To the Word

Reflections on the call to live by the Word of God

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Saturday, September 23, 2006

Remaining As We Are

1 Corinthians 7:12-24
Preached Sunday morning, September 17, 2006
Lexington Church of Christ, Milton Stanley

In our study of 1 Corinthians, we are in what might be called a practical section of the Apostle Paul’s letter to the Corinthian Christians. Paul is addressing specific problems in the church, and then, as now, many of those problems had to do with human sexuality. As we’ve seen, there appears to have been two factions with conflicting but equally wrong ideas about sexual practice: one group approved of prostitution and fornication while another taught that all sexual activity is bad. This week’s passage is part of a larger section where Paul says no to both factions. Sex is good, Paul tells them, within proper bounds—the bounds of marriage as established by God. This week we will see how the Apostle expands his explanation a little. He begins with practical questions but ends with a profound truth.

Last week, in our study of 1 Cor. 7:1-11, we saw how God has created marriage. His plan goes back to his instructions in Genesis 2:24 in which God establishes marriage as one man, one woman, one lifetime. When people really believe that image, that God intends for men and women to marry only once, and for life, we begin to take our marriages more seriously. We also discussed—although Paul does not deal explicitly with the subject in 1 Cor. 7—that the marriage of a Christian man and woman is an image of Christ and the church. In this week’s passage the Apostle reminds us of wider implications in a specific circumstance: what if a Christian is married to a non-believer? Should that Christian remain married? The answer Paul gives is a simple one: don’t try to change your station in life.

Our lesson text today begins with the topic of marriages between Christians and unbelievers. While the idea of divorce and remarriage is only one part of this passage, it is the one that has been the focus of a great deal of heat in recent years. What this passage does or does not say about divorce and remarriage is currently the focus of a great deal of debate and even division in Churches of Christ. For that reason, it makes sense to take a few minutes and examine the debate.

Basically there are four positions in the church regarding divorce and remarriage. Three of those positions have at least some support from the New Testament. Before we begin looking at those positions, however, let’s remember that this topic has been the focus of serious division in many churches, including this one. Let’s then approach the Word with faith, discipline, peace, and a willingness to sacrifice anything for the Kingdom of God.

Generally speaking, those who look to the New Testament for determining God’s will on divorce and remarriage rely on different “ruling texts” to determine what is permitted and prohibited by God.

The most restrictive text is the words of Jesus in Mark 10:11-12: “So he told them, ‘Whoever divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery against her. And if she divorces her husband and marries another, she commits adultery.’” Some Christians interpret that passage in its simplest form: those who have been divorced commit adultery if they remarry. Period. There are Christians who still hold to that principle, although it is a minority view.

What we might call the middle position takes its cue from Jesus’ words in Matthew’s Gospel, either Mt. 5:31-32 or 19:3-9. In Mt. 19:9, Jesus says, “Now I say to you that whoever divorces his wife, except for immorality, and marries another commits adultery” (italics added). Matthew includes words Mark does not record: except for immorality. Christians disagree on what exactly immorality involves in this case. Most Churches of Christ, however, interpret it to mean adultery. By this reasoning, if a man or woman cheats on his or her spouse, then the offended spouse has grounds for remarrying after a divorce. This is the position most of us in this congregation hold.

The third, more permissive position, is found in this chapter of 1 Corinthians. Here Paul talks about marriages in which one spouse is a Christian and the other is not. The Apostle tells Christian spouses to remain married to unbelievers as long as the unbelieving spouse wants to stay married. Then Paul says in 7:15, “But if the unbeliever wants a divorce, let it take place. In these circumstances the brother or sister is not bound” (italics added). A growing number of Christians look to this verse, particularly in light of Paul’s later words in 7:27-28, as a ruling text on divorce and remarriage. According to this position, a Christian may remarry after a divorce, even if it was not on the grounds of adultery, provided the other spouse was not a Christian.

A fourth view, also increasingly found in churches today, puts no restrictions on remarriage after divorce. There is no reasonable support for this view, however, in the New Testament.

