Second Sunday after Epiphany (Year B)

Individual actions affect the whole congregation

fig tree
Photo by Kawin Harasai on Unsplash; licensed under CC0.

January 17, 2021

Second Reading
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Commentary on 1 Corinthians 6:12-20

Throughout 1 Corinthians, the Apostle Paul encourages the Corinthian congregation toward unity, urging them to “be united in the same mind and same purpose” (1:10).

Likewise, while Paul recognizes the different giftings of the members of the congregation, he uses the metaphor of a body to capture both the distinctives of individual members alongside the fundamental unity that they share in Christ (1 Corinthians 12:12-31). Here in 1 Corinthians 6:12-20, Paul takes another approach to the unified body metaphor by instructing the Corinthians about how their individual actions may be negatively affecting the whole of the congregation. 

As he does in his discussion of the proper practice of the Lord’s Supper (11:17-34), Paul plays with the notion of the body as both an individual entity and a metaphor for the whole of the congregation. Indeed, for Paul, one’s own body is a sort of microcosm for the whole collection of individuals who make up the congregation. Harm to one individual’s body is a harm done to the whole of the congregation. Thus, the individual body is important not only because of its relationship to Christ himself but also because of the ways in which individual bodies are joined together in the macrocosm of the whole congregation. 

Against spiritual libertinism

Paul begins his discussion in this section in a way that is not dissimilar from other parts of the epistle where he contends with the Corinthians’ views by seemingly quoting their own words against them (see 1 Corinthians 7:1-2; 8:1, 4, 8; 10:23). As he will indicate again in 1 Corinthians 10:23, Paul here attributes to the Corinthians the claim that “all things are lawful.” It may be that Paul finds himself in the position to disprove a claim to spiritual libertinism or perhaps even strains of Gnosticism that would suggest that a more sophisticated spiritual position obliterates the need to attend to bodily concerns. Paul will suggest that this is incorrect both in terms of the corporate body of believers in the Corinthian congregation and in the individual’s physical body. 

The extent to which a spiritual libertinism seems to have affected the Corinthian congregation is obvious from 1 Corinthians 5:1-13. In that passage, Paul is appalled as he recounts the sexual exploits of a man with his father’s wife, and he is even more disappointed in the behavior of the Corinthians who have not only failed to condemn this behavior but have actually celebrated it (5:2). It seems that for the Corinthians, such actions may have been celebrated as evidence of one’s spiritual maturity. Paul disagrees. Paul has already found himself at pains to convince the Corinthians that while they may have been set free by Christ (see Galatians 5:1; Romans 6:18), such freedom does not constitute the liberty to do whatever one pleases under the guise of spiritual freedom.

The body and Christ

Part of Paul’s deep concern with the physical body arises from the close relationship that he understands existing between the body and Christ. In verse 13, Paul makes an analogy suggesting that the relationship between stomachs and food is comparable to the relationship between the Lord and the body. That is, the intimate, in-dwelling relationship of food to the stomach points to a similar relationship between the Lord and human bodies. 

This idea of an intimate relationship between the believer’s body and the Lord continues just a few verses later. The crux of Paul’s argument comes in verses 16-17 as Paul develops an analogy to marriage to describe how the Corinthians might best understand their relationship to Christ. Paraphrasing from Genesis 2:24, Paul reminds his audience that spouses who are united become one flesh. That is, they are joined in a bodily fashion. However, Paul continues in verse 17, the union between the believer and Christ is of an even deeper and more important significance: it is not simply the union of flesh but the union of spirit. 

We might better understand Paul’s analogy here by considering his teachings on the marriage union later in 1 Corinthians 7. In the context of that discussion, Paul emphasizes that a married individual cedes authority of their body to their spouse (7:4). The verb that Paul uses there is the same one from 6:12 where he quotes the Corinthians’ own words against them. Thus, a connection emerges between these two chapters. An individual becomes one flesh with their spouse (6:16) and thus grants authority to the spouse over that flesh (7:4). In the same way, one becomes one spirit with Christ (1:17) and thus grants authority to Christ over both flesh and spirit alike. 

Bodies as temples

The connection between flesh and spirit continues into verse 19 as Paul indicates for the second time in the epistle that the Corinthians’ body is the temple of the Spirit (see also 3:16). This joining of body and Spirit, then, suggests that rather than being subsidiary to more important spiritual matters, the body is central to such things. Furthermore, the body becomes an important conduit whereby an individual gains access to the very presence of God, much in the same way that ancient temples would have promised access to the divine.

This passage, then, offers a helpful corrective to the mild Gnosticism that continues to permeate some streams of Christian thought today where spiritual matters are prized over bodily ones. Although Paul addresses one particular abuse of the body in the form of sexually suspicious practices (verses 15-16, 18), we might expand his reasoning to any number of other abuses to which we might subject our bodies: over-eating, under-eating, poor nutrition, lack of exercise, lack of sleep, and any number of other ills that we may allow to befall our own small temples of the Holy Spirit. In a time where the COVID-19 pandemic continues to make us aware of the fragility of bodies, Paul’s words serve as a timely reminder that in caring for our bodies, we honor our own spiritual union with Christ, yielding authority of spirit and body to Christ’s life-giving desires for both.