With only a few weeks to go to the presidential election in the US, an audio tape was released of Donald Trump bragging about his sexual exploits to a news reporter (8 October 2016). The Washington Post reported that it was only months after he had married his third wife, Melania, that he attempted to seduce a married woman.[1] He goes on to boast that his star status allowed him to make such moves, “And when you’re a star, they let you do it.” It seems that Trump believed that the married woman was his for the taking, “You can do anything.” Even more shocking, Trump appears to be confessing that he has or could sexually assault women because of his star status. Such an admission puts him in the same company as a number of infamous stars, who, in the very recent past, have been found guilty of abusing their positions of trust.[2] This attitude ‘I can take what I want’ was also prevalent in the ancient world.  It often involved breaking the trust given in the act of hospitality.[3] In 1 Thessalonians 4: 1-8 Paul warns the Thessalonians to “abstain from sexual immorality” and not to transgress and not to take advantage of a brother (verses 4 & 6). In this article I am arguing that Paul is warning the Thessalonian men not to make sexual advances on other men’s wives because they are in the position ‘to do anything’. While they might be in a position ‘to do anything’, to act on this, warns Paul, will result in vengeance from the Lord (v.6).

Thessalonians 4: 1-8

“Finally then, brethren, we request and exhort you in the Lord Jesus, that as you received from us instruction as to how you ought to walk and please God (just as you actually do walk), that you excel still more. 2 For you know what commandments we gave you by the authority of the Lord Jesus. 3 For this is the will of God, your sanctification; that is, that you abstain from sexual immorality; 4 that each of you know how to possess his own vessel in sanctification and honor, 5 not in lustful passion, like the Gentiles who do not know God; 6 and that no man transgress and defraud his brother in the matter because the Lord is the avenger in all these things, just as we also told you before and solemnly warned you. 7 For God has not called us for the purpose of impurity, but in sanctification. 8 So, he who rejects this is not rejecting man but the God who gives His Holy Spirit to you” (NASB).[4]

It is certainly clear that this passage is about “sexual immorality” (πορνεία): but is it about sexual immorality in general or a particular type of sexual immorality? The sentence dealing with this is long and complex, beginning  “For this is the will of God…” (v. 3) and ending “and solemnly warned you” (v.6).  This poses a challenge in interpretation.

The best place to begin is by making some exegetical notes, which means looking at the definitions of individual words and the grammar of the sentences [5].


We will consider the first 6 verses individually.

Chapter 4.1

“Finally then, brethren…” (Λοιπὸν οὖν, ἀδελφοί) or alternatively ‘Then the rest, brothers.’ The phrase ‘therefore the rest’ is a way of introducing a new section (similarly, Plutarch, ‘On Fate’ 572 F; ‘On the Education of Children’, 10E); Paul uses the word loipos (λοιπός) in 2 Cor 13:11 to introduce his concluding thoughts.[6] Although here in 1 Thessalonians 4, Paul does not seem to have an end in mind since he continues with further extensive instructions and teaching (1 Thess 4:13-5:28).

Chapter 4.2

“For you know what commandments we gave you by [the authority] of the Lord Jesus” (οἴδατε γὰρ τίνας παραγγελίας ἐδώκαμεν ὑμῖν διὰ τοῦ κυρίου Ἰησοῦ).

In this verse we will be considering the definition of a number of words. For this I will be using the LSJ= Liddell, Scott and Jones, Greek – English Lexicon. The focus of this lexicon is classical Greek but often has notes about Kione Greek. At times it is far more reliable than many of the New Testament lexicons.[7]

LSJ defines paraggellō (παραγγέλλω) as “to pass on or transmit a message”, or it can mean “give orders, give the word of command, esp. of a general” (Xen. Anab. 1.8.3; Plat. Phaedo 116c). In Herodotus he uses it when describing the action of the Persian captain Otanes,

“and he commanded (παρήγγειλε) his army to kill everyone they took, men and boys alike” The Persian Wars (3.147.6). [8]

Here it is used of a general giving a direct order. However, there is the related use, ‘to pass on a message.’ For instance, the letter of Diogenes to Titus (on papyrus, sb.14.12202 (2nd C. CE.)),

παραγγέλλω ἐπεὶ ὡς εἶπόν σοι ἐξεκόπη τινὰ {τι \να/ φυτὰ ἐκεῖ ἵνα παραγγείλῃς τοῖς ἐκεῖ ποιμέσι  ̣(ll. 6-10).

“…since as I told you some plants have been cut down there, so that you may warn (ἵνα παραγγείλῃς) the shepherds there…”

Here we have the sense that the commands are passed on. So Paul and his companions, when they were with the Thessalonians, passed on commands by the agency of the Lord Jesus. The sense is that Paul and his companions were acting as intermediaries passing on commands to the Thessalonians.

