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 wholistically 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 every 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 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 are their behaviors 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?

More on this idea, if you’re interested, in my message this week at Bridge City Community Church:

35 thoughts on “Why The Church Has To Stop Saying Sexual Sin Is The Most Important Thing.

  1. Very encouraging. As a struggler with porn from a pretty young age I’ve experienced much of this, and continue to feel isolated and alone in my struggles. Although many are not necessarily condescending, it is still almost impossible to find someone willing to help and work through my problems in any useful way. At least that had been my experience.

  2. Is it Robert?  If I remember right from Twitter…  Thanks for showing up here and sharing.  Even your brief comment is pretty vulnerable for most Christian communities.  I’m glad to be an encouragement to you.

  3. Is it Robert?  If I remember right from Twitter…  Thanks for showing up here and sharing.  Even your brief comment is pretty vulnerable for most Christian communities.  I’m glad to be an encouragement to you.

  4. Love this! The look on people’s face when I talk about my infidelity in my marriage and the freedom God has brought to me and my testimony now, after my heart and my marriage were healed, is priceless. I literally see the shock affect their whole bodies. 
    Yet I cannot back down from telling my story. I have to tell people how God healed my broken heart. How He woo’d me back to Him and later gave me complete forgiveness via my husband as well. God is good and his mercy does not stop at the bedroom door. 
    Thank you for sharing this! 

    1. Wow, I’ll bet!  We live in a culture where those things aren’t talked about by “good people.”  Especially in church.  And yet, as a follower of Jesus, I truly believe that God’s grace and forgiveness can turn around and transform even the most difficult of things.  But too often we don’t act like we believe that.  Way to go on sharing your story.  I know that many people are given hope for their own circumstances, and many others are given a picture of how amazing God’s grace is.  

      Thanks for dropping by and commenting.  That means a lot to me.

        1. Angel, there’s no question that sexual sin can have grave consequences. I’m not suggesting that adultery isn’t terrible, or that a pedophile is to be disregarded as a minor problem. But I am suggesting that the church has created an environment where shame is so high, that some people will never find healing or hope.

          1. I just want to add that both adultery and pedophilia have victims and that I think, is what makes them so deplorable to God – they hurt other of God’s creatures. But I would also say that while there is no hierarchy of sin I DO think that acts like pedophilia and rape are not just private sexual sins, they are soul-murder to the victims…and probably the perpetrators. I can’t speak for God but I can speak as a child of God and say that I think those kinds of sins don’t get to be packaged up as sexual sins. They are sins of destruction and violence and great, great harm to other human beings.

          2. I see what you’re saying. Vengeance is mine says the Lord and He has promised a curse upon the person that would offend one of His little ones. They are and should be dealt with. Still if God forgives them and they change their ways and there are no new victims I give praise to God for being able to do such things. I’ve seen a child, my cousin screaming at me through his tears beating the ground with a stick while quoting the story of evolution his mother had given him we were 7. All I had been doing was playing by myself singing Jesus loves me when I was surprised by this verbal attack. All his lecture did for me was convince me that sin is sin and it hurts more than we know. That’s why we forgive. They know not what they do.

          3. The shame culture around anything having to do with sex keeps the victims of sex crimes from reporting and speaking out. As long as sexual behavior is seen as shameful, it will remain a tool of power and coercion.

          4. Yea, no doubt. Shame is part of what makes sexual sin and its consequences so destructive. Anything we can do in the church to encourage people to tell their truth, to validate people’s stories, and undermine the power of shame will be helpful, I think.

          5. I have said and thought those same words. I’m looking forward to reading more from you. I’m a new subscriber.

    1. There is no worst sin, because sin is not an act, it is a state of mind. Any sin, however “minor”, however “major”, is the same because it comes from the same state of mind.

  5. LIKE!! 😀 ….especially this part:

    “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.”

    Just like Jesus did in the eyes of the priests of His time. The same pharisaical spirit that Jesus dealt with 2,000+ years ago is still alive and well in our churches today. Shucks, it was alive and well in me for many years, too. 🙁 (Thank you, Lord, for rescuing me out of the pit of religion and self-righteousness. The love, forgiveness, long-suffering, and grace You extend(ed) to me leaves me empowered by brokenness and humility to extend it to others!) 🙂

  6. Can’t be better said, Marc. Thanks a lot for your courage to speak on behalf of people like me who are stubbornly silenced by certain people. However, it’s encouraging to note that there are still many awesome Christians who know how to help me out the biblical way.