So what are Christians who hold to the authority of the Scriptures to do? As much as we may cherish our own position on this matter, how are we to determine which is truly most faithful and obedient? Typically, when the New Testament is ambiguous on a certain item of doctrine and practice, we can look to church history for help in interpreting the text. The church has done this, for example, in developing our doctrines of baptism, the Lord’s Supper, and praising God without using instrumental music. As we look back at the early centuries of the church, we see that our doctrines on these matters are in line with both the New Testament and church history.

So what about divorce and remarriage? What does history tell us about this matter? Before I tell you, I want to say that I for one was very surprised with what I found. Looking back to the earliest generations of the church after the New Testament, we find that Christians were instructed not to remarry after a divorce regardless of the reasons for the divorce. In other words, Christians, at least in the second century and after, held that Jesus’ teaching in Mark were the ruling text for divorce and remarriage. In fact, it was not until the sixteenth century that a Roman Catholic theologian named Erasmus first proposed that Jesus’ words in Mt. 5 and Mt. 19 allow a Christian to remarry if a divorce was on the grounds of adultery.

So history, it seems, gives little support to the position most of us hold on the issue divorce and remarriage. In fact, the position that most of us hold to be traditional goes back only about a quarter of the way to New Testament times.

At this point we’ve gone far afield from the text we’re supposed to be looking at today. The topic of divorce and remarriage is an important one, and one that each congregation must address. What’s more, every Christian must be aware of Scriptural teaching on this matter, and each of us is answerable to God. So, you may ask, why this big explanation? Why not simply come out and tell you which position you ought to take? Well, the preacher’s job is not do think for you, but to present the Word that helps you learn to think with the mind of Jesus Christ. If this congregation, all of us, will commit our lives to God and allow his Word to transform us, then we will come to a right knowledge and practice on divorce and remarriage.

So, now that we’ve made a side trip across the very hot sands of divorce and remarriage, lets look at the broader message of this passage. As we saw earlier, God’s plan for marriage is one man, one woman, one lifetime. Most Christians agree that God provides for remarriage in certain circumstances; we argue mostly about exactly what those circumstances are. But the main point in our text today is not remarriage. In our culture today too much time is spend on how to divorce and remarry than on keeping marriages together in the first place. Paul’s message to the Corinthians is that it’s better to stay together, and he gives at least one reason why. First, however, let’s work through another difficult verse.

In studying this passage, many people have trouble understanding verse 14: “For the unbelieving husband is sanctified because of the wife, and the unbelieving wife because of her husband. Otherwise your children are unclean, but now they are holy.” To understand this verse, it helps to remember that Paul wrote in a less literal time. He’s not saying that a spouse or child of a Christian can be saved by having a Christian family member. He’s simply saying that having a non-Christian parent doesn’t make a child dirty or spiritually defiled. In other words, a Christian may not use the welfare of his or her children to divorce an unbelieving spouse.

In fact, there may be an eternal benefit in staying with an unbelieving spouse: the Christian may be a vehicle for saving that person’s soul (7:16). I hope Paul’s words here are an encouragement to our brothers and sisters in this congregation who are married to unbelievers. God may use you to save their souls.

The next thing Paul says shines light on an even bigger picture. His words here go beyond marriage to illuminate life in the Kingdom of God. And what he has to say has the potential to rock our whole world. In verse 17, Paul tells the Corinthians to stay in the position in which they were called. Initially he is writing about marriage. A Christian is not to spend time looking for a way out, even if he or she is married to a non-Christian. Don’t you think the church would be better off if more Christians followed Paul’s instructions? How much better would Christian marriages be if we spent more time looking for ways to stay together than to break apart? Christians are called to stay in the marriages in which they find themselves.

In the following verses, Paul expands his instructions on staying as we were called to include circumcision and slavery. Both of these conditions were issues in Corinth. Circumcision is used in 7:18 as a symbol for Jewishness. Some Jews in the first century were ashamed of their ethnicity and tried to hide it; Paul tells them to be content with being Jewish. Being a slave was considered shameful, not on the grounds of a lack of freedom, but because slaves usually had little or no status in the Roman world. So despite a Christian’s marital status, ethnicity, or social class, we are called to stay as we are. By extension, the list doesn’t end with those three but can be applied to nearly any condition in life. Paul urges Christians not to work on changing our worldly relationships because ultimately they are not important. Our status in the world has no meaning compared to our citizenship in the Kingdom of God. How strong would the church be if Christians really believed and followed that principle?

