Sexual Ethics in 1 Thessalonians 4:3-8

From October to November of this year, Cycle A of the Revised Common Lectionary presents us with five consecutive readings from Paul’s short, first letter to the Christian church at Thessalonica. You will not find 1 Thessalonians 4:3-8 among the included readings. Here is my structured translation, beginning with verse 2.

For you know what instructions we gave you 
   through the Lord Jesus.
For this is God’s will, your holiness --
  for you to abstain from sexual immorality
  for you to know how to practice self-control
     in holiness and honor
     not in the passion of improper desires
        like the nations who don’t know God
  for you not to 
     step over the line
     and give excessive desires free rein 
        in this matter
        against your brothers and sisters
     because God is an avenger
        concerning all these things
        just as we 
           previously told you
           and testified
For God did not call us
   to uncleanness 
   but in holiness
Consequently, the one who rejects this 
   is not rejecting human authority
   but God who gives his Holy Spirit to you

1 Thessalonians 4:3-8 is mostly about bad Greek sexual mores, and how Christians should avoid them.

A Summary in Context

The topic is important to Paul and this passage plays a central role in the letter. Paul’s “sex talk” comprises the longest single ethical teaching in the document.

Paul’s concern about the Thessalonians’ sexual practices is rooted in his proclamation of a gospel which required people to turn from idols and wait for God’s son from heaven (1 Thessalonians 1:9-10). In chapters 2 and 3 of the letter, Paul recounts the history of his dealings with the Thessalonian Christians. The benediction at the end of chapter 3 marks a return to the subject of the parousia, which Paul introduced at the end of chapter 1:

May the Lord make your love increase and overflow for each other and for everyone else, just as ours does for you. May he strengthen your hearts so that you will be blameless and holy in the presence of our God and Father when our Lord Jesus comes with all his holy ones. (1 Thessalonians 3:12-13)

At the parousia, the Lord will look for love and holiness. These are Paul’s two primary topics in 4:1-12. Holiness is the topic of 4:3-8, while love occupies 4:9-12. Together, love and holiness describe a life that pleases God (4:1) and which is based on the authority of Jesus (4:2). From the end of chapter 4 through the beginning of chapter 5, Paul discusses the significance of the parousia itself.

Holiness (or sanctification) is God’s will for Christians (4:3). And while the general definition of sanctification or holiness encompasses every aspect of a Christian’s life, in these verses Paul focuses specifically on sex.

For this is God’s will, your sanctification: that you abstain from sexual immorality, so that each of you knows how to control his own body in sanctification and honor (1 Thessalonians 4:3-4)

To be holy is to abstain from sexual immorality (porneia) and to hold one’s own body (skeuos, vessel) in a way that is holy and honorable. Abstention from sexual immorality is the negative side of sanctification; holy and honorable self-control is the positive side.

Paul’s reference to the “gentiles who don’t know God” reminds the hearer of the gospel summary in 1:9-10: the Thessalonians turned to God from idols to serve the living and true God. In Paul’s mind, sexual immorality and idolatry are closely linked. To turn from idols is to turn from porneia.

The Harm of Porneia

Paul characterizes the behavior to which he objects as stemming from the “passion of inordinate desire” (pathei epithumias) (4:5).

. . . not with lustful desires, like the Gentiles who don’t know God. (1 Thessalonians 4:5)

Paul’s first objection to porneia, then, is that it flows from desires that have become twisted. It is evidence of something wrong in the human heart.

Porneia is characteristic of the pagan world, but Paul is not objecting to it based on the particular characteristics of Hellenistic society. He objects to the behavior itself, not just to the exploitive and unequal social relationships of Greco-Roman culture. Paul’s concern is purity, not parity.

That’s not to say that porneia doesn’t harm other members of the family of God.

This means one must not transgress against and exploit his brother in this matter, because the Lord is an avenger of all these offenses, as we also previously told and warned you. (1 Thessalonians 4:6)

In my head, I might translate “transgress” (huperbainein) as “step over the line” and “exploit” (pleonektein) as “give in to excessive desires”. The word pleonektein in 4:6 is a verbal form of the word that is frequently translated “greed” or “covetousness” in English versions of the New Testament. The root meaning is invisible in most English translations of 1 Thessalonians 4:6, which render it variously as “defraud,” “wrong,” “cheat,” “exploit” or “take advantage of” – all perfectly good choices. In another context, James Metzger describes pleonexia as a “rapacious will to power that seeks one’s own advantage without regard for the interests of others.”

