Sex and marriage have often been a place where the world and the church divide. Our cultural morays around sex have long since left the idea of sex being restricted to marriage. So, today people are getting married later and later in life, having fewer and fewer children, or foregoing marriage and children entirely. Roman culture in Late Antiquity had a very high view of marriage. Marriage was a legally binding union of a man and a woman for the purpose of creating offspring. There was a high, high value placed on fidelity in marriage and on the importance of raising children. So, surely the church would be happy with a culture that held such a view, right? Well, actually the church had to push against a different sexual error. John Chrysostom, the bishop of Constantinople in the late fourth century, preached that there was another divine design for marriage: that of sexual enjoyment and sexual self-control. But this teaching from the bishop seemed strange to his parishoners. What did marriage have to do with sexual self-control? And then, reading from the passage of Corinthians we are going to study today, Chrysostom explained the Bible taught that it was wrong to have sex with anyone but your wife, even with prostitutes or slaves. “What I am saying sounds illogical—but it is true,” (Propter Fornicationes).
What seemed so “illogical” about sexual fidelity to your wife? A common saying used at the time was: “We keep mistresses for pleasure, concubines for daily concubinage, but wives in order to produce children legitimately and to have a trustworthy guardian of our domestic property,” (Atheneaus). It was assumed at the time that all men, married or not, would be regularly sleeping with prostitutes. Prostitutes in the ancient world were predominantly slaves—so much so that the term “slave-girl” and “prostitute” were used interchangeably. One of the key functions of slavery in the Roman world was to serve the sexual appetites of your master. So, Roman law didn’t consider sex with slaves to be grounds for infidelity—provided, you were a man. If you were a woman, and had a sexual liaison with a slave, you could be put to death.
“Human laws demand that women be chaste and if they are not they are punished for it, but they do not demand the same from men. Since it was men who made the laws, they did not make themselves equal with woman but allowed themselves extra indulgence. The holy apostle, however, inspired by divine grace, was the first one who made the law of chastity apply to men as well,” (Theodoret of Cyr, on 1 Cor 7:1-5).
The teaching of the Bible about sexuality has been counter-cultural in nearly every culture it has inhabited. Today, our world has a different set of moral evaluations that make the Biblical teaching on sex and sexuality seem odd to us, but just like the teaching was able to transform the ancient world in the fourth and fifth century, so too does it still retain the power to transform our world from our own sexual confusion.
15 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! 16 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.” 17 But he who is joined to the Lord becomes one spirit with him. 18 Flee from sexual immorality. Every other sin a person commits is outside the body, but the sexually immoral person sins against his own body. 19 Or do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you, whom you have from God? You are not your own, 20 for you were bought with a price. So glorify God in your body.
- 1 Cor 6:15-20
Last week, we looked specifically at what Paul had to say about the dignity bestowed upon the human body. God has given us this body to be used according to His design, and sexual immorality is not what it was intended for. It is intended for the Lord. And since sex is the most unique and sacred thing we do with our bodies, this means that using our bodies for the Lord includes how we behave sexually.
Here Paul shows that the Christian teaching does not lead to cynical or negative view of sex and the body, nor does it lead to an indulgent view of sex. Instead Paul is going to show us the problem of sex, the power of sex, and then finally the plan for sex.
The Problem of Sex
15 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! (1 Cor 6:15)
Since by faith we have been united to Christ, this means our bodies have now become members of Christ. Paul brings up this same idea later by comparing the bodies of Christians with temples since we are filled with the Holy Spirit (1 Cor 6:19). Whatever you do with your body, you are bringing Jesus, you are bringing the Holy Spirit along with you. And, apparently, some of the Corinthians are taking the members of Christ (their bodies) and uniting them to prostitutes. Think of what this tells the wider world about who Jesus is? What does this tell the owner of the brothel about the work of the Holy Spirit? What does it tell to the poor slave girl being taken advantage of by someone who claims to be united with Christ? This thought is outrageous to Paul.
Now, why would the Corinthians be doing this? One reason is the culture the Corinthians inhabited. They were a part of the Roman empire and had Roman culture and so had a Roman ethic of sex.
