Jesus and Paul on the Hermeneutics of Sexuality, Part 5 (1 Corinthians 6)

the-bible-and-sexuality-blog-headingAnd this brings us to Paul, because Paul had to deal with churches made up of converts from paganism, forcing him to deal with issues that would have been unthinkable among the Jews that Jesus dealt with.

(1Co 6:15-16 ESV) 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.”

Just as Jesus did in Matthew 19, Paul immediately goes to Genesis 2 to find his sexual ethics. Why is it wrong to have sex with prostitute? Because it degrades her? Because you might catch a venereal disease? Because its a criminal act (it wasn’t)? Because it’s a form of adultery (what if the Christian is single?)?

The reason Paul gives is that to have sex with a prostitute is to become “one flesh.” Paul is arguing that God intends for the one-flesh relationship to be enjoyed solely by husband and wife. The fact that God gives sex to spouses denies that blessing to all others — or else Paul makes no sense at all.

(1Co 6:17 ESV)  17 But he who is joined to the Lord becomes one spirit with him.

Now, in a surprising turn, Paul makes a second argument based on the relationship of Christians to Christ. We flee such arguments because contemporary church culture prefers arguments that bind unbelievers, too — but Paul thinks very differently. Indeed, Paul just said,

(1Co 5:12-13 ESV)  12 For what have I to do with judging outsiders? Is it not those inside the church whom you are to judge?  13 God judges those outside. “Purge the evil person from among you.”

Plainly, Paul prohibits the church from judging those outside the church. They don’t have Jesus, whether or not they consort with prostitutes.

But for Christians — whom we are commanded to judge — our relationship with Christ prohibits union with a prostitute. Why? Because we’re “one spirit” with Christ. We are united with Jesus in baptism. We’re married to him, in the sense that the church is the bride of Christ. We’ve committed to him as “Lord.” He is our king.

Therefore, to join ourselves to a prostitute is to sin against Jesus — to whom we’re married, who lives within us through his Spirit, and who has redeemed us from sin.

Paul wasn’t worried with binding Christianity on non-Christians. Rather, Paul considered a Christian’s commitment to Jesus to bind him to a higher standard of behavior.

(1Co 6:18-20 ESV) 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.

Sexual sin is a sin committed against our own body — a body bought with a price by the blood of Jesus, a body in which the Holy Spirit lives. Jesus died so that our bodies will be used to glorify God; indeed, the plan is for our bodies to be redeemed, transformed, and glorified to remain in God’s presence forever.

But notice this: Paul begins, “Flee immorality.” “Immorality” is the subject of chapter 5 (verses 5:1, 9, 10, and 11) and most of chapter 6 (6:9, 13 and 18 x 2). Prostitution is just one example of sexual immorality that the Corinthians would have approved before their conversion.

(1Co 6:12-14 ESV) 12 “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.

“The body is … for the Lord.” Therefore, “I will not be dominated by anything.” That is, our relationship with Jesus empowers us to defeat sin. The Spirit within us keeps us from being dominated. Therefore, there is no need for a Christian to be overcome by sexual immorality.

Not only are we called to be better than that; we’re empowered by God to be better than that.

(1Co 6:9-11 NET) 9 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,  10 thieves, the greedy, drunkards, the verbally abusive, and swindlers will not inherit the kingdom of God.  11 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.

Paul transitions from lawsuits among believers (1 Cor 6:1-8) to consorting with prostitutes by reminding his readers — Christians all — that many of them had chosen to give up various forms of immorality to become Christians. This is a list of sins that his readers had escaped from and repented of when they believed in Jesus.

The sins listed aren’t all sexual sins, but many are. And Paul reminds his readers that they’ve been washed (from their sins), sanctified (that is, separated from sin), justified (declared not guilty of sin)  in the name of Jesus and “by the Spirit of our God.” Why mention the Spirit? Because it’s the presence of the Spirit that empowers Christians to overcome sin.

(Rom 8:12-13 NET) 12 So then, brothers and sisters, we are under obligation, not to the flesh, to live according to the flesh  13 (for if you live according to the flesh, you will die), but if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body you will live.

And that is, I think, the point that drives Paul’s logic. If you could leave sin behind when you became a Christian — before you received the Spirit — then surely now that you have the Spirit, there’s no reason to sink back into immorality.

Inevitably, we have to interpret this passage regarding what it says about homosexuality. We should start with “sexually immoral” — pornos in the Greek. It means, of course, “sexually immoral.” Of course, Paul had good reason not to assume that his readers understood the full scope of the word. In chapter 5, Paul had to deal with the church’s approval of incest. He’d soon be dealing with prostitution. Obviously, his Gentile converts did not appreciate how very different Christian sexual ethics are from paganism.

Paul’s Jewish readers — and there were Jews in the church at Corinth — would hear pornos in light of Torah, and to their ears, Paul would clearly be including homosexual activity, because any Jew familiar with the Torah would know that pornos includes homosexual acts when uttered by a Jewish rabbi. Recall, that just one chapter earlier, Paul had alluded to the fact that, generally, the Jews had a broader understanding of sexual immorality than the Gentiles —

(1Co 5:1 NET)  It is actually reported that sexual immorality exists among you, the kind of immorality that is not permitted even among the Gentiles, so that someone is cohabiting with his father’s wife.

But Paul had good reason to expect that his Gentile readers would not understand the full scope of pornos. And this is surely why Paul refers to “passive homosexual partners, practicing homosexuals” when he’d just condemned “sexual immorality.”

