Updated: Apr 26, 2021
God cares what you do with your body. And He knows what you're thinking.
Bible Study Ideas and Commentary for 1 Corinthians 6:12-20
This is a very powerful passage on the need to avoid sexual immorality. That was a huge problem in Corinth, and it's a huge problem today. Paul offers an unbeatable argument why a Christian cannot engage in sexual immorality: we are the creation of God, the possession of Christ, and the temple of the Holy Spirit.
You are not your own, for you were bought at a price. So glorify God with your body. 1 Corinthians 6:20
[Throughout the years, I have produced a newsletter for teachers to help with that week's Bible study. I'm going through the very slow process of online-ifying old lessons in order to easily reference past ideas and topics.]
Instead of a traditional opening topic, I want to jump right into a big idea.
This Week's Big Idea: The Next Evolution in Casual Sex
We know that Corinth had a low morality. If Paul's letter is any indication, they had a big problem with casual sex. My guess is that sometime during this lesson, you will have a chance to point out that the pressure to have casual sex (to “hook up”) has been a part of every generation. Wherever people have gone to find a date (the club, the bar, the frat party, eHarmony), there have been people there to pressure you into going back to their place and having sex. Without letting conversation get lewd, if this topic comes up, share a time when you felt peer pressure to become sexually active. We think of the Woodstock generation as the “free sex” generation, but as far as I can tell, things are worse today. (Note: not among high school students—those numbers are trending down. It’s college students and young professionals who are becoming more promiscuous.)
Sex outside of marriage is wrong. The Bible is clear about that. And so the response for a Christian of any generation is to say no to those suggestions and accept the social backlash. But let me give you a little background on the current trends in dating that make it so hard for a Christian to be connected to the modern dating scene without being compromised by it. Why should you care? Because at the very least you have kids or grandkids or friends who are struggling through the mess of dating.
This generation has been brought up on smartphones, and they are much more comfortable connecting electronically than in person. Guess what that has led to? The dating app. If you ever hear of an app called Tinder, Hinge, OkCupid, Coffee Meets Bagel, Bumble, those are dating apps. Here’s how they work: Someone interested in finding a date gets one of these apps. They fill out a profile about themselves, load some pictures, and the app shows them potential “matches”. You skim through the matches—you “swipe left” if you are not interested, and you “swipe right” if you are interested. If one of those “swipes right” on you, the app puts you in touch with that person to make plans for a date.
That doesn’t sound much worse than going to find a date at a bar; you have a lot more choices. But here’s where things get tough. A lot of the people on those apps are not actually interested in starting a relationship—they just want to have sex. (There are more single people than married people in America today, and the marriage rate keeps dropping.) Well, as a young person, you’ve been told that these dating apps are the best way to find a date, and so you’re thrown into an environment in which you may feel like you have to engage in casual sex in the hopes of finding someone who wants a relationship. That sounds pretty awful. And worse, they are “competing” with everyone in their area, worried about their date casually moving on to the next “hotter” option.
Look, peer pressure hasn’t changed. My guess is that many people you know have experienced some kind of pressure to engage in sex outside of marriage. What’s different today is how few people want to get married, how many just want to have sex, and how easy it is to connect with those people. (Note: with the rising tide of the #MeToo movement, these dating apps have gone so far as to add a “consent” form for casual sex! The world gets worse and worse.) At the very least, then the topic of sexual immorality comes up in your lesson, make sure to pray for the young people you know! Pray that they never compromise who they are in Jesus. And be aware of the seedy side of these dating apps they might be using.
All of that to say this. With so much unstigmatized casual sex going on, we have access to large-scale studies that explore the effect of casual sex. Not surprisingly, casual sex saps away at a person’s self-worth and self-esteem. Because sex is driven by physical attraction, self-image becomes warped into focusing purely on the physical. Other people become objects for sex (instead of people). Without intending to, these studies are proving that Paul was right to put such a heavy warning on sexual immorality. Sexual sins are sins against our own bodies, and they slowly erode our very understanding of being human. God did not warn us about sex because He’s a fuddy-duddy—He did so because the misuse of sex is dangerous and destructive. God made us to be more than an object for sex.