Instead, we approach the issue backward. We care more about improving our position in the world than about growing in the Kingdom of God. We try to “get ahead” by earthly standards while stagnating in our discipleship. We take the attitude of, “Well, I’ve been baptized. I’m saved. Now I can devote my attention to getting a promotion and earning more money.” Do you see how completely backward that attitude is? Our attention should not be on our place in the world but on growing in the Kingdom. As Paul told the Romans, “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect” (Rom. 12:2). Pau; also told the Corinthians, “Now the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom. And we all, with unveiled face, beholding the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another. For this comes from the Lord who is the Spirit” (2 Cor. 3:17-18). While we are not to care about getting ahead in the world, we are called to grow in discipleship and in the Spirit.

Caring more about our social status than our spiritual status is worldliness. It’s investing time and energy in something that will pass away—it’s investing eternal capital in a big, fine house that is already on fire when we pay for it. Worldliness is a waste of our limited time and resources on this planet. Did you see this week’s Time magazine? The cover story is titled, “Does God want you to be rich?” If Christians have any doubt as to the answer, we should remember Paul’s words about earthly status here in 1 Cor. 7. And these verses are by no means the only ones on the subject. Jesus himself told his disciples, “Sell your possessions, and give to the needy. Provide yourselves with moneybags that do not grow old, with a treasure in the heavens that does not fail, where no thief approaches and no moth destroys” (Lk 12:33). Things of this world are a waste of time, because they’re already passing away. But the Kingdom of God endures forever.

So let’s stay as we are in the world and focus our minds on Kingdom business! Of course, Paul’s words here are not an absolute prohibition about caring for worldly matters (as we’ll see next week). Concentrating on the Kingdom is no excuse for abuse. It’s acceptable for slaves to seek their freedom. It’s permissible for Christians to marry. The church should help the poor in the church and not allow them to continue suffering. In all cases we are called to give up our sin, and sometimes that involves taking up new work, as Paul did when he became an apostle.

But we should ask ourselves some hard questions on how we’re using our earthly resources. Are we investing as much on our eternal future as we are on our earthly retirement? Are we spending as much on our spiritual home as on our earthly dwelling? Are we entertaining strangers in the name of Jesus Christ as much as we’re entertaining ourselves? As we think on these questions, it helps to keep a vital truth in mind.

Let’s look at verse 23: “You were bought with a price.” In the Bible, repetition is key to what’s important. Paul has already reminded the Corinthians of this vitally important fact (1 Cor. 6:20), and now he tells them again: You were bought with a price. The Apostle has been writing about practical matters, issues of faith in practice. Now he goes back to the heart of Christian discipleship: “You were bought with a price; do not become slaves of men.” He’s not talking here about physical slavery. “Men” here is a symbol for worldliness, and Paul does not want Christians to be enslaved by the world.

Paul’s instructions here bring to mind something similar he told the Romans:

Do you not know that if you present yourselves to anyone as obedient slaves, you are slaves of the one whom you obey, either of sin, which leads to death, or of obedience, which leads to righteousness? But thanks be to God, that you who were once slaves of sin have become obedient from the heart to the standard of teaching to which you were committed, and, having been set free from sin, have become slaves of righteousness. (Rom. 6:16-18)

Remember from our study of Romans that we have a choice of whose slave we will be. We really don’t have a choice of not being a slave. As the Apostle Peter said, “Whatever overcomes a person, to that he is enslaved” (2 Peter 2:19). Will we be overcome by the world or the Word? Will we serve the King of Heaven or Prince of this world? Each one of us here is a slave of one or the other domain. One is eternal; the other will be destroyed.