Now it looks to me that there is a unit here beginning with verse 1b

“how you ought to walk and please God (ὑμᾶς περιπατεῖν καὶ ἀρέσκειν θεῷ)  (just as you actually do walk), that you excel still more.”

And closing with 1 Thess 4: 12,

“so that you will behave properly (ἵνα περιπατῆτε (lit. ‘so that you may walk’)) toward outsiders and not be in any need.”

In between are the commands that were given when Paul was with them. It is the nature of this kind of paraenetic literature[9] that there are reminders of things already learned. Indeed, even in ordinary letters by fathers and superiors travelling away from home they often give reminders to sons and workmen about instructions that they had issued before they left.[10] This is what we have here: reminders of instruction and commands given before Paul left. And these reminders are within the framework “to walk and to please God”… “so that you will behave properly [lit. walk appropriately] toward outsiders and not be in any need.”

Although there seems to be two separate concerns–sexual conduct and living quietly and earning your own keep–there is a thread tying the two sections together, which seems to be appropriate conduct that is commended by God and outsiders.

There are two sections in the unit (vv. 1–8) and the first one begins at verse 2 “for you know” (οἴδατε γὰρ τίνας).  The Greek word oida (οἶδα= to know) features in everyday letters in formulas introducing a thought or a section of thought; for instance “I want you to know…”[11] Verse 2 thus introduces a section of thought which is about the commands of Jesus and the will of God.  Verse 3 is the thought proper “For this is the will of God” (τοῦτο γάρ ἐστιν θέλημα τοῦ θεοῦ…). This is the independent clause and then it has a number of dependent clauses attached to it that conclude in verse 6.

Chapter 4.3

The independent clause (v.3) tells us that it is God’s will that they be sanctified and this is attained by the command: “abstain from sexual immorality” (τῆς πορνείας). We should notice that porneia (πορνεία) is in the singular with the definite article indicating it is representative of a category.[12] Porneia (πορνεία) originally meant prostitution but came to be the word that heads a category which could describe any kind of sexual misdemeanour or sin.[13] Now Paul could be saying: abstain from sexual impropriety in general; but the fact that the sentence continues to flow on means that he has a particular type of porneia (πορνεία) in mind. The dependent clauses then fill out what he means by porneia (πορνεία) but for an English speaker this can be tricky reading as the meaning seems to be telegraphed. It also doesn’t help that the original readers know what Paul is talking about because he is reminding them of what they have already heard. We, unfortunately, only have the reminder to go on. So let’s lay it out and see if we can discern a flow of thought.

Chapter 4:4

εἰδέναι ἕκαστον ὑμῶν τὸ ἑαυτοῦ σκεῦος κτᾶσθαι ἐν ἁγιασμῷ καὶ τιμῇ

“that each of you know how to possess his own vessel in sanctification and honor,”

Now the NASB incorporates eidenai (εἰδέναι) into this clause. This is the perfect infinitive of oida (οἶδα) and is sometimes construed to open an extended thought; for example,

Hippocrates (5th C. BC) in his instructions on the treatment of diseases uses it,

Prorrhetic II.45

“If derangement of the mind or paralysis of some limb is present at the beginning of the fevers, know (εἰδέναι) that the person will die for certain unless either one of the most favourable signs appears or particular strength of body is present [but he must examine the particular form in the person], for there is still this hope of salvation.”[14]

Instruments Of Reduction, XXXIII.9

“If dislocated bones make a wound and project, they are best let alone, seeing, of course, that they are not left unsupported or subject to violence. Treatment with pitch cerate, or compresses soaked in warm wine(for cold is bad in all these cases), also leaves, and, in winter, crude wool as a protection; do not use a plaster application or bandaging; low diet; cold, heavy weight, constriction, violence, a forcibly ordered attitude—bear in mind (εἰδέναι) that all these are pernicious.”[15]

Example of the infinitive used this way in a letter is P. Oxy. I 117 (2nd or  3rd C. CE.)

πλὴ[ν] ἴσθι, μὲν ἔ\γ/κλητος(*) ὑπάρχων ἔτι δὲ καὶ νῦν διαλαβὼν μηδεμιᾶς τεύξεσθαι συνγνώμης ὀλιγωρηθέντος τινὸς (ll.42-43);

“But be sure that you are liable to accusation; and, before it is too late, believing that you will receive no pardon for any neglect;

See (τεύξεσθαι) that suitable persons are appointed to the aforesaid offices, and display unremitting zeal in what tends to increase revenue…”

Teuxesthai (τεύξεσθαι) is a future infinitive (LSJ) but the point is that the infinitive can have this role of calling attention to what comes after it as in indirect speech.[16] Here it is teuxesthai (τεύξεσθαι) something like, ‘See to it…’ or ‘Make ready…’.

