Holiness and Sexuality in the Pauline Writings

© (2011)David Peterson

‘Dividing doctrine from ethics not only creates the possibility for serious mistakes in Christian thinking but also diminishes the coherence of the life of holiness which is the Christian vocation.’[1]

The demand for holiness that is central to Leviticus and the whole Mosaic Law (e.g. Ex. 19:6; Lev. 19:2; 20:7; 21:8) remains at the heart of Christian exhortation in the New Testament (e.g. Col. 3:12-17; 1 Thes. 4:1-8; Heb. 12:14; 1 Pet. 1:13-16).  The apostolic writings reinterpret and apply a number of fundamental prohibitions and exhortations found in the Mosaic Law, to tease out for us what it means to be God’s holy people under the New Covenant.  The essential theological point is that Christians are to be distinct from the world in values and behaviour, because they belong to the Lord Jesus Christ. Holiness is a gospel issue because Christ’s redemptive work makes a new form of sanctification possible.  Holiness of life is a sign of true conversion and allegiance to Christ, so that failure to pursue holiness indicates a life out of touch with the Lord and his will.

1.  Abstaining from sexual immorality (1 Thes. 4:1-8)

a. The will of God for Christians

Writing to the Thessalonians, Paul reminds his converts that they had received instructions from him ‘through the Lord Jesus’ how they ought to live and to please God (1 Thes. 4:1-2).  He urges them to follow these instructions more and more and declares that the will of God for them is their ‘sanctification’.[2] Holiness of life under the New Covenant flows from consecration to God in Christ (cf. 1 Cor. 1:2, 30; 6:11; Eph. 5:26-7; 2 Thes. 2:13).  The immediate context indicates that this involves obedience to apostolic teaching, which comes with the authority of the Lord Jesus himself.  In particular, Paul declares that holiness involves abstaining from all forms of porneia (v. 3).

The apostle appears to mean by this any form of sexual relationship outside marriage.[3] The challenge is amplified in these terms: ‘that each one of you know how to control his own body in holiness and honour, not in the passion of lust, like the Gentiles who do not know God’ (vv. 4-5).[4] Those who have come to know God in Jesus Christ will treat their bodies as his property.  If our bodies belong to the Lord, we are no longer free to use them selfishly or in accordance with the accepted values of the time.

There are two basic principles in this connection, which the apostle later develops in 1 Corinthians.  First, the body, which has been redeemed ‘for the Lord’, and which is now ‘a temple of the Holy Spirit’, cannot be used in a way that is contrary to God’s revealed will (1 Cor. 6:13-20).  So believers are to ‘flee from sexual immorality’ (6:18, porneia).  Second, when God gives the gift of marriage to a man and a woman, their bodies belong to one another.  Husbands and wives should use their bodies exclusively for the benefit and pleasure of their spouse (7:3-4).  In these passages, the notion of ‘belonging’, which is fundamental to the concept of holiness, is shown to be the basis of Paul’s sexual ethic.  Belonging to God involves belonging to one another within the boundaries that God defines.

Some have argued that the apostle introduces a new subject in v. 6, warning against the exploitation of a ‘brother’ in the field of commerce.[5] It is certainly critical to see God’s call for holiness extending to every sphere of life, but there are no compelling reasons to conclude that Paul moves away from his focus on sexual matters in this verse.  Indeed, the mention of ‘impurity’ or ‘uncleanness’ (Gk. akatharsia) in v. 7 confirms that the subject of the preceding verse is sexual rather than commercial behaviour.  Christians must beware of trespassing against brothers and sisters in Christ by behaving covetously (v. 6, Gk. pleonektein).  We must not only care about honouring God with our bodies but also be concerned about injuring others by our behaviour.  By crossing forbidden sexual boundaries, we may enrich ourselves at someone else’s expense.  Here the apostle may have in mind the sort of boundaries set out in the levitical law, where holiness and sexual behaviour are closely linked.  The Lord Jesus himself is ‘an avenger in all these things’ and will inflict the appropriate judgement on those who disregard his will (v. 6b; cf. 2 Thes. 1:6-10).

The flow of the argument in vv. 6-7 suggests that the coming judgement and God’s initial calling of us ‘in holiness’ are to be the ground and motivation for distinctive  Christian living.  God did not call us ‘for impurity’, but by setting us apart for himself, he indicated his desire for us to live differently, as those who belong to him.  The strength to live differently is experienced by those who know that they are loved and possessed by God.

b. The gift of the Spirit

A final reason for obeying God in sexual matters is introduced by the emphatic connecting word ‘therefore’ in v. 8 (Gk. toigaroun).  ‘Therefore whoever disregards this disregards not man but God, who gives his Holy Spirit to you.’  The apostle returns to the point made in vv. 1-2, insisting that his instructions come with divine authority.  Those who teach a more permissive policy or disregard Paul’s words by their actions are setting aside the explicit will of God.  Indeed, the Spirit he gives to Christians is the Spirit of holiness, and nothing unholy can be tolerated in the lives of individuals or communities where the Holy Spirit dwells (cf. 1 Cor. 3:16-17; 6:19-20; 2 Cor. 6:14- 7:1).  As he puts it elsewhere, the Spirit is given to make it possible for God’s people to exhibit the fruit of ‘love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control’ (Gal. 5:22-3).

