Home » Is Sexual Immorality Christianity’s Greatest Sin?

Is Sexual Immorality Christianity’s Greatest Sin?

by Dr. Eitan Bar
5 minutes read

Human nature seeks defects in others as it makes us feel better about ourselves. Besides, it is pretty easy to point at external behaviors, especially in others, and label them as “sins.” We do that while often ignoring the real sins of the character. Every person, Christian or not, is dealing with imperfections in their character: Anger, pride, fear, greed, stinginess, envy, anxiety, jealousy, entitlement, arrogance, hatred, vengefulness, laziness, patronizing, controlling, instigating, indifference, unwillingness to forgive, and the list goes on and on. These are the sins we should really worry about, yet we rarely do.

Sometimes, we think that everyone but us suffers from defects in their personality. Different cultures at different times will make a big deal out of different external behaviors. You will often hear preachers talk about drinking, sex, and drugs, but I am not sure I have ever heard a sermon dedicated to patronizing, snubbing, being arrogant, or gossiping. We cherry-pick the easiest behaviors to judge and measure others by. These are naturally the external ones, of course, so we make the most noise about the outward physical vices. Young people, especially, see this as hypocrisy, and I believe it’s a big part of why millennials are leaving the church. A church can make a big deal of some things, like smoking, tattoos, or intercourse before marriage, but overlook other things, like their pastor being extremely obese, controlling, or manipulative. Of course, the Bible doesn’t speak much of obesity, being manipulative, or illegally downloading movies online, so we wrongly think it’s not as big of a deal.

Serving in Christian ministry leadership for many years, I witnessed several prominent full-time ministry leaders in Israel, as conservative as they come, living in luxurious houses, riding luxury cars, and spending ministry money in luxury restaurants. But since they project a character of godliness and perfection on the outside, they are considered role models by others in our Christian community. Little do they know that behind closed doors, their spouses and children are addicted to antidepressants and entertain themselves by gossiping. And yet, no one considers them as people who live in sin because there’s nothing in the Bible about antidepressant addictions or a full-time minister having a private pool or a luxury car (while telling the supporters abroad the money goes to feed Holocaust survivors, etc). And I doubt this situation is unique to Israel. In a conservative Christian organization I used to be associated with, one senior member would proudly download and watch movies from illegal websites. His justification was that he paid for the internet connection, so he had the right to do so. This behavior constitutes theft, yet no one seemed bothered by it. Another organization leader would sexually harass female employees, both by speaking inappropriately and by physically touching their bodies in inappropriate ways. Despite repeated complaints by female employees (and myself), the leader of the organization, who is good friends with the person, overlooked his behavior, which had been going on for years.

On the other hand, the Bible does speak of things easy to judge, like tattoos or sexual immorality. And so, most Christians will consider two unmarried people having an intimate relationship — even if it’s protected, in consent, and without hurting anyone — much worse of a sin than, say, Christians, who are arrogant, deceptive, manipulative, emotionally abusive, and so on. The problem, however, is that the context of the biblical criticism of some of what we consider sin is often ignored.

Tattoos, for example, were means to worship idols and therefore forbidden. While I have no tattoos on my body, I doubt any Christian is tattooing his body as a means to worship other gods.[1] Another example is sexual immorality in the Bible. No, it is not because there’s nothing God hates more than two college students enjoying an orgasm outside of marriage, but mainly because it was linked with idolatry. Sacred or temple prostitution is a rite consisting of intercourse performed in the context of religious worship. These were widely spread in the pagan world. More often than not, the way pagans would worship their idols involves sexuality. Idolatry and sexual immorality appear in tandem throughout the biblical narrative.[2] An obvious logic justifies their pairing. Dennis Hollinger, the President of Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary and Professor of Christian Ethics, explains:

The link between idolatry and sexual immorality is established by the frequent use of ‘prostituting themselves’ or ‘adultery’ to describe Hebrew idolatry [in the Old Testament]. Israel’s unfaithfulness to God was not only a form of spiritual prostitution or adultery, but it also led to the physical acts themselves.[i]

So, God’s issue wasn’t sexuality itself but the worship of idols. In today’s context, however, things have changed, yet the religious response against anything sexual is still very strong, an overreaction at times. Another thing to remember, of no lesser influence, is that in biblical times and up until the 19th century, sexual activity equaled babies. Protected sex was not an option, as women had no pills, and men had no condoms available. “Sleeping around” meant babies would show up. I imagine there are only a few things God despises more than a situation whereby helpless babies are born unwanted or without a family to take care of their needs. God wants the best for all, especially for the fragile and weak. Babies need to grow in a united family with parents who love them, as it’s crucial for their emotional and physical development and well-being. But here again, the issue is not sexuality itself but the well-being of helpless babies. I am sure God’s heart breaks when babies are unwanted or untaken care of.

Of course, there are other good reasons why people need to be cautious with their sexuality, even if they practice safe sex, such as the potential emotional damage it can cause. However, this does not make sexual immorality worse than any other sin. The late and great C.S. Lewis pointed this out in “Mere Christianity”:

If anyone thinks that Christians regard unchastity as the supreme vice, he is quite wrong. The sins of the flesh are bad, but they are the least bad of all sins. All the worst pleasures are purely spiritual: the pleasure of putting other people in the wrong, of bossing and patronizing and spoiling sport, and back-biting, the pleasures of power, of hatred.[ii]  

Lewis, born in 1898, was conservative in his views and lived in a conservative era. Nevertheless, he acknowledged that internal sins are far worse than external ones, such as sexual immorality. However, it is much harder to judge and point fingers at things hidden inside people’s hearts.

A devoted family attending church and prayer meetings regularly may be regarded as a “godly and respected” Christian family. While behind closed doors, the family members struggle, perhaps with anger, pride, resentment, rivalry, and greed. But we judge them according to what we see and how they perform on the outside. At the same time, we might look down on someone because he smokes and looks like a gangster with tattoos all over their body, without realizing his faith is strong and expressed by quietly serving the needy and poor every weekend. But that’s life. People define you according to what you do and project on the outside, as well as by your past, especially past transgressions. God, however, defines you according to your status as his child.

It is important to remember that we are all sinners, and no one is perfect. We must not judge others based on their external appearance or actions, but instead, we should seek to understand and love them as fellow children of God. It is through this understanding and love that we can create a more compassionate and accepting Christian community, where all are welcomed and embraced regardless of their past mistakes or present struggles. Let us strive to see each other through God’s eyes and to extend grace and forgiveness as we walk together on this journey of faith.

This article is based on my new book, ‘The “Gospel” of Divine Abuse,’ available on this Amazon page.
free sample is available here.

[1] By the way, people use tattoos to decorate themselves. Jesus adorned himself with scars. While we will receive new and scarless bodies, don’t be surprised to see Jesus kept his’ (John 20:27).

[2] Exodus 32, Isaiah 57:7-8, Hosea 4:12-14, 1 Corinthians 6:9-11, Galatians 5:19-21, Ephesians 5:5, Colossians 3:5, Revelation 2:14, 20, 21:25

[i] Dennis P. Hollinger, The Meaning of Sex: Christian Ethics and the Moral Life, page 64.

[ii] C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity, page 81.

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Dr. Eitan Bar
Author, Theologian, Activist