31 January 2011

Carnality and Contextualization in Corinth

Why Fornication Is Peculiarly Evil
by Phil Johnson

t the heart of all the problems in the church at Corinth was a tendency to let the values of that debauched culture seep into the church. That's something for missional Christians to consider today: cultural assimilation as a strategy for church growth in a pagan culture is fraught with serious dangers. Especially in a city filled with both temples and brothels—where fornication was literally deemed a religious rite—the worst thing the church could do would be to take a lax attitude toward sexual sin.

The vast majority of the Jewish community in Corinth had rejected the gospel (Acts 18:6). So the church was made up of mostly Gentiles who, of course, came from a culture that was not inclined to see sexual sin as unspiritual. Just the opposite. Most of the "religion" in Corinth involved temple prostitution and debauched sexual behavior.

That may explain somewhat why the Corinthian church would receive into their membership a man who was fornicating with his father's wife (1 Corinthians 5:1). Perhaps they thought they could connect with their culture better if they casually accepted the man's sin without flinching. In fact, it seems clear that some of the people in the Corinthian church did indeed wear extreme tolerance like a badge of honor. First Corinthians 5:2 says people in the Corinthian assembly were puffed up. They actually took some sort of perverse pride in their liberality towards such a grossly immoral act.

Not only was this guy's incest a supremely immoral and deeply shameful sin; it wasn't really impressing even the most immoral people in the Corinthian culture. Incest was a sin that even shocked the grossest pagans of Corinth (v. 1).

Paul wasn't gentle in his rebuke. He ordered the Corinthians to excommunicate the man (vv. 7, 13).

Notice: Paul wasn't impressed with how sophisticated and missional the Corinthians were. In fact (this can hardly be stressed enough) Paul never encouraged the Corinthians to blend into their culture by adopting an easygoing familiarity with or an extra-tolerant attitude toward the distinctive sins of that culture. On the contrary, he stressed the importance of avoiding the sins associated with Corinthian paganism.

No, I take it back. "Avoiding" is too mild in light of what Paul actually told them: "Flee from sexual immorality" (1 Corinthians 6:18).

But first he hammers them with several these reasons why fornication is such an unholy, degrading, defiling sin. He gives several reasons:

First Corinthians 6:13: It dishonors the purpose for which God made our bodies. "The body is not meant for sexual immorality, but for the Lord." Fornication takes that which ought to be holy—that which was made uniquely in the image of God (with the express purpose of honoring Him)—and puts it to an unholy use instead. That's wrong because (he says) "the body is . . . for the Lord." That is the main thought and the central thread of 1 Corinthians 613-20. But there's more.

In verses 15-17, he gives a second reason why fornication is such a serious sin: it defiles our spiritual union with Christ. "Do you not know that your bodies are members of Christ? Shall I then take the members of Christ and make them members of a prostitute? Never! Or do you not know that he who is joined to a prostitute becomes one body with her? For, as it is written, "The two will become one flesh." But he who is joined to the Lord becomes one spirit with him."

Do the math, he says. If you are one with Christ in an intimate spiritual union, and then through an act of fornication you become one flesh with a harlot in an intimate fleshly union, you have in effect defiled the body of Christ.

A couple of things to notice about this: First, our union with Christ is so perfect and so complete that it encompasses our whole person. It's not limited to our spirit only apart from our flesh. The whole person, both body and spirit, are Christ's by virtue of our spiritual union with Him.

Paul here stands in contrast to certain pseudo-Christian proto-Gnostics who taught that spirit is good and matter is evil. They taught that our spirit is redeemed, and made holy, and united with Christ, but the body is unredeemed and completely unholy and fit only for ultimate destruction. They said you could sin in the body without defiling your spirit.

Here Paul teaches otherwise. Notice that he doesn't say the body is evil. Just the opposite. His whole point is that the body is made for a holy purpose: to glorify God. Verse 14: "God raised the Lord and will also raise us up by his power." Christ rose bodily, and our bodies will also be raised and glorified in physical form. So there's nothing inherently unholy about the body.

On the contrary, "the body is . . . for the Lord; and the Lord for the body." God is not against the body; he is for it. He created it; and He is the one who made our bodies so that they are capable of enjoying pleasure. There's nothing wrong with that pleasure. It's a holy pleasure—as long as it is a fulfillment of, and not a corruption of, God's purposes.

In fact, in verse 16, Paul is alluding to Genesis 2:24, "Therefore a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and they shall become one flesh." That is God's purpose for men and women. Sex in the context of lifelong marriage—the union of two partners devoted to one another above all others—is a holy pleasure. God designed it for our pleasure. It's holy and honorable within the marriage relationship, and according to Hebrews 13:4, "the marriage bed [is] undefiled."

