Sexual experimentation outside of marriage is fairly common within American society. About 50 percent of high school students have had sexual intercourse, 15 percent have had four or more sexual partners, and 35 percent are currently sexually active.1 Among students in Adventist academies, about 10 percent of ninth and tenth graders have had intercourse, and 20 percent of eleventh and twelfth graders.2 The U.S. Census Bureau established in the 2000 census that the number of unmarried couples living together was 5.5 million, up from 3.2 million in 1990.3 The prevalence of sexually transmitted diseases such as gonorrhea, syphilis, HIV/AIDS, genital herpes, and others, testify to the extent of sexual experimentation within our culture. How is the Christian to relate to this? We turn to the Scriptures for counsel.
The apostle Paul in 1 Corinthians 6:12-20 presents a profound meditation on the meaning of sexual behavior. I invite you to get out your Bible and read the passage aloud. Let its words sink in, ponder them, and then return to read the rest of this article.
Most scholars today agree that in writing this passage, Paul was responding to various slogans that were being bandied about in the Corinthian church.4 These clearly include: “All things are lawful for me” (verse 12, NKJV)5 and “Foods for the stomach and the stomach for foods” (verse 13, NKJV). But the phrases “And God will destroy both [this stomach] and [these foods]” (6:13, NRSV)6 and “Every sin that a person commits is outside the body” (verse 18, NRSV) may also be Corinthian slogans. With this in mind we turn to the passage to ponder its message.
n 1 Corinthians 6:12-14 Paul faces off against two Corinthian beliefs—the first, that all things are lawful for the Christian (libertinism), and the second, that design (teleology, telos
—goal, end) indicates God’s will for the function of the body. (“Foods for the stomach and the stomach for foods” is here clearly a euphemism for sexual function, “the sexual organs are designed to be used.”) The Corinthians seem to have had a promiscuous perspective on the design argument.
Responding to the first error (libertinism), Paul says, “But not all things are beneficial” (verse 12, NRSV). This seems a rather mild response for an apostle with fire in his bones, until we realize that he is dealing with people who do not trust him.7 To win them, he begins with their premise. “You believe all things are lawful? All right, let’s go down that road and see where it leads. Certainly you must agree that even if all things are lawful, surely not all things are beneficial to a person—poison will still kill you even if you ‘can’ drink it.” Pushing the point further, Paul notes that he will not be mastered by anything. Here, he says, is where Corinthian libertinism leads—slavery to passions. If “freedom” leads to slavery, then it is no freedom at all, and the Corinthian slogan fails.
In 1 Corinthians 6:13, 14 Paul faces the second error (the promiscuous-design idea). The Corinthian slogan actually seems to encompass the entire first half of verse 13 in a two-step fashion. The first step is the argument from design—“Foods for the stomach and the stomach for foods.” “Design indicates function.” In the realm of sexual ethics the Corinthians would say: “God is the one who made the sexual organs, and they obviously bring pleasure, so it must be God’s will for us to use them for pleasure”—a hedonistic teleology. “Live for pleasure.” In the second step the Corinthians present a powerful view of the end of all things: “And God will destroy both [this stomach] and [these foods]”—an eschatology of destruction. “It’s all going to burn anyway, so use it as you please!”
In the last part of verse 13 and in verse 14 Paul marshals two arguments that respond step by step to the first part of verse 13. First, he insists that the body is designed not for sexual immorality but for the Lord—a teleology of sanctification, dedication to God, not to sin. Second, he indicates that our bodies are destined not for destruction but for resurrection—an eschatology of restoration. The assurance of our resurrection is the bodily resurrection of Jesus from the dead.8 It is wrong to be involved in sexual immorality because God will raise our bodies on the last day.9 It is a striking argument, even if at first it seems a little odd to our modern ears. Our bodies are destined for immortality, so using them now for immorality is inconsistent with the Christian life. Lying just beneath the surface of the Corinthian viewpoint is a philosophy of dualism—the immortal soul is trapped within the physical body and will be set free at death. But for Paul, death is not a release but an enemy (1 Cor. 15:26). He counters Corinthian dualism with a wholistic anthropology of resurrection.10 Because a person exists only in a body, the resurrection is a necessity, and immorality is a scandal against the body.
