In the first four chapters of 1 Corinthians, Paul addressed the fundamental problem in the church, which was a wrong understanding of wisdom and spirituality. Paul contrasted Greek wisdom and philosophy with God’s wisdom. Paul attempted to correct their understanding of the true nature of wisdom, and to address the divisions in the church between the followers of different apostles. Some in the church were assessing and following Christian leaders in the same way as the Greeks modelled themselves as disciples of the Greek sophists.
In the next three chapters Paul addresses specific issues of immorality in the church, and answers questions they have about marriage and singleness. Again there were some Greek ideas that would be prevalent in their culture, and which would affect the thinking of the believers in Corinth.
Background of Greek thinking
A wrong understanding of the physical body
It was noted before that the basis of Greek thought was a strong dualism between the physical and the spiritual. The real world was the world of the spirit, and the physical world was merely its shadow. Because of this, the body had only secondary importance when compared with the spirit. The emphasis would be on what they believed, the understanding they had gained, and their wisdom. Spirituality for the Corinthians would be mainly concerned with wisdom and spiritual experience, with little or no attention paid to ethics and morals, particularly those which involved the physical body. Paul’s challenge was to change their thinking, so they came to see the importance of personal morality. As a result of their dualism, two contradictory streams of thought developed about the body. Both of these seemed to be present in the Corinthian church. One was licence, the other was asceticism. Paul addresses problems of licence and immorality in chapters five and six, and then questions of asceticism in marriage in chapter seven.
Belief in the immortality of the soul
The foundation of many of the problems in the church was the Greek belief in the immortality of the soul. Based on the dualism mentioned already, philosophers such as Plato taught that the physical body was the prison house of the soul. Others said that the body was the house of the immortal soul. At death, the body will die, but the soul would continue to live forever in the realm of the spirit. There was no purpose for the body after death. This belief profoundly affected many areas of life and understanding, including morality and their understanding of eschatology. In these two chapters we will look at how moral standards were affected by this belief. Later in the book, we will see that because they saw no future for the body, they denied the truth of a future physical resurrection, which Paul addressed in chapter fifteen.
Derived from the belief in the immortality of the soul came the doctrine of hedonism. The Greeks believed that Nature had given the bodily senses to people so they can enjoy the pleasures, enjoyments and delights of this life. They argued that Nature had not given senses to the dead or the unborn, so it was only during this life that people could enjoy these physical sensations. Therefore they should be enjoyed to the full, while they had the opportunity to do so.
The believers probably argued that if the material world doesn't matter, then it does not matter what a person does with the body. It will not affect the spirit within, so immorality was no problem. Through his letter, Paul quotes several of the slogans which may have been repeated by people in Corinth, and even by people in the church to justify their behaviour. In many English translations, these slogans are printed within quotation marks. He then corrects or modifies that slogan to bring it in line with the standards of Christian discipleship. For example, when the Corinthians were arguing for the right to consort with prostitutes, probably in the context of banquets, Paul quotes their slogan, “All things are lawful for me”, then corrects it by saying, “but not all things are beneficial” (6:12), and “but I will not be dominated by anything” (6:13).
There is a list of these suggested slogans at the end of the introduction to 1 Corinthians.
A major part of the social scene amongst the wealthy upper classes of first century Corinth were great civic feasts and private banquets, where there was abundant food and alcoholic drink. There was great social pressure to indulge in excessive eating and drinking to avoid offending the host. Failure to attend the banquets would cause a person to lose social status. The host provided after-dinner prostitutes for his male guests. These were foreigners or freed slaves, never Greek women. When a young man reached the age of eighteen he would wear the 'toga virilis' and participate fully in the banquets. So the banquets encouraged the ungodly combination of gluttony, drunkenness, and sexual immorality, which Paul condemns several times through the letter, saying that those who practice these things have no place in the kingdom of God, and should not be included in Christian fellowship (5:11, 6:9, 15:32-34).
The other extreme from hedonism was asceticism, taking the denial of bodily desires to extremes. This was argued from the idea that if the material world and physical body are evil, and the spirit needs to be set free to receive greater revelation, then the body must be subdued, and brought into submission to the spirit through fasting, abstaining from good food, punishing the body, not washing, wearing dirty clothes and other ascetic practices. There was a strong emphasis on this in the church for many centuries. It still continues today with the demand for a celibate unmarried clergy in the Catholic church. In Corinth some in the church were forbidding marriage, and even calling for married couples to abstain from sex (7:1-7), probably believing that because sex was so physical it somehow defiled the body, so that abstention was more spiritual.
In these two chapters, Paul addresses three separate issues. The first is a specific case of sexual immorality in the church, of a man living with his father’s wife (5:1-13). The second is of lawsuits between believers (6:1-8), and the third also concerns sexual morality, specifically fornication with prostitutes (6:12-20). For each there are important details to understand about the cultural life of first century Corinth which will help us in the exegesis of these passages. It is also important for us to be considering the practical application of these issues in today’s church and culture. One of the big problems in the church in Corinth was that many in the church were not seeing the importance of a godly lifestyle, particularly in the areas of morality. They tended to emphasis words and wisdom at the expense of practical application of the truth.
