While I don’t advocate making Sunday’s sermon about any particular ethical shift in popular culture or in the church, I think 1 Corinthians 6:12-20 gives the preacher the opportunity to invite the congregation to deepen their faith by considering the nature of law, grace, commandment, and sin.
If there is a letter in the New Testament that seems fitting for the twenty-first century, I believe it’s 1 Corinthians. Earlier and less refined and more personal that Romans, 1 Corinthians includes Paul’s struggle to articulate what it means to be free from the law yet bound by grace. He deals with a divided community—some who believe that God demands dietary purity and others who think the freedom of the cross has made keeping kosher irrelevant. Some within that community are able to eat meat sacrificed to an idol without being distracted from the truth, but others are struggling to do so without feeling their hearts pulled back to their old, pagan ways. Some in Corinth are ready for the Christian community to embrace the no-holds-barred grace of “anything goes,” and others are just trying to make it one day at a time without going back to the temple prostitutes. Really, it’s a pastor’s nightmare.
In 1 Corinthians, I think Paul makes two very important and very bold conclusions about the Christian life. First, he articulates an understanding of sin that is fundamentally relative to the experience and context of the individual believer. Second, he holds up unity within the Christian community as more important than any individual’s experience or context. Held together, those two principles guide the Christian church all the way into the twenty-first century and beyond.
In the opening words from Sunday’s reading, Paul writes, “‘All things are lawful for me,’ but not all things are beneficial.” Hear how he holds the freedom of grace in tension with the call to holy living. To borrow imagery he refines later in his letter to the Romans, yes, we have been set free from the law, but we are now slaves to righteousness. “Is it sinful?” we might ask. Well, that depends. Paul makes it clear that “your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you,” which suggests that we have a responsibility to live a holy life. But what holiness means for you and for me might be different.
Paul expands upon this principle in chapter 8, applying it to meat sacrificed to idols. Is it inherently sinful? No, that’s ridiculous. What is an idol but an empty piece of wood? But, if eating such meat causes you to stumble, avoid it. More importantly, Paul writes that we must consider not only ourselves but also those with whom we share the community: “However, not all possess this knowledge. But some, through former association with idols, eat food as really offered to an idol, and their conscience, being weak, is defiled” (1 Cor. 8:7). In other words, even though something might not be sinful for you doesn’t mean it can be done with impunity because your actions may lead another to sin. That’s a bold, communal understanding of ethics, and I think we need to remember it as we face big changes in the church.
And that brings me (hesitantly) back to Sunday’s reading: “Do you not know that whoever is united to a prostitute becomes one body with her? For it is said, ‘The two shall be one flesh.’ But anyone united to the Lord becomes one spirit with him.” Sex with temple prostitutes is a problem for Paul and the Corinthian community. It was a habit from the pagan life that some new Christians found hard to break. But Paul says break it. Sex, it seems, has the power to unite two people in a way that casual sex ignores or, perhaps, mocks. As Cameron Diaz said to Tom Cruz in Vanilla Sky, “Don't you know that when you sleep with someone your body makes a promise whether you do or not?” Sexual relations, it seems, are fundamentally about union and not about physical satisfaction. I think we can all agree on that.
So how do we approach sexual ethics in the twenty-first century? No one in the church advocates giving a nod or a wink to casual sex or sex with prostitutes. Let’s not confuse the issue. That’s not at issue in the conversation about blessing same-sex unions. But Paul’s ethical approach—the relativity of sin combined with the importance of the community—is important to remember. What is a sin for you may not be a sin for me, but I need to remember you before I act.
For example, in the evenings, I enjoy responsibly a beer or a glass of wine or a mixed drink (one drink, not three). I can have a drink—one drink—and then move on with my life. I don’t struggle with an addiction to alcohol. But maybe you do. So, surely, you shouldn’t have that drink. And, if that’s a difficult struggle for you because you’re new in your recovery, I won’t sit in front of you and have a glass of wine when we’re eating a meal together. Your recovery is too important to me because community matters.
What is good for the individual and for the community? Something isn’t sinful simply because it’s written down somewhere that it’s sinful—even if that somewhere is in the bible. Perhaps that’s shocking to you, but, if it is, I suggest you read all of 1 Corinthians. That’s the exact issue Paul is dealing with. The nature of sin is absolute but the expression of sin is relative. Yet it’s up to the community together to figure that out. No one individual or group of individuals can decide that the relativity of sin trumps the needs of the community. Community is always more important. But the community must recognize that a sin isn’t necessarily a sin just because it was a sin in the past. Maybe it still is—this post isn’t about saying that it isn’t—but we need to take sin seriously just like Paul does. Sin is about effect not cause—individual effect and communal effect. We need to accept the importance of experience and context when asking what is sinful, but we also must recognize that such an inquiry is a communal one and must be shared by all of us.