...and that ye be renewed in the spirit of your mind (Ephesians 4:23).

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01 March 2015

What Colors Do You See?

What do you think are the colors in this dress?

Do you see white and gold? Or do you see blue and black?

The above picture was posted on Tumblr on 26 February 2015; it quickly became an Internet sensation and a source of great consternation, controversy, and distress. People convinced it is white and gold began arguing with those convinced it is black and blue. The phenomenon has genuinely disturbed many people and their understanding of reality. How can it be that different people can look at the same picture of the same dress and see entirely different colors? For that matter, how can it be that the same person can see different colors of the same dress in the same picture at different times?

The dress "really is" black and blue. But how can it be that so many people see the dress as white and gold?

Science can provide a few answers. The difference is not in our eyes but in our brains: our brains are used to correcting certain color distortions which take place because of sunlight and other factors based on the environment. The dress is back-lit by the sun in the picture: some people are therefore seeing the dress as white and gold because of the brain attempting to correct for what it believes to be sunlight distortion. Other people, or people looking at the dress at a different time or day or in a different context, see it as blue and black because the brain is not correcting for that perceived distortion.

So our brains are pretty good at correcting for color with a few exceptions, including "The Dress."

But how can we trust that anything we see is true if we can't even come to a consensus understanding of what colors are in The Dress? How can we believe anything we see?

As many people on the Internet are "seeing," we cannot entirely trust what our eyes see! What we see is dependent on how our brains interpret the data it receives. Many times the brain does extremely well at interpretation. But not always!

As an Internet phenomenon "The Dress" will most likely be short-lived; most people are already tired of it. Yet "The Dress" provides an excellent illustration of an uncomfortable truth: different people can look at the same thing in all good conscience and sincerity and come away with different interpretations. In terms of "The Dress," some people are over-correcting based on the background; others, or the same people at other times, are not.

We see this all the time with other issues. Some people look at America in all good conscience and sincerity and believe the political left has the better answers for the nation's politics; others see the same America but think the political right has the better answers; still others do not think either the left or the right has the answers. Sports fans all think their team is the best. Furthermore, in the big questions of life, philosophy, and religion--who we are, where we have come from, why we are here, where we are going--people come to a variety of conclusions despite all living in the same world.

A lot of people have been shaken up by "The Dress" and its uncomfortable implications. Yet God, through Scripture, has already attested to this phenomenon:

There is a way which seemeth right unto a man; But the end thereof are the ways of death (Proverbs 14:12).

According to the Scriptures God created this world and its creatures and it was very good (Genesis 1:1-31). When man sinned, however, sin and death entered the world, and corruption and decay along with it (Genesis 3:1-23, Romans 5:12-18, 8:17-25). On account of the fall of man, as Jeremiah the prophet attests, the heart of man has become corrupt (Jeremiah 17:9); the Apostle Paul calls the "old man" of the world "corrupt in sin" (Ephesians 4:22). Therefore, the human mind has been corrupted by sin; our understanding is imperfect and limited, and we are able to think we understand things that we do not understand, know things we do not know, and have confidence in ideas that are actually false. In short, our hearts are easily deceived (Jeremiah 17:9, Ephesians 4:22).

According to the perspective of the Scriptures, humans cannot trust their own ways (Proverbs 14:12, Jeremiah 10:23). So how can we know anything? We have to appeal to a higher authority, the One who understands truths beyond our comprehension, who formed the world and everything in it:

Trust in YHWH with all thy heart / and lean not upon thine own understanding:
In all thy ways acknowledge him / and he will direct thy paths.
Be not wise in thine own eyes / Fear YHWH, and depart from evil:
It will be health to thy navel / and marrow to thy bones (Proverbs 3:5-8).

We must put our trust in God, and make sense of the world through what He has accomplished for us through Christ (Colossians 2:1-10). It may seem strange and crazy, but we do well to remember that the "foolishness" of God is wiser than the wisdom of man (1 Corinthians 1:18-29).

So how can it be that so many people look at the Scriptures and the Christian faith and come away with so many different conclusions and interpretations?

And he said, "Go, and tell this people, 'Hear ye indeed, but understand not; and see ye indeed, but perceive not' (Isaiah 6:9).

Even in Biblical times we read of people who saw the hand of God and yet did not believe. They "saw" but did not "perceive." They looked at the world in ways which made sense to them and rejected the way God intended for them to see the world. Such happened to the Israelites whom God delivered out of Egypt (cf. 1 Corinthians 10:1-12); so it happened in Isaiah's day; many who saw Jesus Himself did not believe (John 12:37-41).

The problem is not in God, nor the Scriptures, nor in the practice of the Christian faith; the problem, as with "The Dress," is in interpretation. People often think they see various ideas in Scripture that are not really there, and it is because of what they think is in the background: the religious tradition of which they are a part, their current cultural context, etc.

The Scriptures attest to the power of God (Genesis 1:1-2:4); many secularists, on account of the "background" of Darwinism and the Enlightenment, fail to see His power and handiwork (Romans 1:18-20).

The Scriptures attest to God's standards for morality (1 Corinthians 6:9-11, Galatians 5:19-24); many today, on account of the "background" of the sexual revolution, believe those standards to be bigoted and unfair (cf. Romans 1:18-32).

The Scriptures attest to God's truths regarding the plan of salvation, the nature and work of the church, and the means by which Christians can be one in the faith (e.g. John 17:20-23, Acts 2:38, 1 Corinthians 1:10-11, Philippians 2:1-4, Ephesians 4:11-16); many sincere religious people, on account of the "background" of the developments in the "Christian tradition," fail to recognize the whole truth of God (Psalm 119:160).

This is quite daunting! How can we be sure our understanding is accurate and that we see things the way God would have us to see them?

For we walk by faith, not by sight (2 Corinthians 5:7).

We must put our trust in God. We must ask God to give us the wisdom to understand His will according to His purposes (James 1:5-8). We must seek to conform our thoughts, feelings, and behaviors to that of Jesus, and not of the world (Romans 8:28, 12:1-2). Knowledge cannot save; it puffs up (1 Corinthians 8:1). God saves people through faith in the Lord Jesus, those who live according to His love, advancing His purposes (Romans 3:23, 1 Corinthians 13:1-8, Ephesians 2:1-18, 1 John 4:7-21).

On our own we may not know much, but we can at least know that we should put our trust in the God who does know. Let us trust in God in Christ and be saved!

Ethan R. Longhenry
March 2015

01 June 2014

God Works Through His People

Unto me, who am less than the least of all saints, was this grace given, to preach unto the Gentiles the unsearchable riches of Christ; and to make all men see what is the dispensation of the mystery which for ages hath been hid in God who created all things; to the intent that now unto the principalities and the powers in the heavenly places might be made known through the church the manifold wisdom of God, according to the eternal purpose which he purposed in Christ Jesus our Lord (Ephesians 3:8-11).

For the past two hundred years the proclamation of the Gospel has featured a very individualistic focus; it seems the ultimate goal of preaching is to "get people saved". This tendency is understandable in a post-Enlightenment and particularly American context, maintaining a strong focus on the individual and his or her autonomy and independence. Unfortunately this emphasis has led to a Christian spirituality perhaps more wide but significantly less deep. When salvation is described strictly in terms of God solving the sin problem we cannot solve on our own, it is tempting for people to prove willing to "get saved" however they are told to do so and then feel as if the problem is solved and they can get back to their lives.

In such an environment we do well to get back to a fundamental premise of both theology and God's interaction with humanity throughout time: God works through His people. God has never expected to save an assortment of scattered individuals in various times and places; God intends to save a people, a nation, a people for His own possession, and those people are expected to share in community (1 Peter 2:9).

God's work through His people makes sense in terms of God's nature within Himself. The New Testament speaks of God's unity not in personhood but in relationship: the Father is God, the Son is God, and the Spirit is God. Yet God is one, so unified that we can speak of God in the singular (John 1:1, 1 Peter 1:2, 2 Peter 1:29). This unity in relationship is described in John 17:20-23 with the appropriate conclusion: the Father is in the Son, the Son is in the Father, and since the Son is dying and being raised again so that people can be reconciled back to the Father, the Son prays for the people of God to be one, both with God and with one another, as the Father and Son are one. For God to be only concerned about the salvation of individuals without consideration for others would be a denial of Himself; as He is one in relationship, and man is made in His image, so man seeks after relationship both with God and with each other (Genesis 1:26-27, Acts 17:24-28, Romans 1:18-20).

