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New Testament Church Culture: Sexual Immorality

New Testament Church Culture: Sexual Immorality

The Culture Surrounding the First Century Church

We often observe that our society’s moral standards are declining. While this is true in many regards, we have a long way to go before we have a society with the moral standards that the early churches outside of Israel had to contend with.

I’ve just finished reading Clement of Alexandria’s[1] Paedagogus (Book 3) and I was struck again by the vast differences there are between western, post-modern culture and society, and the culture and society that surrounded the early churches.  Monumental differences!

Much of Clement’s Paedagogus (Book 3) is about pagan idolatry and sexual immorality. In particular, Clement slams promiscuous women and effeminate men.[2] Some of it is not pleasant reading. Other parts, however, are quite amusing: If you want to find out what Clement of Alexandria thought about vain men who get their backs waxed or facial hair plucked, read chapter 3. (3.3.15.3).

Life in New Testament times and in Clement’s time (150 AD–215 AD) was very different to ours; and church life was very different to ours.

We so often approach the New Testament, thinking that the early church was somewhat similar to ours. There are actually very few similarities. We need to be careful that we don’t read the New Testament with preconceived views of what their church meetings were like, what their governmental structures were like, what their family and church relationships were like, or even what their moral standards were like.[3] It was all very different to our experiences of church life!

I have rarely, if ever, heard a contemporary church leader warn church members to stop having sex with prostitutes,[4] to stop having sex with anyone who asks, to stop having sex with boys,[5] or to stop teaching sorcery and occult, pagan practises to fellow church members. Yet these were not uncommon issues in New Testament churches that were filled with newly converted ex-pagans. The influence of the surrounding pagan culture meant that sexual immorality and false doctrine were real and persistent problems for the early church.

Understanding the New Testament Letters

I believe that the Scriptures are inspired by the Holy Spirit and that the Holy Spirit helps us to understand spiritual truths from the Bible. However, having some understanding of the culture of the original readers of the books of the Bible, elucidates even more meaning and can bring clarity to some enigmatic passages. This is particularly true for the New Testament letters! Many of the New Testament letters were written to specific churches in specific localities, experiencing their own set of specific problems. We must not be hasty in making assumptions based on the plain text of the letters, without taking into account the cultural background.

Thankfully, most Christians have access to an abundance of resources that can help us understand the culture of several of the New Testament churches. Many of the extra-Biblical, early Christian writings are available online. These writings, by early church fathers (and other authors), give us an insider’s view of the culture of the early churches, as well as the culture of the society that surrounded the church. There are also many good Bible studies, in books and online, that explore the culture and issues behind the texts.

If you want to get the most out of reading the New Testament letters, avoid reading bits and pieces here and there. Where possible, read the entire letter in one or two sittings; look for keywords or repeated concerns, and find some background information on the church: its problems and cultural setting.[6]

There’s a wealth of inspiring, timeless and authoritative teaching in the New Testament letters, and it is tremendously worthwhile and important to study all of them.[7] However, be wary about drawing firm conclusions from the few passages that don’t seem to make a lot of sense or contradict other scriptures. These few passages are probably situation specific instructions and advice. The advice would have been understood by the original recipients of the letter and relevant to their situation; however to the modern reader living in very different times, this advice may be confusing, ambiguous, and actually irrelevant.

Understanding the issues and culture of the churches that the New Testament letters were addressed to, makes reading them more meaningful, coherent and enjoyable.[8]


Endnotes

[1] Clement of Alexandria (c. 150–c. 215 AD) was an early church father and theologian. His three major literary works include: the Protrepticus (“Exhortation to the Greeks”), the Paedagogus (“Instructor”), and the Stromata (“Miscellanies”).

[2] Some theologians think 1 Corinthians 11:2-16 may have been written because gender distinctions were being blurred and confused in the Corinthian church. Men were being effeminate and women were being masculine (and promiscuous.) This is an issue addressed in Paedagogus.  [More on 1 Cor 11:2-16 here.]

[3]  Speaking about ancient people in ancient literature (which includes the Bible) Paul Minear writes:

In ancient literature we encounter people who are marching to the sound of a different drummer; the tempo of their life is vastly different from ours. Their language is shaped by a different mentality, their mentality shaped by different experience. Their world has a different ceiling and different horizons; their maps give expression to different beginnings and endings. As long as a student shies away from that alien world, so long does Bible study remain bland, superficial, and tepid. But each step of penetration will increase his excitement, though also his bewilderment, for at each step he encounters a collision between two languages, two mentalities, two modes of existing in the world, in fact, two worlds. Each collision threatens that world in which the student has heretofore found shelter.
From To Heal and to Reveal: The Prophetic Vocation according to Luke

[4] 1 Corinthians 6:15-16.

[5] Sadly this is one bit of advice that does need to be talked about more in some church circles, especially among “celibate” leadership. One of the oldest church manuals, the Didache 2:2 says “You must not commit acts of murder, you must not commit adultery, you must not sodomise a boy, you must not commit fornication, you must not steal, you must not practise magic, you must not practise sorcery, you must not perform an abortion nor kill a child at birth.” (My emphasis in italics.)

