Theology Matters Conference - Oct 8-10th, 2024

Theology Matters Conference - Oct 8-10th, 2024

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Paul’s Theology of Sexual Practice: A Study of 1 Corinthians 6:9-20

In this text, Paul builds a foundation for Christian sexual practice on the Resurrection, the Cross, the Trinity, the doctrine of the Church, and the doctrine of Creation.

Paul tells the Corinthians (4:6) that his intent in this letter is, (literally translated) “that you may learn in us not to go beyond that which is scripture….” The Presbyterian Logo, as you recall, has a dove descending on a book. Our Reformed tradition rests solidly on sola scriptura. Out of this heritage I am honored to be invited to reflect with you on what Paul has to say in I Corinthians 6:9-20.

My thirty-five years of concentrated study on 1 Corinthians has led me to the firm conclusion that Paul is deadly serious when he affirms in the opening of this epistle that he is writing “for the Corinthians” and for “all those in every place on whom is called the name of our Lord Jesus Christ.” That is: This letter is for the Corinthians and all Christians. From John Chrysostom in the fourth century, through Bishr ibn al-Sari in the 9th century to John Calvin in the 16th century and beyond, there is concurrence that Paul means what he says. 1 Corinthians was indeed written to the Corinthians, but at the same time Paul was deliberately addressing the entire Church.

This long-endorsed understanding is greatly strengthened when we note that Paul’s letter presents five carefully constructed essays. (See Study Sheet 1 below. Note: this sheet is on our website as a single page for ease in teaching).

The five subjects are: 

The Cross

Men and women in the human family (sexuality) 

Christians and pagans

Men and women in worship 

The Resurrection

The first essay (on the Cross) and the fifth essay (on the Resurrection) form a pair. The second (on men and women in the human family) and the fourth (on women and men in the church) form a second pair. The climax occurs in the center where Paul focuses on how to live out the Gospel among non-Christians with the goal of witnessing to them without compromise and without giving offence.


Study Sheet 1 Outline of First Corinthians Study Sheet 1

INTRODUCTION 1:1-9 (For the Corinthians and All Christians Everywhere)

1. UNITY AND THE CROSS 1:10-4:16

A. Divisions in the Church (Paul, Apollos and Cephas) 1:10-16

B. The Wisdom of God: the Cross 1:17-2:2

C. The Wisdom of God: the Spirit 2:3-16

D. Christian Unity (Paul, Apollos and Cephas) 3:1- 4:16

2. SEXUALITY (Men and Women in the Human Family) 4:17-7:40

A. Immorality and the Church 4:17-6:8

B. Theology of Sexuality: Kingdom Ethics 6:9-12

C. Theology of Sexuality: Joining the Body 6:13-20

D. Christian Sexuality 7:1-40

3. CHRISTIAN AND PAGAN: Freedom and Responsibility 8:1-11:1

A. Food Offered to Idols: Freedom and Responsibility 8:1-13

B. Paul’s Personal Freedom and Responsibility 9:1-18

C. Freedom in Mission: Identification 9:19-27

D. Old Covenant Sacraments and Idolatry: Partial Identification 10:1-13

E. New Covenant Sacraments and Idolatry: Non-identification 10:14-22

F. Food Offered to Idols: The Responsible Use of Freedom 10:23-11:1

4. WORSHIP (Men and Women in the Church) 11:2-14:40

A. Men and Women Leading in Worship: Prophets and How They Dress 11:2-16

B. Order in Worship: The Lord’s Supper 11:17-34

C. Gifts and the Nature of the Body 12:1-31

D. Love 12:31-14:1

E. Gifts and the Up-building of the Body 14:1-25

F. Order in Worship: Prophets and Speakers in Tongues 14:26-33

G. Women and Men Worshipers: No Talking in Church 14:34-40


A. Cross & Resurrection: The Message and the Validity of Faith 15:1-20

B. Resurrection: Adam and Christ – The End of All Things 15:21-28

C. Resurrection and Ethics 15:29-34

D. Resurrection: Adam and Christ – The Nature of the Resurrected Body 15:35-50

E. Resurrection: Victory over Death 15:51-58


Mission Funding, Leadership, Greetings, Final Admonitions


These five essays are themselves constructed with great care. Each of them has the same outline. Each essay begins with a reference to the tradition. Paul then presents the problem under discussion. He continues by laying a theological foundation for the problem. In the light of that theology he offers a second reflection on the problem. He concludes each essay with a personal appeal. One essay concludes with “imitate me.” A second offers “imitate me as I imitate Christ.” A third admonishes, “I think I have the spirit of the Lord.” In two essays Paul includes a summary of the essay in his conclusion. Thus his outline for each essay is:

- Tradition

– Problem 


– Problem revisited 

– Personal appeal

The five problems Paul discusses remain as deep concerns in the Church today. 1 Corinthians can be called Paul’s most contemporary epistle. These brief remarks are focused on the center of the second essay to which we now turn.

1 Corinthians 6:9-12

Chapter 6:9-20 has been described as “somewhat disjointed and obscure.” Reason for this has been found in “the unfinished spontaneous nature of these passages.” 1

Yet it is possible to see this text as a very carefully constructed literary whole that includes two apostolic homilies.2 All of the homilies in 1 Corinthians are constructed using short semantic units I have chosen to call “cameos.”


Study Sheet 2 Theology of Sexuality: Kingdom Ethics (6:9-12) Study Sheet 2

1.6:9 Do you not know that the unrighteous THE UNRIGHTEOUS

will not inherit the kingdom of God? Not Inherit the Kingdom

2. Do not be deceived:

neither the immoral,

nor idolaters,

nor adulterers, FIVE SINS

nor catamites, (sexual)

nor sodomites

3. 10 nor thieves,

or the greedy,

nor drunkards, FIVE SINS

nor revilers, (non-sexual)
nor robbers

4. will inherit the kingdom of God. Not Inherit the Kingdom 11 And such were some of you. LIKE SOME OF YOU

——————————————— ——————————————-

5.11b But you were washed, Washed

but you were made holy (sanctified), Made Holy

but you were justified Justified

6. in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ Lord Jesus Christ

and in the Spirit Spirit

of our God. God

——————————————- ————————————-

7. 12 “All things are lawful for me.” Lawful

but all things are not helpful. Not Helpful “

All things are lawful for me,” Lawful

but I will not be enslaved by anything. Not Enslaved


Here before you is the first of two linked homilies. Paul often chooses to construct a homily out of seven cameos.

(The cameo numbers are to the left and the traditional verse numbers are the raised numbers within the text. The summaries to the right attempt to highlight the major ideas in the cameos.)

Turning to the first of these two linked homilies, Paul opens with:

  1. 6:9 “Do you not know that the unrighteous THE UNRIGHTEOUS will not inherit the kingdom of God?” Not Inherit the Kingdom

Following this affirmation, Paul presents two lists of five sins. The first list focuses on five sexual sins and the second list records five non-sexual sins. Cameo 2 reads,

  1. Do not be deceived: neither the immoral, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor catamites, nor sodomites. Five sins (sexual)

The word “immoral” (porneia) is a broad category that includes casual sex among the unmarried. Idol worship often included sleeping with the temple prostitutes of the city. Adulterers were married people who violated their marriage vows. The last two words refer to the active and the passive in a same-sex conjugal relationship.

Both heterosexual and homosexual sins are condemned.3 There is no indication that one is considered more heinous than the other. The use of the number ten, invoking the Decalogue, is music playing in the background.

The reason for Paul’s special emphasis on sexual sins is obvious. Starting with a case of incest, in this essay he is dealing with the broader topic of sexual practice and the Gospel.

The second list of five sins is presented in cameo 3 and includes:

  1. 10 thieves, the greedy, drunkards, revilers, and robbers FIVE SINS (nonsexual)

Paul begins with individual thieves and concludes with robber gangs. Sadly, “Greedy, drunkards and revilers” focus on the sins of the Corinthians at Holy Communion.

Paul then calmly reminds his readers that these ten sins described their past. Corinth was a “tough town,” famous for its debauchery. Paul was a brilliant scholar. At the same time, he was able to communicate the Gospel to the uneducated, tough, immoral flotsam of Corinth. Working as a poorly dressed, itinerant tentmaker would have thrown him in with the trades people of the city. He gained a hearing—but those drawn to the Gospel through his preaching inevitably brought problems with them into their new life in Christ. The phrase “such were some of you” indicates that the power of the Gospel had brought healing for all the sins on his list.