Paul grounds his exhortation to holiness in 1 Thessalonians 4:8 by appealing to the fact of God’s continuous, sanctifying presence.[6] His reference to the giving of God’s Spirit specifically recalls the promise of Ezekiel 36:27 (‘I will put my spirit within you and cause you to walk in my statutes and be careful to obey my rules’).  Moving to a related theme in v. 9, Paul says, ‘now concerning brotherly love, you have no need for anyone to write to you, for you yourselves have been taught by God to love one another.’  He notes how their love has been generously expressed, but urges them ‘to do this more and more’ (v. 10).  Here, the ground of his appeal is the fact that they have been ‘taught by God’, which is a way of proclaiming the fulfilment of Jeremiah 31:34 (‘No longer shall each one teach his neighbour and each his brother saying, “Know the Lord”, for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest’).[7]

God is at work in the people of the New Covenant through the energising and consecrating power of his Spirit (v. 8), teaching and moulding them through his implanted word to conform to his will (v. 9).  Reflecting on the law of God and its implications in the light of Christ’s coming will be an aspect of this teaching and moulding.  Both verses imply that ‘it is God’s activity within the hearts of Christians that impels them to action.’[8] God’s holiness – what he essentially is – is present to us in the Holy Spirit.  God’s Spirit demands and makes possible the reflection of his holiness in the lives of his people.  We must not resist his Spirit by unchaste or loveless behaviour, but rather ‘abound’ in love (v. 10), which effectively means abounding in holiness (cf. 4:1; 3:11-13).

2. Purging the church of sexual immorality (1 Cor. 5:1-13)

In 1 Corinthians 5:1 – 6:20, the apostle demonstrates that ‘certain moral principles stand above and beyond situational variables’.[9] He first confronts a particular case of sexual immorality and condemns the complacency and arrogance of the church about this evil in their midst (5:1-13).  The general term porneia (5:1; cf. 1 Thes. 4:3) is further defined here in terms of an incestuous relationship not even tolerated in Roman law at that time.  In Deuteronomy 27:20 such behaviour stands under the curse of God and in Leviticus 20:11 it invites the death penalty.  What penalty does the New Testament apply in such a situation?

The apostolic injunction is to remove such a person from the church (1 Cor. 5:2).  This is further described as cleansing out ‘the leaven of malice and evil’ (5:7-8) and purging the evil person from their midst (5:13).  Such discipline is clearly designed to preserve the holiness of the church, even though the terminology is not specifically used.  Paul makes it clear that he is not telling Christians to cut themselves off from ‘the sexually immoral of this world, or the greedy and swindlers, or idolaters, since then you would need to go out of the world’ (5:10).  Rather, his concern is that believers should not ‘associate with anyone who bears the name of brother if he is guilty of sexual immorality or greed, or is an idolater, reviler, drunkard or swindler – not even to eat with such a one’ (5:11).

Sudden removal of an unrepentant offender from the believing community is also described as delivering or consigning him ‘to Satan for the destruction of the flesh, so that his spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord’ (5:5).  Such a move is designed to purge the man and the church of  ‘its fleshly stance of self-sufficiency’.[10] Removed from the sphere of God’s protection within the church and exposed to the satanic forces of evil in the world, the hope is that he will repent and so be saved and not finally lost.  Paul later insists that those who persist in such behaviour without repentance ‘will not inherit the kingdom of God’ (6:9-10).

In our tolerant and complacent age, it is hard for Christians to take such warnings and injunctions seriously.  We may readily agree with Paul that we should not judge outsiders, since that is God’s responisbility (5:12-13).  But we find it extremely difficult to accept the message that we are to judge those inside the church.  We can only grasp the importance of this and do it appropriately when we have recovered a sense of the holiness of God and God’s concern to manifest his holiness in the lives of his people.

3.  The power to change (1 Cor. 6:9-11)

a. The lifestyle of the ungodly

In 1 Corinthians 6:9-10 Paul makes it clear that ‘the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God’.  He has already used the term ‘unrighteous’ (v. 1) to describe ‘unbelievers’ (v. 6), in contrast with ‘the saints’ who will ‘judge the world’ (vv. 1-2).  In terms of what follows, the saints are those who have been washed, sanctified and justified ‘in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ, and by the Spirit of our God’ (v. 11, cf. 1:2).  The unrighteous will be those whose lives have not yet been transformed by the Lord and his Spirit.

