In a nutshell: Paul delves into detailed issues experienced by the Corinthians in their attempts to emulate Jesus, first dealing with sexual and familial obligations, then communal meals.
The married man is concerned with earthly life, how he might please his wife. His interests are divided. … In saying this I’m trying to be helpful to you. I do not want to impose a restriction on you, but want your devotion to the lord to be admirable and constant and undistracted.
—1 Corinthians 7:33b, 35
30 Days of Paul around the Web
- I came across a new 30 Days of Paul contributor today! How exciting! Please welcome Jack Gillespie, who is contributing on his blog, Celtic Odyssey. Here is Jack’s entry on Day 8, 1 Corinthians 5–6: “Right off the bat of chapter 5, Paul brings up some really disturbing activity among this community. Apparently, a man from the community was having sex with his step mom and the community seemed to approve of it (5.1–2)! Holy crackers! This sounds like a headline from the local nightly news! But what are we to make of Paul’s recommendation for discipline?”
- Justin DaMetz continues his series on Running Dirt Roads with a meditation on the Foolishness of God: “We are called to be in solidarity and at one with the poor and the forgotten. The only way we can serve others is through truly walking in their shoes, not just sympathizing with their struggles, but joining them in it as fully as possible. We can’t just do that by sending money overseas, or by donating food to a pantry. We must join their struggle for liberation, we must work to dismantle those institutions and structures that keep people in chains, even if that institution is the church itself, or America itself.”
On the surface, there seems to be no reason why, today, some Christians should be so alarmed about sex. Nevertheless, the single most popular article on the Westar website is “What the New Testament Says about Homosexuality,” by William O. Walker. Christians seem to talk about sex all the time, but what possible bearing can it have on their relationships with God? What does it matter if two men or two women get married to each other, adopt children (or, as is becoming increasingly common, have children with the help of a donor), and generally speaking live out their lives together? Where is the threat in this? In short, what does sex have to do with God?
I’ve been avoiding sex in Paul’s letters so far, but today I woke up ready to tackle this problem. Deep breath, everybody. I know this is a sensitive and painful topic for many of us.
An Overview of Sex in Paul’s Letters So Far
For starters, this is NOT Paul on Sex. In the collective judgment of the authors of The Authentic Letters of Paul that the following relevant texts are NOT written by Paul because they are (1) inconsistent with statements made by Paul about sex as part of larger, more integral arguments in his letters, and/or (2) they use language such as “church” and “congregations” that reflect the more developed church characteristic of the second century. Paul himself wrote in the early first century before there were church positions such as “deacon” or “elder.” In some cases, the verses in question also interrupt the flow of Paul’s arguments.
- 1 Timothy
- 2 Timothy
- 1 Cor 11:2–16
- 1 Cor 14:33b–38
Most of these texts are laundry lists of rules about women covering their hair, men being the “head” of the woman, stuff like that. As we will see, this doesn’t give Paul a “get out of jail free” card and we shouldn’t look on excluding these verses as a way to simply avoid the problem. Even after excluding these verses, Paul is still an uncomfortable and confusing contributor to the conversation about sex.
This IS Paul on Sex. Paul discusses sexual relationships in depth in 1 Corinthians 5–10, mingled with what Paul perceives to be related problems about (1) food sacrificed to—in Paul’s words—phony gods and (2) proper behavior at communal meals, especially meals modeled after the last supper. Paul briefly discussed appropriate sexual behavior in 1 Thessalonians 4. Let’s stick to these sections for now. We can tackle anything new that comes up pertaining to sexuality in later letters when we get to them.
The stuff you’ll find in these passages include:
- Treat your partner with respect, not like an object. (1 Thess 4)
- Do not deceive others about sex. (1 Thess 6)
- Expel people from the community who engage in immoral sexual behavior. Paul’s example of this is a son sleeping with his stepmother. (1 Cor 5)
- Sexual immortality by one person affects the whole community, like leaven in dough. (1 Cor 5)
- Sexual immorality within the community should be treated differently that it would with people outside or transitioning into the community, even if these outsiders are considered immoral by respectable society. In short, it’s okay to judge the behavior of insiders who have already made a commitment to the community, but judgment should be reserved against outsiders. (1 Cor 5)
- The freedom given by the Anointed is not freedom to do whatever a person wants sexually. (1 Cor 6)
- Sexual promiscuity is an offense against your own body, which is a temple. (1 Cor 6)
- Celibacy is a matter of maintaining your focus on God instead of “earthly matters.” It is, however, a graduated level of commitment. You don’t have to be celibate if you don’t have that level of self-control. It is better to remain with a partner, or even get married, than to resort to prostitution (sex outside commitment). (1 Cor 7)
- The rule of thumb is to retain the commitments you made prior to your commitment to Jesus, as long as it doesn’t compromise your loyalty to Jesus. Stay with partners, remain a loyal slave (but go ahead and become free if you have the opportunity), remain a virgi if you have enough self control to do so. If your partner dies, don’t get remarried but remain a widow/er (1 Cor 7)
- Marriage is a right on some level, and other messengers of God even have wives, but Paul models and encourages celibacy as a higher form of commitment. (1 Cor 9)
- It’s possible that illicit sex and other behaviors could lead to ill fortune. (1 Cor 10)
Sex as a Loyalty Problem
Le Corbusier wrote in his classic Towards a New Architecture (1923), “Our world, like a charnel-house, is strewn with the detritus of dead epochs.” His larger point was that we should focus on designing buildings that serve the present world instead of reinstating the architecture of past eras—a lesson that might be applied to Paul and sex. No doubt we sometimes feel what some Christians are after today is what another architect, Mies van der Rohe, said: “Architecture is the will of an epoch translated into space.”