So it seems to me that verse 4 should be rendered:

εἰδέναι ἕκαστον ὑμῶν τὸ ἑαυτοῦ σκεῦος κτᾶσθαι ἐν ἁγιασμῷ καὶ τιμῇ

‘Know’ or ‘understand that’ ‘each of you…’

This then links the coming verses to the independent clause in verse 3–they are to understand each of the dependent clauses is an explication of that independent clause.

This first dependent clause itself is difficult to put into English:

ἕκαστον ὑμῶν τὸ ἑαυτοῦ σκεῦος κτᾶσθαι ἐν ἁγιασμῷ καὶ τιμῇ

each–of you–his own–vessel–to control–in holiness–and–honour

The infinitive governing this clause is ktasthai (κτᾶσθαι). The LSJ defines kthsomai (κτήσομαι) as

“1. procure for oneself, get, acquire…

  1. ὁ κεκτημένος owner, master (esp. of slaves), as Subst., Ar.Pl.4, etc.; “οἱ κ.” A.Supp.337; of a husband, E.IA715;”

This word is about owning, possessing, and notice that it can be used of a husband taking a wife.

The word rendered “vessel” by the NASB is skeuos (σκεῦος) and is defined by the LSJ,

“σκεῦος  A. vessel or implement of any kind,…

  1. τὸ ς. the body, as the vessel of the soul, a metaph. clearly expressed in 2 Ep.Cor.4.7, ἔχομεν δὲ τὸν θησαυρὸν τοῦτον ἐν ὀστρακίνοις σκεύεσιν, cf. 1 Ep.Thess.4.4, 1 Ep.Pet. 3.7.”

So this word could mean a person’s own body. He or she is to be in possession of his own body–to be in control. But notice that the LSJ lists 1 Peter 3:7,

“You husbands in the same way, live with your wives in an understanding way, as with someone weaker (ὡς ἀσθενεστέρῳ σκεύει; lit. as the weaker vessel), since she is a woman; and show her honor (τιμήν) as a fellow heir of the grace of life, so that your prayers will not be hindered.”

This is a pretty impressive parallel. It would appear that both derive from a common pool of Christian teaching. So this makes it a possibility that it is saying,

ἕκαστον ὑμῶν τὸ ἑαυτοῦ σκεῦος κτᾶσθαι ἐν ἁγιασμῷ καὶ τιμῇ

‘each of you to possess/ take/ keep to his own wife in sanctification and honour.’

This is the positive side of the command then there are two negatives governed by μὴ (not)

Chapter 4:5 and 6a

Verse 5. μὴ ἐν πάθει ἐπιθυμίας καθάπερ καὶ τὰ ἔθνη τὰ μὴ εἰδότα τὸν θεόν,

Verse 5 not in lustful passion, like the Gentiles who do not know God; (NASB)

Verse 6 τὸ μὴ ὑπερβαίνειν καὶ πλεονεκτεῖν ἐν τῷ πράγματι τὸν ἀδελφὸν αὐτοῦ,

Verse 6 not to transgress (ὑπερβαίνειν) and to take advantage (πλεονεκτεῖν) of his brother in the matter (my translation).

Since I have used my own translation note the following definitions from the LSJ:

“ὑπερβαίνειν 2. overstep, transgress

πλεονεκτεῖν have or claim more than one’s due, mostly in bad sense, to be greedy, grasping…”

Therefore, if verse 4 is about keeping to one’s own wife then the following two verses are about not straying.

The term “his brother” in verse 6 together with idea of keeping to one’s own wife seems to indicate that Paul is speaking to the men in the congregation. If he is reminding them of his instruction then he has no need to indicate who in the audience he is addressing since they would just know this. It makes more sense if he’s talking about overstepping proper boundaries and taking advantage of a brother if he is talking about adultery.[17] But this is for the next section on the background.

Chapter 4:6b

The last half of verse 6 is a dependent clause, which gives the basis for the previous statement,

διότι ἔκδικος κύριος περὶ πάντων τούτων, καθὼς καὶ προείπαμεν ὑμῖν καὶ διεμαρτυράμεθα (verse 6b).

“because the Lord is the avenger in all these things, just as we also told you before and solemnly warned you.”

Notice that this clause then has a dependent clause, ‘just as’ (καθὼς).

I have noticed that these kinds of long sentences, with multiple parts, are produced when the writer/speaker (remembering that this letter could be dictated) is emotional. This appears to be the case for 1 Timothy 4:1-3. This then is an important matter for Paul.

