Today’s Epistle contains what I think is probably one of the most surprising and helpful things the Apostle Paul says in his writings: A new grounding of morality and ethics that doesn’t just do away with the Law, but rejects the binary of ‘permitted’ and ‘forbidden’, or ‘lawful’ and ‘illegal’ altogether.
In the sixth chapter of Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians, Paul writes:
‘All things are permissible for me’ — but not all things are beneficial.
‘All things are permissible for me’ — but I will not be dominated by anything.
Paul is responding to a reckless attitude that had taken hold among some of the Corinthian Christians. They took the new freedom they were experiencing in Christ to heart, but interpreted that as meaning that anything goes. It’s as though, as far as they were concerned, the only reason not to do something was the threat of punishment for doing it. This is actually an attitude that I’ve seen quite often among Christians, particularly those who have grown up in restrictive, Fundamentalist environments. When they come to understand the wonders of God’s grace, they experience this freedom from the long lists of ‘thou shalt nots‘ they were used to, but then go on to apply it in spiritually and ethically suspect ways: I’ve seen some extremes where Christians have justified not paying their taxes or not tipping their waiters because “We’re under grace, not Law.” But, this attitude, whether in the first or twenty-first century, is not reflective of the Gospel at all.
Paul responds to this problem by first agreeing with their basic premise: Yes, all things are permitted. This blows up the whole binary of ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ in quite a shocking way. But, it isn’t the end of the story. Paul then introduces a different set of criteria against which to judge and discern our moral and ethical actions. We no longer ask “Am I allowed to do this?” judging our actions against some external standard of right and wrong. Instead we ground our morality in questions such as “Is this beneficial?” — does it contribute to goodness and faithfulness — and “Is this thing thinking of doing dominating me in some way?” — does it actually reflect freedom, or does it reflect bondage instead?
What’s interesting about Paul’s move here isn’t really its novelty — as we’ll see, both of these principles flow from the teaching of Jesus about the Law — but the force with which he says it. There is no hemming-and-hawing here, or rambling discussion of grace and Law like we are used to seeing. Instead we get two simple questions: Is this beneficial? Am I bound by this?
The first question is rooted in Jesus’ teaching on judgment. According to Jesus, truth is to be discerned not by alignment with the letter of the Law or how faithful it is to received traditions, but by the quality of the fruit it bears in the world: “for a tree is known by its fruit” (Matthew 12.33, Luke 6.44; cf. Matthew 7.1-20). If an idea or action damages relationships, exacerbates injustice and inequity, or only serves to promote things like rage, lust, greed, manipulation, division, envy, and jealousy, it’s not something that is reflective of our identity as Christians (Galatians 5.19-21). We should instead look for ideas and actions that promote things like love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control (Galatians 5.22f). This is why Jesus does not abolish the Law, but rather radicalizes it. Goodness is not just a matter of not killing someone or not committing adultery, but of the disposition of the heart that lies behind such actions. So we ask ourselves not ‘Is this allowed?’ but ‘Is this beneficial? Is it edifying? Will it bear good fruit?’
The second question is similarly connected to Jesus’ teaching on the Law. By pushing the Law’s scope back from public actions to our very thoughts and feelings, Jesus demonstrates that the Law was never really about creating a list of things to do or not do. Rather, the Law was a way of showing the newly freed Israelites what freedom looks like — that we need to be free not just from external social and political forces, but also from the things that keep us in bondage within. Paul elsewhere put it like this: “It is for freedom that Christ has freed us.” We could say the same thing about the Exodus. God didn’t free the Hebrews from slavery in Egypt only to have them fall into slavery to their own whims, drives, and neuroses.
It is telling that the example Paul picks up in this discussion is about sex. While the Bible is not entirely consistent in its approach to sex and sexuality, it is consistent in its affirmation that sex is never casual. What we do with our bodies matters, because we can never separate the body from our heart, soul, spirit, and mind — and nor should we try to do so. We are ensouled bodies and embodied souls. And of all our natural — good, beautiful, and God-given — drives, sexuality is one that is particularly prone to getting caught up in our immediate whims and desires and our neuroses. And so, the questions Paul asks us to ask ourselves are particularly relevant: Why am I doing this? What ‘good’ is going to come from this? What ‘bad’? Am I running the ship here? Or am I being dragged along by my libido? I should add here that sex isn’t special in this way — we could equally ask the same about our food and alcohol consumption or how we spend our money. Sex is just a particularly bold and bright-lettered example.
Paul closes with the beautiful reminder that our bodies are temples of the Holy Spirit. We are the dwelling place of God, and so we are naturally called to live in ways that glorify God.
I’m not sure whether this teaching in Paul is easy or hard, since as much as we rebel against strict boundaries of right and wrong, living in a world where “everything is permitted” means we have to be a lot more thoughtful and intentional about our thoughts, beliefs, and actions. It’s a call to grow up and be adults in our faith.
But regardless of whether it’s easy or hard, it is the Gospel. It is the life each of us is called to live, in our bodies, in the Body of Christ, our community we call the Church, and in the whole world. And by God’s grace, I am convinced we can do it.