There is more applicability to sex in that idea of architecture and “dead epochs” than what initially meets the eye. A common and persistent human longing resides in the claim that “we are all stardust.” We long to participate more permanently in the cosmos, which persist even when our individual lives end. Throughout human history we have seen ourselves as microcosms, literally “little universes.” As Karen Armstrong observes so often in her work, ancient people used myths to express their longing to participate in that greater whole and indeed their faith that they could participate in it in a meaningful way. In religion the microcosm both reflects and affects the greater cosmos.
I can’t emphasize enough how important it is to keep in view the idea of the human body as a little universe when reading Paul’s discussion of sex. Paul is first and foremost concerned with loyalty. When I first started reading Paul, I thought he was stuck in what I dubbed a “loyalty loop.” You should be loyal so other people so how loyal you are and want to become loyal, too, without every discussing what the content of that loyalty really means.
Yesterday, in discussing Paul’s Jesus, I was fighting that impulse in myself to dismiss Paul as stuck in a loyalty loop. When it comes to sex, this impulse is especially strong. When I scan down my list of Paul’s points (above), I do feel this is largely a commitment problem. In such cases, I like to appeal to bioethicist Margaret Battin’s wonderful rule:
Unprovable, off-scale, self-interest-gratifying theological claims are to be considered suspect when their central function is to excuse violations of moral norms. (Ethics in the Sanctuary, 172)
Paul tells us, more or less, “Keep your current commitments so long as they don’t impede your commitment to the Anointed (Jesus) and through him, God.” For obvious reasons, then, you can’t keep participating in rituals and activities associated with other gods. Another fairly straightforward issue with sexual relationships is simply that they are a distraction from serving God.
Less obvious, though, is precisely what makes promiscuity, sex outside of a marital commitment, so wrong in Paul’s eyes. I think this is where the microcosm-cosmos observation comes in handy. Paul puts it like this:
Don’t you realize that your body is a temple of the presence and power of God within you that is God’s gift to you, and that you do not belong just to yourself? You have been ransomed at a price. So honor God by what you do with your body. (1 Cor 6:19)
Once you accept the premise that each human life is a tiny version of the cosmos, you see how pollution of one extends to pollution of the other. Baptism is not merely intellectual exercise of saying, “I accept these beliefs.” In Paul’s eyes it has a physical affect. The baptized person passes from one sort of belonging (to the corrupt world of the Roman Empire) to another (adopted by God to serve in God’s Empire). Paul doesn’t want corruption carried over.
But it’s a loyalty loop all the same! “Commit, because if you don’t commit then you’ll risk prioritizing other commitments, and we just want your commitment to us take top priority.” Battin’s warning about self-gratifying rules tells me that what we have here is not specifically a Jesus movement teaching but a group dynamics issue. Paul doesn’t want his communities to engage in anything that strains their commitment to staying together. This is the same issue that spurred Paul to insist that his communities maintain good behavior and not attract the attention of authorities (I registered a complaint about this back in my audioblog for 1 Thess 4–5).
My conclusion: don’t get stuck in Paul’s loyalty loop when it comes to sex. Focus instead on what he is trying to emulate of Jesus’ teachings and consider how that might be applied to sex in today’s world.
Questions for the Road
- Were you soured on Paul by his teachings on sex? Does sifting through authentic and inauthentic writings of Paul alleviate this problem for you, or is Paul’s loyalty loop too disruptive to rescue him?
- Do you see other instances where Margaret Battin’s moral rule of thumb might be helpfully applied?
Thanks for reading this entry from the #30DaysofPaul reading challenge. We’re reading the seven undisputed letters of Paul in 30 days: 1 Thessalonians, Galatians, 1 Corinthians, 2 Corinthians, Philemon, Philippians, Romans. Why not join us? Download the reading plan, which is based on the work of the Westar Paul Seminar as published in The Authentic Letters of Paul.
Cassandra Farrin joined Westar in 2010 and currently serves as the Marketing & Outreach Director. A US-UK Fulbright Scholar, she has an M.A. in Religious Studies from Lancaster University (England) and a B.A. in Religious Studies from Willamette University. She is passionate about books and projects that in some way address the intersection of ethics and early Christian history.