Sex, as Seen Through the Lens of I Corinthians 6
What do we learn about sex from Paul’s discussion of the human body and sexual immorality in I Corinthians 6:15-20?
The passage reads:
15 Do you not know that your1 bodies are limbs and organs of Christ? Shall I then take away the limbs and organs of Christ and make them limbs and organs of a prostitute? Never! 16 Or2 do you not know that the one who unites himself with a prostitute is one body [with her]? For it says, “The two will become one flesh.” 17 But the one who unites himself with the Lord is one spirit [with him].
18 Flee sexual immorality. Every sin a man commits is outside his body. But he who sins sexually sins against [into] his own body. 19 Or do you not know that your body3 is a temple of the Holy Spirit who is in you, whom you have from God, and you are not your own? 20 For you have been bought with a price. Therefore,4 glorify God in your body.5
Verse by Verse Discussion: What is the result of extramarital sex?
Verse 15 contains the first of Paul’s three arguments for fleeing from sexual sin: the Christ-violation resulting from it. “Do you not know that…” (οὐκ οἴδατε ὅτι) appears for the first of three times in this passage. One can almost hear Paul’s disappointment in the Corinthians. Starting his argument in this way “implies that his readers ought to know, but tend to behave as if they did not.”i What are they supposed to know? That their bodies are limbs and organs of Christ (μέλη Χριστοῦ). Μέλη has two meanings:ii a part of the human body (a member, part, or limb)iii and a part as member of a whole.iv The former use is exhibited in Romans 12:4, I Corinthians 12:12, and James 3:5. In Romans 12:4, each person has one body with many members. In I Corinthians 12:12, a body, though it is one, has many parts, but all its many parts form one body. In James 3:5, the tongue is a small part of the body. All three of these scriptures refer to the human body and give the impression of interconnectedness among bodily members. A part or member does not stand on its own; rather, it is deeply connected to the other parts and works with them to form the whole. The latter use of μέλη (a part as member of a whole) is exhibited in I Corinthians 12:27 where each believer is a part of the body of Christ and in Ephesians 5:30 where believers are each members of his body. Μέλη’s two shades of meaning are closely related, as one can observe from these scriptural examples. Thiselton asserts that the best English rendering of μέλη in the context of this passage is limbs and organs. For “limbs are only one category of bodily members” and thus do not fully capture “the double context of public action in the world and sexual intimacy [which] belongs integrally to Paul’s logic.”v
The Corinthian believers, Paul asserts, are limbs and organs of Christ himself; they are intricately, mysteriously connected to him. Their sexual acts, therefore, do not involve just them as individuals; they involve Christ. After identifying believers as limbs and organs of Christ, Paul asks, “Shall I then take away the limbs and organs of Christ and make them limbs and organs of a prostitute?” His word choice of ἄρας is significant. Many translations, including the NIV and ESV, miss its thrust and simply render this word take. Its actual meaning is “either ‘to take up,’ ‘raise’ (Acts 27:17), or ‘to take away’ (Ephesians 4:31; Colossians 2:14). The Apostle assumes that union with a harlot, unlike union with a lawful wife, robs Christ of members which belong to him.”vi Through sinful sexual acts, limbs and organs which belong to Christ are torn away from him and made the limbs and organs of a prostitute. These words paint a gruesome picture. One is struck with how unfitting, painful, and destructive such a process would be. Thus, Paul’s emphatic answer to this question, μὴ γένοιτο (Never! or Perish the very thought!),vii is appropriate. Sexual sin is not simply an individual violation but rather a painful act which tears away Christ’s very own limbs and organs and attempts to reattach them where they do not belong.