Those who will not inherit the kingdom of God are further described as the sexually immoral, idolaters, adulterers, the passive and active partners in consenting homosexual acts, thieves, the greedy, drunkards, revilers, swindlers (vv. 9-10).  This is not a comprehensive list but it shows that there is a distinct pattern of behaviour that characterises ‘the unrighteous’ and differentiates them from ‘the saints’.

Four terms are added to the six already listed in 5:10-11.  Sexual immorality in all its forms is included with idolatry, dishonesty, greed and various expressions of self-indulgence and disorderliness.  Each item is regarded as being equally serious in God’s eyes.  None is worse than any other.  Some of the Corinthians appear to have been practising these vices.[11] They are warned to ‘stop deceiving themselves’ or to ‘stop being deceived’.  If they persist in such behaviour, they show themselves to be unconverted.  A different lifestyle is appropriate for those who are ‘sanctified in Christ Jesus’ (1:1; 6:11).

Some scholars have argued that Paul is developing a catalogue of vices that reflects little more than the culture-relative conventions of his day.  He simply writes from the perspective of a Greco-Roman moralist.  However, Anthony Thiselton shows that all the terms in Paul’s list have an Old Testament background and that the theological and ethical framework of the apostle’s appeal is distinctly biblical.  ‘Christian corporate identity has a distinctive foundation and a distinctive lifestyle as against Graeco-Roman social, political and religious traditions.’[12]

b. The behaviour to be rejected

The ‘sexually immoral’ (Gk. pornoi, cf. porneia in 1 Thes. 4:3) will include those who engage in incestuous behaviour (5:1) and prostitution (6:13, 16, 18).  ‘Adulterers’ more specifically means married persons having sexual relationships of any kind outside marriage.  Two new terms are added (Gk. malakoi, arsenokoitai), to bring consenting homosexuality into the frame.

Great debate has taken place regarding the meaning of these two words.  The adjective ‘soft’ (malakos) was used in the Greco-Roman world to describe those who were effeminate and allowed themselves to be treated as women.  There was another technical term for young men who sold themselves as ‘mistresses’ in a pederastic relationship with older men, but malakoi seems to refer to such passive homosexual behaviour in this context because it is coupled with arsenokoitai.[13]

The latter appears here and in 1 Timothy 1:10 for the first time in extant Greek literature and it is used sparingly by subsequent authors.  It is a compound of ‘male’ and ‘intercourse’ and could simply refer to male prostitutes of any kind.  So Boswell argued that it refers to ‘a male who engages in vulgar sexual intercourse’ and denies that it refers to homosexuality at all.[14] He insists that the term could not have been derived from the language of Leviticus about homosexuality:

It would simply not have occurred to most early Christians to invoke the authority of the old law to justify the morality of the new: the Levitical regulations had no hold on Christians and are manifestly irrelevant in explaining Christian hostility to gay sexuality.[15]

However, more recent scholars have argued that Paul’s term is indeed a translation of the Hebrew mishkav zakur (‘lying with a male’), derived from Leviticus 18:22; 20:13, and used in Rabbinic texts to refer to homosexual intercourse.[16] It reflects closely the LXX of Leviticus 20:13 (meta arsenos koitēn) and could be a deliberate way of alluding to the prohibition of the Mosaic law.  It literally means ‘bedders of males’ or ‘men who sleep with men’.  It cannot legitimately be broadened to include any kind of immoral sexual behaviour by males, nor can it be narrowed to exploitative same-sex intercourse.[17]

Together, malakoi and arsenokoitai appear to cover the full range of homosexual behaviour, the first word via classical usage having the sense of passivity, and the second via Leviticus having more active connotations.[18] Paul did not simply take over a conventional list of vices from Hellenistic authors, whether Jewish or secular.  He opposed homosexuality because ‘it is marked as a vice in the Torah’,[19] where it is presented as behaviour inconsistent with the holiness demanded of God’s people.

c. Why believers are different

‘This is what some of you used to be’, Paul affirms.  ‘But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God’ (v. 11).  His overall meaning is this:

‘Your own conversion, effected by God through the work of Christ and the Spirit, is what has removed you from being amongst the wicked, who will not inherit the kingdom . . . Therefore, live out this new life in Christ and stop being like the wicked.’[20]

As in 1:30, three metaphors are used to explain how the saving work of Christ can benefit us.  Each aorist passive verb in Greek is preceded by the strong adversative ‘but’ (Gk. alla), though English translations rarely make this clear.  Paul is offering three different descriptions of the same reality, rather than alluding to a process of being washed, then sanctified, and then justified.

