't mean that we're just soft all the way through, with no clear sense of right and wrong. But it does mean that we're willing to accept people without condemnation, whatever their lifestyle and background.
First of all let's get away from any idea that sex is 'dirty', something that religious people should have nothing to do with, should never talk about, and which only exists to produce children. The Bible is very clear that God invented sex, and that he invented it not only for reproduction but also for our enjoyment. I’ll never forget not long after I first started exploring Christianity, during a less than gripping sermon, leafing through my Bible and discovering for the first time the book Songs of Solomon. It’s an erotic love poem between a man and a woman, and frankly I was shocked to find verses such as “Your two breasts are like two fawns, like twin fawns of a gazelle that browse among the lilies” (Song of Solomon 4:5) in the middle of this ‘holy’ book (if you get into the imagery of the book it gets even more intimate than that). Gary Chapman writes “Obviously, these ancient lovers are finding great pleasure in relating to each other sexually”.
But the Bible is also very clear that sex was created only to be enjoyed in the context of a marriage relationship between one man and one woman. Genesis 2:24-25 tell us “For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and they will become one flesh. The man and his wife were both naked, and they felt no shame.” Sex is the ultimate expression of the two becoming one flesh. Again Gary Chapman writes “As a husband and wife give themselves to each other sexually, they are building a psychological and spiritual bond that unites their souls at the deepest possible level. Together they can face the challenges of life because they are soul partners. Nothing unites a husband and wife more deeply than making love”.
That means that any sex outside of the context of marriage is wrong. Paul writes about this to the church in Corinth, a place where sexual immorality was rife, when he wrote ‘Do you not know that he who unites himself with a prostitute is one with her in body? For it is said, "The two will become one flesh."’ (1 Cor 6:16). Having sex isn’t just like having a game of squash with someone, just a merely physical activity, whatever the proponents of the so called sexual revolution would have us believe. There is something which happens on a much deeper psychological and spiritual level when two people have sex, which is only intended and only works within the context of marriage. That means that sex outside the context of marriage isn’t what God intended.
So followers of Jesus are to avoid sex outside of marriage. That means no sex before marriage, and no sex with someone other than your spouse if you are married. It also means no to homosexual sex, as a Biblical marriage is between one man and one woman. God doesn’t say these things to stop having fun, but because He wants the very best for us (just one example of that is that couples who live together before they get married are 60% more likely to be divorced after just 8 years).
The New Testament writers were unambiguous about the moral standards they called the church to. Here is Paul writing to the church in Ephesus:
But among you there must not be even a hint of sexual immorality, or of any kind of impurity, or of greed, because these are improper for God's holy people. (Eph 5:3)
At our core we need to be very clear about what the Bible says when it comes to sex, and the standards God calls people to live up to.
So how do we hold on to these two ideas? On the one hand the acceptance which a woman caught in the act of adultery finds from Jesus, and on the other the clear teaching of the Bible on God’s standard when it comes to sex? Well when it comes to sex, as with many other issues, we often take one of three approaches.
The first is to cocoon ourselves, to be isolationist and to cut ourselves off from the rest of the society. That is often the first reaction of a coconut community, and was certainly the path the Pharisees went down. Cocooning says that the best way to stay morally pure, to live out what the Bible calls us to, is to have nothing to do with people we might consider to be immoral, and to distance ourselves from anyone who doesn’t live up to our standards. That was what they expected Jesus to do, and they ‘got him’ when he didn’t. If we go this way we end up seeing the church as a refuge from the world, a place to escape to our own safe community, rather than a refuge for the world, a place where people far from God can find acceptance and love. Nowhere is this seen more than with sex, where we don’t want gay people, people sleeping around, unmarried couples living together, or people who have committed adultery messing up our community. Yet we are faced with the example of Jesus, and his willingness to engage with exactly the people we feel tempted to keep at a distance.
The second approach is to confront sin in society, and be very vocal about what we are against. Whether it’s Christians protesting about Harry Potter films or homosexuality, we are often known for what we are against rather than what we are for. That flies in the face of what God set out to do, when he said “For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him” (John 3:17). Coconut communities often go for both cocooning and confronting, sitting in their holy huddle lobbing out missiles at the rest of culture - just think of the Pharisees about to stone to death the woman caught in adultery.
The third approach is to conform, to be no different to the culture around us. That’s what happens when a peach becomes a tomato. We so engage with the culture around us that the way we behave is indistinguishable from the people we are trying to reach, and we really have nothing to offer them in terms of showing them a better way to do life.
Jesus called us to a fourth way, which we see in his prayer for his disciples.
My prayer is not that you take them out of the world but that you protect them from the evil one. They are not of the world, even as I am not of it. (John 17:15-16)
Some have summarised that as “being in the world but not of the world”. I believe that is the challenge that Jesus calls us to when it comes to sex.
First of all we want to set the bar very high when it comes to our expectations amongst established Christians in our community. In fact Jesus sets the bar even higher than just not committing adultery.