If you are interested in more, here are some websites to check out. I have screened them, but you still have to be prepared to hear how flippantly the people interviewed view sex and their own bodies. It’s depressing.
A powerful summary of the problem: http://www.huffingtonpost.ca/robertwhitley/tinder-mental-health_b_13981416.html
The fallout of app dating (warning, explicit!): https://www.theatlantic.com/health/archive/2016/10/the-unbearable-exhaustion-of-dating-apps/505184/
Our Context in 1 Corinthians
The Problems Paul Dealt with in Corinth
Chapters 1-5. We introduced the letter with a lesson on unity. Paul focuses on that subject for 4 chapters, shifting to the responsibility of a true Christian leader to look out for the well-being and morality of the church. Then, in chapter 5, he brings up a specific example: a man having sex with his stepmother. Not only did the church tolerate it, they congratulated themselves on their open-mindedness about it! (sound familiar?) This launches into a review of how a church should treat sexual immorality (see below), of which we will be studying the last half.
But right before our passage, Paul gives an excursus on lawsuits among believers. Apparently, the way that church members were trying to address sexual immorality had led some of the sinful members to take them to court (that still happens today). Paul says that Christian must be able to resolve personal disputes within the church. Why? Because the people on the outside are those who do not understand the kind of morality God expects of all followers of Christ, so those outsiders are completely incapable of rendering meaningful judgment. And that is not to mention the terrible witness it gives to the community.
Part 1: Focus on Christ’s Lordship (1 Corinthians 6:12-14)
“Everything is permissible for me,” but not everything is beneficial. “Everything is permissible for me,” but I will not be mastered by anything. “Food is for the stomach and the stomach for food,” and God will do away with both of them. However, the body is not for sexual immorality but for the Lord, and the Lord for the body. God raised up the Lord and will also raise us up by his power.
See below for my take on whether these quotes should really be in quotes or not. The Greek word for “permissible” literally means “allowed by law”. In other words, there are no “thou shalt not” rules in Christ. The problem with that mindset is it ignores the spirit of Christ’s positive commands. The Golden Rule necessarily implies its negative wording (“don’t treat someone the way you don’t want to be treated”). The warning about looking lustfully on a woman necessarily implies “do not do that”. Make it clear that when Paul talks about “freedom in Christ”, he’s mainly reacting against the Jews who say that you have to keep commands in order to be saved. No! Salvation is by grace, not by works! But in our freedom, Jesus expects us to freely obey Him.
Corinth had a reputation for sexual immorality. Plato referred to a prostitute as a “Corinthian girl”! So it should not be surprising that new Christians in the church brought with them their old, bad perspective on sexual ethics (see below). Just as the body needs to eat, it “needs” to have sex. Sexual activity is just another part of the human experience, right? Wrong. Paul’s argument is astounding.
(1) We are not a slave to our body and its perceived needs.
(2) We are more than our physical body.
(3) We are not God, but we belong to God.
In other words, the whole line of thinking that leads one to believe that casual sex is fine is completely wrong. There is a God who has a higher purpose for us than wantonly satisfying our sinful cravings. Our bodies are sacred to His purpose, and He has the power to raise our bodies into eternity. And it gets more stark . . .
Aside: What Is Christian Freedom?
The line “everything is permissible for me” is a challenge. In most English translations, we put it in quotes to indicate that it was a saying among Christians in Corinth—not that it was true. But at the same time, Paul does routinely speak of the freedom we have in Christ: “For freedom, Christ set us free. Stand firm then and don’t submit again to a yoke of slavery” (Gal 5:1). Taken to its logical extreme, that means that a Christian can behave in any kind of behavior he wants—after all, God will forgive anything that turned out to be a sin, right? Well, Paul responds that it might be logical, but it is a logical fallacy. Just because we can do something doesn’t mean that we should do it.