Background: Gentiles and the Sin of Adultery

Verse 5 raises some very interesting questions: “not in lustful passion, like the Gentiles who do not know God.” If this passage is about abstaining adultery (μοιχεύω), then why would Paul say this when even “the Gentiles” would agree that adultery was a sin. Plato is clear that a just man does not touch another man’s possessions including his wife,

“ [The shepherd] who went up to the king, and on coming there he seduced (μοιχεύσαντα) the king’s wife and with her aid set upon the king and slew him and possessed his kingdom. If now there should be two such rings, and the just man should put on one and the unjust the other, no one could be found, it would seem, of such adamantine temper as to persevere in justice and endure to refrain his hands from the possessions of others and not touch them, though he might with impunity take what he wished even from the marketplace…” (Plato, Republic [360b] (4th C BC)). [18]

Similarly, Polybius in his Histories describes the outrageous behaviour of King Philip, who really did take what he wanted,

“King Philip of Macedon returned to Argos and laid aside his crown and purple robe, with the view of making a display of democratic equality and good nature. But the more democratic the dress which he wore, the more absolute and royal were the privileges which he claimed. He was not now content with seducing unmarried women, or even with intriguing with married women (μοιχεύων), but assumed the right of sending authoritatively for any woman whose appearance struck him; and offered violence to those who did not at once obey, by leading a band of revellers to their houses; and, summoning their sons or their husbands, he trumped up false pretexts for menacing them. In fact his conduct was exceedingly outrageous and lawless. But though this abuse of his privileges as a guest was exceedingly annoying to many of the Achaeans, and especially to the orderly part of them, the wars that threatened them on every side compelled them to show a patience under it uncongenial to their character. . .” (Histories 10.26 (2nd C BC)). [19]

Diodorus Siculus describes laws to keep men and women from committing adultery,

“To cite examples, whereas everywhere else wayward wives were required to pay fines, Zaleucus stopped their licentious behaviour by a cunningly devised punishment. That is, he made the following laws: a free-born woman may not be accompanied by more than one female slave, unless she is drunk; she may not leave the city during the night, unless she is planning to commit adultery (μοιχευομένην); she may not wear gold jewellery or a garment with a purple border, unless she is a courtesan; and a husband may not wear a gold-studded ring or a cloak of Milesian fashion unless he is bent upon prostitution or adultery (μοιχεύηται)” (Library 12.21 (1st C BC)).[20]

Now I hope that it is quite apparent that Gentiles did not think that adultery was ok. It is not ok even if you are king, although the aggrieved husband might not be able to do anything about it! It was licentious behaviour, committed by unrighteous men. Notice in Polybius’ example about King Philip that the husbands are the ones who are being taken advantage of since they cannot object to the assault on their wives’ chastity. We then start to see how people thought in the ancient world. It is an insult ‘an outrage’ for a man to seduce another man’s wife.

Menelaus went to war with the Trojans because Paris insulted him by seducing his wife while a guest in his house. Even more outrageous was that he then ran away with her back to Troy (Homer, Iliad, 7th C BC). Similarly, Dio Chrysostom in the 1st C AD says,

“Now at this point we must assuredly remember that this adultery (μοιχείας) committed with outcasts (ie prostitutes), so evident in our midst and becoming so brazen and unchecked, is to a very great extent paving the way to hidden and secret assaults upon the chastity of women and boys of good family, such crimes being only too boldly committed when modesty is openly trampled upon, and that it was not invented, as some think, to afford security and abstinence from those crimes” (Oration 7, 139).[21]

In Oration 7 Dio is arguing against allowing brothels in cities because it gives men licence to pursue any sexual impulse including the seduction of wives and boys in their own homes. Such behaviour Dio says is a crime. He goes on to describe how men embolden by their sexual licence discovered in the brothel can take advantage of a husband’s ignorance (or trust); “where husbands in their simplicity do not notice most things” and seduce the wife for the sake of excitement. Husbands, Dio says,

“not admit knowledge of some things but suffer the adulterers to be called guests and friends and kinsmen, at times even entertaining these themselves and inviting them to their tables at festivals and sacrifices as, I imagine, they might invite their bosom friend…” (Oration 7, 141-142).

We now have a context were men may pursue their sexual gratification by pursuing other men’s wives in their own homes. Dio is reflecting conventional wisdom that wives needed protection from male sexual predators that were often invited into the home as guests and friends. We must remember that wives were often very young; girls were married from the time they were 14 and most were married by the time they were 19. Further, women were seen as prone to sexual misconduct because they were considered morally weak; that is, incapable of the highest virtue.[22]

Also notice that Dio is using the word for adultery in the way we might use it to mean sexual licence. That is because porneia (πορνεία) and moicheuō (μοιχεύω) can overlap in meaning in Greek thought and can be used interchangeably.

So now let’s think about the Christian background. Christ groups (groups of Christians meeting together) were a great social experiment for the first century. There were many associations, but few combined whole households, mixed men and women, and none would mix people of varying social status as did Christian groups.[23] If a man was hosting a Christian gathering he was inviting other men into his house. We should now start to see the possibilities for temptation here. Paul is commending the Thessalonians for their brotherly love. These people are on intimate terms with one another. This leads to the possibility that a man could “transgress and defraud his brother in the matter” of seducing his wife in his own home. Such a thing would be an insult, an outrage, to the man’s trust.

