It’s complicated, says Ian Paul. He explains why the Bible give two different answers, and why it’s important for Christians come to the right conclusions on sexual ethics


Source: Eye Ubiquitous / Alamy Stock Photo

When particular issues come up for debate, or are the focus of dispute among Christians, a question that is commonly lurking in the background - and might make its presence felt explicitly - is: “Why this issue? What about all the other things we might debate?”

Behind this question is a broader one of theological importance: are all contested issues of the same importance? And when it comes to questions of ethics, are all sins the same?

I believe scripture offers two quite distinct answers to this.

Answer 1: Yes, all sins are the same

At one level, yes, all sins are the same, in that they represent a human turning from the will and intention of God in the way we live our lives.

Jesus makes this point emphatically in his teaching in the Sermon on the Mount: “You have heard that it was said to the people long ago, ‘You shall not murder, and anyone who murders will be subject to judgment.’ But I tell you that anyone who is angry with a brother or sister will be subject to judgment. Again, anyone who says to a brother or sister, ‘Raca’ is answerable to the Sanhedrin. And anyone who says, ‘You fool!’ will be in danger of the fire of hell.” (Matthew 5:21-22)

To modern ears, this sounds ridiculous. How can being angry with someone be the equivalent to committing murder? Surely the latter is far more serious than the former? We need to notice Jesus’ use of hyperbole and other rhetorical art here - did you spot his threefold examples (angry/‘Raca’/fool)? Jesus is making a rhetorical point against a tendency in his own context to take the teaching of the Torah as applying merely to outward behaviour. 

Any modern reader engaging with the instructions of the Old Testament is quickly struck by how practical it is - what you can wear, what you should and should not eat, how you can farm - focussing on the outer expression of human life. Jesus is here making a counter point, and he does so from the law itself: what matters as much as our actions is our attitude. “Out of the fullness of the heart the mouth speaks” (Matthew 12:34, Luke 6:45), and it is what comes from within that defiles us (Mark 7:20).

In our culture, some people still focus on outward obedience - but mostly we make the opposite error, claiming that ‘It doesn’t matter what you do, it is what you believe that matters’. Jesus’ teaching here corrects both mistakes - what you believe, and how you act, are inextricably linked. That’s his point. 

Other parts of the New Testament teach something similar. James says that “whoever keeps the whole law and yet stumbles at just one point is guilty of breaking all of it.” (2:10) And in teaching “the wages of sin is death” (Romans 6:23), Paul is saying all sin has the same result - it separates us from God. He’s emphatic that the inner life is as important as outer observance: “A person is not a Jew who is one only outwardly, nor is circumcision merely outward and physical. No, a person is a Jew who is one inwardly; and circumcision is circumcision of the heart, by the Spirit, not by the written code.” (Romans 2:28–29)

The point in all this teaching is to emphasise that all have sinned; even the best of us is subject to the power of sin, is far from the holiness of God, and is powerless to change without the new life that God offers us in Jesus by the Spirit. 

Answer 2: No, different sins are different

Jesus differentiates between the minutiae of obedience to the instructions of Torah, and the “weightier matters of the law” in his criticism of the Pharisees (Matthew 23:23). This suggests some sins are more serious than others. But note his response - in line with his teaching earlier in Matthew, he does not say that the details are unimportant, rather, “You should have practiced the latter, without neglecting the former.” These different issues are not the same - but they do all matter. 

It was a common point of discussion among Jews in the first century as to what the most important commandments were. When Jesus is challenged on this, he gives an answer that would not surprise his contemporaries - love God (Deuteronomy 6:4), and love your neighbour (Leviticus 19:18) - reflecting the two tablets of the Ten Commandments, the first focussed upward and the second focussed outward. Yet it is striking that Jesus summarises the law from within the law, and in doing so does not allow us to think that the detailed application of these summaries are unimportant. How do we know what it means to love God, to love our neighbour? Well, we need to read the rest of scripture!

This differentiation reflects the whole shape of God’s teaching of his people. We often find summary statements like these, then more general longer instructions, such as the Ten Commandments, then detailed application of these principle in particular circumstances (such as the details found in Exodus, Leviticus, and Deuteronomy). Likewise in Paul’s letters, he often begins his practical teaching with statements of principle, which he then fleshes out in detailed instructions. 