In the context, ‘you were washed’ (Gk. apelousasthe) implies a cleansing from the defilement of sin.  It is another way of talking about the effect of Christ’s sacrifice on those who believe the gospel.  If a baptismal reference is intended, Paul will be highlighting the spiritual cleansing which is sacramentally signified in baptism (cf. Eph. 5:26; Heb. 10:22).[21] The same verb is used in Acts 22:16, where Ananias says to Paul, ‘Rise and be baptized and wash away your sins, calling on his name’.[22]

When the apostle says ‘you were justified’ (Gk. edikaiōthēte), he employs the verb dikaioun, which comes from the same root as the noun dikaiosynē (‘righteousness, justification’) in 1:30.  The verb denotes,

‘God’s powerful, cosmic and universal action in effecting a change in the situation between sinful humanity and God, by which God is able to acquit and vindicate believers, setting them in a right and faithful relation to himself.’[23]

‘You were sanctified’ (Gk. hēgiasthēte) similarly corresponds with a noun used in 1:30 (hagiasmos, ‘holiness, sanctification’).  This terminology does not refer to a process of ethical development but highlights the fact that God claimed them as his own and made them members of his holy people (cf. 1:2).  He turned them around and brought them to himself in faith and love.  In ethical terms, however, such a separation from previous attachments and values has profound implications: ‘because of what God has done, the possibility of a new life is open to them; they are (in the language of v. 7) “unleavened”, and they must now purge out the old leaven and keep the Christian feast in sincerity and truth.’[24]

Paul uses the language of conversion or Christian initiation to make an implied moral appeal,

‘that having been once justified, they must not draw down upon themselves a new condemnation – that having been sanctified, they must not pollute themselves anew – that, having been washed, they must not disgrace themselves with new defilements, but, on the contrary, aim at purity, persevere in true holiness, and abominate their former pollutions.’[25]

This new situation is initiated and maintained from a human point of view by trusting in the power of Christ’s ‘name’ and by continuing to call upon that name.  The Spirit is the means whereby God ‘effects the work of Christ in the believer’s life’.[26]

d. Practical implications

Our essential identity as Christians is formed by Christ and the gospel, not by our own personalities, backgrounds or achievements.[27] Through the death and resurrection of his Son, God has cleansed us from the guilt of sin and liberated us from its consequences and its control.  He has set us in a right and faithful relation to himself, together with all who call upon the name of our Lord Jesus Christ.  Drawing us into an exclusive relationship with himself in this way, he has made us his holy people, destined to serve him and please him for ever.  Sanctification is about being possessed by God and expressing that distinctive and exclusive relationship by the way we live. [28]

This is an important perspective for us all to grasp, not least those who struggle with homosexual temptation.  The gay community encourages people to ‘come out’ and acknowledge that they are homosexuals, expressing who they are by engaging in homosexual behaviour.  However, the gospel tells us that our identity is formed by Christ and what he has done for us.  We are no longer to think of ourselves as essentially idolaters or homosexuals, as drunkards or thieves, but as Christians who struggle with temptation in these or other ways.  Whatever our background and past experience, in Christ we are part of the new creation he came to inaugurate: ‘the old has passed away; behold, the new has come.’ (2 Cor. 5:17)

Those who are bowed down by the pressure of temptation or are aware of failure need to be reminded of the definitive, sanctifying work of God in Christ, by which he has established us as his holy people.  On this basis, they should be urged to press on in hope and grasp again by faith the benefits of Christ’s sacrifice.  As in 1 Thessalonians 4, the challenge to holiness in this passage is accompanied by a reference to the Holy Spirit, whom God has given to enable his people to pursue holiness.

4.  Glorifying God with your body (1 Cor. 6:12-20)

The idea that the Christian’s body is for the Lord and not for self-gratification is made explicit at the end of 1 Corinthians 6.  Although holiness language is not used in verses 12-20, the emphasis on being redeemed and therefore owned by the Lord conveys a similar perspective.  As in the levitical law, the body is a means of glorifying God, though here the believer’s union with Christ and hope of resurrection give a special significance to that responsibility.

a. A false spirituality

Paul appears to dissociate himself from three Corinthian slogans here.  Firstly, ‘All things are lawful for me’ (v. 12), implying a freedom to do anything in the sexual realm.  Secondly, ‘Food is meant for the stomach and the stomach for food – and God will destroy both one and the other’ (v. 13), implying that neither eating nor sexual behaviour have any significance for our future destiny.  Thirdly, ‘every sin which a person commits is outside the body’ (v. 18).  The apostle is not addressing ‘libertines’ here but ‘spiritual’ people, ‘who extend freedom about food offered to idols (cf. 6:12; 10:23; 8:1 – 11:1) to wider issues about “the body”.’[29] As before, ‘the gospel itself is at stake, not simply the resolution of an ethical question.’[30]

The apostle’s response to the first slogan is not to deny the principle of Christian liberty but to qualify it with the words, ‘but not all things are helpful’.  This anticipates his use of edification terminology in 8:1, 10; 10:23; 14:4, 17, suggesting that his concern is not simply for what helps individuals but what helps the Christian community to express its true identity and purpose.  Paul also insists that he will not be enslaved by anything, implying that unqualified freedom brings bondage.

