Why the Church Has To Stop Saying Sexual Sin Is the Most Important Thing

Somewhere back in time someone decided that sexual sin is the worst kind of sin. In many churches sexual sin is the line over which you may not cross.

Sex before marriage is the worst thing a Christian teenager can do. Sleeping around is the worst thing a Christian woman can do. Looking at pornography is the worst thing a Christian man can do. Adultery is the worst thing a Christian married person can do. And if a Christian leader, or pastor, has problems with any of these things, that’s the worst of all.

But I want to suggest something: I don’t think the Bible says that sexual sin is the worst kind of sin. I’m not suggesting that sexual sin doesn’t matter or that sexual sin doesn’t bear strong and painful consequences. But I am suggesting that we need to think more clearly and holistically about this topic. Why? Because when the church lives out the belief that sexual sin is the worst kind of sin, we undermine the gospel.

Most all Christians would agree, regardless of how liberal or conservative, that the purpose of the church is explained most clearly in Jesus’ words in Matthew 28:18-20. The Great Commission says that our purpose is to share Jesus with the world, to bring people into His community and to help them learn and live what He taught. Living as if sexual sin is the worst kind of sin undermines this mission. Here’s three ways it happens:

#1 – We Create a Shameful Silencing Culture

As we heap shame upon sexual brokenness, we silence the very people who need to talk. The rejection and shame piles so high and deep, that those who struggle in this area feel like they can never ask for help.

It’s one thing for a guy to say, “Hey, I’m having a hard time sticking to my Bible reading, will you hold me accountable?” But to say, “Pornography is taking over my life, will you help me?” That becomes nearly impossible. In many churches if you said that out loud, you would cross the line from an every day forgivable sinner (like the “normal” folks sitting in all the other church seats), to moral reprobate, a pervert, unacceptable to God until you can get this thing handled.

The shame becomes so pervasive. People with sexual sin in their past won’t talk about it. People who are struggling with it currently won’t ask for help because of fear of rejection. New people to the church and children growing up in the church both quickly learn that this is an “off-limits” subject.

If we want people to be healthy sexually, with sexuality that honors God, if we want people to find forgiveness and healing when they have brokenness in this area, we have to be able to talk about it without heaping shame on people. Holding out sexual sin as the worst of all sins just doesn’t allow for that.

#2 – We perpetuate legalistic bondage

We get so focused on the acts, the specific kinds of naughtiness. Discussions revolve around who did what, and to whom, and how far is too far. This feeds a false belief that acts are really what God cares about. If we do enough good acts, then we’re OK with God. If we do bad acts, then we’re not OK.

This is not what the Bible says. Isaiah 64:6 says: “All our righteous acts are like a polluted garment.” The more familiar translations calls them “Filthy Rags.” Smelly, offensive, disturbing to look at — and that’s our good acts!

The Bible also says that our worst acts aren’t sin just because of the act, but because the acts emerge from our sinful hearts. Jesus’ words in Matthew 15:18-19: “But what comes out of the mouth comes from the heart, and this defiles a man. For from the heart come evil thoughts, murders, adulteries, sexual immoralities, thefts, false testimonies, blasphemies.”

This suggests that sin dwells in the heart and is expressed in our actions. When we focus in on the act, we ignore where the act came from. It’s a bit like treating the symptoms of a disease without ever trying to stop the disease itself. For every person who sleeps around, every spouse who is unfaithful, every person who gets under the thumb of a sexual addiction — all of it comes from something inside, something internal, something that has very little to do with sex.

All of this has the consequence of increasing the ever-present threat of self-justifying legalism. We inflate the pride of the people who already don’t do that act. We shame the people who do, without providing any help for the wound in their heart that they are trying to medicate.

#3 – We slam the door on people coming to Jesus

When we live out the belief that sexual sin is the worst kind of sin, we hinder people who are honestly seeking God. Not only do we get in their way, sometimes we outright exclude them from community.

If you are a long-time native of church culture, here’s what you have to understand: The average 20- to 30-something in the US who didn’t grow up in a churched family has a significantly different sexual ethic from what the Bible teaches.

  • They see nothing morally wrong with living together outside of marriage, and part of living together is having sex.
  • When it comes to short-term sexual relationships or one-night stands, they understand the health risk, and even a possible emotional risk, but as long as both parties are willing, they don’t see this as having a moral aspect to it at all.
  • Sexually explicit media — music, movies, even pornography — is not seen as a moral issue.
  • Sexual lifestyle choices are seen as entirely personal and amoral.

I’m not evaluating these beliefs. I’m not asking if they are Biblical. I’m just pointing out that this is where a huge percentage of our population is coming from. (Certainly where I live, in the Pacific Northwest.)

Now, take someone with that world view who then has a spiritual crisis and is looking for spiritual answers. Where do they turn?

I’ll tell you where they aren’t turning. They mostly aren’t turning to the Christian church. Why? Because they have been hearing a consistent message. Not just that their behaviors are wrong, but that before they can participate in the Christian community, they have to get on board with these standards.