I quote from the NET Bible translation because the translators specifically consider the modern argument that this language speaks solely to abusive homosexual relationships –

This term is sometimes rendered “effeminate,” although in contemporary English usage such a translation could be taken to refer to demeanor rather than behavior. BDAG 613 s.v. μαλακός 2 has “pert. to being passive in a same-sex relationship, effeminate esp. of catamites, of men and boys who are sodomized by other males in such a relationship.” L&N 88.281 states, “the passive male partner in homosexual intercourse – ‘homosexual.’ … As in Greek, a number of other languages also have entirely distinct terms for the active and passive roles in homosexual intercourse.” See also the discussion in G. D. Fee, First Corinthians (NICNT), 243–44. A number of modern translations have adopted the phrase “male prostitutes” for μαλακοί in 1Co 6:9 (NIV, NRSV, NLT) but this could be misunderstood by the modern reader to mean “males who sell their services to women,” while the term in question appears, at least in context, to relate to homosexual activity between males. Furthermore, it is far from certain that prostitution as commonly understood (the selling of sexual favors) is specified here, as opposed to a consensual relationship. Thus the translation “passive homosexual partners” has been used here.

On this term BDAG 135 s.v. ἀρσενοκοίτης states, “a male who engages in sexual activity w. a pers. of his own sex, pederast 1Co 6:9…of one who assumes the dominant role in same-sex activity, opp. μαλακός…1Ti 1:10; Pol 5:3. Cp. Rom 1:27.” L&N 88.280 states, “a male partner in homosexual intercourse – ‘homosexual.’…It is possible that ἀρσενοκοίτης in certain contexts refers to the active male partner in homosexual intercourse in contrast with μαλακός, the passive male partner.” Since there is a distinction in contemporary usage between sexual orientation and actual behavior, the qualification “practicing” was supplied in the translation, following the emphasis in BDAG.

This note re 1 Tim 1:10 is also instructive:

On this term BDAG 135 s.v. ἀρσενοκοίτης states, “a male who engages in sexual activity w. a pers. of his own sex, pederast 1Co 6:9 … of one who assumes the dominant role in same-sex activity, opp. μαλακός…1Ti 1:10; Pol 5:3. Cp. Rom 1:27.” L&N 88.280 states, “a male partner in homosexual intercourse – ‘homosexual.’…It is possible that ἀρσενοκοίτης in certain contexts refers to the active male partner in homosexual intercourse in contrast with μαλακός, the passive male partner” (cf. 1Co 6:9). Since there is a distinction in contemporary usage between sexual orientation and actual behavior, the qualification “practicing” was supplied in the translation, following the emphasis in BDAG.

The references to “BDAG” are to the Bauer-Danker Greek-English lexicon (2000), a recent publication considered the most authoritative dictionary on koine Greek — and it takes advantage of the latest research on Greek word meanings. “LN” is the Louw-Nida Greek Lexicon of the New Testament (1988, 1989).

The BDAG and LN specifically reject the notion that the words referring to homosexual activity may be limited to the prostitution of boys or might otherwise exclude consensual sex.

This from the Wikipedia gives a sense of pagan attitudes toward sex —

Prostitution was legal, public, and widespread. “Pornographic” paintings were featured among the art collections in respectable upperclass households. It was considered natural and unremarkable for adult males to be sexually attracted to teen-aged youths of both sexes, and pederasty was condoned as long as the younger partner was not a freeborn Roman. “Homosexual” and “heterosexual” did not form the primary dichotomy of Roman thinking about sexuality, and no Latin words for these concepts exist. No moral censure was directed at the adult male who enjoyed sex acts with either women or males of inferior status, as long as his behaviors revealed no weaknesses or excesses, nor infringed on the rights and prerogatives of his male peers. While perceived effeminacy was denounced, especially in political rhetoric, sex in moderation with male prostitutes or slaves was not regarded as improper or vitiating to masculinity, if the male citizen took the active and not the receptive role.

Thus, taking the active (male) role in homosexual sex was widely considered acceptable behavior among pagans, whereas taking the passive (female) role was considered acceptable only for slaves or those of lower classes. Hence, Paul first includes passive homosexuality in his list (which would not surprise his readers) and then adds active homosexuality (which would have astounded many former pagans).

Hence, Paul is plainly treating homosexual practices as sin — just as sinful as being a drunkard or adulterer. He is not narrowing the meaning of “sexual immorality.” Rather, he is making sure that the Gentile readers have a full understanding of the term.

Even if we were to narrow “passive homosexual partners, practicing homosexuals” to refer to abusive relationships — with children or unwilling slaves — “sexual immorality” would still include homosexuality to Paul’s Jewish readers and those Gentiles who’d been God fearers before their conversion. Paul could only have avoided being heard to condemn homosexuality if he’d specifically excluded it from the meaning of “sexual immorality.”

Hence, we have to take “sexual immorality” to fit the conventional, First Century Jewish understanding of the term. And this conclusion makes Paul entirely consistent with Jesus —

(Mat 15:19-20 NET) 19 “For out of the heart come evil ideas, murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false testimony, slander.  20 These are the things that defile a person; it is not eating with unwashed hands that defiles a person.”

There’s no escaping the fact that Jesus’ listeners would have heard in “sexual immorality” all the sins conventionally thought of as sexual sins in Jewish thought — and this certainly would have included homosexual activity.

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About Jay F Guin

My name is Jay Guin, and I’m a retired elder. I wrote The Holy Spirit and Revolutionary Grace about 18 years ago. I’ve spoken at the Pepperdine, Lipscomb, ACU, Harding, and Tulsa lectureships and at ElderLink. My wife’s name is Denise, and I have four sons, Chris, Jonathan, Tyler, and Philip. I have two grandchildren. And I practice law.
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