The second slogan reveals more of the theological agenda driving the spirituality that Paul attacks.  His opponents were making a separation between deeds done in the body – with regard to food or sex or property – and the spiritual life.  This sort of dualism was common in the Greco-Roman world in circles influenced by ‘a popular form of quasi-Platonic thought’.[31] It has resurfaced whenever Christians have had a weak or inadequate view of the resurrection of the body.  Perhaps the reference to food and the stomach was reinforced by a misunderstanding of the teaching of Jesus about defilement (cf. Mk. 7:14-23; Mt. 15:16-20).  Did freedom from food laws mean freedom from every other restraint?

While it is true that ‘food is meant for the stomach and the stomach for food – and God will destroy both one and the other’, that is not the whole story.  God raised the Lord Jesus bodily and will raise us up similarly ‘by his power’ (v. 14; cf. 15:35-49).  This is the basis for Paul’s assertion that, ‘the body is not meant for sexual immorality, but for the Lord, and the Lord for the body’ (v. 13).  The change from ‘stomach’ to ‘body’ is significant: body is ‘one of several terms used by Paul to denote not one part of man’s nature but man as a whole’.[32] God’s ownership of our bodies and his right to direct the way in which they should be used is clearly affirmed in the Old Testament.  However, it is the eschatological perspective that gives an even greater significance to this biblical teaching (cf. Rom. 6:12-13, 17-19; 12:1; Phil. 3:17-21).  God will raise us as a transformed humanity, ‘as the single in-Christ corporeity, for whom “bodily” existence matters.’[33]

b. The Lord and the body

Paul makes the extraordinary claim that ‘your bodies are members of Christ’ (v. 15).  Elsewhere he calls for us to present the ‘members’ (Gk. melē) of our bodies to God as ‘instruments for righteousness’ (Rom. 6:13; cf. 6:19).  He also speaks in various ways about Christians being ‘members’ of the body of Christ (e.g. Rom. 12:4-5; 1 Cor. 12:12-14, 18-20, 25-7) and therefore ‘members one of another’ (Eph. 4:25).  However, here the stress is on ourselves as a totality, in our bodily existence, being ‘joined to the Lord’ (v. 17, Gk. kollaō).  ‘The body of the believer is for the Lord because through Christ’s resurrection God has set in motion the reality of our own resurrection.’[34] Those who have been ‘bought with a price’ belong to Christ in a physical way (6:19-20).  Their union with Christ is more than spiritual.  They cannot take back what belongs to Christ and use it for unChristlike purposes.

The apostle uses the same verb to ‘join’ (Gk. kollaō) in his warning about going to a prostitute and becoming ‘one body with her’ (v. 16).  The language here recalls the LXX of Genesis 2:24 (where proskollaō is used).  Part of this text is then quoted to support Paul’s argument (‘as it is written, “The two will become one flesh”’).  The union of Christians with Christ is likened to a marriage.  Our bodies belong to Christ.  ‘The man who has sex with a prostitute is, in Paul’s construction, Christ’s “member” entering the body of the prostitute.’[35] To take away that which belongs to Christ and join it to another is to deny God’s purpose in creation and redemption.  Lack of devotion to Christ contradicts the ‘betrothal’ to Christ (2 Cor. 11:2-3) that conversion implies.

c. The Spirit and the body

Paul introduces the Holy Spirit into the equation when he says, ‘he who is joined to the Lord becomes one spirit with him’ (v. 17).  By the work of the Spirit, the believer’s spirit has been joined with Christ.[36] Thus, the body of each individual believer becomes ‘a temple of the Holy Spirit within you, whom you have from God’ (v. 19).  Previously, this image of the Spirit-filled temple has been used to highlight the sanctity of the local congregation (3:16-17).  Now the warning is about desecrating the bodies individually consecrated to God in Christ by the Spirit’s presence.

The close link between spirit and body in 6:17, 19 shows again that we belong to the Lord as a totality.  Body and spirit cannot be separated.  The body cannot be used in a way that is contrary to God’s will without impairing the spiritual union with Christ made possible by his redemptive work (vv. 19-20).  Hence the warning to ‘Flee from sexual immorality’ (v. 18; cf. 10:14).  This implies decisive action to avoid everything covered by the word porneia, though the immediate context has in view the particular example of heterosexual prostitution.  The positive alternative is to ‘Glorify God in your body’ (v. 20, Gk. doxasate; cf. 10:31).  God is to be honoured by using our bodies in the way that he directs.

