Sexual Ethics

by O. P. Martin


Many people in the world seem to have the attitude that Christ and sex are at odds with each other. How untrue. God has created sex and it is a beautiful thing. God has also given rules for its proper expression that will ensure the greatest happiness if followed. The proper expression is a committed, public marriage between a man and a woman, and considerable freedom is allowed within these boundaries.

At the same time, many today are not anywhere near strict enough with sexual mores. God is very clear that we are to honor marriage between one man and one woman. He provides penalties, some severe, for violating that trust. But often, in an effort to do something about the loose morals of less serious Christians, the church overcompensates by teaching things that go beyond the intent of scripture. We will be best served by doing things God's way.

I have observed that in some Christian circles any slight sexual deviation from the cherished sensibilities are regarded as a worse sin than all the rest combined. This is out of balance. No wonder the world laughs at the alleged separation between God and sex. On the other hand, let me not promote licentiousness, but say frankly that those who think they are Christians while still living in lifestyles of fornication, adultery, divorce, and homosexuality in opposition to God's Word are fooling themselves.

This is the sad state of affairs in Christendom: some preach over-strictly regarding the sexual arena, while most professing Christians in our culture do not practice even a basic minimum standard of conduct we should expect from believers.

Obviously the platitudes are not working. Making the rules stricter is never better than enforcing the existing rules. What we need are fear of God, love of God, devotion to put God first, honor, respect of our fellow man whom we are hurting, balance, and personal and church discipline.


Some Christians act as if having thoughts about sex is sin. What does the Bible say? Jesus said, Matthew 5:28 "But I tell you that anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart." Now, the word lust simply means strong desire, and can be good or evil in the Bible (Galatians 5:17). In this case, it clearly refers to an evil type. But, what kind of desire? What has he already committed with her in his heart? Sex? No. It is sexual sin, or adultery, which is having sex outside of marriage, that is the culprit, and is against God's law. If you are finding yourself wishing to experience sex in a way which is improper as defined in the Lord's list of holy precepts, you are sinning. This list nowhere says that one cannot have a desire to be married. God has given us imagination as part of our being and he expects us to use it.

Where do you draw the line? To me, pure thoughts can include imagining what it might be like to be married with a person, whether someone we know or imaginary, through moral means. If the story line is God-honoring by keeping the marriage bed pure, it is a good thing. If one dwells on a thought which glorifies an improper relationship, such as adultery or fornication, or if a story line desires to achieve our goals through means which are against the law of God without consequences, it is sin. And, we ought to take sin seriously. We should pray, confess, ask for forgiveness and help, and try not to do that by switching the mind to something pure. But there is no law which says that one must actually be married to, nor get someone's permission in reality, before having a private, godly fantasy about them.

Remember: desiring to do evil is sin, not desiring to do something that is right and good.

Imagination is a what-if game that is a normal part of the way God made us to think. And, pleasure, in itself, is not a sin. But, if married, try to be content with your spouse. Remember the grass only seems greener on the other side of the fence. The safest place to be is in the middle of God's will - in this case to stay married. Similarly, singles should be content with singleness.

Beware of lasciviousness and covetousness. Covetousness means desiring something that rightfully belongs to someone else, and lasciviousness means unbridled, excessive desire to feel licensed beyond the confines of the law. Both draw us to the law of God to see what is permissible and what is not. It is improper either to think too lowly of God's will or to restrict where God hasn't.

I should say that while I believe that some recreational time for self-gratifying fantasies is acceptable if they are God-honoring stories, we should strive to prioritize our time such that the lion's share is spent serving God and others, according to the abilities He gives us.