In those simple words, “You were bought with a price,” Paul reminds the Corinthian of what saves Christians from a perishing world. It’s not their wisdom, their obedience, nor anything they could do for themselves. What saves Christians is the grace of Jesus Christ crucified and resurrected. We have all sinned and fall short of the glory of God (Rom. 3:23). The consequences of our sin is eternal death (Rom. 6:23). But Jesus Christ lived a perfect life and died on the cross to pay the price for our sin (Heb. 4:15). We are washed clean by the blood of Christ and saved through faith in him (Rom. 3:24-25). In baptism we join Christ in his death and resurrection, to walk in newness of life (Rom. 6:3-6). Our old lives have been crucified with Christ, and we have been given new lives in Christ (Gal. 2:20). We are new indeed creations (2 Cor. 5:17). Everything is new (2 Cor. 5:17). That’s why even in the most practical discussions, Paul always reminded Christians of Jesus Christ and him crucified (1 Cor. 2:2). “For the word of the cross is folly to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.” (1 Cor. 1:18)

If we truly remember the cross and how we came to be saved, then every aspect of our lives will be changed: no more looking for reasons to get the upper hand over others; no using doctrine as an excuse to bite and devour one another; no mining Scripture for excuses to sin. Instead, we will humble ourselves, glorify God in our lives and love one another with pure and faithful hearts. We will spend our lives wisely on the only truths that really matter.


(c) Copyright 2006, A. Milton Stanley

Wednesday, September 13, 2006

Our Bodies Are Not Our Own

1 Corinthians 7:1-12
Preached Sunday morning, September 10, 2006
Lexington Church of Christ, Milton Stanley

In chapters 5 and 6 of 1 Corinthians we saw some of the problems the Corinthian Christians had with sexual immorality. The Apostle Paul taught the Corinthians and us that in sexual union, two become one flesh. We were reminded that the church is the Body of Christ and that there is no place for sexual immorality there. We saw that immorality, even of a personal or private nature, pollutes the whole body.

In chapter 7 we encounter the other side of sexuality--that is, we see that there is a place for its proper expression. Paul is correcting misunderstanding among the Corinthians here. Just as some thought that any sexual activity was permissible, others seem to have gone to the other extreme and thought that celibacy, even in marriage, was the way to go. It's understandable that people would go to such extremes in Corinth, a city where sexual immorality was considered worship by pagan religions. Some Christians apparently wanted to do away with sex altogether.

But, like other bodily functions, sex has its place. In explaining this idea to the Corinthians, Paul once again answers theologically, with Christ in mind. And once again, his teaching is supremely practical. It's ironic that these worldly Corinthians are receiving advice on sex and marriage from a single man, but Paul writes with wisdom and with the Word of the Lord. It's also ironic today that many people think preachers are somehow out of touch when we try to help people look at sexual issues from a biblical perspective. Let me tell you, preachers who have been ministering much time at all have heard just about every kind of sexual problem from members. And if a preacher is worth much at all, then like Paul he'll help Christians to look at sexuality and sin through the light of the Word of God.

So Paul's answer to the Corinthians' problem is both theological and practical. Sex in marriage is good, he says. And, as we'll study later in this letter, marriage is an image and symbol of Christ and the church.

The Corinthians were drawn to extremes when it came to sexuality: some believed visiting prostitutes was acceptable while others thought they ought not to visit even their own wives. Perhaps these attitudes were part of the factionalism we read about in earlier chapters. In any case, the Apostle sets them straight very simply. He' already reminded them of Gen. 2:24: "Therefore a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and they shall become one flesh." So both sexuality and marriage go back to creation in the Garden of Eden. Sex was created by God and is not necessarily shameful or wrong. As we just saw in chapters 5 and 6, it can be shameful if done outside the bounds God created for its expression. Within those bounds, however, it's good.

We're given those bounds in 1 Cor. 7:2: "each man should have his own wife and each woman her own husband." This is simply restating what Paul has already told the Corinthians and what God said in Gen. 2:24: one man and one woman in marriage. During certain periods of Old Testament history God permitted men to marry more than one woman. But the ideal has remained the same since the beginning: one man and one woman. It's a shame, really, that our culture today is so morally sick and confused that some persons would challenge that definition of marriage. For the lost and disobedient the matter is open to debate. But for Christians the matter should be resolved and the matter clear. A marriage consists of one man and one woman for the very simple reason that God created human beings to live that way.