But that same verse in Hebrews 13 says, "God will judge the sexually immoral and adulterous." Paul says the same thing in verses 9-10 of 1 Corinthians 6. Neither "fornicators . . . nor adulterers . . . shall inherit the kingdom of God." And those who defile their union with Christ by committing sins of sexual immorality are guilty of an abominable offense against Christ and (v. 18) "against his own body." In other words, fornication is a unique and especially unholy sin, because it defiles our union with Christ.

But Paul is not finished. In verse 19 (this is where our passage starts) he says such sins of the body also desecrate the Temple of the Holy Spirit. Your body is the dwelling-place of the Spirit of God, and therefore for a Christian to debase the body is to profane a holy temple.

Now, put all this together. You want to know why fornication has always been regarded as a particularly heinous sin? Because it involves personal and direct transgressions against each Member of the Trinity. It debases and dishonors the body, which (v. 13) is "for the Lord." God created it for His purposes. To use it for any other purpose—especially a purpose as evil as an act of fornication—is a sin against God the Father. It's a sin against Christ as well (v. 15), because it takes our members, which are Christ's by union with Him, and joins them to a harlot, defiling our holy union with Christ. And it's a sin against the Holy Spirit (v. 19), because it desecrates the temple in which He dwells.

And notice Paul's counsel to the Corinthians. He doesn't urge them to get into a recovery program for sexual addicts. He doesn't suggest that they get therapy. He just tells them to stop it.

No, again. It's more urgent than that (v. 18): "Flee fornication." Run from it. Avoid any and all temptations to it. Direct your feet, and your eyes, and your ears, and your thoughts to other things. This is a sin to flee. "Other vices may be conquered in fight; this one can be conquered only by flight."

In Solomon's words (Proverbs 5:8), "Keep your way far from her, and do not go near the door of her house." Scripture says we should flee even the thought of adultery. Second Timothy 2:22: "Flee youthful passions and pursue righteousness, faith, love, and peace, along with those who call on the Lord from a pure heart." First Peter 2:11 says "fleshly lusts . . . [wage] war against the soul." Flee them. Abstain from them completely.

And notice: Paul finds the highest reason to avoid fornication in the atonement: "You are not your own, for you were bought with a price. So glorify God in your body" (v. 20).

Phil's signature


naturgesetz said...

Well said!

Anonymous said...

Indeed, well said. the groos immorality that s so accpetable in a lot of chruches are a cause for grave concern..

Brandon Lehr said...

Because it involves personal and direct transgressions against each Member of the Trinity.

I had never before looked at it this way. This definitely shows that God takes this sin much more seriously than we often do. Great post.

Steve Berven said...

We speak of "consummating" the marriage vows through the physical union. I think that, Biblically, the converse is true as well. When we join sexually with a woman, that act becomes an act of union, or marriage. Sleeping with any other woman isn't just fornication, it's adultery.

Thus I think the importance of the abstinence until marriage deal. True Love Waits, and all that. One of my former churches (sort of a Bapti-costal church) was big into praying for forgiveness and repenting of any previous sexual encounters as part of pre-marital counseling, so that the new marriage wouldn't be considered adulterous.

I think a strict/clear reading of the Word shows that God considers sexual union to be intended as a one and only kind of deal, within marriage.

Pierre Saikaley said...
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James Scott Bell said...

Excellent comment, Phil, esp. the relation of this sin to the Trinity.

Anonymous said...


This was really helpful. If only we could look at all sin as against God directly, and not as somehow ethereally "bad".

Perhaps that would help us all flee temptation...

Steve Berven said...

I think this concept gets reinforced repeatedly in the NT, and not just with Corinth. The repeated allusions to the Bride and Bridegroom, the marriage supper of the lamb:
"Let us be glad and rejoice, and give honour to him: for the marriage of the Lamb is come, and his wife hath made herself ready.

When Jesus called them an "adulterous" generation, it's pretty clear he wasn't dealing with their sexuality, but with their spirituality. However, like Phil says, there is a much closer tie between the two than many realize, or would be comfortable with if they did. Clearly he put them both in the same category: violating your marriage covenant with your wife, or violating the covenant with God.

Our relationship with JESUS is supposed to be the standard of intimacy by which our MARRIAGE should be judged, and to a certain extent, vice versa! One flesh, inseparable. To know, in the Biblical sense. etc. I know I often struggle with "intimacy issues" when it comes to my walk with God.

