In our last essay, we studied 1 Corinthians 6:1-11, in which Paul dealt with a third serious issue at Corinth. The first was a report that the church was being split apart by factions (1:10-4:21). The second was a report that one of the members was engaged in a type of immorality that even pagan Gentiles would have disapproved (5:1-13). And the third was a report of a lawsuit by one member of the fellowship against another in a secular court (6:1-11).
In this essay we are studying 1 Cor. 6:12-20, which brings to an end the long section in which Paul has been dealing with negative reports from Corinth, likely all from Chloe’s people (1:11). This last report has to do with the Corinthians’ misuse of their bodies.
At verse 12 Paul moves into a discussion of his theology of the human body by giving what most scholars believe is a quotation from Corinth: “All things are lawful for me.” Now Paul could have been quoting certain people in Corinth, because it is clear from the passage as a whole that some of them had the attitude seen in the first half of the sentence. How large this group may have been is unknown, but regardless of how many of them there were, they definitely had no regard for holiness of the body. They believed that their life in the Spirit overrode their physical activities, and they could do anything they wanted with their bodies without negative consequences.
Another possibility regarding the quotation is that the Corinthians were parroting what Paul himself had said while with them, or in his previous letter. Paul certainly would have agreed with the statement as a general truth. And he could have used it in making his case for Christian freedom over against Jewish legalism. We Christians definitely are free in Christ. But that freedom is not absolute. It is freedom in Christ, which means that it must be restrained by Christ’s love and values. The Corinthians’ exercise of their freedom was unrestrained. Therefore it was not dominated by Christ’s love. As Gordon Fee puts it, “For Paul that is not freedom at all, but a form of bondage worse than before.”
But that isn’t all Paul says. He continues, “but not all things are beneficial” (literally “expedient.”) To exercise one’s freedom in an irresponsible way is neither beneficial nor expedient. Yet that was what the Corinthians were doing.
Next Paul repeats the quotation; but this time, he adds something, “All things are lawful for me, but I will not be dominated by anything.” The rest of the paragraph will enable us to understand what Paul meant by this domination. I will wait until we come to those verses to deal with the details, but the general idea is domination by bodily appetites. Clearly he considers the Corinthians, who have accepted this false theology of the body, to be dominated by their sins. Paul, on the other hand, refuses to be dominated in this way by anything or anyone.
Some scholars are convinced that this statement about food and the stomach in verse 13 also is a quotation from the Corinthians. Unfortunately, Paul has so little to say about the matter, it is impossible to tell. At any rate, the key to some understanding of the saying is the second part of the verse: “and God will destroy both one and the other.” As Paul sets forth his correction of the Corinthians’ theology of the body, the first thing that comes to his mind is the issue of unrestrained eating. This sentence is much more difficult to interpret than it seems on first reading. Paul is saying that since both food and the stomach are aspects of the present age, they are temporary; and God will bring both to an end. That much is certain.
Since Christians are not bound by Jewish food laws, I disagree with C.K. Barrett that it is a matter of eating forbidden foods. And I disagree with Fee that Paul is simply setting up his discussion of sexual immorality in the flowing verses. Rather I believe that Paul simply is condemning the Corinthians’ eating habits, because their theology of the body allows them to overeat excessively, though I sit lightly on my interpretation.
We see in verses 13c-20 that sexual laxity at Corinth was rampant. Their general philosophy was similar to that which we see in our own culture today. It says that sex is a natural, normal human function; and we should be able to use our bodies in any way we please for our enjoyment. Specifically, some Corinthians were arguing that visiting prostitutes is not a spiritual matter, but simply a means of sexual outlet. But God has a different view.
Unfortunately one of the reasons why life is difficult is because evil is not always clearly apparent. It often hides behind half truths or perverted truths. And here we have an example of that. Some Corinthians have perverted the idea of Christian liberty into a license to sin. But Paul insists that we must not be enslaved to anything, including food and sex.
In verse 13c Paul shifts from the subject of food to that of sexual immorality when he says, “The body is meant not for fornication but for the Lord, and the Lord for the body.” The intention of the last part of this statement is seen in verse 15. : “Do you not know that your bodies are members of Christ.” If our bodies are members of Christ, then we must not use them for sexual immorality. This is made clear by the fact that God raised Jesus’ body, and some day he will raise our bodies. In other words, in some mysterious way, our bodies will become members of his body by means of the resurrection.
In verses 15-20 Paul makes direct application of his point to the matter of visiting prostitutes. That practice is a bodily activity that not only is morally wrong, but it is wrong because of the Christian’s union with Christ. In verse 16 Paul raises the biblical point that sexual union creates a mystical union between the parties. Gen. 2:24 tells us that when a man leaves his ancestral home and marries, he becomes one flesh with his wife. In other words, there is a mysterious union, a bond, between a husband and wife in the sex act. Here Paul is saying the same thing happens in the sexual union of a man and a prostitute. Therefore it has no place in the Christian’s life. A Christian should be in union only with his wife and Christ. Thus Paul commands them in verse 18 to flee from sexual immorality (porneia).
The clause in verse 18 that says a “fornicator sins against the body itself” is very difficult, and many suggestions have been made concerning what it means. It seems to me the best way to deal with it is simply to interpret it according to the context. It is a sin against the body, because the body belongs to Christ. Therefore it is a sin against our union with Christ.
In summary, the passage says several things about our bodies. First, they are members of Christ (v. 15). Second, they are in spiritual union with Christ (v. 17). Third, they are not to be sinned against (v. 18). Fourth, they are to be respected as temples of the Holy Spirit (v. 19). And fifth, they have been bought with a price, namely, Christ’s death (v. 20). Therefore we must glorify God with our bodies.