Sunday Devotional: 1 Corinthians 6:12
‘All things are lawful for me’–but not everything is useful. ‘All things are lawful for me’–but I will not be put under authority by something.
This week, I want to consider this verse from Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians. In context, Paul has just chastised the church over its handling of an incest case, and dealt with the question of whether it’s right for Christians to sue each other in the secular courts. In both these instances, Paul draws attention to the importance of Christian behavior, and keeping purity of practice. Christians shouldn’t live like the world; we operate from a different worldview with a different value system. For this reason, Christians should not go to the world to decide issues between brethren.
“All things are lawful for me” is a quotation. The Greek doesn’t have any way of indicating this (e.g., by way of quotation marks), but from the context I think this is clear, and most scholars appear to affirm this view. Who is Paul quoting? Evidently, it is a counterpoint to what Paul has said: if all things are lawful, then why shouldn’t someone be allowed to have intimate relations with whomever he or she wants? And why shouldn’t a Christian be allowed to take his lawsuit to anyone he or she wants?
More specifically, there are, I think, two possible origins for the quote. The first is from a Gnostic group. Now is not the time to get into exactly what Gnosticism was, but broadly speaking, the Gnostics were an esoteric group that believed only spirit was pure, and that the physical was inherently evil. This spawned two approaches to the body: one extremely ascetic view would mistreat the body, either with physical beating, or perhaps with tight-fitting garments–essentially “punishing” the body. There would be no fear of death in this, since death would mean release from the physical realm. The other view went in the opposite direction: the body is inconsequential, so it really doesn’t matter what you do with it–gluttony, fornication, and whatever other physical pleasure or pain you inflict wouldn’t make any difference.The physical is already condemned as evil; it’s your spirit that matters. You can see how this latter view would give rise to the idea that “all things are lawful” or “all things are permissible.”
Another possible origin comes from Paul’s teaching on Christian freedom. In Romans, Paul talks about Christians as having been set free from sin; that in Christ we are no longer under the penalty of sin, and sin is not our master. From this, one might conclude that the Christian can do whatever he or she likes, because the penalty for sin has already been paid. All things are permissible for the one for whom the wrath of God has been appeased in Christ.
Paul’s response is twofold. First, that not all things are useful, or profitable (Greek: sumpherô). Quite simply, you may have the ability to do something, and if it is sinful, indeed, the blood of Christ covers you. But that doesn’t mean it’s something you should do. I think it’s true to say that Christians should always reflect upon God’s Word before making decisions. Is this something consistent with God’s commands? Does it glorify Him? And if it’s something we know to be sinful, we should ask “What will this do to my relationship with God? To my prayer life? To my witness of Christ before my non-Christian friends, my children, etc? “Not beneficial” may seem a weak term to use, but Paul strengthens his language a little later in the passage (e.g., 6:15, “Do you not know that your bodies are members of Christ..?”)
Second, Paul responds that he will not be “put under authority by something.” The literal Greek makes for awkward English, since the verb he uses is the passive form of the verb, exousiazô, “to have authority over,” which doesn’t make for an easy passive form in English. The best I can do is something like “to be put under authority to,” or “to be put under authority by.” In any case, I hope you get the idea: subjugation (and perhaps that might be a better term to use here!). Paul is saying that while all things are permissible to him, he will not be subjugated by anything. Christ is his Lord, and nothing else will take Christ’s place. Maybe Paul has in mind the fact that in Christ, we have been set free from sin, and are now “married” to Christ (see Romans 7). This would certainly make sense given what he says in verse 17 about being “joined to the Lord.” If we are now in Christ, joined to him, then our desire should be to live in a way that pleases him. Any desire to sin should, therefore, be resisted, otherwise we are living as if sin has authority in our lives that it no longer has.
There’s a lot more in this passage about Christian living that’s worthy of study, but I hope these thoughts help you (and me) as we daily become conformed to the image of Christ in our thinking and our doing.
Have a great week!