"You have heard that it was said, 'Do not commit adultery.' But I tell you that anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart. If your right eye causes you to sin, gouge it out and throw it away. It is better for you to lose one part of your body than for your whole body to be thrown into hell. And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away. It is better for you to lose one part of your body than for your whole body to go into hell.” (Matt 5:27-30)
What He’s saying is that grace takes us beyond law. The law dealt with the external, but gave us no help in actually keeping the law. In contrast grace changes us from the inside, and through the power of the Holy Spirit gives us strength and a desire to actually want to live God’s way.
So when it comes to being sexually pure we set the bar very high, and have high expectations of one another. For me that means being above reproach in both my behaviour and my thinking. Of making sure that I never get into a circumstance where I’m on my own with a woman other than Catrina. Of making sure that pornography doesn’t have a hold on me. Of making sure I’ve got a group of men I can be accountable to. That I do everything I can to love Catrina as Christ loved the church, and don’t let ministry or anything else in life get in the way of that.
And yet at the same time when we people fall making sure that we attempt to restore people with love and grace. As Paul writes:
Brothers, if someone is caught in a sin, you who are spiritual should restore him gently. But watch yourself, or you also may be tempted. (Gal 6:1)
The question of church discipline, and how we restore people when they fall, is a whole chapter on it’s own (see chapter ?). Suffice it to say here that I’ve seen too many churches which preach a message of grace, but when someone within the church messes up they are either cut off from the community completely, or told that God will never be able to use them again and they’re going to be ‘spoilt goods’ for the rest of their life. Grace makes us a church of the second chance (and the third chance, and the fourth chance....). Let’s not forget the example of King David who committed adultery and murder, but on being faced up with his sin and genuinely repenting was restored and saw his kingship go from strength to strength.
So we set the bar high for Christ followers within our community. But for people new to our community, for people who are still on their journey on their way to discovering Christ, we mustn’t make sex, or their relationship status, the big issue. We can’t have the same expectations of them as as we do of mature believers. Paul puts it this way:
I have written you in my letter not to associate with sexually immoral people— not at all meaning the people of this world who are immoral, or the greedy and swindlers, or idolaters. In that case you would have to leave this world. But now I am writing you that you must not associate with anyone who calls himself a brother but is sexually immoral or greedy, an idolater or a slanderer, a drunkard or a swindler. With such a man do not even eat. (1 Cor 5:9-11)
Paul makes a huge distinction between the expectations we have of believers and non believers. We need to remember that we are building a belong -> believe -> behave community, so we mustn’t expect people to behave before they’ve believed. If we do that then we’ve got back into law, and trying to shape peoples external behaviour, rather than leading them into a genuine experience of being born again, of being changed from the inside out. John Burke puts it like this:
As leaders .. we must focus first on making sure people are rightly related to God and truly willing to follow Christ. Then we can guide them and direct them to the freedom of following his ways. If we try to force people to morally approximate the gospel before they have the source of life-giving water, we spiritually dehydrate them.
For many people new to our community there will be issues God wants to deal with before he speaks to them about their attitude to sex. Just like the woman at the well, their relationship status won’t be top of the list.
I’m not going to pretend that this isn’t very messy. How are we to discern between a couple who are living together, who know it is wrong and need to be faced up with their sin, and a couple who, even though they might call themselves Christians, have a whole load of other issues God wants to deal with first, and would run a mile if all they heard on coming through our doors was that they need to start living apart. Well I think we start by loving both couples and being genuinely interested in them as people. But beyond that it is going to take real wisdom to know how to deal with each situation, and more than ever we are going to have to call on the Holy Spirit to help and guide us. We mustn’t ever go soft on sin, but must remember that it is God who changes lives and all we can ever do is create the environment where that life changes can take place.
We’ve only touched here on a host of complicated issues. One of the complexities of a peach community is that we don’t just have rules for how we deal with a given person or group of people, but look for the wisdom of God in every situation we face, realising that each one is different and will require different handling. The hope is that in this chapter we’ll have at least provoked some further questions, and provided a Biblical framework within which to try and think about how to resolve issues as they arise.
I’m going to finish with something Paul wrote to the church in Corinth.
Do you not know that the wicked will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived: Neither the sexually immoral nor idolaters nor adulterers nor male prostitutes nor homosexual offenders nor thieves nor the greedy nor drunkards nor slanderers nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God. And that is what some of you were. But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God. (1 Cor 6:9-11)
I love that phrase “And that is what some of you were”. This was a church with many people who were once living lifestyles which placed them way outside of the kingdom of God, but in this church they had found faith, and not only found faith but experienced changed lives as well. Let’s pray that we would be a community which sees the same.
No Perfect People Allowed — John Burke. John deals in detail with some of the issues we have touched on in this chapter, as well as telling inspiring stories of life change in the context of a peach community.
Sex God — Rob Bell. Not so much a book about sex (I personally think the title is misleading) but an exploration of the link between our sexuality and our spirituality.
Making Love - Gary Chapman - A short but excellent book looking at the difference between having sex and making love.
Porn Again Christian - Mark Driscoll - Pornography is a huge issue in society, and in the church. This hard hitting guide gives some of the best advice I’ve ever read on the subject (can be found online at http://relit.org/porn_again_christian/)