In 1 Corinthians 6:15-17 Paul turns from the Corinthians’ slogans to talk about two truths he believes every Christian should know. When Paul says in his writings, “Don’t you know,” the next words commonly fall into one of two categories, proverbial truths everyone accepts, or else, as here in 1 Corinthians 6, vital truths that are foundational concepts of Christian belief.11
Verse 15 teaches the deep truth that we Christians are members, or body parts, of Christ. Paul stresses our connection with Christ, a bond as real as the hand’s connection to the arm.12 He then makes a statement we might find rather indelicate. He talks about joining the body parts of Christ to a prostitute. The sexual overtones are obvious, and he recoils from the idea—“Perish the thought!”
In 1 Corinthians 6:16, 17 he turns the argument around, with another “Don’t you know” statement, this time starting with union to a prostitute. The great truth he expounds is that sexual intercourse produces oneness of body.13 The Greek text is more direct and powerful than usually comes across in English translation—“Or do you not know that the one who joins himself to a prostitute is one body?” (verse 16, NASB).14 Most translations have something similar to “is one with her in body,” but Paul is more direct—there are no longer two but one. Indeed, he quotes Genesis 2:24 to make his point. Just as he countered the hedonism and destructive eschatology of the Corinthians in 1 Corinthians 6:14, so in verse 17 he counters the fallacy of a Christian joining himself to a prostitute. In verse 13 Paul stressed that the body is meant for the Lord and the Lord for the body, so here in 6:17 the one who joins himself to the Lord is one spirit. Again, there is no intervening with him—the connection is real, intimate, and spiritual.15
The final section of the passage is 1 Corinthians 6:18-20. It begins and ends with commands: “flee sexual immorality” (verse 18, NKJV) and “glorify God in your body” (verse 20, NKJV), a negative and a positive command. What we are called to flee is sexual immorality (porneia in Greek). This term is used 25 times in the New Testament, 10 times in Paul’s writings. The apostle uses the term to refer to incest in 1 Corinthians 5:1, to visiting a prostitute in our passage, and in general to sexual relations outside of marriage (premarital and extramarital).16 The Bible is quite clear on the subject: sexual relations are meant for marriage alone.
Paul again, it seems, quotes in 1 Corinthians 6:18, a Corinthian slogan: “Every sin that a person commits is outside the body” (NRSV).17 This seems to express a dualistic perspective on the relationship between sin and the body. It teaches that the physical body is morally of no consequence.18 This viewpoint plays into the libertinism of verse 12 and the teleology and eschatology of verse 13, and meshes perfectly with the implied anthropological dualism seen in verse 13. Paul counters that the Corinthians are all wrong in separating sin and body. When you join yourself to a prostitute, you sin against your own body.
To drive this home, Paul presents his last “Don’t you know” statement in 1 Corinthians 6:19—your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit. Misusing such a sacred space would be desecration. The Christian’s body, says Paul, is just such a holy place where sin does not belong, because the Holy Spirit dwells there. Not only that, but you do not own yourself (verses 19, 20). You were purchased at a price. The death of Christ redeemed us from sin, the devil, and evil. As a result, not only are we to flee the negative lifestyle of the world, but we are to embrace the holy lifestyle that glorifies the God who redeemed us.
Ponder the amazing amount of theology that Paul marshals to counter this terrible problem of sexual immorality. The Trinity opposes such sin—God the Father raised Christ from the dead and will raise us on the last day. Christ is the one we are united with, and it is He who paid the price of our redemption. The Holy Spirit dwells in us as a holy temple for the Lord. Libertinism is declined, teleology is redefined, eschatology is corrected, dualism is rejected, the oxymoron of “casual sex” is discarded, the disconnection of sin and body is discredited, and the obligation to flee immorality and to glorify God in our bodies is commanded. Opposed, declined, redefined, corrected, rejected, discarded, discredited, commanded. It is an amazing litany.
