Where in the Bible should a same-sex attracted Christian turn for challenge and encouragement? No doubt there are various good options, but I was recently struck by one that I hadn’t thought of before: 1 Thessalonians 4.
I think 1 Thessalonians 4 should be a key chapter for same-sex attracted Christians because it highlights three of the biblical truths that are some of the most helpful and important for us to remember. Let me unpack that a bit.
Keep away from sexual immorality
Paul starts the chapter with a call to the Thessalonians to walk in the way that he has already taught them – in such a way that they can please God (v.1). Luckily for us, he goes on to explain what that looks like: ‘abstain from sexual immorality’ (v.3). Obviously, this isn’t the only thing involved in pleasing God, but Paul clearly recognises it as an important thing. Against the background of the Old Testament, ‘sexual immorality’ means any sexual activity outside of a one-man, one-woman marriage.
This first point in 1 Thessalonians 4 is helpful because we all (opposite or same-sex attracted) need to regularly hear the stark challenge and clear teaching of Scripture calling us to sexual purity. But it’s also helpful because of how Paul delivers this challenge. Notice a few things:
God helps us to live in purity – Paul says that the holiness of sexual purity is what God wants for us (‘this is the will of God’, v.3). In saying this, he is laying down a challenge to us, but I think he’s also offering reassurance that God will help us to live up to that challenge. In his next letter to the Thessalonians, Paul will remind them that their sanctification comes through the Spirit (2 Thessalonians 2:13), and when writing to the Philippians, Paul states that it is ‘God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure’ (Philippians 2:13). There’s a challenge here, but enclosed in the challenge is also a promise of God’s help if we’ll take up the challenge.
Sexual purity is a serious matter – Paul stresses how important it is that we steward our sexualities rightly. He reminds the Thessalonians of the solemn warning he had already given them, that God ‘is an avenger in all these things’ (v.6). He also states that the call to holiness comes from God himself and so to ignore Paul’s words here is not just to ignore him, but to ignore God (v.8). In a culture that often sees what we do sexually as pretty insignificant, and a church culture that can easily become relaxed about sexual sin, Paul’s words offer a helpful reminder of how important sexual purity really is.
Sexual purity is about knowing God – Paul contrasts how Christians should live – in holiness and honour – with how Gentile non-Christians live, noting that they ‘do not know God’ (v.5). Why do we as Christians steward our sexualities differently? Because we know God. We know the one who made us as sexual beings and the one who can direct us in the most life-giving way to live as a sexual being.
Love one another
It’s striking that Paul turns from sexual purity to brotherly love. Many of us who are single find that good friendships and genuine experiences of love within church family are what makes sexual purity possible for us. I don’t know if Paul had any such association in mind when he put these two topics side by side, but the pairing works well.
Paul calls on the Thessalonians to love one another (v.9) and indeed to do this more and more (v.10). He clearly feels it is an important part of Christian living.
It is striking that Paul speaks of ‘brotherly love’ or, since it would include both men and women, we could describe it as ‘family love’. The word Paul employs is usually only used of biological family. By calling the Thessalonians to have that sort of love for each other, he is reminding us that as Christians we have become family, children of God and so siblings of each other.
If our experience of same-sex attraction means we stay single as a way to please and honour God, it doesn’t mean a life without love and family. Church is family and we get to experience love and being part of a family with our brothers and sisters in the Church.
Encourage with hope for the future
The final topic Paul talks about in 1 Thessalonians 4 is the return of Jesus. In the context of the letter, Paul’s focus is on addressing some concerns that some of the Thessalonians had about believers who had died. It may be that they had assumed Jesus’ return would be so imminent that they would all still be alive at that point, and so they may have been concerned for those who had since died. Paul reassures his readers that both those who are alive and those who have died by the time Jesus returns will be with him on that day and for eternity (v.17).
The specific concern that the Thessalonian believers seem to have had may not feel directly relevant to us. But the truths that Paul reveals through his response certainly are. He affirms that we as Christians are unique among all people in that we have hope, such great hope that it stands even in the face of death (v.13). Most importantly, he reminds us that when Jesus returns, all Christians ‘will always be with the Lord’ (v.17). For those of us who might find living out the biblical sexual ethic to be costly and even, at times, painful, this is a great comfort. The difficulties and struggles now will be worth it then. This life isn’t all there is. There will be a day when sin will have been utterly defeated and our battle with it will be over. There will be a day when we will be with Jesus forever.
Paul exhorts the Thessalonians to ‘encourage one another with these words’ (v.18). We can do the same.