Our cultural problems around sexuality differ some today. We don’t typically believe that a man can sleep with prostitutes and be considered an “honorable” man or act as if he is still faithful to his wife. We do believe that if you are married you should remain sexually faithful to your spouse and we don’t believe that men can be sexually unbound and women can’t—we rightly believe that is a wrong double-standard. But we now live at a time when we seem to have fallen off the other side of the cart. We inhabit a culture that is sexually immoral, not because we believe the persons we have sex with are unimportant, but we now just think sex itself is unimportant. “It’s just sex,” is a great summary of our culture’s perspective. We assume that you can peel sex apart from the bond of marriage, from the bond of commitment, even from the relationship with another person altogether (self-sex, pornography). Watch any media of any kind at all today and you will see the “It’s just sex,” worldview played out as couples or random strangers engage in casual sexual liaisons as if sex has always worked this way and always will, as if this activity is no more emotionally complex or different than a game of racquetball or of cards. No guilt, no shame, no STD’s, no pregnancies, no strings attached. If in the past, male sexual appetites ravished women, at least women were allowed to think it was wrong—today, women are told that not only should they like it, but they too should become just as rapacious, just as ravenous.
“It’s just sex” is a kind of magic incantation one invokes, to wipe away any feelings of guilt, to coerce someone else into something they don’t want to do, or to ward off feelings of love and attachment one feels for another. But the need to tell ourselves “It’s just sex” is proof that sex is never “just sex.” We all know intuitively that sex is much more than that—that’s why, even though we tell ourselves that it is sex that is unimportant, when someone uses you for sex you are left feeling unimportant.
The sexual revolution that began in the late 50’s and barreled along into the world we now live in today taught that our sense of guilt and shame around sex came from the conditioning we receive from our religious or traditional upbringing, and therefore if we alter that religion or tradition, we can enjoy guilt-free sexual liberation. But the problem is that reality isn’t infinitely malleable. You can tell yourself that fire won’t burn, you can tell yourself that seeds won’t grow, you can tell yourself that sex is a harmless, innocuous activity—but when you stick your hand in the fire, when you plant the seed, when you have sex, you find out that there is a certain givenness to reality. And anyone who has suffered from sexual abuse knows that sex is not just sex.
But, lest you think I am trying to portray sex as a bad or negative thing, let me make it clear: sex should be handled carefully not because it is bad, but because it is so, so good. There is an entire book of the Bible (Song of Solomon) devoted to the joy of sex in marriage. We live at a time where sexuality has been hollowed out, radically disenchanted, and so a precious gift is treated like something common. And when you have experienced God’s holy and good design for sex and then see what so many assume sex is about today, you are left thinking that millions are approaching God’s feast of sexual delights, only to turn and eat the napkins and cutlery instead.
The Power of Sex
16 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.” (1 Cor 6:16)
When two people join together in the sexual act Paul says they become “one body” in that embrace. The question we have to ask is: what does Paul mean by “one body”? It must be referring to more than the physical embrace of the sexual act, because that is what “joined” refers to. And it would be non-sensical for Paul to simply say: do you not know that he who is joined to a prostitute is joined to a prostitute? The physical connection a couple makes in the sexual act serves as a symbol of a deeper connection taking place. The Corinthians may have been thinking: Look, it was just a prostitute—it didn’t mean anything more significant than a release of sexual energy, that’s all. But notice that Paul doesn’t leave that option open to the Corinthians. Just because you don’t intend sex to mean anything more than a sexual release, doesn’t mean that is all that it is.
As an aside, notice how this actually dignifies the prostitute? If the men of Corinth thought that sleeping with prostitutes didn’t count as anything wrong because “they were just prostitutes, just slaves,” then Paul’s teaching here shows the worth and value of all persons and the dignity of all human bodies. To this day, women and children around the world, through pornography, through human trafficking, are treated as nothing more than commodities, as products to be used to gratify a man’s urges. Christianity stands entirely opposed to this perspective—all persons are made in the image of God and are therefore entitled to bodily dignity. Historically, it was the rise of Christianity that changed the Roman custom of coerced prostitution and enshrined the ethic of sexual exclusivity in marriage. “The norm of sexually exclusive marriage is one of the primary legacies of the…church to future ages, and by recognizing the slave society in which this legacy first took shape, we can recognize how radical the idea truly was,” (Kyle Harper, Slavery in the Late Roman World AD 275-425, p. 323).
