The Sin of Sensuality
“Let us behave properly as in the day…not in sexual promiscuity and sensuality” (Romans 13:13).
Not in sexual promiscuity and sensuality. The quaint wording of this phrase in the KJV is “not in chambering and wantonness.” The first term (Greek koitē) literally refers to a bed; here it means sexual immorality (Clinton Hamilton suggested “bed-hopping” as a paraphrase). But what about that second word, “sensuality”? What exactly does Paul mean by that? He tells us to avoid it; how can we, unless we know what it is?
The Greek word here is aselgeia. It appears ten times in the New Testament, and our Bibles usually translate it with words like lewdness, licentiousness, lasciviousness, debauchery, or wantonness (see Mark 7:22; 2 Corinthians 12:21; Galatians 5:19). The trouble is, those English words may be as unfamiliar to modern readers as the Greek word is! Do you know what they mean? Even the word sensuality, favored in some translations, may suggest to us little more than something that looks good or feels good.
What does aselgeia mean? It basically denotes a lack of self-control. The behavior in view is often sexual, as here in Romans 13:13. But the more general idea is “absence of restraint” (Vine), “unbridled lust … excess, outrageousness, shamelessness, insolence” (Thayer). William Barclay points out three characteristics of this sin: (1) It is wanton and undisciplined action. (2) It has no respect for the persons or rights of anyone else. (3) It is completely indifferent to public opinion and public decency. In 2 Peter 2:7 the HCSB aptly renders it “unrestrained behavior.”
So “sensuality” is basically doing whatever I want, however I want, whenever I want, with (or to) whoever I want. It’s the “you can’t tell me what to do” mind set. The Greco-Roman world was full of it: a numbness of conscience, always seeking pleasure in extremes (see Ephesians 4:17-19; 1 Peter 4:3). Even as the New Testament was being written, this mentality threatened the church: false teachers promised spiritual harmony with God coupled with freedom from moral restraint (2 Peter 2:18-19; Jude 4).
Modern Americans may have trouble grasping the concept of the Biblical term “sensuality.” And it isn’t just because of problems with translation and definition. It’s also because many of the very kinds of conduct suggested by this word are widely considered normal and harmless. Just as in the first century, people are surprised when Christians “do not plunge with them into the same flood of dissipation” (1 Peter 4:4, NIV).
Sensuality rears its ugly head in a number of ways. There are several potential problem areas where I need to be on guard.
• My entertainment. TV shows, movies, books, and music can be a gateway for sensual thoughts. The entertainment world has become a minefield of sexual images and dialogue, dirty jokes, obscene language, and gratuitous violence. Producers and performers are out to shock and offend — something that gets increasingly tougher as our national conscience becomes more callous. Jesus warns against feeding our minds with trash (Matthew 5:27-28; Ephesians 5:3-4).
• My clothes. My choice of wardrobe says a lot about me — and it has a definite effect on those around me. Are my clothes scanty or sexually suggestive? (This is best measured by honesty, not merely by comparison to someone else’s clothes.) Do I wear T-shirts with offensive or suggestive messages? Do I dress for shock value (outrageous clothes or hair, piercings, etc.)? God teaches us to dress with modesty and discretion, not reckless disregard (1 Timothy 2:9).
• My behavior. Thayer’s examples of sensuality include “indecent bodily movements, unchaste handling of males and females, etc.” Even many Christians seem to think it’s okay to engage in all sorts of sexually arousing physical contact as long as there’s no “actual sex.” Many popular forms of modern dancing fall into this category, too. In contrast, God’s will is “that each of you know how to possess his own vessel in sanctification and honor, not in lustful passion, like the Gentiles who do not know God” (1 Thessalonians 4:3-5).
• My speech. Paul warns against “unwholesome words … filthiness … coarse jesting” (Ephesians 4:29; 5:4). With our society’s emphasis on free speech, we often forget that some things are not fit to talk about (see Ephesians 5:12). In addition to speech that’s just plain dirty, I also need to avoid speech that’s arrogant, rebellious, or hateful (see Matthew 5:21-22).
• My attitude. “Sensuality” exists any time I show willful disregard for accepted standards of decency and propriety. It exists when I show willful disregard for rules and laws, or for the person or property of someone else. It’s the very opposite of the humility, self-control, and concern for others that are the qualities of God’s people.