Interestingly, the ancient Greek translation of the Ten Commandments renders the Hebrew word for “covet” in Exodus 20:17 as epithumeo, which English versions of the New Testament usually translate as “lust.” In my mind, I translate epithumia as wanting the wrong thing or wanting it in the wrong way and pleonexia as insatiably wanting too much. Both words concern misappropriated, unbridled desires. And both words are found in this passage.

Paul’s point here is that violating God’s intentions and giving in to misshaped desires can harm our brothers and sisters.

We can think of any number of ways that sexual immorality causes demonstrable harm to others. Adultery, abandonment, exploitation and humiliation, subjugation and control, violence of any sort: these all treat our partners unjustly. For the other partner, sexual immorality can lead to economic hardship, social isolation or powerlessness, psychological pain or debilitating diseases. When illicit sexual behavior makes a baby, the major “options” in Paul’s culture were abortion, infanticide or abandonment. Abandoned children either starved or suffered exploitation. Even today, apart from the wealthy elite, bearing children or growing up outside of a loving, two-parent home is a hard way to go. For the unmarried, sexual immorality can damage the future relationship with one’s spouse. Even in the modern environment, uncommitted sexual involvement among competent, consenting partners still implicates the other party in sin.

Sexual immorality is a sin against others and God will avenge those who are harmed in this way (4:6).

That’s not the same thing as saying that only behaviors that harm others are wrong. As Paul closes this part of the argument he returns to the act itself.

For God has not called us to impurity but to sanctification. (1 Thessalonians 4:7)

In 4:7, Paul equates sexual immorality with “uncleanness” or “impurity” (akatharsia), a concept that in the Old Testament primarily referred to one’s ritual status in the temple cult and one’s ritual suitability to offer sacrifices. Paul implies that a similar reality exists in the Jesus cult. Even for Gentile Christians, there are acts that destroy one’s ability to enter the presence of God properly. Although Jesus has cleansed us from the pollution of this idolatrous world at the cost of his own blood, it’s possible to jump right back into the filth. What a slap in the face this must be for God! What pain this must cause for our redeemer!

In the Other Letters of Paul

Paul exhibits a similar concern about the relationship of sexual behavior to holiness in several of his letters. In Romans 1:24-32, we find many of the same words present in 1 Thessalonians 4:3-8: passion, lust, impurity and honor. Here, too, Paul links together illicit sexual practices, Gentile idolatry and God’s wrath. Likewise, Paul’s instructions in Ephesians 5:3-8 and Colossians 3:5-7 contain the much the same laundry list of terms, with the addition of the words for “sexual immorality” and “covetousness” also found in 1 Thessalonians 4:3-8.

Paul’s concerns in 1 Thessalonians 4:3-8, then, are not limited to this letter. We find them expressed in several places in the Pauline corpus.

Because God Says So

Sanctification is God’s will for us. Sexual immorality is the opposite of the holiness God desires. It affects our current status with God and threatens our future blamelessness when Jesus comes again. Paul underscores the importance of this point as he closes this discussion in 4:8:

Anyone who rejects this instruction does not reject a human being but God, the very God who gives you his Holy Spirit.

This parallels Paul’s statement in 4:2:

For you know what instructions we gave you by the authority of the Lord Jesus.

These parallel statements form an inclusio, a set of literary brackets that mark out sections of the text. The structure reinforces the divine authority of Paul’s instruction and emphasizes its importance. Paul’s words carry the sanction of the Lord Jesus and the Holy Spirit.

If Paul believed that sexual conduct was spiritually significant in the eyes of God, even in the permissive social environment ancient Greece, perhaps we shouldn’t be so quick to dismiss God’s concern for sexual morality as a relic of a bygone era. Maybe we should figure out what this “porneia” means in our context and abstain from it. Perhaps we should conduct our sexual lives in a holy, honorable and pure manner, for the sake of our walk with God today and our standing before him at the Lord’s appearing.

Some Exegetical Notes

Porneia

I take porneia as a broad, indefinite reference to sexual immorality, such as the kind condemned in the Old Testament and/or understood by Jews in the first century.

If you are looking for a legalistic definition of damnable sexual conduct or a list of permissible and impermissible sexual behaviors, the meaning of the word porneia may matter greatly.

The word porneia was closely related to prostitution, which was widely practiced and tolerated in the Greco-Roman culture. The noun porne, after all, basically means “prostitute.” Resorting to prostitutes did not generally carry a moral stigma in the culture.

