WARNING! Epidemic in the Church

(written in 1987)

Ask the enlightened American what he thinks of Christian sexual morality. To him, it’s a fossil—an antique that went out with washboards and penny candy. Who believes any more what the Bible says about sex? Old ladies and helpless traditionalists, the same quaint folk who still use push lawn mowers, manual typewriters, and clothes that are years out of style.

The moral ice-age is over. Exit the dogmatic dinosaurs of sexual repression. Enter the sensuous sirens of sexual expression. We live in the age of sexual enlightenment, presumably but a few years from sexual utopia. So what does this bright new age look like?

Newspapers publish invitations for sexual partners. A singing telegram service sends male strippers to act out sexual fantasies in private homes. Rows of pornographic tabloids line city streets, available to any child with a curious mind and a few spare quarters. Prostitutes, massage parlors, adult bookstores, strip joints, peep shows, female impersonators, gay baths, singles bars, sadomasochist leather shops—they’ve become as much a part of urban America as skyscrapers and parking meters.

“But that’s just the big city.” My church, believe it or not, is in Boring, Oregon (a town less eventful than its name). Yet a mile away from our church building a tavern features nude dancers. Want ads in a nearby community college’s newspaper solicit homosexual partners. The convenience store down the road stocks a dozen pornographic magazines and a rack of porno novels.

There is open season on sex in this country, and you don’t have to look far to see it.

Incest is at epidemic proportions. Whether at daycare centers or in prostitution-pornography rings, child molesting makes the papers every week. So do rape, sodomy, and serial sex murders. Organized clubs of transvestites, sadomasochists, and pedophiles have joined homosexuals by coming out of the closet and actively lobbying for their rights.

Television, movies, radio, books, magazines, newspapers, and music all constantly bombard us with sex. Thousands of industries, from cameras to computers—most of which have about as much to do with sex as athletes have to do with rental cars—use sex to sell their products. Even the scientific journals seem preoccupied with sex. I once saw one article on prehistoric sex and another on insect foreplay.

The sexual revolution has fostered a barnyard morality that robs human dignity. It has resulted in people being seen and treated as sexual objects rather than sexual subjects. It has left us a nation of technological giants and moral dwarves. Millions now live under the burden of sexual expectations and pressures to perform in a prescribed manner. Victims of the tyranny of the orgasm, they feel that unless their sexual experience is what they see in the media-where everyone is effortlessly erotic and every encounter is comparable to nuclear fission—they’re being robbed, or they’re not a real man or a real woman.

Our modern sexual openness is endlessly pawned off as healthy, emancipating, and long overdue. But is our preoccupation with sex really a sign of sexual health? Who talks most about how they’re feeling? Sick people. Who buys the books on car repairs? Those with car problems. Who buys the drain cleaner? Those with clogged drains. Who thinks about, talks about, and buys the most books about sex? Those with sexual problems. The harder we try to drown these sexual problems in a flood of new relationships, erotic magazines, novels, movies, and sex education literature and classes, the louder and more persistently our sexual problems cry out for attention. We have become a nation of sexual misfits.

The more we have sought fulfillment apart from God, the further into the sexual desert we have wandered. Throats parched, lips cracked and bleeding, we are nomads in search of a sexual oasis that forever eludes us. We have turned our backs on the Architect, Engineer, and Builder of human sexuality. We have denied his authority and ridiculed his servants. Our glands as our gods, we have discarded his directions, burned his blueprint, trampled on the ashes, and, like rebellious children, stalked off to do sex our own way.

High standards of morality—including sexual morality—used to be inseparable from the Christian faith. No longer. It is increasingly difficult to discern where the world ends and the church begins.

My observations and conversations confirm there is little difference between the media habits of Christians and those of their non-Christian neighbors. There are those who feel the freedom to miss an occasional Sunday at church (and I do not criticize them for this), but would never miss an episode of “Friends,” “Seinfeld,” or some of the other sitcoms, soaps, television movies, and dramatic series peppered with sexual immorality and innuendo. We are hopelessly naïve to think that Christians do not watch such programs—or that watching them we are somehow immune to their effects.