A case of incest (5:1-10)
Earlier in the book Paul noted that Chloe’s people had brought him reports of divisions in the church over attitudes towards Christian leaders (1:11). They also brought reports of other problems in the church, including divisions during the celebration of the Lord’s Supper (11:18), and particularly
issues of immorality. They reported a serious case of incest to Paul, of a man living with his father’s
wife (5:1). The situation was probably of a man who was a member of the church who was living in a
sexual relationship with his step-mother. It is not clear whether his father was still alive, so that they were having an adulterous affair, or if they were divorced, or whether she was a widow. However, it
is clearer that she was not a believer, as only the man is to be disciplined (5:5). This relationship was
specifically forbidden in the law of Moses, “You shall not uncover the nakedness of your father’s
wife” (Lev 18:8).
When Paul says that this kind of relationship is not found even among pagans (7:1), this is because incest was a criminal offense under Roman law which was punishable by a minimum of five years exile for both people in the relationship and confiscation of their property. The believers in Corinth were boasting when they should have been mourning (5:2, 6). Arrogance and boasting was a particular problem in the church in Corinth, as already noted in the previous chapter (4:18-19).
Paul gives a very clear and strong instruction that this person must be excluded from the fellowship of the church. For emphasis, he repeats the instruction four times (5:2, 5, 7, 13), saying the same thing in a variety of ways. Firstly he should be removed from among them (5:2), in other words, he should be excommunicated from the fellowship of the church, being forbidden to attend church meetings, being excluded from worship and participation in the Lord’s Supper. He then says that they need to assemble together and publicly hand this man over to Satan (5:5). This is a difficult statement to understand, and sounds harsh. Elsewhere Paul said a similar thing when he handed two people, Hymenaeus and Alexander, over to Satan (1 Tim 1:20). Paul understood the world as being the realm of Satan, Christ rescued us from the kingdom of darkness and transferred us to the kingdom of light (Col 1:13), so to exclude a person from the church was to send them back into the realm of Satan’s influence.
We should note that the ultimate goal of this discipline is for restoration. He was to be handed over to Satan for the destruction of the flesh, but so that his spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord (5:5b), that is, on the day of judgement. Paul’s intention is that even Satan will be used as a tool in the hands of God to discipline this man, with the aim of his ultimate salvation, although it is debatable whether the destruction of the flesh would also mean that this involves the death of the man.
Paul also reminded them that he had written to them previously (5:9), but they had misunderstood the letter. Instead of refusing to have fellowship with immoral people in the church like this man, they had been withdrawing from involvement in the world, and criticising and judging unbelievers in their hearts with a critical spirit. Paul tells them to leave it to God to judge the people outside the church, but they must expel this immoral man from the church (5:13).
This issue in this passage is church discipline. This is an important subject to consider, although perhaps is not practised often enough today. Paul uses the illustration of yeast, saying that a little leaven leavens the whole batch of dough (5:6), where the leaven represented the immoral man, and the whole batch of dough represented the church in Corinth. Discipline evidently has a double purpose. One is to bring discipline on the person who is behaving in the immoral way described above, but the second purpose is for the rest of the church. Here yeast is being used as symbol of evil, the one immoral man will have a negative influence on the remainder of the church, particularly if this person was prominent in the church. So to discipline this one man would serve as a protection for the rest of the church. Anyone in any position of leadership is automatically a model to others, particularly people younger in the faith, and the younger generation. People naturally look up to older and more experienced people, and tend to copy their behaviour, often subconsciously, so great responsibility rests on them to be a good model of Christian faith and lifestyle to others. Paul instructed Titus to be a model of good deeds (Titus 2:7), because he was Paul’s representative in the churches in Crete. Also the church is to be a light to the world, by giving examples of godly lifestyle to the world outside. Immorality such as this is an appalling example to unbelievers, and ruins the effectiveness of any witness to Christ that the church may be trying to bring. Unbelievers often expect higher standards of moral behaviour from Christians than Christians expect of themselves, and are the first to spot any hypocrisy. So immoral behaviour such as this needs to be disciplined for the sake of the church as well as for the ultimate benefit of the person involved.
Paul had already likened the church to the temple of God, where God’s Spirit dwells (3:16). The temple was the place of God’s presence, so was holy. Therefore, even more importantly, to allow immorality in the church would defile the temple of God, and offend holy God himself. In today’s church we seemed to have lost the sense of the fear of the Lord, which we see clearly in the OT. Even in the new covenant, God is still a consuming fire (Heb 12:29), and it is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God (Heb 12:31), so we need to maintain a holy dread of offending him and maintain the purity and holiness of his church.
Lawsuits between believers (6:1-8)
Roman law separated criminal and civil cases, as is the case in many modern nations. However Roman law tended to favour the rich and those of a high social status, as private civil cases could only be brought by the rich and upper classes against people of a lower status than themselves. This is probably the setting of this passage in chapter six, that the richer Christians are taking out lawsuits against the poorer believers. Paul also addresses divisions between the rich and the poor in the church over the issue of the Lord’s Supper in chapter eleven.
