Commentary on 1 Corinthians 6:12-20
What are the limits of Christian freedom in a world of choices and human rights — cultural or otherwise?
While the 21st-century global church is divided on issues of sex, Paul’s exhortation in 1 Corinthians 6:12-20 sets spiritual and theological boundaries on the extent to which Christians have to exercise their freedom. The message of this passage is clear: “All things are lawful for me,” but I will not be dominated by anything” (1 Corinthians 6:12b). The lifestyles of Jesus’ disciples are to be lived within the context of the Holy Spirit; and therefore, sex has to be done within the boundaries of the Spirit. In a world of rights and choices, the Apostle Paul teaches Christians that Christian freedom is lived in relationship to God the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit of which harmony of the community or the body is maintained and nurtured.
Like in other Pauline letters, the message of Christian integrity, self-control, and virtuous living seems to be the central message of this passage. While Christians from various cultural and ethnic worldviews may argue for their cultural rights to sex and food, the entire global church is called to avoid immorality in all its forms and character. Setting the limits and boundaries on one’s rights is a Pauline way of glorifying God (1 Corinthians 6:20), in a world challenged by fornication and possibly HIV/AIDS, poverty, and female abuse. The message in this passage is not only directed to individuals, but it is a call to the entire Christian body whose new identity was purchased by the blood of Jesus for God’s glory. Interestingly, the purchasing part claims the community’s body as a temple of the Holy Spirit.
The Corinthians as a Christian community and consequently the global church is summoned to a new way of life. Christian living in all its forms has to manifest God in ways that can be emulated by others who are seekers or the ones growing in their life of discipleship. However, the point of the passage is not a sudden departure but rather a believer must orient his or her life to living in a way that is in communion with Christ (1 Corinthians 6:17). It may be ironic to many Christians that the lives they live “in Christ” are not theirs; but in reality, that is Paul’s gospel in this passage, that Christian life is a gift of God. Thus, the Holy Spirit lives in us and therefore the life we live has to be aligned with the Giver. What is distinctive about this passage is that sex is to be revered and its context in Paul’s teaching is within Christian marriage (see 1 Corinthians 7:4; Ephesians 5:22-33).
The point of “glorifying God,” individually or communally is Paul’s final message that human bodies belong to God. Theologically, Paul offers a new vision, one that builds the ecclesial community where individuals gather as the body of Christ. In a world where people are torn between rights and Spiritual faith, Paul calls believers to live a countercultural way of life — a life of discipline and discernment. The life being called for is one in which one ceases to be a free-range individual but one who submits to the authority of God, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.
Theologically, the passage has lessons for us in the 21st-century global and digital world. How should the church effectively minister to parishioners who are constantly taught that “they have freedom”? The ethical, moral, cultural, and global issues of our time can be informed by Paul’s reference to the human body as a “temple of the Holy Spirit,” of which God through the death and resurrection of Jesus, redemption and new life is possible. While resurrection may be thought of as a future event, the church has the duty to remind believers that baptism is an everlasting life-giving event. Baptism is an event whereby God unites the physical and the spirit. Thus, the life we live as God’s people is an eschatological one in which we have hope of redemption even when we fall short.
It may be difficult for all of us in a postmodern context to think of our bodies as temples of the Holy Spirit, but Paul’s teaching in this passage is that an authentic Christian life must be one that honors God because God placed God’s Spirit in us (2 Corinthians 1:21). What we want as human beings is not what God wants; therefore, we should live in reverence to God, in whom our obedient faithfulness is enveloped. In this sense, our rights, preferences, freedoms, choices, autonomy, cultural, and ethnic ideals are called to submit to the authority of Jesus Christ.