Maybe you remember an ancient TV show called Friends. (Can you believe the last season of Friends was in 2004?) There was an episode where Monica asked a friend with whom she had started having sex, “Can we still be friends and have sex?” His answer? “Sure. It’ll just be something we do together—like playing racquetball.”
That notion has morphed today to the phrase “friends with benefits.” Greg Boyd has stated that sex today in our culture is seen as a “morally neutral recreational activity, essentially no different from racquetball.” Our culture has deemed it perfectly okay for sex to be enjoyed recreationally and that best happens outside of marriage.
The idea of setting sex apart only for marriage is a strange idea in our culture today.
The idea of setting sex apart only for marriage was a strange idea in Paul’s first century Greco-Roman culture too. F.F. Bruce writes in his commentary of 1 and 2 Thessalonians:
“…various forms of extramarital sexual union were tolerated and some were even encouraged. A man might have a mistress who could provide him also with intellectual companionship; the institution of slavery made it easy for him to have a concubine, while casual gratification was readily available from a harlot. The function of his wife was to manage his household and be the mother of his legitimate children and heirs. There was no body of public opinion to discourage porneia [the Greek word for sexual immorality], although someone who indulged in it to excess might be satirized on the same level as a notorious glutton or drunkard. Certain forms of public religion, indeed, involved ritual porneia.”
There was a lot of sex in the city of Thessalonica. Many—if not most—of the Christians that Paul is writing to came out of a pagan background where sexual promiscuity was the norm and widely tolerated. They had to learn a new way to walk.
To followers of Jesus’ way in that culture Paul writes: “abstain from sexual immorality.” What Paul is teaching to most people in America or Europe comes off sounding ancient and out of touch. But it is part of what he says is God’s will for them. It is part of their sanctification, the way God has set them apart for his purposes.
Then and now culture says, “Go wherever your body leads you.” Paul teaches to “go wherever your calling leads you.” Their calling was found in his words:
“For this is the will of God, your sanctification…that each one of you know how to control his own body in holiness and honor, not in the passion of lust like the Gentiles who do not know God; that no one transgress and wrong his brother in this matter…” (1 Thess. 4:3-5).
He is saying that marriage is to be based on something more than just sexual attraction, although sexual attraction plays a part in a marriage relationship. There is to be a sanctity about the relationship that honors the marriage and keeps the sexual act within that relationship.
This view of sex and marriage was new to the pagans coming to Christ in Thessalonica. We can guess that many would realize that they had sinned in regards to this teaching. They couldn’t go back and erase their steps.
That’s where the good news comes in. Paul greets them with these words: “Grace to you and peace.” It’s a reminder. It’s a reminder for anyone who hears God’s call and wants to meet him that his path is paved with grace.
And for those who desire to avoid sexual immorality, remember this: when you come to a fork in the road walk towards your calling, not your culture. Culture will often pull you away from God. But your calling will draw you towards him.
So follow God’s plan for marriage. And play racquetball with your friends all you want.
Question: How strong is culture’s pull on your life?