What does the Bible say about sexual immorality?
How does God, through Scripture, comfort the sexually struggling, engage the skeptic, and provide a template for those exasperated by their attempts to live a holy sexual life?
Common ethical systems
When it comes to sexual ethics, the major philosophical schools are probably hedonism, utilitarianism, Kantian deontologicalism, and divine command theory.1
This system argues that “that the rightness or wrongness of actions is not completely determined by consequences. … Thus, a deontologist holds that some actions are wrong in themselves … , not wrong merely because of the results of the action.”2 Deontologicalism in the West now struggles, however, to find a secure foothold in a rapidly hedonizing sexual culture.
Divine command theory
This system asserts that “at least one of the reasons that actions are right or wrong is that they are commanded or forbidden by God.”3 With the decline in religious participation across America, divine command theory seems to hold little-to-no sway over casual churchgoers or the unreligious.
This system is “the ethical theory that identifies the good with happiness and understands happiness as the presence of pleasure and the absence of pain.”4 A hedonistic sexual ethic is on display everywhere in Western culture.
This system asserts “that moral rightness is determined by what leads to the greatest good for the greatest number of people” and traditionally identified “in terms of pleasure and the absence of pain,” and occasionally consider “other goods than pleasure in their calculation of benefits.”5 Utilitarianism, when it comes to sexual ethics, is probably just hedonism with a slightly longer-term viewpoint.
Related article: What Makes Christian Ethics Truly “Christian”? A Seminary Prof Answers by Michael Allen
The superiority of biblical ethics
Though there are other ethical systems, these four dominate the discussion. The good news for Christians is that the Bible offers a robust sexual ethic, one in which the insights of each major philosophical system can be acknowledged and their weaknesses made up for.
A superficial understanding of Christianity might lead someone to view Christian ethics as simple divine command theory: God says it, that settles it.
The truth in divine command theory
There is truth in this view, of course: this article is making its principal appeal to Scripture, God’s speech. However, a Christian ethic that solely views ethics through the lens of divine command theory is prone towards legalism, robbing Christians of the requisite motivation to fulfill their divinely-commanded ethical responsibilities. Scripture gives us ethics that are never less than a divine command but nearly always more. A robust biblical ethic reflects insights from other ethical systems—even hedonism.
What is good about deontologicalism
Deontologicalism asserts that certain things are wrong regardless of the pleasure or pain they immediately bring. This ethical system, too, is compatible with Christianity, since God’s divine privilege allows him to dictate things as being wrong. God is holy, and he commands his people to be holy. Holiness requires divine imitation in action, affection, and cognition. God commanded Israel through Moses, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might” (Deut 6:5 ESV). This command is equally binding on Christians, as seen in Matthew 7:12. To love God is to obey him (John 14:15).
The insights of hedonism
Hedonism has two correlated aspects:
- The presence of pleasure.
- The absence of pain.
The Bible is quite clear that certain actions, or inactions, called “sin” result in pain and even death (Rom 6:23). Proverbs makes clear that sexual sin results in destruction (2:16–18; 5:3–14; 6:23–32; etc.). By contrast, obedience to the divine commands brings blessings and joy, as seen in passages like Deuteronomy 28:1–2 and Psalm 119:56.
