Many years ago, when I first started doing ministry with college-age students, a friend gave me advice on young-adult ministry. “There are two secrets to growing a college ministry,” he told me. “The first secret is to always have free food. The second is to speak on three things: sex, the end-times, and will there be sex in the end times.” I have found that to be decent advice.
One could argue that the Apostle Paul was also heeding that advice when he wrote this first letter to the possibly youthful, but certainly young in faith, Corinthian church. The entire epistle seems to be obsessed with eating, sexuality, and the resurrection of the dead. I don’t know if focusing on food, sex, and life after death helped grow the Corinthian congregation, however, in Paul’s theological imagination they are all certainly connected.
The text in front of us is focused on the issue of sexuality. It is a tricky text that can be problematic if not handled well. However, if the text is interpreted in the light of the Corinthian social context and understood as a particular and unique kind of literature, Paul’s instruction is not only quite helpful but very relevant, even for a culture twenty-or-so centuries later.
There are three preliminary issues related to Corinth and the nature of the text that are important for the preacher to understand.
The first is the dualistic imagination of most people in the first century. Hellenistic influence on the thought life of Rome was pervasive and had posed a serious problem for early Christian faith. Essentially, philosophical dualists, like Plato and Socrates, argued that life is made up of two realms, the material or physical world and the spiritual or immaterial world (or the realm of forms and ideas). For most ancient Greek philosophers, although the spiritual or immaterial realm cannot be seen, it influences and is represented in the material world, and it is more real or significant than the material world because, unlike everything made of matter, it does not change.
When this dualistic thinking is applied to the human person, what we get is the idea that, like the rest of the metaphysical world, individuals are also made up of two distinct realities – a physical body and an immaterial soul. The material body of a person is the temporal (and thus less valuable) shell or receptacle of the eternal (and thus infinitely more valuable) soul. There is much that could be said about the problem of dualism, I will just say two things here. First, this dualism led to very problematic, and ultimately heretical, forms of Gnosticism. The Gnostic problem was confronted, at one level or another, in the Christological controversies addressed in the first four ecumenical councils. (The problem of dualism can still be found in gnostic forms of Christianity today). Second, it seems clear that the Hebrew view of the body was much more monistic. In the Hebrew anthropology, the mystery of humanness is that the soul and body are uniquely united into one. I think it is fair to say that most Jewish thinkers do not imagine a person as having a soul, but rather being a soul.
Why is this understanding of dualism important for reading First Corinthians? It appears that one of the central problems at work in this text is that some of the Corinthian Christians were excusing their sexual immorality by advocating for a dualistic view of the human person. As we will see, it appears that they were arguing that what they did with their body did not matter, as long as their soul exists at peace with God. Because God is spirit, and the body is temporal, being connected in our eternal soul is what matters to the divine, not what we do with our temporal bodies.
The second important preliminary idea of importance is the very sexualized nature of the first century Roman world, and perhaps Corinth in particular. Because Corinth was a trading city, it is likely that prostitution was not only prevalent and legal in the city, but also widely accepted as a reality of life. It is also probable that various trades or guilds had frequent celebrations and feasts to the gods associated with those industries where meat would be sacrificed to the idols (thus the meat-eating problem dealt with in Corinthians also), and where wild sexual activities would take place in honor of the gods in gratitude for their fertile abundance. Perhaps we can think of Corinth as a kind of first-century Las Vegas where trade shows and conventions took place in the midst of a “what happens here stays here” level of debauchery.
It may be important to point out here that the issue Paul is addressing in the text is not just about pursuing unholy forms of sexual desire, but also the new believer’s relationship to wealth and business. To not eat meat sacrificed to the idols and to not participate in the sexuality of these festivals may have excluded the merchant and trading class of Christian from participation in the marketplace. Participation in these wild festivals may have been essential to making a living. This text often reminds me of a conversation I had many years ago with a Christian who was struggling with the moral implications of his work. He was a very successful salesman for a large and well-known company. His main job was to invite clients to visit the company – located in a large and vibrant city – entertain them with professional sports, great meals, lots of alcohol, and very often other assorted late-night forms of “entertainment.” He sat in my office genuinely troubled trying to decide if his commitment to Christ and a life of holiness meant giving up his incredibly lucrative career because such unholy practices seemed so central to its success.
Third, most biblical scholars believe the text in front of us is a diatribe or imaginary dialogue between Paul and various slogans or sayings that he has heard were circulating through the Corinthian church. Because there are no quotation marks in the original Greek manuscripts, the reader or interpreter has to assume where they might be. The NIV translation, for example, goes ahead and includes quotation marks around the two probable Corinthian sayings to try and demonstrate this interpretive view. There is general agreement that the two important sayings in the text belong not to Paul but to the Corinthians, and that the text is rooted in Paul’s theological response to those two sayings.
