Questions From Readers
● Does the Bible set forth any specific definitions as to what is moral or immoral as regards the sexual relationship between husband and wife? Is it the responsibility of congregational elders to endeavor to exercise control among congregation members in these intimate marital matters?
It must be acknowledged that the Bible does not give any specific rules or limitations as regards the manner in which husband and wife engage in sexual relations. There are brief descriptions of fitting love expressions, such as at Proverbs 5:15-20 and various verses in the Song of Solomon (1:13; 2:6; 7:6-8). These, and texts such as Job 31:9, 10, at least provide an indication of what was customary or normal as regards love play and sexual relations and coincide with what is generally viewed as customary and normal today.
The most forceful counsel in the Scriptures is that we should have complete love for God and love for our neighbor as ourselves; a husband is to love his wife as he does his own body and to cherish her and assign her honor. (Matt. 22:37-40; Eph. 5:25-31; 1 Pet. 3:7) As the apostle states, love “does not behave indecently, does not look for its own interests, does not become provoked.” (1 Cor. 13:4, 5) This would certainly preclude the forcing upon one’s marriage mate unusual practices that the mate considers distasteful or even repugnant and perverted.
Beyond these basic guidelines the Scriptures do not go and, hence, we cannot do more than counsel in harmony with what the Bible does say. In the past some comments have appeared in this magazine in connection with certain unusual sex practices, such as oral sex, within marriage and these were equated with gross sexual immorality. On this basis the conclusion was reached that those engaging in such sex practices were subject to disfellowshiping if unrepentant. The view was taken that it was within the authority of congregational elders to investigate and act in a judicial capacity regarding such practices in the conjugal relationship.
A careful further weighing of this matter, however, convinces us that, in view of the absence of clear Scriptural instruction, these are matters for which the married couple themselves must bear the responsibility before God and that these marital intimacies do not come within the province of the congregational elders to attempt to control nor to take disfellowshiping action with such matters as the sole basis.a Of course, if any person chooses to approach an elder for counsel he or she may do so and the elder can consider Scriptural principles with such a one, acting as a shepherd but not attempting to, in effect, “police” the marital life of the one inquiring.
This should not be taken as a condoning of all the various sexual practices that people engage in, for that is by no means the case. It simply expresses a keen sense of responsibility to let the Scriptures rule and to refrain from taking a dogmatic stand where the evidence does not seem to provide sufficient basis. It also expresses confidence in the desire of Jehovah’s people as a whole to do all things as unto him and to reflect his splendid qualities in all their affairs. It expresses a willingness to leave the judgment of such intimate marital matters in the hands of Jehovah God and his Son, who have the wisdom and knowledge of all circumstances necessary to render the right decisions. It is good for us to remember that “we shall all stand before the judgment seat of God” and that “each of us will render an account for himself to God.” (Rom. 14:7-10, 12) “We must all be made manifest before the judgment seat of the Christ, that each one may get his award for the things done through the body, according to the things he has practiced, whether it is good or vile.”—2 Cor. 5:10.
It is also good to recognize that when the apostle wrote his counsel at Colossians 3:5, 6, he did not address it just to single persons but to married persons as well. He said: “Deaden, therefore, your body members that are upon the earth as respects fornication, uncleanness, sexual appetite, hurtful desire, and covetousness, which is idolatry.” At 1 Thessalonians 4:3-7 Paul further counsels that “each one of you should know how to get possession of his own vessel in sanctification and honor, not in covetous sexual appetite such as also those nations have which do not know God . . . For God called us, not with allowance for uncleanness, but in connection with sanctification.”
By his reference to “sexual appetite” the apostle certainly is not condemning the normal sexual desire that finds proper outlet and expression within the marriage arrangement. We have a normal appetite for food and drink and can properly satisfy it. But one can become a glutton or a drunkard by self-indulgent and unrestrained eating and drinking. So, too, one could get so preoccupied with sex that satisfying sexual desire becomes paramount and the chief aim in itself, rather than an adjunct or subordinate complement to the expressing of love that the Bible urges. When this is the case, then the individual reaches the point of greediness ‘which is idolatry,’ and the sexual desire is that which is idolized.—Eph. 5:3, 5; Phil. 3:19; Col. 3:5.