Some commentators have argued that the words ‘every sin a person commits is outside the body’ (v. 18 lit.) are Paul’s own.  However, it seems more likely in the flow of the argument that this is the third Corinthian slogan. [37] Paul’s response is to affirm that ‘the sexually immoral person sins against his own body’.  Thus, he grounds his prohibition of sexual immorality ‘in three distinct but closely related arguments (vv. 15, 16-18, 19-20) relating respectively to Christ-violation, body-violation and Spirit-violation.’[38] Sexual sin is profoundly self-destructive, but not just from an individual or psychological perspective.  The inter-locking elements of Paul’s argument show that it is the person in union with Christ that is damaged.

d. Practical implications

Far from devaluing sex, Paul perceived the sexual act as ‘one of intimacy and self-commitment which involved the whole person; not the mere manipulation of some “peripheral” function of the body.’[39] Of course, people do engage in sexual activity in a manipulative and impersonal way.  A rape situation would be the most destructive example of this.  Paul’s point is not that any kind of sexual union makes the participants ‘one flesh’.  Rather, the joining of bodies is a violation of God’s purpose for sex unless it is an expression of the exclusive commitment of a man and woman in marriage, according to the pattern of Genesis 2:24.  Moreover, for the Christian, sexual union outside the commitment of heterosexual marriage is a misuse of the Spirit-indwelt body that belongs to the Lord.  It is an unholy act.

Gordon Fee helpfully concludes his comments on 1 Corinthians 6 with this observation:

‘Those who take Scripture seriously are not prudes or legalists at this point; rather, they recognize that God has purchased us for higher things.  Our bodies belong to God through the redemption of the cross; and they are destined for resurrection.  Part of the reason why Christians flee sexual immorality is that their bodies are for the Lord, who is to be honored in the deeds of the body as well as in other behavior and attitudes.’[40]

5.  Overall conclusions

What then are the continuities between Old and New Testaments with regard to holiness and sexuality?

a. The nature of holiness

In both testaments, holiness is a status conferred by God on those he has redeemed and drawn to himself.  It is also a calling to be lived out in obedience to his word, in separation from the world and its values.  Holiness is an expression of the covenant relationship in which God has placed us.  We are to bear witness to a fallen world of God’s character and intentions for humanity by our distinctive, God-determined lifestyle.

b. The parameters of holiness

The parameters of holiness are established for Israel in the Mosaic law, where issues of sexual behaviour and interpersonal relationships are central.  But the prescriptions of the law with regard to sexuality reflect the fundamental principles of Genesis about God’s purposes in creation.  The parameters of holiness under the New Covenant are established by Jesus and his apostles.  They affirm again the foundational intentions of God for marriage and sexuality, as reflected in the creation narratives and the provisions of the Mosaic law.

Although Christians are not under the law, what the law essentially required is fulfilled under the New Covenant in ‘those who walk not according to the flesh but according to the Spirit’ (Rom. 8:4).  New Testament teaching on sexuality and holiness is often given with reference to particular situations in the early church.  However, the principles enunciated are above and beyond situational variables because they are rooted in the clear and unequivocal position of the Old Testament.

The apostle Paul was relaxed about the abandonment of biblical regulations about circumcision, sacrificial rituals and food laws, but not about matters of sexual conduct.  ‘For these were understood to be based on God’s purpose for humanity in creation and not on his temporal election of Israel as a distinct group among the nations.’[41] Put another way, the fulfilment of God’s saving purpose for Israel and the nations in Christ demanded the relaxation of the former but not the latter.

c. The penalty for unholiness

The immediate penalty for serious cases of sexual misbehaviour amongst professing Christians is excommunication or exclusion from the fellowship of believers until repentance has been expressed (cf. 1 Cor. 5:1-5).  The ultimate penalty for persistent sexual misbehaviour is exclusion from the kingdom of God (cf. 1 Cor. 6:9-10).



[1] Proposition 2 of Six Propositions from the Inter-Anglican Theological and Doctrinal Commission, 2003.

[2] The noun hagiasmos in 4:3, 4, 7 could be understood as a synonym for ‘holiness’ in 3:13 (hagiōsynē), meaning the state or condition to which we are called in Christ.  However, it is possible that a more dynamic sense should be understood.  God’s will is ‘sanctification’ in the sense that he demands a consecrated lifestyle.  We are to keep our bodies sanctified for him (4:4) because that is the context or condition in which we were called (4:7).  Cf. D. Peterson, Possessed by God.  A New Testament theology of sanctification and holiness NSBT 1 (Leicester: Apollos; Downers Grove: Inter Varsity, 1995), pp. 139-142.

[3] Cf. BAGD, p. 693; Grimm-Thayer, pp. 531-2.  H. Reisser, NIDNTT 1:497 argues that the Greek word-group can describe various modes of extra-marital sex ‘insofar as they deviate from accepted social and religious norms (e.g. homosexuality, promiscuity, paedophilia, and especially prostitution)’.

[4] ‘To control you own body’ is the rendering of the Greek to heautou skeuos ktasthai preferred by NRSV, NIV, ESV.  Cf. F. F. Bruce, Word Biblical Commentary 45 1 & 2 Thessalonians (Waco: Word, 1982), p. 83.  The word skeuos literally means ‘thing, object, vessel’, but it is used figuratively in various ways.  E. Best, A Commentary on the First and Second Epistles to the Thessalonians BNTC (London: Black: 1972, 1977), pp. 161-3, takes it to mean ‘wife’ in 1 Thes. 4:4, as do NRSV, ESV margins (‘to take a wife for himself’) and NIV margin (‘to live with his own wife’).

