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Paul’s reminder to the Synod on sexual morality

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THE challenging teaching on sexual morality in today’s Prayer Book Epistle reading is as counter-cultural in the post-1960s West as it was in the Roman Empire of the 1st Century AD.

The reading for the 2nd Sunday in Lent is from the Apostle Paul’s first New Testament letter to the Christians in Thessalonica in northern Greece. This, one of Paul’s earliest letters to former pagans converted to Christianity through his proclamation of the gospel, was written in around AD 50 during his second missionary journey:

Furthermore then we beseech you, brethren, and exhort you by the Lord Jesus, that as ye have received of us how ye ought to walk and to please God, so ye would abound more and more. For ye know what commandments we gave you by the Lord Jesus.For this is the will of God, even your sanctification, that ye should abstain from fornication: That every one of you should know how to possess his vessel in sanctification and honour; Not in the lust of concupiscence, even as the Gentiles which know not God: That no man go beyond and defraud his brother in any matter: because that the Lord is the avenger of all such, as we also have forewarned you and testified. For God hath not called us unto uncleanness, but unto holiness. He therefore that despiseth, despiseth not man, but God, who hath also given unto us his holy Spirit’ (1 Thessalonians 4v1-8 – King James Version).

The ‘fornication’ which Paul commanded his Christian readers to avoid is sexual activity outside of heterosexual marriage. On the basis of his commission from Christ as the Apostle to the Gentiles, Paul insisted that anyone who disregards this teaching is disobeying not a human command but rather a divine one. To reject this teaching is to despise God and to incur his eternal judgment. 

In his command to the Thessalonian Christians that they should not behave like ‘the Gentiles which know not God’, Paul deliberately drew a contrast between the pagan culture of the Greco-Roman world in which sexual immorality was rampant and the counter-cultural sexual self-control to which Christians are called.

The Anglican tradition reflects the apostolic teaching, especially in the marriage service according to the Book of Common Prayer in which the minister exhorts the congregation to consider ‘the causes for which Matrimony was ordained’ by God in his ordering of his creation, before and after the Fall of mankind:

‘First, It was ordained for the procreation of children, to be brought up in the fear and nurture of the Lord, and to the praise of his holy Name. Secondly, It was ordained for a remedy against sin, and to avoid fornication; that such persons as have not the gift of continency might marry, and keep themselves undefiled members of Christ’s body. Thirdly, It was ordained for the mutual society, help, and comfort, that the one ought to have of the other, both in prosperity and adversity. Into which holy estate these two persons present come now to be joined.’

As the General Synod meeting in Westminster argues tomorrow and on Tuesday about services of blessing for same-sex couples in the now bogged-down ‘Living in Love and Faith’ (LLF) process, it does so amid deep divisions in the Church of England on sexual morality.  

The conservatives who hold to the traditional Anglican teaching are not the cause of the divisions over LLF; the revisionists who have been manoeuvring for years to change the traditional teaching are the cause of the trouble. It is desperately sad and exhausting (for an evangelical journalist covering Synod) to see the disorder and disunity caused by the arrogant disregard for the clear biblical teaching among revisionist bishops, clergy and lay leaders.  

The Church of England still has tremendous resources in the Church Commissioners’ financial assets, in its 20,000 active clergy and its 16,000 church buildings across England. These could be used for the spiritual and moral transformation of the nation if only its established Church would return to the apostolic standard. 

The Collect for today in its prayer for the divine protection of Christians’ bodies and souls from evil faithfully reflects Paul’s teaching: ‘Almighty God, who seest that we have no power of ourselves to help ourselves: Keep us both outwardly in our bodies, and inwardly in our souls; that we may be defended from all adversities which may happen to the body, and from all evil thoughts which may assault and hurt the soul; through Jesus Christ our Lord.’

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Julian Mann
Julian Mann
Julian Mann is a former Church of England vicar, now an evangelical journalist based in Heysham, Lancashire.

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