Hebrews 13:4

Sexual Immorality

A sermon I heard about a preacher sleeping well after preaching the full counsel of God was basically a good one. I suppose some of God's counsel will give us pause. The (KJV) prohibitions against fornication mean at the very least that I will have to resist temptation, and in some cases make tracks, "flee youthful lusts." The (NIV) prohibitions against sexual immorality, on the other hand, in my opinion are pretty lame, especially in a sermon on giving the full counsel of God. This because of the relative nature of morality. "The popular conscience often regards the prevailing mores as eternal laws of nature and reason."621

I've had people I am close to--or have talked to or overheard--think that sexual immorality means having sex with more than one person during a certain period of time, or it's having sex with someone one does not "love," or having sex without the other's consent, or using a position other than the "missionary" one. I've had a homosexual tell me that his homosexual acts aren't prohibited by the Bible as the law of Moses was done away in Christ. A friend of mine thought that Romans 14 tolerance should apply to his wanting to engage in premarital sex while I thought it was a sin, and he thought that I should not be judging him. Another friend thought adultery was okay as long as they prayed about it first.

In fact I do sleep better for having explained the situation to people, that fornication is prohibited by the counsel of God, although the (NIV) prohibition against sexual immorality wouldn't phase them in the least, as they all thought they'd been following some eternal principle of morality.

Hebrews 13:4 The precise verse that gave the preacher pause, mentioned in his sermon, was--in the KJV-- (Hebrews 13:4) "Marriage is honourable in all, and the bed undefiled: but whoremongers and adulterers God will judge." but which his NIV rendered--to quote in full--, "Marriage should be honored by all, and the marriage bed kept pure, for God will judge the adulterer and all the sexually immoral," which first part at least expresses a different sentiment. My Criswell Study Bible lists a note:

13:4 The first clause has no verb in Greek. If "marriage is honorable in all" is read, the statement becomes a refutation of asceticism, which downgraded marriage. If the imperative is supplied, "let marriage be," the statement becomes a call to purity within marriage.

So in a traditional service the preacher changed the traditional refutation of asceticism into a call for purity. This bears comment.

The moral contrast of the purity of the marriage bed/wholesomeness of marriage with the vileness of adultery/whoremongering finds somewhat of an analogy in the book Not the End of the World where a fundamentalist Christian moral coalition is having a gathering across the street from a Hollywood movie makers convention. The focus of their attention was on the "Whore of Babylon" a low grade porn movie actress who was discovered to be the daughter of a Christian right wing Senator. (The movie she was in had Babylon in the title, whence the name.) Anyway, one of the crazies has planted a bomb on a yacht full of movie producers which he plans to blow up unless the "Whore of Babylon" sacrifices herself instead. Here is their moral dilemma:

    But then that was what this lunatic wanted them to think about, wasn't it? That was what he wanted the whole world to think about. Not generally who would most deserve to die for their perceived sins 'against God and America', but whether Madeleine Witherson deserved to die more than the people on the boat.
    Morality as a mathematical equation, the cold logic that would occupy the minds of the vultures back home, watching the pictures relayed by the 'copters sweeping back and forth over their floating limbo.
    The people on the boat may have been accused of polluting the minds with their movies but, really, do we know exactly which movies these particular people were responsible for? Or quite what the effects they had on their viewers? Because basically, they were just making a living, really, weren't they?, and a few transgressions of taste aside, they surely didn't set out to pollute or corrupt or any of these things. But Maddy Witherson, well, that was a different story. No room for interpretation there. She was a sinner. She was, by definition, a whore. She had sex for a living. And worse, she had sex before cameras so that her behavior could disseminate its influence far and wide.
    Those people on the boat had families. Children, wives, husbands. Witherson didn't have a husband, or kids either, and her father had all but disowned her. So who would miss her?
622

I'd say Hebrews has a similar moral comparison for those who are advocating asceticism. Yes, God will definitely judge the adulterers and whoremongers because of their demonstrably harmful influence on family and society, like Maddy Witherson's. But the poor blokes who just want to live their lives raising families, it is kind of nebulous precisely what harmful influence they are exerting. "A few transgressions of taste" don't bring the same level of condemnation. Let's take a historical example where it might've been good to so apply Hebrews 13:4 traditionally.

