The Bible in a Year – 23 October

If this is your first viewing, please see my Introduction before reading this.

23 October. Romans chapters 11-13

Chapter 11 is a rather convoluted argument (to Western readers) about God’s favour and his anger towards both Jews and Gentiles according to their attitudes, and how one groups seems to be played off against the other.  But the image he uses of a cultivated olive tree – nourished from its ancient roots and able to sustain both natural and grafted branches – is a helpful one.  There is always a danger in religious practice of considering one’s own beliefs (in this metaphor, a single olive) or one’s own church grouping (the branch) as being all that matters.  In fact what matters most is staying connected to the whole tree (all those who believe), and through it to the roots (God’s sustaining love) without which the whole tree would die.

Chapter 12 is written in plainer language. It’s also a favourite of mine as it is the reading that my wife and I chose to have read at our wedding. Paul speaks here of the importance of love – not as a romantic feeling, but as treating everyone as equals, even as betters.  “Let love be genuine; hate what is evil, hold fast to what is good; love one another with mutual affection; outdo one another in showing honour. … Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep” (12:9, 10, 14) is intended as guidance for church congregations, but applies equally to making a happy marriage.  Likewise the opening verse, “present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God” (12:1) is also a good starting point for sexual intimacy, where our bodies are not for our own pleasure, but for building up the relationship.  This reflection on love is summed up in the next, with “love does no wrong to a neighbour; therefore, love is the fulfilling of the law.” (13:10).

The Bible in a Year – 13 October

If this is your first viewing, please see my Introduction before reading this.

13 October. 1 Corinthians chapters 5-8

Paul is sometimes thought of as primarily a moralist, particularly on matters of sexual relationships. Most of his teaching on the subject is found in chapters 5 to 7 of this letter.  Why is it that the apostle who is also known for his preaching of the grace of God, of salvation by faith irrespective of good works, of the detailed Jewish law no longer applying to Christians, why is he also the one who “lays down the law” when it comes to relationships?

Some of what he writes is only expressed as guidance – while expressing a wish that more people would be celibate as he was (7:7) he is prepared to accept that for most people, to be married is generally better.  Likewise he encourages those who are already married not to divorce just because they have different religious beliefs, and to enjoy regular intercourse. So he is no prude.

What Paul does condemn, though, in chapter 6, is a list of sins including various forms of sexual activity. This list famously includes homosexual acts, but also prostitution, fornication (i.e. casual sex outside marriage), and adultery.  But it also includes idolatry, theft, drunkenness, greed, and Christians suing each other in court (thereby acting contrary to the ideals of forgiving each other and having all things in common).  What these have in common is that they show Christianity in a bad light.  Whether a person chooses for religious reasons to be single or married is a matter of conscience.  But sins such as those listed, if they are known to people outside the church, show that the Christian’s claim to have been freed from the power of sin and be living a life of love and compassion is a hollow one.

Perhaps the key verse in the passage is this: “For what have I to do with judging those outside? Is it not those who are inside that you are to judge? God will judge those outside.” (5:12-13).   In other words, Paul is not saying that he expects non-Christians to follow these rules. Nor does he expect Christians to avoid non-Christians just because of their immoral behaviour by our standards, for that would mean we would lose out opportunity to be witnesses to them. No, Paul’s concern is just that when it comes to relationships within the church (including sexual ones), his converts use their freedom from Jewish ritual law wisely, and do not engage in behaviour that brings themselves and the Church into disrepute.