Paul continues in cameos 5 and 6 by invoking the Trinity. The text reads:

  1. a. 11But [alla] you were washed,4 b. but [alla] you were made holy [sanctified], c. but [alla] you were justified
  2. a. in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ

b. and in the Spirit

c. of our God.

The first three lines in cameo 5 all begin with, alla (but). The three fold repetition of alla (but) is striking. The six lines interrelate through the use of step parallelism. Washing (5a) refers to baptism which for Paul (Rom 6:3) was “in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ” (6a). The phrase “you were made holy” (5b) matches “in the [Holy] Spirit” (6b). Finally, justification (5c) for Paul (Rom 8:33) was an act of God (6c).

Clearly the Trinity is affirmed in the last three lines with the mention of the Lord Jesus Christ, the Spirit and God. That is, the Trinity is at the heart of new life in Christ.

With a new status in the presence of God in mind, Paul closes this first homily by quoting the reasons the Corinthians were apparently giving to justify their behavior. He wrote:

  1. 12”All things are lawful for me.” but all things are not helpful (sum-pherei).

“All things are lawful for me,” but I will not be enslaved by anything.

The first two lines in this cameo focus on loving the neighbor. Sum-pherei has to do with “bearing together.” Four people carrying a single heavy box would be described with this word. It was also used to describe a stone built into a well-constructed wall. Each stone needed to “bear together” with the other stones to prevent cracks that would weaken the entire wall.

It is generally agreed that here Paul is addressing the Corinthian libertines, and the lead phrase “all things are lawful to me” may well be his own words used to oppose the idea that the believer can be justified before God by a strict observance of law. Out of context it takes on meanings he did not intend.

How can Paul reply? One simple answer would have been to insist on a rigorous enforcement of the law with its punishments. But to do so would be to deny the Gospel. Instead, he takes their point and then affirms that all things are not “helpful.” All things do not “bear together.” “Christian freedom must be limited by regard for others,”5 wrote Plummer over a hundred years ago. The law is not a means of salvation, and the law that matters had been summarized as “the law of Christ.” Orr and Walther, distinguished NT professors at Pittsburgh Seminary, in their Anchor Bible commentary on I Corinthians succinctly observed, “When one loves God, all things are permissible; but when one loves God, one loves what He loves… and conduct will be regulated by this love.”6

In the second pair of lines Paul utilizes a play on words in Greek. Without burdening you with technical details, over 100 years ago, Plummer aptly caught the Greek word play using the English paraphrase, “I can make free with all things, but I will not let anything make free with me.”7 Freedom cannot be allowed to cancel itself. Emancipation from slavery is here affirmed and then expanded in chapter 7. Paul never endorsed slavery: instead he became pastoral with those trapped in it. He urged slaves to “obey their masters” because if they failed to do so, they would have been crucified. At the height of the power of Stalin, no Russian church published a book saying “You must overthrow the atheistic Russian government.” In like manner, Paul was not living in a Jeffersonian democracy. “Obey your master” does not mean “I endorse slavery” rather it means, “Right now, for many of you, obeying your master is your best option.”

The first two lines focus on loving the neighbor. The second two lines concentrate on loving God.

To summarize, in this seven-stanza homily Paul affirms the following:

  1. Some of the Corinthians had previously engaged in sexual and nonsexual sins that were incompatible with the Kingdom of God. From these sins they had been healed.
  2. The three persons of the Trinity are mentioned along with something of their function in the reformation of new believers.
  3. All things are indeed lawful, but a Christian must avoid anything that does not build up the community and reject anything that enslaves. They already had a master.

This brings us to Paul’s second homily (6:13-20) on the subject of a theological foundation for sexual practice.


Study Sheet 3 1 Corinthians 6:13-20: Theology of Sexual Practice Study Sheet 3

In this text Paul offers his views in the form of a marvelously structured apostolic homily with ten cameos.

  1. a13″Food is meant for the stomach, FOOD for STOMACH b. and the stomach for food” God Will Destroy Food c. and God both this God Will Destroy Stomach d. and that will destroy.