When you have sex with someone, something happens where two people are bound together as one, and to prove it, Paul cites the book of Genesis to show the one-flesh union sex is meant to represent, and we will look at that more in-depth in our next point. But this shows us that the power of sex extends beyond whatever intentions we may have. I may not intend for my hand to be burned as I thrust it into the fire but burn it will. Powerful things can be used for good or for ill. Fire can burn brightly in the fireplace, or it can burn your home down. Radioactive materials can power a city if handled correctly, or they can be turned into a nuclear bomb. So too, sex can be used for wonderful ends, or destructive ends.
So, Paul warns us: “Flee from sexual immorality. Every other sin a person commits is outside the body, but the sexually immoral person sins against his own body,” (1 Cor 6:18). Now, of course, there are plenty of other sins that affect your body: drunkenness, addiction, gluttony, self-harm, etc. So, what does Paul mean by this? Sexual sin affects your body in a way that nothing else does because sex has a power that nothing else does. And we all know this—if given the choice between someone physically assaulting us or sexually assaulting us, we all know we would choose physical assault, even though both involve another person using force against our will.
There is the physical consequences of sexually transmitted diseases and unplanned pregnancies, and the physical ravages of a sexually promiscuous lifestyle, what Paul refers to as the “dishonoring of…bodies” in Romans 1:24-27.
But there is also emotional/relational consequences as well. When Paul states that we become “one body” with those we have sex with, and then cites the Genesis account of “the two shall become one flesh” I don’t think that is saying that the equivalent of a marriage bond is formed with whoever you have a sexual relationship with (otherwise, Paul would tell the Corinthian men to go marry the prostitute). I think what he is saying is that the sexual union that is intended only for marriage still has a binding-like effect on you. Whether or not you know it, whenever you have sex with someone, you are giving part of yourself to them, and that binds you together. Physiologically, men and women’s brains produce chemicals after sexual intercourse that make the individuals feel very strongly like: I really, really need this person in my life, I love them. Which is great when the person you are having sex with is someone who is going to be in your life forever. But if they leave? Well, then it is very painful. If you are going to fuse two pieces of metal together, you want to make sure those two pieces should be fused, because to tear them apart will be difficult and destructive.
Lastly, sexual immorality is a sin against our body in that when we enter into a sexual relationship with someone who isn’t our spouse, we are sinning against the one-flesh union of our future or present spouse. Sex in marriage is the giving of yourself entirely to your spouse: body, soul, mind, heart—everything. But if you have been giving yourself to another? Good sex, the God-given design of sex, is the full giving of your person to another. Bad sex is the restriction of that full giving. It is giving your body, without your heart, without your future. If your mind is shut off because of the guilt you are experiencing, because of the envy you feel, because of the shame over something you feel like you have to keep hidden, sex will be awful.
The Plan for Sex
Paul teaches that any sexual activity with another person leads to more than just a physical connection between them—they become “one body.” For proof, he quotes the marriage text from the Genesis story of Adam and Eve: “Therefore a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and they shall become one flesh. 25 And the man and his wife were both naked and were not ashamed,” (Gen 2:24-25).
This is interpreted by Jesus and Paul as the foundational teaching on marriage. God presents Eve as a bride to Adam, and then lays down this universal principle. From it we learn that sex is a physical union that displays a whole-life union.
Commitment: A man leaves his family unit, his father and mother, and finds a wife that he “holds fast to”—what does that mean? It means that he stays with her, clings to her, holds on to her. It means that marriage is not the cohabitation of two individuals whose life happens to line up together and so while their interests and circumstances align, they share a life together. No, it means that where there once was two lives, there now is one. When Jesus was asked about when divorce was permissible, He quotes this passage and then adds this little comment: “So they are no longer two but one flesh. What therefore God has joined together, let not man separate,” (Matt 19:6). I am not intending to venture into the issue of divorce, but just showing you how Jesus understood this passage to imply that what is being described in Genesis is the divine, God-ordained fusing together of two lives, inseparably. The context of the gift of sex is to be within the lifetime covenant of marriage.