So marriage is the proper place for sexual intimacy. In fact, it is the only proper place. Christians are not ignorant or naive for upholding and defending this standard. Many Christians know first-hand the damage and hurt that comes from disobeying God on this matter. Others know the joy of spending all their lives faithfully committed to one husband or one wife. The church has a fully mature view of marriage and sexuality. Paul does a lot to explain that view in this chapter. And here's his next point: sex is not only acceptable; sometimes it's necessary.

First, however, let's be clear that Paul prefers celibacy for Christians. Notice 1 Cor. 7:6-8. Paul would rather that all Christian could prosper as he did in singleness. As we'll see when we study verses 32-34, marriage and families take up our time and attention and complicate our discipleship. Could you imagine Paul trying to travel around the empire preaching with a wife and children? Preachers with families know something about that struggle: how much are we willing to allow our families to suffer for the work we've committed to do? So as Paul reminds us, some tasks in the church are better done by a single person.

Isn't it ironic that even though Paul wrote of the value of Christian singleness, there is a bias in some of our churches against the unmarried? Some congregations will not allow an unmarried man to preach, and many Christians are at least suspicious of those who remain unmarried throughout life. Yet both the Apostle Paul and Jesus himself were unmarried--and look at the ministries they had! So singleness is good. But the Bible is clear that singleness is by no means for everyone.

Why? Because sexual deprivation opens the door to Satan. Paul explains this principle in two circumstances: spouses depriving one another sexually, and singles burning with lust.

First, married couples are not to deprive one another of sex. Look at what the Apostle writes in verse 4 and the beginning of 5: "For the wife does not have authority over her own body, but the husband does. Likewise the husband does not have authority over his own body, but the wife does. Do not deprive one another." Did you catch that? In a marriage each partner does not have authority over his or her own body. As we'll see in chapter 11, in one sense the husband is head of the wife. But in matters of sexuality what we see is mutual submission: the husband considers his wife's needs and vice-versa. In other words, it works both ways!

Mutual submission--it's simple in principle but hard to put into practice. For example, I once knew a young man who confided in me that he had only slept with his wife once in the past twelve months. Not long afterwards, he had an affair with a woman at work. Looking in from the outside, we might be quick to judge this young man (and of course he was wrong in what he did). We could say that, because he committed adultery, his wife was the innocent party in their breakup. But in the months before their breakup, that wife's behavior toward her husband had been anything but innocent.

It is not an option for a Christian wife--or husband--to bargain with her body. Your bodies are not your own. In marriage, a Christian is required to put the needs and desires of the other spouse before one's own. Again, that works both ways. But by keeping each other satisfied sexually, you resist the devil.

A similar principle applies to single Christians--although not while they're still single. Let's look at verses 8 and 9: "To the unmarried and the widows I say that it is good for them to remain single as I am. But if they cannot exercise self‑control, they should marry. For it is better to marry than to burn." It's better to marry than to be consumed by lust. That's a pretty frank and realistic acknowledgment of human sexuality, don't you think? All of us need to pay attention to those instructions.

Singleness and lust is an especially critical topic in our North American culture today. In fact, it may be one of the most important moral issues facing our society. Here's why. In the past hundred and fifty years, nutrition has caused each generation to reach sexual maturity earlier and earlier. For example, in mid-nineteenth century America, girls on average reached sexual maturity at age seventeen. Today, the average age is pre-teen. Yet the age at which young people marry has not dropped correspondingly. In fact, young people are marrying later and later. What is the result? A wide gap between sexual maturity and marriage for most young people, and increasingly long years of sexual temptation.

In this situation of prolonged sexual temptation, two groups of Christians need to pay careful attention to Paul's words. First is our youth. The temptation our teenagers are under is enormous. In a million subtle and not-so-subtle ways, the world around urges our youth to give in to their sexual urges. Yet as Paul reminds us, marriage and marriage alone is the proper place for sex.

