Flee from sexual immorality. (1 Corinthians 6:18)
In 1 Corinthians 6:9-20, Paul throws us straight into the church’s contemporary debate about sexual ethics in general, and the homosexuality debate in particular.
Do you not know that the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived! The sexually immoral, idolaters, adulterers, passive homosexual partners, practicing homosexuals, thieves, the greedy, drunkards, the verbally abusive, and swindlers will not inherit the kingdom of God. Some of you once lived this way. But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God. “All things are lawful for me” — but not everything is beneficial. “All things are lawful for me” — but I will not be controlled by anything. “Food is for the stomach and the stomach is for food, but God will do away with both.” The body is not for sexual immorality, but for the Lord, and the Lord for the body. Now God indeed raised the Lord and he will raise us by his power. Do you not know that your bodies are members of Christ? Should I take the members of Christ and make them members of a prostitute? Never! Or do you not know that anyone who is united with a prostitute is one body with her? For it is said, “The two will become one flesh.” But the one united with the Lord is one spirit with him. Flee sexual immorality! “Every sin a person commits is outside of the body” — but the immoral person sins against his own body. Or do you not know that your body is the temple of the Holy Spirit who is in you, whom you have from God, and you are not your own? For you were bought at a price. Therefore glorify God with your body. (1 Corinthians 6:9-20)
Several things are clear from the text and its immediate context:
- Despite the fact that Christ has freed us from bondage to the law, some conduct remains improper for Christians.
- Unlike the act of eating, sexual conduct continues to have moral significance. It is not a matter of moral indifference or triviality.
- Sexual immorality has a negative impact on one’s self and one’s relationship to God through Jesus Christ.
- The resurrection is a redemption of our essential created nature, not a negation of it.
- Paul’s reference to “one flesh” points back to God’s intention in creation of permanent union between a man and a woman (Genesis 2:24). This is the same text to which Jesus’ appealed in Mark 10:8 (and parallels).
- While sexual sins are serious, so are the other sins Paul mentions. The sexual sins themselves are heterosexual and homosexual in character. Selective indignation is incompatible with this text in particular and Paul’s theme of grace in general.
- We are accountable for all our actions to the God who gave himself for us.
In another generation, the behavior to which Paul alludes would have been clearly understood and shocking on the face of it. Now, it’s the subject of much argument. Among those who may assent to Paul’s admonition, “Flee sexual immorality” are those who very much disagree about what this means in the 21st century.
Several issues present themselves to the interpreter:
- What is the relationship between law and freedom in the realm of sexual ethics?
- To what extent are sexual ethics (and roles) tied to God’s intention in creation, and to what extent are they culturally conditioned?
- How are Paul’s arguments to be understood in the light of his cultural situation and then applied to the contemporary cultural situation?
The bottom line remains that both Jesus and Paul looked to Genesis 2 as establishing God’s intention for sexuality and marriage: a permanent, exclusive bond between a man and a woman in Christ-like love for each other. As Luther is reported to have said about the pressing theological controversy of his day, “Hier stehe ich. Ich kann nicht anders.”
While not universally practiced, this standard was universally accepted in the church and in the culture the church influenced. Today, the standard no longer exists either in the culture or in some segments of the church. It is especially difficult for me to understand how some Christians can identify more with a culture of licentious secular promiscuity than with the church’s historic stand on marital faithfulness and permanence. The church is no longer in a position to dominate the culture, but we are in a position to demonstrate a better way. The church’s own confusion on these issues sends a mixed message to the culture around us. Meanwhile, the world around us suffers on both a social and personal level from the effects of sexual immorality.
Paul concludes with a gracious indicative and a demanding imperative: “You were bought at a price. Therefore glorify God with your body” (6:20). Paul’s reminder, “Some of you once lived this way,” should inform us that real change is possible, even for those have lived so far from the will of God.