With these preliminary issues out of the way, let’s turn to the two problematic sayings.
The first saying appears twice in verse 12: “Everything is permissible for me.” It is interesting in the text that Paul does not argue directly with this idea. In fact, given Paul’s view about the freedom from the Law that comes through faith in Christ, this saying may be taken as a distorted version of Paul’s theology. Rather, the Apostle’s response is, “but not everything is beneficial.” This is a wonderful word of wisdom. There are many things that we may have the freedom to indulge in. However, those actions or practices may not be good for us.
After repeating the Corinthian slogan on freedom again, Paul quips, “but I won’t be mastered by anything.” This is a frequent point of emphasis for Paul. Why if one has been freed from sin, would one willingly choose to be a slave to it again? It seems clear here that Paul’s interest is not just in the damage that a single lust-filled act might do to a believer, but he is keenly aware of the power that habit plays in the moral life of every person.
The second Corinthian saying takes up the first half of verse 13: “Food for the stomach and the stomach for food – but God will destroy them both.” The point of this second motto appears to be the dualistic one. The stomach is part of the temporal body, and will someday be destroyed, so eating – because it is tied to the material world and not the spiritual one – does not matter. The logic seems clear. If the stomach – and the food put into it – does not matter, then the sexual parts of the body – and what one does with them – does not matter either. Here, unlike the previous statement on freedom, Paul refutes the whole premise of the argument. Wait a minute! The body does matter to God.
Here it appears that Paul’s teaching on sexuality is deeply connected to his later teaching on the resurrection of the dead (1 Cor. 15). Paul’s very Hebrew eschatology affirms the hope of the new creation as rooted in the resurrection of the body. Jesus did not become flesh, for Paul, in order to teach us how to get our souls out of our bodies and into the realm of the spirit. That is what the Gnostics taught. For Paul, Christ became flesh in order to redeem and make possible a life of holiness in the body. The logic of Paul’s later argument on the resurrection is that, in the new creation, although believers will receive new bodies that have put on imperishability, those resurrection bodies are still very much connected to our physical bodies.
The deep connection of our spiritual life to our material body results in three important conclusions for Paul.
First, “your bodies are members of Christ himself.” In the theological logic of Paul, the role of the Temple – the place where the unique presence of God dwelt in the midst of God’s people – had been fulfilled (or filled-full) by Jesus. In Jesus, the Word “tabernacled” or “Templed” among us. However, now, by the power of the Holy Spirit, believers are also the “temple of the Holy Spirit.” If our bodies – like the Temple – are the sacred places where the holy and transforming presence of God is breaking in to redeem the world, how could we use those bodies in unholy and desecrating sexual practices?
A second implication of this same saying is that we belong in unity to Christ and to the Body of Christ. Many commentators interpret a communal implication to our unity with Christ. In the next chapter (1 Cor 7) Paul will reflect on the political implications of the marriage covenant. Because of the covenants we have made, our bodies do not just belong to us. At some level, they also belong to others. Sex is not an isolated act. By its very nature it includes another. Part of the Gospel is the recognition that we are not isolated individuals but are deeply connected to God and to one another. This is at least part of the reason historically that Christians invite the community to come and celebrate a wedding. It is not just to receive toasters and blenders as gifts and to distribute free cake. The community gathers to recognize – and celebrate – the way this new union (and the potential of new life that may spring from it) impacts, changes, and strengthens the community.
The third conviction is the recognition that “you were bought at a price. Therefore, honor God with your body.” I once bought a US World Cup Soccer jersey signed by all of the players on the team at a charity auction. It was one of those weak moments when I spent more money on something than I should have. One of my young sons thought it was really cool and decided to wear it to school and to soccer practice afterwards. He enjoyed the attention he got for wearing this cool jersey that day. I did not enjoy, however, the mustard, soda, grass, and dirt stains he added to my investment. You don’t buy expensive things and then misuse them. This is Paul’s final logic. If the cross of Christ is the cost of having redeemed believers from sin, why would we treat what is obviously so treasured to God as so worthless and trivial.
This is a complicated but incredibly profound text. In the last several years there have been helpful critiques of the recent church’s “purity culture” especially as it relates to the use of shame and the denigration of the goodness of our bodies. Perhaps there is something in Paul’s instructions here that can help us recover an ethic of holy love while still celebrating the goodness of our bodies and the beauty of sexuality when it is guided by love of God and the connection to Christ’s body. For Christians, sex is never “just sex.” We are the temple of the Holy Spirit, therefore our bodies matter.