This series has thus far examined the way of Christ the Shepherd in contrast with the way of thief and adversary, manifested in the kingdoms of this world. Part I explored sexual violence in the Biblical world from Mesopotamia to the Greek and Roman empires, where sexual violence was a war tactic used as a way of enforcing dominion over subject peoples and slaves, and sexual humiliation was a form of torture. Part II continues to contrast the violent ways of the world with that of Christ, examining the violence inherent in the pornographic industry and the harm it does to human beings and to human relationships.
This final article will examine how Christians have thus far addressed sexual sin, lust, and pornography. What lessons can be applied from Anabaptist understandings of the separation from the world and the importance of fellowship and communion among brothers and sisters? How do we “bear one another’s burdens” when it comes to the topic of sexual sin, and how have we rightly and wrongly approached this subject?
The three sections of this series are as such:
- Part 1: Lust, Love and the Doctrine of Two Kingdoms
- Part 2: The Violence of Lust and Pornography
- Part 3: Sexual Sin, Purity, and Bearing One Another’s Burdens
What does it mean to “defraud” one another?
Lust, pornography, and rape all exist within the same paradigm: the opposite of loving and honoring God, and loving and honoring others. Lust says, “your body is mine for the viewing/taking”. Christ says, to paraphrase 1 Corinthians 11:24, “My body is yours”. Christian love is not just a giving love, but finds its fulfillment in a shared love where He initiates the giving of Himself for us, and we give ourselves to Him (Romans 12:1). When love is not reciprocated, returned, and shared, it does not accomplish the purpose for which it is initiated.
It is God’s will that you should be sanctified: that you should avoid sexual immorality; that each of you should learn to control your own body in a way that is holy and honorable, not in passionate lust like the pagans, who do not know God; and that in this matter no one should wrong or take advantage of a brother or sister. The Lord will punish all those who commit such sins, as we told you and warned you before. (1 Thessalonians 4:3-6)
The above passage was twisted by a widely-lauded Christian teacher who has since been exposed as a predator. He taught:
“To defraud another person is to stir up in them desires that cannot be righteously satisfied. A woman can defraud a man by the way that she dresses, talks, or acts.” (*Source)
Even though the passage clearly rebukes the person actively engages in lustful thought and action, it is sometimes twisted against its inherent meaning to teach that a woman who is too attractive is “defrauding” (KJV language) or taking advantage of the person who is actively lusting. This places the blame for lust on the person who is assaulted and undressed in the perpetrator’s mind. This kind of teaching ended up as a justification for sin, reflecting the mindset of selfish and debased sinners.
Paul did have an intention in writing the above passage in 1 Thessalonians 4. He was addressing people who deliberately acted out of lust. They had the intention of using someone else for their own gratification. It could involve trying to pressure, coerce or force someone to do something they do not want to do, violating their bodily autonomy and consent, such as Potiphar’s wife.
These quotes similarly reflect the common Christian narrative on the subject of lust and temptation:
“Godly” women, who would recoil with horror from the very thought of wantonly displaying their bodies, do nevertheless carelessly and thoughtlessly display themselves habitually, by the manner in which they dress….David was made weak, David was made to stumble by Bathsheba’s careless exposure of herself and your display of your feminine beauty will have the same effect upon your brethren… Every man is fully responsible for his own sin but you will certainly be held in some sense responsible for another man’s sin if you provoke him to it. (Anonymous Sermon, “The Sin of Bathsheba”)
Woe to you if you are that person through whom the temptation, the stumbling-block comes… There’s the person who gives in to the temptation but there’s also the person who does the temptation. Matthew Henry puts it really well. He says this, “If looking be lust they who dress and deck and expose themselves with design to be looked at and lusted after like Jezebel that painted her face and looked out of the window are no less guilty. Men sin, but Devils tempt to sin. So there’s again there’s culpability and often on both sides… A change of environment where he wasn’t surrounded by all the flesh and tight clothes and the skin took away the problem to sin. (Sermon on “Winning the Life-or-Death Battle Against Lust”, emphasis added).
