Acts 15 and Sex: How then should we Gentiles live?

Acts 15

The challenge of translating sexual terms was partly brought to my attention because of the succession of events found in Acts 15. Paul and Barnabas had a heated discussion with some men who came to Antioch from Jerusalem and said, “Unless you are circumcised, according to the custom taught by Moses, you cannot be saved.” This led to a big conference in Jerusalem, where Paul, Barnabas, Peter and others spoke, and ended with the decision to send out a letter to deal with the controversy. In vs. 23 of chapter 15 we see that it is a letter from the Jewish leaders to the Gentiles: “The brothers, both the apostles and the elders, to the brothers who are of the Gentiles in Antioch and Syria and Cilicia, greetings.” Then verse 29 communicates their decision: “that you abstain from what has been sacrificed to idols, and from blood, and from what has been strangled, and from sexual immorality. If you keep yourselves from these, you will do well. Farewell.”

Notice the most interesting list in vs. 29:

  1. that you abstain from what has been sacrificed to idols,

2. and from blood,

3. and from what has been strangled,

4. and from sexual immorality.

Eating together can cause good communion or division

The letter is not a four spiritual laws type of list. It contains three requests to abstain from certain types of food, and the other admonition is to abstain from sexual immorality. F.F. Bruce (p. 311) says in regards to the food recommendations: “In most of the churches, Gentile believers had to live alongside Jewish believers, who had been brought up to observe various food laws.” “James asked them to respect their Jewish brethren’s scruples by avoiding ‘these things’.” It is hard for people in modern times imagine how repugnant meat with blood was to the Jewish people. They had grown up from early childhood with these laws and regulations. Now, as a result of them giving their hearts to Jesus, and Gentiles doing the same, for the first time in their lives, and we might even say, in history, these “people of the law” are having close communion with Gentiles, people who were accustomed to eating meat with blood, or meat that had been sacrificed to idols.

In that era, almost all communion included food, so this was something they had to deal with practically every time they came together. At that time the idea of the First Christian Church of the Gentiles and a separate First Christian Church of the Jews was not an option. The Bible emphasizes the importance of koinonia, and many of the problems within the church had to do with divisions, strife, bickering, judgment of others, etc. So the letter asked the Gentiles to be willing to adapt in this way for their “weaker brothers.” Paul deals a lot with this issue in his letters as well, for example: Rom 14:20: “Do not, for the sake of food, destroy the work of God. Everything is indeed clean, but it is wrong for anyone to make another stumble by what he eats. It is good not to eat meat or drink wine or do anything that causes your brother to stumble.” 1 Cor. 8, another chapter dedicated to this issue says in verse:13: “Therefore, if food makes my brother stumble, I will never eat meat, lest I make my brother stumble.”

A big difference in sexual mores

Besides the significant differences between Jews and Gentiles in regards to food (and idols), there was also a gulf of difference between them in regards to sexual mores. As a result, FF Bruce (p. 311) says this letter asks the Gentiles to “conform to the high Jewish code of relations between the sexes instead of remaining content with the lower pagan standards to which they had been accustomed. This would smooth the path of social and table fellowship between Christians of Jewish and Gentile birth.” It is hard to overstate how much the difference in sexual mores between the Jews and Gentiles affected their fellowship. The believing Jews had grown up with a strict sexual code to live by while most Gentiles grew up with the opposite. We get a glimpse of their former lifestyle through what Peter, one of the Acts 15 conference attendees and speakers said in his letter (1 Peter 4:3-4a): “For you have spent enough time in the past doing what pagans choose to do–living in debauchery, lust, drunkenness, orgies, carousing and detestable idolatry. They think it strange that you do not plunge with them into the same flood of dissipation.”

Not only was the different views of sex an issue, but the pagan attachment of feasts and sex showed itself in a number of cases. As already mentioned, most meetings among the believers at that time included food. Witherington (p. 13) says that “one should not underestimate the place of sexual expression in some pagan festivals. There is evidence that there were in Roman Corinth numerous hataerae who often served as companions of the well-to-do at meals. 1 Cor. 10:7 is a meaningful warning only if Paul had good reason to assume that sexual play was a regular part of some meals among the pagans.” 1 Cor. 10:7 says: “Do not be idolaters, as some of them were; as it is written: ‘The people sat down to eat and drink and got up to indulge in pagan revelry.’” Quinitilan warns that a teacher of rhetoric should teach his charges about the danger of such feasts, especially because of the possibility of more mature youths or men taking advantage of younger boys in such settings.” (Witherington, p. 13. footnote 31) It is clear that at least something similar was a problem in some churches, reflected in Jude’s warning about the false teachers, with the implication that some of them practiced such things, as vs.12 says: “These men are blemishes at your love feasts, eating with you without the slightest qualm–shepherds who feed only themselves.”

Paul’s letters emphasize sexual purity

It is into this cultural context that Paul writes his letters. Paul’s letters include at least twelve lists of three or more sins, and in every one of his lists, except for one, at least one sexual sin is listed, and in most lists there are three. The one list in Ephesians 4 which does not include a sexual sin is preceded by verses promoting purity, and followed by a list which entreats the Ephesians to flee sexual immortality. Paul contextualizes his instructions not to sin, and one of the biggest sins which he had to confront the people about was illicit sexual relations. (Note also how many times division and strife are mentioned as well.)