If you faithfully obey the voice of the Lord your God, being careful to do all his commandments that I command you today, the Lord your God will set you high above all the nations of the earth. And all these blessings shall come upon you and overtake you, if you obey the voice of the Lord your God. (Deutey 28:1–2 ESV)
This blessing has fallen to me,
that I have kept your precepts. (Psalm 119:56 ESV)
Biblical sexuality results in immense pleasure—as depicted richly and even graphically in the Song of Solomon.6 Therefore, the Bible gives “hedonistic” motivations for a biblical sexuality: in the Bible, pleasure is first good before it is twisted into evil. Though a person may think that they receive greater joy in breaking the Bible’s sexual commands, the Bible warns that sin’s pleasures are fleeting (Heb 11:25) and that in the end it leads to death (Jas 1:15). A temporary high with a lasting consequence is a rather poor hedonism. A true hedonist—someone using a divine and eternal definition of “pleasure”—would only find their solution to joy and pain in glad submission to God, as John Piper has eloquently argued for decades.7
The truth in utilitarianism
Utilitarianism seeks the greatest good for the greatest number of people. The majority of the commands and prohibitions to follow in this article began in the Pentateuch, typically viewed as a unified work.8 Moses wrote clearly to the Israelites that the laws of God “are given for your good” (Deut 10:13). This goodness applied to all of the laws God gave through Moses, and it reveals something about God’s nature. From the first law to the very last, God’s laws have been given for the good of his people. Secondly, these laws also prove to offer the highest good to the most amount of people, because they provide tangible ways of loving one’s neighbor as themselves (Lev 19:18). In any case, only God knows what laws will actually result in the greatest good for the greatest number. Humans are rather poor at predicting the future.
We can expect that a group—a region, a society, a nation, a culture—that follows the biblical sexual ethic will, on the whole, experience better outcomes than those that do not. This is not a sufficient reason to follow the biblical ethic, but it remains nonetheless true.
The Bible is clear that God’s laws, including his sexual laws, are given for our good. When laws are followed, joy ensues; when broken, pain erupts. The Bible also tells of exceptions in our fallen world: righteousness, too, can bring pain (2 Tim 3:12); and the wicked are sometimes prosperous (Ps 73:4).
But generally, in God’s world, sexual immorality results in real pain—as research has shown. The National Institute of Health reported that suicide risk is “three to six times greater for lesbian, gay, and bisexual adults than for heterosexual adults across every age group and race/ethnicity category.”9 They also reported problems among unmarried parents who “reported more mental health and behavioral problems than did married parents, and unmarried parents whose relationships ended before the birth reported more impairment compared with other groups of unmarried parents.”10 These statistics imply that a biblical sexual morality is the more likely to result in joy than sexual conduct inconsistent with biblical principles.
The question remains, then: What is sexual sin?
What is considered sexual sin, biblically?
There can be no violations without a standard to be violated. And Christian ethics discovers that standard ultimately in God’s original purposes for sex, as revealed in Scripture. Sex is—biblically—a divine gift of pleasure and intimacy between married individuals legitimizing a special relationship that constitutes a family and provides the means of procreation (Gen 1:28; Gen 2:24).11 What is sin? Sin is “human activity that is contrary to God’s will.”12 Biblically speaking, sexual sin is any action or inaction which deviates from God’s will, identified through his purpose(s) for sex, as well as his nature, and his commandments. The debate over the role of the Old Testament’s laws regarding Christian ethics is beyond the scope of this article.13 For the purpose of this article, the New Testament will serve as the basis for sexual morality. So, what are sexual sins?
Biblically speaking, sexual sin is any action or inaction which deviates from God’s will, identified through his purpose(s) for sex, as well as his nature, and his commandments.
Sins of omission
First are sins of omission. One such sin the Bible describes is failure to marry when sexual immorality is a constant temptation (1 Cor 7:9). Another is the set of sins described in 1 Corinthians 7:3–5:
The husband should give to his wife her conjugal rights, and likewise the wife to her husband. For the wife does not have authority over her own body, but the husband does. Likewise the husband does not have authority over his own body, but the wife does. Do not deprive one another, except perhaps by agreement for a limited time, that you may devote yourselves to prayer; but then come together again, so that Satan may not tempt you because of your lack of self-control. (1 Cor 7:3–5 ESV)
Sins of commission
There are far more sins of sexual commission.
- Premarital sex is defined as sinful in the Old Testament and required marriage or restitution to the father in a civil suit (Exod 22:16)—since the father was responsible for the daughter’s well-being. Since Paul limits sex to marriage in 1 Corinthians 7:1–2, premarital sex is still sin.