But what about the “not in lustful passion, like the Gentiles who do not know God” if the Gentiles would agree such behaviour is outrageous and a crime?

The rites of Dionysius were enthusiastically enjoyed by many. Dionysius was the god of wine and a good time and Thessalonica was home of a cult of Dionysius. Karl Donfried in “The Cults of Thessalonica and the Thessalonian Correspondence” has argued that the cult of Dionysus provides a background to understand the instructions chapter 4,

“As  one  looks  at  the  Dionysiac  mysteries  in  general, there are several components which  are  of  particular  interest  for  this  study. The  hope  of  a joyous  afterlife  is  central  and  appears to  be  symbolized  by the  phallus.  Whereas  the  prominent  place  of  the  phallus  in the  liknon,  the basket  sacred  to  Dionysus and  carried  on the  head  at  festivals,  symbolized fertility  to  an  old  agricultural  people…

But the sexual symbols of the  cult  were not  mere representations  of  the hope  of  a joyous  afterlife;  they  were  also  sensually  provocative.  The fact that  the  god  Dionysus  was  the  god  of  wine  and  joy  often  gave  allowance for  a  strong  emphasis  on  noisy  revelry  of  all  sorts.  Already  in  an  anticipatory  way  we  might  ask  whether  this emphasis on the phallus and  sensuality  offer  a  possible  background  for  the exhortations  in  1 Thess 4. 3-8  in general  and  for  the  difficult  problem  of the σκεῦος  in  particular.”[24]

Donfried goes on to argue that “vessel” (skeuos σκεῦος) is the phallus and that the instruction in 1 Thessalonians 4 :3 is that Christian men should keep their phalluses under control. I think this is way too specific, but the parallels between Dionysus cult (and other mystery cults for that matter) and Christian groups is correctly identified. As Donfried says,

“Finally,  one  should   not   overlook  the  obvious  parallels  between  the following  texts  and  the mystery  cults:  1 Thess  5.  5–7  with its reference  to darkness and  drunkenness; 1 Thess 5.  19–22 where Paul  explicitly  urges his hearers  not  ‘to quench’  the  Spirit  but  ‘to test’  it. Quite  clearly  the  Apostle does  not  wish the  gift  of the  Spirit to be  confused  with  the  excesses of  the Dionysiac  mysteries;  for  Paul the  Spirit  does not  lead  to  ‘Bacchic  frenzies’ but  to joy  precisely  in  the  context  of  suffering.”[25]

In a more recent study, “Dionysus as Jesus: The Incongruity of a Love Feast in Achilles Tatius’s Leucippe and Clitophon 2.2,” Courtney Friesen pointed out the closeness of the parallels with the Eucharist and the words and actions of Dionysus. [26]   Drinking wine was associated with revelry and sexual licence. Certainly, wine was believed to be able to absorb magical spells, which a woman could drink and make her receptive to sexual advances.[27] In other words the very intimacy that the Thessalonians are commended for and the symbolic activities at the centre of their life together, taking the bread and the wine, could be construed in terms of a Dionysus cult; As Friesen says,

“Both were known for their close association with women devotees.  Particularly  important  for  the  present  discussion,  both  were  in  some sense bestowers of wine, and consequently wine was an important element in their  ritual worship. Finally, a common feature between Christianity and the Dionysiac religion of the Roman period was that they advanced largely in localized private associations.”

I think we can now see the dangers to the Christian group meeting in Thessalonica. Possibly some might join the group (that is become Christians) and fall into the temptation to pursue similar sexual adventures, given the similarities of association between the Dionysus cult and the Christ group. Further, Paul, aware of the similarities between Christ groups and the mystery cults, is warning the believers not to indulge in practises which would make them indistinguishable from the cult of Dionysus. Their obvious sexual fidelity is a point of difference. This explains, in part, why Paul is reminding and urging them about this in this letter. It could well be that those who have joined the Christ group have done so because of this point of difference. Who would want to participate in a group where one’s wife might be molested or run the risk that she might indulge in frenzied rivalry and commit adultery? The Christian group offered close association and a mystery encounter with God through the Eucharist, prayer, and spiritual ecstasy that other mystery groups offered, but without the moral risk. Not everyone in the ancient world was impressed by the way some people participated in the rites of Dionysus and many thought that their behaviour was excessive.[28] Particularly enlightening are the references to frenzied women (Plutarch. Alexander 2.5). Thus, the Christians at Thessalonica are warned to be careful about how they appear to outsiders.

