1 Corinthians 6:12-20 New Revised Standard Version
12 “All things are lawful for me,” but not all things are beneficial. “All things are lawful for me,” but I will not be dominated by anything. 13 “Food is meant for the stomach and the stomach for food,” and God will destroy both one and the other. The body is meant not for fornication but for the Lord, and the Lord for the body. 14 And God raised the Lord and will also raise us by his power. 15 Do you not know that your bodies are members of Christ? Should I therefore take the members of Christ and make them members of a prostitute? Never! 16 Do you not know that whoever is united to a prostitute becomes one body with her? For it is said, “The two shall be one flesh.” 17 But anyone united to the Lord becomes one spirit with him. 18 Shun fornication! Every sin that a person commits is outside the body; but the fornicator sins against the body itself. 19 Or do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you, which you have from God, and that you are not your own? 20 For you were bought with a price; therefore glorify God in your body.
For Paul, the way of Jesus is an embodied faith. Therefore, what happens in the body plays an important role in the way we express our faith. This may explain why he addresses matters of sexual mores in his letters. It’s not just that he’s prudish. He believes that how we conduct ourselves bodily is an expression of our discipleship. This is especially true of Paul’s first letter to the Corinthian churches. What we have in 1 Corinthians is a missive to a rather new Christian community whose membership is largely composed of Gentile converts living in a famous port city. Corinth could easily have carried the moniker of “Sin City.” To get a sense of what this fledgling church was dealing with, take note of the references to prostitution. Paul the Jewish Christian would have been troubled by the lifestyle of the folks there in Corinth, which seems to have been carried over into the life of the church. Paul might advocate grace, but it’s not cheap grace. There are expectations. As John M. G. Barclay writes of Paul’s views on grace: “it is given ‘freely’ in the sense that it is given without prior conditions and without regard to worth or capacity. But that does not mean that it comes with no expectations of return, no hope for a response, no ‘strings attached.’” He goes on further to stated that Paul expects the gift of Christ’s grace to be transformative: “it remolds the self and recreates the community of believers” [Paul & the Power of Grace, p. 125].
Paul tends to give the people he’s responding to a sense that he agrees to a point but then springs on them the trap. The other shoe drops. We that here in the opening lines of our reading from 1 Corinthians 6. Paul first writes: “All things are lawful for me.” While this might be true, he responds by telling the community that “not all things are beneficial.” Indeed, “‘All things are lawful for me,’ but I will not be dominated by anything.” While the original Greek lacks punctuation, including quotation marks, scholars have a rather good sense that the slogan “All things are lawful for me” didn’t come from Paul. It appears to be a slogan popular among the Corinthians who had heard a message of freedom from Paul, which they received with gusto. They heard freedom from the Law as meaning no law (antinomianism). That seems to have caught hold in the congregation, with people taking advantage of their freedom to indulge in activities that Paul would not countenance. He offered them grace but expected self-discipline in response.
Some of this embracing of freedom may have had its roots in a form of gnosticism in which the spirit was elevated above the body so that the body was irrelevant to the life of faith. You could do what you wanted in the body. It had no spiritual implications. That is not Paul’s view of things. So, when it comes to the body, remember the stomach is for food. The reference is a bit ambiguous, but at least at this point, Paul isn’t focused on food. He’s more concerned with fornication and prostitution. For Paul, illicit sexual escapades, including visits to brothels (which might have been the local religious establishments), were not in line with the faith he proclaimed (see 1 Corinthians 7).
Passages like this are controversial in our day. Sexual mores have changed. In fact, marriage patterns have changed dramatically. Once upon a time, people got married in their late teens and early 20s. Now, marriage is often delayed into the 30s. There is, therefore, a long period between the onset of puberty and sexual maturity and when marriages are being consummated. So, you can understand that the possibility for people to engage in sexual relationships outside of marriage would be more commonplace than in earlier years, even among Christians. So, whatever we take from Paul’s message to the Corinthians, we will need to take into consideration changing societal and cultural contexts. Nevertheless, Paul’s attempts to bring to bear the holiness code of Leviticus to the lives of Gentiles might still have meaning for our day.
I sense that while Paul is concerned about sexual behavior, even more important to him was the importance of holiness as the foundation for service to God. We might think here in terms of the behavior of Christian leaders, ranging from the sexual abuse on the part of Catholic priests and bishops to sex scandals among Protestant clergy. Although some, including Augustine, would counsel Christian leaders to embrace celibacy, I don’t think the kind of holiness Paul calls for requires an embrace of extreme asceticism. What it does mean is that we must be concerned about how we connect our personal relationships, making sure they are above board. To put it a bit differently, when it comes to the body not everything is beneficial! In our day respecting the bodies and persons of the other, embracing mutuality, is essential to an embodied faith.
Paul roots his message in the order of creation, drawing from Genesis 2. He tells his readers that when they come together sexually, they become one flesh. So, don’t treat sex lightly. The sexual relationship unites people with each other.
When it comes to the reference to prostitution, I wonder whether Paul might have not only illicit sexual relationships in mind but also certain religious rites that involve sex. Temple prostitutes became the conduit for union with the gods. Perhaps Paul is concerned that they might be drawn away from their faith in Jesus through engaging in sexual acts with Temple prostitutes as acts of worship of other gods (idolatry).
Whatever Paul has in mind here, the opening point is well taken. We may have freedom, but freedom doesn’t mean anything, and everything, goes. This includes sex of course, but many other things that we may let dominate us. Consider the political landscape in the United States where vulgarisms, insults, and more have become the order of the day. In reaction to what is called “political correctness,” we find people saying whatever comes to mind, even if it is destructive and inappropriate. We see this as well in the resistance to wearing masks during a pandemic. People declare that they have the freedom to do as I please, even if that puts others at risk. This is true even of those who claim to be Christians. That is because this is an embodied faith. What we do in the body reflects on the body of Christ, which is the church. So, when I was watching the footage of the rioters breaking into the Capitol during the Congressional meetings to confirm the Presidential election and saw at least one person carrying the so-called “Christian flag” and breaking into the Capitol building, I saw that as a stain on the body of Christ. So, all things might be permissible, but not everything is beneficial.