Throughout time God has first established a people for His own possession and then worked with and through them. God began by making Adam and Eve and through them all their descendants (Genesis 2:4-6:32). He began again with Noah and his family (Genesis 6:1-9:28). Yes, God chose and worked with the individuals Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, but always in view of the "great nation" which He established through Jacob, called Israel (Genesis 12:1-49:33). God intended for all Israel to serve Him as priests and to bless the world through Israel, giving them His own Law to follow (Exodus 19:1-20:17), yet Israel continually chose to reflect the nations around them than the particular inheritance given to them by God.

And so it is, as Paul states in Ephesians 3:10-11, that God's ultimate and eternal purpose in Jesus was to display His own manifold wisdom through the church. The church is the visible manifestation of the Kingdom of God on earth, inaugurated through Jesus' life, death, resurrection, ascension, and lordship, looking forward to the promise of His return, judgment, and resurrection (Philippians 3:20-21, Colossians 1:13). Paul speaks of the church as the Body of Christ (Ephesians 1:22-23, Colossians 1:18), and emphasizes the need for the members of that body to work both independently and together to strengthen and build up that body (Romans 12:3-8, 1 Corinthians 12:12-27, Ephesians 4:11-16). It is not for nothing that as Jesus gives a vision to John of the beauty of the saved after the day of resurrection it is in terms of the "holy city Jerusalem," the "bride of Christ," that is, as the church, in unspeakable glory, forever in the presence of her God and Savior (Revelation 21:1-22:6).

At no point in the New Testament do we see commendation of "Lone Ranger Christianity." To "pick yourself up by your own bootstraps" is a good Americanism but it is never found in the pages of Scripture. Instead Scripture speaks of the need to love one another, to serve one another, to care for one another, to strengthen one another, and to participate together with one another in the faith (John 13:14, 34, Acts 2:42-47, 1 Corinthians 12:26, 1 Thessalonians 5:11). Peter reminds us that the devil goes about as a roaring lion, seeking whom he may devour (1 Peter 5:8); as anyone who has watched lions on a television documentary can attest, lions always like going after the loners, the isolated, the weak and ill of a group. Individualism and independence may be virtues in American society yet they prove to be vices in the Kingdom of God which values joint participation and interdependence (Acts 2:42-46, 1 Corinthians 10:16-17, 12:12-28). Even that which we have as individuals is to be used to serve one another (1 Peter 4:10-11)!

Therefore we can see that the God who is one in relational unity works through His people, presently found in the church. God's working in and through His people has many important implications for discipleship and evangelism.

First and foremost is the need to emphasize that those who are truly God's people work together in community as the church to glorify God. The Gospel is proclaimed not as the ultimate self-help fix, but to emphasize the need to be reconciled back to God and also to His people; notice in Ephesians 2:1-22 the thrust of Paul's explication of the salvation process has led to both Jews and Gentiles being incorporated into one body and to share as fellow-citizens of the Kingdom of God. How can one preach Christ without preaching His Body? How can a Gospel truly reflect God's purposes if it does not emphasize the need to join and share with the community of God's people to build up and be strengthened in turn? Those who were baptized in Acts 2:41 immediately devoted themselves not only to the Apostles' instruction but also the fellowship (the association, the joint participation, the community) of believers (Acts 2:42). The call of conversion demands not just a change of mind and heart but also a change of primary identification, no longer of the world and the various ways it divides people, but of Christ and by necessity the Kingdom of Christ, declaring one's identification with the fellow people of God (Philippians 3:20).

Likewise, as we proclaim the Gospel, we cannot do so entirely independently of the people of God and expect God to bless it or for it to truly succeed. After all, what is the goal of all evangelism? Just to baptize people? That is not even the primary goal of the Great Commission, which sees baptism, along with teaching, as the means by which disciples are made (Matthew 28:18-19). The goal of evangelism is to make disciples and then to help them grow to maturity, and if nothing else, that growth process can only take place in the context of the community of God's people as it has for millennia. Such is why the members of the church are to strengthen and care for one another; that is why the members of the church assemble, to spiritually build up and strengthen one another toward maturity (1 Corinthians 12:26, 14:26, Ephesians 4:11-16, Hebrews 10:24-25). Even the most zealous and driven self-directed disciple still needs the encouragement, exhortation, and often redirection or perhaps rebuke which comes from joint participation with the people of God as we all seek to come to the appropriate understanding of God's message to us (Ephesians 4:11-16, 2 Timothy 2:15).

We all are who we are because of God and His grace; yet how often has God worked through some of His people to be the sources of information, instruction, encouragement, exhortation, and perhaps even rebuke in our lives? As the Gospel was proclaimed in the first century, even if great divine effort was necessary to arrange for the hearing of the message, its proclamation was still accomplished by His people (e.g. Acts 9:1-18, 10:1-48). Since God works through His people, we must take care so as to be people in whom and through whom God can work. Are we doing our part to facilitate an environment among our fellow people of God in which disciples can grow in trust, faith, and strength? Are the parts of the body doing the functions God has given them both independently and interdependently? Are lives being transformed to better conform to the image of Jesus so that Christ's body is growing in Him?

As He did in the original creation of humanity and in Israel, God now works through His people now in the church. On the final day He will glorify the saved as the collective and communal people of God. That which is not connected to the Body of Christ will not stand nor endure for eternity. Let us therefore strive to work effectively in community as the people of God, manifesting among ourselves the unity shared by God in Himself and with God so that He can work through us to make disciples and help them grow to maturity!

Ethan R. Longhenry
June 2014

01 May 2013

The Ever-Present Danger of "Soft" Preaching

One of the common jeremiads often heard proclaimed in pulpits warns against the dangers of "soft" preaching. Quite frequently this concern is discussed in terms of 2 Timothy 4:1-4:

I charge thee in the sight of God, and of Christ Jesus, who shall judge the living and the dead, and by his appearing and his kingdom: preach the word; be urgent in season, out of season; reprove, rebuke, exhort, with all longsuffering and teaching. For the time will come when they will not endure the sound doctrine; but, having itching ears, will heap to themselves teachers after their own lusts; and will turn away their ears from the truth, and turn aside unto fables.

"Soft" preaching is then associated with these teachers who tell those with "itching ears" what they want to hear and thus depart from the faith. Sometimes such "soft" preaching is defined as "all positive" preaching; many times it is negatively defined as preaching without discussing "hard" issues. Those "hard" issues tend to be defined in terms of matters of doctrinal distinctiveness: emphasis on the proper plan of salvation, proper functioning in the assemblies, and/or proper church organization and functioning. These days, "soft" preaching is extended to included unwillingness to preach against abortion, homosexuality, or other hot-button cultural and social issues.

These concerns are legitimate. One road to large churches and equally large church treasuries is paved with soothing self-help messages masquerading as preaching. Moralistic therapeutic deism, the belief in a god who is out there with some standards that are easily relaxed, who wants people to be happy and to have high self-esteem, and who will save all good people, is quite prevalent in our age, and is promoted vigorously with a "Christian" veneer. Meanwhile, the people of God remain tempted to dispense with that which makes them distinctive so as to be like everyone else. Israel wanted a king like the other nations (1 Samuel 8:1-22), and served other gods like the other nations (2 Kings 17:7-23). Some early Christians minimized the resurrection and promoted doctrines more consistent with Hellenistic philosophy than the apostolic Gospel (1 Timothy 6:20-21, 2 Timothy 2:17-19, 2 John 1:7-11). Today many among liberal Protestants have fully embraced cultural norms in terms of science, gender roles, and embrace of homosexuality; even among Evangelicals gender roles have become a major issue of contention. Meanwhile, many within churches of Christ have come to see themselves as just another Christian path and thus grant legitimacy to many facets of Evangelicalism at least and other Christian groups as well at most. Proclamation regarding God's plan of salvation, the proper way to edify and encourage in the assembly, and the authorized organization and work of the local congregation according to the New Testament is not appreciated in some places. We do well to show concern about these trends and to continue to preach the Gospel in its fullness.

Nevertheless, we also do well to consider whether it is advisable or wise to define "soft" and "hard" preaching so strictly and with such a limited application. Neither "soft preaching" nor "hard preaching" are Biblical terms. When Paul wrote to Timothy, the immediate dangers were for Jewish Christians to "turn aside" to listen to a gospel emphasizing Judaism and its cultural traditions (reflected in the "Ebionite" sect) and for Gentile Christians to "turn aside" to listen to a gospel conforming to Hellenistic philosophies and an anti-Semitic bias (reflected in Marcionism, the Epistle of Barnabas, and the various Gnostic sects). These "gospels" would accommodate the listeners' existing biases and grew into the heresies which were opposed so virulently during the first four hundred years of Christianity.