Three high school students, all Christians and from Christian families, spent the evening in one of their homes watching two video movies. Parents also watched snatches of them. Both movies were rated R and contained sexually explicit language and crude sex scenes. The parents shook their heads in disgust a few times but didn’t want to “spoil the fun,” so said nothing.

I’ve been in several Christian homes where one look in the bedrooms of their teenage sons reveals the best-selling sex symbol posters on the market, rivaling the Playboy foldouts of a generation ago.

Like the frog that boiled to death by degrees, many Christian homes have been gradually desensitized to sexual sin. The result is predictable—immorality is more rampant among believers than ever before.

A 23-year-old announces to his parents, “I’m gay.” A man comes home from a business trip to find his 17-year-old daughter in bed with a boy she’s been dating three weeks. A woman comes home from shopping to find her six-year-old daughter and a teenage neighbor boy naked and fondling each other. A father of two has sex with the 16-year-old babysitter. A high schooler admits to his unsuspecting parents that he is a prostitute. These things didn’t just happen; they happened in Christian families. I know, because they came to me for help.

Cindy is a Christian girl whose fiance’ broke up with her and dropped out of church, disillusioned with the Christian life. When I asked her why, her matter-of-fact reply took me by surprise—”I think it began when I seduced him.” She went on to say, “At first he didn’t want to have sex, but I talked him into it. After that, sex was all he could think about. Then he got bitter at me and at God, and now he’s really messed up.”

John and Pat came into my office with the vague diagnosis of “marriage problems.” When I met with each separately, John described himself as “a man of strong biblical convictions—which is the only thing keeping me from divorcing Pat.” Later John admitted he had been unfaithful to Pat and had carried on “a few affairs” behind her back. “How many affairs?” I asked. “Six,” he replied, with a slight blush (they had been married only eight years).

A friend told me that his church just went through a scandal that rocked the community. A 14-year-old girl was pregnant by her grandfather—one of the church’s elders.

“Randy, something terrible has happened here at the church,” said my friend, calling from another state. “Yesterday one of the pastors left his wife and ran off with another woman.” I was sorry; but not shocked or even surprised. Twenty years ago I would have been surprised. Now I was sad. I have heard the same story too many times to be surprised ever again.

Most of these tragedies are kept as quiet as possible to save churches, Christian organizations, and individuals from embarrassment. Many others have made their way to the public eye, however. In past years these have included a leading Bible college president running off with a student, a pastor engaged in homosexual activities with young boys at his church, and an evangelist found murdered in the bed of his partner in adultery.

Make no mistake about it—the Christian church is riddled with immorality, among the young and the older, the single and the married, the laity and the leadership. No Christian is immune to sexual temptation. We do ourselves no favor to pretend that the same hormones and human weaknesses common to all people are somehow eradicated when we come to Christ. Enslaved by sexual sin in mind and body, plagued and haunted by its guilt, innumerable children of God are tragically incapacitated in their attempts to live for Christ. Nothing so hamstrings the believer’s spiritual potency as sexual compromise—and never has the church in America been so compromised as now.

I know there is a risk in putting such things in print. Yet I believe there is much more to be lost by keeping silent. We can no longer afford the luxury of naivete in this critical area. It is, furthermore, impossible to overestimate the damage done to the cause of Christ by the sexual impurity of his people. The church’s impact on a dark world is lost when believers attempt to straddle a spiritual no man’s land, with one foot on the narrow path of Christ and the other on the broad highway of the world. The more muddled the line between world and church, the more bleak the future of both.

Violating God’s sexual standards is like violating the law of gravity—it has a way of catching up with you. The laws apply regardless of who believes in them and who doesn’t. The unbeliever lives in the same moral universe—God’s universe—as the believer and is therefore liable to the same moral laws (one need not believe in the law of gravity to be subject to it).

