Commentary on 1 Corinthians 6:12-20
In 1 Corinthians 6:12-20, we meet the Paul one either loves or hates.
He gives lessons, stands on solid ground, and provides a clear moral compass. Flee “porneia”, he says. Flee debauchery, pornography, prostitution … Either the command horripilates because of its moralizing tone, or it reassures, because it provides a clear behavior to follow and adopt. Whatever reaction one has, it is important to go back to what Paul says, and particularly, how what he says about prostitution and debauchery functions in his general argument.
A historical topos
In the first century, any respectable Jew would have condemned porneia, namely debauchery, fornication, and prostitution. This was the sin of the Gentiles, precisely what the Jews did not do. In that regard, Paul remains squarely into his tradition, and one would have been hard-pressed to find a Jew who did not condemn porneia. Dale Martin writes,
For many Jews of Paul’s day, porneia could refer to sexual immorality of a number of types; it was used to denote Gentile culture and idolatry in general and, often, prostitution in particular. The condemnation of porneia in Jewish circles was a way of solidifying the boundary between the chosen people and everyone else … porneia was something ‘they’ did.1
Paul maintains this distinction. His Christ-believers cannot engage in a behavior that makes them look like “regular” pagans. They need, as he says in Romans, to be in the world, without belonging to the world (Romans 12: 2). Engaging in fornication would put them on the wrong side of the cosmic battle between the world and God.
An oriented freedom
In contrast, thus, with what the Corinthians seem to have understood, or at least with the manner in which Paul represents what they have understood, Paul strongly affirms that the freedom given to the Christ believers is not absolute freedom: all things are indeed permitted2 to me, but not all things are beneficial.
For Paul, freedom is always oriented freedom; and for the Christ believers, this freedom depends on their lord, Christ. Through their baptism, the Christ believers now belong to Christ. For them the question is no longer what is permitted or not, or what is legal or not. Rather, they have to orient their freedom in order to embody their new life in Christ.
In this new freedom, the body is not bad in itself. Paul is not a dualist who opposes body and soul, or an ascetic who advocates purification. The body continues to play a role in the life lived in the realm of the spirit. It remains part of the Christ believer’s life once he/she is reconciled to God. And in this new life, one cannot at the same time use one’s body for Christ and simultaneously give one’s body over to a prostitute.
Paul’s understanding of sexuality
Paul’s reaction to the situation of a man continuing to see prostitutes even after being reconciled to God tells us several things. As I have mentioned previously, it shows that Paul belonged to Judaism’s discourse about pagan porneia. It also indicates that, at least in Corinth and according to Paul, some Christ believers understood that freedom in Christ meant that one was free to be a Christ believer and visit prostitutes. It also indicates how Paul understood sexuality, and what it meant for him.
For Paul, sexuality engages the person in its entirety. One cannot at the same time belong entirely to Christ and gives oneself over to a prostitute. In sexual union, one becomes part of the other, belongs to the other. It is incompatible for Paul that a man who belongs entirely to Christ, who is a slave of Christ, could also at the same time belong to another human being, in particular a prostitute. It is in a way a problem of allegiance. Either, one gives its allegiance to Christ, or to a prostitute. For Paul, one cannot combine both. As Halvor Moxnes point outs, one cannot overestimate “the importance of the divine presence in the Christian lives for their understanding of identity.”3
A question of identity
According to Moxnes, Paul is here preoccupied with constructing an identity for his male Christ believers. He has no interest in the identity of the women involved. But at the same time, the identity he constructs for the male Corinthians is an identity that challenges their social identity as free Corinthian men.4 Moxnes underlines that the concern for the body central to 1 Corinthians 6 is “not set in the context of concern for ordinary life. In many ways the ordinary life of the body, especially in sexuality, marriage and procreation, was highly problematic”5 for the early Christ believers.
In 1 Corinthians 6:12-20, Paul’s argument does not actually “make sense within an ‘ordinary life’ ethics,” especially since in the Graeco-Roman world “prostitution was common and at least partly accepted.”6 When Paul redefines the identity of his male addressees in Corinth, by asking them to renounce their visits to prostitutes, he challenges their status as free men, and invites them to embody another type of identity, the one of slave of Christ. The question thus is not so much about morality than about the type of identity one embraces.7
A possible opening
This appears quite clearly in 1 Corinthians 10:23, an important parallel to 1 Corinthians 6:12. In 1 Corinthians 10:23, Paul writes, “All things are permitted, but not all things are beneficial; all things are permitted, but not all things edify.” The verse that follows invites Paul’s addressee to seek first the good of the “other,” instead of their own good. In this broader appropriation of the saying, Paul reorients the Corinthians on what really matters: the good of the community.
1 Dale B. Martin, The Corinthian Body (New Haven : Yale University Press, 1995), 169.
2 Here I disagree with the NRSV’s translation of exestin by “lawful”. I do not think that Paul is worried with legality (the issue with prostitution is not whether it is legal or not), but he is concerned with what men (and here I do think that Paul is only interested in men’s actions) are permitted to do in regard to their new identity in Christ.
3 Halvor Moxnes, “Asceticism and Christian Identity in Antiquity: A Dialogue with Foucault and Paul”, Journal for the Study of the New Testament 26.1 (2003), 3-29, here 16.
4 Moxnes, “Asceticism and Christian Identity in Antiquity,” 3.
5 Moxnes, “Asceticism and Christian Identity in Antiquity,” 7.
6 Moxnes, “Asceticism and Christian Identity in Antiquity,” 17.
7 See Moxnes, “Asceticism and Christian Identity in Antiquity,” 19.