Throughout the New Testament we see a variety of approaches to ministry. We see the apostles encouraging churches, teaching them, pleading with them, challenging them to think differently. Sometimes we see calls to come up higher; other times guidelines on what to let go and what to take up. And sometimes, we see straightforward commands. This is one of those passages.
From the standpoint of ministry, it's important that we see there is a place for giving instructions. Certainly there is value in training disciples to discover God's Word for themselves; it's important that the faith-walk of a church be authentic and not empty legalism. Some topics do lend themselves to dialogue and a questioning, socratic-type method. But it seems to me that our post-modern culture has infiltrated the church in a dangerous way when this becomes our default method, especially in areas where Scripture leaves no wiggle-room. The "soft theology" of discovery and raising questions can lead to relativism when it's not balanced by Scriptural "hard theology" of sound doctrine and clear-cut commands. Sexual morality is one area where "instructions" are called for.
The word translated "instruct" in its various forms literally means "commandment". These are not options! Paul and his team aren't presenting one option among many. Instead, they lay out specific rules - significantly, "by the authority of the Lord Jesus." What does Jesus say about sexual morality?
- We are to be set apart. "It is God's will that you should be sanctified." Sanctified means to be set apart. This world is broken in every way due to sin - including sexual brokenness. Christians are not to be like the world. Our approach to sexual morality should be one area where we are set apart. Other Biblical passages make clear what that should look like: Sexual intimacy is reserved for marriage between a husband and wife, and anything that defiles that should be rejected.
- We are to avoid sexual immorality. "Avoid" means to hold oneself back, to abstain. It means that we are not to go in the direction of immorality but instead in the direction of purity. It's not just about avoiding certain acts; we are to pursue a lifestyle of purity that holds us away from sexual immorality.
- We are to control our body in a holy, honorable way. When we belong to the Lord, we don't get to "lose control". Our body is His temple and therefore, we are stewards of His temple. We must control ourselves in a holy, honorable way. We handle ourselves in a way that reflects His holiness and brings honor to His name which we bear. Paul contrasts this to "passionate lust" - a hedonistic, physically oriented lack of control which characterizes those who don't know God.
- We are never to wrong or take advantage of someone in the area of sexual morality. To the Thessalonians this most certainly meant not being involved sexually with another man's wife, as was common in that culture. In fact, Thessalonica was known for sexual immorality being practiced in the guise of the religions of that day. Paul makes it clear that the church should be distinguished by not sharing spouses, but also by not taking advantage of another person. We might not have Thessalonica's sexual mores, but examples abound of "taking advantage of" another person in this way. In Paul's teaching of Jesus' instructions, morality is not based on consent. It's based on marriage, self-control, and love for others that would never take advantage of a weakness for selfish passion.
These are hard, direct words. Paul doesn't shy away from sharing them. That's the ministry lesson tucked into this teaching: Don't be scared to share truth under the authority of the Lord Jesus.
Yes, we can trust the Holy Spirit in the lives of other believers, but we have to realize that He uses teachers, pastors, and other leaders (Eph 4) to mature the church. It's great when we get to have a good discussion. But sometimes, we all need some clear instructions.