1 Corinthians 6:1-7:16
Paul's flow of thought from 1 Corinthians 5 to chapter 6 is not clear. Recent scholars have tried to discover a way to see these chapters related to each other. Some have suggested that chapter 6 deals with a lawsuit that arose from property battles between the incestuous man of chapter 5 and his father. Others have seen both the problems of sexual immorality and lawsuits as evidence Paul was producing to show the lack of wisdom at Corinth. He was vindicating his apostolic authority by showing how much the Corinthians needed his teaching.
The Christian and Lawsuits - 1 Corinthians 6:1-11
The question of judging was raised in 5:12. Apparently, Paul's comment there brought to his mind the issue of church members in litigation against each other. Paul responds to this problem indignantly. The Greek text begins with the word "dare." "Dare some of you who have a lawsuit against another take it to be judged by the unrighteous?" We would say, "How dare you . . . ?" The issue is a lawsuit by one member of the church against another. Translations vary but the papyri discoveries in the last century reveal that Paul's word was used regularly in a legal context to mean a lawsuit.
Paul's concern is not that the Corinthians have disagreements or even that those disagreements need resolution by a "judge." Rather, his protest is that they place the matter before the judicial system of Corinth rather than handling it within the church. It is likely that Paul's Jewish background influences his thought here more than his Roman citizenship. Jews were accustomed to settling civil disputes among themselves and even some Greco-Roman social and religious groups did so also. Paul's assumption was that Christians should follow suit.
He begins with two "do you not know . . ." questions. This expression was commonly used in the Greek world and in Greek letters. The clear implication was that the Corinthians did know what Paul will mention in verses 2 and 3 and he assumes that they should have drawn the same conclusion that he drew. Verse 2 asks if the Corinthians do not understand that Christians will someday judge the world. Daniel 7:22 in the Greek Old Testament and in the KJV states that judgment will be given to the saints of God. The apocryphal book, Wisdom of Solomon 3:7-8, and the pseudepigraphal book of 1 Enoch 1:9 and 95:3, make the same point as do the Dead Sea Scrolls. Paul's point was not that Christians should not air their dirty laundry by going to court. Rather, he believed that Christians would judge the world at the final judgment. Since the final age had already begun Christians, who would soon judge the whole world, should be capable of settling the small matters of their own disputes.
The Greek text of verse 4 can be translated in more than one way. It is possible to take the verse as a question as the NASB and NRSV do. In this interpretation Paul asks in amazement if the Corinthians are really appointing judges with no status in the church (meaning the secular judges) to deal with ordinary matters.
On the other hand the NIV and KJV take verse 4 as a command. In this interpretation Paul commands the Corinthians to appoint Christians with the least status in the church to serve as their judges in the ordinary matters of life. Though both interpretations are possible it is more likely that Paul had the second in mind. This leads him to conclude in verse 5 that such instructions ought to shame them. He then engages a bit of irony. "Is there no one wise enough among you to judge between one another?" For the Corinthians who boasted in their wisdom this was a pointed jab at the inconsistency of their lives.
Witherington (pp. 162-164) makes the important point that entering into litigation was an expensive and extremely inconvenient matter in Paul's time. It was very rare that a poorer person ever won a lawsuit against a richer person. Thus it is likely that the lawsuits that Paul is referring to would have been brought by a wealthier member of the Corinthian church against a poorer member. If so the secular judge would have seen the wealthy Christian using the judicial system to practice injustice against a brother in Christ.
Verse 8 supports this understanding when it states that the Corinthians were defrauding and wronging each other. It is no wonder that in verse 7 Paul describes this process as already representing a defeat for the community of faith. We will never succeed in winning the world for Christ if the world can see no difference in the way we treat people and the way they treat people. It is better to be defrauded or wronged by a Christian and forgive them, than to return the defrauding, wronging process. Though he doesn't quote Jesus directly, Paul draws upon the principle of turning the other cheek taught by Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount (see Matthew 5:38-42).
In verse 9 Paul commands the Corinthians, "Do not be deceived!" Barrett (p. 140) wisely points out how easy it is for us to deceive ourselves by beginning to think that God does not take his moral demands seriously. The church faces one of its more serious challenges in these days when the culture around us assumes that there are no moral absolutes. We are in danger when we define our righteousness simply as being better than the world around us. We can end up with very low moral expectations when morality disappears from the world altogether. Whether the subject is moral purity or right relationships with other believers it is easy to deceive ourselves into thinking that God will be satisfied with whatever satisfies us. "Not so," declares Paul.
