All Saints, Dorval
January 24, 2021
Ruins of 1st-century Corinth
Last week, when Raymond read the epistle, he added a “parental advisory” at the beginning, and while I was preaching on the story of Samuel, I promised that I would return to that passage this week, since I imagined it might raise some significant questions. Here it is again – I Corinthians 6:12-20:
‘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. ‘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. And God raised the Lord and will also raise us by his power. 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! 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.’ But anyone united to the Lord becomes one spirit with him. Shun fornication! Every sin that a person commits is outside the body; but the fornicator sins against the body itself. 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? For you were bought with a price; therefore glorify God in your body.
This week’s short passage comes from the same letter, from the end of the following chapter, and focuses on Paul’s belief that Christ’s return was imminent and that therefore believers should be as unencumbered as possible by worldly concerns.
Both passages are part of a long argument in which Paul counters the Corinthians’ assertion that because they are now Christians and are saved by faith in Christ, they can basically do whatever they want.
Reading Paul’s letters two thousand years later is a challenge, because they are relentlessly specific documents. They are addressed to particular groups of people, in particular places, dealing with particular issues. Paul knew these people personally, and so there was a lot of background that he didn’t have to bother providing. (The one exception is the letter to the Romans.) Several centuries later, the church decided that Paul’s words were sufficiently important to be included in the emerging collection of Christian scriptures, but they weren’t written with any expectation that they would still be being read two millennia after their composition.
And thus we need to be very careful about how we take Paul’s detailed injunctions addressed to a few dozen new Christians in first-century Corinth, and apply them to our own lives. Which is not to say that there is no application – the letters wouldn’t have been included in the canon of scripture if they didn’t provide a lasting word to the church – but these particular passages are examples of verses that have been wildly misunderstood and misapplied over the centuries, and they need careful handling because of that.
It’s not news that Christianity has a bad rap among many people, both those who have spent time in toxic churches and those who have no personal experience of church at all. For many in North America, and Quebec in particular, especially those under about 50, the first thing they associate with the word “Christian” is “homophobia,” or more broadly, “being puritanical and hypocritical about sex”. And a lot of it comes back to these and similar passages in Paul.
Obviously, there are churches that don’t wildly overemphasize what people do in bed to the exclusion of far more important things about following Jesus, and it is essential for us to speak up and make it clear what we do believe, which is why I’m tackling these topics today. It would be easy to look at this passage and say, well, most of the folks at All Saints’ have been married for decades, it’s not really relevant, let’s talk about something pleasanter and less alarming. But it is always the right time to shatter myths that have been used to bind burdens of guilt on people’s shoulders for centuries.
So what is Paul actually saying, and why does he feel the need to say it?
To take the second part of the question first – Corinth was a busy port city, a crossroads of the eastern part of the Roman Empire, a diverse and bustling melting pot, and a place (as one might expect) notorious for its licentiousness. Visiting prostitutes was a normal and expected part of life for Corinthians (or at least, for Corinthian men), as was eating meat offered to idols, another thing that Paul rebukes the Corinthians for.
Both examples are part of Paul’s overall argument that freedom in Christ does not mean unthinkingly doing whatever feels good, as some of the Corinthians were arguing with their slogan “All things are lawful for me”. Paul argues strongly that while all things may be lawful, not all things are beneficial, and one must still consider God and one’s neighbour when deciding how to live one’s life.
It is interesting, though, that through much of these two chapters, as he gives the Corinthians a great deal of advice on marriage, divorce, lawsuits, slavery, and other topics, Paul frequently distinguishes between the parts of the message that he understands to be definitely God’s will, and the parts that are only his personal opinion. Much of his specific advice falls under the latter heading. So it is all the more problematic that his personal strictness about sexual ethics has been elevated not only into a universal rule, but a universal rule that somehow was considered to be the most crucial element in one’s morality. It may have made a certain amount of sense in times when sex outside of marriage frequently resulted in children, and a way had to be found for those children to be cared for and supported; but today, that aspect is far less of an issue.
In fact, lust is the least of the seven deadly sins, and one could spend an entire lifetime talking about the elements of a Christian life that are more important than whom one sleeps with, and when, and how.
Nevertheless, our romantic and sexual lives are a deep and intimate part of our personhood, and God certainly does have something to say on the subject. It is contained in last week’s passage, where Paul emphasizes two things: first, that believers belong to God in both body and spirit; and second, that physical intimacy with another person constitutes, in a very real way, becoming “one flesh” with that person.
(I want to stop here and emphasize very strongly that I am talking here only about consensual intimacy. Rape and abuse are not sex, they are assault; they do not create such a bond; and they are always, without exception, wrong and immoral on the part of the perpetrator.)
But when we choose to connect with another person in heart, mind, and body, we are creating a sacred bond, through our body and spirit which belong to God, and that should not be done lightly.
However, to simply say “Married sex good, non-married sex bad” is to vastly oversimplify the ethical question at stake, and to return to precisely the kind of legalism that Paul rejects elsewhere. It is certainly possible to envision an act within marriage that is nevertheless exploitive and wrong. And conversely, there are any number of reasons why we might want to engage, responsibly and thoughtfully, in intimacy where marriage is not part of the picture (currently, or ever).
If you take nothing else away from these frankly somewhat peculiar Scriptures, I want you to take away the conviction that there are no shortcuts when it comes to Christian ethical decision-making – about sex or anything else. It is rarely if ever a matter of checking boxes. We must think, and pray, and consider our calling to love God and love our neighbour. We must consult our hearts and our spirits as well as our bodies, and remember that body, as well as heart and spirit, belongs to God.
And while Jesus may not have come back in the late first century the way Paul was expecting, it’s not a bad idea to remember that Jesus is always as close as our next breath.
God loves us, and wants our romantic and sexual lives to be a seamless part of that belovedness, bringing joy, growth, and connection. Let us discern our decisions always in the knowledge that we belong to God, body and soul.