    1. You’re welcome, Ken. I know with the current divides and cultural battles going on it can seem like every Christian is judgmental and exclusionary, but it’s not true. Jesus is doing something in the hearts of His followers everywhere, and it’s good to see.

  7. I can’t tell you what a comfort your article has been to me, Marc! I found it when I Googled, “Is Sex the worst sin” because I don’t think it is, but wanted to find some reasons why it is not…and you gave them in such a insightful and Biblical way. And C.S. Lewis agrees with you, Marc!

    I became a Christian when I was 10, so I have been walking with the Lord for 57 years. When I was younger in the Lord (and I often feel that ‘younger’ means as recently as yesterday because some of my lessons need to be learned over and over), I thought that the older I grew in the Lord, the less I would have to struggle with sin, especially pornography.

    But I have found the opposite to be true.

    And saints in centuries past (Luther, Rutherford, Pink, Sturgeon, just to name a few, have expressed their same struggle with sin. Paul himself declared that he was the ‘chief of sinners’ in I Timothy at the end of his life, after I wrote a third of the New Testament.

    And I am discovering that the longer I walk with the Lord, the more I HATE the sin that I commit. And when I DO sin, I cry out like Paul, “Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from the body of this death?”

    But my study of Romans 7 and 8 has become such a comfort to me over the years

    Just after Paul cries “Wretched man that I am” in Romans 7:”25, he praises the Lord in the next verse (Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord). But then…he immediately describes the battle that I must wage until I go to glory. “On the one hand I myself with my mind am serving the law of God, but with my flesh the law of sin.”

    Now I believe that every single word in the Bible was inspired by the Lord, but I believe that a lot of the chapter divisions were put there by the devil, and no more so than the division between Romans 7 and 8. In the original text, there is NO chapter division between Romans 7:25 and 8:1. And there is no doubt among biblical scholars that Romans 8:1 should begin with the word “But!” So here’s how it might read. “On the one hand, I am serving the law of God with my mind, and with my flesh the law of sin. BUT…there is still no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus!

    I could share SO much more, Marc, but I think this is enough for now.

    Anyway…thanks SO much for your comforting words! I would love to have lunch with you, but that
    may need to wait until both of us go to be with our Lord.

    1. Glad I can help, Steven. I know the weight of these issues and the grief they bring with them. I truly believe that Jesus came to bring us freedom. Both the freedom from destructive behaviors as we are transformed, but also the freedom from shame. Blessings to you, sir. Thanks for leaving your comment. It’s great that we can be connected via the internet even if we never have the chance to sit down at a table together. Oh, and it’s encouraging to know I’m on the same track as Lewis!

  8. Sexual sin is the worst kind of sin according to Saul/Paul the prolific writer of New Testament texts. See 1 Corinthians 6:18(NIV). Flee from sexual immorality. All other sins a person commits are outside the body, but whoever sins sexually, sins against their own body.
    However, God might be inclined to say, “WHO TOLD YOU THAT SEXUAL SIN WAS THE WORST KIND OF SIN?” just as God said to Adam in the Garden of Eden, “WHO TOLD YOU THAT YOU WERE NAKED?”.

  9. We have to go to the Old Testament to get a definition of “Sexual Immorality”. There it is defined as: Bestiality i.e. sex with animals, Incest i.e. sex with close relatives, Certain kinds of male homosexuality i.e. as a man sleeps with a woman – in vague terms, and lastly, adultery – which is defined very specifically and very narrowly as a (single or married) man having sex with a “married woman” not his wife. That narrow definition allows for a lot of sexual options to be played out that do not violate that narrow definition.