- This means that sex is never used to procure a relationship (if we have sex, then maybe he’ll want a relationship with me), nor is it used to keep a relationship (if we stop having sex, she might leave me...if I am not impressive enough in the bedroom, they might find someone else who is).
- Sex will only thrive and become enjoyable when you know that the other person isn’t going anywhere, when sex is the celebration of the rest of your life-commitment, not the carrot you are using to hopeful secure that commitment.
- Also, remember that sex leads to children! And children thrive and grow in the stable environment that this kind of commitment brings.
Exclusive: This also shows us that the gift of sex is to be exclusively shared between a husband and a wife. It isn’t something practiced before marriage, or done outside of the confines of the marriage. It is the two who become one.
- This means that sex is only enjoyed within marriage, and is never opened up to others in the marriage, meaning that all other sexual encounters, whether they are done with knowledge and consent of the other spouse or hidden from them, whether they are with real people or digital or merely a fantasy, are forbidden.
- Sex binds you together and so is designed only to be given to the one person you have bound yourself to in all other ways.
Transparent: The two are naked and unashamed. This involves the free delighting in one another’s bodies, but it is more than that because as soon as sin enters the world in the next chapter, the first thing they do is hide from one another, hide from God, and cover their nakedness. This doesn’t make any immediate sense when reading the story—the sin had nothing to do with their naked bodies—unless we realize that the nakedness in Eden wasn’t only physical nudity, but something more. When we are told that two are naked and unashamed it means that their whole life, the mind, body, heart, and soul have been open to each other. When sin enters, they now sense that some part of them is shameful, and so stitch together fig leaves to hide from each other.
Here is the weird thing: everyone knows that the best thing about sex is the relational intimacy it brings. You are not only physically close with someone, but emotionally and spiritually close as well. But, because our culture has been put on a starvation diet sexually, they have become obsessed with thinking that the best sex is had through better sexual techniques, through better looking bodies, and through more sexual experience with different partners. But great sex comes from being able to look someone in the eye and know: You know everything about me, nothing is hidden from you; I know everything about you, nothing is hidden from me; and I know we love and desire each other.
Maybe your sex life is strained right now because you have been hiding something from your spouse. Maybe you feel deeply ashamed of something that you did, something that was done to you in the past. Maybe you are currently doing something right now—maybe you are hiding an affair, an addiction to pornography, maybe you have been lying to your spouse about something that has nothing to do with your sex life. And, I promise you, the hope of a better sex life isn’t enough.
Friend, what you need to know is that there is a Savior who sees your sin and has made atonement for it. If you feel dirty from sexual sin, you need more than a fresh start or positive messages to tell yourself, you need a Savior who tells you “Though your sins be as scarlet, they shall be white as snow. Though they be as crimson, they shall be like wool,” (Isa 1:18). Jesus has not only settled your debt for sin, He hasn’t only saidyour guilty, you’re a sinner, your sins stand our like crimson, they are blood-red… but I forgive you, I will take the punishment your sins deserve. But when somehow when He dies, when He spills his own crimson blood for our crimson sins, He then looks at our sins and sees…purity, clean as snow, pure as wool, spotless.
If you feel like you have fallen down a thousand times in sexual failure, you need to hear Micah confidently assert: “Rejoice not over me, O my enemy; when I fall, I shall rise; when I sit in darkness, the LORD will be a light to me,” (Micah 7:8). Jesus’s death has not only forgiven you, washed you, it has also empowered you to rise again, to not succumb to despair in the battle with sin.
If you feel like you have been treated like a non-person, like a prostitute, used and abused by other people for their own sexual appetites, then you need to hear from the God who loves and saves the prostitutes and harlots of the world, “I will betroth you to me in righteousness and in justice, in steadfast love and in mercy, I will betroth you to me in faithfulness. And you shall know the Lord,” (Hos 2:19-20).