Sexual Ethics in 1 Corinthians

1 Corinthians 10:1-13

In 1 Corinthians 10, Paul tells the Corinthian Christians that Israel’s experience in the wilderness is meant to be a lesson for them. Paul alludes to several episodes in Israel’s history, including one in which the people of Israel entangle themselves in idolatry by their improper sexual behavior. Paul’s citation of sexual immorality (“porneuo”) and 23,000 dead in 1 Corinthians 10:8 is a reference to Numbers 25. Is the term “sexual immorality” in 10:8 a metaphor for spiritual unfaithfulness to God, or is Paul talking about the more basic form of sexual misconduct? The answer is “both.” In both the old pagan world, idolatrous practices and actual sexual misconduct were closely related.

While Paul is clearly concerned in about idolatrous practices in Corinth, it’s also clear that he is concerned about ordinary (or not so ordinary) sexual misconduct as well. What follows is a short review of Paul’s thoughts in 1 Corinthians that pertain to sexual ethics.

1 Corinthians 5 – It’s OK to be friends with non-Christians who don’t accept Christian sexual morality, but don’t tolerate sexual immorality within the church, and don’t celebrate sexual immorality as some form of Christian freedom.

1 Corinthians 6:9-11 – Sexual immorality is grouped with other serious sins, some of which are of a more specific than “porneia”. Paul’s list of sexual sins includes those of both a heterosexual and homosexual nature. Christians are to leave these sins behind them when they enter the life of faith.

1 Corinthians 6:12-20 – Christian freedom is not an excuse for sexual misconduct with prostitutes. Paul alludes to Genesis 2, reminding the readers that God’s intention in creation is “one flesh” marriage – permanent, exclusive, spiritual and physical intimacy between a man and a woman.

1 Corinthians 7 – Paul writes about marriage. If it’s wrong to commit sexual immorality (as if the deeds of the body didn’t matter or were somehow separate from my essential self), it’s also wrong to renounce marriage and the physical intimacy it entails (as if life of the body was evil in and of itself). There are practical reasons that God calls (and gifts) some Christians to remain single (and celibate), but most Christians will find marriage and its sexual intimacy to be important for two reasons: it is the context in which most Christians will find proper fulfillment of their sexual drives and it is the context in which they will witness to their faith in Christ to members of their family. Neither marriage (with its sexual intimacy) nor singleness (with its sexual celibacy) is a spiritually superior state. Faithfulness to one’s calling and (for the married) a proper balance between family focus and kingdom focus are what really matter.

1 Corinthians 11:1-16 – Paul writes about women who dressed in a sexually scandalous manner. (The women here, by the way, are engaged in public prayer and prophesying). The women believed that their freedom in Christ released them from cultural expectations about proper gender conduct (and we would likely agree with them when it comes to head coverings). It’s hard to imagine ourselves in a 2000 year old culture. Try picturing men or women coming to church stark naked next Sunday (well, maybe that isn’t the best suggestion). They might claim (with some theological justification) that they are free from the conventions of the prevailing culture and that the body is a beautiful creation of God. There are, however, other equally good reasons why we might suggest that they wear pants. The particulars of modesty might change from culture to culture, but Christian behavior should acknowledge our creation as sexual beings living in a fallen world.

1 Corinthians 14:34-35 – This is a curious passage. By forbidding women to speak in public, these two verses seem inconsistent with 11:5. In chapter 11, Paul is only concerned about a woman’s scandalous appearance while praying and prophesying. Here, Paul seems to be concerned about what military types call “good order and discipline” and the chaos created by by unruly behavior. Some have suggested that these two verses are a later interpolation since the text reads more naturally without them, but there is no manuscript evidence to support such a reading. In any case, this is another instance of a culturally conditioned expression of gender differences. Paul’s general principle is found in Galatians 3:28: There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. Neither men nor women, however, can act without regard to the actual consequences of their behavior in this world.

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