Commentary on 1 Corinthians 6:12-20
First Corinthians stands as a masterful example of a leader addressing a divided congregation and honestly critiquing the views of each side.
Prior to this passage, Paul repeatedly attempts to move people away from an attitude of “It’s all about me” to a focus on the one who calls and saves them. He opens the letter with twenty references to God or Christ in the first ten verses. He frequently reminds them of the source of their lives (1:28-31; 3:6-7, 11, 16, 21-23; 4:7) as he addresses a host of competing positions.
Various factions in the congregation label others as wise or foolish, weak or strong; fight over who was the best pastor before the current one; bring lawsuits against one another; argue over sexual morality, whether it’s better to be married or single, what makes a healthy marriage, what constitutes grounds for divorce, what are appropriate dietary practices; what is the correct understanding of resurrection and the afterlife; and on and on. When conflict becomes that pervasive, no conflict management plans have any hope of succeeding unless the people involved can move beyond self-absorption, step back, and see a bigger picture of a higher calling. Paul seeks to accomplish that.
This commentary will focus on two central elements of this passage.
“‘All things are lawful for me,’ but not all things are beneficial. ‘All things are lawful for me,’ but I will not be dominated by anything” (6:12-13). Paul seems to be correcting a misinterpretation or over-application of one of his core ideas (see also Galatians 5:1, Romans 8:1-2). Teachers and preachers often find themselves in the dismaying position of hearing a key point applied in ways they never imagined. This particular idea, that Christ has set us free, lies near the center of the gospel. But Paul begins to clarify its limits.
Christ does not set us free so that we can do whatever we want to do; Christ sets us free so that we can do whatever God wants us to do. Paul’s message does not proclaim individual or communal license. For example, Paul argues that over-indulgence in food represents a misunderstanding of who we are as people of God (verse 13a).
This is an alien concept in an American culture where over a third of adults are obese and we have the Food Network. It’s not that eating things we like is bad (all things are lawful). However, eating things we like without regard to larger considerations can be harmful to our individual health and harmful to the health of society (not all things are beneficial). A third of the US adult population is obese, and almost a billion people on the planet live in constant hunger (see websites for Bread for the World or US Department of State, Office of Global Food Security). This is as much as anything else a spiritual problem, individually and communally.
Paul notes one trap of focusing too much on our own freedom. What we start to do freely (because we want to, like to, or just because we can) can become our master. As the Eagles’ song goes, “these things that are pleasing you hurt you somehow” (from “Desperado”). I can, freely, ignore a healthy diet, not exercise, start smoking, get drunk daily, take cocaine, buy on credit until I’m drastically in debt, and be mean to family, friends, neighbors, and co-workers.
Soon, what I chose freely — any one of them — can dominate my life. I will no longer be free. The cosmos does not actually revolve around me. God, by grace, can set us free from those dominations, but even though the power to be free will is immediate, the way back to health will still be long and hard. Paul cautions us to choose our paths carefully lest the things we freely choose become our undoing or become an imposition on our neighbors and, collectively, foster suffering or oppression.
“Or do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you, which you have from God, and that you are not your own? For you were bought with a price; therefore glorify God in your body” (6:19-20). Again, Paul’s words here have both individual and communal implications. In the original Greek, the pronouns in this verse are plural. Since he’s addressing a community his words should be understood both as addressing individuals (each of you in this community) and the entire group (all of you together).
So, it is appropriate to understand this personally — “my body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within me” — and communally — “this body of people, part of the body of Christ, is a temple of the Holy Spirit within us.” What I do (or don’t do) in my body matters. What we do (or don’t do) as a body of believers’ matters.
This takes us back to Paul’s over-arching purpose in this letter, to focus our attention on the fact that our lives originate in Christ (we were bought with a price) and that we live not for our own sakes but for the sake of God’s purposes. My individual body is not mine. It is God’s creation to be used for God’s purposes. The body of Christ — congregationally, denominationally, and across the globe — is not ours. It is God’s creation to be used for God’s purposes.
The fights, the desires, the pettiness, the selfishness that can consume us are all diversions from, perversions of that for which we were created. We were bought with a price, to glorify God in our bodies. This remains true for both individuals and groups. Paul calls the people back to the fundamental reality of their lives — it’s not “my” life and it’s not “my” church. Only when an individual or a congregation gets that can they be free. And, if they get it, the freedom is glorious for each individual, for the congregation, and for God.