2.a. The body is not for prostitution, but for the Lord, b. and the Lord for the body. BODY for THE LORD c.14And God raised the Lord, God Raised: the Lord d. and will raise us up by his power. God Will Raise: Us

  1. 15 Do you not know that our bodies OUR BODIES are members of Christ? In Christ
  2. So wrenching away the members of Christ SIN AGAINST shall I make them members of a prostitute? Christ May it never be!
  3. 16 Do you not know that the one joining a prostitute ONE BODY becomes one body with her? With Prostitute
  4. For, it is written, SCRIPTURE “The two shall become one flesh.” Two – One Flesh
  5. 17 But the one joining to the Lord ONE SPIRIT becomes one spirit with him. With the Lord
  1. 18 Flee from prostitution. Every other sin which a man commits is outside his body; SIN AGAINST but the immoral man sins against his own body. His Body 9. 19 Do you not know that your body YOUR BODY is a sanctuary of the Holy Spirit within you, Of Holy Spirit which you have from God? From God
  2. You are not your own; CROSS 20 you were bought with a price. With Body So glorify God in your body. Glorify God


This homily uses what I have named “the high-jump format.” Like a high jump, the homily begins with a short sprint (cameos 1-2). Then comes the jump (2-5), followed by the crossing of the bar (6), and finally there is the descent on the far side (7-10). The arc of the descent is the reverse of the arc of the jump. Isaiah 40-66 contains 14 cases of this format. In 1 Corinthians alone Paul uses this prophetic Jewish style more than ten times.

Amazingly, in this text, Paul builds a foundation for Christian sexual practice on the Resurrection, the Cross, the Trinity, the doctrine of the Church, and the doctrine of Creation. These five hugely important theological pillars are put in place to support the forms of sexual practice that Paul judges to be in harmony with the Gospel. These he presents in chapter 7. Paul begins with the Resurrection. His views on this subject are set out in cameos 1 and 2.

(In the following Study Sheet the related cameos are placed side by side for easy reference.)


Study Sheet 4 Study Sheet 4 Study Sheet 4

A. Cameo 1 Food Cameo 2 Sex a. Food is for the stomach a. The body is for the Lord b. The stomach is for food b. The Lord is for the body c. God—destroys stomach c. Godraised the Lord d. God—destroys food d. God—will raise us (our bodies)


B. Cameo 2 (resurrection) Cameo 10 (the cross) 13b The body is not for prostitution but for the Lord, 19b You are not your own; and the Lord for the body 20 you were bought with a price. and God raised the Lord So glorify God in your body. and will raise us up by his power.


C. Cameo 3 Cameo 9 15 Do you not know 19 Do you not know that our bodies that your [pl.] body [sing.] are members of Christ is a sanctuary of the Holy Spirit within you
which you have from God?

D. Cameo 4 Cameo 8 15b So taking away the members of Christ 18 Flee from prostitution! Shall I make them members of a prostitute? Every other sin is … outside his body May it never be! but the immoral man sins against his own body.

E. Cameo 5 16 Do you not know that the one joining a prostitute

Cameo 6 For it is written, “The two shall become one flesh.

Cameo 7 17 But the one joining to the Lord

Becomes one body with her?

Becomes one spirit with him.


The parallels between the first two cameos are strong, and can be summarized as follows:

Food (cameo 1) Sex (cameo 2)

a. Food is for the stomach a. The body is for the Lord

b. The stomach is for food b. The Lord is for the body

c. God—destroys stomach c. God—raised the Lord

d. God—destroys food d. God—will raise us (our bodies)

Each line in cameo 1 is matched with a line in cameo 2. I have chosen to call this style, step-parallelism.

Apparently the Corinthians were arguing that food and sex were parallel. It is possible that the first two lines of cameo 1 are quoted from their argument. They say, “Food is meant for the stomach and the stomach for food,” noting that both are destined for destruction. Sexual appetites, they seem to have argued, were in the same category because the body dies and the soul is immortal. The Gnostic/Stoic rejection of the body is clearly behind such thinking. Paul had another view.

Using carefully chosen words, Paul wrote: God raised the Lord (that is, his body) and he will raise us (that is, our bodies). There is a balancing of terms that makes us = our bodies. The resurrection of the Lord assures the resurrection of the body for believers, and the future resurrection of our bodies is an important reality that must guide how we behave sexually in this life.

