It’s easy to misinterpret and accidentally use verses out of context. We all do it. Peter even tells us that Paul is hard to understand (2 Pt. 3:16)! However, one passage I see gets misused more than others. Paul writes to the Corinthians:

All things are lawful for me, but not all things are profitable. All things are lawful for me, but I will not be mastered by anything. Food is for the stomach and the stomach is for food, but God will do away with both of them. Yet the body is not for immorality, but for the Lord, and the Lord is for the body… Flee immorality. Every other sin that a man commits is outside the body, but the immoral man sins against his own body. Or do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit who is in you, whom you have from God, and that you are not your own? For you have been bought with a price: therefore glorify God in your body. –1 Corinthians 6: 12-20

Let’s talk about how many people interpret this passage. By “all things are lawful for me, but not all things are profitable,” many people assume Paul is saying we have the freedom to do quite a lot, but that we just sometimes shouldn’t. We are not really bound by any rules, but sometimes it is unhelpful to follow our freedoms. We might have the right to drink, per se, but sometimes it is not profitable for us.

That sounds good on the surface, and may even have some truth to it in other places in the Bible (Romans 12, for example), but this interpretation has many problems. First, is it true? Can we do all things? Is the same Paul who says he is bound by the law of Christ (1 Cor. 9:21) and gives us multiple letters full of commands saying “all things are lawful for me?” Is he really saying I can do everything (murder? sexual immorality?), but that I just shouldn’t because it’s not profitable? That’s probably not the best interpretation of this passage.

Second, these people then interpret verse 18 to say that sexual immorality is somehow worse than all other sins. Paul does say, “Every other sin that a man commits is outside the body, but the immoral man sins against his own body.” In other words, all sins are bad, but sexual immorality is against one’s own body, so it’s especially devious. Is this the right interpretation? Are there no other sins that are against your body (suicide, gluttony, cutting, drunkenness, etc.)? Is sexual sin worse than, say, assaulting someone?

This passage brings up so many questions. What does Paul mean by “All things are lawful for me?” What does he mean by “Food is for the stomach and the stomach is for food?” What does he mean by saying, “Every other sin that a man commits is outside the body?” Does this make sexual sin some kind of “special” sin that is somehow worse than all the others? Why is this passage so difficult to interpret?!?!

TSWL-LongAdIs Paul Stating His Own Position?

The problem with this passage (and the reason that it is so confusing) is because most people assume Paul is stating his own position. However, this text becomes clear once we realize he is quoting the position of the Corinthians then refuting it.

Before we delve into this further, three pieces of background information are needed:

  • Slogans were as popular then as they are now. Our culture is rich with slogans. Nike has “Just Do It.” McDonald’s slogan used to be “Have you had your break today?” Now it’s “I’m lovin’ it.” Kay Jewelers has “Every kiss begins with Kay.” We are all familiar with slogans. In fact, we even have cultural slogans in the U.S. today. “To each his own,” “Don’t judge me,” “YOLO” (You only live once!) and many others. They had slogans in Corinth too. Some of which we will see in just a moment.
  • The Corinthians separated their spiritual life from their physical life. Corinth was located in Greece and had been intellectually shaped by the philosophy of Plato who radically separated the concept of one’s soul from one’s body. Because of this dichotomy, those in the Corinthian church thought that they could commit sexual immorality with their body because it didn’t affect their spiritual life.
  • The Greek New Testament was originally written with no punctuation marks, in all capital letters, with no spacing. Therefore, in English, the sentence: “Bob said, ‘I’ll go to the store tomorrow.’” Would look like this: BOBSAIDILLGOTOTHESTORETOMORROW

In fact, it looks much like a hashtag (#) on Twitter today. This means that we don’t have quotation marks to look for in Greek and have to discern who is speaking by context.

Using Their Arguments Against Them

With all that in mind, we are now ready to interpret this passage. The key to getting it right is to realize that Paul is quoting the Corinthians then refutes them and is not only giving his own thoughts. The ESV translation is helpful because it puts quotation marks around certain phrases (although it misses some other needed quotations). Here is what is going on, step by step.