Most of sins mentioned in verses 9-10 had already been mentioned in 1 Corinthians 5:9-10. The noteworthy additions in the list of chapter 6 are adulterers and the active and "passive" partners in homosexual relationships. Four of the ten sins listed in these verses deal explicitly with illicit sexuality. The first term makes general reference to sexual immorality of any kind. Three specific violations of sexual purity are then mentioned. Adultery describes any sexual relationship by a married person outside the marriage. Paul then mentions both the "passive" (and usually younger) and the active partners in a male homosexual relationship. Homosexual practice was far more common in the Greco-Roman world than it is in contemporary America. It was especially common for young boys to become "mistresses" for older men. Paul's language here specifically condemns such practice.
Verse 11 is stunning in two ways. First, Paul states that some of the Corinthians had been involved in the wicked practices described in verses 9-10. The Greek could be translated, "And some of you used to be these kinds of people." The second surprising point is how powerfully Paul contrasts their past life with their new life in Christ. The adversative word "but" appears three times in the Greek text. In contrast to the past they had been washed. In contrast to the past they had been sanctified. In contrast to the past they had been justified. What a wonderful change in their lives Christ brought!
Freedom and Sexuality - 1 Corinthians 6:12-20
Several times in 1 Corinthians Paul appears to quote a saying of one of the problem groups at Corinth. There is growing agreement among scholars that the opening words of verse 12, "All things are lawful for me," came from the Corinthians. Paul quotes it, but does not accept it in totality. "All things are lawful for me" sounds like the slogan of people who tolerate incest in the church, claim their own wisdom, and resist the discipline of instruction. Paul accepts the idea that the Christian faith liberates one from legal observance of the law. He does not accept the idea that a Christian is free to live irresponsibly. All things might be lawful, but not all things are beneficial. The majority of the instructions of the Old Testament Law are clearly designed to protect us from harm and to provide fulfillment and meaning in our relationships.
Though all things might be lawful to the believer Paul refuses to be overpowered by any of them. The law was not designed to take away pleasure and freedom. Too many of the sins forbidden in the Law become addictive. People professing freedom from Law often end up in worse bondage to overpowering control of sin than they were in bondage to the Law. God designed creation with specific balances, relationships, and restrictions. Verse 13 points out the mutual relationship between the belly and food. However, as natural as the relationship between the belly and food is, both are subject to God and His will. In time God will do away with both food and the belly.
On the other hand the body was not created for sexual immorality. Creation designed the body to be for the Lord and the Lord to be for the body. Paul's use of the word "body" refers to more than just flesh and bone. "Body" refers to the whole person. In Barrett's words (p. 147), "The belly is a material organ which I use for a short time; the body is myself." It is possible that certain Corinthians argued that uninhibited expression of sexual desires was as natural as eating. Paul cannot accept that argument (nor can we). The belly was created for food, but the person was created for the Lord. Fulfillment of our creation-destiny to be in relationship with the Lord means that we cannot indulge in sexual relationships outside the will of God.
Paul comes at the subject another way in verse 15. He describes our bodies as members of Christ. The Greek word "members" is the same as he will use in chapter 12 to describe believers as members (or parts) of the body of Christ. Thus it is inconceivable for Paul for a believer to engage in immoral sexual behavior. In verse 16 Paul cites Genesis 2:24 that in human marriage the two shall become one flesh. His argument is simple. God created the human person (body) for the Lord. Thus there is a creation-destiny oneness between a human person and God. To join oneself to a prostitute is to become one with her. From Paul's perspective it is not possible to become one with the Lord and one with a prostitute. Such behavior is a type of schizophrenia. One cannot become one with two such different partners.
This line of argument is an important addition to the Christian defense of sexual morality. It also implies that part of the problem at Corinth was people who thought use of a prostitute was a legitimate right of a Christian. In a church dominated by converts from the Gentile world Paul chose not to appeal to the Law to forbid such behavior. Rather he pointed to the way sexual promiscuity undermines the meaning of both creation and Christian commitment. One might argue that the same line of argument could be used against any sexual activity by Christians. However, Paul understands sexual relationship within marriage as part of God's creation plan. Thus sexuality in marriage fulfills our oneness with Christ while sexual activity outside marriage violates it. This leads Paul to finally issue a command, "Flee sexual immorality."