In conclusion, the reference to “the Gentiles who do not know God” is to a specific type of behaviour engaged in by some Gentiles. This is a function of a discussion that has taken place earlier, so that the readers would know that a general reference to “the Gentiles” means those specific Gentiles and their activities.  It does not include those Gentiles who believe in modesty and live accordingly. It is those Gentiles that Paul wants to appeal to.

Interpretation: Adultery and the Will of God

But of course this is not the prime reason given by Paul for sexual control (although it is an important factor). But we are now in a better position to understand the text of 1 Thessalonians 4:1-8. We can see that this command is framed by the will of God,

Verses 2–3,

“For you know what commandments we gave you by the authority of the Lord Jesus. 3 For this is the will of God, your sanctification; that is, that you abstain from sexual immorality…”


“because the Lord is the avenger in all these things, just as we also told you before and solemnly warned you. 7 For God has not called us for the purpose of impurity, but in sanctification.”

Now adultery as the specific sin here makes sense. We know it is God’s will that they do not commit adultery since it is one of the 10 commandments. Further, Jesus gave specific instructions in regard to adultery,

“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery’; 28 but I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lust for her has already committed adultery with her in his heart” (Matthew 5:27-28).

We now have a context for Paul’s teaching in Thessalonica. It is evident that Paul knew about some of Jesus’ teaching– I don’t think it is a surprise that Paul knew about Jesus’ instruction in regard to adultery. So he who isn’t happy to not control himself because he wants to engage in similar activities as in a Dionysus cult, well then, he is not just rejecting Paul’s instruction “but the God who gives His Holy Spirit to you” (1 Thess 4:8).


The very thing that is the Thessalonians’ strength–their love for one another–has an inherent danger. Christians are associating with one another in love and intimacy but that could tempt some to overstep the bounds of decency and seduce the wives of their friends. To do such a thing would violate the trust of a friend, a brother in the Lord. I would say that the brother language Paul is using here is an important part of countering this temptation. Just as people live together in trust and security in a family, so Christians should live together in trust and security. In the ancient world brothers and their families often lived together (most likely to reduce the cost of living).[29] Just as familial brothers live together so should Christian brothers.

If we turn to our circumstances here in Australia this instruction comes to us when there is a Royal Commission on institutional responses into allegations of child sexual abuse. The number of cases that the commission has heard is overwhelming (summaries of some cases can be read here). And it comes down to broken trust and the abuse of power by men in positions of authority.[30] As we know this involves many in the Christian church from all denominations. In 1 Thessalonians Paul is concerned about men abusing the trust of other men, whose job it is to protect their wives (who are often young) from sexual predators. I think we can draw a line of similarity between Paul’s concern and our present situation. Men who are in positions of power (and in the ancient world men dominated women) should not abuse the trust of those whose job it is to protect the vulnerable for their own sexual gratification. In many cases heard by the Royal Commission it has been the priest or the minister or the teacher who has broken that trust. This means that this is a word for Pastors and other men in the church who have positions of trust in regard to the vulnerable.

Secondly, we should not be naïve about the dangers of our positive, intimate association in the local church. Paul was not naïve in this regard and saw the danger. Neither should we be. It is not only children who are endanger of sexual abuse, but adults as well who are vulnerable because of low spirits, sickness, loss, mental illness etc. We must beware of the dangers. It is not just good enough to say ‘we’re Christians and people who are Christians don’t do such things’. Being aware of the dangers of our close association should mean that we take positive actions to promote safety and security for all in our congregations.

Thirdly, to think and say that all Gentiles in the ancient world were sexually perverse or condoned licentious behaviour is fallacious (yet it seems a common misconception by many Christians). When this idea is then translated to the modern world it leads, I think to 2 things,

  1.  If in church we are repeatedly told that the non-believers out there are unconcerned about sexual immorality while we here in the church know what real sexual morally looks like, then we could be tempted into being self-righteousness and arrogant.
  2.  It means that we are failing dismally in spreading the message of hope about the Gospel of Jesus Christ. So instead of engaging in conversation with unbelievers about sexual morality it leads to preaching at outsiders because, being superior in knowledge, we know better. So what I see happening is that while we Christians are mumbling to each other about our own moral superiority in sexual matters (which looks rather hypocritical given the present circumstances), the conversation about sexual morality is moving on. What Paul is saying in his letters is that yes pretty much everyone is agreed that adultery is a sin. The difference between the non-Christian and the believer is that God through his Holy Spirit is to empower the Christian to practice fidelity. It is not that we have superior moral knowledge but that we should be living out what many aspire to–moral integrity and sexual restraint. Because of this our associations should be just as safe and secure as if we were at home (or if we were in the ideal home free from violence).

