NB: I’ve been writing about vasectomies, and it’s been all sorts of fun. But I thought I’d return to an especially tricky bit of 1 Corinthians today, before returning to it on Friday for one last go.
“All things are lawful for me,” but not all things are helpful. “All things are lawful for me,” but I will not be dominated by anything. 13 “Food is meant for the stomach and the stomach for food”—and God will destroy both one and the other. The body is not meant for sexual immorality, but for the Lord, and the Lord for the body. 14 And God raised the Lord and will also raise us up by his power. 15 Do you not know that your bodies are members of Christ? Shall I then take the members of Christ and make them members of a prostitute? Never! 16 Or do you not know that he who is joined to a prostitute becomes one body with her? For, as it is written, “The two will become one flesh.” 17 But he who is joined to the Lord becomes one spirit with him. 18 Flee from sexual immorality. Every other sin a person commits is outside the body, but the sexually immoral person sins against his own body. 19 Or do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you, whom you have from God? You are not your own, 20 for you were bought with a price. So glorify God in your body.
Paul’s deployment of his formula that ‘all things are lawful’ seems like an erratic intrusion into his argument. He is returning to the theme of sexual ethics, which he contrasts with food. But it is not clear how the lawfulness of ‘all things’ follows, as a manner of thought, on the ethics of taking believers to law that he had just developed. I find the transition baffling, candidly.
It is interesting, though, to contrast Paul’s use of the formula here with that in 1 Corinthians 10. There Paul also proposes that “all things are lawful,” but follows it with “not all things are helpful” and “not all things build up” (10:23). The question he takes up in that context is one of eating meat sacrificed to idols. “Let no one seek his own good, but the good of his neighbor,” he writes in 10:24. In 6:12, though, Paul has a slightly more worried tone: not all things are helpful, he says, but he will also “not be mastered by anything.” There is an oppositional stance that he highlights in the verse which simply doesn’t appear in its use in 10:23.
But oppositional to what? What is Paul worried might master him? Note that the ESV translates that “enslaved,” which is too strong, and obscures the links between 6:12 and 7:4, which employs the same term. There, Paul suggests that the “wife does not have authority over her own body,” and the husband “does not have authority over his own body.” Neither is mastered by themself, in other words, but gives mastery of themselves to another. Paul in 1 Corinthians 6:12 will not be mastered by: what? Almost every contemporary translation adds “anything,” which is perhaps natural given that he goes on to speak of food. But the KJV seems to come nearer to the truth: “I will not be brought under the power of any.” I am inclined to think that Paul is touting his own commitment to celibacy and chastity. Within the set of lawful realities, including marriage, he will not be mastered by anyone. His own flesh inscribes his single-minded devotion to the Lord, which fornication unlawfully destroys (6:15) and which marriage lawfully transforms (7:32).
Paul then turns to the peculiar way in which the sexual dimension of the body is an eschatological sign, while its relationship to food is strictly immanent, bound by the horizon of this world. (How this plays out in 1 Corinthians 10 will be of interest, to be sure.) God will destroy both the stomach and food—a nullification of their importance, to be sure, but also presumably a hyperbolic one. The body, though, is for the Lord and the Lord for the body. The determination of physical bodies for the Lord takes the form of God raising us up by his power, as he raised Christ Jesus, and making us members of Christ. There is an identification of our body in its sexed dimension with God’s own life. Where Paul will emphasize the other person’s good in his discussion of the ethics of eating meat to idols, here he is almost exclusively focused on the possessiveness God has over our bodies and the peculiar disruption to our relationship with the Spirit that arises when we fornicate. “You are not your own,” and so we are to glorify God with our bodies. Every other sin is outside the body, but this sin is against it. Paul says nothing about the negative consequences for prostitutes in this relationship: it is not social ethics, or the way in which the church is interacting with the world, that he is concerned about in sexual ethics: it is not a matter of inclusivity or exclusivity, but of the unique claim God makes over each of our bodies and the responsibilities we have in light of it.
The prohibition falls out of this vision. “Shall I then take the members of Christ and make them members of a prostitute?” May it never be. Paul’s answer to his own question is in a form that will pervade the book of Romans. Joining ourselves with a prostitute creates an inherent contradiction in our flesh, as it is a marital act we undertake without marrying them. As such, Paul can write that the ‘two will become one flesh’ even when those two are not formally marrying. But the one who is joined to the Lord becomes “one spirit with him,” such that to join with a prostitute is to drive a wedge between the spirit and the flesh, between our souls and our bodies.
But again, this negative exhortation is framed within the affirmation of Paul’s own celibacy: he can uphold such a norm with confidence because he himself will not be mastered by any, but has reserved his body wholly for the Lord.