The Didache is one of the earliest Christian documents. It is anonymous and is thought to have been written sometime around the beginning of the second century. It was quickly and widely disseminated. The Didache is like a church manual and was an important document in church life in the 2nd and 3rd centuries. The Didache was lost at some point, but papyri of it were rediscovered in the 1800s. It was published for the first time since early church times in 1886.

[6] The personal letters to Timothy and Titus were very much written with the problems of the local church in mind. The Letters to Timothy were written when Timothy was an apostolic envoy to the Ephesian Church. There is a great deal of information about the Ephesian church available to us!  [I have written about Understanding the Ephesian Culture.] The Letter to Titus was written when Titus was an apostolic envoy to the church at Crete.

[7] Whenever I read the writings that didn’t make it into the New Testament canon, it makes me appreciate again how amazingly timeless, relevant and inspired  the New Testament books and letters actually are.

[8] Churches (and church ministers) that received New Testament Letters: The churches in Rome (Romans); Corinth (1 & 2 Corinthians); Galatia (Galatians); Ephesus (1 & 2 Timothy; the letter to the Ephesians was most likely written as a circular letter, intended for multiple congregations); Philippi (Philippians); Colossae (Colossians); Thessalonica (1 & 2 Thessalonians); Crete (Titus); Asia Minor (1 Peter); etc.

© 1st of May, 2010; Margaret Mowczko

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Posted June 1st, 2010 . Categories/Tags: Church History, , ,

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8 comments on “New Testament Church Culture: Sexual Immorality

  1. Daniel Kenny says:

    A very sound and I believe correct way of approaching the scriptures. One of the exegetical principles I stick to is that what we read in the Bible cannot mean to us what it could not have meant to its original recipients, because the Spirit cannot contradict himself. You uphold this principle well.

    We must also assert with equal conviction that God continues to speak in profoundly relevant ways to us today through his word. It is often tempting to degenerate certain teachings by playing the ‘culture card’ as it were. I’ve done this many times — sometimes correctly, sometimes incorrectly. I’m still very much learning.

    But I think our default position is to say, upon coming to seek God in his word, both “God had something to say to them,” and also “God has something to say to me.” These statements are both true and really can’t be taken in isolation. That prevents us from thinking that some so-called ‘plain texts’ of the Bible can be explained away as cultural phenomena when in fact they are great truths in which we can rejoice. it also prevents us from taking other ‘plain texts’ that were written for a time and a place and applying them inappropriately to our own context.

    There’s a tension or balance between the two, of course. I think negotiating this balance is tricky. But as you said, Marg, we can often become more sure through studying the specific culture – and not just the culture, but the specific people – in which the letters were written.

    Without at all reducing the significance of this, I want to say the most important thing is staying at the foot of the cross. We must always consider how Jesus and his work on the cross undergirds all scripture. If we never move far from the cross, then a.) we stay humble, because we’re constantly fixed on God’s grace, b.) we are reading scripture in the light of the central point which binds it all together, and c.) we won’t go crazy when we try to nut out those ‘intellectual’ conundrums!

    So I’m affirming what you’re saying, and I’m adding to what you’re saying also. I’m very thankful for your work here, Marg :).

  2. […] Many Christians believe that the obvious, plain sense of certain Bible verses is the correct interpretation; but this is not always the case. […]

  3. […] The dangers of using 1 Timothy 2:12 as a proof text in the women in ministry debate. Especially when the context of the verse is not taken into consideration. […]

  4. […] It was the content of her teaching and her immoral, idolatrous practises that she needed to to repent of.  It is difficult for us to imagine, but sexual licentious was not an uncommon problem in the early church. […]

  5. […] Licentious doctrines continued to vex the church for several centuries, to the dismay of the church fathers.  Clement of Alexandria wrote a detailed refutation of the various groups who endorsed fornication as accepted Christian behavior.  He complained of those who had turned love-feasts into sex orgies, of those who taught women to ‘give to every man that asketh of thee’, and of those who found in physical intercourse a ‘mystical communion’. He branded one such lewd group authentai (the plural of authentēs).”  (Kroeger 1979)  […]

  6. […] Authentein may have had sexual connotations.  Michael Green (1988:159-161) writes that Euripides, Philodemus, and Phrynichus use the word authentēs in an erotic sense, and that John Chrysostom understood it to mean “sexual licence”.  Chrysostom used the word authentia (the plural of the noun authentēs) to denote “sexual license” in his commentary on I John 5:6.  Clement of Alexandria also used the word authentia to describe Christians who were engaging in lewd sexual activity. […]

  7. […] Dualistic beliefs led to either asceticism or licentious behaviour. Sources outside the Bible mention that sexual licentiousness was a problem in some churches, but even in the New Testament we read that Jezebel, a female false prophet and teacher, was teaching (didaskei) and seducing (planâ) her followers in the church of Thyatira (Rev. 2:20 KJV cf 1 Tim. 2:12). […]

  8. […] New Testament Church Culture: Sexual Licentiousness […]

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