Now, if you were raised in the church, that sentence may make perfect sense to you. But consider this: Since these folks have no experience of Jesus, since they aren’t Biblically literate (most of them) and don’t accept the Bible as authoritative (pretty much all of them), and since they weren’t raised with a church-cultural mindset, these standards don’t even make sense to them. Not one bit.

Instead of introducing them to Jesus, and then allowing Jesus in His sovereign time to shape their lives through scripture, the Holy Spirit, and the influence of Biblical community, we’re very often telling them what their morality needs to be, in order for them to come to Jesus.

You know what? If you’re a follower of Jesus now, that’s not what was asked of you. We weren’t asked to clean up our act before we came to Jesus. (At least not by God.) We were offered grace and forgiveness. We were given the Prodigal Son’s welcome home. We were given a promise that if we would trust Jesus with our lives, if we would seek Him, that He would wash us clean. He would give us a new heart. As a result, we could live in a growing connection with God that changes us forever.

That’s a different message than: “Eww… get your act together with that stuff. God’s not happy with you.”

So, have you experienced a church that acts like sex is the most important thing to God? How did that impact you? How do you think things could be better?

Marc Alan Schelske writes about life at the intersection of grace and growth at MarcAlanSchelske.com, where this article was originally published (it is reprinted here with permission). He is the teaching elder at Bridge City Community Church in Milwaukie, Oregon where he has served for 17 years. He's the author of Discovering Your Authentic Core Values. Marc is a husband, dad of two, speaker, writer, hobbyist theologian, recovering fundamentalist who drinks tea & rides a motorcycle. You can follow him on Twitter at @Schelske

This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at http://spectrummagazine.org/node/7004

I guess I must have missed something along the way. I’ve been in the church my entire life; was baptized nearly 50 years ago, and I’ve hardly heard any sermons on sexual sin, and I’ve never heard a preacher say that sexual sin is “the most important thing.” It is certainly one which causes a lot of sorrow and heartache for those involved. Just ask anyone whose spouse has cheated on them. Just ask anyone who couldn’t wait until they got married to have intercourse, and (surprise, surprise) little Johnny (or Susie) came along at an “inconvenient moment.” But, “the most important thing?” I’ve not heard that. The most important thing (if we’re talking about sin, which is what the author implies in the title) is rejection of Jesus, grieving the Holy Spirit. That’s the message I’ve gotten over the years. But I’m a bit of a country hick (I must be; the Review seems to be geared toward city sli . . ., er folk, and a good share of the items in there are geared toward the urban environment). Maybe I’ve missed something.


“Country folk” are no different today when it comes to sexuality. Facts are, that the Appalachian country is where the largest number of teen births and children born out of wedlock. There is little difference as sex knows no specific area of this nation. In fact, rape is as common, if not more in India, except that it is seldom prosecuted. While TV and movies portray sex openly, whether it encourages or merely reflects the current culture, it is everywhere today.

The best way to encourage teens to wait until marriage is not total abstinence, as has been proved in states where abstinence only is taught in the schools. When teens are taught respect for themselves and others they will not “use” others in sex. But there should be forgiveness for those who stray, as sex is the most powerful human emotion. Teens who are focused on their future and career, or less likely to become sexually involved before they have reached their goals.


Once upon a time a poor starving peasant had been separated from his tribe for 30 days. Lost in the woods, unable to find anything to eat and thinking this was his last day on earth. Suddenly he stumbles across a small cottage and miraculously finds inside a beautiful, naked and willing participant and a large plate of vegetables. Which did he choose first?


Strangely enough, in the plant world, some trees when stressed put their remaining resources into a massive seed load, and then die.

There seems to be a common thread in much of life on this Earth…


What kind of vegetables :smile:


Both. Unless…

A story is told of an engineer coming to work in a new bicycle. His friend asked him how he got the bike and tells the following story. In an isolated road, he met a beautiful girl riding a bike. She dismounts from the bike when in front of him, strips her clothes off and throws herself down the ground inviting him to “pick whatever you choose.”

His friend remarks, “Her clothes won’t fit you anyway.”


There is no doubt that you missed "something."
It’s always been clear that “the sin” in the SDA Church has been of sexual nature. Oh yeah, that one is punishable. Have you ever seen someone punished for bearing false witnessing?

Division Prez Ratsara did it at the TOSC meeting, reporting a false report (remember the “Ratsara Maneuver?”). And not a single word from anyone on the top? This is a big “something.”

Did you miss that “big something,” for example?