Verse 18 further states that every sin other than sexual immorality is outside the body, but sexual immorality is a sin against one's own body. This verse has caused considerable discussion in the history of interpretation. Various commentators have argued that a variety of sins - such as gluttony, drunkenness, and suicide - are also sins against one's body. They state that there are many sins other than sexual immorality that are not "outside the body."
One of the solutions that has been proposed is that Paul was again quoting a Corinthian slogan when he wrote "Every sin that a person might commit is outside the body." In this view these words represented the Corinthian argument that use of a prostitute was permissible for a Christian since sin is inside a person and every sin (including sexual immorality) is outside the person. This view then sees the words, "The person who commits sexual immorality sins against his own body," as Paul's response.
Another solution suggests that Paul's meaning in saying, "Every sin that a person might commit is outside the body," was not literal but emphatic. That is to say, supporters of this view argue that Paul was not trying to make a logical statement about other sins but to emphasize how devastating sexual sin is. Other sins may affect relationships and even one's body, but no sin devastates God's creation purpose for a person like sexual sin. In light of the way Paul's thought moves easily back and forth between a person's body and the body of Christ some form of this second interpretation is more likely what the text intended.
Verses 19 and 20 follow more logically in light of this second interpretation also. Paul shifts his metaphor again. From describing believers as members of Christ's body, he turns to describe our bodies as a temple of the Holy Spirit. Paul thus takes the concept applied to the whole church in 1 Corinthians 3:16 and applies it to individual believers here. The point here is that one's body is not insignificant. What one does with one's body matters, contrary to the opinion of the Corinthians. It matters because that body is the sanctuary of the Spirit. Sexual impurity would violate the Spirit's sense of sanctuary and so sexual sins cannot be acceptable in the Christian life.
The final phrase of verse 19 and verse 20 take the matter even further. "You are not your own." When the Corinthians claimed their personal right to practice sexually immoral behavior Paul responded at their level. The owner of the body has the right to determine how it is used. Paul agreed, but declared that they were not the owners of their bodies. By virtue of redemption God has purchased us from sin. Therefore, as new owner God's rights must be preserved. The new owner forbids sexual impurity and he has a right to the fulfillment of his will. The conclusion is simple, "Therefore, glorify God in your bodies."
Marriage and Related Subjects - 1 Corinthians 7:1-40
The subject of inappropriate sexual behavior led naturally to the next topic Paul would address. Chapter 7 begins with a reference to the things about which the Corinthians had written. Thus the issue of marriage and most of the subjects that will appear in the rest of 1 Corinthians were questions raised by the Corinthians in a letter they had sent to Paul.
Stay As You Are - 1 Corinthians 7:1-16
First Corinthians 7 begins with a startling statement, "It is good for a man not to touch a woman." The context and the evidence of ancient Greek writers clearly indicate that this is a statement against sexual intercourse. In light of the following verses almost all scholars agree that this statement is also a quotation of one of the groups at Corinth. Whether from a misunderstanding of Paul's earlier teaching on sexual purity or from the influence of some other religious or philosophical teaching some people at Corinth had come to the conclusion that sexual relations even within marriage were wrong. Such a conclusion would have been incomprehensible for a Jew. It is the opposite of God's statement in Genesis 2:18, "It is not good for man to be alone."
Paul does not accept the Corinthian position expressed in verse 1. Verses 2-4 respond clearly. Each man should have his own wife and each woman her own husband. A husband must render his obligation to his wife and a wife must render her obligation to her husband. A wife does not have authority over her body - her husband has that authority. A husband does not have authority over his own body - his wife has that authority.
Several important conclusions arise from these verses. First, Paul expects sexual relationship within marriage. The expression "to have" a wife or husband was a common expression in the Old Testament for sexual relationships. Second, Paul regards sexuality as one's due or obligation in a marriage relationship. Third, and most amazing in the first century is that Paul structured all three verses to show that the responsibility for an appropriate sexual relationship falls equally on both husband and wife. There is no statement regarding the wife that is not also made about the husband and vice versa. Fourth, he regards the sexual relationship as an aspect of marriage in which the desires of one's partner take precedence over one's own desires.