Scandal in Brownists Alley623
    Bitter strife had meantime broken out in London between Francis Johnson and his brother George. In 1594, while still in the Clink, Francis had married Thomasine Boys, the dashing widow of the Fleet Street haberdasher who had died a martyr to the cause. Thomasine, it appears, was a true Elizabethan, gay and spirited, fond of jewelry, pretty clothes, and even a frilly extravagance or two. With a small fortune of her own to indulge her tastes, she was obviously the envy of poorer and plainer sisters in the congregation. Gossip about her seeped into the prisons and came to the ears of George Johnson in the Fleet, who took a very serious view of the matter, sharply rebuking his brother and his wife, demanding a pledge of instant reform. When nothing came of this, to the schoolmaster's pained surprise, he turned to the members of the congregation and insisted that they should command "better walking." Again he was disappointed, for the members were "loth & would not," which left George quite beside himself in impotent rage.
    The breaking point came when Thomasine adopted [honored martyr] Penry's oldest daughter, Deliverance, a child of five. This was more then George could bear. He would not, he shouted, stand idly by and see the innocent child corrupted by the pastor's wife, who was nothing but a "bouncing girl," as bad in her way as the wife of the Bishop of London. Why, she wore "3, 4 or 5 gold rings at once!" As for the "whalebones in her breast" and the busks she wore to point her shapely figure--well, said George, "many of ye saincts are greeved." Let her remove her rings and "excessive deal of lace," take off her whalebone stays, exchange her "showish hat for a sober taffety or felt," and stop wearing musk and fancy white ruffs stiff with starch, "the Devill's liquor." Thomasine bluntly told George to mind his own business, but the latter went on hurling Scriptural texts and personal abuse at the pastor and his wife. Francis spiritedly replied in kind, and so the Millinery War continued, to the shame of all the Separatists.
    A truce in this unseemly brawl was forced in 1597 when the quarreling brothers and Elder Studley, after five years in jail without trial, were ordered deported to America. They embarked with a company of settlers going out to found a colony at the mouth of the St. Lawrence. When one of the vessels floundered, the other put back and tied up at Southampton, where the prisoners made their escape and got away to Amsterdam. Shortly after their arrival the group was reorganized. Francis Johnson was retained as pastor. ...
    All seemed to be going well when the Millinery War flamed anew, occasioned by Thomasine's refusal to invite hungry and homeless George to live in the combination parsonage-meeting house which the congregation had rented on the Green Rampart. Again Scriptural texts and personal slanders flew thick and fast until Francis excommunicated his brother and publicly consigned him to the devil, with Ainsworth protesting such extreme measures. At this point the brothers' aged father was so ill-advised as to enter the fray, crossing from Yorkshire with the hope of restoring peace--a hope fervently shared by the Dutch, who were tired of the clamor. For his pains, he too, was publicly consigned to the devil by Francis. "Hath the like unnaturalness been read or heard of!" he exclaimed. It was enough to persuade even the most obtuse parents "to hold their children from learning and studying in the Universities." The shocked and disillusioned old man returned home, taking George with him, and the latter was promptly in trouble again. Jailed as a heretic, he soon died in Durham prison, waging the Millinery War to the last. Death overtook him on page 214 of the monumental work he devoted to the subject. Published at Amsterdam in 1603 and widely circulated, it was seized upon with glee by every enemy of the Separatists, "alias Brownists, the factious Brethren of these Times."
624

It just seems to me that Thomasine was guilty of nothing beyond "a few transgressions of taste." She, after all, "didn't set out to pollute or corrupt" anyone. And where, in fact, does one draw the line on clothing and jewelry? One ring? Two? No, the whole institution of marriage is honorable in all, including the raising of children, and doesn't call for the "extreme measures" of the ascetics.

But the change from the traditional rendering of Hebrews 13:4 to the modern exhortations to purity in marriage would only serve to add fuel to the fire in the Millinery War or any similar debate. Therefore I must reject that NIV and similar versions. Furthermore, I have a scriptural basis for complaining about the rejection of the traditional wisdom in scripture. (Jer. 8:7-9) "Yea, the stork in the heaven knoweth her appointed times; and the turtle and the crane and the swallow observe the time of their coming; but my people know not the judgment of the LORD. How do ye say, We are wise, and the law of the LORD is with us? Lo, certainly in vain made he it; the pen of the scribes is in vain. The wise men are ashamed, they are dismayed and taken: lo, they have rejected the word of the LORD; and what wisdom is in them?" Jeremiah, to be sure, was complaining about the loss of traditional wisdom of oral passing of God's word, but the same can be said about the loss of traditional wisdom in established text.

    Oral tradition was passed down from one generation to the next. Moreover, as William Graham argues in his book Beyond the Written Word: Oral Aspects of Scripture in the History of Religion, even the written word is relational. That is to say, "A text becomes 'scripture' in active, subjective relationship to persons, and as part of a cumulative communal tradition. No text, written or oral or both, is sacred in isolation from a community."625 Likewise, even after oral tradition is textualized, it never completely escapes a fundamental orality....
    We may take as one example of the tensions between oral tradition and the written word that were part of early Judaism and Christianity a halachaic discussion between Rabbi Elazar ben Azaria and Rabbi Akiba. Elazar rejects Rabbi Akiva's scriptural interpretation in favor of oral tradition. Elazar says, "Even if you explicate the verse all day long I won't accept it, rather it is oral torah given to Moses from Sinai" (cf. Sifra Tzav, Parashah he, Pereq Yod Alef, 34b-35a; B. Menahot, 89a). ...
    The Bible was now written. But the struggle for the Bible was not yet over. In the first centuries of the Common Era, the text still had to press its claim to sole religious authority in Judaism and Christianity, which were in their formative stages. The role of biblical literature as authoritative Scripture would be one of the essential issues as these religious traditions struggled to define themselves. Both Christianity and Rabbinic Judaism emerged out of popular culture. They were not sponsored by the state, nor did they emerge from institutional religion. Because of this, the written word played an uneasy role in early Christianity and formative Judaism.
626

Our word of God comes from tradition, which accumulated wisdom gave us the King James Version in English, which I have used at church before our current preacher ever got here, and with people, some of them, at other places before there even was published a NIV. The accumulated wisdom of the saints used the KJV Bible long before any NIV.

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Author:

Earl Gosnell
Box 3492
Eugene, OR 97403

Contact: feedbackatbibles.n7nz.org

Copyright © 2005, Earl S. Gosnell III

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This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Licence.

Permission is hereby granted to use the portions original to this paper--with credit given, of course--in intellectually honest non-profit educational material. The material I myself have quoted has its own copyright in most cases, which I cannot speak for but have used here under the fair use doctrine.

I have used material from a number of sources for teaching, comment and illustration in this nonprofit teaching endeavor. The sources are included in a notes file. Such uses must be judged on individual merit, of course, so I cannot say how other uses of the same material might fare.

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Scripture quotations marked NEW INTERNATIONAL VERSION or NIV are taken from the HOLY BIBLE, NEW INTERNATIONAL VERSION. Copyright © 1973, 1978, 1984 by International Bible Society. Used by permission of Zondervan. All rights reserved.

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