Many Christians also sincerely believe that masturbation is a sin. Some churches even teach that. But, the Bible nowhere says that. In this case, it is a personal choice between you and God. If doing it always leads you into sin, perhaps you had better not. On the other hand, if not doing it will cause you to act out in sin, then you know what to do. If we can go either way without major trouble, this is a good thing. Of course, those who are married should give first preference to their spouse out of love for them. Those of us who do masturbate should strive to have pure thoughts in the process, thoughts of marriage and godly relationships. We may have to pray for progressive victory in this area. Churches should not bring teachings that go beyond what the scripture says (1 Corinthians 4:6). That is downright harmful. Colossians 2:23 "Such regulations indeed have an appearance of wisdom, with their self-imposed worship, their false humility and their harsh treatment of the body, but they lack any value in restraining sensual indulgence."

Since the Bible nowhere explicitly mentions masturbation, (and it does spell out numerous sexual sins precisely), I believe that this is a personal choice between the individual and God. But, I do not want to be a stumbling block. If you believe it is a sin, don't do it; for you it is sin.

There is a long, detailed list in the Mosaic Law of sexual sins, which gives us a good idea of how God feels about the proper expression of sexuality. The fact that something so obvious as masturbation is conspicuously absent from such a list shows that we have no right to prohibit others from the practice. Many Christians today erroneously seem to feel that masturbation causes the sin of lust. But, certain early church fathers in their zeal castrated themselves, only to find that that did not solve the problem.

I have heard the "Onan" argument against masturbation, but must disagree with it. God was displeased with Onan because he refused to bear children for his dead brother as required by law (Deuteronomy 25:5-10), probably because of the financial considerations, while pretending to do so. God holds us accountable for the laws He has revealed to us, not imaginary ones. Also, it says he spilled his semen while lying with the woman, not while alone, making it even more of a stretch. Ultimately, though, one must obey one's conscience.

For those struggling with pornography who wish to stop the habit, someone has suggested prayerfully working on showing God's true love to the real women in your life, along with everyone else, and being more authentic with them, without, of course, succumbing to the temptation to sexual sin with them.

I would not have thought it a good idea to raise this question of conscience, except that certain churches have already raised it with their teaching. Having said that, we now turn to forms of expression which are clearly prohibited by the Lord, yet which today are rampantly abused even by those calling themselves Christians.

God's Law

What is God's penalty for fornication? For adultery? Rape? How does He feel? Does anyone know? In the Mosaic law these things are spelled out clearly and in detail, and we can see that God's priorities are not always the same as those of our culture, or sometimes even the Christian culture. Exodus 22:16 "If a man seduces a virgin who is not pledged to be married and sleeps with her, he must pay the bride-price, and she shall be his wife." Let's hear this verse preached from the pulpit today! Usually they say that the unmarried Christian couple that falls into sexual sin should separate, the exact opposite of what God says. No wonder we are in such a mess. Now, adultery: God says that the government should put both parties, which are proven guilty on the testimony of more than just one person, to death. Notice God's priority on marriage. It is always beneficial for a society to follow the statutes the Almighty has graciously given us for our own good.

Homosexuality is also a death-penalty item (Leviticus 20:13). My friend brought up a good point. I agree that all different kinds of sin are all sin and any one of them is enough to separate us from God apart from the cross of Jesus. I am a sinner.

What about rape? It depends, once again, on the marital status. If both parties are unmarried and eligible, the penalty is exactly the same as for seduction. They should get married. Deuteronomy 22:29 also says, "He can never divorce her as long as he lives." Imagine what would happen if we enforced that. If the woman is already married to someone else, then it is adultery, and the penalty of death is appropriate. So, our modern preoccupation with whether or not the adults were consenting is not so important to God as whether the marriage covenant is honored. He does give consideration, however, to whether it can be proved that the married victim did not cry out for help when they could have. If she didn't, and you can prove it, then she is to be killed as well as the rapist. If she did cry out, or one can't be sure, then the life is spared. God is just and merciful.

Study after study has confirmed that children do best in every way when they grow up in an intact, traditional, loving, disciplined family with one father and one mother. This is nature's way, and it is God's way. We ought to keep the best interests of the children in mind. When a man and woman come together, there is always a greater than zero chance that a baby will result, even with the best contraceptive methods. Murdering the unborn infant is not a moral option. So, God is wise to require marriage.