What, then, of a situation where a married person, perhaps a wife, approaches a congregational elder with the complaint that her marriage mate is abusing her by forcing sexual practices upon her that she rejects as repugnant and perverted? If the marriage mate is willing to discuss the matter, the elder, possibly in company with another elder, can offer to try to help the couple to solve their problem, giving Scriptural counsel.
What if a married person claims that certain sexual practices of the marriage mate are sufficiently gross to come within the scope of the Greek term porneia as used at Matthew 19:9 (“fornication,” New World Translation)? As has been shown, the Scriptures do not give specific information that allows for positive identification of certain sexual practices within marriage as being—or not being—porneia. It may be noted that the Greek term is drawn from a word having the basic meaning of “to sell” or to “surrender or give oneself up to,” and thus porneia has the sense of “a selling or a giving of oneself up to lust or lewdness.” The verb form (porneuo) includes among its meanings that of “to debauch.” (Liddell and Scott’s Greek-English Lexicon) If a married person believes that the sexual practices of the mate, though not involving someone outside the marriage, are nevertheless of such a gross nature as to constitute a clear surrender to lewdness or a debauching in lewdness, then that must be his or her own decision and responsibility.
Such a one may hold that the circumstances provide Scriptural basis for divorce. If so, he or she must accept full responsibility before God for any divorce action that might be taken. Elders cannot be expected to express approval (Scripturally) of divorce, if they are not sure of the grounds. At the same time they are not authorized to impose their conscience on another when the matter is a questionable one. (Jas. 4:11, 12) Having expressed what Scriptural counsel they find fitting, they can then make clear to the one involved the seriousness of the matter and the full responsibility that must rest upon him or her if divorce action is taken. If a person is simply seeking a pretext to break the marriage bonds, then such a one can only expect God’s disfavor, for of such treacherous dealing with one’s mate God says that “he has hated a divorcing.” (Mal. 2:16) “God will judge fornicators and adulterers” and anyone divorcing simply on a pretext and then remarrying will not escape that judgment. (Heb. 13:4) The elders can be confident that the Lord “will both bring the secret things of darkness to light and make the counsels of the hearts manifest” in his due time. (1 Cor. 4:4, 5) Anyone who sows in deceit and treachery will not escape a harvest of suffering, for “God is not one to be mocked.”—Gal. 6:7, 8.
Even as congregation elders accord to their brothers and sisters the right to exercise their personal conscience in matters where the Scriptures are not explicit, so, too, the elders have a right to exercise their own consciences as to their view of those engaging in questionable actions. If they sincerely feel that the actions of a congregation member in these matters are such that they could not conscientiously recommend him or her for any exemplary service within the congregation, that is their prerogative.—1 Tim. 1:19; 3:2-12; 5:22.
a Reference has been made to the apostle’s statements at Romans 1:24-27 regarding “the natural use” of male and female bodies. As is evident and has been consistently acknowledged, these statements are made in the context of homosexuality. They do not make any direct reference to sexual practices by husband and wife. It must also be acknowledged that even those love expressions that are completely normal and common between husband and wife would be “unnatural” for persons of the same sex and immoral for unmarried people. Whatever guidance these apostolic statements provide as regards sex practices within marriage, therefore, is indirect and must be viewed as only of a persuasive but not a conclusive nature, that is, not the basis for setting up hard and fast standards for judgment. At the same time there is the possibility and perhaps a likelihood that some sex practices now engaged in by husband and wife were originally practiced only by homosexuals. If this should be the case, then certainly this would give these practices at least an unsavory origin. So the matter is not one to be lightly dismissed by the conscientious Christian simply because no direct reference to married persons appears in the aforementioned texts.