Ultimately, this is what we do with “everything is permissible for me”. It doesn’t matter if it is a statement of Christian truth or a quote taken out of context. Any way we look at it, the truth is that there are many behaviors that are incompatible with the Christian life. It doesn’t matter if we have the “freedom” to sin because Jesus has told us not to sin. Consequently, our Christian freedom is very real, but it is also very self-limited. God has given us freedom so that we can freely choose to obey Him. He is not interested in our robotic motions—He wants us to have a true choice of action.
If a Christian acts as if he is pursuing a course of sin out of “freedom”, that is actually proof that such a Christian is a slave to that sin. There is no freedom in that. True freedom is realizing that we are free to live for Christ in a world that wants us to plunge into sexual immorality and all other kinds of sin.
Part 2: Joined with Christ (1 Corinthians 6:15-17)
Don’t you know that your bodies are a part of Christ’s body? So should I take a part of Christ’s body and make it part of a prostitute? Absolutely not! Don’t you know that anyone joined to a prostitute is one body with her? For Scripture says, The two will become one flesh. But anyone joined to the Lord is one spirit with him.
This is the “no fun” lesson that kids hate: “Should I go do such-and-such?” “Would you take Jesus with you to do it?” This usually shuts down all thought of misbehaving. (And the reason it doesn’t work all the time is that we tend to ignore Jesus when we want to misbehave.) Say this to youth and it will make them blanche.
Judging from Paul’s tone, he has said this to them before. They should never have even considered engaging in sexual immorality, let alone being with a prostitute. Prostitution was common in the Roman world and even a normal part of their religions. At the center of Corinth was the Temple of Aphrodite (the goddess of love and beauty), which in its heyday employed 1,000 temple prostitutes. My guess is that church members had previously participated in temple sex, and now they were prone to slip back into it. Prostitution is probably not a problem in your church (although—make sure your group understands that the sex industry is quite alive and well in the USA! Here’s a depressing article about a study from a few years ago: https://www.huffingtonpost.com/ 2014/03/12/sex-trade-study_n_4951891.html). But the pressure to have casual sex outside of marriage is absolutely a problem all over the country, and that’s the same thing Paul is talking about here. The numbers are gross (and I’ll spare you the details): for people 25-44, 93% have been sexually active in the previous year; less than 50% are married. You do the math.
Here’s a great quote from a commentary: “Despite the damage that sexually immoral behavior can inflict through disease, destruction of marriages, human trafficking, and the degradation of women, many people continue to defend it as a form of freedom.” The truth is that sex has consequences, physical, emotional, and spiritual. We are never too old to hear this! Infidelity happens in more than 1/3 of marriages! (https://www.trustify.info/blog/infidelity-statistics-2017)
As a Christian, we are one with Christ. As a married person, we are one with our spouse. As a physical being, we are one with our sexual partner. Doesn’t this start to make you uncomfortable to keep adding sexual partners? Because this is such a serious topic, I can’t think of fun ways to broach it with your class. Ask your class what kind of sexual immorality their peer group deals with regularly. Then ask your class how they think such a problem can be dealt with.
Aside: Head Coverings and Corinthian Prostitutes
Later in this letter, Paul will mention that women should have their head covered in worship (1 Cor 11:5-6). We skip that passage, so I’ll address it here. Many people have assumed that Paul said this so that the Christian women would not be mistaken for prostitutes (who wore their hair short and uncovered). Had this letter been written a few hundred years earlier, that probably would have been true. But when Corinth was rebuilt as a Roman colony, those social norms were removed—head coverings had little to do with prostitution in Paul’s day. So, why did Paul say that? Head covering was a sign of submission in that day. Women who did not cover their head, particularly in worship, were deliberately expressing their independence. That goes against God’s design for families, so Paul told women to cover their heads in worship. Today, this applies to any clothing choice designed to “make a statement” against God’s design.
Part 3: Bought with a Price (1 Corinthians 6:18-20)
Flee sexual immorality! Every other sin a person commits is outside the body, but the person who is sexually immoral sins against his own body. Don’t you know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit who is in you, whom you have from God? You are not your own, for you were bought at a price. So glorify God with your body.
