You shall not commit adultery. Exodus 20:14

Sexual immorality (or the fear of it) is probably the number one reason why people do not pursue friendships with the opposite sex. Sexual immorality is a big deal in the Bible: there are many verses in the Bible which could be quoted – not least, the Ten Commandments. But I’ll quote a few more anyway, just to show how seriously God takes sexual purity:

Marriage should be honoured by all, and the marriage bed kept pure, for God will judge the adulterer and all the sexually immoral. Hebrews 13:4

But among you there must not be even a hint of sexual immorality, or of any kind of impurity, or of greed, because these are improper for God’s holy people. Ephesians 5:3

Flee from sexual immorality. All other sins a person commits are outside the body, but whoever sins sexually, sins against their own body. 1 Corinthians 6:18

Need I go on? There are many more verses like this in the Bible. It is clear: sexual immorality is a big no-no. No shadow of a doubt about it.

Given this, it’s not surprising that many people advocate the ‘Godly wisdom’ of avoiding close opposite-sex friendships. I mean, if you have a close friendship with a member of the opposite sex, surely you’re flirting with danger… right? Right?!

Well… maybe not.

The Pharisees

Let me introduce you to a group of people called The Pharisees.  I read once – and I’m not sure if this is true, but it fits with what Jesus says of them in the Bible – that they had hundreds of laws to ‘ring-fence’ the Israelite law. They wanted to make doubly sure that no-one ever, even accidentally, broke one of the commandments – so they had laws which were designed to protect people even from going near the law. For example – working on the Sabbath day. Tricky one – what is work, and what isn’t? Let’s make a few laws for that as to what exactly was counted as work on the Sabbath day. That kind of thing. The idea being, if you kept those laws, you wouldn’t even go near the big ones!

The Pharisees were (in their own eyes at least) the squeakiest of the squeaky-clean. This is why Jesus could say, “unless your righteousness surpasses that of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law, you will certainly not enter the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 5:20). The Pharisees were seen as the ones who were obsessed with purity, obsessed with keeping the law. The reality, however, was somewhat different.

No group comes in for greater criticism than the Pharisees in Jesus’ teaching. This is most clearly summed up in the ‘seven woes’ you can read in Matthew 23:13-39. Here is an excerpt:

‘Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You clean the outside of the cup and dish, but inside they are full of greed and self-indulgence. Blind Pharisee! First clean the inside of the cup and dish, and then the outside also will be clean.

‘Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You are like whitewashed tombs, which look beautiful on the outside but on the inside are full of the bones of the dead and everything unclean. In the same way, on the outside you appear to people as righteous but on the inside you are full of hypocrisy and wickedness. (verses 25-28)

These verses make sobering reading, because what Jesus criticises the Pharisees for is looking good on the outside but being unclean on the inside. A “whitewashed tomb” is a fitting description for them! The Pharisees’ obsessiveness with keeping the law masked the state of their own hearts. They focussed on the outer observance of the law, but neglected the important matters of the heart.

The important lesson here is that laws cannot make us clean. 

You may have heard of the ‘Billy Graham Rule‘ (which is apparently famous enough to have its own Wikipedia page…). In a nutshell, it’s a rule which forbids a man from having one-on-one contact with a woman he is not married to – to prevent immorality.

The problem with this rule is that it doesn’t deal with the heart. It would be perfectly possible to never have a one-on-one meeting with a woman, while being addicted to pornography. Or caught up in sexual fantasies, etc. Outward observance of the Billy Graham Rule doesn’t do anything about sexual immorality at all.

The apostle Paul says in Colossians 2:23, talking about particular religious laws and observances:

Such regulations indeed have an appearance of wisdom, with their self-imposed worship, their false humility and their harsh treatment of the body, but they lack any value in restraining sensual indulgence.

Rules which treat the body harshly, which impose an external conformity to the law – lack any value in restraining sensual indulgence. How can this be?

A matter of the heart

Jesus said elsewhere:

What comes out of a person is what defiles them. For it is from within, out of a person’s heart, that evil thoughts come – sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, greed, malice, deceit, lewdness, envy, slander, arrogance and folly. All these evils come from inside and defile a person.’ Mark 7:20-23

The problem each of us have is the problem of the human heart. We do wrong things because our hearts desire wrong things. Trying to fix our hearts with a few rules is like trying to fix a broken leg with sticking plaster. It might fix some of the symptoms – but it’s nowhere near the root cause.

We need new hearts. And this is exactly what God promises to give us! Way back before Christ was born, God spoke through the prophet Ezekiel:

I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit in you; I will remove from you your heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh. And I will put my Spirit in you and move you to follow my decrees and be careful to keep my laws. Ezekiel 36:26-27

In other words, God is the one who is in the business of changing hearts. In fact, he’s the only one in the business of changing hearts! God promises that, in Christ, we can be given new hearts – hearts which, by the power of the Spirit, he changes to love him and love others more.

And that’s the point of all of this: love.

Love is… all you need?

Let’s go back to the law for a second. There are several reasons why trying to deal with sexual immorality with the law is not good:

  • It’s very ‘me-focussed’. It’s focussed on my performance, my standing before God, my righteousness. We keep laws because we want to be declared good and righteous. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing but it puts the attention in the wrong place – on ourselves.
  • It leads to either self-righteousness (if we judge that we have done well in keeping the law), or despair (if we can’t keep the law). Whereas the focus should be on Christ and his righteousness, the law focuses on our own performance.
  • But this is the most important of all: it distracts us away from loving others.

The point of the law is not to avoid each other so we avoid sin! The point is – not to simply avoid doing the wrong things. Instead, we should do the right things. If we focus on avoiding sexual immorality, we won’t think about doing the right thing. The right thing to do, rather than avoiding men / women, is in fact to love them. And – because of the power of the gospel – we now have the power to do what is right. That doesn’t mean we should throw caution to the wind all the time – sin is still a reality in our lives and in the lives of others – but rather, we shouldn’t just think about how to avoid sin but how we might do what is right by those of the opposite sex. Peter says, “His divine power has given us everything we need for a godly life through our knowledge of him who called us by his own glory and goodness” (2 Peter 1:3). We already have what we need to live a godly life in the gospel. We have no need to fear sin!

Personally, I have found that healthy friendships with those of the opposite-sex are actually the most healthy thing to combat sexual immorality. Especially when you think about it in terms of Spiritual Friendship. That’s what this whole site is about!

I appreciate this is a long and slightly complicated article, but I hope that it is at least a start and helps to point you in the right direction. It’s not an easy question, but certainly one which deserves a wider discussion than it has got recently.

Where next?

Well done if you’ve made it this far! But you may be wondering, ‘how do I put this into practice’? Good question – fortunately the next page deals with just that. Continue reading >