The other group who needs to hear this message are older Christians who try to help our youth uphold the biblical instructions to "flee immorality." It's good that we encourage our children and grandchildren not to engage in sex outside marriage. But in the process of saying, "Just wait," are we asking for more self-control out of our teenagers and young adults than we have ever shown in our own lives? The Apostle reminds us that "it's better to marry than to burn." That leaves older, married Christians no room to look down on the strong urges of young, single brothers and sisters. When we give young people advice on waiting to get married--finish school, settle down, pay off your car, get your finances in order--we seem to forget the power of sex in these decisions. The fact is, as we see in 1 Corinthians, sex is a valid reason for Christians to marry--provided we keep one very important fact squarely in mind.

That fact is this: Marriage is for life. Let's look at verses 10 and 11: "To the married I give this charge (not I, but the Lord): the wife should not separate from her husband (but if she does, she should remain unmarried or else be reconciled to her husband), and the husband should not divorce his wife." Pretty clear, isn't it? For Christians, the husband or wife we have is ours for life. Even if we separate, we are not free to remarry. This applies to both man and woman: we may not divorce our spouse. How could we, really? As we've seen already, our bodies are not our own; if we divorce, we would be losing our own bodies! That's the circumstances we enter into in marriage: we become one flesh, one body. Christians do not divorce one another.

As we'll see later in this letter, the husband and wife are an image and symbol of Christ and the church. Christ will never abandon his church. In fact, he gave his own perfect, sinless life to pay for the sins of the church. His own lifeblood washes us clean and opens the way for the church to be admitted to the heavenly banquet. Because Christ has purified the church, those of us who belong to Christ may enter heaven pure and spotless. Without our Lord and Redeemer Jesus Christ, the church would no longer be the church. Christian marriage proclaims this union of Christ and the church, which is why divorce among Christians is shameful and profoundly sad.

So that is the basic rule: Christian marriage is for life. As we'll see later in this chapter, there are circumstances and exceptions. But marriage as God created it is always one man, one woman, one lifetime.

If Christians really believe that truth going into a marriage, it becomes the pillar of a strong, happy lifetime together. When we became engaged as Christian teenagers, Carolyn and I knew what we were committing to: becoming one flesh, one body for life. We have spent the past twenty-five years building up that body. I suppose we have built up our individual bodies a little too much, but our commitment to the permanence of our marriage has made us take it seriously. Knowing that you're in for the long haul helps a couple to prosper. Not only are you forced to be more forgiving, but you're also less likely to give offense in the first place.

I once worked with a young man in his mid-twenties who simply couldn't see himself staying with one woman all his life. "Even if I wait till I'm thirty-five or forty to marry, that's still thirty-five or forty years with the same woman," he said doubtfully. I wanted to tell him I look forward to the prospect. There is a couple in the church where I used to minister who were grade-school sweethearts in Alabama. After more than seventy years together, they're both approaching the end of their earthly journey. I'm not sure I've ever met two people more in love. Oh, what a blessing when a man and woman marry--and live--as Christians.

One more point worth noting. You don't see anything in Paul's writing about waiting for The Right One. Somehow we've developed a romantic notion that there's One Right One out there somewhere and that if I only find him or her, my life will be complete. There's an appeal to that idea, but it's certainly not a biblical notion. In fact, the search for The Right One has probably led to more divorces than happy marriages. If we really believe God's Word, we can be blessed in our marriages if we choose well--not necessarily perfectly.

There's much more to say on this topic, but that's enough for this week. As we close, let's remember a couple of things. First, sexuality, like a river, is good as long as it stays within its bounds. Second, Marriage is an image of Jesus Christ and his church. As Paul reminded the Ephesian Christians:

Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her, that he might sanctify her, having cleansed her by the washing of water with the word, so that he might present the church to himself in splendor, without spot or wrinkle or any such thing, that she might be holy and without blemish. (Eph. 5:25-27)

That's an image not only of happiness in this life, but of heaven.


(c) Copyright 2006, A. Milton Stanley

Friday, September 08, 2006

Bought With a Price—So Glorify God!

1 Corinthians 6:12-20
Preached Sunday morning, September 3, 2006
Lexington Church of Christ, Milton Stanley

In our study of 1 Corinthians we’ve entered the section of “body sins” among the Corinthian Christians. Two weeks ago we saw the problem with a man in the church committing adultery and incest—and the even bigger problem of the church approving of his actions. The church didn’t appreciate that they were a body with a need to keep evil out like a cancer. Last week we saw the issue of Christians cheating and suing one another. The Corinthians were fighting themselves, and a body which does that is sick, perhaps mortally ill. In this section, the Apostle Paul looks again at sexual sins among the Corinthians and relates it to the entire body of Christ at Corinth.