In fact, in his writings Paul lists over 65 different sins which his readers were to avoid. Yes, Paul’s main message is that only through Jesus do we find grace, are forgiven and have eternal life. But then the question comes, as Francis Shaffer stated, “How then shall we live?” Since Paul did not expect the Gentiles to become Jews and follow all the laws and customs of the Jewish people found in the Old Testament, he takes the moral laws of God and applies them to the Gentile context in each place he visited.

We can think of the Acts 15 controversy this way: Judaizers sought to change the Gentiles’ religion. (Acts 15:5b: “The Gentiles must be circumcised and required to obey the law of Moses.”). Paul, on the other hand, gives them a message which could change their heart, and gives instructions on how to live a holy life, pleasing to God. His lists are contextualized to deal with their specific sins and temptations, although they included most of the ideas from the 10 commandments.

References:

Bruce, F. F. 1970. The New International Commentary on the New Testament, The Book of Acts. Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publ. Co.

Witherington III, Ben. 1995. Conflict & Community in Corinth. A Socio-Rhetorical Commentary on 1 and 2 Corinthians. Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company.

The following is a list of the Greek sexual terms used in the New Testament. Note how many verses in the New Testament contains a sexual term. This issue is not just some obscure topic. It literally concerns well over one hundred verses.

Greek word Romans letters verses Translations
πορνεία porneīa

 

Mat. 5:32, 15:19, 19:9; Mark 7:21; John 8:41; Acts 15:20, 29, 21:25; Rom. 1:29, 1 Cor. 5:1, 6:13, 18, 7:2; 2 Cor. 12:21; Gal. 5:19; Eph. 5:3; Co. 3:5; 1 Th. 4:3; Rev. 2:21, 9:21, 14:8, 17:2, 4, 18:3, 19:2. Fornication, sexual immorality
πορνεύω porneúw 1 Cor. 6:18, 10:8; Rev. 2:14, 20, 17:2, 18:3, 19:2 sins sexually, sexually immoral person
πόρνη pornh Mat. 21:31-2; Luke 15:30; 1 Cor. 6:15-16; Heb. 11:31; Jas. 2:25; Rev 17:1,5, 15-16, 19:2 Prostitute, harlot, whore
πόρνος pórnos 1 Cor. 5:9-11; Eph. 5:5; 1 Tim. 1:10; Heb. 12:16, 13:4; Rev. 21:8, 22:15 Fornicators, whoremongers, sexually immoral, adulterers (NIV)
ἐκπορνεύω ekporneúw Jude 7 Giving themselves over to fornication/sexual immorality
   
μοιχαλίς

 

moichalis

 

Mat. 12:39, 16:4; Mark 8:38; Rom. 7:3 (2); Jas. 4:4; 2 Pet. 2:14 Adulterous, adulteress, adultery
μοιχεύω moicheúw Mat. 5:27, 28, 32 19.18; Mark 10.19; Luke 16:18; 18.20; John 8:4; Rom. 2:22; 13.9; Jas. 2:11: Rev. 2:22 adultery
μοιχεία moicheía Mat. 15:19; Mark 7.21; John 8:3 Gal. 5.19 Adultery, adulteries
μοιχάω moicháw Mat. 5:32; 19.9; Mark 10.11-12

 

commits adultery
μοιχός moíchos Luke 18:11; 1 Cor. 6:9; Heb, 13:4; Jas. 4:4 Adulterers,
   
ἀσέλγεια

 

asélgeia Mark 7:22; Rom. 13:13; 2 Cor. 12:21; Gal. 5:19, Eph. 4:19, 1 Pet. 4:3; 2 Pet. 2:7, 18; Jude 4 Sensual conduct, sensual passions, lasciviousness,

debauchery, wantonness, lustful desires

Greek word Roman letters verses Translations
πάθος

 

páthos Rom. 1:26; Col. 3:5; 1 Th. 4:5 Vile affections, inordinate affection, lust
πάθος ἀτιμία

 

páthos atimía

 

Rom. 1:26 dishonorable passions, shameful lusts,
ἐπιθυμία epithumía Rom. 1:24, 6:2, 7:7-8, 13:14; Gal. 5:16, 24; Eph. 2:3, 4:22; Col 3:5; 1Th 4:5; 1 Tim 6:9; 2Tim. 2:22, 3:6, 4:3; Tit. 2:12, 3:3; Jas. 1:14-15; 1Pet. 1:14, 2:11, 4:2-3; 2Pet. 1:4, 2:10, 18, 3:3; 1Joh. 2:16-17; Jude 16, 18. Lusts, sinful desires
ὄρεχις órexis Rom. 1:27 lust
ἐκκαίω ekkaío Rom. 1:27 inflamed, consumed with passion
κῶμος

 

kómos Rom 13:13; Gal. 5:21; 1 Pet. 4:3 Orgies, rioting, revellings, carousing
κοίτη

 

koith (Luke 11:7, Rom. 9:10) 13:13; Heb. 13:4 Bed, chambering, sexual immorality
μαλακός malakós (Mat. 11:8(2); Luke 7:25) 1 Cor. 6:9 Soft, effeminate, male prostitute
ἀρσενοκοίτης arsenokoítes 1 Cor. 6:9, 1 Ti. 1:10 Abusers of themselves with mankind, defile themselves with mankind
ἀκαθαρσία akatharsía Mat. 23:27; Rom. 1:24; 6.19; 2Cor. 12:21; Gal. 5.19; Eph. 4:19; 5.3; Col 3:5; 1Th 2:3, 4:7 Uncleanness, impurity

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