Yet this very example provides a cautionary tale: while early Christians were so fixed on opposing these heresies, changes were introduced in church organization (a bishop over the elders in a local congregation with Ignatius), and the very arguments used to defend the faith and to oppose heretics would become the basis of false doctrines: the appeal to Christians' old covenant heritage in Israel in order to gain legitimacy led to Judaizing tendencies in Roman Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy; appealing to unbroken lines of authority figures in the church in Rome to show that "orthodox" Christianity predated the "heresies" and thus was more legitimate would eventually be used to justify Roman Catholic claims to legitimacy despite the fact that what the church in Rome taught in the first century is vastly different from what the Roman Catholic church taught in 600 CE, 1000 CE, 1500 CE, and today.

These early Christians were very concerned about the promotion of heresy and zealously defended their faith in Christ. Yet while they stood firm on many aspects of the faith and vigorously defended them, they let other aspects of the faith slide. Unforeseen consequences involving incremental changes in church organization and the inferences drawn from arguments defending the faith would eventually overwhelm the good which had been done in the defense of the faith.

Hopefully this example can show us the dangers of single-minded focus on particular issues to the detriment of others and putting too much faith in our arguments versus the explicit message of the New Testament. Strict definitions of what comprises "soft" and "hard" preaching can contribute to this focus and thus its inherent danger: if "hard" preaching involves proclaiming the distinctive aspects of our faith, and we constantly emphasize those distinctive aspects in our preaching and teaching, and everyone is affirmed in those distinctive matters, we can be lulled into complacency, convinced that we are "holding firm" to the faith. Meanwhile, other, less addressed, issues may creep into the church and lead to ungodliness. If the preacher dares to preach on these new challenges, he might find the audience has developed hardened hearts on the issue. Or perhaps Christians make bad or unintended inferences from arguments to defend the truth or use those arguments in unintended ways and begin promoting distorted doctrines. In such circumstances, "hard" preaching has become "soft" preaching, what was once derided as "soft" preaching proves necessary as "hard" preaching, and false doctrine has sprouted from previous attempts to advance the truth.

Paul wisely did not specifically mention which lusts people would want satisfied, which myths they would accept, and what precisely these teachers would teach: specific identification would lead to apathy and complacency in terms of other issues! There are all sorts of ways in which people develop itching ears and seek teachers to satisfy their desires. Yes, it is true that some people seek teachers to talk only about positive matters and focus only on how to be good people, and want little to do with doctrine and the distinctive truths of New Testament Christianity. Yet those very issues could themselves become "soft" preaching for a group who has itching ears to feel content that they adhere to the true doctrines of New Testament Christianity but want little to do with those parts of the Gospel that demand changes in their thoughts, feelings, and behaviors.

"Soft" preaching as preaching designed to make everybody feel better about themselves as they are without any demand for repentance has no place among the people of God (cf. Matthew 4:17, Luke 6:26, 1 Timothy 6:3-10). The preaching of the Gospel of Christ is always designed to convict the hearer of their condition before God and should always exhort toward faith, repentance, and godliness; it should always be "hard" in the sense of challenging and faithful to the standard of God's holiness (Matthew 4:17, Acts 2:37-38, 2 Timothy 4:1-4, Hebrews 4:12, 1 Peter 1:13-16). We should be wary of fixed definitions beyond these which focus upon certain aspects of the Gospel over others, for the danger always exists that the issues deemed "hard" preaching today prove to be "soft" matters tomorrow, and matters we take for granted today are considered as "hard" preaching tomorrow. Instead, we do better to proclaim the "whole counsel of God" (Acts 20:27). The whole counsel of God includes the distinctive doctrines of New Testament Christianity yet constantly reinforces the life, death, resurrection, and lordship of Jesus of Nazareth as the centerpiece of the faith and the basis of its standard of the righteous and holy life (1 Corinthians 15:1-58, John 2:1-6, Jude 1:3). Doctrine and praxis are to complement each other, not stand in contrast. The whole counsel of God involves positive encouragement of commendable thoughts, feelings, and actions as well as exhortation away from ungodly and unholy thoughts, feelings, and actions (Galatians 5:17-24). The whole counsel of God demands believers to speak truth to society today without romanticizing an illusory past (cf. Ecclesiastes 7:10). The whole counsel of God demands the recognition of the distinction between what God actually said and the arguments we use to defend that truth, and to never allow the latter to be used or misused to contradict the former.

We humans like to quantify things, and the more objective the quantification, the better. On account of this Christians have always been tempted to quantify "soft" vs. "hard" preaching, or "sound" vs. "unsound" doctrines, on the basis of certain, easily quantifiable beliefs, doctrines, or practices. As Christians, we should certainly affirm sound doctrine and encourage preaching and teaching on the distinctive doctrines of New Testament Christianity. Yet we must always be wary about limited definitions of "soft"/"hard" preaching or "sound" doctrine. Focus on certain doctrines to the neglect of others is not healthy, or sound, at all; what constitutes "soft" preaching for "itching ears" in one context may prove to be "hard" preaching in others, and what constitutes "hard" preaching to some may actually be "soft" preaching for "itching ears." After all, whoever actually, consciously believes they are departing from the truth and holding firm to myths because of their itching ears? Paul does not suggest that this problem only exists "out there"; his very concern is that it will become true of those "among us," "right here"! Let us continually check our ears to see whether they itch to hear certain things over others or whether they are always ready to listen to the truth of God in Christ Jesus no matter how much that truth may ask of us, and seek to proclaim the whole counsel of God!

Ethan R. Longhenry
May 2013

01 January 2013

The Resurrection of the Body

But when Paul perceived that the one part were Sadducees and the other Pharisees, he cried out in the council, "Brethren, I am a Pharisee, a son of Pharisees: touching the hope and resurrection of the dead I am called in question" (Acts 23:6).

The resurrection of Jesus from the dead is the cornerstone of Christianity: Paul ties the legitimacy of the faith to the fact that Jesus was raised from the dead (1 Corinthians 15:12-20). Since Jesus was raised from the dead, Christians maintain the hope of the day when they also will be raised from the dead (Romans 8:18-25, 1 Corinthians 15:21-58, Philippians 3:8-14, 20-21). Yet what is this "resurrection" all about?

In the New Testament, this question is not an issue: all involved understood that the resurrection involved the resurrection of the body from the dead. Whether the dead would be raised was one of the main disputations between the Pharisees and the Sadducees, seen in Matthew 22:23-32 and Acts 23:6-9. When Paul preached to the Athenians regarding the resurrection of Jesus, some of them mocked the idea (Acts 17:30-32): in many strands of Greek philosophy, the goal was for the soul to escape the body, and so the idea of resurrection proved quite repugnant. Elijah and Elisha raised the dead bodily through the power of God (1 Kings 17:17-24, 2 Kings 4:18-37, Hebrews 11:35). Jesus did the same (Luke 7:10-17, 8:40-42, 49-56, John 11:1-45), as did Peter (Acts 9:36-42). When Jesus Himself arose from the dead, the tomb was empty, and He appeared to His disciples in bodily form (Matthew 28:1-17, Mark 16:1-8, Luke 24:1-53, John 20:1-21:25).

Yet it seems the idea of the resurrection of the body has become misunderstood over time. Some of the confusion comes from the heritage of Greek philosophy and its emphasis upon soul over body and their expectation of life after death in terms of the soul finding bliss in a disembodied state. Some of the confusion comes from over-applying spiritual understandings of resurrection, as with baptism as a spiritual death and resurrection in Romans 6:3-7, as well as the over-emphasis of the "spiritual" nature of the "spiritual" body in 1 Corinthians 15:42-49. Yet it is the elevation of the expectation of heaven as the ultimate goal for the Christian, based on John 14:1-3, and how that expectation was enshrined in the hymns and popular devotions of many Christians, that has led to the under-emphasis on the resurrection and its importance in Christianity. As a result, the afterlife is understood in almost purely spiritual terms: the destruction of the physical realm leading to eternity in the spiritual realm in heaven. The resurrection from the dead is often re-defined to fit this particular concept of the afterlife: the resurrection becomes "life with God in heaven forever." Yet is this what is taught in the New Testament?

In the Bible, as seen above, resurrection involves the raising of a dead body to life: the return of the soul/spirit to the physical body. The sons of the widows of Zarephath and Nain, the son of the Shunammite, Jairus' daughter, Lazarus, and Dorcas/Tabitha had all died, their spirits/souls having departed from their physical bodies, and through the power of God, their spirits/souls returned to their bodies and they lived again. Granted, all these would again die.

