Flesh and Spirit: Contemporary Moral Crisis (Part 12)

In the previous essay I explained why the rest of the series on the contemporary moral crisis will be directed to “people who claim to be Christian and understand that the Bible, especially the New Testament, is the final authority for determining what it means to believe and live as a Christian.” Clearly from what I have said in previous essays readers already know that I think the central issues in the moral crisis facing Christians are being generated by the sexual and gender revolutions. In my view, these revolutions challenge the very heart of the Christian faith and way of life. They are not merely external to the Christian community but threaten to divide and diminish the community itself. At this point in the series these concerns may seem to some overblown. I hope to convince you that I am not exaggerating.

Mind and Body

I anticipate that one of the first objections I will receive is that I seem to be reducing Christian morality to rules and regulations about sex. What about injustice, violence, greed, racism, and other sins? Are these not as important, if not more so, than how one uses their sexuality? Before I can answer these questions in an intelligent way I need to place sexual desire and action within its larger anthropological and ethical context.

Ancient ethical systems such as those of Aristotle and the Stoics viewed the challenge of living a moral life as the struggle of reason to dominate the irrational passions (the animal nature). The passions of lust, fear, anger, greed, envy, etc., unless controlled by reason, drive us to engage in such self-destructive things as adultery, theft, and murder. Reason, if it attains to wisdom, can cool the passions and habituate them toward good ends.

Spirit and Flesh

The New Testament also makes a distinction between the irrational passions and the rational principle. Of the many examples we could explore let’s examine Paul’s teaching in Galatians 5:16-21:

16 So I say, live by the Spirit, and you will not gratify the desires of the flesh. 17 For the flesh desires what is contrary to the Spirit, and the Spirit what is contrary to the flesh. They are in conflict with each other, so that you are not to do whatever you want. 18 But if you are led by the Spirit, you are not under the law.

19 The acts of the flesh are obvious: sexual immorality, impurity and debauchery; 20 idolatry and witchcraft; hatred, discord, jealousy, fits of rage, selfish ambition, dissensions, factions 21 and envy; drunkenness, orgies, and the like. I warn you, as I did before, that those who live like this will not inherit the kingdom of God.

Instead of speaking of reason as the principle of moral guidance and passion as the irrational principle, Paul speaks of Spirit and flesh. Despite the differences, there is a great deal of similarity between the two anthropologies. By “Spirit” Paul means the divine Spirit, the power and presence of God received through faith in Christ. But there is no reason to think that the Spirit works in a way that bypasses the human mind (See Romans 8:5-6). As the irrational counterpart to the Spirit, Paul uses the word “flesh.” Paul’s use of this word cannot be understood without considering its Old Testament background. In the Old Testament “flesh” connotes human weakness and mortality. It is often contrasted to God’s powerful, life-giving Spirit. Paul takes up this Old Testament idea of the weakness of the entire human being in contrast to God and adds to it an element of resistance and rebellion.

Hence the realm of the irrational and rebellious passions—which Paul calls the flesh—when it acts unconstrained by the Spirit produces “sexual immorality, impurity and debauchery; idolatry and witchcraft; hatred, discord, jealousy, fits of rage, selfish ambition, dissensions, factions and envy; drunkenness, orgies, and the like.” Notice how the acts that arise from sexual desire are listed along with other types of acts that arise from other irrational and self-destructive passions. What they all have in common is their irrationality, destructiveness, and hostility toward the Spirit.

According to the New Testament, then, desire for sexual pleasure, like desire for money, comfort, power, food, and honor, must be enlightened and governed by a mind controlled by the Spirit (Romans 8:5-6). Even our sexually permissive culture recognizes the need for exercising some self-control in matters of sex. Everyone with even a modicum of wisdom recognizes that sexual passion mixed with other such forces as pride, anger, deception, ignorance, and drunkenness becomes a very destructive force. No rational person would argue that sexual passion should be given free reign unconstrained by respect for the dignity and freedom of other people. Indeed, every rational person understands that passions of whatever kind must be guided and controlled by reason.

Hence the real issue in the ethics of sex does not center on the question, “Must there be limits on sexual activity or not?” The question is, rather, “What are the limits on sexual activity?” And once we get clear on this issue, we begin to realize that the answer to this question depends on answering many other questions and finally on developing a comprehensive anthropological and moral framework. Where do we look for wisdom to guide us in developing a moral outlook that enables us to set limits in a coherent way? For Christians, that source is the Bible, especially the New Testament.

Next Time: What limits does the Bible place on sexual activity and why?

1 thought on “Flesh and Spirit: Contemporary Moral Crisis (Part 12)

  1. Dr Jonne Smalhouse

    Hello Ron,
    Blessings from Jesus Christ, the HS, and our Lord, all be upon you! And though i am nothing, from me too.
    I’ve been praying for a single word from the Lord for this series, we have covered so much so quickly, one has neglected re-reading your new book ( though my notes run to more pages than it has! Yup. It’s that good).
    The greek word received is “statheros”, so i looked it up- it means ‘consistent, consistency’… and figures quite a bit between the texts of the OT, and Paul ( plus the NT epistles) reference it quite a bit in the NT.
    There is very little consistency nowadays, in almost everything we care to think about. Your example and continuances on sexual morality are apposite; in fact, considering any of the deadly sins greed itself magnifies all of them, and for this reason i have always contended that ” the devil walks behind the greedy”.
    This is only part of the story, reading your book, it’s my belief that the honest intention of millennia of religious philosophers has so diluted the interpretation of scripture, and the wisdom of knowledge, that soteriological recapitulation theory has overwhelmed most of the modern church. There are more sub-plots than a series of Agatha Christie novels (with respect). What are we to believe and what are we to hope in– when there is more interest in games consoles, and super-hero films than the bible ( let alone getting to know God tge Father). Indeed, Plato warns of this very thing in his Republic regarding training and selecting the minds of the guardians of civil peace. Still valid now.
    Confusion reigns over moralization of all colours, one aspect that occurs to me, is that deconstructing social justice in a democracy from heavenly ideals is never going to work ( i already said this) but i didn’t say explicitly why? It’s simply because Divine Justice isn’t socially responsible. We may have confused Divine Justice with Divine Justness- and as Plato indicates about the rhetoric of his failure to identify true ‘piety’, Heaven is not populated by many demi-gods, and Heaven is NOT a democracy. Our Lord’s Kingdom of Heaven, thankfully, is A Trinity or Trinitarian Theocracy.
    Bringing Jesus down, only to send Him back up to heaven with philosophical recapitulation is never going to work in a theocracy.
    For the time being, perhaps we can settle on basic Divine Hope. I look forward immensely, to reading where you continue to go Ron.
    Thank you so much. More from me to follow.

    Liked by 1 person


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