James Moffat observes that Paul does not attack sexual immorality as a menace to public health or as a case of psychological unfairness to one of the partners, but as “a sin that strikes at the roots of the personality which is to flower into a risen life.”8 In short, if I take my body with me beyond death, then any permanent damage that I inflict on it in this life has eternal significance. Paul is objecting to the dehumanizing of sex that takes place when it is turned into a form of entertainment and /or made parallel to food. Paul is rejecting the view that says “I feel hungry—I eat. I feel sexual desire—I sleep with whomever is available.”

The alignment of Paul’s phrases is extremely precise. Paul seems to be saying, “Every Christian must understand that if his or her body is for the Lord, it cannot be for prostitution at the same time.

Paul continues in 2b by writing, “and the Lord for the body.” Here there is the unmistakable ring of double meanings. The term body certainly means the individual body of the believer (this thing that I can pinch), but also carries overtones of the community body, the Church. The Lord is for the body, and the body is both of these. Again and again throughout this text the first meaning shades into the second.

The crucial comparisons are between the stomach that will be destroyed and the body that will be raised. The advice given is: Do not damage the body with immorality because the body goes with you beyond death—it will be raised. Foods and stomachs are impermanent while bodies are permanent. Human sexuality, he affirms, is part of the inner core of the whole person called the body, and that whole person is affected negatively by immorality.

This raises a problem. In 15:43 Paul affirms that the Spirit-formulated body will be raised in “glory” and “in power.” We are encouraged to believe from this language that in the resurrection the broken physical body of a dying cancer patient will be replaced with a Spirit-formulated body that is whole. Is Paul contradicting himself? Or is he discussing mysteries that are beyond both him and us? One beam of biblical light on this problem is the fact that Jesus’ resurrection body was most certainly a new glorious body. Yet he had scars on his hands and in his side. Paul seems to be saying “Don’t scar up your own body with immorality —because we are not Platonists—your body goes with you! The Resurrection is critical for our here-and-now sexual practice.”

But, cameo 2 is not only related thematically to cameo 1, it is also connected to cameo 10 at the end of the homily. In cameos 2-10 Paul uses ring composition (also called Chiasm). Cameos 2 and 10 form the first of four connected pairs of cameos. That pair is as follows:

B. Cameo 2 ( Resurrection) Cameo 10 (the Cross)

13b The body is not for prostitution but for the Lord, 19b You are not your own,

and the Lord for the body; 20 you were bought with a price

and God raised the Lord So glorify God in your body.

As noted, cameo 2 tells of the body, and resurrection. Cameo 10 concludes the homily with a reference to the price paid on the Cross and its significance for “your body.” The “body” that “belongs to the Lord” is central to each cameo and the themes of “Cross and Resurrection” form a complementary pair.

and will raise us up by his power.

One of the few ways a slave in the first century could gain freedom was for the slave to slowly build up funds in an account in a local temple until that slave managed to save her own price in the slave market. That slave would then be “bought with a price” from his master by the “god of the temple” and would in name become a slave of that god. Actually, he/she would be a free person.

Here Paul unveils an important aspect of the great mystery of the Atonement. The Corinthian slave believer was not set free from bondage to sin and death by painstakingly saving his copper coins one after another for thirty years. Rather, God in Christ died on the cross to set him free. Here and elsewhere (1 Cor 7:23; Gal 3:13; 4:5) the text clearly affirms that God paid a price for the believer’s redemption and that price was the Cross.

Turning to the final phrase in cameo 10, we find a subtle but powerful Old Testament echo. Apart from 1 Corinthians the only other case of incest mentioned in the Bible occurs in Amos where the prophet reports, “A man and his father go in to the same maiden” (Amos 2:7). Apparently the Amos passage is in Paul’s mind because Paul describes the problem using the same language. In both texts it is “a man and his father do so-and-so.” Starting with this identity in topic and language, we observe that Amos affirms the incident of incest and records God’s lament, “so that my holy name is profaned.” The sin was certainly against the woman and against the father, but on a deeper level it was a sin against God, whose holy name was thereby profaned. Amos uses the Hebrew word חלל (to profane). Change the Hebrew hard ח to a soft ה with a slight change in pronunciation or the slightest erasure and you have the word הלל (to praise).9 The same is true in the Hebrew script in use at the time of Amos. Amos says, “Your sexual practice has become a חלל (profaning) of the name of God. He seems to infer, “It should have been a הלל [an offering of praise] to a holy God.” Readers with a Jewish background would have caught this verbal and visual play on words. This raises the question: How can the prophet Amos imply with his play on words that intimacy in marriage between a man and a women is intended to be a hymn of praise to a holy God? Paul gives the answer.