“Do not be deceived: God cannot be mocked. A man reaps what he sows. The one who sows to please his sinful nature, from that nature will reap destruction; the one who sows to please the Spirit, from the Spirit will reap eternal life” (Gal. 6:7-8).

The Christian who treats sex with proper sanctity, elevating it in marriage and rejecting it outside, will be blessed and rewarded by God. The believer who plays with sex, takes it lightly, and compromises God’s principles opens up a Pandora’s box that floods his life with a wave of evils he never imagined. Scripture doesn’t deny sin’s attractiveness or its pleasures. It simply says those pleasures are fleeting, while their consequences stick like glue. Viewed from the long haul, sin is always a raw deal.

The Bible has numerous examples of sexual sin and its consequences. Genesis records sexual sin in the lives of the people of Sodom (19:1-29), Lot and his daughters (19:30-38), Shechem (34:1-31), Reuben (35:22), Judah and Tamar (38:1-26), and Potiphar’s wife (39:1-20).

Consider the consequences of these sexual sins. Sodom and Gomorrah were obliterated by God’s judgment. The incest of Lot and his daughters produced two nations: the Moabites and the Ammonites, wicked people who plagued Israel for many generations. Revenge on Shechem’s rape of Dinah resulted in the murder of every man in his city. The sins of Reuben and Judah brought shame to the house of Jacob. The uncontrolled lust of Potiphar’s wife sent Joseph, an innocent man, to prison.

David was as godly a man as Scripture portrays, yet 2 Samuel 11 documents the lust that brought him catastrophe. What began as relief from boredom ended in adultery. Actually, it didn’t end there. David attempted to circumvent the consequences of his adultery—to cheat the law of the harvest—by covering up. In doing so, his sin of adultery expanded to the murder of a righteous man and the death of David’s infant son.

David’s model of immorality was not lost on his family. When David’s son Amnon lusted for his half-sister Tamar, he took what he wanted, just as his father had. This prompted Absalom’s murder of Amnon, followed by David’s banishment of Absalom. That in turn led to the bitterness that divided David and Absalom and eventually divided their nation.

True to form, even Solomon, the son in whom David put most hope, eventually let his devotion stray from God to ungodly women. In trying to please his 700 wives and 300 concubines, Solomon built altars to their false gods and brought divine judgment on himself and all Israel (1 Kings 11:1-13).

Traditionally, books on Christian morality have stressed heavily the possible physical consequences of sexual sin, specifically unwanted pregnancy and venereal disease. Yet these are not the fundamental reasons for abstaining from extramarital sex. Pregnancy can often be avoided through birth control, and most venereal diseases, while serious, can be medically treated. Immorality is the sin. Pregnancy and venereal disease are only possible consequences of immorality. Avoiding them while having illicit sexual relations may demonstrate foresight but not morality.

One afternoon I spoke to a large class of high school seniors in a public school. “Why should I stop having sex with my boyfriend?” asked one girl. “He loves me, and I know he’ll marry me.”

“How do you know?” I replied. I shared from experience and research that a high percentage of engagements are broken off, and the majority of people who consider themselves practically engaged do not end up marrying each other. Even the term “premarital sex” is a misnomer because it assumes marriage will take place (either to this person or another). Often it does not.

“But even if he does marry you, will he be faithful?” I asked. “Obviously, he believes in sex outside of marriage. Otherwise he wouldn’t go to bed with you now. If he doesn’t limit sex to marriage now, what makes you think he will once the two of you are married? Will you ever be able to really trust him, or he you?”

Another consequence of sexual sin is the comparison trap. In a sense we are programmed with each sexual encounter. A man may remember a partner who was more sexually aggressive or more physically attractive. A woman may remember a man who was more sensitive or had a better physique. Comparison can be deadly.

Immorality permanently taints some people’s view of sex. Their first sexual encounters came in the back seat of a car or on a living room couch, where both hearts fluttered every time the wind blew or the door rattled. In such cases, sex may be inseparably linked to feelings of fear and guilt. Eventually, some who choose to enjoy sex outside marriage cannot enjoy it inside marriage.

