Chastity, the Book of Order, and the Reformed faith

On more than one occasion I have heard opponents of the present ordination standards make this same argument. What does “chastity” mean? What defines “chasteness” in singleness? In fact, on occasion those who have sought ordination in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) and yet are engaged in same-sex sexual behavior have even claimed that their same-sex sexual relationship was “chaste.” Therefore, I want to provide some theological background to the use of this historic term, that we may be more clear about what the church is being called to reject in this most recent attempt to remove the language of fidelity and chastity from the denomination’s constitution.

            The language of G.6-0106b is not haphazard or accidental. In fact, the use of the term “chastity” reflects the language of the Heidelberg Catechism. Questions 108 and 109 from the catechism come in explication of the seventh commandment, the commandment against adultery:

Q. 108. What does the seventh commandment teach us?

A. That all unchastity is condemned by God, and that we should therefore detest it from the heart, and live chaste and disciplined lives, whether in holy wedlock or in single life.


Q. 109. Does God forbid nothing more than adultery and such gross sins in this commandment?

A. Since both our body and soul are a temple of the Holy Spirit, it is his will that we keep both pure and holy.  Therefore he forbids all unchaste actions, gestures, words, thoughts, desires and whatever may excite another person to them.

Some have argued that since the catechism applies the category of chastity to both married and single life, the term is confusing and should not be taken necessarily to mean sexual abstinence for the unmarried (defined in terms of the marriage between one man and one woman). Such an argument is at best ignorant and at worst disingenuous.

            Perhaps the best place to start in understanding the use of the category of “chastity” in the Heidelberg Catechism is from the architect of the catechism himself, Zacharias Ursinus. Some time after the publication of the catechism, Ursinus wrote an extensive commentary on the catechism, which remains in print.[1] Commenting on the above portion of the catechism, Ursinus speaks extensively about chastity.


            CHASTITY, in general, is a virtue contributing to the purity of body and soul, agreeing with the will of God, and shunning all lusts prohibited by God, all unlawful intercourse and inordinate copulation [might we say, “sexual addiction”?] in connection with all the desires, causes, effects, suspicions, occasions, &c, which may lead thereto, whether in holy wedlock or in a single life …”[2]

Ursinus goes on to say: “Chastity is of two kinds — one of single life, the other of holy wedlock. The former is a virtue shunning all wanton lusts without marriage. Conjugal chastity is to preserve in holy wedlock the order instituted by the wonderful counsel and wisdom of God.”[3] Among the things condemned by Scripture, Ursinus points out fornication (sexual union of two unmarried people). He goes on to mention other examples of the violation of chastity: “a dissembled chastity, an impure single life, whoredom, concubinage, incest, adultery, and all wanton and hateful lusts, in connection with their causes, occasions and effects.”[4]

            Ursinus also deals with the issue of homosexuality in his commentary. He makes it clear that among the sexual behaviors condemned by Scripture and the law of chastity are:

“those which are contrary to nature, and from the devil — such as are even contrary to this our corrupt nature … .” These include “The lusts of which the apostle Paul speaks in the first chapter of his Epistle to the Romans, are of this class, as the confounding of sexes, also abuses of the female sex.”[5]

            In the next paragraph of his commentary, Ursinus goes on to list another category of sexual behavior condemned: “fornication committed by such as are unmarried, adulteries by persons that are both married, and intercourse between such as are married and unmarried.”[6]

            What all of this goes on to show is that there is nothing “confusing” about the language of chastity. Chastity in the context of singleness plain and simply means abstaining from sexual intercourse of any kind. This is and always has been the clear meaning of this term in Christian ethics and within the confessional language of Reformed churches.

            In laying out all of this, Ursinus was not blazing any new territory or new ground. He was passing on historic Christian teaching. In fact, one sees extensive use of the same word, chastity, by Ursinus’ own theological mentor, Philip Melanchthon. In his Loci Communes of 1543 Melanchthon uses the term “chastity” to describe the life to which the Christian has been called, both in his explication of the commandment against adultery as well as in an Appendix in which he deals with the subject of marriage.[7]

            Let us hope that in the upcoming debates regarding the fidelity/chastity standard that those who oppose this historic, Biblical, and Reformed teaching will no longer be “confused” over what it means. The language of chastity is clear, historic, and Reformed. The rejection of the fidelity/chastity clause in our Book of Order would be an act of apostasy and a rejection of the Reformed faith. We listen to the confused mind of Dr. Mark Achtemeier and others at our own peril.


WALTER L. TAYLOR is pastor of Oak Island Church, Oak Island, N.C.

[1] Zacharias Ursinus, Commentary on the Heidelberg Catechism, trans. by G.W. Willard (Phillipsburg, NJ: Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing).

[2] Ibid., p. 590.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid., p. 591.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Philip Melanchthon, Loci Communes 1543, translated by J. A. O. Preus (St. Louis: Concordia Publishing, 1992), p 68 and p. 247.

ShareShare on FacebookTweet about this on TwitterEmail to someone

Leave a Reply