[5] The reasons for such an approach are well presented, and then dismissed, by Best, First and Second Thessalonians, pp. 165-6.  He rightly points out that this verse could be referring specifically to homosexual exploitation of a fellow Christian.

[6] ‘The dynamic that makes Paul’s argument against sexual impurity possible is the experienced reality of the Spirit’ (G. D. Fee, God’s Empowering Presence.  The Holy Spirit in the Letters of Paul [Peabody: Hendrickson, 1994], p. 53).

[7] This is another way of speaking about God’s law being written in the heart (Jer. 31:33).  The Thessalonians’ love for one another is ‘the effect of God’s immediate and efficacious action at the very source of their moral personality’ (T. J. Deidun, New Covenant Morality in Paul [Rome: Biblical Institute, 1981], p. 58).

[8] Deidun, New Covenant Morality in Paul, p. 58.  In the holy People of the New Covenant, ‘the consecrating and unifying power of God’s presence is interiorised’ (p. 60).

[9] A. C. Thiselton, The First Epistle to the Corinthians.  A Commentary on the Greek text, NIGTC (Grand Rapids/Cambridge: Eerdmans; Carlisle: Paternoster, 2000), p. 381.

[10] Thiselton, First Epistle to the Corinthians, p. 397 (emphasis removed).  Thiselton argues against the view that ‘the flesh’ to be destroyed is his human body.  Cf. J. T. South, Disciplinary Practices in Pauline Texts (Lewiston, N. Y.: Mellen, 1992), pp. 1-88, 181-98.

[11] K. Bailey, ‘Paul’s Theological Foundation for Human Sexuality: 1 Cor. 6:12-20 in the light of Rhetorical Criticism’, Near Eastern School of Theology Theological Review 3 (1980), pp. 27-41, argues that the sexual issues relate to 5:1-13 and 6:12-20; the issues of greed and grasping, eating and being drunk to 11:17-34.

[12] Thiselton, First Epistle to the Corinthians, p. 447 (emphasis removed), concluding a whole section of interaction with alternative views (pp. 440-7).

[13] Cf. G. D. Fee, The First Epistle to the Corinthians (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1987), pp. 243-4, interacting with R. Scroggs, The New Testament and Homosexuality.  Contextual Background for Contemporary Debate (Philadelphia, 1983) and J. Boswell, Christianity, Social Tolerance and Homosexuality (Chicago, 1980).  Gagnon, The Bible and Homosexual Practice, pp. 308-12, argues that malakoi in 1 Cor. 6:9 refers to immoral sexual intercourse, rather than effeminate behaviour, because it is sandwiched in between the terms moichoi and arsenokoitai.

[14] Boswell, Christianity, Social Tolerance and Homosexuality, pp. 345-53.

[15] Boswell, Christianity, Social Tolerance and Homosexuality, p. 105.

[16] Cf. Scroggs, The New Testament and Homosexuality, pp. 106ff; J. R. Wright, ‘Boswell on Homosexuality: A Case Undemonstrated’, Anglican Theological Review LXVI (1984), pp. 79-94; D. F. Wright, ‘Homosexuals or Prostitutes?  The Meaning of arsenokoitēs (1 Cor. 6:9; 1 Tim. 1:10)’,VC 38 (1984), pp. 125-153; ‘Translating arsenokoitai (1 Cor. 6:9; 1 Tim. 1:10)’, VC 41 (1987), pp. 396-8.

[17] Cf. Gagnon, The Bible and Homosexual Practice, pp. 312-336, critiquing Scroggs and others.

[18] Cf. Webb, ‘Homosexuality in Scripture’, p. 92; Thiselton, First Epistle to the Corinthians, pp. 448-452.

[19] B. Rosner, Paul, Scripture, and Ethics. A Study of 1 Corinthians 5-7 (Leiden: Brill, 1994; Grand Rapids: Baker, 1999), p. 120.

[20] Fee, First Epistle to the Corinthians, p. 245.

[21] C. K. Barrett, A Commentary on the First Epistle to the Corinthians (2nd ed. London: Black, 1971), p. 141, points out that the use of the non-technical apelousasthe, instead of ebaptisthēte (‘you were baptised’), implies that ‘it is the inward meaning rather than the outward circumstances of the rite that is important to Paul’.  Fee, First Epistle to the Corinthians, pp. 246-7, is less certain about baptismal associations in 1 Cor. 6:11.  Nevertheless, he still equates ‘washing’ with regeneration through the Spirit, which is inconsistent with his view that the metaphor refers to the removal of ‘the “filth” of the vice catalogue’ in vv. 9-10, in which case it is another way of talking about forgiveness

[22] In the apostolic preaching, the offer of forgiveness is directly linked with repentance towards God and faith in Jesus as the Christ (cf. Acts 2:38; 3:19-20; 5:31; 10:43; 13:38-9).  Baptism is not always explicitly mentioned in this connection, although it is regularly associated with commitment to Christ and the beginning of the Christian life.