Good stuff, Phil. Sadly, too many teachers/preachers tend to shy away from this subject.

Matt Aznoe said...

Perhaps the single strongest statement on this is found in Ephesians:

"For you may be sure of this, that everyone who is sexually immoral or impure, or who is covetous (that is, an idolater), has no inheritance in the kingdom of Christ and God. Let no one deceive you with empty words, for because of these things the wrath of God comes upon the sons of disobedience."
(Eph 5:5-6 ESV)

"Let no one deceive you with empty words..." Paul wants to emphasize this point so that there is no confusion. If you practice sexual sin, you are going to hell (the wrath of God is upon you). You simply cannot be a Christian and continue in sexual sin, and we deceive ourselves if we think otherwise.

This is a serious business, as Phil pointed out so well. Given the rampant use of pornography (among men and women -- they are not immune) in the church today is testimony to the fact that we do not take Paul's warnings seriously enough.

Larry said...

"...notice Paul's counsel to the Corinthians. He doesn't urge them to get into a recovery program for sexual addicts. He doesn't suggest that they get therapy. He just tells them to stop it."

Amen. Would that more pastors and would take that approach when dealing with sexual sin.

joel said...

"In verses 15-17, he gives a second reason why fornication is such a serious sin: it defiles our spiritual union with Christ."

Why is it that this is the one sin that defiles our spiritual union with Christ and not other sins such as drunkenness, or anger? And once someone defiles their relationship with Christ by giving into sexual temptation how is it that their relationship becomes restored?

Matt Aznoe said...


I am not certain why sexual sin is considered worse, but it is clear in scripture that God takes it extremely seriously. Perhaps it is because it is a sin that gets closer to some of the root sins (lust, idolatry, covetousness).

The answer to your second question is grace:

"If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness."
(1Jn 1:9 ESV)

There is always forgiveness if we confess our sins and repent (turn away and cease doing sin). We have all sinned, but the glorious Gospel is that there is forgiveness, even for Christians who have fallen into sin. The promise above was written to believers. As John says a little later:

"My little children, I am writing these things to you so that you may not sin. But if anyone does sin, we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous."
(1Jn 2:1 ESV)

We are called to live holy and righteous lives, but if we fall, Jesus' blood shed on cavalry covers every sin that has ever been committed. We have only to turn to him and accept that forgiveness through confession of our sins to God and a return to following Christ.

Dr Bill said...
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Dr Bill said...

We're commanded to "make no provision for the flesh in regard to its lusts" (Rom. 13:14). Not even a teency little bit?

NO. None.

So simple, but the Old Man objects to fleeing in ways both subtle and blatant, right?

Reminds me of Bob Newhart, again:


WV: proarmi. Seems appropriate.

CGrim said...

What Steve B said.

Rachael Starke said...

With respect, sexual permissiveness has been a problem in the broadly evangelical church long before anyone ever came up with the whole missional thing. Our church would actually define one key aspect of missional living as being counter cultural in the way we uphold chastity at every stage of life, for precisely the reasons laid out here. Just to put that out there. :)

Beyond that, if the only point you're attempting to make is that sexual sin is to be rejected, not embraced, by believers, then an unreserved "Amen".

But, sometimes, when that's the only point that's made so emphatically, might that not be a discouragement to those who do belong to Christ, like Joel says, who have found themselves caught up in such sin? With respect, the Bob Newhart Just Stop It (TM) method has been proven pretty ineffective, yes? I seem to recall some rather heated discussions in the blogosphere recently about the law vs. the gospel when it comes to sanctification... ;)

naturgesetz said...

@ joel — "Why is it that this is the one sin that defiles our spiritual union with Christ and not other sins such as drunkenness, or anger?"

When you read Genesis 1:27-28 together with 2:24 it suggests that it is our male and femaleness the is the preeminent way in which we are a physical image of the spiritual God, and the sexual embrace of husband and wife is the way in which that image is made most clear. And this relationship is also a representation of the relationship between Christ and his body. So if we violate the sanctity of the sexual act, we are attacking, if not destroying, the very thing in which we are to be images of God and the relationship which is supposed to be an image of Christ and the Church.

Hope this helps.

joel said...

I think I get somewhat the heinousness of of sexual sin. What I feel uncomfortable with is the notion that our sin, sexual or otherwise, has an effect of our spiritual relationship with Christ.

If I understand Matt's summary of 1 John correctly then the believer is set up in a never ending cycle of damaging his or her relationship with Christ through sin and then being restored through repentance. That would seem to put the impetus on the individual for maintaining and restoring their relationship to the savior rather than a unilateral act on God's part.With all do respect to naturgesetz, that sounds just a little too Roman Catholic to me.