- Extramarital sex is named as sinful in the Ten Commandments as well as in the New Testament (1 Cor 6:9; Matt 5:27–28; 19:19).
- Homosexual sex (1 Cor 6:9).
- Sex with your spouse that causes them physical, emotional, psychological, or spiritual harm is another sin of commission. This point is abstracted from the Song of Solomon, where sex is pleasurable for both parties; but it is surely implied by the commands of Ephesians 5:25–33, Colossians 3:19, and 1 Peter 3:7—if not simply by the Golden Rule of Matthew 22:39.
- Sex which is otherwise illegal by the laws of your locality is also prohibited (Rom 13:1). In the West, this would include sex with a minor, sex with an animal, or incest.
- Incest is explicitly prohibited in the laws of Leviticus 18:6–18 and 20:11–20; but it seems to be upheld in the New Testament in 1 Corinthians 5:1–2, lending credence to this Old Testament law’s continuing authority for the Christian.
- Jesus prohibits lust (Matt 5:27–28), which would most certainly include viewing pornography or any form of voyeurism.
- Bestiality is likewise forbidden explicitly in Leviticus 18:23. While this prohibition is not repeated in the New Testament, Paul’s clear teaching on sex being limited to a human spouse precludes sex with an animal.
What does the Bible say about sexual immorality and purity?
There is a word cluster of adjectives that occurs repeatedly in the ceremonial Old Testament law: “clean,” “unclean,” “pure,” “defiled,” “holy.” Eventually, the ceremonial law was revealed as fulfilled in Christ so that all foods were made clean (Mark 7:19; Rom 14:20); circumcision was foregone (Acts 6:12–20; Gal 5:2–12); and the doctrine of Christian liberty was enunciated (1 Cor 10:23). This would prove pivotal as Christians were increasingly barred from the temple precinct in the first century until the temple’s destruction AD 70. What is interesting is that Paul, the champion of Christian liberty, continues to use this word cluster when speaking about sex in 1 Corinthians 5–7. He thereby produces an important illustration for a biblical sexual ethic.
In 1 Corinthians 5–7, sexual immorality is Paul’s troubling concern with the Corinthian church. A man was having sexual relations with his stepmother, bringing reproach upon the church (1 Cor 5:1). Instead of being appalled, the Corinthians were celebrating their toleration of this sin as a sign of their commitment to Christian liberty (1 Cor 5:2). Paul instructs the Corinthians to exercise church discipline for the good of the sinful man (who seemingly repents by 2 Cor 2:5–11) and the good of the church’s public testimony (1 Cor 5:9–13). Paul then goes on to give a lesson on sexual immorality in which he corrects faulty views—views which are remarkably similar to modern Western sexual ethics. In 1 Corinthians 6:12, the Corinthians seemingly viewed sex as nothing more than a bodily function to be gratified without restraint, something similar to eating (6:12). Paul warns the Corinthians that such behavior will result in God’s destruction of both the body and the function (6:13a). Paul then seeks to reorient the Corinthians towards God by stating that the human body exists for the Lord, and not as an independent entity to fulfill biological urges (6:13b).
Paul then goes on to write that Christians have become joined with Christ through conversion, and that sexual immorality is tantamount to spiritual adultery against Christ (6:15–17). He commands the Corinthians to flee from sexual immorality and notes the peculiarly serious nature of sexual sin:
Flee from sexual immorality. Every other sin a person commits is outside the body, but the sexually immoral person sins against his own body. Or do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you, whom you have from God? You are not your own, for you were bought with a price. So glorify God in your body. (1 Cor 6:17–20 ESV)
This assertion is critical.
The locus of God’s dwelling on earth has been moved from a building to individual believers (6:19). Just as access to a physical temple building was denied to the unclean and impure, thereby drawing lines of distinction, so too is access to the living temple denied to certain people. As a temple, Christians are inhabited by God in a special way, and a Holy God determines who can approach him in that temple and how they may approach. In the Old Testament, only the High Priest entered the Holy of Holies, and only annually—and only certain activities were acceptable therein (Lev 16:1–34). Any breech of God’s instructions could result in dire judgement (Lev 16:2).
