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By Dave Doveton
June 5, 2023

In a recent article on the individualistic and self-centred nature of western culture that has captivated the western church the Indonesian theologian N Gray Sutanto commented on how churches can fall prey to the same blind spots prevalent in the host culture. He noted in particular, "...the prevalent Western view that happiness and identity are found by following one's passions and sexual feelings is an unprovable and parochial assumption[i]."

Falling prey to certain cultural trends which conflict with Christian belief, when simultaneously claiming moral innocence is in plain terms to be deceived. The Old Testament is replete with instances where the people of Israel fell into this trap even though they were severely warned about this possibility. In the covenant stipulations of Moses' second speech to the people of Israel there is an instance of this warning which in turn alerts us to a terrible spiritual danger.

"Take care lest your heart be deceived, and you turn aside and serve other gods and worship them, then the anger of the Lord will be kindled against you..."[ii]

Here is the biblical analysis; that the root of all unfaithfulness and idolatry is deception. The story of the fall in Genesis gives us an archetype of how we are deceived by our own appetites and desires. These can be morally neutral and created with good purpose by God, but through disobedience we are plunged into all manner of alienations from God and from others. In the Genesis account Eve was attracted by the appearance of the fruit and allowed her desire for wisdom and insight (all good in themselves) to lead her into disobedience and sin against God. "So when the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was a delight to the eyes, and that the tree was to be desired to make one wise, she took of its fruit and ate..."[iii]

Despite all rational skills and intellectual nous, the child of God can fall away or drift into immoral behaviour and heretical beliefs. Great learning and wisdom cannot prevent it, status or high spiritual office cannot prevent it. This Jesus shows us by his comment to the Pharisees who prided themselves on their theological acumen and learning, "He is not God of the dead, but God of the living. You are quite wrong (planaō)."[iv]

The Greek planaō and its cognates means to be deceived or led astray. Being led astray has the spatial connotations of drifting from the truth, of separating from God and potentially an eventual destination in eternity without God. In his farewell discourses in the Gospels Jesus repeatedly warns the disciples not to be deceived[v]. He obviously understood this would be one of the greatest threats to the church, not only at the time of the destruction of Jerusalem, but throughout the church age as we await his second coming.

The association of deception with persistent immoral sexual behaviours in addition to other disordered desires is found throughout the New Testament epistles. Ephesians calls believers to "put off your old self ... which is corrupt through deceitful desires"[vi]. Plainly, human desire can be good, but it can be corrupted and disordered. It is the disordered desire that Paul warns of later in the chapter, and its ultimate consequences.

"For you may be sure that everyone who is sexually immoral or impure...has no inheritance in the Kingdom of Christ and God. Let no one deceive you with empty words for because of these things the wrath of God comes upon the sons of disobedience."[i]

Paul warns the Corinthians. "Or do you not know that the unrighteous will not inherit the Kingdom of God? Do not be deceived; neither the sexually immoral, nor idolaters, nor adulterers..."[ii]

In his letter to Titus he observes, "For we ourselves were once foolish, disobedient, led astray (planaō), slaves to various passions and pleasures..."[iii]

James has some helpful metaphors in explaining the process of yielding to temptation. He enlarges upon the Deuteronomic warning; "...for God cannot be tempted by evil, and he himself tempts no-one. But each person is tempted when he is lured and enticed by his own desire, then desire when it has conceived gives birth to sin, sin to death."[iv]

Firstly, the metaphor of a fishing lure captures the dynamic whereby a hapless individual is drawn to a lure and so ensnared by a hook. The attractive lure conceals a deadly trap, and the individual yields control of his destiny to another, more powerful than them. The second metaphor of conception, gestation, and birth describes how desire conceives sin and sin matures into death[v]. There are several conclusions we can draw from James' description:

No one is tempted by God or can escape responsibility for moral actions, no one is born with immutable disordered desires. We are free agents; we always have a choice in our responses and our actions. We bear responsibility for our sin.
It is clearly evil desire that ensnares us. This echoes Paul's statement in Ephesians 4:22 where Paul uses the agricultural metaphor of sowing and reaping to make the same point. "Do not be deceived; God is not mocked, for whatever one sows, that will he also reap." We can be deceived into thinking our sin will not have consequences -- But God will call us to account.

In many of the statements by church authorities in response to orthodox believers calling for a return to biblical sexual morality there is often an appeal to submit to a 'listening process'[vi] where some participants will be living in transgressive sexual relationships. The assertion is made that they are faithful believers. However, I wonder if we can be so confident about that seeing that when we turn to scripture, we find a different and severe verdict on the matter:

"No one who abides in him keeps on sinning; no one who keeps on sinning has either seen him or known him. Little children, let no one deceive you. Whoever practices righteousness is righteous, as he is righteous. Whoever makes a practice of sinning is of the devil, for the devil has been sinning from the beginning. The reason the son of God appeared was to destroy the works of the devil. No one born of God makes a practice of sinning, for God's seed abides in him..."[vii]
This seems to cast a great deal of doubt on the assumption that because all participants are 'communicants in good standing' in the institution, those among them who persist in unrepentant habitual sin can claim to abide in Christ.

Another deceptive use of semantics is the use of the word love. The New Testament Greek has several words all translated in English Bibles by the single word love, as any Greek scholar will attest. Two of the Greek words are pertinent to our discussion -- Agape, which means a non-physical, divine self-sacrificing love which acts in the interests of the other, and Eros, which is sexual desire for another, and has selfish connotations. The banal 'love is love' is a platitude touted frequently to defend immoral sexual relationships, but often we are assaulted by a revisionist use of the text in 1 John which states "God is love". This is a misuse of the text which in Greek translates literally as "God is agape", not "God is eros". Eros is another god.

In Greek myths and philosophy, Eros is the god of passionate physical love and sexual desire. With his arrows he inflicts on the hearts of his targeted person powerful feelings -- even confusion of mind. Eros is also associated with homoerotic desire, and he was considered its protector.

Perhaps this says something about the spiritual influences we open ourselves to if we submit to disordered desire. Paul certainly indicates that behind pagan idols such as Eros stood real spiritual powers. Even if we believe that the Greek gods had no objective reality, they still personified powerful psycho-spiritual realities.
To those who, like the Israelites of old, are captured the prophet has a plea from the heart of God.

"...Why will you die, O house of Israel? For I have no pleasure in the death of anyone, declares the Lord God; so turn, and live." [viii]

[i] Ephesians 5:5,6.
[ii] 1 Corinthians 6:9 ff.
[iii] Titus 3:3.
[iv] James 1:13-15.
[v] See also Romans 7:11 "For sin, taking occasion by the commandment, deceived me, and by it slew me", and the oft quoted Romans 6:23 "For the wages of sin is death...".
[vi] See for example Archbishop Stephen Cottrell -- https://anglican.ink/2023/04/22/archbishop-of-york-we-are-not-judged-by-doctrinal-orthodoxy-but-love/.
[vii] 1 John 3:6-9.
[viii] Ezekiel 18:31,32.
[i] https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/article/jakarta-western-judgments/
[ii] Deuteronomy 11:16.
[iii] Genesis 3:8.
[iv] Mark 12:27.
[v] Luke 21:8; Matt 24:4,5,11,24; Mark 13:5,6.
[vi] Ephesians 4:22.

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