Jesus' resurrection is considered as the paradigm for the resurrection of believers: He is considered as the firstfruits, the firstborn of the dead, under the assumption that many others will follow on the final day (1 Corinthians 15:20-28). The Gospel accounts are in complete agreement: on the day of His crucifixion, Jesus died. His spirit/soul departed from His body. On the third day, Jesus was raised from the dead: His soul (and spirit?) was restored to His body, and He presented Himself to His disciples as having flesh and bones (cf. Luke 24:39), yet He could seemingly transcend the space-time continuum. The authors of the New Testament consider Jesus to have been raised from the dead in the body, yet the body was in a transformed, glorified form (cf. Philippians 3:21).

The New Testament makes important distinctions that we do well to consider. In the New Testament, the afterlife is not equated with the resurrection; therefore, the resurrection is not exactly "life after death." Jesus, after all, was alive after He died: His soul did not perish on the cross, but went to Paradise (Luke 23:43-46). Paul understands that the sooner he would die, the sooner he would be with Christ, and how good that would be (Philippians 1:22-24), yet expects the resurrection to happen on the final day, the day of judgment, and recognizes that those "asleep" in Christ await the resurrection (1 Corinthians 15:20-28, 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18). One can make a good argument based upon John 14:1-3, Philippians 1:22-24, and Revelation 6:9-11, 7:9-17, that the Christian's soul/spirit goes to heaven immediately upon separation from the physical body: that would be life after death. Yet the New Testament has a further expectation: the day will then come when the dead will be raised (cf. 1 Corinthians 15:1-58). Thus, the resurrection is truly life after life after death: the return of the soul (and spirit?) to the body, just as Jesus' soul returned to His body.

But why a return to the body? We do well to remember that while the Bible testifies how mankind has sinned and fallen short of the glory of God, and often speaks of sinfulness in terms of the desires of the flesh (cf. Romans 3:23, 8:1-11, Galatians 5:17-24), the Bible never suggests that the body is intrinsically evil. Quite the contrary: God made man and woman in His image, with body, soul, and spirit, and called that creation "very good" (Genesis 1:26-31). The Bible nowhere suggests that we would be in a better state if we were soul/spirit without a body; there is no Biblical conception of humanity as anything else but an organic unity among body and soul/spirit. As Paul explains in Romans 8:18-25, the problem with the body is the same problem that plagues the whole creation: God has subjected it to futility and decay, no doubt on account of the presence of sin and death in the world (cf. Genesis 3:1-23, Romans 5:12-18). While humans seem quite willing to give up on God's creation, God and His creation itself prove less willing: as Paul continues to explain in Romans 8:18-25, the creation groans to be freed from its bondage to futility and decay, hoping to obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God. Little wonder, then, that John sees the end as the beginning in Revelation 22:1-6, with God's people in the presence of God and Christ in the "new heavens and a new earth" with the river of life and the tree of life on its banks, reminiscent of the Garden of Eden from which we fell (cf. Genesis 2:1-3:22, Revelation 21:1). The New Testament, therefore, does not envision our ultimate end as disembodied bliss in heaven; it envisions a new heavens and earth, in which righteousness dwells, where humanity is restored to the position it once had before God.

Paul also sets up another contrast in Romans 8:18-25: the "now, not yet" nature of our salvation. In Romans 6:3-7, Paul speaks of baptism as being joined into Christ's death and resurrection: a spiritual death and a spiritual resurrection. Thus Christians are alive spiritually before God in Christ, having obtained spiritual redemption through His blood, and through Christ can be considered as adopted sons (cf. Romans 8:1-16). And yet in Romans 8:23 he says Christians wait for adoption as sons, defined as the redemption of the body, and emphasizes in Romans 8:24-25 how this is our hope and therefore not yet manifest to us. A similar construct is seen in 1 Peter 1:3-9: Christians are now saved and guarded through faith, but they are guarded for a salvation ready to be revealed on the final day. We can understand these descriptions by understanding the differing natures of soul and body. When we speak of "spiritual" death, we do not mean actual death: we speak of such a death as a separation between the soul and its Creator, and do not mean that the soul has actually, substantively, perished and has ceased to exist. When we put our trust in Jesus and begin serving Him, we are reconciled to God through Him and His blood, and have the opportunity to maintain that spiritual relationship for eternity (cf. Romans 5:6-11, 1 John 1:1-7). Yet, even with that spiritual relationship, Christians die physically. Even with this spiritual relationship, there remains more that God has promised for Christians: not only are our souls redeemed, but God will redeem the body as well. We should be in a saved relationship with God right now, but we have not obtained the fulness of salvation just yet. The physical body, which is subject to actual, substantive death, must also gain victory over death in the end.

How this resurrection will take place, to the extent that we can presently understand it, is set forth in 1 Corinthians 15:35-58, 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18, and Philippians 3:21. The translation of the terms which Paul uses has led to much confusion: he speaks of the "natural" body, and then the "spiritual" body, and then says how flesh and blood cannot inherit the Kingdom, and so many are led to conclude that the physical body must not be at all involved. Yet this is not what Paul is saying. "Natural" is the Greek psuchikos, and "spiritual" is the Greek pneumatikos. How these terms are used is made evident in 1 Corinthians 15:45. The first Adam, made from dust, "became a living soul" (soul is Greek psuche). The last Adam, Christ, is a life-giving spirit (spirit is Greek pneuma). Therefore, Paul is making a contrast between a "psychical" body, the body we now have, corruptible, perishable, and empowered/enlivened by the breath of life, or psuche, and the "pneumatical" body, the body in the resurrection, incorruptible, imperishable, and empowered/enlivened by our spirit or perhaps the Spirit, the pneuma. So how do we get from the "psychical" to the "pneumatical" body?

Paul describes this in 1 Corinthians 15:51-54: yes, flesh and blood does not inherit the Kingdom, but that does not mean that flesh and blood is not involved. Paul goes on to explain himself: we shall not all sleep, but we shall all be changed. This corruptible must "put on" incorruption; this mortal must put on immortality. When that happens, the saying will be true: death is swallowed up in victory.

In 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18, Paul assures the Thessalonian Christians that the dead in Christ will rise, and "we who are alive" will also be caught up meet the Lord in the air. In Philippians 3:20-21 Paul speaks of our present citizenship, and thus affiliation, as in heaven, but from it we wait a Savior so that our body may receive the transformation toward conformity to the body of His glory.

Thus we can see the nature of the resurrection: the body is raised from the dead and is then transformed for immortality. Those who are alive when Christ returns will not experience death but will experience the same transformation. The dead are not raised in a transformed body: the dead are raised in their physical body, which is then transformed. Incorruption and immortality must be "put on" over this corruption and mortality; this is no doubt a figure, but it is a figure of transformation.

It is through the resurrection of the body that Christians obtain the victory over death. The soul does not die like the body dies; it is either connected to or separated from its Creator. If the goal of Christianity were simply a matter of spending eternity in heaven as disembodied souls, the resurrection would be entirely pointless: we could have that automatically after physical death, as Jesus also could have. Likewise, Greek philosophers would have entirely agreed with the Christian view of the afterlife; no one in Athens would mock Paul for suggesting that the afterlife featured disembodied bliss. Yet early Christians stubbornly insisted that Jesus was physically dead but made alive again and such is the hope for all who trust in Him.

Many good questions arise on account of the resurrection of the body. How could the body be raised if the body were deformed, cremated, or had decomposed significantly? The Bible does not directly address this question, but we are given an interesting example in Matthew 27:52-53: Matthew claims that after Jesus was raised from the dead, many of the bodies of the "saints" which had fallen asleep were raised, came out of their tombs, and appeared to many. This record of Matthew, preserved nowhere else, leads to more questions than answers. Who were they? How long were they alive? What happened to them afterwards? Nevertheless, Matthew does say the bodies of the saints came out of the tombs, and if those saints had been deceased for at least a year or more, there would have been nothing left of them but bones if even that much. We necessarily infer that God re-constituted their bodies so that they could come forth from the tombs in a form recognizable to people of the day. As God is able to make man from dust, He is able to re-make man from dust (cf. Genesis 2:7). Other details we would like to know are left entirely unaddressed.

