1 Corinthians 4-7

Good morning! We have much to address in the four chapters before us today (1 Corinthians 4-7), where Paul addresses specific situations among believers in Corinth. He holds himself up in chapter 4 as an example for others to follow, just as a father models behavior for children. He then goes on to share what he would do in several thorny situations that the Corinthian church has written him about.

Paul first writes concerning the fact that a man living with his father’s wife has found community with the church. Paul is scandalized that such a thing would be allowed and calls for the man’s immediate ouster. The question of how to deal with sexual immorality recalls those churches today who must figure out how to respond when a registered sex offender asks to worship with them. I find it ironic how much Paul advocates for (Gentile) outsiders to be included in the faith with nothing to stand in their way, but then he adopts a zealous “morality police” stance for those on the inside. Paul explains the discrepancy by saying that God will judge the outsider, and he’s keenly concerned about the spoiling effect that a few “bad apples” can have in the church.

Paul gives many other areas of advice in chapters 6-7, beginning with the strong suggestion to take disagreements among believers before other church members and not before the courts. He considers the cost to the Christian reputation that a public airing of grievances would cause to be more dangerous than the cost of swallowing a wrong that was done to oneself. (In Jewish and Christian lore of the time, righteous believers would join a heavenly court passing judgment with God on all creation, even on angels. That’s why Paul writes that “we are to judge angels”.) A little later, Paul emphasizes the importance of bodily purity because it ennobles “the body of Christ”. The sexual and relationship advice Paul gives in chapter 7 is keenly motivated by “the impending crisis”, the idea that Jesus is coming back next Tuesday, if not before. For the most part, Paul wants people to stay as they are and not get distracted from the urgent cause of spreading the gospel as far as possible before the Day of the Lord. He somewhat prefers celibate singleness because it allows total focus on evangelism, but getting married and having sex regularly is good if it keeps one from committing adultery or otherwise polluting the body of Christ. Christ’s imminent return is also why he doesn’t want people “distracted” by pursuing a change of status in terms of circumcision, slavery, etc. (Easy enough for a free man like him to say to slaves!) I wonder if Paul might have given different advice concerning slavery if he had known how powerful the Christian message would be among oppressed people (including slaves), and if he had known there would be time enough for a thousand rebellions before Christ’s return. His later writings in Galatians and to Philemon start to suggest a change in his opinions of slavery, but these verses have been quoted out of context by white slaveholders to their slaves for hundreds of years, justifying perpetual slavery.

Let me close by addressing one of the famous “vice lists” from the New Testament, where Paul in 1 Corinthians 6:9-10 outlines the sorts of people not welcome in heaven. The list—at least in the translation linked below—includes “male prostitutes” and “sodomites”. This is closer to the ancient understanding of the Greek terms here (though we don’t know very much about them because they’re hardly used anywhere else in existing non-biblical literature from the time). Other biblical translations will say “homosexuals” in this list, but the concept of someone internally oriented toward same-sex activity is a product of European thought in the 1800s. Before that time, Western civilization presumed that everyone was heterosexual in orientation, and some people occasionally engaged in same-sex activity. Thus, every same-sex encounter could be judged as unnatural, even though male homosexual sex was practiced in the Greek and Roman world as part of male mentoring, or as an accepted form of temple prostitution. One connotation of the Greek word here translated “sodomites” might be “softies”, but the word shows up only in “vice lists” like this one, so it’s almost impossible to tell what the term referred to with much accuracy. In any case, such male same-sex activity in the ancient world was framed by dominance or commerce—older men with youth, or temple prostitution. Paul and other ancient writers had no concept of same-sex relationships today that are loving, egalitarian, and lifelong. The very idea would have made Paul’s head spin. For these reasons, I believe the Bible has as much to say about the virtue of modern same-sex relationships as it does about cell phones—nothing at all. Happy reading!

Read 1 Corinthians 4-7.

Please join discussion of this passage at the Daily Bible Facebook group, or comment below. The passage for tomorrow is 1 Corinthians 8-11. Thanks for reading!

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