The focus here is on the result, not the intention. It is one thing to have the deliberate motive of soliciting consensual sexual activity, and another thing to be held guilty simply because another person has a predatory desire towards you, in mind or in action. Blame and responsibility is then placed on anything a victim does, whether by dressing, talking, acting or simply existing within reach of a predator. Supposedly, if someone is stirred up and you are the object of their lust, you have harmed and lured them. Moving from lustful thought to lustful action, the conclusion often made is that the victim of sexual violence “asked” for and caused the violence. This creates a perpetual loophole for abusers and self-blame for victims who have been groomed into believing he/she could have prevented lust by dressing, talking, walking, or acting differently. Churches who teach this place the guilt of sexual sin on the innocent – including children.
The Lord will punish all those who enable such sins.
How can we bear one another’s burdens?
If there was ever a “magic” cure for pornography and lustful thoughts, the 80s-90s purity and modesty movement and, before that, early 20th century Fundamentalism tried to enact it. The idea was simple – what if we de-sexualised the human body? Then, lust would go away! We just cover the parts that are more “sexual”, and voila! It doesn’t work – some of the most covered-up countries in the world are also those with the most prevalent disrespect, abuse, and assault, particularly of women. You can cover one thing and then lust over another thing, until even faces and elbows are taboo. In fact, one popular early church writer commanded that women should not uncover their faces, but veil them so as to not “invite another to fall into sin”. Covering the body supposedly “protects” her from being “gazed at”.
Some cultures command women to wear their hair up and cover them completely because female hair is supposedly by nature sexual, while others command that women should never wear their hair up, lest the sight of their necks engender sexual arousal (Montgomery, 2022). It is as if women can never succeed except by making themselves invisible and erasing anything remotely sexually attractive. Under this view, the slightest “mis-step” can result in blaming the victim in some way – whether for being too attractive or being in the “wrong place at the wrong time”. Great lengths are taken to lessen the responsibility of perpetrators.
There’s something about blame and control that makes perversion, sadly, perhaps even worse. The same mindset that blames others as the cause of lust is that which blames victims as the cause of assault – “she/he made me lose control and I could not help myself”.
Unfortunately, it does not work. The fundamental principle behind this modesty/purity movement is pornographic: that the human body naturally produces lustful (assaultive and exploitative) desire in others. Policing “modesty” for the prevention of lust is similar to the prosperity gospel teaching that we should give generously to the church and to ministries so that God would bless us with material wealth. These are both faulty cause-and-effect frameworks. Doing a generally good thing for terrible reasons can result in horrific abuses that cause the world to revile the name of Christ.
Modesty is good and holy and necessary, but not for the reason we think. 1 Timothy 2 and 1 Peter 3 are reflected in the early Anabaptist doctrinal statement, the “Concept of Cologne” (1591). Greed, pride, and exalting oneself above others stand in the way of brotherly love, and thus modesty is living and conducting ourselves with humility and simplicity rather than lustful extravagance and pride. Together with excesses in clothing, the Concept of Cologne describes separation from the world as refraining from greedy profiteering, “comparing self to those who are insatiable, forever wanting more and more.”
In my experiences with ultra-conservative Christian modesty movement much control is exerted in the hopes of somehow curing the problem of lust.. Sadly, Asher Witmer related in a recent podcast that even among “Kingdom Christians” in very conservatively attired settings, pornography addiction affects more than 60% of men. This raises the question of how pornographic styles of relating negatively affect church relationships, and what can be done about this problem. Perhaps the problem exists because we do not realize the root issue of selfishness at the heart of lust, and thus fail to address them. Lust is not a natural, godly desire that can be satisfied, but an insatiable hunger to consume and harm.
The church must draw a line that Empire does not cross, and it is within this line that we exist as the Kingdom. We renew our minds from the ways of the world, a world that is still obsessed with power over others and still operating according to the exploitative ways of Empire just as it did in Jesus’s day. The church must reject a pornified view of the human body and recognize the holiness in sexuality, a beautiful goodness that renders the evils of lust all the more horrific to us. Healing and freedom must mean a change so total and complete that we transcend the ways of the world and its view of sex as a binary of violent, assaultive power expressed, for example, in pornography.
