We can subdivide the the twelve works of the flesh under the following four headings:
- Loose Sexual Relations
- Unlawful Religious Practices
- Violations of the Second Great Commandment
- Intemperate Excesses
Loose Sexual Relations
The first three works of the flesh concern violating the seventh and sometimes the tenth commandments against adultery and coveting your neighbor’s wife. And those two out of ten commandments summarize all other sexual sins that the Old and New Testaments condemn. Such sins deeply grieve the Spirit, who desires to make our bodies temples for the Lord (1 Cor 6:18–20).
The King James Version follows manuscripts that have added μοιχεία/moicheia (“adultery”) before πορνεία/porneia (“sexual immorality”). The standard Greek New Testament doesn’t even mention this as a possible variant. So we only note that you can imagine how it was added here in the list sometime in during the course of textual transmission.
The term πορνεία/porneia refers to sexual relationships outside of marriage, whether premarital or extramarital, heterosexual or homosexual, incest (Gen 19:30–38; Lev 18:6–18; 1 Cor 5:1), or even bestiality (Exod 22:19; Lev 18:23; 20:15–16). It refers to overt behavior, but it also includes entertaining the fleshly passions that drive that behavior (Matt 5:28; 15:19).
The term ἀκαθαρσία/akatharsia refers to defilement and the separation from God that it causes. As surely as a defiled leper was removed to a place outside the camp (Num 5:2), sexual defilement can cut you off from God’s presence and from the community of God’s people. So Paul told the Ephesians, “Let there be no sexual immorality, impurity, or greed among you. Such sins have no place among God’s people” (Eph 5:3).
The terms ἀσέλγεια/aselgeia refers the actions of someone who descends into a life of debauchery and lustful pleasures. They would no longer care what God or man thinks, people like Jeremiah described: “Are they ashamed of their disgusting actions? Not at all—they don’t even know how to blush!” (Jer 6:15).
Loose Sexual Relations vis-a-vis the Charismata
When Christianity first came on the scene in the Graeco-Roman world, one way of undermining someone’s potential for rising in the ruling class was to accuse them of being unable to control even their own sexual passions. So when Paul included this issue in his list of works of the flesh, he was using a well-known way to mark the outsiders as licentious (e.g., 1 Thess 4:3–7; Gal 5:16–26; Rom 1:18–32; 1 Cor 5:1–13).1See Jennifer Wright Knust, Abandoned to Lust: Sexual Slander and Ancient Christianity (New York: Columbia University Press, 2005). If this compromises even the secular ruler, how much more anyone who would serve in the church where loose sexual relations can bring your entire Christian walk into irreparable and even eternal ruin.
Run from sexual sin! No other sin so clearly affects the body as this one does. For sexual immorality is a sin against your own body. Don’t you realize that your body is the temple of the Holy Spirit, who lives in you and was given to you by God? You do not belong to yourself, for God bought you with a high price. So you must honor God with your body. (1 Cor 6:18–20)
The church should forbid unrepentant fornicators to exercise any of the charismata in the church. But thanks be to God, it’s possible for any sinner to find needed restoration. So the church’s leaders should define how people might exercise any of the charismata if they’ve engaged in sexual sin, especially the speaking gifts of pastor, teacher, evangelist—to say nothing of a prophet or “apostle.” After repentance, a wise program of restoration might welcome renewed exercise of the gifts, perhaps under supervision at first—and for some, under permanent supervision and even permanent restrictions.
I think of how the church might welcome a repentant and forgiven rapist or pedophile. Some would insist that confession and repentance means it’s all forgiven and we’re looking at new creation. But the way of wisdom counsels permanent vigilance for the sake of church community’s safety; so such a person should remain subject to the permanent constraints of that godly vigilance.
A prayer for sexual chastity…
Father, I pray that you would keep me from all manner of sexual sin, whether overt practice or carnal passions lurking in the dark chambers of my heart. Guide me in the paths of righteousness, not only in my outward walk but also in my thinking and meditation.
And for anyone whose life has been scarred by lack of sexual chastity, Lord I pray for your holy conviction to turn them back into the right way, for your holy cleansing to purify them in body and soul, and for your church to effect a wise and loving program of restoration.
Lord you warn us, “Blessed are those who wash their robes. They will be permitted to enter through the gates of the city and eat the fruit from the tree of life. Outside the city are the dogs—the sorcerers, the sexually immoral, the murderers, the idol worshipers, and all who love to live a lie” (Rev 22:14–15). I pray that in that last day, you will receive me in robes of white and welcome me into the city wherein is planted the tree of life.
This I pray in Jesus’s name. Amen.
- What biblical examples remind you of how sexual impropriety can undermining your calling and gifting?
- Reflect on your personal knowledge of people whose ministry was damaged by sexual impropriety.