Pauline theology champions freedom from the law. To Paul, the law brought death, but the spirit gave life (2Co 3:6). To Paul, those who are under the law are under a curse (Gal 3:10). To Paul, the law was a teacher, for which we no longer have need (Gal 3:24-25). To Paul, he was a special apostle, entrusted with this new message, never before revealed to man (Eph 3:5). When Paul is called to account in Acts 21, it is because he is offending Christians who are zealous for the law (Act 21:20). James makes Paul perform a ritual to prove to all he is not teaching Jews to forsake the law (something we have every indication to believe Paul was actually doing). What is Paul’s teaching? Why is it offensive? Why does James take issue with Paul?
Pauline theology, however it is framed, came in contrast to the previous messages of the law. Pauline theology, to most modern Christians who are familiar with the subject, is largely considered as freedom from just the symbolic/ritual laws of Moses. To these Christians, Paul taught not against laws on morality, but laws about priestly holiness (they may not use this term). But in several places throughout the Bible, Paul describes a somewhat more nuanced view, one of freedom from “all law”. In Pauline theology, Christ’s death absolves all sins and thus makes sin irrelevant for salvation. To Paul, one refrains from sin, not because it will send one to hell, but because of the natural consequences of sin.
In 1 Corinthians 6, this aspect of Pauline theology is hard to deny. Chapter 6 begins with Paul chastising the Corinthians for how they treat each other. He basically accuses them of being the same as sinners. He lists out an entire series of sins by which they may be guilty:
1Co 6:9 Do you not know that the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived. Neither fornicators, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor homosexuals, nor sodomites,
1Co 6:10 nor thieves, nor covetous, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor extortioners will inherit the kingdom of God.
Paul, in verses 9-10, informs his readers that the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God, which reads almost as a threat that they might lose their salvation, or that they themselves might not inherent the kingdom, or that they themselves may be classified as these sinful categories. But this does not line up with Paul’s overall message, so he clarifies:
1Co 6:11 And such were some of you. But you were washed, but you were sanctified, but you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus and by the Spirit of our God.
Although Paul almost accuses his readers of being sinners, he then switches to claim that they “were” some of these things. There was a process by which they were cleaned: they were washed, sanctified and justified. At this point, the reader might be wondering how Paul’s argument is shaking out. He nearly accuses them of being sinners, but then explains their sanctification. What if they sin after they are sanctified and justified? Do they then need new justification? Doesn’t being justified clear them of wrongdoing? Can they still be sinners even after justification?
Paul anticipates the questions and explains:
1Co 6:12 All things are lawful for me, but all things are not helpful. All things are lawful for me, but I will not be brought under the power of any.
Paul is drawing a Venn diagram. All things are lawful, but not all things are helpful/expedient/useful. This means there is a class of action that is both lawful and not helpful. A critic of Paul might claim: “if what you are saying is true, then murder would be lawful.” Paul’s rebuttal is that, sure, it might be lawful, but that doesn’t give you go reason to do it. There are perfectly good reasons to avoid bad things other than their status under the law. In effect, Paul is saying that just because someone has the freedom to do something, doesn’t make it a good idea. Just because someone in America has the freedom to dress like a chicken and wander the sidewalks with an axe, doesn’t make it a good idea (and no one in their right mind would defend it).
Paul does not stop here, he illustrates his point:
1Co 6:13 Foods for the stomach and the stomach for foods, but God will destroy both it and them. Now the body is not for sexual immorality but for the Lord, and the Lord for the body.
1Co 6:14 And God both raised up the Lord and will also raise us up by His power.
Paul is giving two examples of what he means. He needs something that is both lawful but not helpful. He attacks dietary law. Sure, his converts COULD take up kosher law, but why? Our bodies will just be destroyed and remade. What does it gain them? Paul’s second example is very critical. Paul uses sexual immorality as an illustration. What this means is that Paul is saying sexual immorality (seeing prostitutes, in context) may be lawful, but we still should not do it. Paul lists some basic reasons, and then elaborates. Apparently some of his readers were frequenting prostitutes. Paul does not tell them they are not Christian, but explains to them the consequences of their actions:
1Co 6:15 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 harlot? Certainly not!
1Co 6:16 Or do you not know that he who is joined to a harlot is one body with her? For “THE TWO,” He says, “SHALL BECOME ONE FLESH.”
1Co 6:17 But he who is joined to the Lord is one spirit with Him.
1Co 6:18 Flee sexual immorality. Every sin that a man does is outside the body, but he who commits sexual immorality sins against his own body.
1Co 6:19 Or do you not know that your body is the temple of the Holy Spirit who is in you, whom you have from God, and you are not your own?
1Co 6:20 For you were bought at a price; therefore glorify God in your body and in your spirit, which are God’s.
Paul’s argument against sexual immorality is multi-faceted. First, our bodies should be dedicated to God. Second, our bodies are part of a corporate body of Christians. If Christians have sex with prostitutes (and because sex is the uniting of bodies) then Christians are making prostitutes part of the body of the Church (which may be a mixing of metaphors, but the point still holds). Finally, Paul argues that sexual sin is us harming our own bodies. There is a physical consequence of sexual sin (perhaps STDs, emotional pain, or just general ill consequences).
Notice per the second reason, Paul does not say that Christians who have sex with prostitutes are no longer Christians. If that was the case, his analogy would fall apart.
Paul truly did belief that “all things are lawful.” In context, he lists fornicators, idolaters, adulterers, homosexuals, sodomites, thieves, covetous, drunkards, revilers, extortioners, and then he illustrates by exampling the sexually immoral. It is a bold and contextless claim to think that Paul suddenly starts talking about only ritual law in the middle of talking about a whole host of sin, before and after. Pauline theology can best be summed up by Paul himself: “All things are lawful… but all things are not helpful.”
When people arguing against “all things being lawful” by claiming that these teachers are teaching that people should sin, they miss the point. Paul’s critics literally made the same arguments against Paul, and Paul responds! Paul counters them by giving long lists of reasons that although something is lawful, it might not be expedient and people should not do them. “Losing your salvation” or “no longer being a Christian”, was not in his list of reasons. This should be very telling.
It is important for modern Christians to understand the workings of Paul’s theology and how it contrasted for the teaching of Jesus and the 12. This is particularly true, as Pauline theology took dominance in the Christian church after the destruction of Jerusalem. Attempting to explain Paul’s teaching as a continuation of Jesus’ gospel just is not a tenable position. Most modern Christians have given up Kosher food laws and observance of the Sabbath. Even circumcision is largely out of favor. Jesus and the 12 apostles never taught against these things, but affirmed them wherever they address the subject. Paul advocated against the law. It was Paul’s theology that revolutionized the ancient world.