Dr Bill said...

Rachael, point taken. It's wiser to also concentrate on something positive to do rather than merely concentrating on something negative to stop. Worse, it's actually Biblical, worse because I quoted Rom. 13:14 incompletely, having left off the key opening phrase: "Put on the Lord Jesus Christ..." which is the same as to say, "walk in the Spirit, and you will not fulfill the lusts of the flesh."

donsands said...

"That is God's purpose for men and women. Sex in the context of lifelong marriage..the union of two partners devoted to one another above all others—is a holy pleasure." -Phil

His purpose now is just two, a man and a woman; husband and wife; male and female.

But before God did allow for some men to have more than one wife.

And some in the church would extract your statement: "..the union of two partners devoted to one another above all others—is a holy pleasure",- out of context, let me tell you.
I know Brian McLaren would.

Thanks for the excellent teaching on Porneia.

Unknown said...

fornication is a terrible sin but mankind is wretched and the world defiled. that's why we constantly get bombarded by a sick and twisted morality that takes lightly upon this sin...you can see it in movies, listen to it in music, read in books, and whatnot.

let's us be watchful and holy in our way of living, excellent article phil

Steve Berven said...

Joel -

If you are in a committed, marriage relationship, are there things that can "damage" that relationship? If your wife catches you checking out the babe in the bikini at the beach, does that damage the relationship? If she found emails where you were being emotionally intimate with her best friend - even if there is nothing physical - would that damage the relationship?

And how do you repair/restore that relationship? You confess, you repent, you ask forgiveness, and you change the way you life your life such that those types of temptations have no power over you.

I think that's the point of this whole meta: a relationship with Jesus IS a relationship. It requires work, just like any other. It can be damaged, just like any other.

It's not a one-and-done thing. People who think that once they are married they can quit trying, don't stay married long. I've been married 15 years and STILL learn things about my wife.

Same thing is true of my bible study. People tend to forget that their "spiritual walk" is really more of a hike. A lot of work involved, but worth the view at the top!

Tournifreak said...

Thanks for the thoughtful post Phil. I'm interested in the pastoral implications of it. I think you're dead right about Paul's counsel to "just stop". Repentance involves no longer commiting that sin. My question is what should repentance look like in the following scenario?

Man A is in prison. Has kids in 3 different countries. His life is in a mess.
He becomes a Christian. He comes out of prison and starts to make a new life for himself. He ends up living with an unbelieving woman (he doesn’t really know any better at the time) and has a child with her.
5 years later, he shows strong evidence of a life totally changed by Jesus – he’s holding down a good job, home life is stable and secure. She is not a believer and shows very little interest in spiritual things. He asks her to marry him. She agrees but is in no rush (her previous 2 marriages have left her pretty cynical about marriage).

Clearly, man A is engaged in a life of fornication, as a result of a choice he made 5 years ago. He knows his decision to sleep with her in the first place was sinful, but does not know what to do now. He also wants to know if he can be a church member.

Question: what would repentance look like for him?
1) Stop living with the mother of his child, and probably break up a stable family unit. (That's my assumption, but I'd be glad to hear of cases where this has worked!)
2) Stay living with her, but not engage in sexual intercourse. (Is this realistic? Not exactly "fleeing" is it?)
3) Stay as committed to her as he can possibly be, fullfilling his side of the relationship as best he can as if it were marriage?
4) Something else?

And how could he qualify for membership?


joel said...

I guess by concern, Steve, is that if our relationship with Jesus is harmed by our sin then all of our relationships have already been damaged beyond repair. I know mine certainly would be. I guess, to be clear, relationship means to me the feelings, love, and affections of one individual towards another. If our relationship with Jesus is not better on less sinning days and worse on more sinning days then it seems that the only alternative is that Christ has and will continue to love us because of nothing that we do, good or bad.

I can only imagine that the reason my wife still loves me, in spite of knowing me, is that God has given her some extraordinary means of doing so and not because of my confession, repentance, asking forgiveness.

I guess the reason I am disagreeing is that I think that repentance, confession, and pleading for forgiveness are signs of a change and not the things that you do to effect the change in the first place.

Matthew Celestine said...

Tournifreak, go for 3).

The relationship is a de facto marriage and creates responsibilities. To walk away from that relationship would be no better than walking away from a marriage.

Steve Berven said...

Joel -
Don't mean to suggest that we harm Jesus, but the Bible does talk about how our thoughts and actions "grieve the Holy Spirit."