My last point is that marriage does not save a person from sexual sin. What matters is how a person conducts themselves in marriage. If my reading is correct then each man is to keep to his own wife in honour and sanctification. He does not own his wife to do what he wants because he must treat her with honour and with holiness as a gift from the Lord. This extends to how one is to conduct oneself in brotherly friendship. A man is to respect and honour his friend and his relationship with his wife. How this is accomplished is by the agreement of the Thessalonians that this is the will of God and this agreement is achieved through the Holy Spirit (1 Thess 4:7-8). In the more extended discussion in Ephesians 5, Paul calls the Ephesians to “walk in love” and not to let any immorality or any impurity or greed “be named among you” (verses 2-3). The similarities with our passage in 1 Thessalonians 4 are plain enough, but helpfully Paul explains how this is to be achieved,

“And do not get drunk with wine, for that is dissipation, but be filled with the Spirit, 19 speaking to one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody with your heart to the Lord; 20 always giving thanks for all things in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ to God, even the Father; 21 and be subject to one another in the fear of Christ” (Ephesians 5:18-21).

It is the Holy Spirit who empowers the Christian to conduct themselves appropriately within their relationships. We are neither to rely on ourselves nor on the institution of marriage, but on the filling of the Spirit to “walk in love” (verse 2). In extending the application to us in the 21st century, it is clear that the principle is that all Christians are to be sexually restrained and to keep within the appropriate bounds of their relationships. To do this is to live life “in sanctification” and this is achieved through the power of the Holy Spirit. But be warned: for those who reject this and believe they “can do anything” the Lord is a righteous avenger.

© L. M. Kidson November 2015

Acknowledgements and References

Photo from the Sydney Morning Herald, 8 October 2016  http://www.smh.com.au/world/us-election/donald-trump-recorded-having-extremely-lewd-conversation-about-women-20161007-grxrwp.html

Barker, D.C. “Census Returns and Household Structures.” In New Documents Illustrating Early Christianity : A Review of the Greek Inscriptions and Papyri Published in 1979, edited by G. H. R. Horsley, 87-93. North Ryde, N.S.W.: Ancient History Documentary Research Centre, Macquarie University, 1987.

Black, David A. It’s Still Greek to Me: An Easy-to-Understand Guide to Intermediate Greek.  Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 1998.

Donfried, Karl P. “The Cults of Thessalonica and the Thessalonian Correspondence “. NTS 31, no. 3 (1985): 336-56.

Friesen, Courtney.  “Dionysus as Jesus: The Incongruity of a Love Feast in Achilles Tatius’s Leucippe and Clitophon 2.2”. Harvard Theological Review 107, no. 2 (2014): 222-240.

Lee, John A. L. A History of New Testament Lexicography.  New York: P. Lang, 2003.

Malherbe, Abraham J., ed. The Cynic Epistles: A Study Edition. Missoula, Mont.: Scholars Press for the Society of Biblical Literature, 1977.

Meeks, Wayne A. The First Urban Christians: The Social World of the Apostle Paul. 2nd ed.  New Haven, Conn./London: Yale University Press, 2003.

Pachoumi ,Eleni. “Dionysus in the Greek Magical Papyri.” Symbolae Osloenses 88, no. 1 (2014): 126-35.

Turner, Nigel. Syntax. A Grammar of New Testament Greek. Edited by James Hope Moulton Vol. 3, Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 1963.


[1] David A. Fahrenthold “Trump recorded having extremely lewd conversation about women in 2005”,  Washington Post Oct. 2016: https://www.washingtonpost.com/politics/trump-recorded-having-extremely-lewd-conversation-about-women-in-2005/2016/10/07/3b9ce776-8cb4-11e6-bf8a-3d26847eeed4_story.html

[2] Australian born English entertainer Rolf Harris was found guilty of 12 charges of indecent assault on four girls in July 2014: http://www.abc.net.au/news/2014-07-01/rolf-harris-guilty-of-indecently-assaulting-four-girls/5542644; Former star of Australian sitcom Hey Dad!, Robert Hughes was found guilty of sexually assaulting very young girls in April 2014: http://www.abc.net.au/news/2014-04-07/robert-hughes-found-guilty/5372728; and an investigation by UK authorities found that the comedian Sir Jimmy Savile (1926–2011) had abused his position of trust to assault a staggering number of victims: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jimmy_Savile_sexual_abuse_scandal

[3] Consider the breach of trust by the men of Sodom, Gomorrha (Genesis 19), Gibeah (Judges 19). In Homer’s Iliad Paris breaks the trust of his host by seducing his wife.

[4] Bible References retrieved from Biblegateway: www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=1+Thessalonians+4&version=NASB and http://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=1+Thessalonians+4&version=SBLGNT

[5] All scripture references (unless otherwise stated) are from New American Standard Bible, Copyright © 1960, 1962, 1963, 1968, 1971, 1972, 1973, 1975, 1977, 1995 by The Lockman Foundation.