Verse 16 begins Paul’s second argument against sexual immorality: the body-violation inherent in sexual sin. “Do you not know that…” (οὐκ οἴδατε ὅτι) makes its second appearance in this passage. What is it that the Corinthians are supposed to know? That he who unites himself (κολλώμενος)viii with a prostitute is one body with her. Paul expounds on this statement by referring back to Genesis 2:24 when a man and wife become one flesh (σάρκα μίαν).ix This Hebrew phrase לְבָשָׂ֥ר אֶחָֽד
has great significance. It conveys “the divine institution of human marriage and the full union of husband and wife, which casual and transitory copulation completely ignores; indeed, it even contradicts its very purpose.”x “One flesh was the language of family (Genesis 29:14) or other blood relations that demanded loyalty (2 Samuel 5:1). Marriage united a couple as deeply as blood ties, forming a new family unity. … Breaking blood ties was… unthinkable.”xi The idea is that separate parts come together and form a new whole; the separate parts no longer remain, but rather an altogether new unit -comprised of those separate parts – has been formed. In applying this Genesis phrase to illicit sexual acts, Paul is making a weighty statement. Contrary to Corinthian thought, it is impossible to engage in casual sex because there is no such thing. Sex entails intimacy and union by its very nature. Each person shares deeply of himself with the other, and likewise, each person partakes deeply of his partner. One can see how purposeful and life-giving this union is in the marital context – and how dangerous it is in the destructive context to which Paul is writing.
Verse 17 offers a hopeful counterpart to Paul’s weighty statements from verse 16. A contrast is created: he who unites himself with a prostitute is one body with her, but he who unites himself with the Lord is one spirit [with him]. “Being ‘united to the Lord’ [κολλώμενος τῷ κυρίῳ] reflects OT imagery for God’s ‘marriage’ to Israel (cf: Hos 2:16-20; Jer 3:1; 50:5); …its opposite was being joined to idols (Num 25:3; Hos 4:17).”xii Like the Old Testament, this passage (especially verses 16-17) creates a tension between two opposing unions: union with the Lord and union with an idol/prostitute. The focus on the oneness of these unions conveys exclusivity; it is either one or the other – it cannot be both. One must choose. “One spirit with him” clearly speaks of unity and oneness with the Lord, offering a healthy a hopeful phenomenon to counter the destructive alternative of the previous verse.
Verse 18 urges the Corinthians: “Flee (Φεύγετε) sexual immorality” – Some commentators, based on Greek grammar, translate Φεύγετε as ‘be fleeing from’, suggesting that constant vigilance against sexual immorality is called for.”xiii There is an urgency to this admonition, and rightfully so, considering the content of the previous two verses.
The rest of verse 18 is the subject of much debate. This sentence presents another contrast. This time, the contrast is between two types of sin: those which are outside the body (ἐκτὸς τοῦ σώματός ἐστιν) and those which are into/against one’s own body (εἰς τὸ ἴδιον σῶμα). Sexual sin, Paul asserts, stands alone as being into/against one’s own body, while all the other sins a man commits are outside the body. Εἰς is normally translated as into, yet Martin argues that this “Greek phrase εἰς τὸ ἴδιον σῶμα carries the combined force of against one’s own body and into one’s own body.”xiv It is against one’s own body because the limbs and organs of Christ are wrenched away from him, and it is into one’s own body because Christ’s body is sexually penetrated by the evil cosmos.xv The difficulty of this sentence lies not in translating it properly, but rather in interpreting it properly. What does this verse mean? Is Paul saying that there is a qualitative difference in sexual sin compared with other types of sin? One school of thought asserts that “Every [other] sin a man commits is outside the body” is “a Corinthian slogan which Paul is quoting”xvi and then refuting. Another school of thought is that the distinction is a simple “comparative generalization, perhaps in terms of its permanent affects, rather than a very sharp absolute of difference of kind.”xvii The largest group, however, does see a qualitative difference in Paul’s thinking [between sexual sins and other sins].xviii If Paul is, in fact, asserting that there is a qualitative difference between sexual sins and other sins, what exactly is the basis for the distinction? Aren’t sins of substance abuse and suicide against one’s own body? What makes sexual sin more vile than the rest? An answer lies within the argument (verses 16-18) itself. Paul applies the “one flesh” (σάρκα μίαν) phrase to sexual intimacy in general, leading to some weighty conclusions. Other than sex, no other experience, whether evil or righteous, is said to unite two people as “one flesh.” And because the believer is betrothed first to God and is to be one spirit with him (ἓν πνεῦμά ἐστιν), it seems that sexual sin has a uniquely destructive power to 1) harm the body of Christ by tearing away its members and attaching them to that which is evil, thereby breaking a person’s oneness with the Lord and 2) harm the individual by destructively uniting him/her with another person, thereby violating the purpose for which his/her body was created. This verse concludes Paul’s second argument (verses 16-18) against sexual immorality.