Paul speaks out strongly against this, saying that the church should settle such disputes, and they should not be taken to corrupt civil courts to be judged by an unbeliever. He says it is better to seek unity in the church, and be willing to be wronged for the overall sake of the church. They are doing wrong by taking fellow-believers to court. Today there is a huge rise in what is often called the
“compensation culture”, suing people and claiming our rights. However this does not make us any more content. Perhaps it is better to trust God to be our provider and be willing to be wronged, and be followers of the example of the original readers of the book of Hebrews, who “cheerfully accepted
the plundering of your possessions, knowing that you yourselves possessed something better and
more lasting” (Heb 10:34).
Wrongdoers who will not inherit the kingdom (6:9-11)
In a section forming a bridge to the next issue of fornication, Paul gives a list of sins which were typically associated with Corinth, reminding them than this was the lifestyle out of which they had been saved, saying “this is what some of you used to be” (6:11). He reminds and warns them that those who practice such things will not inherit the kingdom of God. Several of these sins are those which would be associated with social banquets: particularly fornication (which Paul addresses specifically in the passage immediately following), as well as greed and drunkenness.
He uses two different words to describe homosexuality. This same distinction was also made in Roman literature and society. One word ('malakoi') describes those who are sexually passive in a homosexual relationship, often translated as male prostitutes, those giving sexual pleasure to older men. It had the meaning of being soft or effeminate, describing people who were despised in Roman society. The other ('arsenokoites'), often translated as sodomites or homosexual offenders, describes those playing an sexually active role in homosexuality. Under Roman law there was a double standard, as males were permitted to sexually penetrate non-Roman males, such as slaves, but would be punished under criminal law for doing the same to a Roman citizen. We should notice that both were clearly condemned by Paul, as being incompatible with life in the kingdom of God.
In this section, Paul addresses a surprising issue, of Christians having sexual relationships with prostitutes (6:15). This has often been thought to imply that Christian men were claiming they had rights to visit brothels to have sex with prostitutes, arguing that because they now lived in the realm of the Spirit, they will not be affected by behaviour which only concerns the physical body. It is more likely that Paul is addressing a situation concerning private banquets, where the host provided prostitutes to satisfy their guests’ sexual hunger after satisfying their physical hunger. In this passage, Paul makes mention of both food and sex (6:13), so the context of these banquets is more likely. The wealthy Corinthian Christians were probably arguing that attending these banquets was an important part of the social life in Corinth and was perfectly compatible with the Christian life.
Paul quotes several of their slogans, and strongly corrects them. They claim that all things are
lawful, but Paul corrects this to say that not all things are beneficial, and that he will not be dominated by anything (6:12). Yes, we are free in Christ, and free from the law, but that does not
mean that we are free to do whatever we like. Freedom from the law and being under grace is not an
excuse for licence. Paul does not want his people to be enslaved to anything. Jesus died to set us free,
so we do not need to be enslaved to anything, including bodily desires. Each of the unholy trio of
gluttony, drunkenness and fornication are highly addictive, and ultimately can control people. In
Christ, we should be free from addictions, whether over-eating, smoking or drinking alcohol, or even
drinking coffee. The best way of testing whether we are free from addiction is to see how we manage
if we go without the particular thing for a length of time. One of the fruit of the spirit is self-control (Gal 5:23), and Paul continues in the next verse to say that “those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires”.
The Corinthians were also arguing that the body is meant for food, and probably also that the
body was meant for fornication (6:13), claiming that these were natural activities. They also affirmed
that God will destroy both food and the body. This was based on their belief in the immortality of the
soul mentioned above. After death, there will be no food and no body, and no sex, so enjoy them to
the maximum while you still can! However, God will raise us, just as he raised the Lord Jesus, so
there is a important future for the body, as we will see in chapter fifteen. Paul is horrified at the idea of uniting one’s body with a prostitute, when our bodies are members of Christ (6:15).
Paul calls believers to flee from fornication (6:18). This is because it is such a serious sin,
causing untold harm, and pulls many young people today away from walking with Christ. We should
follow the example of Joseph fleeing from Potiphar’s wife (Gen 39). In the church today we need to
give serious warnings to young people about the dangers of fornication, including the emotional hurt
it causes, unwanted pregnancies, the danger of sexually transmitted diseases, and the shipwreck it can
cause to their spiritual life. We need to preach a strong message of abstention, remaining pure until
God blesses us with marriage.
He concludes the passage by stating that the body is important in the Christian life, and it
does matter how we use it (6:19-20). Just as the church was the temple of God (3:16), so also our
physical body is a temple of the Holy Spirit. It is the place where God dwells in the New Covenant.
Therefore our bodies are holy, and fornication would defile God’s holy temple. We need to glorify
God with our bodies because we have been bought by the shed blood of Jesus. They no longer belong
to us to do what we like with them, but they belong to Jesus, to be used to serve him.