Verse 4 is especially striking in both the ancient and the modern world. It is striking in the ancient world for its mutuality - especially that the wife has as much authority over her husband's body as he has over hers. It is striking in the modern world for its submission and corporate sense. Rather than demanding my rights Paul calls me to give those rights to my spouse.
Verse 5 emphasizes the expectation of mutual sexual satisfaction even more. Abstaining from sexual relationship is describing as "defrauding" each other. Paul uses the same word that he had used 1 Corinthians 6:7 and 8. The word means to take away something that rightfully belongs to another. The only conditions under which Paul can envision abstinence from sexual relationship within marriage are if both partners agree to it; if its purpose is devotion to prayer; and if it is only for a limited length of time. He is concerned that Satan will make use of abstinence to tempt one of the partners. The later history of the church is full of examples demonstrating the wisdom of Paul's advice.
Paul concludes the first paragraph of chapter 7 by wishing that the Corinthians and everyone else could be as he was. Scholars are not agreed on exactly what aspect of Paul's life he wished everyone could emulate. It is most commonly thought that he was urging everyone to be single as he was. However, Paul does not say that he wishes no one would marry and he certainly does not urge married people to become unmarried.
We really do not know whether Paul was ever married or if he was married when he wrote 1 Corinthians. Jewish custom suggests that Paul would have been married when he was advancing in Judaism beyond his contemporaries (Galatians 1:14). If so, we have no idea whether his wife had died, the marriage had been dissolved (because of his conversion?), or if they were still married. Fee (pp. 284-285) argues that what Paul wishes for everyone else is to be free "from the desire or need of sexual fulfillment,"as he was. However, he recognizes that such freedom is a gift (charisma in the Greek text) and not everybody has the same gifts.
Verses 8-16 contain a series of instructions directed toward specific circumstances. Verses 8-9 address the unmarried and the widows. Paul directs them to stay the same as he is. Most scholars and even most translations assume that he means that they should stay "unmarried" like he is. However, the Greek text does not state that he is unmarried. It is possible that he simply wants them to stay celibate as he is. However, if they are not practicing self-control they must marry. (The grammar of the Greek text is a third person imperative.)
By word of explanation Paul then added a comment, "It is better to marry than to burn." Unfortunately, that comment is not clear in meaning to us. Some interpreters see it referring to burning with passion; other see it referring to burning in hell after the final judgment. A case from Jewish backgrounds can be made for both interpretations. Recent commentators are tending to see it in terms of burning with passion, but Paul's statement is not clear.
Verses 10-11 forbid divorce. Paul describes his position as the Lord's command, not his. From the following verses it is clear that Paul supposes in these verses that both partners are believers. The relationship of Paul's interpretation of Jesus' words and the passages in Matthew 5:32, 19:19; Mark 10:11, and Luke 16:16 has been much discussed. We should remember that Paul wrote 1 Corinthians before any of the gospels were written and thus he did not have a written copy of Jesus' words on this subject. He is working from memory of what others had told him Jesus said. Paul's instructions are especially interesting since he begins with the question of a wife separating from her husband. In the gospel passages Jesus only mentions husbands divorcing their wives. This already reflects a move from a Jewish culture (where only husbands could initiate a divorce) to a Gentile culture (where divorce could be initiated by either the husband or the wife).
In verses 12-16, Paul launches into territory that Jesus had not covered at all. He addresses marriage and divorce in the case when only one partner is a believer. Paul carefully points out that his words are not part of Jesus' teaching. We should not take this to mean that Paul's words can be ignored. As part of inspired Scripture they are authoritative for us. They also offer us an example of the process of applying the principles of Christ to new circumstances.
Verses 12-13 state that if an unbelieving spouse is willing to stay in the marriage the believer should cooperate. Verse 14 then declares that unbelieving spouse is sanctified in some way by the believing spouse. Obviously the word "sanctified" is used in this verse with a meaning different from its technical, theological sense. Paul's thought seems to be that the believing spouse will be used by the Holy Spirit to influence the unbelieving spouse to more openness to the Christian faith. This may eventually lead to conversion. If staying in a marriage to an unbeliever defiled a marriage (perhaps a position taken by some Corinthians) the children would be unclean in the Jewish sense. However, since (as Paul argues) marriage to a believer sanctifies and benefits the unbeliever, the children are holy. Once again the word "holy" is not used with its full technical meaning. Rather Paul is declaring that the grace of God operates in the lives of children more effectively if one of their parents is a believer and both parents stay committed to the marriage.