Verse 19 begins Paul’s third argument against sexual immorality: the Spirit-violation involved in sexual sin. He begins by asking for the third time in this passage ἢ οὐκ οἴδατε (“or do you not know”). What else is it that the Corinthians ought to know? That their body is a temple of the Holy Spirit. Paul uses ναὸς rather than ιερόν for temple, which is significant. Though both of these words can be translated as temple, there is a very real distinction between their usages. “Ιερόν is the whole compass of the sacred enclosure, including the outer courts, porches, porticoes, and other buildings… But ναὸς… [is] the proper habitation of God.”xix This distinction is attested in both ancient Greek and Jewish writings. Herodotus used ναὸς to describe a temple to a Babylonian god atop a pyramid.xx The idea he conveyed with his usage of ναὸς was the “abode of the gods.”xxi In contrast to this usage, he employs ιερόν to describe the general structure of a temple.xxii Josephus exhibits this distinction as well, consistently using ναὸς to describe the Jewish Temple – the dwelling place of God.xxiii The New Testament writers apply this same distinction between ναὸς and ιερόν, utilizing the former in reference to the sacred dwelling of Godxxiv and the latter in reference to the general temple structure.xxv So Paul’s word choice adds great force to this third argument against sexual sin. Believers’ bodies are the sacred dwelling place of God himself. The Holy Spirit was given to the believer by God (οὗ ἔχετε ἀπὸ θεοῦ) and now resides within him, making his body not a vaguely sacred structure, but a treasured host of God’s Spirit. This is both an honor and a great responsibility; because believers house the Holy Spirit, they cannot think on self-centered terms. For it isn’t only their lives which are effected by their choices, but the life of the Spirit within them as well. “Oὐκ ἐστὲ ἑαυτῶν.” Paul explains. The believer has no allowance for a life driven by self-gratification (exhibiting itself in sexual sin); in fact, his life is not even his own. It belongs to Another.
Verse 20 begins by explaining why the believer is not his own. “You were bought at a price.” This verbiage refers to slavery, and more specifically, to the “sale of a slave by one owner to another owner.”xxvi Salvation, therefore, is an exchange in which the believer moves “to a higher level of slavery (as the slave of Christ).”xxvii This language was particularly meaningful for the Corinthian readers because many people in their community were freedmen.xxviii This “higher level of slavery” seems disheartening at first glance, but Dale Martin adds that “the status of a slave [depended] decisively on the character, status, and influence of the one to whom one belonged as slave.”xxix Armed with this knowledge, the slavery verbiage is no longer disheartening. For if the believer has become the slave of Christ, his/her status and privileges now stem from the character and status of Christ himself. Surely no truer character nor any higher status exists than that of Christ!
Paul then brings all three of his arguments to a culmination: “Therefore, he writes, glorify God in your body.” Having given three successive arguments against sexual immorality, Paul now tells the Corinthians how to respond. Knowing that one is a limb and organ of Christ, that illicit sex destructively unites two people and breaks union with God, and that the believer’s body is the temple of the Holy Spirit, the only appropriate response is to glorify God in one’s body. One must acknowledge Christ’s ownership by turning away from Christ-violation (v. 15), body-violation (v. 16-18), and Spirit-violation (v.19-20a) and turning toward righteousness in his/her body (v. 20b).
The thrust of this passage is that the human body does have significance, that sexual sin entails destructive consequences (including Christ-, body-, and Spirit-violation), and that because of these first two truths, the believer must respond by glorifying God in his/her body.