When the biblical author uses “ring composition” and sets out a series of ideas which he/she then repeats backwards, the reader is expected to relate the center of the ring composition to the final cameo and often to the opening cameo as well. In this homily the center cameo (6) quotes from the Genesis creation story. In the intimacy of marriage between a man and a woman, the couple is invited by God to participate with Him in the act of creating a new person. That holy event naturally forms a hymn of praise that brings honor to the name of God. At the same time, when abused, such intimacy can profane that same holy name. By connecting cameo 6 in the center to cameo 10 at the end, it is clear that Paul has both understood and is endorsing Amos’ views. The doctrine of Creation is indeed at the center of the discussion and at the end of the homily Paul calls on his readers to “glorify God in your body.”

We have already noted the double meaning of the word “body.” It refers to this thing that I can pinch. It also means the fellowship of believers called the body of Christ, the Church. The Corinthians were told, “Glorify God in your (pl.) body (sing.)”. No doubt the individual body of the believer is an important aspect of Paul’s focus here in cameo 10, but the communal body of Christ is unmistakably also intended. Defile the human body through sexual immorality and you defile the sanctuary of the Holy Spirit which is the body of Christ. Because “you (pl.) were bought with a price” such defilement was abhorrent in the extreme.

In summary, in Paul’s mind the Resurrection and the Cross provide the larger theological framework within which human sexual practice is to find its appropriate forms of expression. Because of the Resurrection the believer knows that her or his body will be raised and sexual intimacy in this life involves that body. Because of the Cross, they are bought with a price and expected to participate in sexual intimacy in ways that glorify God and affirm partnership with him in creation. This brings us to the next pair of cameos which is composed of numbers 3 and 9 and is as follows:

C. Cameo 3 Cameo 9

15 Do you not know 19 Do you not know

that our bodies[pl.] that your [pl.] body [sing.]

are members of Christ is a sanctuary of the Holy Spirit within you

which you have from God?

The familiar diatribe formula “Do you not know” opens each cameo. In the second line (in each cameo) the words are identical except for the shift from “our” to “your.” My individual physical body is related to our body the church. The doctrine of the Church is now unmistakably introduced into the larger discussion. But there is more.

Together the two third lines can be seen to carry additional theological weight. Here Paul uses complementary images. In the first (3) he tells his readers that they are members of Christ. In the balancing cameo (9) he affirms that the “Holy Spirit within them” is “from God.” The Trinity is again invoked. They are “in Christ” and the Holy Spirit from God is in them. Thus the believers are suspended in the heart of the Trinity. They are a sanctuary of the Holy Spirit from God that is present within them. At the same time they are in Christ.

Not only is the Cross and the Resurrection important for sexual ethics, the Church as the body of Christ and the Trinity are also critical to the discussion. To repeat, the Holy Spirit (from God) is in the body and the body is in Christ. This is a pointed rejection of Epicurean and Stoic thought where the spirit (of God) unites only with the soul while the body is part of the brutes.

Paul is not merely interested in the personal bodily health and destiny of the individual, but also in the health of the whole body of Christ. Thus in the two outer envelopes Paul sets sexual ethics into the five great theological frames of reference noted above.

In the third pair of cameos Paul turns from the great positives of the Cross, the Resurrection, the Trinity and the Body of Christ to a strong set of negatives which is as follows:

D. Cameo 4 Cameo 8

15b So wrenching away the members of Christ 18 Flee from prostitution!

shall I make them members of a prostitute? Every other sin is…outside his body

May it never be! But the immoral man sins against his own body.