Verse 15 speaks to the case in which the unbelieving spouse wishes to dissolve the marriage because the other has become a believer. Paul counsels the believer to let the unbelieving partner leave. He points to three principles. First, the believing spouse should not consider himself or herself in bondage. Marriage is not slavery. Second, God's purpose is peace. A violent fight by a believer to force an unbelieving spouse to remain in a marriage the unbeliever wishes to flee does not reflect God's desire for peace. Finally, Paul raises the question in verse 16 whether by pursuing peace a believer may not have a better chance at winning the unbelieving spouse. The question is not answered because every individual case is different.
Paul's instructions regarding marriage responded to specific problems in the church at Corinth. They do not answer all our questions. His instructions do open up basic principles regarding marriage. We need the grace of God to be at work in our marriages. We also need grace in wisely interpreting Paul's words. May we also become vehicles of grace to those who struggle in their own lives with circumstances like those outlined by Paul.
Study Questions for Reflection and Discussion
These readings and study questions are in preparation for next week's lesson.
As you study each day ask the Lord to make his word come alive in your heart. Ask him to help you understand how his word should apply to your life.
First Day: Read the notes on 1 Corinthians 6:1-7:16. Look up the Scripture references that are given.
1. Identify one or two new insights that seemed important to you. Describe why they were significant to you.
2. Select a spiritual truth that has a personal application in your own life. Describe how it applies to you.
3. Write a brief prayer asking the Lord to grant you wisdom and grace in dealing with questions of marriage and sexuality. Such confusion and hurt exist these days over these subjects.
Second Day: Read 1 Corinthians 7:8-31. Now turn your focus to 1 Corinthians 7:17-24.
1. What illustrations does Paul give for his admonition to "remain in the condition in which you were called?" Are they helpful in supporting his point? Why or why not?
2. Paul gives at least one principle in each illustration. What are those principles? Are they valid beyond the illustrations in which they appear?
3. How would the instruction to "remain in the condition in which you were called" apply to the question of marriage? Does Paul make that application clear?
Third Day: Read 1 Corinthians 7:17-40. Focus in on 1 Corinthians 7:25-35.
1. What concept(s) appear(s) in the focus verses that explains Paul's reluctance about marriage? Do you agree with him? Why or why not?
2. Why do you think that Paul said the time has become short? How does being married make it more difficult to deal with the idea of the nearness of the second coming?
3. What other areas of life does Paul see affected by the closeness of the second coming? Do you find his logic easier, the same, or harder to accept on these areas than on marriage? Why?
Fourth Day: Read 1 Corinthians 7:25-40. Now focus on 1 Corinthians 7:32-40.
1. According to verse 35 what is Paul's intention with these teachings? Does he accomplish his goal? If not, how could he have done better?
2. The Greek of verses 36-38 is not clear. Some take these verses to refer to a man and his fiancé (NRSV). Others take them to refer to a father and his virgin daughter (NASB). What difference does this choice make to you as you study these verses?
3. What do you think Paul means by his comment in verse 40 that he thinks that he also has the Spirit of God?
Fifth Day: Read 1 Corinthians 8:1-13. Focus your attention on 1 Corinthians 8:1-6.
1. If one phrase in verse 1 is a quotation from the Corinthians what would that phrase be? How does Paul respond to that concept?
2. What relationship between knowledge and love does Paul describe in verses 1-3? What illustration of his point can you give from the experiences of your life? How does that affect your desire for knowledge? your desire to give love?
3. What do verses 5-6 say about God? Does verse 5 make you uncomfortable? Why or why not?
Sixth Day: Read 1 Corinthians 8:1-13. Now focus your attention on 1 Corinthians 8:7-13.
1. What is Paul's point in verses 7-8? How do our culture and the way we are brought up affect the way we think about spiritual matters?
2. In verse 9 Paul warns against being a stumbling block. What might be some stumbling blocks in our day? How far are we to go to avoid being a stumbling block?
3. What principle seems to be guiding Paul in these focus verses? What are some circumstances in which that principle can be applied in our day and time?