A libertine is a person who rejects moral boundaries and lives “at liberty” from constraint. The result is that the libertine usually lives a profligate, dissolute life. Libertinism is a disregard of authority or a rejection of moral boundaries. Libertinism typically involves pursuing personal desires without consideration of ethics or social mores. The term libertine almost always refers to a male who is sexually promiscuous and disinterested in monogamy.
A libertine can also be a freed slave, and that is how the word libertine is used in Acts 6:9 in the King James Version. As the deacon Stephen was working miracles and preaching in Jerusalem, “there arose certain of the synagogue, which is called the synagogue of the Libertines . . . disputing with Stephen” (Acts 6:9). This “synagogue of the Libertines” was comprised of Jews who had been former captives, either as prisoners of Roman wars or as slaves of some kind, but had been freed. The NIV translates the phrase “Synagogue of the Freedmen.”
The term libertine was used by Reformer John Calvin to describe his political enemies. Calvin was both the religious and political leader in Geneva, and he set up a system of moral rules by which the Genevans would be governed. Those who rejected Calvin’s prohibitions against immorality, drunkenness, cursing, etc., were labeled “libertines,” since they felt they ought to have the freedom (liberty) to act under moral codes of their own choosing. Over time, the concept of libertinism evolved from a reference to rejection of a particular authority into a general rejection of all moral authority.
Beginning in the 17th century, the philosophy of libertinism was expressed in subversive works of poetry, art, and fiction, often involving pornography. Typically, these works were anti-religious, anti-government, and/or hedonistic in nature.
In less common use, the terms libertine and libertinism have been applied to those who reject traditional religious dogma. However, such religious libertines prefer the term freethinker, which does not connote licentiousness and is less subject to confusion. The one aspect consistent with all uses of the term libertine is the rejection of a prevailing or established code or codes in favor of personal freedom and independent thought.
Libertinism’s lack of moral restraints makes it diametrically opposed to biblical Christianity. “If you live according to the flesh, you will die; but if by the Spirit you put to death the misdeeds of the body, you will live” (Romans 8:13). The Bible warns against unrestrained behaviors as explicitly pagan (1 Peter 4:3) and as the hallmark of false teaching (2 Peter 2:2). Spiritually, those who refuse to control their desires are under God’s judgment (Romans 1:26), as opposed to those who have their desires controlled by Christ (Galatians 5:24).
The Bible notes that unchecked desires don’t give us “liberty”; they actually enslave us (Titus 3:3). Addiction and pleasure-seeking become their own chains. Even non-Christian, libertine thinkers have noted the same thing. Oscar Wilde’s famous novel The Picture of Dorian Gray shows how the unrestrained pursuit of pleasure destroys a man’s soul and spirit. Despite being written by a renowned hedonist, this story poignantly captures the futility and ultimate disaster of the libertine lifestyle.