What happened to Jesus in the resurrection? A common assumption is that after His ascension, Jesus returned to His pre-incarnate form. Yet the New Testament text does not justify such an assumption, and actively speaks against it. In 1 Corinthians 15:8, Paul considers himself a witness to the Risen Lord, and makes no distinction between his witness to Jesus and the witness of those who saw Him between His resurrection and ascension. He witnessed the Risen Lord in Acts 9:3-7: yes, the text there only indicates that he saw a great light, but in 1 Corinthians 9:1 he claims to have seen "the Lord," and thus we must conclude that Paul saw Jesus in His resurrection body. We also should note Paul's language in Philippians 3:21: in the resurrection we will be transformed in order to be conformed to the glory of His body. Paul speaks of Jesus having that body in the present tense; therefore, the conclusion that makes the best sense of all the evidence is that Jesus has been in His resurrected body since the day of His resurrection. In this way Jesus remains both man and God even presently (cf. 1 Timothy 2:5).

Much, much more could be said about the resurrection of the body. It ought to remain the centerpiece of the hope of the Christian today just as it was for Paul (cf. Philippians 3:8-14). As Jesus became flesh and dwelt among us, died on the cross, dwelt in Paradise, was raised from the dead and transformed, and remains for eternity in His resurrection body, so we can cherish the hope of the same. We live in the flesh, and unless the Lord returns quickly, will physically die. Our souls will return to God and dwell with Him until the final day upon which our bodies will be re-animated/re-constituted and transformed for eternity, ever to be in the presence of God in the new heavens and the new earth, having received the redemption of our souls and bodies as well as the creation itself, glorifying God in the form of His creation which He always intended for us to have and enjoy. Let us comfort one another with these words and wait patiently for our full redemption!

Ethan R. Longhenry
January 2013

01 August 2012

Counterfeit Sexuality: Sexuality as God

Sexuality remains the proverbial "elephant in the room" for a lot of people as they go through life. People think about it, participate in it, but seem rarely comfortable discussing it. To an extent, this is understandable and not entirely bad: sexuality should remain a private matter, and we should not be promoting lasciviousness. Nevertheless, sexuality is a part of life, and if it is not directed according to God's purposes for sexuality, but toward a worldly counterfeit form of sexuality, sin, pain, and misery are sure to follow. Far too many people are being devastated and destroyed physically, emotionally, mentally, and spiritually because of the pursuit of counterfeit forms of sexuality and the consequent loss of sexuality the way God intended it to be.

Many of these troubles come from the forms of sexuality promoted actively within our culture and expressed through the arts and media. At other times we have investigated the sources of these difficulties and contrasted them with a Biblical understanding of sexuality. Nevertheless, why do we see sexuality so aggressively promoted and discussed within our society? After all, it is not as if sexually deviant behavior and counterfeit forms of sexuality are a new thing; they have been around for thousands of years. Yet only recently have we seen such expressions of sexuality aggressively and actively promoted in such public ways. A lot of the reasons center on the elevation of sexuality as one of the primary gods of our society.

This is not terribly surprising when we consider greater societal trends. Over the past hundred and fifty years, all things supernatural have lost credibility in the public sphere. Emphasis is placed on that which is material and observable. The doctor and the scientist now have the pride of place once reserved for the clergy and the theologian. Meanwhile, individualism has run rampant, and virtues tend to be defined toward the maximum benefit for the individual even if it becomes detrimental to the group: liberty and independence are now understood more in terms of personal freedom to do as we please as opposed to any collective sense of benefit.

Despite (or even because of) these trends, people still feel as if something is missing in their lives. They often feel lonely, isolated, and afraid. They are concerned that no one loves them for who they are; they do not feel accepted. They surely want what is best for them as individuals, and value their freedom, and yet they still yearn for connection and relationships with other people.

These feelings are entirely understandable according to the message of the Scriptures. We are grasping for something beyond ourselves (Acts 17:26-28); we can perceive that we are separated from what will make us whole, described in Scripture as the recognition of the separation between man and his Creator because of sin (Isaiah 59:1-2). The Bible reveals that humans were made in the image of God (Genesis 1:26-27), and God Himself embodies the relational unity of the Three Persons in One (John 17:20-23, 1 John 4:8). As God is One in relational unity, so humans, as made in God's image, yearn for relationships with both God his Creator and with his fellow man (John 17:20-23).

Meanwhile, God has so designed human sexuality to be the physical shadow of the spiritual reality of the intimacy in relationship which should exist between God and mankind (Romans 1:19-20, Ephesians 5:31-32). Humans are made with sexual desire and are to seek one special person of the complementary gender with whom to develop a lasting relationship, and sexuality is designed to cement that relationship (Genesis 1:26-27, 2:24). This is why there is a sense of a mystical union within the sexual bond. This is all good: God created it as good (Genesis 1:31).

But in a society which has discredited all things supernatural, the only somewhat mystical, other-worldly dimension of life left is sexuality. And what do we see in our society but the elevation of sexuality as a god, perhaps as the ultimate god for many?

When we speak of idolatry, we often do so in terms of making something which was created as good the absolute purpose and goal in life. Jesus and Paul, in Matthew 6:24, Ephesians 5:5, and Colossians 3:5 speak of money and covetousness as gods or idols. They say this because many people make it their life's aim to make money, and by their actions they demonstrate that obtaining money and things is more important than anything else. They are motivated by a desire to have more above all other things. It is not as if they bow down to a statue of money or "things," or even necessarily understand their identity in terms of money. Yet since it runs their lives, it is an idol. It is in this sense we often speak of sexuality as a god or an idol, and it is sadly true: many people allow sexuality to run their lives.

Yet, with sexuality, it seems to go even further. As we have discussed earlier, modern man still feels the pain of separation, loneliness, and isolation, and yearns for connection. Society's answer is not to look toward God but to sex and sexuality to fill that void. Looking for connection? Have sex with people. Do you feel lonely? Find someone with whom to have sex. Do you have a hard time accepting yourself for who you are? Well, sex will make you feel better, and since someone is having sex with you, they have clearly accepted you to some degree. The only other "god" which society directs people with any similar fervor is that of consumerism, and even then, many times consumerism is promoted through sexuality!

The problem, of course, is that sexuality is not God. At its best, the moment of the experience of the mystical union found in healthy sexuality does not last very long. We come back to that moment again and again, and it never truly satisfies. One can maintain even a godly, proper, and healthy sex life and still feel separated, alienated, alone, unloved, and unaccepted! Sexuality can never fully satisfy; it can be good, but it can never be absolute.

Meanwhile there are many other consequences to this big lie. People are deluded into thinking that sexuality really can fulfill, and they seek out new and more exciting experiences to see if they can find that fulfillment. In the process they sin against themselves; ironically, as they seek fulfillment, they move further away from maintaining sexuality in a single relationship and therefore become develop an increasingly dehumanized, animalistic sexuality which can never satisfy or fulfill at all (cf. Romans 1:18-32, 1 Corinthians 6:13-19). Such people feel it: they feel as if sexuality has been cheapened in some way. They can tell, to some degree, that they have been sold a bill of goods. Yet so many keep pursuing it anyway.

We cannot begin to imagine the amount of emotional and spiritual damage, misery, suffering, and pain caused by the pursuit of sexuality as god. How many people have recognized too late that their quest for sex has led to damaged, broken relationships? How many have entered into sexual relationships to find fulfillment and end up with someone who abuses them or degrades them? How many have thought there would be a special bond with someone because of sex and that bond did not actually come to pass? How much pain and misery has existed within relationships because of pornography and adultery? And how many have turned away from seeking true satisfaction and fulfillment in life in God because they believed they would find it through sexuality? We hope and pray many repent and turn back toward God, but how many never will?

Such is always the problem whenever something good is taken and made absolute: it becomes a distraction, it never satisfies, whatever enjoyment which could be had does not last, and life is often spent in the futile pursuit of that fleeting moment of "happiness." Meanwhile, the rest of life does not work out as well as we would like, and we might experience great distress in mind, body, and soul. Such is the end whenever we turn away from God and seek after gods of our own creation or desire (Romans 1:18-32)!

So many of the challenges regarding sexuality posed by our culture are exacerbated by its thoroughgoing obsession with it. When there is no trust in God, some god must be found in which trust can be placed, and as Paul makes clear in Romans 1:18-32, obsession with sexuality and its deviant forms are often the result. This is not the way it has to be or even should be: only God is god, and sexuality, while a major part of our lives, can never truly satisfy as the ultimate pursuit of life. Sexuality was always intended to be confined to the marriage relationship between a man and a woman; it should reinforce and heighten the physical, emotional, and spiritual bond of that relationship (Genesis 2:24). When it does so, it functions as God intended, the physical shadow of the spiritual reality which ought to exist among God and mankind (John 17:20-24, Ephesians 5:31-32). Proper sexuality points to God as its Author and Creator, not back to itself as the ultimate form of satisfaction in relationship in life.

