Questions From Readers
● What does the expression “loose conduct” as found at Galatians 5:19 mean?—U.S.A.
One might assume that this term (from the Greek word a·selʹgei·a) refers to conduct that is immoral but in a minor or not so serious way. This, however, is not the case according to the available evidence in Scripture and also in the ancient secular Greek writings in which this word appears. It is not limited to acts of sexual immorality. And, rather than relating to bad conduct of a somewhat petty or minor nature, it apparently describes acts that reflect a brazen attitude, one that betrays disrespect, disregard or even contempt for standards, laws and authority. The ‘looseness’ of the conduct, therefore, is not due principally to weakness but results from an attitude of disrespect, insolence or shamelessness.
In support of this we find that lexicons of the Greek language define a·selʹgei·a (and other forms of this word) as describing: “outrageous acts,” “licentiousness, wanton violence,” “insolence,” “vulgar abuse,” “brutal[ity]” (Liddell and Scott); “excess, intemperance, in any thing, e.g. language, conduct, insolence” (Robinson); “unbridled lust, . . . outrageousness, shamelessness” (Thayer); “wanton lawless insolence” (Trench). A New Testament Wordbook by Barclay says: “[A·selʹgei·a] is used by Plato in the sense of ‘impudence.’ . . . It is defined as ‘violence coupled with insult and audacity.’ . . . It is described as ‘the spirit which knows no restraints and which dares whatever caprice and wanton insolence suggest’.”
Jewish historian Josephus, of the first century C.E., used the term (a·selʹgei·a) when describing pagan Queen Jezebel’s erecting a shrine of Baal in Jerusalem. This act was indeed a shocking outrage, one that brazenly flaunted public opinion and decency.
The use of a·selʹgei·a in secular Greek writings is paralleled in its usage in the Christian Greek Scriptures. The apostle Paul, for example, speaks of the people of the nations and says that, due to “the insensibility of their hearts,” they came to be “past all moral sense, [giving] themselves over to loose conduct [a·selʹgei·a] to work uncleanness of every sort with greediness.” (Eph. 4:17-19) The apostle Peter associates a·selʹgei·a with such practices of the nations as “lusts, excesses with wine, revelries, drinking matches, and illegal idolatries,” things leading to a “low sink of debauchery.” (1 Pet. 4:3, 4) And, in describing Lot’s distress over the acts of the people of Sodom, the apostle emphasizes the “law-defying” attitude of the Sodomites in their “loose conduct,” and compares certain ones in his own day with them in being “daring, self-willed,” ‘looking down on lordship,’ not fearing to “speak abusively” of glorious ones, and uttering “swelling expressions of no profit.” (2 Pet. 2:7-10, 18) All these expressions well exemplify the flavor of the Greek term a·selʹgei·a as relating to shameless, wanton conduct.
Similarly the disciple Jude writes of ungodly men who used the undeserved kindness of God as “an excuse for loose conduct,” and he stresses their disrespectful, disdainful and contemptuous attitude toward righteous authority. Not just their “defiling the flesh” in sexual and other immorality, but also their “disregarding lordship and speaking abusively of glorious ones” all constituted “loose conduct.” They were “animalistic men, not having spirituality.”—Jude 4-8, 19.
Today the attitude described by the word a·selʹgei·a is very prominent in the world. Many young people cast aside all restraint, have no hesitancy in outraging public decency, insolently flouting authority and speaking abusively to parents and others. But not only young persons do so. The stage and motion-picture theaters and magazines openly present acts featuring not only public nudity and sexual intercourse, but also sadistic brutality along with foul, obscene speech. This all exemplifies “loose conduct” in the Scriptural sense of the term.
We may note, however, that “loose conduct” (a·selʹgei·a) is several times mentioned in combination with “fornication” (por·neiʹa) and “uncleanness” (a·ka·thar·siʹa). (2 Cor. 12:21; Gal. 5:19; compare Romans 13:13.) In what way do these terms differ?
Of the three, “uncleanness” (a·ka·thar·siʹa) is the broadest. Unlike por·neiʹa, for instance, it embraces not only sexual immorality but impurity of any kind, in speech, action or spiritual relationship. (Compare 1 Thessalonians 2:3; 1 Corinthians 7:14; 2 Corinthians 6:17.) And, unlike a·selʹgei·a, this term’s application is not dependent on the motive or attitude of the one guilty of the uncleanness. “Uncleanness” also allows for a wide range of degree of seriousness or gravity. Just as clothing can have a light stain or can be thoroughly filthy, so too an individual’s “uncleanness” can be minor or grave. This term is basically distinctive in that it stresses the morally repugnant nature of the wrong conduct or condition.
“Fornication” (por·neiʹa), on the other hand, is more limited, describing grossly immoral acts of a strictly sexual nature. While all por·neiʹa, of course, is unclean, this particular Greek term emphasizes the illicit and lewd nature of the conduct, conduct such as one might find in a house of prostitution, though not necessarily committed in such place.
“Loose conduct” (a·selʹgei·a) is like “uncleanness” in not being restricted to sexual immorality, but it differs in that it lays emphasis on the wantonness and shameless insolence of the conduct. We see, then, that—though these terms all relate to wrongdoing and may at times overlap—each word has its own distinctive flavor, thrust or emphasis.
Pointing this out, Barclay’s A New Testament Wordbook quotes Bible and Greek-language scholar Lightfoot as saying that “a man may be ‘unclean’ (akathartos [adjective form of a·ka·thar·siʹa]) and hide his sin, but the man who is aselgēs (the adjective [of a·selʹgei·a]) shocks public decency. Here is the very essense of aselgeia; the man in whose soul aselgeia dwells . . . does not care what people say or think so long as he can gratify his evil desire. . . . Most men have enough decency left to seek to hide their sin, but the aselgēs is long past that.”
To illustrate this in a practical way: An engaged Christian couple might, on some occasion of showing affection toward each other, unintentionally go beyond the point of what is pure and decent. Though not committing what the Bible calls por·neiʹa (gross sexual immorality), the engaged couple might, nevertheless, become guilty of a measure of “uncleanness,” as by embracing in a very passionate way, or letting their hands drift into intimate body areas. They may feel ashamed of this and resolve not to do it again. Have they been guilty of “loose conduct” (a·selʹgei·a)?
Not in the full Bible sense of the word, for they were not deliberately and disdainfully flaunting righteous standards. Of course, if they willingly made a practice of such impure conduct, this would show a careless disregard for what is clean, the shameless disrespect described by a·selʹgei·a. So, too, a young man who, though having no honorable intentions of getting married, selfishly engages in lovemaking and ‘heavy petting’ with a girl—or perhaps with one girl after another—is manifesting the wanton greed of Scripturally defined “loose conduct.” He does not care how much harm or hurt he causes. The same could be said of a girl taking a similar course.
Those charged with spiritual oversight in Christian congregations do well, therefore, to distinguish between these Scriptural terms. The decision of Christian elders as to how to handle cases of wrongdoing can be affected by such understanding. It can help them to grasp more clearly the comparative degree of gravity of the actions involved. The need for their using sound judgment, for their weighing circumstances, situations and attitudes, is also shown to be of great importance.