I am afraid that society around us, with its use of sexuality to sell everything from movies to magazines, beer to soap, and cars to cameras, has blinded our eyes and dulled our senses to the immense soul-destroying impact of sexual immorality. Paul’s deeply logical and theologically profound argumentation warns us that we take this sin lightly at our peril. Instead, we must heed the call of our Lord to resist the world’s pull, not simply because it is so very wrong, but because our high calling is so much more joyous and wholesome, so uplifting and enlightening. “Therefore glorify God in your body” (verse 20, NKJV).
1This assumes that all high school students are single, which is not altogether correct, but close for our calculations. For the data on high school student sexuality, see Centers for Disease Control, Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report (57, n0. 30 [Aug. 1, 2008]: 817-822), available at www.cdc.gov/mmwr/preview/mmwrhtml/mm5730a1.htm.
4Space does not permit a detailed defense of this position. For a valuable review of the issues, see Anthony C. Thiselton, The First Epistle to the Corinthians (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2000), pp. 458-474.
5Texts credited to NKJV are from the New King James Version. Copyright © 1979, 1980, 1982 by Thomas Nelson, Inc. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
6Bible texts credited to NRSV are from the New Revised Standard Version of the Bible, copyright © 1989 by the Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the U.S.A. Used by permission.
72 Corinthians 10-13 clearly illustrate the tensions between Paul and the Corinthian church.
8You may never have heard the argument before that it is wrong to “sleep around” because of the resurrection, but in light of the wholistic anthropology of the Bible, it makes perfect sense.
9One of the strongest evidences for the veracity of the Adventist teaching on the state of dead is the New Testament’s consistent emphasis on the bodily resurrection of the dead. If you go to heaven when you die, what need is there for a resurrection, let alone the second coming of Christ?
10 If the soul is immortal and released at death, there would be no need for a resurrection. In fact, the resurrection of the body is the antithesis of a dualistic view of anthropology.
11 See, for instance, Romans 6:3, 16; 7:1; 1 Cor. 3:16; 6:2, 3, 9; 9:13.
12 Note his discussion in 1 Corinthians 12.
13 “Casual sex” really is an oxymoron!
14 Scripture quotations marked NASB are from the New American Standard Bible, copyright © 1960, 1962, 1963, 1968, 1971, 1972, 1973, 1975, 1977, 1995 by The Lockman Foundation. Used by permission.
15 Paul is not teaching some sort of dualism here—body versus spirit. His emphasis is on union. He contrasts the evil union that occurs in sexual promiscuity with the holy union that occurs when a person becomes a Christian and is joined to Christ, becoming one spirit with Him. The “spirit” here may be the human spirit, but there is likely also a reference to the Holy Spirit and its indwelling presence in the Christian, making him/her united with the Lord Jesus.
16 See Paul’s uses in 1 Corinthians 5:1 (twice); 6:13, 18; 7:2; 2 Corinthians 12:21; Galatians 5:19; Ephesians 5:3; Colossians 3:5; 1 Thessalonians 4:3. Many of these uses are in vice lists—behaviors all Christians are to avoid. For the definition of porneia, see David E. Garland, 1 Corinthians (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2003), pp. 156, 157.
17 Most translations insert the word “other” before “sin”—“every other sin is outside the body.” But the word “other” is not there in the Greek, the reason being that this is likely a Corinthian slogan that Paul counters in the second half of the verse.
18 See Jerome Murphy-O’Connor, “Corinthian Slogans in 1 Cor. 6:12-20,” Catholic Biblical Quarterly 40 (1978): 393.
Tom Shepherd, Ph.D., is professor of New Testament Interpretation and director of the Ph.D. in Religion and Th.D. programs at the Seventh-day Adventist Theological Seminary at Andrews University. This article was published May 19, 2011.