Yet, in the end, sexuality is like any good thing in life. When exercised properly, it can be a source of enjoyment, satisfaction, wholeness, and wellness; when indulged to excess or used outside of its proper boundaries, it becomes a source of pain, misery, suffering, resentment, even betrayal. As with any good thing, sexuality can be a healthy part of human existence; when taken out of its proper context, it leads to degradation and dehumanization. All of this boils down to the choice we have in life between honoring God as our Creator and giving thanks to Him for all the good gifts and blessings in life, finding true wholeness and satisfaction in relationship with Him and with our fellow man through Him, or we turn from God, darkened in our understanding and futile in our thinking, and end up making counterfeit gods out of the good things created for our use, finding little but pain, suffering, misery, disappointment, and failure. Let us make sure that the One True Creator God is the God of our lives, not sexuality or any other created thing, properly use all good things which He has given us, and ever give all thanks, praise, honor, and glory to Him!

Ethan R. Longhenry
August 2012

01 July 2012

Counterfeit Sexuality: Sexuality as Reduced to Animal Impulse

Few topics prove as sensitive and yet as controversial as sexuality. The topic generates a lot of interest; sadly, few conversations regarding sexuality prove very profitable. Most people understand their sexuality according to the terms of their culture and the world; few challenge the perspective and the narrative they are told regarding their sexual desires and the proper exercise thereof. Unfortunately, this remains true even among God's people: they have heard all sorts of lessons about sexual purity and holiness and may have a desire to maintain sexual integrity, and yet deep down they often maintain the same prevailing assumptions and attitudes about sexuality as most of the rest of the people in our culture. The challenges with this situation are evident: Christians may profess a different standard of conduct than many other people in the world, yet they often are just as guilty of adultery, viewing of pornography, and involvement in various forms of sexually deviant behavior as those who do not hold to the Biblical standard.

The problem is not found in exhortations toward sexual purity and holiness, although we would do well to make it clearer that there is much more to holiness than just sexual purity (e.g. 1 Peter 1:15-16). The problem is within the conflict between the imperative of sexual purity and holiness and maintaining an understanding of sexuality informed by worldly, societal standards. This conflict exists because the understanding of sexuality promoted vigorously within our culture and society is really counterfeit: it pretends to seek to provide the mystical experience and satisfaction within sexuality but is not rooted in nor does it respect the true purpose of human sexuality as designed by its Creator. Therefore, societal concepts of sexuality are fraudulent: they suggest to offer what they cannot provide because they are incomplete, settling for physical pleasure alone when sexuality was designed to provide emotional and relational fulfillment as well (Genesis 2:24, 1 Corinthians 6:12-20, Ephesians 5:31-32). Of all the different ways in which society promotes counterfeit forms of sexuality, perhaps none is as detrimental, dehumanizing, and yet pervasive as the reduction of sexuality to the physical, animalistic impulse. It is very hard to seek to maintain sexual purity and holiness if one views sexuality as merely the satisfaction of a desire, akin to eating when hungry or scratching an itch!

The desire for sexual satisfaction does exist, and it is one of the primal, basic, and in many ways "animalistic" impulses of humanity. Many people feel the desire acutely, perhaps feeling as if the sexual desire is greater than all other desires. Yet people are different: some are not nearly driven as much by sexual desire, but may always want to eat, or are greedy for money and/or power. Few indeed are those people who do not strongly feel any of the basic impulses of humanity, and even then, much of that is due to our abundance of food, drink, and material blessings. If food and/or drink became more scarce we would learn just how powerful those desires are as well! Regardless, humans were created with sexual desire to develop and maintain a strong relationship with a member of the opposite gender (Genesis 1:26-28, 2:24). The physical impulse was placed within us not merely to be satisfied but to direct us toward relational unity with our spouse (Genesis 2:24, 1 Corinthians 6:12-20, Ephesians 5:31-32).

The emotional and relational aspects of sexuality, however, can be divorced from its physical aspect, and this is what we see done so powerfully within our society. Different forces are at work promoting this trend, whether consciously or unconsciously. The scientific establishment bears much of the responsibility: many scientists really promote scientism, a religious dogma suggesting that there is no god, no real meaning to life or the universe, and humans are just overdeveloped animals. For many scientists all things must be seen, understood, and explained through the evolutionary/Darwinist prism: sexual behavior is no different. Sexual conduct is analyzed in terms of its evolutionary implications. To this end scientists provide certain explanations for different types of behavior: adultery, for instance, is explained as men attempting to father as many children as possible with as many women as possible so as to perpetuate his lineage, and women as attempting to have children with the best genetic heritage while receiving care from the most competent male provider. Scientists can and do caution that these explanations are not meant to be justifications, but that does not stop people from internalizing these ideas as being true. Since there is no attempt at understanding adultery in moral terms, the emotional and relational consequences of adultery are not discussed; it is all about physical calculations, spoken of no differently than had baboons or squirrels been the subject of conversation. These theories and explanations leave very little room for a dignified view of man as made in the image of God (cf. Genesis 1:26-28): according to the scientific standard and viewpoint, we are just animals. In such an environment, who should be surprised to hear a song with the chorus, "you and me baby ain't nothing but mammals / so let's do it like they do on the Discovery channel"? Such is the fruit when the scientific perspective is magnified to the detriment of all others!

Whereas some scientists may have decent motives for their work, many other forces promote sexuality reduced to animal impulse for far baser reasons. Sexual impulses are primal and transcend all sorts of boundary markers: ethnic, linguistic, geographic, cultural, and so on. Sex, therefore, sells. But it is not true sexuality which sells; you cannot graphically display an emotional, spiritual, or relational connection. But you can graphically display the human body, and marketers, advertisers, and salesmen constantly bombard us with highly sexualized imagery in order to entice us to buy their products, remain loyal to their brand, watch a television show or movie, and so on and so forth.

The ultimate illustration and expression of sexuality reduced to sexual impulse is pornography. Pornography provides all of the physical aspects of sexuality without human interaction: the viewer experiences the mental and physical sensations consistent with sexual experience without any real connection at all with anyone else. Here we have sexuality reduced to its most basic self-seeking impulse toward satisfaction, little different from scratching an itch or eating when hungry.

Yet much more is going on. Depersonalized sexuality is inhuman sexuality. This is true even on a biological basis: human sexuality is quite different from most forms of animal sexuality. For most animals, sexuality is instinctive: when females are able to procreate, they give off visual or olfactory signals toward that end. Males may engage in all sorts of competitive behavior with other males, but when mating time has arrived, the act is rather instinctual. It requires little mental activity and need not suggest any long-term connection between the male and female. For most animals, sexual behavior is purely procreative. But this is not so for human sexuality. While we are learning that human females do give off certain signals during ovulation, humans participate nevertheless in sexual behavior at times when fertilization is unlikely or impossible. The human mind must be quite active in order to participate in sexual behavior, and both human men and women are shaped differently from animals in such a way as to foster greater connectivity in sexuality. Therefore, even on a biological level, human sexuality is different from animal sexuality: animals engage in sex for procreation, but humans engage in sex for connection.

Therefore, if we deny the relational aspect of sexuality, our sexuality is not truly human. We experience the disconnect when someone attempts to excuse their sexual behavior by saying that it is "just sex." They mean, of course, that their sexual behavior is not designed to lead to any sort of real relationship, and seek to deny that there is any emotional or relational consequence to their sexual conduct: "just sex" is imagined to be two people putting body parts together in order to experience physical pleasure.

In reality, none of this is entirely new. It is not as if the physical aspects of sexuality have been disconnected from its emotional, spiritual, and relational aspects only within the past two hundred years; the problem is likely as old as humanity. Consider what Paul says to the Corinthians in 1 Corinthians 6:12-20:

All things are lawful for me; but not all things are expedient. All things are lawful for me; but I will not be brought under the power of any. Meats for the belly, and the belly for meats: but God shall bring to nought both it and them. But the body is not for fornication, but for the Lord; and the Lord for the body: and God both raised the Lord, and will raise up as through his power. Know ye not that your bodies are members of Christ? shall I then take away the members of Christ, and make them members of a harlot? God forbid. Or know ye not that he that is joined to a harlot is one body?
For, "The twain," saith he, shall become one flesh."
But he that is joined unto the Lord is one spirit. Flee fornication. Every sin that a man doeth is without the body; but he that committeth fornication sinneth against his own body. Or know ye not that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit which is in you, which ye have from God? and ye are not your own; for ye were bought with a price: glorify God therefore in your body.

