Lord's Day 41
Q. What does the seventh commandment teach us?
A. That God condemns all unchastity,1 and that therefore we should thoroughly detest it2 and live decent and chaste lives,3 within or outside of the holy state of marriage.
1 Lev. 18:30; Eph. 5:3-5
2 Jude 22-23
3 1 Cor. 7:1-9; 1 Thess. 4:3-8; Heb. 13:4
Q. Does God, in this commandment, forbid only such scandalous sins as adultery?
A. We are temples of the Holy Spirit, body and soul, and God wants both to be kept clean and holy. That is why God forbids all unchaste actions, looks, talk, thoughts, or desires,1 and whatever may incite someone to them.2
1 Matt. 5:27-29; 1 Cor. 6:18-20; Eph. 5:3-4
2 1 Cor. 15:33; Eph. 5:18
A few observations. First, this isn’t just about adultery. You may have been thinking, “Wow, I’m really glad the Ten Commandments focus on adultery, and not internet porn!” If so, I’ve got bad news. Ye olde Heidelberg follows the pattern of Jesus’ interpretation of the law in the Sermon on the Mount: it’s not only about the sinful act but about the sinful heart. So, for example, “thou shalt not murder” is about the sinful root of murder: envy, hatred, anger, vindictiveness.
Furthermore, the Heidelberg employs a rhetorical tool called synecdoche. (I know what you’re thinking—isn’t that in New York? No, that’s Schenectady). The idea is that a part represents the whole. Again, the command against murder is instructive. The Heidelberg declares that “thou shalt not murder” not only prohibits murder but it means that “I am not to belittle, hate, insult, or kill my neighbor—not by my thoughts, my words, my look or gesture, and certainly not by actual deeds—and I am not to be party to this in others; rather, I am to put away all desire for revenge.” (Q&A 105) Yeah, just when you were thinking, “Hey, I haven’t murdered anybody today. I’m good,” the Heidelberg comes along and says that belittling someone in my thoughts violates the command not to murder? Crap.
Finally, the commands are primarily stated in the negative—“thou shalt not.” But the Heidelberg makes it clear that these imply a positive. In other words, not murdering is not enough. In fact, that’s the bare minimum—“I showed Jesus’ love today by not murdering!” Good start, but please tell me you’ve done more. So Q&A 107 reads:
Q. Is it enough then that we do not murder our neighbor in any such way?
A. No. By condemning envy, hatred, and anger God wants us to love our neighbors as ourselves, to be patient, peace-loving, gentle, merciful, and friendly toward them, to protect them from harm as much as we can, and to do good even to our enemies.
It’s not just about refraining from doing evil; we are called to actively do good.
So what does the Heidelberg Catechism say about human sexuality?
Well, it condemns “all unchastity.” What is chastity and unchastity? Chastity is the virtue that enables you to exercise proper control of your sexual appetite. Chastity is not to be confused with celibacy, which is complete abstention from sexual activity. What I appreciate about a focus on chastity is that it gets at the heart of our sexuality. The opposite of chastity is lust (not to be confused with properly ordered sexual desire), which places the self at the center of sexual desire. Maybe an example will help.
If you’re married, it’s certainly morally permissible to engage in sexual union with your spouse. But your sexual desire for your spouse could be self-centered and self-focused; that is, I could place my own desire for physical gratification at the top of my priority list (which is not evil in itself but can be if it is made the ultimate goal). I can lust after my own wife, seeing her as just an object and a means to the end goal of my pleasure. That would be morally wrong. That’s different from proper sexual desire. Lust attempts to possess, own, control, or use another for my own selfish ends.
So in condemning “unchastity,” the Heidelberg speaks broadly, condemning “actions, looks, talk, thoughts, or desires” that are condemned by Scripture. This includes both certain objective acts but also subjective dispositions (like lust). This is why it says that single and married people alike are called to chastity. A legalistic approach to sex focuses solely on the external action—is a person married or not?—whereas this heart-centered approach looks not only on the external action but also at the heart.
