Monday, November 4, 2013

Sexual Immorality Then and Now: A look at Paul and Corinth Part 1

Despite the differences between us today and the first readers/hearers of the New Testament there are also some incredible similarities because we are all created in God’s image and have all been affected by sin. One similarity is strongly brought home by looking at some Corinthian slogans or sayings that Paul responds to in 1 Corinthians 6:12–13. Paul had just finished strongly stating that the unrighteous (sexually immoral, adulterers, homosexuals, thieves, robbers, drunkards, slanderers) would not inherit the kingdom of God (1 Cor. 6:9–11). This is strong language: they would not be saved!

In 1 Cor. 6:12–20 Paul immediately responds to some objections or rationalizations for sin, particularly for sexual immorality and the use of prostitutes. In 1st century Corinth it was quite common and culturally acceptable for social, business, and religious feasts and parties to be followed by prostitutes. It was just a normal part of the festivities. This cultural acceptance of sexual immorality is reflected well in modern Amsterdam.

A Roman feast in the time of the Caesars via Wikimedia Commons

Paul quotes two Corinthian slogans or sayings that were used to rationalize their participation in sexual immorality of different kinds. Since Paul interacts with these slogans in this letter it is probable that they were being used by the Christians to defend their practice of sexual immorality.

The first one is: “All things are lawful or permissible for me”; i.e. I can do what I want (1 Cor. 6:12). This is reflected in our modern worldview in which freedom means that I can do what I want and nobody can tell me what to do: if it feels good, I can and will do it; it is not wrong as long as nobody gets hurt. Some of the Corinthian Christians may have thought this was the natural end of Paul’s teaching on Christian liberty but it was also likely a pervasive attitude in Corinthian society. I can do what I want.

The second slogan is: “Food is for the stomach and the stomach is for food, but God will destroy both this [the stomach] and these [food]” (1 Cor. 6:13). This slogan rationalizes sin in two ways. First, it connects sexuality with food and argues that they are both simply natural bodily functions; i.e. when I am hungry I eat and when I have sexual urges I act out on them. With this perspective there is nothing special or unique about our sexuality; it is the same as or other mundane bodily needs. Second, this slogan argues that God will destroy the body and food; i.e. what we do in our bodies does not matter because our bodies will be done away with and will not last forever. Our bodies will eventually die and turn into dust so nothing we do with or is done to our bodies is important.

With these slogans Paul anticipates how his hearers will react to his claim that the unrighteous, including the sexually immoral, will not inherit the kingdom of God.

If you have ever tried to convince someone that pornography, sex outside of marriage, or adultery is sinful and wrong and will separate them from God for eternity you are in Paul’s position here. If you have ever worked in youth ministry you will have been in this situation. Even more similarly, Paul is here trying to convince Christians of these things! How many Christians in our churches today have allowed their attitudes toward sexuality to be altered and shaped by our surrounding culture in which every form of sexual immorality and deviancy is practiced and exalted?

Over the next few weeks I will focus on how Paul responds to these rationalizations and seeks to convince the Corinthians that as Christians they must not engage in the sexual immorality that was rampant in their surrounding society and culture. He lists at least six different reasons in the short space of eight verses (1 Cor. 6:12–20).

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