1. Corinthians 6. - Freedom has its limits

Erkki Koskenniemi

In the sixth chapter, Paul continues to criticize the Corinthians. Reading the fifth and sixth chapters highlights the sad situation the Church was in. It also helps us see that the first churches also had their problems.

Right in front of the judge 6:1-8

Conflicts between the members of the Church of Corinth did not remain internal. They called on the secular courts to give their own verdict. This infuriates Paul. How on earth could this be taking place in the Church of God? After all, the matter was obvious: In the Kingdom of God, they were a community, sharing everything, so resolution needed to be sought from within the community.

The worst aspect of this for Paul was that the Corinthian Christians had washed their dirty linen in public, that is used the secular court and taken the matters over to those who were non-Christians. If they really had a complaint against another Christian, why would they not raise this matter with an upstanding member of the Church? Paul thought the Church needed an internal structure, which would mean that everyday issues could be ruled on by a member of the Church chosen for the task.

In Paul’s eyes, seeking help from secular courts is no small thing. In this matter (and others), everyone has to face the “the Last Day”, the end of the world and the final judgment. Paul starts to talk about a matter, which is unknown to us, but one which the Corinthian seem very familiar with. He expected everyone should know that the Saints would judge the world. This means that Christians will be involved in the final judgment. Jesus promised his disciples that they would judge the twelve tribes of Israel (Matthew 19:28). Paul extended this to all Christians and to the whole world, and speaks about it as it were a familiar thing to them. Christians will also judge the Angels. In the light of these breathtaking aspects of what it means to be a Christian, Paul must have found it infuriating that the Corinthians could not agree on everyday matters amongst themselves, and had turned to judges from outside the Christian community for help.

When applying Paul’s words to our situation today, we must reflect on a lot of things. In the Northern Europe the majority of the population belongs to the Church. Most of the judges are - at least nominally - Christian too, as are the people seeking justice. One could argue, therefore, that Christians have heeded Paul’s teaching and that justice is actually sought from inside the Church today. This is, however, too pat of an answer.

This passage in the Bible has not lost its relevance today, even though the majority are nominally Christian. God’s own should proceed very slowly when seeking justice. If the claim is against a person who is a fellow Christian, one should proceed even more cautiously and act in a very different way. Sorting things out and coming to a working agreement should be the priority – and finding people in the Church to help you do this is crucial. By saying this, I do not mean only seeking out counsel from pastors, but also wise people from within the church community.

Who will inherit the Kingdom of God? 6:9-11

Paul continues by writing one of many lists about sins in the New Testament. Other examples are found in Gal. 5:19-21 and Eph. 5:5. “Lawlessness” is a general term for an ungodly person. Adultery means a breach of the God’s commandment in the Decalogue (the Ten Commandments). Any infringement of marriage is included here, including pre-marital relations. “men who practice homosexuality” refers both to the active party and the one who allows themselves to be abused in this way.

It is useful to note at this point, that the particular upbringing of the Corinthian men meant their sex life began early, there were many sexual partners and no one considered extra-marital affairs as a sin. It was as far away as possible from Jewish and Christian morality, which strictly rejected sex before and outside of marriage.

Paul also lists drunkards, sinners, idolaters and exploiters. The same list also included greedy people and those who mock others. All have one feature in common: Perpetrators do not inherit the Kingdom of God. Paul helps the Corinthians understand that they should already know all this. Some researchers have wondered why Corinthians should have known this, and assume that at their baptism –their initiation into the Church and the life of the Christian - the Corinthians were read these lists and the baptized, therefore, were exhorted to leave these rough sins behind them. This also explains why Paul goes on to refer to baptism after listing the sins. Many Corinthian Christians had had a less than respectable past. They had, however, been baptized as Christ’s own and thus had been made holy and righteous in Christ. This required them to give up sin from their life.

Paul is an excellent expert in expounding on who will inherit the Kingdom of God, and who will not. It would be foolish question him on this. However, his teachings have been forgotten in our time. Does everyone today know that anyone who sins in these ways will not inherit eternal life, but eternal damnation? Do we ever think of that? In general, is there a heaven and is there a hell? Do we see the question of life and death in this, or has the Christian faith been relegated to becoming merely a hobby and entertainment for us? If we do understand, why do we not allow it to light the fire in our hearts, on behalf of others, and make us more concerned and worried about the consequences of neglecting this teaching?

There is a limit to freedom 6:12-20

In antiquity, there were philosophical trends that pointed to the neutrality of human needs. The phrases “Everything is permissible for me”, “food is for the stomach and the stomach for food!”, used by Paul here, were apparently axioms favoured by the Corinthian charmers, who taught that there was nothing to be ashamed of or controlled. Perhaps there were teachings like this in the background to Paul’s teaching here? At any rate an adequate explanation is that the charlatans of Corinth did not consider the matter of their bodily, fleshly sins, when in awe of the power of the Spirit. It was typical for Paul to grab his opponent’s words, and twist them for new purposes. Even though everything was lawful, he argued, not everything was beneficial. Moreover, even though something was lawful, it should not enslave a man. In particular, Paul warns against the sins of fornication. Adultery here apparently means a breach of the Commandment “You shall not commit adultery” and not merely pre-marital relationships.

That Christians would have sexual affairs outside marriage was an absolutely impossible idea for Paul. Every Christian is a member of the body of Christ, meaning their Church. When two people come together, they become one flesh. For Paul, this is the great wonder of marriage. It was absolutely unthinkable that a Christian could become one flesh with a prostitute from the streets and simultaneously be of one flesh with Christ as well. This is why Paul particularly emphasizes that Church members could not live in casual relationships. Christians are the Temple of the Holy Spirit, and the Holy Spirit lives in them. It is not up to a man to decide how he lives. Underlying this teaching was the fact that Christ had purchased the Church with his own blood. This obliges all believers to fight against sin.

Nowadays, the value of marriage is badly blurred. In Northern Europe, even within the Christian community, open relationships and pre-marital relationships are more often the rule rather than the exception. “The Bible is not a law book,” is the most common type of justification for this, and thus the Biblical instructions are ignored. It is no surprise, therefore, that marriage is in crisis today. However, it is an institution of God, which will remain in force forever.

Only God can say who will inherit his Kingdom and who will not. The only hope for us is to hear the Word of God, and follow God’s teachings accordingly. God has a lot of forgiveness to the one who is weak, and confesses their sins. But the proud and over-confident should be prepared for nasty surprises.