Scripture Reading: 1 Thessalonians 4:1-12, Ezekiel 36:26-27, 1 Peter 1:15-23
The word “holiness” is one of those terms that, depending on your background, can carry a lot of baggage. For some of us, it’s connected to feelings of guilt and shame, an impossible standard hanging over us. Others associate it with harshness and judgment after hearing it taught legalistically.
At first blush, 1 Thessalonians 4 might seem to play into these stereotypes by linking holiness with sexual morality. Paul exhorts the Thessalonians toward holiness by cautioning them from indulging in “lustful desires” (v. 5), and instead encouraging them to “control their own bodies.” Just another Christian prude, our present-day culture might think. However, there is more going on here than first meets the eye.
First is the Thessalonian culture, which is remarkably similar to our own. Many New Testament scholars note that the pagan Thessalonian culture had a liberal view of sexuality. Sex outside the bounds of marriage was not only permissible, but even encouraged.
The second thing to note about this passage is the tone. It’s tempting to read instructions about holiness in a thundering voice of condemnation, but that was not Paul’s approach. In verse 1, the Greek word erotao—translated “entreat” or “encourage”—has a connotation of gentleness and friendship. Paul isn’t dropping a hammer of judgment; instead, he is clarifying and affirming a community he loves.
Paul can see the Thessalonians are living their faith well. They are honoring Christ with their lifestyles. They are pursuing holiness in every area of their lives. But as they continue to do so, Paul wants them to make a distinction between the teachings of their culture and the teachings of Christ, which diverge on the issue of sexual practice.
This context matters, especially in light of popular stereotypes about Christian holiness and sex. For Paul, holiness is not a measuring stick we should use to compare and condemn. By its reckoning, we all fall short.
Instead, holiness is our witness. It’s how we point the world to the character of God and proclaim, “This is what God’s love is like.” God’s love is intimate and invested. It is constant and covenantal. It is dignifying rather than degrading. It does not use and abuse. It does not take advantage for a short-lived thrill. It isn’t rooted in selfish desire but self-giving faithfulness. Our holy lives bear witness to all these things.
In that sense, holiness is not simply about being different or set apart, but reinvigorating the imagination of a world which misunderstands both God and sex. Rather than sneer at our culture and its sexual norms, we can humbly and joyfully point to something better. Our holy lives can serve as the embodiment of God’s best for humanity, a vision of freedom, honor, and dignity.
Holiness was never meant to be a spiritual bludgeon. And it is much more than a set of boundaries and rules. It is our witness to a world that has forgotten how to live. It is our witness to a world that has forgotten what we are for. And it is our witness to a world that has forgotten what God is like.
Everything about us—our bodies, our sex—is a part of that witness. We, the people of God, exist to point people to God. Love is His song, and holiness is the dance.
Sharon Hodde Miller is a writer, speaker, pastor’s wife, mom, and she holds a PhD on women and calling. She blogs at SheWorships.com, and is the author of Free of Me: Why Life Is Better When It’s Not about You.