  10. You’re picture of slamming the door (big iron gates) on people trying to find Jesus reminds me of the horrific story in Judges chapters 19-21 of the concubine woman locked outside all night by her husband so that she was left to be raped and ravaged to death (instead of himself) by the evil Benjamite perverts standing outside. “YOU MAY ME FEEL LIKE, I’VE BEEN LOCKED OUT OF HEAVEN” she must have sang. Gee, that song has been around a long time, hasn’t it? These perverts wanted to rape the man(husband) but since that was considered too dreadful and act, the husband gave them his concubine as a consolation. Before you get mad at GOD and throw your Bible away, just know that the concubine is Jesus and the husband is God and Judas is the evil tribe of Benjamin (the traitor) and the concubine being cut up into 12 pieces and mailed off to the 12 tribes of Israel is representative of the 12 Disciple cutoff from the main vine Jesus upon his death, the Disciples scattered each to his own home (tribe).
    So why does God use an attempted sexually immoral and perverted act (I.e. that of male perverts trying to have sex with the husband of the concubine), then acted out as a crime of sexual abuse/murder (rape of a woman to death – the concubine), to make a point about Jesus, the coming Messiah?
    [ Rape is not sexual immorality according to the Old Testament. It is a severe crime, but not a sexually immoral crime unless it violates (Bestiality, Incest, Adultery as narrowly defined, some types of Male Homosexuality). Sorry to burst your bubble SVU fans (Special Victims Unit tv show fans).]
    In Judges 19-21, 65,000 Israelites die in a war with Benjamin to avenge the death of one(1) concubine. But it is not that 65K died for one(1), but rather, one(1) Jesus died for the many, for all who will come to him to be saved. A concubine is an earthly woman who belongs to a man and inherits nothing from him, whereas, conversely, Jesus is a heavenly man who belongs to God and inherits all things from God.
    So too, although it is attempted sexual immorality that begins our tragedy in this story, it is a crime of abuse and murder that is ultimately the fulfillment of the thought processes of the perverted Benjamites.
    So what is worse? Attempted, but not carried out sexual immorality, or carried out abuse (that is not sexually immoral) but which leads to murder?

  11. Let me ask everyone this:
    Since Jesus told Nicodemus in John’s Gospel chapter 3, that he (Jesus) would also be lifted up (alluding to the cross) like Moses had lifted up a bronze snake-on-a-pole for the Israelites (in the wilderness) to behold and live, since Jesus said this about himself, why is it that Christians turn the words of Jesus regarding salvation into something totally foreign. I ask you, did the Israelites bitten by poisonous snakes come behold the snake-on-the-pole (I.e. God’s free gift for unmerited favor for having murmurred against God and Moses) come to be healed because their works were evil or righteous? If they came to the snake to be healed because their deeds were evil, how much more shall those who do evil deeds behold the lifted up Messiah and a cross and live forever. Those Israelites who beheld the snake later died, as did those who ate the manna bread from heaven. But those who look to (behold) the lifted up Jesus on a cross, and eat the true bread from heaven (Jesus’ flesh), they will live forever. The life of animals is in their blood (we are told in the Old Testament, and that’s why JEHOVAH GOD forbid the drinking/eating of animal blood). Likewise, the life of God’s Son Jesus is in His blood. Those who drink the blood of the Son Man, Son of God, will live because of Jesus, not because of our ability to abstain or not from sin. These signs will follow those who believe: They will handle snakes and if they drink any deadly poison they will live and not die. This alludes (in Mark’s Gospel chp 16) to Jesus’ instituted sacrament of Holy Communion, the eathing of his flesh and drinking of his blood. Poison is blood here. Just as snake poison was the death of the Israelites in the wilderness (many died), so too, conversely, those who drink that poison(blood of Jesus) will live and not die.

  12. Wow! I had a conversation with a man who had become a christian as a teen. I grew up one but my parents and siblings are atheists. He and I are almost 30. God had revealed to my heart specifically, not through a sermon, program, or workbook how I had become desensitized to sexual sin as I was growing up. He revealed to me the mind set I had when I was looking for relationships and making that a priority and basis for my self worth. There is a right context for sex and a wrong and He taugot me why through guiding me through his word. It was a process that was slow. I didn’t have it altogether in one day. Christians are people who’ve admitted they are sinners, and yet we don’t always provide the room to talk about how God is still changing us, the struggles we face and to pray for healing. I wish I had someone in the church to talk to about alcoholism my drinking problem. Luckily, that is something our Helper has helped with. I had 2 children at 19 when I went back to church and no husband. I’m still not regularly attending a specific church. I live in the pacific north west as well.

