I Corinthians 5
I Corinthians 5:1-8: In these past couple chapters, Paul has been dealing with divisiveness based on spiritual arrogance. “The main trouble in Corinth seems to have been a form of superspirituality” (Gary Wills, What Paul Meant, 114). Various factions within the Christian community in Corinth have been claiming spiritual superiority based on the person they received their spiritual teaching from and on the kind of spiritual gifts they experienced. Paul suggests that there may be varying levels of spiritual understanding, but his more basic point has been that by their very behavior, these divisive persons are demonstrating that they lack spiritual depth. Paul retorts that he then needs to go back to square one with them, rather than move on to deeper truths. As we left the last chapter, Paul was wondering what sort of tone he would need to take with them when next he visited. In the coming chapter, including this one, Paul begins to address other issues of concern in the community.
Paul takes up as an issue something he has heard reported, not something the Corinthians had written to him about, a situation of sexual immorality. Were they o.k. with the situation? But what is the situation? Apparently a man, a member of the Christian community is living with his father’s wife. The phrase “living with” implies a long-term sexual relationship. “Both the Old Testament and Gentile law forbade such unions as a violation of community standards” (People’s New Testament Commentary) - thus Paul’s remark that such behavior is not acceptable even in non-Jewish contexts (“among pagans”). Jerry Springer visits Corinth! Apparently the community is o.k. with what is happening – “and you are arrogant!” Again, arrogance rears its ugly head in this community. Paul is as disappointed in the community as in the man who is acting this way. He recommends that the man be removed from the community, let go to do his own things, and Paul has some confidence that if this happens the person will understand the error of his ways. This passage my be most instructive for us in helping us ask tough questions. What behaviors would we not tolerate in our church communities? What behaviors might lead to a letting go of a person? If there are those who might harm others, we might put limits on their participation in our community life. These are the issues raised by this passage, more than the specific violation of sexual morality that is the presenting issue.
Again, Paul focuses on the issue of arrogance, here an arrogance that has allowed inappropriate behavior to go unchallenged. Paul introduces a new metaphor to his discussion, yeast in a loaf. The background for this metaphor is the exodus story where the exodus is celebrated with unleavened bread. The church is to clean out its old yeast so that it can truly be unleavened bread. He then suggests a more precise symbolism – yeast is evil and malice, and needs to be gone so that the community might be the unleavened bread of “sincerity and truth.”
I Corinthians 5:9-13: Apparently Paul had written to the Corinthians before about sexual morality. In that letter, which we do not have, Paul seems to have cautioned them about associating with sexually immoral persons. Some interpreted him to mean avoiding any persons who are immoral, but Paul rightly points out that we cannot simply talk to each other. We need to be in the world to witness to our faith, and in the world we will encounter “immoral persons.” While we will know persons who are not a part of the Christian community, and some of them may engage in “immoral behavior,” we still need to stay involved with their lives. Once someone becomes a part of the community, however, one needs to live a life that fits with the faith. Failure to do so means the community may need to act for its own good. Paul is not interested in “judging” the world, but in reaching out to it. Having someone in the church engaging in flagrantly immoral behavior makes reaching out to others more difficult, hence, the community may need to act to protect itself. Again, how such thinking may be applied in our day and time needs careful consideration. Some Christian traditions have a history of expelling persons quickly and judgmentally. Others never deal with problematic behavior at all. Perhaps it is less a matter in our own time of “expelling” any one than of maintaining appropriate standards and helping people meet those standards. When they don’t, forgiveness is always the first option. In some cases, however, a church may need to protect itself from behavior that is destructive of the community, and the kind of behavior I have in mind here is maliciousness, spreading vicious rumors, behavior that takes undue advantage of vulnerable church members. Sometimes we may need to put boundaries around how certain people participate in our common life. Again, great care needs to be taken in any such cases.
I Corinthians 6
I Corinthians 6:1-11: Another problematic divide in the Corinthian Jesus community was a divide between those who were powerful and had resources at their disposal, and those who were not. “Most of the problems at Corinth stem… from powerful patrons within the assembly, important people both very good for help, support, and protection, but also very bad for unity, equality, and commonality” (Crossan and Reed, In Search of Paul, 338). Is this the same group that Wills refers to as “superspiritual”? It may well be, or, at the very least, the seems to be a large overlap between the well-to-do and the superspiritual, and the divisiveness that is created is a real problem. Here the issue is that some members of the Jesus community are taking others members to court in the Roman court system. Paul is incredulous. His impatient, heavy-handed, sarcastic tone reflects his frustration that they have little understanding of who they are as baptized members of the body of Christ who participate in the life of the Spirit. The social situation also plays a role. The disputes in court were about property, which reflects an upper-class activity. The wealthier members of the congregation were using the court system as an instrument of injustice against the poorer members. (People’s New Testament Commentary).