The word the ASV translates as "fornication" is the Greek porneia. There is no one English equivalent which fully captures the meaning of porneia: it is often translated "sexual immorality," but perhaps "sexually deviant behavior" best captures the essence of the term. The word can and does refer to a range of sexual behaviors which deviate from the norm: adultery, pedophilia, homosexuality, bestiality, polygamy or polyandry, etc. Even though the word has this range of meaning, for Paul and his audience, porneia had one main referent: that which a man did with a porne, a prostitute/harlot/whore.

In the Greco-Roman world of Paul and the Corinthians, three expressions of sexuality were common and commonly accepted. Marriage existed, but sex with one's wife was not intended to be fun: that was for procreation and perpetuation of the family. This attitude was so ingrained that the Greek author Herodotus, writing of a Lydian ruler named Candaules, finds it worth mentioning that he had fallen "passionately in love with his own wife" (Herodotus, Histories 1.8). Some Greeks in particular felt that the best sex was with prepubescent boys; such pederasty was glorified in Plato's Symposium. But the sex that most men would have for pleasure with women would be with the "female companions," or hetairoi, in drinking parties, or with the porne the prostitutes in town. Brothels were quite common in the ancient world; archeological evidence for them is unmistakable and abundant.

In 1 Corinthians 6:12-20, Paul provides a critique of porneia with the porne, the prostitute. He declares that the body is not meant for sexually deviant behavior, but for the Lord (1 Corinthians 6:13); he will conclude by declaring how our bodies are temples of the Holy Spirit who is present with us and how we have been bought with a price (the blood of Christ), are therefore not our own, and thus we should glorify God in our body, which ostensibly means that we should not come together with a prostitute (1 Corinthians 6:19-20). Thus, Paul does emphasize sexual purity and holiness. But what about 1 Corinthians 6:14-18?

Paul explains the need to flee sexually deviant behavior, declaring that the one who commits sexually deviant behavior sins against his own body. We understand the imperative to flee sexually deviant behavior, but how is it that the sexually deviant person sins against his body?

1 Corinthians 6:18 is ground zero in debates about sexuality and rules. Everybody seems to accept the logic of Paul's statement: every other sin is committed outside of the body, but porneia is against the body. Therefore, many people reason that many sexual "sins" are not really that "sinful" in comparison with murder, stealing, lying, cheating, fraud, etc., since those participating in those sexual behaviors are consenting adults, and their sins are not necessarily causing harm to others. As of this writing, this argument would not be tolerated in terms of pedophilia, bestiality, incest, or rape, since such behaviors do not involve consenting adults. Society still somewhat frowns on adultery, but its prevalence means that few speak out strongly against it. Yet society has come to fully justify premarital sex and homosexuality, and will no doubt soon also include bigamy, polygamy, and polyandry in this list as well.

Yet, as Paul is making clear, there is more to sin than just hurting other people. Sin, in general, degrades humanity. If God made mankind in His image, righteousness and justice are therefore truly human endeavors, while all sin thus must be inhuman and degrading (cf. Genesis 1:26-27). So what does Paul mean that porneia is committed against the body?

One answer that immediately might come to mind is sexually transmitted diseases; STDs are certainly consequences of sexually deviant behavior. Yet is this all Paul has in mind? Not likely.

Sexually deviant behavior here is seen mostly in terms of sex with prostitutes, and sex with prostitutes is really sexuality reduced to animal impulse: it is all about pleasure. In 1 Corinthians 6:16, Paul associates sex with a prostitute with the meaning of sex expressed in Genesis 2:24, but what does that mean? It surely does not mean that one becomes married to a prostitute: Paul is seeking to underscore the seriousness of the connection that happens during sex. The two are becoming "one flesh," but not to cement a relationship. Neither person involved would show much concern for the welfare of each other; sex here is reduced to a business transaction. It is "just sex" as much as it could possibly be, and it proves lacking in every meaningful way. By engaging in porneia with a porne, or prostitute, a man is dehumanizing his sexuality, separating the physical pleasure derived from sexual behavior from the mental/emotional/spiritual aspects which are intended to cement a relationship. When sexuality is no longer used to cement a relationship, it will be hard to use sexual behavior to cement a relationship. The conscience is seared; the man has sinned against his own body.

Therefore, perhaps what Paul is saying is that when we engage in sexually deviant behavior, reducing sexuality to the animal impulse, we sin against ourselves because we are dehumanizing ourselves in terms of our sexuality. In such circumstances, we are not using sex as a means by which we relate and connect with another; we are just using sex to satisfy a physical impulse, little different than satisfying hunger or thirst or scratching an itch. Unlike food, drink, and itching, however, sexuality was designed to be much more than something akin to pushing a lever in order to get the pellet. But if we treat sexuality like it is just a physical impulse, and we keep pushing down on that level to get the pellet, our consciences and minds are seared, and it becomes very difficult to be restored to a full appreciation of sexuality, not just in terms of the physical, but in terms of the emotional, spiritual, and relational aspects as well. Whether we want to admit it or not, once we engage in sex as reduced to its animal impulse, we have degraded ourselves and dehumanized and depersonalized our sexuality.

This is the battlefield on which so many Christians are being slaughtered by the Evil One. Christians find themselves constantly tempted to degrade their sexuality into subhuman forms: pornography, premarital sex, our modern "hookup" culture. We can emphasize sexual purity and holiness all we want, but the temptation is strong to satisfy pleasure. If Christians continue to view their sexuality in ways little different than society, then they will express their sexuality in ways little different than society. If the big concern with sin is only to make sure that we are not hurting other people, how can we make it clear that premarital sex is dangerous? How can we communicate how harmful pornography really is? Why should we be surprised to see so many men enslaved to pornography and women hurt in so many ways in marriage because of it if we do not address the root problems of the counterfeit sexuality peddled by our society?

True sexuality honors God and His intentions for mankind; true sexuality points to relationship, wholeness, and integrity. Any sexuality which degrades and dehumanizes is a counterfeit sexuality, and sexuality reduced to animal impulse is the worst. When sexuality is reduced to the animal impulse, humans find themselves even more separated from God and one another than before. We might yearn to find connection in sex, but its hollowness and meaninglessness exacerbates the pain. Ultimately, such behavior impacts the way we look at the world. The object of sexual desire is now judged entirely by physical and superficial concerns; their minds and feelings mean little. Pornography turns humans into mere pixels on a screen for pleasure; who the people are and what they feel are entirely irrelevant. If we succumb to these degrading and inhuman forms of sexuality, we find ourselves rather permanently scarred, for we have sinned against our own bodies. By reducing our sexuality to animal impulses, we have rejected God's purpose for sexuality in ourselves, even if only for a short time, and its impact will extend far beyond the activities in which we engaged.

We like to think that sexuality is just another part of life, but we all know that sexuality is special. Impacts are more severe whenever sex is involved. Perhaps this is because human sexuality was designed for such a unique and uniquely important relationship, between a husband and wife, fostering and cementing their connection. Few desires intertwine the physical, mental, emotional, spiritual, and relational aspects of life like the sexual desire does. Therefore, sex can never be "just sex." Pornography can never be just a "harmless diversion." We either properly channel our sexual desires in order to connect with our spouse and experience human sexuality as intended, or we improperly channel our sexual desires, often disconnecting the physical from the mental, emotional, and spiritual, and degrade and dehumanize our sexuality in the process. Let us reject the counterfeit sexuality of sexuality reduced to animal impulse, always remembering that sex is more than just body parts coming together, and seek to honor God through our proper use of sexuality in connecting with our spouse!

Ethan R. Longhenry
July 2012

01 June 2012

Counterfeit Sexuality: Sexuality as Identity

Sexuality remains one of the most sensitive and yet "hot-button" issues within our culture and among Christians today. Such a controversial issue features a lot of passion and debate regarding the surface level issues of proper and improper forms of sexuality, and in such an environment, digging deeper and finding a Biblically centered and balanced perspective can be challenging. Nevertheless, the Scriptures do provide such a view and a robust theology of sexuality: human sexuality is the physical shadow of the spiritual reality which we are to seek in communion with God in Christ (Genesis 1:26-27, 2:24, John 17:20-24, Ephesians 5:31-32). Sex is part of God's good creation, and therefore it can be good (Genesis 1:31).