Each of these passionately stated cameos contains a strong negative. In cameo #4 Paul uses the familiar me genoito (may it never be) common in Romans. This is Paul’s negative assertion against something that for him is blatantly impossible. The imperative of cameo 8 may well have an Old Testament image behind it. Paul may be calling on his readers to imitate Joseph. When faced with the temptation to sexual immorality with Potiphar’s wife, Joseph ran out of the house (Gen 39:7-12). Paul commands the Corinthians to flee from the sacred prostitutes who roam the city.10

In Cameo 4 Paul focuses on the individual. He may be using his language imprecisely, but in light of the remarkable precision of expression in the rest of the structure it is doubtful. Here he affirms, “So wrenching away the members [pl.] of Christ shall I [sing.] make them members [pl.] of a prostitute?” Paul is here making a statement about the inherent nature of sexual relations that is in total harmony with the Old Testament Scripture he is about to quote. For Paul, in sexual intercourse the whole body, that is the whole person becomes one flesh with the partner.

Furthermore, Paul describes a wrenching process. The verb he uses is airo, which ordinarily means “take up” but also means “take away” and can carry the overtones of “take away by force.” We have translated it, “wrenching away.” It was the cry of the high priests who before Pilate shouted, “Away with him” (John 19:15). The believer’s entire body/self is joined to the body of Christ. That same body/self cannot be thus joined to another body (the prostitute) unless it is first wrenched, torn, taken away by force, from Christ. The horror that Paul feels at this prospect evokes the cry, “May it never be!”

Other sins do not necessarily take the believer by force away from the body of Christ and join him or her to a new body. In Paul’s view immorality does and thus it is singled out.

Finally, we must look briefly at the center climax of this “high jump format,” that includes cameos 5-7 which are as follows:

5 16Do you not know that the one joining a

prostitute becomes one body with her?

6 For it is written,

“The two shall become one flesh.”

7 17But the one joining to the Lord

becomes one spirit with him.

No doubt the libertines in Corinth argued that fornication with female prostitutes did not constitute any significant union with the woman involved. There was no pretense of love, and no ongoing relationship. It was strictly a casual commercial exchange. But Paul affirms in cameos 5 and 6 that any act of sexual intercourse necessarily creates a new unity. D. S. Bailey commends Paul’s “profound and realistic treatment of coitus.” Bailey writes regarding this passage,

Here [Paul’s] thought…displays a psychological insight into human sexuality which is altogether exceptional by first-century standards. The Apostle denies that coitus is, as the Corinthians would have it, merely a detached and (as it were) peripheral function…of the genital organs. On the contrary, he insists that it is an act which, by reason of its very nature, engages and expresses the whole personality in such a way as to constitute a unique mode of selfdisclosure and self-commitment.11

By comparing cameo 5 and 7 Paul understands uniting with a prostitute as incompatible to joining with the Lord and becoming “one spirit with him.” In this latter phrase Paul affirms that the believer becomes “one spirit” with the Lord, not “one body.” This language leaves room for Christian marriage. Paul does not join his ascetic (Gnostic) opponents by condemning all marriage as violating the unity of the believer with the body of Christ.

The climax in ring composition is almost always the center. Again and again both in the Gospels and in the Epistles that center cameo is a Scripture quotation. As noted, here the Scripture quotation (Gen 2:24) in the climactic center introduces the creation story with the coming together of one man and one woman as one flesh. Thereby the two become partners with God in the creation of a new person. And this act thereby gives glory to God.

In summary, this remarkable passage can be seen as a very carefully written piece of Pauline theological rhetoric that uses a variety of classical prophetic styles. Words are selected with great care, formed into pairs of cameos, and constructed into an artistic whole, following well-established Hebrew patterns.

The foundation of a Christian sexual ethic is not grounded in abstract philosophical principles. There is no discussion of social responsibility for the potential newborn child or the possibility of disease. Inheriting property and complications in family life are not mentioned. The coming together of one man and one woman is affirmed in the light of the Cross, the Resurrection, the Church as the body of Christ, the Trinity, and the Creation. Sexual immorality is seen as a forcible separation from Christ and as the forming of new unions destructive to the person and the church.

The entire discussion is tied to the end of all things. The believer is part of the body of Christ and he/she shall be raised. Flesh and blood will not inherit the Kingdom of God, but believers are cleansed, justified and sanctified as they live out their lives within the Trinity.