[6] Cf. Aeschylus, Prometheus Bound, 476

[7] John A. L. Lee, A History of New Testament Lexicography (New York: P. Lang, 2003).

[8] Herodotus. The Persian Wars, Volume II: Books 3-4. Translated by A. D. Godley. Loeb Classical Library 118. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1921.

[9] Literature where the overall aim is moral exhortation: http://www.oxfordbibliographies.com/view/document/obo-9780195393361/obo-9780195393361-0143.xml

For example see Abraham J. Malherbe, ed. The Cynic Epistles: A Study Edition (Missoula, Mont.: Scholars Press for the Society of Biblical Literature, 1977).

[10] Oxy. 291 (25-26), 2982 (2nd/3rd), 2982 (2nd/3rd), 3808 (1st/2nd), 3852 (2nd); Sometimes it is elder brothers ‘Chaereas to his brother Dionysius’, P. Oxy. I 117 (2nd or  3rd C. CE.)

[11] Papyrus letters BGU I 27,  (2nd  or 3rd C. CE); P. Mich. VIII 478 (100 – 125 CE.); P. Mich. VIII 491 (2nd C, CE.).

[12] David A. Black, It’s Still Greek to Me: An Easy-to-Understand Guide to Intermediate Greek (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 1998), 78

[13] The definite article is placed before “abstract nouns of virtues, vices, sciences etc” Nigel Turner, Syntax, ed. James Hope Moulton, vol. 3, A Grammar of New Testament Greek (Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 1963),180-181.

[14] Hippocrates. Places in Man. Glands. Fleshes. Prorrhetic 1-2. Physician. Use of Liquids. Ulcers. Haemorrhoids and Fistulas. Edited and translated by Paul Potter. Loeb Classical Library 482. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1995.

[15] Hippocrates. On Wounds in the Head. In the Surgery. On Fractures. On Joints. Mochlicon. Translated by E. T. Withington. Loeb Classical Library 149. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1928.

[16] Polybius, The Histories, IV.22.9-10; Black, It’s Still Greek to Me: An Easy-to-Understand Guide to Intermediate Greek, 116.

[17] Plutarch, ‘Sayings of Kings and Commanders: Peisistratus’, Moralia, Volume III: Sayings of Kings and Commanders. Sayings of Romans. Sayings of Spartans. The Ancient Customs of the Spartans. Sayings of Spartan Women. Bravery of Women. Translated by Frank Cole Babbitt. Loeb Classical Library 245. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1931: 189 C.

[18] Plato. Republic, Volume I: Books 1-5. Edited and translated by Christopher Emlyn-Jones, William Preddy. Loeb Classical Library 237. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2013: cf. Plutarch, The Greek Questions, 291F.

[19] Polybius. The Histories, Volume I: Books 1-2. Translated by W. R. Paton. Revised by F. W. Walbank, Christian Habicht. Loeb Classical Library 128. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2010.

[20] Diodorus Siculus. Library of History, Volume I: Books 1-2.34. Translated by C. H. Oldfather. Loeb Classical Library 279. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1933; Also Pythagoras advocated fidelity for both sexes alike,  Sarah B. Pomeroy, Pythagorean Women: Their History and Writings (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2013), 127.

[21] Dio Chrysostom. Discourses 1-11. Translated by J. W. Cohoon. Loeb Classical Library 257. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1932.

[22] Eg. Philo of Alexandria, On Dreams Book 2.9.

[23] Wayne A. Meeks, The First Urban Christians: The Social World of the Apostle Paul, 2nd ed. (New Haven, Conn./London: Yale University Press, 2003)., 73.

[24] Karl P. Donfried, “The Cults of Thessalonica and the Thessalonian Correspondence ” NTS 31, no. 3 (1985): 336-356.

[25] Ibid., 342.

[26] Harvard Theological Review 107, no. 2 (2014): 222-240.

[27] Eleni Pachoumi. “Dionysus in the Greek Magical Papyri.” Symbolae Osloenses 88, no. 1 (2014): 126-35.

[28] It should be conceded that the cult of Dionysius did not encourage sexual licence but that some overindulged in the rites so that they appeared to indulging in inappropriate behaviours, Plato, Laws 1. 637b; ‘a divine madness’ given by Dionysus Plato, Phaedrus 265b; ‘all the women of these parts were addicted to the Orphic rites and the orgies of Dionysus from very ancient times’ Plutarch. Alexander 2.5; for a description of the rites celebrated appropriately see Plutarch, Caesar 9.

[29] From the many census reports from Roman Egypt, see D.C. Barker, “Census Returns and Household Structures,” in New Documents Illustrating Early Christianity : A Review of the Greek Inscriptions and Papyri Published in 1979, ed. G. H. R. Horsley (North Ryde, N.S.W.: Ancient History Documentary Research Centre, Macquarie University, 1987), 87-93.

[30] For example,