In his letter to the Romans Paul makes some incisive and disturbing observations about the pagan and Gentile world in which he found himself preaching as an apostle of the gospel of Jesus. They are increasingly appropriate for today’s world in the West. He noted that “the wrath of God was being revealed against all the godlessness and wickedness of men who were supressing the truth by their wickedness” (Rom 1:18). Their “suppressing of the truth” lay in the rejection of the Creator God despite all the evidence of His power and nature in the creation around them. The pagan world had rejected God and made its own idols; it “served created things rather than the Creator”. Paul goes on to say that God’s response to this was “to give them over to their evil desires” and their destructive consequences. This was a first stage in his judgement, or his wrath.
Paul goes on to itemise some of those evil desires that were drawing down his wrath. It is noticeable that the first of these is impure sexual desire. It is a fact that sexual immorality is always very pronounced in every society that we have been accustomed to call decadent. It was certainly very evident in the “classical” Gentile world of Paul. Not that a decadent society necessarily sees itself as decadent! It always has some excuse or rationalisation of its sexual permissiveness. The modern excuse is “human freedom”! For Paul impure sexual desire is everything that is indulged in outside of a marriage bond and outside of a “natural” relationship. For him it was the first marker of a society going downhill, the first sign of God’s displeasure.
I do not think it would be out of place to say that Paul would have made the same observation about our own society. He would have seen ours as a society increasingly obsessed (“given over”) with impure sexual activity of almost every kind. In an interesting book entitled “Full Circle”, by a note classicist called Ferdinand Mount who has no particular Christian bias, the author finds an extraordinary similarity between the Graeco-Roman world (which was Paul’s Gentile world) and our own. Amongst many other aspects of life he finds a marked similarity of wide sexual licence. His general thesis is to demonstrate how remarkable a likeness our modern society has to that pagan world – we have come “full circle”. We would want to add to his thesis, however, that the reason for this is that the historic Christian structures have fallen badly to pieces in the last half century.
In the last two or three weeks alone there have been some gross examples of the symptoms of the sexual decadence which markedly underline our present predicament. The first of these was the media treatment of the death of the founder of Playboy Magazine, a man who had made a huge fortune out of his pornography and who had created a “castle” in which he played out his sexual fantasies surrounded by women who seemed only too happy to be demeaned by his behaviour. Not only was he was given a full obituary by normally “respectable” outlets but the obituaries all spoke in terms of a celebrity career of lively interest. His had been an OK life. Not one word or hint of reproach.
A second example followed quickly. A reputable T.V. channel showed a documentary on Amsterdam. As might be expected it started in the art galleries with an interesting, though short, focus on Rembrandt. It went on to depict the wealth of the merchants, architecture and an industrious sea-faring nation. It skipped along at no great depth, but it finally ended in the red-light district of Amsterdam. Most people are aware of this feature of that city but not with open approval. It was very much, however, an attraction to the programme makers and sponsors. It was given more than a fair share of time and its seamy side was hidden in what was almost a glamorisation of the business of “sex workers”. It ended with the presenter sitting in the shop window to advertise herself to the men passing by. This was obviously seen as good avant-garde TV and rather “amusing”. It followed the general bent that somewhere somehow sex has to appear in publications: it helps to sell.
A third example is more distressing. Recent press articles have indicated an alarming increase in the levels of pornography which are being watched young children as well as adolescents. They have also focussed on the sharp increase in sexual bullying and assault among the young. Children have always, and naturally, been inquisitive about sex – it is part of growing up. But clearly we have moved into a much more harmful and deeper phase. It does not bode well for the society in which they will eventually be adults, nor does it bode well for them individually. Add to all this the extraordinary confusion about sexual identity and the dubious sexual education for the very young being fostered in schools and we have a picture of a society that perhaps even the ancient world might look at with some dismay.
I venture to say that our society has been “given over” to its demands for “sexual freedom”. Ever since the “Swinging Years of the 1960s” the trend has been steadily downward. The “sexual freedom” has not had quite the results its proponents imagined. The truth is that it has broken many lives and in particular it has had very serious effects in the break-up of family life and consequent damaged children. In the process of “freedom” some 5 million children have been aborted. But the truth is hidden away and any mention of it is aggressively dismissed. However, if we sow to the wind we reap the wind!
We need to remember the starting point of all this. Paul is very clear about it; it is the rejection of God, the throwing off of restraints and the raising of our own idols. The rejection of God has grown apace alongside the demands of sex, and the judgement grows apace. The apple of sexual freedom looks good to eat, but it brings about destruction.
Our prayer for spiritual revival and the mercy of God are at a premium.