While God made the creation good, sin has since entered the world. Humans have been corrupted by sin in their thoughts, feelings, and actions, and the creation is now subject to futility (Genesis 3:1-15, Romans 5:12-18, 8:19-23). People reject their Creator and find ways of bowing down to the creation, taking pleasure in counterfeit gods rather than serving the One True God (Romans 1:18-25). As it has happened in general with the creation, so it is with sexuality as well: consciously or unconsciously, people have rejected holy, fulfilling sexuality and have instead set up counterfeit forms of sexuality after which they seek fulfillment. Such forms of sexuality are "counterfeit" because are false, claiming to represent true sexuality but without the wholeness, holiness, and appreciation of true intimacy in mind, body, and soul which comes with the type of sexuality God established and provided for mankind. These counterfeit forms of sexuality represent the distortion of human sexuality into the various types of perversions (in every sense of the word) which we see peddled in modern society. The main forms of counterfeit sexuality include sexuality as identity, sexuality as reduced to animal impulse, and sexuality as god; for our purposes at this time, let us consider how establishing sexuality as a principal marker of identity leads to a counterfeit sexuality.

Identity remains a complex phenomenon. Each one of us has many identity markers, including gender, race, ethnicity, nationality, class, language, religion, generation, point of geographical origin and/or present geographical location, profession, hobbies, professional/sports/etc. affiliations, as well as sexual predilections. While all such identity markers are equally true of us, we nevertheless privilege certain markers over others when we consider who we are in relation to other people. Each person, whether consciously or unconsciously, prioritizes the relative "importance" of the different identity markers which makes up his or her existence. While many factors may influence this prioritization, it remains a free-will choice. We choose whether we will consider our gender identity over our national identity, our class identity over our linguistic identity, and so on and so forth. We tend to understand our place, our efforts, and our context in terms of the identity markers we have deemed most important in our lives, less so those we have chosen to consider less important. That narrative will change based on which aspects are deemed more important than others; this is how two people who share many identity markers may nevertheless see themselves very differently.

There is no doubt that we are all shaped by our identity, but we are the ones who decide what really defines who we are as human beings. In theory, we could take any physical aspect of our bodies, any work we do, any practice in which we participate, anything we believe is true, and center our identity around it. This is why Jesus constantly exhorts Christians to prioritize their relationship with God as primary: if our primary identity marker is that of being a servant of God, the proper attitudes regarding ourselves and our conduct as well as how we treat other people will naturally follow (Matthew 6:33, Galatians 2:20, etc.). If the primary aspect in our existence is our faith in God, all things will flow from our faith; if the primary aspect of our existence is another identity marker, all things will flow from it.

Therefore, it is possible to define ourselves in terms of our sexuality. We can understand all things we feel, think, say, and do in terms of our sexual impulses. Yet is this a good idea? What do the Scriptures teach?

First and foremost, we must note that the Scriptures never define anyone by their sexuality. No one in the Bible is called a heterosexual, homosexual, or asexual (in 1 Corinthians 6:9, the term sometimes translated "homosexual" is the Greek arsenokoitai, defined as "one who lies with a man as with a woman," reinforcing our premise). In the Bible, no one is their sexuality. Instead, people have sexual impulses, desires, and urges, and decide whether and how they will act upon them. Therefore, in the Bible, sexuality is never reckoned as a form of identity; sex involves the behavior of individuals, however appropriate or inappropriate.

This is not some strange concept; for most of human history, people have understood how sexuality involves practice and is not a form of identity. Ancient Greek men engaged in sexual behavior with young boys as well as women, and held men who only had sex with men in contempt; they would never define themselves as "homosexual" because at times they participated in homosexual behaviors. This type of behavior, while sinful, was not unknown in many societies. It is only in the Victorian era when people start thinking of sex as not just behavior in which they participate but as an expression of their identity. The gap between sex as "something I do" and "something I am" may seem slight but its consequences are many and significant.

When the modern understanding of sexuality as identity is paired with the equally modern obsession with sex as an idol, one's sexual identity easily becomes either the primary or one of the primary identity marker(s). Sexual identity becomes a toxic primary identity marker, because everything then becomes sexualized. A person for whom their sexual identity is one of their primary forms of identity defines their lives by how well their sexual life is going. Such a one will view others primarily in terms of their sexual desirability and availability. It is easy for sex to run their lives, reducing their humanity (and everyone else's humanity) down to the animalistic sexual lust, enslaved to lasciviousness at least and sexually deviant behavior at worst (cf. Galatians 5:19). This is no way to live!

For that matter, sexuality will be privileged as a form of identity only by a society obsessed by sexuality. This is evident in the common response to anyone who might actually decide to live asexually. Those who choose to live asexually are most often considered freakish by both "heterosexuals" and "homosexuals," (sadly) by many professing Christianity as well as those who reject Christianity. The common expectation is that every adult of the age of consent should be actively participating in some form of sexuality, and if they are not, their lives are somehow not complete or fulfilled. In such an environment, nothing seems more foolish than both Jesus' and Paul's commendations of the asexual life devoted to God and His purposes (Matthew 19:12, 1 Corinthians 7:6-7, 25-38). The existence of such people exposes the limitation of the paradigm of sexuality as identity since they are not practicing any form of sexuality. This is not a problem limited to the world: even within the church, those who are single often find themselves under constant pressure by fellow Christians to get married, and not a few of the errant doctrines regarding divorce and remarriage stem from wholesale acceptance of the premise that we "are" our sexuality and it is therefore "unjust" to expect such sexuality to not be expressed.

This leads us to one of the major conflicts in the "culture war": homosexuality. Those advancing the cause of acceptance of homosexual behavior have done well at convincing everyone that since sexuality is a form of identity, to do anything to discourage people with homosexual desires to not act on those desires is unjust, immoral, and highly discriminatory. The claim that acceptance of homosexual behavior is a civil rights issue, akin to equal rights for African-Americans or women can only be legitimized in an environment in which sexuality is accepted as a form of identity. This premise may be more pernicious than many think. A lot of young people experience different desires as their developing brains are going through puberty; they may have a fleeting time in their lives when they might feel attracted to members of their own gender. In an environment where sexuality is understood in terms of behavior, involving desires which we choose to act upon or not, such may either lead to (proper) rejection of such desires and a refusal to act upon them or it may lead to (improper and immoral) "experimentation," but of the sort that goes no further, and the person will later behave according to a proper channeling of desire (cf. Matthew 19:4-6). But in an environment declaring that sexuality is identity, such a young person may believe that they are now "homosexual" because they have experienced some of those desires and might begin shaping their identity around that premise and thus, by all accounts, "become" homosexual. How many people who practice homosexuality in America do so because they have bought into the premise that one "is" their sexual behavior?

We do well to understand how sexuality is not identity. Think about it: do we want to think of an infant or a small child as being "heterosexual," "homosexual," "bisexual," or any other kind of "-sexual"? How can deviant forms of "heterosexual" behavior, like adultery and polygamy, be considered as forms of identity? And what about those who practice pedophilia, necrophilia, bestiality, or other sexual practices which are (at the time of this writing) still generally confessed to be deviant? How is their sexuality any more or less a part of their identity than anyone else's? And why should any of us define ourselves by our sexual behavior or the lack thereof? There is much more to life than sex, and the value of a person's contributions to society should not be inherently measured by their sexual predilections.

We do well to recognize that sexuality involves the sexual desires, urges, and impulses and how we choose whether and how we will express them. Sex is behavior just like every other form of behavior: we are under no more or less compulsion to express sexual desire than we are to express any other desire we may have. Sexual desire is just like all other desires: there are proper ways to express the desire, and there are improper ways to do so as well (cf. Romans 1:18-32, James 1:12-15). Sexual behavior does have consequences; our lives are shaped in many ways by our sexual behavior and how that sexual behavior either connects us with that one special person of the opposite sex, allowing for that intimacy which is a shadow of the spiritual reality of the communion we are to share with God, or it is disfigured by improper usage, the sinning against the body, denigrating that which was made in the image of God down to the mere satisfaction of a physical impulse (Genesis 2:24, Romans 1:18-32, 1 Corinthians 6:12-20, Ephesians 5:32-33). But just because our sexual behavior affects who we are does not mean that we somehow "become" our sexual behavior, or that we should see ourselves in terms of our sexual behavior. If we believe in God and Jesus His Son, we "are" to be Christians, primarily identifying ourselves as His followers, defining ourselves in terms of the image of Jesus, privileging our relationship in Christ above all others (Matthew 6:33, Romans 8:29, Galatians 2:20). Sexuality as identity is a counterfeit form of sexuality, tempting in principle, but reducing all of us to be defined not in terms of our contributions to society and well-being but by what we do (or don't do) in the bedroom. Let us affirm God's view and understanding of sexuality and reject all counterfeit forms of sexuality peddled in the world!

Ethan R. Longhenry
June 2012