    1. Hey Tiffany, what an amazing and cool story. I just keep seeing — God will reach us wherever we are in all kinds of crazy ways. I think you’re right that there is right, healthy, even Godly context for sex. I think the struggle of the church is been in making sexual sin out to be the thing that divides people. But we do it on other topics too. Your example of addiction and alcoholism is perfect. This post could be easily re-written for that topic!

  13. This post has been such a help and a comfort to me! I have been a Christian my whole life and have had very strong (and somewhat judgemental) views about sexuality…but in recent months those ideas have been shifted and challenged as I find myself in a relationship with someone that is slowly introducing me to a more physical side of things. I have been so chewed up by guilt because, like you say, sexual immorality is viewed within the church as the worst of the sins…and I obviously, in a physical sense, enjoy being with another person. So I have been questioning my salvation, and questioning my sanctification, when I am choosing to indulge my flesh… I believe there is forgiveness when repentance comes, but what about grace when a Christian is perhaps blinded by the desires of the flesh? Is my salvation lost because I have chosen to say yes to this area of sin?

    1. Hey Jo,

      I’m glad this post has been an encouragement and perhaps freeing. Your situation is complicated. While I think that the church needs to stop shaming people around sexual sin, there’s no question that God gives us standards in scripture for the way we treat each other—that includes our sexual choices. I think those standards exist because God is protective of our hearts, and wants to keep us from things that will hurt us or others, or that take advantage of others. Sex is powerful physically and emotionally. It roots deeply into our sense of self. It can feed our sense of value. It can help us not feel alone. So, there’s a deep drive to express our sexuality. But because it is so deeply rooted into our identity, it’s a place where we can do deep and sometimes irreparable harm to ourselves and others. Even though I think the church needs to stop treating sexual sin like the worst thing, I’m still pretty conservative in my views on what is healthy for people. I’m an old school sex-was-made-for-marriage kind of guy. Having pastored for 20 years and been in the inside of countless personal stories, I’ve seen too many places where using the God-given gifts of sexuality in ways that have been—in the long run—damaging.

      Having said all of that, I’ll say two things. First, God loves you and has infinite grace and forgiveness for you. Nothing you can do can change God’s love for you, and no sin you can commit can out-weigh God’s grace. So be encouraged. Second, consider that God’s standards for sex are for your best, and are meant to protect your heart and provide for the best possible relational connection with the people around you. I won’t tell you how to apply that in your situation, but I think it’s worth praying about and asking God to guide you on.

  14. hi, Ididn’t receive the course on journaling but please let me know how to find it.

    EXCELLENT ARTICLE! as a christian, I always had this problem with people int he church shaming young people for having sexual desires and it is just so mentally damaging thank you for your take on it!

    1. Hey Jolina, the Journaling course emails out each week on Sunday. I just checked my system. You subscribed on the 9th, so you should have gotten the welcome email today. The 1st lesson will come next Sunday. If you don’t see it check your spam folder, and since you use Gmail, check the Promotion tab as well. Until you train it, the Promotions tab will hide most emails from people with blogs like me. If you don’t see the lesson next Sunday, let me know and I’ll see how I can get it to you.

  15. I disagree. Sexual sin is with some horrible consequences and suffering them is awful and so hard. I advise no one to go there. It is not worth it. Who cares if it is worst or not. It is is bad and awful to experience the results and I do not like this sin at all. I would prefer to have been protected from this sin by loving parents.

    1. Hey there. I certainly agree that our sexuality is precious and when there is sin or injury there, it can do grave harm. My post wasn’t at all talking about those of us who have experienced those consequences. My post was speaking to Christians and churches who routinely exclude and condemn people whose sexual activity they disapprove of. When my mother was a child, Divorce was considered a sexual sin, and anyone who got divorced was treated as a pariah. When I was a teenager, sex before marriage was seen as the highest possible sin, and kids were routinely told that if they went in this direction, it would put them outside the bounds of God’s love and blessing. This is what I’m talking about. All sin is sin, and for the church to exclude people because of one sexual standard or another is not only hypocritical, it’s destructive. My experience as a pastor, and having seen so many stories play out over the years, is that lives change not through condemnation, but through the kind of love that happens when belonging isn’t questioned.

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