Vegetables are always great, they nourish the body.
But…, isn’t the soul more important than the body? Should not the soul be nourished first? … After all, who cares about broccoli anyway???.. :wink:


What energizes a culture most is what people don’t talk about openly. Gender relations more or less dominate the ethics of this—and most—Protestant religions. Call a woman “immoral,” and the likelihood that she’s committed murder or theft is low—morality means “sex.” Even an “immoral” man is not one with his hand in the till (the only other way to get him fired), or, even that he’s killed someone—it means that he’s broken the accepted gender or sex code. As a nation, we are much less concerned about gun control than birth control; we are more concerned about what women do with their bodies than what they do with money. Our notion of personal value is derived from gender relations, what we do with our bodies, how they relate to power structures, which are, in turn, derived from sex/gender. This entire “Headship” issue is all about that—and we DO hear a lot about that in church. What drove the entire Victorian social mentality was sex—people were obsessed with it, and the more they tried to contain it with manners, the more energy it developed. And when did this Denomination emerge? We talk about sex ALL THE TIME and use it to control others. And what we don’t talk about—all that repressed stuff—makes people obsessive and turns them ugly, angry, judgmental, and retributive. We’ll let people live their financial lives as they wish, organize their families as they wish. But we insist on telling others how to use their bodies. Love, kindness, affection, respect between people count for much less than what we believe their sex lives are like. In Biblical times, that was all about progeny and the distribution of resources; lineage counted for everything. We need to get over that.


Haha…and they weren’t even his style! :wink:


A worthwhile observation which I am not contesting. It is proving the point of the author to some extent though, rather than disproving it. Sexuality is tabooed so much that we don’t talk about it much - in public that is. And still, we carry strong convictions. If there were statistics on disfellowshipping members in the US … what would you guess to be the most frequent reason given?
On the other hand, pastors who have a need to constantly make sex, in particular sexual sin, their focus of attention, i.e. take away the taboo, don’t get it right either, but usually speak of their own hidden (or not so hidden) needs. In other words … as a preacher you can’t get it right. :wink:


Seems like we just can’t get away from Augustine and his sins…so very long ago and even a different church to boot! But that long shadow of his still lingers…


The best commentary I have read in a while…

It is not just the church, our societies seem to be permeated with messages about sexual purity; of course this usually means female sexual purity. Female sexual purity means controlling female sexuality. Controlling female sexuality means controlling access to birth control and abortion. It goes on and on.


The one sin Jesus most often branded - using rather impolite words at times - was the sin of hypocrisy. We sometimes forget this - because other sins are more … what shall I say? sexy?

I agree with the author that sexual sins are causing havoc to those involved, including the church whose testimony gets destroyed, using the relational (husband/wife; bride/groom) metaphor to describe God’s relation to his people. In fact, here we may have lost the theological significance of sexual sin (in other words, I am outing myself as pretty conservative in this respect).
At the same time, we have lost the perspective of mercy and grace - not only in respect to sexual sin, but there especially. This may very well be our own protective mechanism against this powerful urge within ourselves - which is what we don’t talk about (if we talk about sexual sin, it’s usually the sin of others). Unfortunately, these defense mechanisms (repression, denial, projection…) don’t work very well, do they.


Interestingly enough…it has been only a brief part of Western history that lineage was proven through the maternal side of things. But, of course, that tended to give women too much “power” so naturally it went back to paternal lineage. Strange- but then, not really.


Andreas, as I was reading your post I became curious about what you would say about pastors with such a need…
Well, then I realized that you were going into another direction… ;). :laughing:


It’s a self-regarding system: Political and economic systems rely on predicting reproduction; and religion only mirrors society, who, in turn, base their arguments on religious belief. It’s a difficult cycle to break. Then “science” gets into the mix as it’s called into service: Remember the “Vital Forces” arguments against too much sexual activity? The bicycle prohibition included elements of “self abuse” because of potential sexual stimulation, especially for women, who then would not have the focus or energy to cook and sew. And then there were the warnings about the spinning jennys. The contraptions physicians used to keep people from sexual stimulation were ghastly. The more sex one had, the more feeble the mind and spirit. And yes, especially women; admit them to sexual pleasure, and all hell breaks loose—they’ll be bad mothers. That was the world Ellen White lived in and the world many American Protestant denominations blossomed in. The French thought we were nuts, and they were mostly right on that score. But we had been influenced by laws of thermodynamics and brought those into play—sex depletes, brisk walking, for some reason, does not. And double all this for women: no one wanted women to feel the energy and power that was more or less reserved for men. And it goes on. Spilling one’s seed on the ground was a terrific waste of inchoate Hebrews; then it was a loss of vital forces for both men and women; then it was some kind of psychopathology or a way to make a wife less likely to want to please her husband (oops); then people started talking and joking about what is normal, and—it’s a non-issue. The assumptions behind a good share of this is that sex is what holds a family together. This more or less lets people off the hook on the kindness, compassion, affection, and finances hook. Under a lot of this, in turn, is that women are not supposed to be independent. Back to the Headship situation: We need male leadership. I know I rambled.


Maybe…remember that a lot of Adventists live in cities not in the country, Birder?


That’s probably true in the “developed world,” but in the developing world (where most Adventists are nowadays) I suspect that a very high percentage live in rural areas. I’d like to see some statistics on that.