For us as contemporary readers, this means we will need to assess these different levels of commandments in different ways. The ‘higher level’ principles are more likely to apply to us as they are stated - but particular applications, expressed in contextual terms, might well need to be re-expressed in different ways in our own different context. 

How then can we tell the difference?

Both Jesus and Paul continue to single out specific issues as being of distinct importance. Particular judgement is reserved for those who lead “these little ones astray” (Matthew 18:6), and he is using this language to refer to vulnerable disciples, not actual children. Similarly, even though people might find it hard to accept who he is, there is a particular danger for those who have seen Jesus minister in the power of the Holy Spirit and still cannot recognise the power of God in their midst (that is what the “sin against the Holy Spirit” is about in Matthew 12:31-32). 

In his debate with the Corinthians about sexual ethics, Paul notes that “those who sin sexually sin against their own bodies’ (1 Corinthians 6:18). Because God has created us bodily, male and female, because our bodies are not something we have but express who we are, because Jesus gave his body on the cross to redeem our bodies, because our bodies are now the dwelling place of the Spirit, the place of the temple presence of God in the world, and because our hope is that we will be bodily raised on the last day - for all these reasons Paul sees the holiness of our bodies as of particular importance. 

But alongside this emphasis on the body, it is very striking that Paul in other ways refuses to elevate sexual sin above other kinds of offence! In that well-worn list of vices in 1 Corinthians 6:9–11, Paul places his four mentions of sexual sin in a list of 10 offences (do you recognise that number?!), and treats them all equally as things that endanger our inheritance of the kingdom of God if we persist in them. There is no theological reason to pick out any one of these sins and treat it as more important than any other; God’s call to us to live holy lives in the power of the Spirit applies equally to all, and to all areas of our life. 

The churches, sex, and marriage

Why then are so many Western churches, including the Church of England, busy agonising about sex and marriage? Is it a sign that they are obsessed in an unhealthy way?

We need to note three things.

First, the initiative here is coming from our culture, and not from the churches themselves. We live in a highly sexualised culture, and Western cultures currently wear this as a badge of honour, claiming that we are uniquely liberated and enlightened compared with other, more traditional, cultures. Particular offence is taken when sections of society, such as Christian churches, challenge that claim. And I have not yet heard anyone, either within the churches or outside them, call for a formal affirmation of the others sins in Paul’s list of ten!

Secondly, in this kind of context, what has always been a distinctive Christian (and Jewish) sexual ethics comes under particular scrutiny. The late E P Sanders, a leading (liberal) New Testament scholar, writes: “Homosexual activity was a subject on which there was a severe clash between Greco-Roman and Jewish views. Christianity, which accepted many aspects of Greco-Roman culture, in this case accepted the Jewish view so completely that the ways in which most of the people in the Roman Empire regarded homosexuality were obliterated, though now have been recovered by ancient historians…Diaspora Jews had made sexual immorality and especially homosexual activity a major distinction between themselves and gentiles, and Paul repeated Diaspora Jewish vice lists.”

The distinctive sexual ethic that marriage is a lifelong union between one man and one woman is as challenging to our culture as it was in the first century. 

Thirdly, although some claim that this is a secondary issue and not ‘creedal’, that is not in fact the case. This distinctive ethic of sex and marriage springs from believe in God as creator, who made humanity in his image male and female - that is precisely Paul’s argument in Romans 1. According to Paul, rejection of this ethic is a rejection of God’s creation intention, which is in turn a rejection of God as creator.

This explains why, as Darrin Syder Belousek highlights: “The creational-covenant pattern of marriage…is a consensus doctrine of the church catholic. Until the present generation, all Christians everywhere have believed, and every branch of the Christian tradition has taught, that marriage is man-woman monogamy…Marriage, the whole church has always confessed, is not only a monogamous union but also a man-woman union.’

The Reformers agreed with the Roman Catholic Church on the content of the creeds. But they believed that the Church of their day had taken a decisive step away from the authority of scripture and the teaching of Jesus - enough to make a break with them in order to be faithful to the apostolic inheritance of the early church. Many believe the same is true today.