It should come as no surprise that Christians living in first-century Corinth had given in to sexual sins. In fact, first century Corinth was perhaps one of the few ancient cities to be as over-sexualized as Western civilization today. Corinth was a port city, with all the vices that go along with such a place. What’s more, the city was known the world over for its temple to Aphrodite, the goddess of fertility. In Aphrodite’s temple, sexual relations with temple prostitutes was considered worship. In the Greek world, the term “Corinthian girl” was slang for a prostitute, and to “Corinthianize” meant to commit sexual sin. The reason these issues were a problem for the Corinthians is that, like Christians today, the Corinthian Christians too often took their cues not from the Word but from the world.

Each church to whom Paul wrote had its own kinds of problems. The Galatians understood the need for holy living but tried to reintroduce the old law as bondage on Christians. The Corinthians understood freedom in Christ but thought that freedom gave them a license to sin. In this case Paul had a difficult task: teaching the Corinthians to turn away from sin without setting up a new dependance on the law. And the way the Apostle solved this problem sheds light on how we ought to live as Christians today. Let’s begin by looking first at the problem.

Quite simply, the Corinthian Christians had an overly permissive attitude toward sexual immorality. In verses 12 and 13, Paul seems to be quoting their excuses for committing these sins: “All things are lawful for me,” and “Food for the belly, and the belly for food.” By extension, the Corinthians are associating sexual appetite with the natural appetite for food. Just as we feed one appetite, they seem to be reasoning, we ought to satisfy the other. It’s only a physical thing. In visiting a prostitute, so the reasoning goes, one is simply feeding an appetite for sexual fulfillment.

Isn’t it amazing how easily Christians find reasons to sin, to live like the world around us? Today Christians still try to justify sexual sins such as watching sexually charged movies and viewing outright pornography. But as Jesus reminded us, even these transgressions of the mind are still sins in the eyes of God (Mt. 5:28).

So as soon as Paul begins quoting his opponents, he responds to their reasoning: “All things are lawful for me . . . but not all things are helpful.” “Food for the belly, and the belly for food. . .and God will destroy both one and the other. The body is not for fornication, but for the Lord, and the Lord for the body.” Paul urges these sinners to “Flee from immorality” (1 Cor. 6:18). Yet he never comes out and quotes one of the many passages in the Old Testament forbidding immorality. Why not?

Paul, being a learned Jew of his day, found answers to questions about proper sexual behavior in the book of Leviticus. In fact, several passages in 1 Corinthians 6 echo similar topics and phrases in Leviticus 18 [1]. Keeping one’s body pure is part of living a holy life unto the Lord. But how can Christians have holiness without the rules of the old law? It’s tempting for Christians simply to go back to keeping the old law—in fact Christians have shown time and time again a desire to simply be told how to behave. We’d rather suck on the milk of spiritual infancy than eat the meat of maturity. But we need to grow up and accept the responsibility that comes with mature discipleship. Paul wants the Christians to maintain their freedom, but he also wants them to understand that freedom is not the same as doing as we please.

The Corinthians remind me of little children who discover the freedom adults have. This past year Carolyn and the boys and I had the privilege for the first time in our lives of moving into a brand new house. When we closed on the house it was pristine—the inside was clean and white and empty. Although our boys were too old to ask such things, I still remember the kind of questions five-year-olds ask: “Is this our house?” Yes. “Can we do anything we want to with it?” Well, yes, I suppose we can. “How about having mud ball fights in the kitchen!” Now let’s keep in mind, we have the freedom to have a mud ball fight in our house. But we would be fools to do such a thing. In fact, you might even say we would be sinning against our house to abuse and despise such a wonderful gift from God. It was a similar situation with the Corinthians. In mistaking freedom for doing as they please, they sinned against their own bodies. They needed not only to change their behavior, but to change the attitudes that got them into such a bad position.

