(from In Christ–The Church in Ephesus, forthcoming.)

And speaking of pheromones, Paul continues to address sexual issues.

“But sexual immorality and all impurity or covetousness must not even be named among you, as is proper among saints” (Ephesians 4:3).

Paul’s concern is not sexuality per se, but identification with the sexually immoral. The Greek word (πορνεία) is more specific. The Authorized Version calls it fornication, which in Paul’s day referred to illicit sexual intercourse, to include adultery, homosexuality, lesbianism, intercourse with animals, close relatives, or a divorced man or woman. Not only is all sexual activity outside of biblical marriage forbidden, but Paul’s point was that all personal identification with such things should not occur (ὀνομάζω).

Paul was not simply saying that such things should not be spoken of, but that Christians must not be identified with such immorality. The biblical idea of naming involved a kind of character identification, such that the thing named would be accurately associated with the meaning of the name. We can think of last names, in the sense that Smiths were metal workers. Often the surname was given because of an occupation. i.e., Carpenter, Baker, etc. The name Jones and Johnson were originally a patronymic name meaning “son of John.”

Paul’s point was the we must not get our human identity confused with sexual immorality, such that we call ourselves a homosexual, whore, prostitute, lesbian, etc. This error is made when people say, “I am a homosexual, whore, prostitute, lesbian,” etc. No, said Paul. “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female” (Galatians 3:28), to which we can add homosexual, whore, prostitute, lesbian, etc. All of these are false categories of human beings. All of these are false identities. The obscure and occlude the image of God in which all humanity has been recreated in Christ.

Paul was not saying that there were no such people, but that those in Christ who used this kind of language had a false sense of self-identity. They were still clinging to the ways of Sin, to the categories of the world that were false and Godlesss. Paul was not saying that such sinful immorality was unreal or untrue, but that Christians have no business identifying themselves as such, and much less acting on the basis of any such behaviors. Rather, Christians are to crucify the flesh.

“But I say, walk by the Spirit, and you will not gratify the desires of the flesh. For the desires of the flesh are against the Spirit, and the desires of the Spirit are against the flesh, for these are opposed to each other, to keep you from doing the things you want to do. But if you are led by the Spirit, you are not under the law. Now the works of the flesh are evident: sexual immorality, impurity, sensuality, idolatry, sorcery, enmity, strife, jealousy, fits of anger, rivalries, dissensions, divisions, envy, drunkenness, orgies, and things like these. I warn you, as I warned you before, that those who do such things will not inherit the kingdom of God. … those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires.” (Galatians 5:16-21, 24).

Paul went on to call this non-identification with false human subgroups proper (πρέπω). This characteristic of common identity was to stand out as uniquely Christian in a world filled with sin. It was to be conspicuous and eminent, in that Christians were to identify with Christ alone, and not with any sort of group that was less than the wholeness and holiness of humanity in Christ. This even applied to nationalities. Christians were not Gentile Christians or Jewish Christians or Greek Christians or slave Christians or free Christians or male Christians or female Christians or Afro-American Christians or Irish Christians or Calvinist Christians or Roman Catholic Christians or Baptist Christians or Charismatic Christians, etc. No subgroup was to be named as part of our common Christian identity.

Rather, we should refer to ourselves as Christians who happen to live in this or that nation, who have this or that heritage, who are with or without debt, who are male or female, etc. Our sinful tendencies encourage us to identify more with the adjective than with the noun, more with the Gentile, Jewish Greek, slave, free, male, female, etc. than with being first and foremost Christian. Doing the former undermines unity, but doing the latter encourages Christian unity by highlighting our first, foremost and most significant identity as being simply Christian. We continue to see this sinful perspective today as Christian sociologists and pollsters continue to emphasize the distinctives of various Christian subgroups, and pander to them in the same way that the world does.

Paul called for an end to all such practices of identity. But we have misunderstood Paul’s intent by thinking that Paul was forbidding cussing, potty talk and slander. While it is not wrong to include these things in Paul’s meaning, it is an error to think that such inclusion was Paul’s central concern. These things are included in v. 5 where Paul said that it was out of place for Christians to engage in filthy talk, foolish talk or crude joking. And the fact that they are specified in v. 5 suggests that they are not what Paul was talking about previously. This is a very important issue that contemporary Christians have failed to understand. The more that Christians embrace church growth strategies from the world that are based on marketing segmentation programs and customized to various subgroups, the more this error wreaks its havoc in the church. The more we try to appeal to Hispanic Christians or Baptist Christians or Presbyterian Christians or nondenominational Christians or contemporary Christians or any other subgroup of Christians, the more we undermine the unity of the church. We shouldn’t even refer to born-again Christians because to be a Christian means to be born-again.

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