These words are just the hammer to a very powerful argument. It matters what we do with our bodies. And with all of the sexual content (commercials, music, movies) that we take in, keeping self-control is all the more important. This is the sixth time this chapter Paul hits them with a “don’t you know?” We have no excuse for sexual immorality. When we go down that road, we are casting Jesus into a gutter and driving our own life into a pit of filth. And I hope your class realizes that this applies to more than just sexual behavior! What we eat and drink, how we exercise, what we watch and listen to—all of those things are a part of our bodies. We are to glorify God with our bodies. In everything we do!
Here’s an exercise. Bring in a paper towel roll wrapped to look like a stick of dynamite. And a plate of cookies. Ask your class, “Are these things beneficial or dangerous?” The answer, of course, is “it depends on how you use them”. Dynamite is an extreme example that should be easy for your class to understand. But even the cookies, if you eat too many of them or eat the wrong kind, can make you very sick. Sexual activity is the same. God designed the human body for sex. Sex is a good thing. But only when it is used rightly—meaning according to God’s rules. And the person who does not have the self-control to engage in sex only according to God’s prescription (like the person who cannot control his cookie habit) has a deeper spiritual need. To Paul, what matters is that we all understand that we belong to Jesus who died for us. Our sins, sexual or otherwise, are just a symptom of a deeper spiritual disconnect. Tell your group to pray about whatever sin is haunting them. Take steps this week to take control over it.
Aside: What Is Sexual Immorality?
In our passage this week, Paul gives us a very good view of why God created sex by relating it to the Trinity(!). God created us to know Him. Jesus died for us, therefore we are not our own. Our bodies are the temple of the Holy Spirit. So-everything we do in the body reflects our relationship with God. Further, the physical act of sex creates a union that should mirror the perfect, eternal oneness that the Trinity had always had within itself.
Now. Within that understanding of sex, what "exact" acts would be considered sexual immorality if done outside of marriage? (At least, that’s what people ask when they want to know exactly what they can get away with and not feel too rotten about themselves . . .) My general response is, “If you’re asking the question, you probably shouldn’t do it.” Paul explains “freedom” like this in Romans 14:5: “Let everyone be convinced in his own mind.” If you have any doubts that what you are doing is honoring God, then don’t do it.
But for people like those in the church in Corinth, who lived in a society which said all manner of sexual acts were okay, that text may not work. So here’s my other test. Hopefully it is clear from the Bible that sexual immorality includes any kind of sexual intercourse with someone who is not your spouse. What about, I don’t know, say, kissing, or watching porn, or inappropriate touching, or whatever? Here’s my rule: if an act is intended to get a sexual reaction, or if it is a step toward sexual intercourse, then it is immoral outside of marriage.
Yes, this is very restrictive for people who are not married. And if you read my intro about dating apps, it is out of tune with the culture. And that’s exactly the point—God has a higher view of our bodies than our culture does.
Closing Thoughts: "Do Not Associate . . ." ?
“Do not associate with sexually immoral people.” That was something Paul said in his first letter to the church in Corinth (one we don’t have). The church didn’t understand it, and a lot of Christians today don’t understand it either.
To make a long story short, Paul is telling the church not to associate with a Christian who is being sexually immoral. We should expect non-Christians to be sexually immoral! How can we build relationships with lost people through which to share to gospel if we only look for well-behaved lost people?
But what does it mean not to associate with a Christian? Paul says that if we know a Christian who is being sexually immoral, greedy, slanderous, or drunk, we should “not even eat” with that person. Paul is talking about intimate friendship. You can’t cut off all ties with a person. There are business transactions that must be upheld, this person might be a neighbor, etc. Plus, Christians have a responsibility to go to that person to “win them back”. What we cannot do is give the outside world the impression that we condone that person’s actions, which is why something like sharing a meal is out. Nothing that would tarnish name of Jesus can be allowed.
Yes, this means that a person in open sin necessarily loses all standing in the church. Through repentance and reformation, that person can one day regain his place, but Paul wants churches to take sin (particularly sexual sin) very seriously. In a culture like ours where sexual ethics are blurry, we must shine like the sun with a clear message of how God wants us to treat sexuality.