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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.