Theologically, this passage fits perfectly with Scripture’s larger redemption story. The aerial view of this redemption story is that of a God who, through the death and resurrection of Christ, is redeeming his fallen creation (with mankind, his image-bearers, being the pinnacle of his creation). His redeeming work is both spiritual (transforming once-fallen people into God’s sons and daughters) and physical (creating a new heaven and new earth in which his sons and daughters will dwell). Because redemption is a physical phenomenon (not simply a spiritual one), it naturally follows that evidence of this redemption will be exhibited in the believer’s body. “The human body is ‘that piece of the world which we ourselves are and for which we bear responsibility.’”xxx “Thus, the bodily obedience of Christians was for Paul the essential expression of worship to God the Creator in the world of everyday. Christ’s heavenly lordship finds its visible expression only when it takes personal shape in us in this present world… The bodily obedience of Christians is an expression of the power of the Resurrection.”xxxi
How is this passage to be applied within a church community?xxxii
First, Christian leaders must start with the posture that sex is good. “…far from devaluing sex, the very opposite comes about. …Paul [perceived] the sexual act as one of intimacy and self-commitment which involved the whole person; not the mere manipulation of some ‘peripheral’ function of the body.”xxxiii Recognizing its value and beauty is the essential starting point for leaders as they teach and preach about sex. For it was created good; only through sinful perversions does it become destructive and shameful. Therefore, adequately communicating the beauty, power, and goodness of sex ought to be first on any minister’s agenda. Only once its goodness has been established should the second topic of its abuses and resultant consequences (including Christ-violation, body-violation, and Spirit-violation) be discussed. Too many speakers skip the fact that God made sex good before it was perverted; they jump straight to this second topic of its abuses and send the message that sex is altogether bad, embarrassing, and shameful. This does not do justice for such a glorious gift. The perversions of sex are serious, though, and ought to be communicated as the horrors that they are. This passage spells out three specific consequences which sexual sin entails (listed earlier); each one paints a vivid picture of the destruction caused by illicit sexual acts. It is important when ministers communicate these weighty truths that they offer hope to individuals who have sinned sexually. The larger context of Scripture offers hope to the sinner through the atoning work of Christ. Forgiveness and restoration are available through Christ.
The third component of this text’s application is communicating what it means to glorify God in one’s body. Paul doesn’t leave this passage hanging in the despair of sin’s consequences; it follows, then, that sermons about sex should not either. Paul concludes the passage by saying, “Therefore, glorify God in your body.” This is a ‘yes’ (glorify) to balance the earlier ‘no’ (flee from) of the passage. Contrary to many modern-day approaches, Paul concludes his discussion with a ‘yes.’ ‘Yes’ to what, though? In the context of application, ‘yes’ to sexually pure relationships, ‘yes’ to a righteous thought-life, ‘yes’ to honoring one’s future spouse, ‘yes’ to protecting one’s future marriage, ‘yes’ to accountability, ‘yes’ to media intake that feeds the Spirit within rather than the flesh, ‘yes’ to being a living sacrifice, ‘yes’ to a free and healthy sex life with one’s future spouse, ‘yes’ to living out one’s beliefs, and ‘yes’ to anything and everything else that will nourish the life of the Spirit within. The importance of this third component cannot be overstated, for God does not simply save the believer from something (sin) but for something (resurrection life). So the believer isn’t just to flee from sin but is to actively glorify God in his/her body. As the fleeing (from sexual sin) will be a repetitive choice, so also this glorifying will entail consistent action. The vital truth that believers must understand as they apply this passage is that God is not keeping them from something but rather, he is keeping them for something. A gift as valuable as sex is worth the discipline required in saying ‘no’ to sin and ‘yes’ to righteousness.
1א * A; Irarm read ημ– which would render this phrase “our bodies” rather than “your bodies.” This reading would perhaps lessen the force of Paul’s words by being less direct. “Your” better reflects the corrective nature of this epistle.
2P46 D K L Ψ 6 pm r syh; Spec omit ή which would simply omit the word “or.” This would have little impact on the meaning of the text, and strong evidence supports the given reading (א A B C F G P 33. 81. 104. 365. 630. 1175. 1241s. 1505. 1739. 1881. 2464 pm lat syp; Cl Cyp Lcf Meth)
3Ac L Ψ 33. 81. 104. 365. 1175. 1505. 1881. 2464. pm syh bo; Meth Ambst read τα σωματα (“your bodies”) rather than το σωμα (“your body”). Though the plural form of body seems to make more grammatical sense, being that your is plural (υμων), the most reliable manuscripts attest to the singular form (P46 א A* B C D F G K P 630. 1241s. 1739 pm b r syp sa bomss). This singular form of body puts an emphasis on individual responsibility to walk in sexual purity.