What can we expect if we keep God's law? God promises that if we as a nation follow His commandments, He will cause us to prosper and be kept free from disease, wild animals, famine, and warfare. If we do not obey, we will be cursed. NIV Deuteronomy 30:19 "This day I call heaven and earth as witnesses against you that I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Now choose life, so that you and your children may live".

Self-control and Singleness

One can find those who advocate that God wants everyone to get married. One can find those who teach that God does not want anyone to get married. Neither is reading the whole Bible. 1 Corinthians 7:38 "So then, he who marries the virgin does right, but he who does not marry her does even better. " - because they can devote themselves whole-heartedly, without divided interests, to the Lord. 1 Corinthians 7:9 "But if they cannot control themselves, they should marry, for it is better to marry than to burn with passion." In general, the second half of 1 Corinthians 6 and all of 1 Corinthians 7 are a wealth of information on sexual ethics.

Since we are going to be with our mate for life, it behooves us to choose carefully. For a Christian, the fiancee must also be a believer. 1 Corinthians 7:39 "A woman is bound to her husband as long as he lives. But if her husband dies, she is free to marry anyone she wishes, but he must belong to the Lord." In fact, the wise thing is to only consider believers at a similar spiritual maturity level to our own. It is better to get to know the person well as friends over a period of time to find out what the person's true character is like in a variety of life situations. Secretly test and watch the prospective spouse to see if they really have an independent relationship with the Lord. They should put Jesus first, and you second. After marriage, the job changes to one of forgiveness, to sticking together through thick and thin. There is a saying, "eyes wide open going in to marriage, eyes half shut thereafter."

One question that comes up frequently is the one of "missionary dating". This is a very hazardous practice, as many have been known to falsly convert to please their partner, and the partner was completely deceived. Also, a couple should not get married if either is a new believer. This is a time of intense growth and life direction change. It is best to wait and see that both partners have a similar spiritual maturity level.

Court, Don't Date

Did you know that dating is a relatively recent development? It was invented in 1914 in the United States. That alone makes it suspect. Apparently, every other culture in history has relied upon courting as the way of preparing for a lifelong marriage partner. We need to choose social structures that promote the Biblical ideal.

Modern dating encourages too much alone time with members of the opposite sex, setting couples up for a fall. And, once moral failure has occurred, the spiritual consequences are enormous, eroding trust in relationships, resulting in a much higher likelihood of divorce. This is alluded to in scripture. Also, constantly breaking up with multiple dating partners is practice for divorce, not marriage. After years of counseling couples at New Life, Dr. Raunikar in his book, "Choosing God's Best", points out that the reasons given for breaking up with a date turn out to be the same excuses given later for abandoning a spouse (p.51).

Courting avoids all that by first requiring the development of one's suitability to function as a spouse and parent. Then comes increasingly intimate friendship in group settings before any alone time is permitted. Only when a partner is identified as a desired spouse does courtship begin, followed by engagement, then marriage.

Many Christians today balk at the notion that spending alone time with a date is dangerous, thinking surely self-control will be enough. But, whom shall we believe: experts with years of experience counseling couples, or "what seems right" - which leads to death? When Scripture says, "don't hang out near her house" (Proverbs 5:8), we can take this to mean that we ought not put ourselves in the position of undue temptation. What would we think of a recovering alcoholic who spends a lot of time hanging out at a bar?


Once married, God places few restrictions on what can be done sexually with a spouse. Even some forms of kink are permissible, if desired. Anything that can be done lovingly is fair game, as long as it falls within the boundaries of God's Law. For example, anything involving third parties would be out.

"Eat, O friends, and drink; drink your fill, O lovers." - Song of Solomon 5:1b.

Indeed, the Bible says that spouses should not deprive each other of sex except by mutual consent and for a short time.