Jesus' relationship with us is unchanging and eternal. Our relationship with Him is subject daily to the whims of the flesh, our stubbornness, our pride, etc.

My wife can be the biggest, most noble and forgiving saint, but if I'm forever locking myself in my man-cave watching football and playing X-box, there is no relationship. There may still be a marriage, she may, in her nobility, never leave me.

But there is no relationship. No union. No one-flesh. Can't be if only one person is trying.

It's an imperfect simile because God has some pretty unique and undeniable ways of getting our attention.

God chooses us to have the relationship, but we bear a great deal of responsibility in determining the QUALITY of that relationship.

Chris said...

When Paul spoke of the man who had “his father’s wife” he spoke of that particular sin as “a kind that is not tolerated even among pagans” (1 Cor. 5:1). I find it then a stretch to say even at level of “perhaps” that the church “thought they could connect with their culture better if they casually accepted the man's sin without flinching.” Am I missing something?

Tournifreak said...

@Celestial Fundie - Would you then accept him into membership?

Anonymous said...

Please forgive my ignorance, but I need clarification. I totally get what Phil is talking about here and understand its extreme importance. But how come Jacob has children from multiple women and these become the twelve tribes? What special dispensation is in place here that makes it okay then, but not now? I'm asking from the perspective of a non-Christian, which I am not but I want to know what I can say to the non-Christian that asks about the seeming double standard.

donsands said...

"..how come Jacob has children from multiple women"-ukan

Different times. In the beginning there was only Adam and Eve.

Noah had only three sons with their wives to populate the globe.

God allowed for different ways as the earth grew.
Since Christ came, and the world has grown to billions of people, and we now have the Gospel, and the whole Bible, it seems God's most perfect will for one man and one woman.

That's my understanding on it.

Of course an unbeliever may reject that God created Adam and Eve.

The only true way to reach a dead sinner is through the Gospel, for it is God's power that delivers a soul under his wrath. It's good to discuss all the Bible, but the Gospel needs to be shared in grace and love, and from a heart of deep gratitude.

Rachael Starke said...


My understanding is that Phil's day job makes it challenging to respond to somewhat granular, difficult scenarios.

But, with respect to the membership question:

if repentance and faith in the finished work of Jesus is sufficient for membership in Jesus' church,

why add to those requirements for membership in yours?

Tournifreak said...

@Rachael. Many thanks. That's a good way to look at it.

Matthew Celestine said...

Tournifreak, I am not clear in my own mind as to the biblical validity of church membership. I am on the membership roll of a congregation, though I have refrained from being so in the past.

If he accepts that his situation is not ideal, then their should be no barrier to fellowship. But it might exclude him from being involved in some ministries in the body.

Matthew Gates said...

Now what should the Christian reaction be to a brother who is lost in this sinai of sin, of fornication, of pornography, of lust? Its so easy for me to write them off, but this brother is striving to be in Christ with this loaded sin on his chest, its an addiction. Times of prayer and fasting have been high points of avoiding the sin and living in Christ but it seems to always claw its way back. Also as a note what of restoration, surely if all are new in christ, the love of Christ need be strong enough to wipe away the sin. But such a scenarios is rarely looked upon with love but rather condemnation, could this missional effort just be an attempt to remove the judgement and offer compassion in place of suggesting God has slowly relaxed his morals over time? As Christians often we deliberate upon such topics with fierce vigor and vim without considering those who have threads tied to them from their past sins, what do we say into this tender situation?
Lastly, the idea of sinning deparately against the members of the trinity, is that not somewhat contrived? Now avoiding the error of Sabellism, God is one Surely if you sin against one you have offended all, Jesus says in john 17 Him and the Father are one, and the Spirit (assuming the doctrine of double procession) proceeds fom the father and the son.

Robert said...


I would suggest that this is what Matthew 18:15-20 addresses, as well as Paul in 1 & 2 Corinthians with reagrds to a man caught up in sexual sin. After he wrote 1 Corinthians, the church actually performed church discipline and by the time he wrote 2 Corinthians, the man had been restored into the church through his repentance. There is a correct way to work through church discipline and if your church does not practice this, then they are not following biblical instruction.


Read through John 8 and see what it is that holds the Jews up in verses 30-33. There were soem who "believed", but then Jesus puts them to the test of having to continue in His Word to be His disciples and be set free from sin. If we don't continue in His Word (which means we'll be convicted and will need to repent), then we can't say that we truly follow Him. Yes, it is His power....He did the work of salvation, but if we are not following Him, then we don't really know Him. Matthew 7:21-23 gives a strong warning for those who think that we do not have to follow Jesus as our Lord.