41505*vid. 1611 (vg) transpose δη as αρατε. This is weak evidence, and inserting this word at this point does not fit well with the rest of the sentence. It would read something like, “Take, glorify God in your body” or “Take [glory to] God in your body.” This does not make much sense.
5C3 D2 Ψ 1739mg. 1881 Masoretic Text vgms sy add the following phrase to the end of this verse: και εν τω πνευματι υμων ατινα εστιν του θεου (“Glorify God in your body and in your spirit, which are God’s.”). The stronger manuscripts, however, do not include this final phrase (P46 א A* B C* D* F G 6*. 33. 81. 1175. 1739* pc lat co; Irlat Meth ).
i C.K. Barrett, A Commentary on the First Epistle to the Corinthians (New York: Harper and Row, 1968), 148.
iiFrederick William Danker, BDAG, Third Edition (Chicago: University of Chicago, 2000), 628.
iiiHerodotus attests the rendering of this word as limb (Heroditus Historicus 1.119,; Trans. Robert B. Strassler (New York: Pantheon Books, 2007), 66.
iv Aristotle renders this word member, as in “members of a family” in The Nicomachean Ethics, Ch. XII. Trans. R. W. Browne (London: George Bell and Sons, Limited, 1889), 224.
v Thiselton, 465.
viArchibald Robertson and Alfred Plummer, A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on the First Epistle of St. Paul to the Corinthians (Edinburgh: T & T Clark, 1914), 125.
vii μὴ γένοιτο is an Optative wish “may it not happen.” Thiselton, 465.
viii This is a passive with a reflective [reflexive] sense. Robertson and Plummer, 126.
ix Paul’s quotation is directly from the Septuagint. Ibid., 126.
x Joseph A. Fitzmyer, First Corinthians: A New Translation with Introduction and Commentary (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2008), 267.
xi Craig S. Keener, Bible Background: Research and Commentary <www.craigkeener.com/why-did-jesus-warn-about-divorce-mark-101-12/>
xii Craig S. Keener, 1-2 Corinthians (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2005), 58.
xiii Frank E. Gaebelein, The Expositor’s Bible Commentary (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1976), 226.
xiv Martin, 178.
xvi Thiselton, 471.
xvii Ibid., 472.
xixRichard C. Trench, Synonyms of the New Testament <www.blbclassic.org/lang/trench/section.cfm>
xx Herodotus, Histoire Book 1, ch. CLXXXI-CLXXXIII, pp. 181-3.
xxi Daniel M. Gurtner and John Nolland, Built Upon the Rock: Studies in the Gospel of Matthew (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing, 2008), 131.
xxii Herodotus, 2.63
xxiii Flavius Josephus, Jewish Antiquities, XV (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1963), 460-461.
xxivActs 7:48; 17:24; I Cor 6:19
xxvMatt 24:1; Acts 21:29
xxvi Dale B Martin, Slavery as Salvation, 63 as quoted in Thiselton, 476.
xxviii J. Murphy-O’Connor, St. Paul’s Corinth: Texts and Archaeology (Collegeville: The Liturgical Press, 1983), 64.
xxxErnst Kasemann, “On the Subject of Primitive Christian Apocalyptic,” 135 as quoted in Kent E. Brower and Andy Johnson, Holiness and Ecclesiology in the New Testament (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing, 2007), 240.
xxxiBrower and Johnson, 240.
xxxiiThe applications discussed for the community apply quite similarly to the individual. We each must first recognize the inherent value and goodness of sex and then recognize its abuses and the serious consequences those abuses bring about. We then are positioned to glorify God in our individual bodies because we 1) understand the beauty and power of sex and 2) recognize the destructive results of sinful sex and 3) are thus empowered by the Holy Spirit to honor this great gift by only partaking of it in its God-given context.
xxxiiiD.S. Bailey, The Man-Woman Relation in Christian Thought (London: Longmans, 1959), 9-10, as quoted in Thiselton, 474.