But what “unchaste” acts are prohibited, beyond adultery?
Before I address that question, let me just clarify: unchastity is not merely about internal intention, but also about objective actions. In other words, you can't say something like "Well, I really have a self-giving love toward this person I'm committing adultery with." Whatever your internal intentions, the objective act is wrong.
And the biblical references in the Catechism are telling here. The first Scripture reference is to Leviticus 18. Why is this significant? Because Leviticus 18 is a key baseline for biblical sexual ethics. Remember synecdoche? “Adultery” is the part; Leviticus 18 is a whole, more complete list.
Many of the New Testament references listed in the Catechism mention “sexual immorality” (the Greek term is porneia). If you’re familiar with the Bible, you probably realize you hear this term quite a few times (25 in the New Testament). Maybe you haven’t asked the question: what exactly is included in this term? I’m glad you asked. As New Testament scholar Scot McKnight puts it, “when you double-click on the term porneia, it takes you to Leviticus 18.” For first-century Jews, including Jesus and Paul, this is a broad term that refers to all forms of immoral sexual activity, which are most clearly stated and catalogued in Leviticus 18.
So for the early church, Leviticus 18 wasn’t to be discarded. The Jerusalem Council expressly states that Jews and Gentiles alike are to refrain from porneia, in part because the text of Leviticus 17-18 makes clear that the commands contained therein applied to Jew and Gentile alike in the Old Testament as well (Lev. 18:26). In fact, the text of Leviticus 18:24-28 makes clear that God’s judgment on Jew and Gentile alike are linked to the land being defiled through these sexual practices. Another case in point from the New Testament: Paul condemns incest in 1 Cor. 5 because it’s a prime example of porneia as forbidden in Leviticus 18. The Belgic Confession affirms this pattern of hermeneutics of the New Testament here by stating that “we continue to use the witnesses drawn from the law and prophets to confirm us in the gospel and to regulate our lives with full integrity for the glory of God, according to the will of God.” In other words, much in the Old Testament (including the Ten Commandments and the principles behind them) applies to us today.
Although the Heidelberg Catechism doesn’t give us a full list like Leviticus 18 or name any specific sexual sin other than adultery, I think it’s reasonable and accurate to say that it intends to condemn not only adultery but other things listed in Leviticus 18 and other Scripture, including incest, rape, sex with prostitutes, and same-sex sexual activity.
So it turns out that, in saying a little bit about sex, the Heidelberg Catechism actually has a lot to say about sex.
Postcript: What does this mean for the Reformed Church in America?
Okay, if you’re not part of the RCA, feel free to ignore this. Part of what’s currently up for debate in our General Synod is a “constitutional” way forward on the issue of human sexuality, specifically same-sex relationships. Here’s what I think is significant: the RCA’s Standards (which are part of the Constitution) include the Heidelberg Catechism, and the Heidelberg Catechism does indeed condemn same-sex sexual activity in question 107 and 108. You could argue that it’s not mentioned specifically. True. Neither is rape or incest. Grand theft auto and insurance fraud are not mentioned under “thou shalt not steal.” So while you could make the claim that they are not specifically named, I think it’s fair to say that the RCA’s constitution does indeed speak to the moral order of human sexuality. If someone introduced a motion to affirm larceny or make a misleading declaration about a presidential candidate, I’d make a similar argument—that doing so would ultimately, at root, go against one of our confessions.
Admittedly, I’m not an RCA polity wonk, so I’m open to feedback here.
But I think this also makes it clear that the divergence of views about how to interpret Scripture and the Standards on this matter should be treated as a confessional issue, not merely a liturgical issue. Or, at the very least, we need to clarify whether our confessions and liturgies may disagree with one another. In my opinion, a motion that would approve a liturgy for same-sex marriages would fly directly in the face of the Heidelberg Catechism. The liturgy would violate the Standards. We could do it, but our constitution would then be inconsistent.