The Corinthians say: “All things are lawful for me” (i.e. I can do whatever I want).

Paul refutes: “But not all things are profitable” (i.e. no you can’t).

The Corinthians say: “All things are lawful for me” (i.e. I can do whatever I want).

Paul refutes: “But I will not be mastered by anything” (i.e. you Corinthians are being enslaved by your sin and shouldn’t be).

The Corinthians say: “Food is for the stomach and the stomach is for food, but God will do away with both of them” (i.e. if you have sexual organs you are supposed to use them).

To summarize thus far, the Corinthians falsely believe they can commit sexual immorality because 1.) All things are lawful for them and 2.) They have been given sexual organs to use them. Paul refutes them at every turn.

That’s verses 12-14. What about verse 18? Now, this could be a quotation from Paul. If so, then he is showing how sexual sin uniquely unites you to another person because you become “one flesh” with them. No other sin unites your whole being to another person like sexual immorality. However, other people see this phrase as a Corinthian quote. If so, then Paul is refuting their position. If it is a Corinthian slogan, then there should probably be quotation marks around the phrase as well: “Every other sin that a man commits is outside the body.” In this reading this is not Paul’s position; it’s the Corinthian’s. Also, it is helpful to note the word “other” is not actually in the Greek. The translators added it to clarify what they thought the verse meant. But the addition makes sexual sin sound like a “special” kind of sin. You’ll see this if you look at the NASB quotation I used above because the word “other” is in italics. Verse 18 literally says “Every sin that a man commits is outside the body.” Did you catch that? Every sin! If this is a Corinthian slogan then the Corinthians are saying that sins committed with the body don’t affect the soul and, therefore, all sins are outside the body.

If this Paul’s position the problem is he contradicts himself later when he says “but the immoral man sins against his own body.” So, all together, when we understand that Paul is quoting Corinthian slogans this confusing passage in 1 Corinthians 6:12-20 looks like this:

Corinthians: I can do everything

Paul: No you can’t

Corinthians: I can do everything

Paul: No you can’t

Corinthians: If you have genitals, you are supposed to use them whenever you want.

Paul: No you shouldn’t

Corinthians: Every sin that a man commits is outside his body and doesn’t affect his spiritual life.

Paul: Sexual sin affects both your body and your spiritual life.

Paul is having a back and forth dialogue with the cultural and religious assumptions of the Corinthians. It is just hard to see because Greek didn’t use punctuation marks.

Doesn’t that make more sense? Isn’t that a better (and more probable) understanding of what Paul is saying?

Now, the idea of Corinthian slogans and quotations in this chapter is much debated. More research remains must be done. I personally still wrestle with verse 18 and whether or not Paul is separating the effects of becoming “one flesh” with another in sexual sin from other sins. However, knowing that Paul is quoting the Corinthians here helps us make more sense of God’s word to us in this difficult and multi-faceted letter. Though we are free from the Mosaic Law in every way we are still under the “Law of Christ” (1 Cor. 9:21) and all things are not actually lawful for us.

What About Discipleship?

Why write about this on a blog about discipleship? The answer: Holiness is a key aspect to growing in your faith.Not only will your spiritual growth be hindered by sin (sexual sin included), but you will also walk in less joy and freedom if you take up the Corinthian’s slogans. Now, the good news of the gospel is that Jesus’ lordship provides you with a loving God who forgives your sin no matter how much you mess up. We don’t “do better” by trying to do better. We “do better” by realizing that God loves us because of Jesus even if we don’t “do better.” We strive for holiness but it is a grace-motivated effort—not to make God love us but because he already does.

So make every effort to fight against sin. Get counseling, confess your dark secrets, get rid of your computer, cut off your right hand. Do whatever you must do to kill sin. All the while know that Christ has already and ultimately defeated sin and he loves you as you battle it. Whoever the Son sets free is free indeed—that includes freedom from minimizing sin like the Corinthians.

Zach Lee is Associate Home Groups Minister at The Village Church and is married to Katy.  Follow him on Twitter: @zacharytlee.