“All things are lawful for me,” may have been a slogan of some Christians in Corinth, who assumed that because of the grace of God they found in Jesus, they could do pretty much whatever they wanted, like double-dipping or picking and flicking. “When Christians do it, that means it is not illegal,” they might have uttered, using their best Nixon impressions as they flicked boogers all over Corinth.
Paul was tormented by this careless, indulgent attitude. “All things may be lawful, yes, but not all things are beneficial.”
Touché, Paul. Touché.
In his letter, Paul goes into a riff on sexual purity, specifically regarding intercourse with prostitutes; Paul finds sex with prostitutes problematic because sex with a prostitute typically happens without spiritual union. Since Paul believes that the body and spirit are connected not temporarily but eternally, what we do to and with our bodies matters. Yes, that tattoo with Chinese characters that actually reads “toilet” will still be on your ankle when you arrive at the “pearly gates.”
Clearly Paul is anti-prostitution. Paul is anti a lot of things. This is one of the reasons so many people dislike Paul so very much. Come to think of it, this is also the reason so many love Paul so very much. Today, those who dislike Paul usually dislike him because of the way his guidelines for sexual activity (and gender roles, and interactions with slaves, and castration . . . etcetera . . . oh Paul) have been preached as moral law. Some churches tend to avoid the topic of sex altogether, usually in response to those churches who obsess over it.
Unfortunately, the effects of talking too much about sex and too little about sex are pretty much the same. While moralizing explicitly reveals what activity is shameful, silence inspires the same shame but without all of the sexy details. When a reading like 1 Corinthians 6:12-20 comes up (as it will this Sunday . . . be prepared), unrehearsed lectors will read aloud with uncomfortable voices and eyes wide open as teenagers squirm in the pews next to their parents.
Paul deals directly with sex, but he does not do so as many assume; Paul never really writes a treatise on sexuality; he comments on it, but he never landed a book deal to write definitively and timelessly on the topic. Not like James Dobson (smh). In probably every case when Paul writes of sex, he is responding directly to a question someone else has posed — at the very least, he is responding to a recurring issue in one of his planted communities.
Consider the question or concern Paul must have been answering when he famously said, “ . . . each man should have his own wife and each woman her own husband.” Sorry heterocentrists, Paul wasn’t instructing everyone to get hitched with someone of the opposite sex. If you had read 1 Corinthians 8-9, 20, 24, 25-27, and 39-40, you would know Paul was into singles remaining single.
No, Paul wants already-married people to not refrain from sex with one another. By “each man should have his own wife,” Paul means they should do it . . . like do it. At the time and in the Hellenistic culture, there was a popular notion that if one could be celibate, one could reach new spiritual heights. Even though anyone who’s had really good sex might speak of reaching the same spiritual heights by not practicing celibacy. Ask Billy Crystal; he knows what I’m talking about.
Paul was actually giving clarification to the Corinthians so that they wouldn’t fall into the trap of imagining they’d be holier than the rest by remaining or becoming celibate. Additionally, he was trying to help the Corinthians avoid the damage that adultery often causes when spouses decide to find sex elsewhere.
They must have been dealing with such issues for Paul to respond the way he did in this letter, which means that he had a fair share of issues with which to deal; I can’t imagine what my parish might be like if we had rampant patronage of prostitutes and couples who had decided to quit sex cold turkey.
Then again, we don’t talk about such things at my church, so how would I know?
The issues we do talk about include whether Communion before Baptism is acceptable (or ought to be encouraged), how we use our sacred spaces (is it okay for Muslims to hold prayer services in Christian chapels?), and more recently (in the Episcopal Church) what our attitudes and practices are regarding alcohol at church events.
At first glance, these issues seem quite different from Paul’s, yet there is one commonality — they all are related to the mantra that, “All things are lawful for me,” and Paul’s addition, “but not all things are beneficial.”
I love that my church offers communion to everyone with the expression, “This is Christ’s table and all are welcome to receive Communion at St. James’s.” I don’t love that the same emphasis does not exist regarding the importance and value of Baptism.
I love that the Washington National Cathedral and briefly the Duke University Chapel are offering their sacred space for Muslims to hold services of corporate worship. I don’t love the comments that negate the richness of Christian worship and architecture expressed by those who have encountered the sacred in those same spaces.
I love that the Episcopal Church, and some others, are not so prudish as to pretend that alcohol is inherently bad, even allowing it at church events. I don’t love that a culture sometimes surfaces around alcohol that applies unfair pressure to those who would rather not partake, include those committed to sobriety.
In all of these things — and so many more — we find tremendous expressions of freedom, but with freedom comes tremendous opportunity to negatively affect others. So many things are lawful for us, but not all of them are beneficial for everyone.
Maybe Paul does have some wisdom to offer to us modern Christians . . . we have a lot with which to wrestle.