Paul strongly opposed the use of prostitutes in 1 Corinthians 6. Of course the use of prostitutes is inherently exploitive, and one reason that Jesus publicly extolled the repentance of prostitutes in the gospels is that he recognized their human worth in the eyes of God. Paul’s objection to the use of prostitutes, however, is more related to what it does to the user than in what it does to the abused. Sex unites a person to one’s partner in a way that God reserves for husbands and wives. Union with a prostitute thus damages one’s union with Christ.

Some prostitution was apparently associated with temple cults. The use of temple prostitutes, then, would have a doubly negative effect, entailing both sexual sin and implication in idolatry.

Nevertheless, I don’t think Paul intended to limit his use of porneia here or elsewhere to temple prostitution or prostitution in general. Porneia can mean “sexual immorality” in general.

The Matthean exception for divorce (“except for porneia“), for example, doesn’t likely mean, “unless his wife is a temple prostitute.” When Jesus’ opponents boasted that they were not born “from porneia” in John 8:41, they were surely not limiting their claim to their mother not being a paid for sex. Is cultic prostitution the only Gentile sexual behavior frowned upon by the Jerusalem council in Acts 15, or does porneia also have a more general application?

In 1 Corinthians 5:1, Paul’s use of porneia clearly refers to a form of incest, not prostitution. Paul also sometimes used the word in a general list of vices (e.g., Ephesians 5, Colossians 3) that resemble 1 Thessalonians 4:3-8. In these cases, a narrow reference to prostitution would seem inappropriate.

While porneia surely includes prostitution in general – and specifically cultic prostitution – not every instance of its use requires such a narrow interpretation. If there are echoes of prostitution in the word, the specific act serves as a stand-in for the more general vice. (As an analogy, think of the phrase “knock out,” which can refer to either the specific act of pummeling someone to unconsciousness or, by extension, the more general act of eliminating an opponent or an obstacle.)

While 1 Thessalonians reveals Paul’s concern for idolatry, I take porneia in 1 Thessalonians 4:3 to be a general reference to the sexual sins characteristic of the idolatrous Greco-Roman world.

Skeuos

I am taking “vessel” (skeuos) in 4:4 as a generic reference to one’s body, and the phrase eidenai hekaston humon to heautou skeuos ktasthai en hagiasmo kai time (“[fully] knowing each one of you, one’s own vessel to possess in holiness and honor”) as a broad reference to self-control.

There are other possibilities.

“Vessel” sounds vaguely sexual in a euphemistic way. It might, then, refer to a man’s sex organ. In that case, Paul would be saying “What you do with your penis matters.”

Other translators have followed 1 Peter 3:7 and rendered “vessel” as “wife.” As a sexual euphemism, “vessel” might naturally be more feminine than masculine. In that case, Paul might either be saying,  (1) “When you decide to marry, don’t do so just because you are driven to have sex; do it in a way that is holy and honorable” (if the verb ktaomai [the range of meaning centers on “to get, gain or obtain”] emphasizes the beginning of the marriage) or (2) “don’t mistreat your wife by having sex outside your marriage or abusive sex inside of it; maintain the holiness and honor of your marriage relationship” (if the present infinitive mood of the verb emphasizes the continuing state of the marriage). Both interpretations can find support in 1 Corinthians 7 in which Paul talks about the conditions for entering marriage and the importance of husbands and wives respecting each other’s conjugal rights. One more interpretation is also possible. There is no adversative particle, but if we focus on the opposition of porneia and holiness, Paul might be saying (3) “abstain from sexual morality; instead, get yourself a wife and have relations that are holy and honorable.”

So, there are several possibilities within the vessel-as-wife realm of interpretation. I’m not sure, however, that even the 1 Peter use of “vessel” requires a feminine connotation here. In 1 Peter 3:7, the wife is not just a “vessel” but the “weaker vessel.” Presumably, in 1 Peter’s view, the husband could be the “stronger vessel.”

And Paul sometimes uses “vessel” as a more general stand-in for people. In Romans 9, Paul speaks of vessels who receive God’s wrath and vessels who receive God’s mercy. In 2 Corinthians 4, “earthen vessel” is an image of human weakness and mortality.

Most of all, the structure suggests that “knowing self-control” correlates with “abstaining from sexual morality.” Both clauses begin with an infinitive and flesh out the meaning of sanctification.

Taking 1 Thessalonians 4:4, then, in the general sense of “self-control” makes the most sense to me.

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