The opposite sex: 1 Thessalonians 4:1-9
Paul here is writing to the church leaders in Thessalonica, and he addresses them as brothers because they were all men. He exhorts them in many ways, but the basic message is that they are to beseech the Lord to “make your love increase and overflow for each other and for everyone else”. (3:12) Paul is simply echoing the injunction of Jesus in John 13:35, that we are to love one another and that our love for one another would be how we would be known as disciples of Jesus. As Jesus did, Paul connects a) the ‘love of these brothers for one another’ directly with b) ‘holiness in the very presence of God’.
Now, Paul saves one of the most important principles as his last exhortation. He starts with an encouragement in v.1, challenging these church leaders to continue living in faith. They should all be sanctified, and every one of them should avoid sexual immorality – specifically, that each person should learn to control their bodies in such a way that is holy and honorable. Now this last phrase can also be translated as ‘learn to live with his wife’ or ‘learn to acquire a wife’, so Paul in essence is giving two commands: 1. that each married man was to avoid sexual immorality by living with his own wife in such a way that is holy and honorable, and 2. that each single man was to go about finding a spouse in such a way that was holy and honorable. He then in v. 5, writes that those who do not know God either a.) live with their wives in passionate lust or b.) go about gaining a wife in passionate lust. The former mainly concerned the adulterous practices of married men. It was common in the 1st century for a married man to have three types of sexual partners: his wife, a slave girl with whom he could have sex at his discretion since the girl was his property, and the local prostitute whom he visited whenever he wished. Although Greek philosophy gave us many wonderful things, one sad remnant in the 1st century of Greek philosophy was the value of a woman – about 1/3 that of a man, somewhere between a dog and a man. So the married man could treat his wife this way, and it was fine in that culture since the woman had very little value. The latter b.), was also obvious. Single unbelieving men went about finding a wife however they wanted, via immoral sexual practices – much like today. The single man often tried many partners and had much sexual practice before he got married, often the young man was taught by his father to visit prostitutes, have sex with their slave girl, and the like.
Now, none of this is surprising since Paul was speaking of the heathen – those that do not know God. Just like I don’t expect any of my non-Christian friends to shudder at all when an unmarried couple engages in sex, these 1st century brethren who were church leaders in Thessalonica probably don’t bat an eyelid knowing how sexually immoral the non-Christians in their day were.
The surprise comes in v.6. Paul tells these church leaders that the very reason why they shouldn’t live with their wives in passionate lust or go about gaining a wife in passionate lust is that if they did– they would wrong their Christian brother and take advantage of him. Whoa, what is this? Is Paul here speaking of homosexual love? Well, it’s clear that Paul isn’t speaking of homosexual acts – since he’s telling these brothers that they are not to be like the heathen in matters concerned with their wives or future wives. Something’s amiss here, how could they wrong their brother in Christ by lusting after some woman? We see that if these church leaders – either single or married – continued in this fashion, they would be sinning directly against the Lord (v.7), and that if they rejected this particular instruction they were rejecting the instruction of God himself (v.8).
We see the answer in v.9, that what they were to do as followers of Jesus Christ – was to love their brother as himself. So if these church leaders were somehow inappropriate in how they went about acquiring a wife or going outside the confines of marriage sexually – they would be wronging their brother in Christ. How can this be?
If a man wrongs a woman, meaning if he has in some way treated her in a fashion that involves dishonor and sin – and does not marry her, he wrongs her future husband. How? Because he was taking advantage of a woman who would one day be someone else’s wife. As a Christian man, he would be engaging in pre-marital relationships with Christian women – if he wrongs a woman, he not only wrongs her but also wrongs her husband (who also would be a Christian), thus he wrongs his brother by wronging a woman whom he has a relationship with. The same applies for women. If a woman wrongs a man and does not marry him – she wrongs his future wife. What exactly though does Paul mean by ‘wrong’ in this context? It seems the sense of wrong that is used is this, if anything is done to or with someone of the opposite sex that is not honorable then you have wronged the person. What does it mean to honor? Honor I think here means to treat them in a pure manner, just like it says in 1 Timothy 5:1-2 “Treat younger men as brothers, older women as mothers, and younger women as sisters, with absolute purity.”
Now what happens if a couple engage in premarital sex and then later get married? They wouldn’t be wronging anyone would they? They don’t wrong a person here, but they wrong God who proclaimed of marriage that ‘they are to be one’ and until that time that no person has the right to another person sexually. Paul was pointing out that when we sin, we not only wrong God – but when that sin is committed in the context of our Christian family, we wrong our brothers and sisters in Christ by this sin. The same goes for those who are married, we need to be honorable in the way we go about treating members of the opposite sex – especially in the area of lust. Sexual sin affects not only two individuals, but an entire community – the church, the family of God, the bride of Christ. It’s not only our own local church, since if this person is a believer they’ll be attending church somewhere – and many people will be affected by this sin. So what are we to do?
As it says in 2 Chronicles 2:14 that “if my people, who are called by my name, will humble themselves and pray and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways, then will I hear from heaven and will forgive their sin and will heal their land”. The command is clear – purity starts in the house of God. In an age of internet pornography, Christian singles having sex at the same rate as non-Christian singles, adultery in Christian marriages at pretty much the rate as adultery in non-Christian marriages, where sexual abuse by a parent is at an all time high, and in parts of the world where prostitution is the only way to earn a living to support one’s family: What would it be like if we Christians were to treat other Christians of the opposite in the way that God desires, how would that change dating? Our marriages? Our families? Our churches? Our society? Our world? It seems something special would happen if God’s people were to truly love the other members of God’s family and humbled ourselves even in the way we go about our premarital and marital relationships – with purity and honor.