God hates divorce. It is only permissible in a few circumstances. The main allowable grounds are if the partner has been sexually unfaithful. Even then, it is not required, but is an option. Perhaps if your situation is not that the partner slipped up on one occasion and you can forgive them, but that the partner is showing a continuing pattern of adultery, you could pray about the possibility of divorce. Pornography or "emotional" involvement are not severe enough to be considered grounds. Other allowable grounds would be if the unbelieving spouse leaves you. Once again, one might wait until they have become united with someone else before one abandons the possibility that the Lord might reconcile the two of you.

God intends marriage to be a covenant relationship; it is to last until the end of life. When God graciously adopts us as His children through true faith in Christ, it is permanent. Nothing can snatch us out of the Father's hand. This is how we should make it, too, between man and wife.

Just like with any other sin, there is grace and forgiveness available in Jesus for those who believe.

This is not an exhaustive list of all possible sexual ethics. There is much more in the Bible ripe for the reading.


A note on excretory functions: Why do you think our poop smells so bad? My opinion is that, among other things, God wants us to know we are sinful. We have a daily reminder that what comes out of us does not smell good to God. No matter how much we hide ourselves in accomplishments, we always still have that.

Gender Roles

It is very popular these days to allow a talented female to preach. But, passages such as 1 Timothy chapter 2 and others show that this is not God's intention. This does not make the ladies inferior, only submitted. There is order in the universe, and the man was created first and is to be the head over the woman, as Christ is head of the man, in the church, in marriage, and, if we were wise, in government. The man's responsibility is to love the woman, not to harshly lord it over her nor to always give in to her. I will not object to a woman preaching and/or exercising authority over other women and children.

There are rare exceptions in which God uses women as leaders. One such example is Deborah. But, if we read Judges 4 and 5 carefully, we see that there were no men at that time willing to step forward and do the duty that the Lord would have of them. Thus, it is a shameful thing for that situation to occur. Some teachers also dispute the 1 Timothy 2 passage, playing games with the Greek which do not hold water. Bear in mind that at least one denomination in which this is done was started by a woman, so they have to come up with something. But, that does not make it right. I think that it would not be an issue except for the extreme over-feminization of our culture.

In 1947 Carl Zimmerman showed that there is a correlation between the rise and decline of human civilizations and family values. The decline of a society is marked by such things as feminism and loose sexual mores. Later, his bell curve was shown to apply to empires in every part of the world. Our civilization is certainly in decline. The solution, though, is not to fly off to an opposite extreme, as they do in the Muslim world. God is a God of balance. Dr. Zimmerman did notice that sometimes a society in decline would reverse course and prolong its prosperity. Let's pray for revival!


We ought to protect children from all kinds of abuse. Jesus had a fondness for children that brought a new sensitivity to the world that was not present there at the time. But sometimes we are too timid to even discuss sexual topics with our children. That is not good. We are to teach God's word, all of it, to our children. Deuteronomy 11:18-19 "Fix these words of mine in your hearts and minds; tie them as symbols on your hands and bind them on your foreheads. Teach them to your children, talking about them when you sit at home and when you walk along the road, when you lie down and when you get up." I do not believe in lying to children. This includes all popular fables from Santa Claus on down. It is not cute. We can play make-believe instead. There is always a way to follow the law of Christ, and He will reward us.

Billy Graham

Finally, a word about temptation and compromising situations, not to mention appearances, all of which are mentioned in the Bible. 1 Thessalonians 5:22 "Abstain from all appearance of evil." Billy Graham made himself the rule from the very start of his ministry until today, that he would never be alone in a room with a woman other than his wife. In the light of the great number of Christian ministers and men who have been brought down by women, this might not be such a bad idea. It is not an easy rule to enforce. We can see the long-lasting results in the life and work of Dr. Graham. If it is good enough for Billy Graham, it is good enough for me.

Photo by Matthew Montrone from Pexels

© copyright 2005 - 2007, O. P. Martin