The law is not fashioned into a club with which to administer a beating, but the loyalties of a new relationship and a new identity are set forth. The passage is Paul’s foundation for Christian sexual ethics. When his rhetorical style is observed, the passage no longer appears “somewhat disjointed and obscure.”12 Rather it surfaces as a carefully ordered theological and ethical whole that combines the five great doctrines (noted above) into a revelatory masterpiece.

This theological treasure is a part of the larger treasure hidden in a field, described in the parable of our Lord. May we like that farmer pay whatever price is necessary to take ownership of that field.

In the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, Amen. _______________________________

Dr. Bailey’s ground-breaking analysis of 1 Corinthians stems from his extensive Middle Eastern and New Testament studies. Dr. Bailey completed degrees in Arabic Language and Literature, and Systematic Theology with a doctorate in New Testament. Ordained by the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), Dr. Bailey spent 40 years living and teaching in seminaries and institutes in Egypt, Lebanon, Jerusalem and Cyprus. Dr. Bailey was Professor of New Testament and Head of the Biblical Department of the Near East School of Theology in Beirut, where he also founded and directed the Institute for Middle Eastern New Testament Studies. Dr. Bailey was on the faculty of the Ecumenical Institute for Theological Research in Jerusalem, with the title of Research Professor of Middle Eastern New Testament Studies. In 1990 Dr. Bailey accepted the additional responsibility of Canon Theologian for the Episcopal Diocese of Cyprus and the Gulf, residing in Nicosia, Cyprus, and returned a third of each year to Jerusalem to continue teaching at the Ecumenical Institute. Dr. Bailey’s area of specialty is the cultural background and literary forms of the New Testament.

Dr. Bailey’s most recent book is Paul Through Mediterranean Eyes: Cultural Studies in 1 Corinthians (2011) from which this article is adapted with permission from InterVarsity Press. Dr. Bailey also presented a version of this article at the Presbyterians for Renewal breakfast at the July 2012 PC(USA) General Assembly.

Dr. Bailey died in 2016.


1.Jean Héring, The First Epistle of Saint Paul to the Corinthians, trans. A. W. Heathcote and P. J. Allcock (London: Epworth, 1962), p. 47.

2. This chapter is a revision of Kenneth E. Bailey, “Paul’s Theological Foundation for Human Sexuality: I Cor. 6:9-20 in the Light of Rhetorical Criticism,” Theological Review 3, No. 1 (1980): 27-41 and Paul Through Mediterranean Eyes: Cultural Studies in 1 Corinthians (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Academic, 2012) pp. 175-195.

3. Thiselton, First Epistle, pp. 440-55; Robert Gagnon, The Bible and Homosexual Practice (Nashville: Abingdon, 2001), pp. 303-32.

4. The verb here is an aorist middle. Thiselton argues that this is a “middle of personal interest,” and he translates it “you were washed clean” (Thiselton, First Epistle, p. 453).

5. Robertson/Plummer, First Epistle, p. 146.

6. Orr/Walther, 1 Corinthians, p. 202.

7. Robertson/Plummer, First Epistle, pp. 122-23.

8. Moffatt, First Epistle, p. 69.

9. This shift from the written soft ה (h) to a the hard ח (ch) is very easy in the Hebrew script of the Talmuds. This is also the case in the script of the Isaiah scroll of the Dead Sea Scrolls (see: F. M. Cross, David N. Freedman and James A. Sanders, eds., Scrolls from Qumran Cave I: The Great Isaiah Scroll From Photographs by John C. Trever [Jerusalem: Albright Institute and the Shrine of the Book, 1972]). Also the change from the soft ה to the hard ח was easy in the Hebrew script of the time of Amos (See the Lachish Ostraca of the early sixth century B. C. and other ancient Hebrew scripts in James B Pritchard, ed., The Ancient Near East An Anthology of Texts and Pictures [Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1958], plates 80-82).

10. F. F. Bruce, 1 and 2 Corinthians (London: Oliphants, 1971), p. 65.

11. D. S. Bailey, The Man-Woman Relation in Christian Thought (London: Longmans, 1959), pp. 9-10.

12. Héring, First Epistle of Saint Paul to the Corinthians, p. 47.


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