None of this is intended to stigmatize, shun, or isolate those who struggle. We all struggle with the lust of the flesh, lust of the eyes and the pride of life. We all need our minds renewed. Indeed, because loneliness and isolation are closely correlated with pornography addiction (Butler, et al, 2018), it makes all the more sense that salvation means more than individual freedom from sin but reconciliation, respect, relationship, and community. In this way we bear one another’s burdens, by recognizing that fellowship is a part of freedom and by making our Kingdom communities spaces where individuals do not need to hide their sin and failures, and yet are called to courage, responsibility and accountability without shortcuts. We must have more shepherds and mentors willing to do the hard work involved in working through addiction and sin. We must, however, have shepherds who do not seek to cultivate havens for wolves, but safe, green pastures where Jesus’ sheep may lay down and rest, where sin is not excused and harm is not enabled.
Paul’s letters reveal a struggle in the church with Grecian asceticism (Colossians 2, 1 Timothy 4, 1 Corinthians 7). Instead of viewing sex as God created it, the church eventually went in the direction Paul expressly warned against, viewing sexual desire (concupiscence) as innately sinful and the sexual pleasure God created as needing to be subsumed under the duties of procreation. As a result, the difference between desire/attraction and lust/assault was blurred. In the Greco-Roman world, of course, all sexuality was in some way coloured by the lust-assault paradigm. The “sex is bad”, “sexual desire is sinful/harmful” mindset continued even into the recent 19th century or Victorian era (Fowler, 1856 cited by Hurst, 2008).
In opposing the negative stigmas of previous generations, Christian writers in the 20th and 21s century have gone the other way and embraced lust and love as co-equivalent, calling wives, for example, to “fill up” pornographic mental imagery to prevent a husband from being “tempted” by teenage girls (*Source) or physically provide “relief” from pornographic desire (*Source). “Biblical” counselling advocates have even taught, heretically, that a supposed lack of spousal intimacy is to blame for the sexual abuse of children (Gregoire, 2022). Christiandom’s response to the violent, antichrist impulses of an appetite consumed with porn has been to demand those appetites be satisfied within marriage. While many pay lip service to “the undefiled marriage bed” the underlying problem of selfish, twisted desires are not addressed. This is why the two-kingdom distinction is not only helpful but absolutely necessary.
Distinguishing between pure and impure desires and identifying the heart of separation from a violent, godless world, Menno Simons wrote,
“And even as all things are pure to the pure, so also to the impure all things are impure and tend to evil. For since they are impure they use all the creatures of God impurely. They eat and drink in superfluity, they are dressed in and shod in pride. Their wives they use to satisfy their lust. They rear children in idleness. Their gold, silver, house, and goods they possess in avarice, and there is nothing they use purely according to the will of God.” (Verduin, 1966, p.137)
Bearing one another’s burdens does not mean trying to fulfill sinful lusts which by their nature cannot ever be satisfied, but creating spirit-filled, Kingdom spaces where Christlike love is the gold standard, and where it may not be perfectly expressed but is struggled through, enacted, manifested, and discipled into existence. Purity characterises all Kingdom interactions – purity being not the absence of sexuality but the absence of selfish and evil motives. For such is the Kingdom of God.
Purity is the love that Christ demonstrated on the cross. Purity is Christ dying for us. The wisdom from above that is “pure, peaceable, gentle, willing to yield, full of mercy and good fruits, without partiality and without hypocrisy” (James 3:17). Purity is love that is cruciform, love that is kind. Purity manifests itself in the fruit of the spirit.
What if Christians defined purity not as the absence of sexual desire or premarital sex, but as the desire for the good of others? What if we defined lust as violent exploitation and assault, even that which occurs in the mind? What if we stopped trying to prevent lust by blaming women’s bodies for existing, but regarded impurity as that which falls short of the best intentions required by love? What would change?
Everything would change. Purity culture continues to objectify women and perpetuates brokenness in many forms; purity calls us into wholeness across all of life and all our interactions and restored relationships including across divided gender lines.
This is of course only the beginning of the answer, a preliminary step towards trying to find a light at the end of the tunnel. But this fills me with anticipation and hope, a hope that, somehow, Christians can develop an ethic of “purity of motive”, an ethic of love and desiring the good of others. This would set a standard of Christian relationships that unquivocally excludes and exposes exploitation and abuse. We have good news to share with the world, a testimony shining true and clue and bright.
Blessed are the peacemakers. Also, blessed are those who do Jesus’s work in restoring male-female relationships to fully honoring the image of God in one another. Rejecting partiality and discrimination, may we exemplify brotherly love and unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.