[23] A. E. McGrath, ‘Justification’, Dictionary of Paul and his Letters, (ed.) G. F. Hawthorne, R. P. Martin & D. G. Reid (Downers Grove/Leicester: IVP), p. 518.  Cf. M. A. Seifrid, Justification by Faith: The Origin and Development of a Central Pauline Theme (Brill: Leiden, 1992).

[24] Barrett, First Epistle to the Corinthians, p. 142.  He argues that Paul is referring to ‘the moral effects of conversion’ in us, rooted in the work of Christ outside of us and for us, and ‘sealed in baptism’.

[25] Calvin’s Commentaries  Vol. 11  Romans-Galatians (Wilmington: Associated Publishers and Authors, no date), p. 1602.

[26] Fee, God’s Empowering Presence, p. 129.  Fee rightly opposes the view that each verb in the sequence corresponds to the persons of the Trinity (washed = Christ; sanctified = Spirit; justified = God).

[27] Rosner, Paul, Scripture, and Ethics, p. 118, rightly observes that ‘the same structure of thought (identity informs behaviour) pervades the book of Deuteronomy and is scattered throughout the Hebrew prophets.’

[28] We must continue to see ourselves as God sees us in Christ.  G. C. Berkouwer, Faith and Sanctification (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1952), p. 21, observes that, ‘The moment sanctification is ejected from the temple of faith, and hence of justification, that moment justification by faith has become an initial stage on the pilgrim’s journey, a supply-station which later becomes a pleasant memory.’

[29] Thiselton, First Epistle to the Corinthians, p. 459.  Thiselton, pp. 462-3, rightly proposes that the second slogan included the words ‘and God will destroy both one and the other’ (v. 13), which are normally not included in the quotation marks in English versions.

[30] Fee, First Epistle to the Corinthians, p. 251.

[31] Thiselton, First Epistle to the Corinthians, p. 462.  Thiselton notes that ‘this becomes even more marked if proto-gnostic influences were also at work’.  Cf. Barrett, First Epistle to the Corinthians, pp. 144-5, on the different directions that Gnosticism took.

[32] Barrett, First Epistle to the Corinthians, p. 147 (emphasis removed).  Paul opposes the view that there is a valid analogy between the use of the stomach for digestion and of the body for fornication.  ‘Sexual intercourse, unlike eating, is an act of the whole person, and therefore participates not in the transiency of material members but in the continuity of the resurrection life.’ (Barrett, p. 148)

[33] Thiselton, First Epistle to the Corinthians, p. 464.  The corporate or communal dimension to this is well brought out by Thiselton.  It clearly links with the biblical emphasis on an appropriate love between the redeemed, a love which does not cross forbidden boundaries.

[34] Fee, First Epistle to the Corinthians, p. 258.  The present implication of this is that the public embodied life of Christ’s people is ‘the instantiation of the gospel which points to, and thereby identifies Christ for the world.’ (Thiselton, First Epistle to the Corinthians, p. 466.)

[35] D. B. Martin, The Corinthian Body (New Haven: Yale University, 1995), p. 228.  Thiselton, First Epistle to the Corinthians, p. 468, observes that, ‘The identity crisis which the immoral relationship brings about concerns both the individual identity boundaries of the offender and the corporate identity boundaries of what it is to belong to the people of Christ in union with Christ.’

[36] So Fee, First Epistle to the Corinthians, p. 260, and Thiselton, First Epistle to the Corinthians, p. 469.

[37] Thiselton, First Epistle to the Corinthians, pp. 471-2, lists and comments on the alternative views.  Fee, First Epistle to the Corinthians, pp. 261-3, seriously entertains the possibility that it is a Corinthian slogan which Paul develops but then argues against this position.

[38] B. N. Fisk, ‘porneu,ein as Body Violation: The Unique Nature of Sexual Sin in 1 Cor. 6:18’, NTS 42 (1996), pp. 540-58 (p. 557).

[39] Thiselton, First Epistle to the Corinthians, p. 474.  Cf. D. S. Bailey, The Man-Woman Relation in Christian Thought (London: Longmans, 1959), pp. 9-10.

[40] Fee, First Epistle to the Corinthians, p. 266.

[41] D. W. Gomez (ed.), True Union in the Body?  A contribution to the discussion within the Anglican Communion concerning the public blessing of same-sex unions (Oxford, 2002), p. 24.  ‘Following the example of Jesus, the New Testament Church welcomed all, relativizing the distinctions between Jew and Gentile, whilst at the same time preserving a distinctive ethical challenge.’ (Gomez, True Union, p. 25)



One thought on “Holiness and Sexuality in the Pauline Writings

  1. Pingback: Holiness and Homosexuality – Justin Taylor

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