Extramarital sex lends itself to shallow relationships. The focus is on the body, not the real person. Sexual involvement produces more sweat but less conversation. One disillusioned young man told me of his relationship with a girl: “I wanted something meaningful, but all I got was sex.”

While the physical consequences of immorality may be circumvented, the spiritual consequences are inevitable. Antibiotics will prevent or cure some venereal diseases. The pill will lower the chances of pregnancy. Abortion is a way out of an unwanted pregnancy. But no scientific or medical breakthrough ever changes the fact that I will answer to God for my moral choices. Medical science may eliminate some consequences of my sin, but it cannot remove my accountability to God.

It was to religious people that God said: “When you spread out your hands in prayer, I will hide my eyes from you; even if you offer many prayers, I will not listen” (Isa. 1:15). To those living in immorality, here is the message: Husband, don’t bother praying at meals—God isn’t listening. Wife, don’t lead out in prayer at a women’s Bible study—God won’t hear you. Young couple, don’t pray that God will bless the wedding ceremony—his ears are deaf to you. Pastor, don’t ask God’s anointing on Sunday’s sermon if you are living in sexual sin; there is one prayer he is waiting for—the prayer of sincere confession and repentance. He longs for you to start fresh with him again.

Our sexual lives cannot be isolated from our spiritual lives. The believers in Corinth tried to separate the two. They still participated in the idolatry and immorality they grew up with and thought they could somehow remain spiritually unaffected by it. Paul told them they were wrong (1 Cor. 6:12-20; 10:14-22). God is concerned with what I do with my body, for it is the temple of my spirit-and his.

We would like to think that if our sexual sin has consequences, at least we alone will bear them. But this is simply not the case.

Cindy was twelve years old when her father, a church leader active in evangelism, committed adultery with a woman in the church (his wife’s best friend) and left his family. Deeply hurt, Cindy’s godly mother remarried hastily and unwisely. In fact, she married a non-Christian.

The scandal was well known throughout the small community, and Cindy had to live with looks of pity and scorn whenever she walked through town. Though a Christian today, Cindy has been through a long series of bad relationships with men, including repeated sexual compromises. Though she is fully responsible for her actions, she is also reaping what her father sowed (Ex. 20:5).

Every church, every Christian organization that harbors sin, sexual or otherwise, simply cannot experience the fullness of God’s blessing. “A little yeast works through the whole batch of dough,” says Paul (1 Cor. 5:6). His command to the entire Corinthian church was to remove the man guilty of sexual sin lest his presence contaminate others in the body, as well as bring them all under God’s judgment.

Perhaps there is no more tragic consequence to the sexual sin of Christians than its effect on non-Christians.

While God is working to bring people to Christ through the love and holiness of his people, Satan will do all in his power to rob the church of her purity and consequently of her effective witness to the watching world. Only when the people of God confess and repent will they have a credible and effective witness to the non-Christian world (Ps. 51:10-13).

When I turned 18, my friends threw a surprise birthday party for me. They gave me two cakes, covered with delicious frosting and beautiful decorations. But when I was given the knife to cut them, reality set in. What appeared to be mouth-watering cakes turned out to be two Sears catalogs covered with frosting.

That was funny. But when we fall for Satan’s lies about sex, there is nothing funny about it. This world is filled with disillusioned and bitter people who have run into a brick wall at the end of a dark alley marked “Sexual Freedom.” Despite our rationale for violating God’s will, the law of the harvest stands—what we plant, we will reap.

But we should likewise never forget that the law of the harvest applies as much to the rewards of righteousness as to the consequences of sin. If we plant sexual purity today—difficult though it be—in another season we will reap a rich harvest.

(This article originally appeared in The Christian Reader)

Photo by Martin Sanchez on Unsplash

Randy Alcorn (@randyalcorn) is the author of over sixty books and the founder and director of Eternal Perspective Ministries