That’s what Paul wants to help the Corinthians do—not only to behave themselves in their actions, but more importantly to have changed hearts. That’s what God wants, too. We can change our behavior and still be insincere, still have hearts turned away from God. But when our hearts are inclined toward God, then our behavior follows. Paul, then, is not only urging the Corinthians to give up sinful behavior, but sinful thinking as well. Let’s look at how he does that.

He begins in verse 14 by reminding Christians that we will one day be raised up with Christ at the Resurrection. Isn’t that an amazing approach? Here the Corinthian Christians are living in sexual sin, and Paul doesn’t threaten them with hell but rather reminds them of heaven. Even to these erring Christians, Paul offers hope. He’ll have more to say on the Resurrection in chapter 15, but right now he simply reminds them of the joyful gift of heaven that God has in store for Christians.

Then in verse 15 Paul reminds the Corinthian church that they are members of Christ. And as he’s already told them, Jesus Christ is himself our righteousness (1 Cor. 1:30). What place does sexual sin have in Christ’s body? None at all! Visiting a prostitute is totally incompatible with life in Christ.

Paul also reminds the Corinthians of what is really at stake in sexual intimacy. It’s much more than simply meeting a need of the body. Sexual union between a man and a woman is unique among human interactions. As we read in Gen. 2:24, “Therefore a man shall leave his father and mother and hold fast to his wife, and they shall become one flesh.” In harlotry, a man becomes one flesh with a prostitute. Yet Christians are one body in Christ. So what will it be? Christ or sin? Paul urges the Corinthians to “flee fornication.” That’s more than simply avoiding it—that’s staying totally away from any temptation toward it.

Finally, the Apostle tells the Corinthians one more, grand truth: the body is the temple of the Holy Spirit. Now the full import of what Paul is saying here is lost in most twentieth and twenty-first century English translations. He doesn’t say “your bodies are temples of the Holy Spirit.” He says, “your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit.” Why would he phrase his statement that way, as if there is only one body? Quite simply, Paul has shifted here from talking about bodies to talking about the body, the church. In chapter 12 he will talk about the Christ’s body, the church, having many members. But here Paul simply reminds Christians that the church—that is the assembly of saints, not the building—is the temple of the Holy Spirit.

In the body of Christ there is no sense of “my body, my choice.” Individual Christian are members of Christ, and as such we have given up any claims on our own bodies. This applies, by the way, not only to issues like sexual immorality but to abortion and a host of other issues. What each individual Christian does with his or her body affects the whole body of the church. And of course, if sexual sin pollutes the whole church, how much more does it harm the Christian committing the sin? Every individual Christian is part of something larger than ourselves. We are members of the body of Christ. There is no such thing as a “private” sin. Whether we’re talking about adultery, fornication, lust, or pornography, the sins we commit in private weaken and pollute the whole body of Christ. In even our most secret sins we harm our fellow Christians and bring dishonor to Christ.

Despite the warnings against sexual transgression, this section ends on a positive note. Let’s look at verse 20 where it says, “you were bought with a price, so glorify God in your body.” The church was bought with a very high price. All of us have sinned and fall short of God’s glory (Rom 3:23), and we deserve death for our sin (Rom. 6:23). Jesus, on the other hand, never sinned and so never deserved to die (Heb. 4:15). Yet he allowed himself to be killed on the cross to pay the price for our sin (1 Jn. 2:2). In believing in Christ, repenting of our sins, and being baptized into Christ, Christians have been washed, sanctified, and justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the power of the Holy Spirit (1 Cor. 6:11). Therefore our calling is not to weaken the body, but to glorify God in our bodies (1 Cor. 6:20).

Glorifying God—that’s the highest purpose for the Lord’s church, and that’s where this passage takes us. Rather than simply ordering the Corinthians to stop misbehaving, Paul has reminded the Corinthians of their highest purpose, to give him glory in everything we do. It’s a reminder to us as well.


1. Mark Gravrock, “Why Won’t Paul Just Say No? Purity and Sex in 1 Corinthians 6,” Word & World, 16.4 (F 1996): 444-55.

(c) Copyright 2006, A. Milton Stanley