Likewise, the temple of our body is reserved with varying access to physical contact. Only an opposite-gendered legal spouse is permitted to enter our inner-most precinct through sex, they are to do so regularly, and in a prescribed way; anything else offends a Holy God, renders the “temple” unclean, and can result in judgement. Conversely, when biblical prescriptions and proscriptions for sex are honored, sex is another form of worship by which Christians fulfill God’s positive and joyful commands, honoring God and receiving immense pleasure in the act.
How should we address sexual immorality in ourselves?
Sexual sin, though particularly disdainful in Paul’s eyes as found in 1 Corinthians 6:18, is handled like all other sins. Christians are commanded to confess their sins (Prov 28:13; Jas 5:16; 1 John 1:9), repent of them, seek forgiveness, and turn towards God in obedience (Matt 6:12). They should then, if prudent, seek reconciliation with those whom they have harmed through their sinful actions (Matt 5:23–24). Finally, if a given sexual sin is a constant temptation for them, they should seek accountability to aid in their fight against sin (Jas 5:15; Gal 6:1), employing spiritual disciplines as God would lead.14 God has freed us from the bondage of sin, and we should seek to walk in that freedom by utilizing the means with which he has blessed us.
How should we address sexual immorality in others?
As Christians, there is an expectation that we are indeed responsible for coming to the aid of others for their sanctification (Gal 6:1). Having any other goal beside sanctification is unloving and unbiblical. Though the story of John 7:53–8:11, known as the Pericopae Adulterae, is textually suspect, it provides an adequate illustration of confronting sexual immorality for all of the wrong reasons.15 In the passage, the Pharisees are portrayed as bringing a woman to Jesus for adjudication concerning her sexual immorality (being caught in the midst of adultery). The woman in the story is objectified, manipulated by the religious leaders with the hope of causing Jesus to stumble in the court of public opinion. Jesus is depicted as ignoring the Pharisees’ call for judgement and pardoning the woman with the command to “Go and sin no more” (John 8:11). In this section, Jesus does not challenge the Pharisees’ accusation, and his command implies that the accusation was valid; however, Jesus is depicted as offering grace paired with a command to abstain from immoral behavior in the future. This pericope, regardless of its canonical status, fits well with Paul’s command in Galatians 6:1.
In Galatians 6:1, Paul informs a church struggling with legalism how they should handle people trapped in sin stating,
Brothers, if anyone is caught in any transgression, you who are spiritual should restore him in a spirit of gentleness. Keep watch on yourself, lest you too be tempted. Bear one another’s burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ. (Gal 6:1–2 ESV)
Here the Scriptures are clear that confrontation is limited to those who are spiritual, as opposed to fleshly minded; the goal of the confrontation is spiritual and is to be carried out by spiritual people who are seeking to bear each other’s burdens. The spiritual people are commanded to keep watch on themselves so that they are not also tempted. To “keep watch,” scripturally, is to pray about and stay alert toward coming temptation—as in in Matthews 26:40. When paired with Jesus’s commands regarding church discipline (Matt 18:15–20) and Paul’s instructions on the same topic (1 Cor 5:1–13; 2 Cor 2:5–11), a process for addressing sexual immorality (or any other persistent sin) would include:
- Prayer: Pray for the individual affected and wisdom for how to proceed (Gal 6:1).
- Examination: Examine yourself through introspection and prayer first, then examine the evidence, refusing to act when lacking appropriate evidence (Matt 18:16).
- Confrontation: Confront the person struggling with sin alone with a spiritual goal of restoration (Gal 6:1). This confrontation may include teaching, reproving, correcting, and rebuking (2 Tim 3:16). If this step is effective and invoking repentance, one can move directly to step five.
