Leviticus is famous for its stringent code of sexual morality (Leviticus 18) – and for the harsh penalties prescribed for breaking it (Leviticus 20). Nowhere else is the gulf between pagan and Judaeo-Christian ethics so vast. We live in a society that idolises romantic love and deems anything done ‘between consenting adults in private’ to be acceptable. But Christians can’t simply follow the patterns of behaviour that the world considers appropriate; the holy people of God must conform their lives to His will. ‘Everybody else does it’ is no excuse; we are meant to live differently from the surrounding culture. “You must not do as they do…” (Leviticus 18:2) This also means, incidentally, that we cannot oblige unbelievers to live by Christian moral standards. Why should they?
The human sex drive is an especially powerful force in our lives, with potential for both good and evil. So it needs to be channelled in the right direction if it is not to cause harm to ourselves and to other people. Incest (including child sexual abuse, which happens mainly within families) distorts and destroys healthy family relationships. Pornography fuels the idolisation of sexual self-gratification (usually at the expense of women). Adultery is neither as romantic nor as beautiful as it is often made out to be; it is actually treacherous and destructive. And even within marriage, the precious gift of sex can be abused and sullied, causing much psychological and emotional suffering.
Western society long ago abandoned the death penalty for sexual offences. Consequently, we find the idea of stoning adulterers barbaric and abhorrent. Why should anyone be put to death merely for following their heart? But other cultures see things very differently. Sexual immorality is not a private matter; it has a significant detrimental impact on marital relationships, and thus affects the stability of the wider community. And so those cultures that put a higher value on the community than on the individual tend to regard sexual offences much more seriously than we do. A society that tolerates (and even applauds) sexual promiscuity and perversion, although it congratulates itself for doing so, is actually a sick society… in pursuing self-affirmation, it is actually on the road to self-destruction.
The New Testament does not lay down civil penalties for sexual sins; we do not call for adulterers or homosexuals to be put to death in 21st-century Europe. But the standards of personal behaviour that God demands of us in this area are just as high as they ever were. “Do not be deceived: neither the sexually immoral nor idolaters nor adulterers nor men who have sex with men… will inherit the Kingdom of God.” (I Corinthians 6:9,10) Jesus famously refused to condemn an adulteress – but He refused to condone her behaviour either (John 8:2-11).
Since we do live in a permissive, individualistic society, we have to accept that the practice of holiness in the arena of sex will cause us to ‘stick out’ like proverbial sore thumbs. But although God’s rules appear to be very strict, we can be sure that they are for our ultimate benefit. He is no killjoy: His laws are good laws, and obedience to them enables us to live life to the full (Leviticus 18:5).