Paul’s language in the first part of this chapter is meant simply to distinguish those in the church from those outside, not to make a moral comment about those outside (“unrighteous”). Paul believes that in our faith we have an insight into the truth about the world, a truth that will “judge” the world (though there is a vagueness about what precisely this means). Can’t they find people wise enough in the congregation to mediate disputes?
“In fact, to have lawsuits at all with one another is already a defeat for you.” When the community is bringing things to the Roman court it communicates something about the faith. If people of faith are in court just like everyone else, what difference does this Jesus faith make? If there is nothing different about our lives as Christians, why would someone want to be a Christian? Isn’t it better, sometimes, to let little things go? In our day and time, there are instances when recourse to legal authorities may be warranted – when we need to protect the vulnerable, when we need to prevent harm from spreading. Paul’s words are not meant as general advice for all time. His basic point is that life in Christian community should be different from life in the surrounding culture.
Verses 9-10 have often been controversial, but again, Paul’s basic point is that we should be distinct from the world around us in certain ways. Paul’s list fit his day and time. We might state things somewhat differently. Paul here expands his vice list of 5:10 from six to ten items, but in neither place is his purpose to draw up a list of those who will enter the kingdom and those who will not…. Paul’s point is to illustrate the new reality to which the Corinthians now belong. This list illustrates the way some of them were, but Paul’s point is they no longer belong to the world where these kinds of sins prevail. The problem is that they are living as though they were still resident members of the old world, taking each other to court over property matters. It is ironic that much recent discussion of this text focuses on items in Paul’s illustrative list (especially the reference to homosexual acts) and ignores his main point. (People’s New Testament Commentary).
Well, even if the “list” is not the main point, it seems a point of debate, so something needs to be said about it. “Fornication” which tops the list is the same word uses at the beginning of chapter 5 (porneia – yes, the root of our word for “pornography”) which was there translated as “sexual immorality.” This “is a broad catchall term for Paul” (New Interpreters Study Bible). Idolatry and adultery are fairly straightforward in definition. “Male prostitutes” is a word literally meaning “soft.” In the King James Version it is translated “effeminate.” The word translated “sodomites” is a rare word in Greek, and, in fact, the usage here is the earliest recorded usage of the word in Greek. William Placher, in Jesus the Savior contends that neither of these words “exactly means ‘homosexual’ in our usual modern sense” (98). Placher goes on to write about some of what we know about Greco-Roman sexual practices as a context for trying to understand Paul more adequately. He concludes with these words. In the Hellenistic world, Paul witnessed (how closely and how often we have no idea) particular culturally shaped forms of homosexual activity…. Paul condemned what he saw, and we encounter that condemnation in the pages of the Bible…. On the other hand, we are not sure why Paul condemned what he saw. Would he have felt differently if everyone involved had been an adult? If the relation would have been understood as between equals? If “homosexuality had defined some people throughout their lives, rather than being part of the lives of lots of people who also had other forms of sex?... Would very different forms of homosexual activity have seemed wrong in the same way to Paul? But we cannot summon him up from the dead, introduce him to contemporary forms of homosexuality, and find out what he would have thought of them. (100)
The church spends a lot of time these days debating these issues. Funny, we don’t spend a whole lot of time asking what Paul may have meant by “greedy.” Does a 30% interest rate on a credit card mean the credit card company is greedy? Again, Paul’s main point is that Christians are to live counter-culturally. They have been “washed, sanctified, justified” in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and in the Spirit of God. We have been, too. What parts of our culture need to be countered in the way we live?
I Corinthians 6:12-20: In these verses, Paul is making a deep connection between the spiritual life and bodily existence. Our bodies are “members of Christ” and “a temple of the Holy Spirit within you.” We are to “glorify God” in our bodies. Eugene Peterson renders this final verse as follows: So let people see God in and through your body (The Message). Frederick Buechner writes: “One of the blunders religious people are particularly fond of making is the attempt to be more spiritual than God.” (Wishful Thinking). Our bodies matter. Except for the Jewish community, the world into which Christianity was born made little connection between religious faith and sexual ethics. Sex prior to and outside marriage was generally accepted as normal (for males) and was not considered a religious or moral issue. The Corinthian Christians, most of whom had been Gentiles before their conversion, brought these attitudes with them into church. (People’s New Testament Commentary).
Paul is probably responding to a phrase popular among some Corinthian Christians as he begins this section – “all things are lawful for me.” The superspiritual were reveling in their freedom in Christ. Yes, Paul says, that may be true, but actions have consequences. Certain behaviors water down our witness (taking people to court), certain actions damage the community, certain behaviors may enslave you (how one uses one’s body).
On Sunday, I am preaching a sermon on this text. It fits nicely with Advent – as we wait to celebrate the incarnation of God in Jesus as the Christ. Our bodily lives matter. How do we glorify God in our bodies today? I suggest that we look at caring for ourselves physically as a spiritual discipline. Our care for the body also means we care for the physical well-being of others and for the well-being of our earth.