- Discipline: Should the previous steps fail to succeed, church discipline is called for in the case of persistent sexual immorality (1 Cor 5). However, even when church discipline is instituted, it should always be done prayerfully with the hope of full restoration upon repentance (1 Cor 5:5).
- Restoration: Seek to restore the person back to fellowship with Christ through repentance, accountability, and discipleship to aid in long-term behavioral change (Jas 5:16).
Grace that is greater than all of our sin
The book of 1 Corinthians deals heavily with the topic of sexuality, from an incestuous case of adultery to the remarriage of widows. However, there are two important passages in Paul’s letter that regard sexual morality and are fitting to end this study. The first is found in 1 Corinthians 6:19–20.
Or do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you, whom you have from God? You are not your own, for you were bought with a price. So glorify God in your body.
You are no longer your own person. While that may sound like legalistic slavery, the context sheds a different light on this statement. The price which you were bought with was the precious, sinless, eternal blood of Jesus Christ, who loved you, wants what is best for you, and is working all things together for your good. All obedience, but, specifically, in the context of this passage, sexual obedience must be motivated from a gratitude to the one who gave his life to cleanse us from sexual sins.
The second passage is found immediately before in 1 Corinthians 6:9–11 which reads,
Or do you not know that the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived: neither the sexually immoral, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor men who practice homosexuality, nor thieves, nor the greedy, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God. And such were some of you. 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.
This is a stern warning to those who reject the Bible’s sexual ethic; those who continue to live in willing sin jeopardize their souls. However, this passage is also a sobering reminder to those of us who are prone to judge others who struggle with sexual immorality. But for the grace of God, so once was I. It is also a beautiful encouragement for those struggling with sexual sin, because God’s grace has redeemed people from these sins before, and he can and will do it again if we continue to posture ourselves in humble repentance and faith. He is doing it now in countless people.
- John Jefferson Davis, Evangelical Ethics: Issues Facing the Church Today, 4th ed. (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing, 2015), 6–15. Situational ethics and virtue ethics are also worthy of mention but seem less popular in the contemporary climate. However, these two also exist within the biblical witness, particularly in the Corinthian correspondence—with Paul’s guidance on eating meat, and in virtue ethics of faith, hope, and love.
- C. Stephen Evans, Pocket Dictionary of Apologetics and Philosophy of Religion (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press Academic, 2002), 33.
- Evans, Pocket Dictionary, 35.
- Evans, Pocket Dictionary, 51.
- Evans, Pocket Dictionary, 119.
- See Mark McGinniss, Contributions of Selected Rhetorical Devices to a Biblical Theology of The Song of Sons (Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, 2011), for a description of the pleasurable sexual experiences artfully concealed by various poetic devices.
- John Piper, Desiring God (Sisters, OR: Multnomah Publishers, 2003), 19.
- John H. Sailhamer, The Pentateuch as Narrative (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1992), 1.
- Anna Mikulak, ed., “Researchers Find Disparities in Suicide Risk Among Lesbian, Gay, and Bisexual Adults,” National Institutes of Health, November 9, 2021.
- Michelle DeKlyen et al., “The Mental Health of Married, Cohabiting, and Non-Coresident Parents with Infants,” American Journal of Public Health, October 2006.
- Jonathan Leeman, “The Meaning of Sex,” ERLC, June 11, 2020.
- J. Jordan Henderson, “Sin,” in The Lexham Bible Dictionary (Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press, 2016).
- Paul D. Feinberg, “Hermeneutics of Discontinuity,” in Continuity and Discontinuity: Perspectives on the Relationship between the Old and New Testaments : Essays in Honor of S. Lewis Johnson, Jr., ed. John S. Feinberg (Westchester, IL: Crossway Books, 1988), 110–111.
- Donald S. Whitney, Spiritual Disciplines for the Christian Life, (Colorado Springs, CO: NavPress, 2014), loc. 9. Kindle.
- Steven Grabiner, “Pericope Adulterae: A Most Perplexing Passage,” Andrews University Seminary Studies 56.1 (July 19, 2018): 91–114.