St. Paul, Fornication, and #MeToo

Harvey Weinstein. Bill Cosby. Matt Lauer. Louie CK. You know the list – even as it grows.

#MeToo, women who have said “enough is enough,” who have called their abusers, harassers, tormentors, and brutes to account for sexual harassment, misbehavior, violence and the objectification of women. You know the movement – even as it grows.

Is every accusation is valid? I don’t know. Many certainly seem to be. I also don’t know what the “statute of limitations” is on taking responsibility for a past injustice might be. I do know that there is generally no expiration dates for the pain and harm a victim experiences.  Abuse comes with a “life sentence” for the victim. I don’t know if every man is guilty of something. I do know culture does a pretty good job of inculcating men and women with the notion that human beings are objects for consumption – sexual and otherwise. I don’t even know if I can say with certainty that my own ham-handed, less than subtle, ill-informed encounters with the opposite sex when I was young and foolish did not cross a line. I do know that, if I did, I am ashamed and deeply sorry.

I don’t know a great deal about the complexities of sexuality and sexual immorality/abuse. I do know this for sure: a lot of women have endured a lot of pain at the hands of a lot of men for a very long time. I also know this: God does not approve.

I don’t know what gets into a man’s head mind they undertake the bad behavior the #MeToo movement is resisting. When yet another perpetrator stands accused of what has turned out to be unspeakable behavior, I always wonder “What the heck were these dudes thinking?” What thought process; what cultural nonsense; what perverted world view allows someone to think that they are free to harass, harm, violate, objectify another?

I do know that sexual behavior that is harassing, harmful, violent; that is not mutual or rooted in self-giving love is about as far from what God had in mind as one can get. You may be surprised that what I know comes, in part, from what the apostle Paul teaches about sexuality in I Corinthians, especially the passage in chapter 6:12-20.

To treat someone as a sexual object seems to me to require an attitude of personal liberty that grants permission for someone to do whatever you please without constraint. At our most base, we should know that there are legal consequences to misbehavior. But that does not seem to apply to people who abuse others. Paul knows this, and addresses it in verse 12 of the cited passage.

Apparently, there was a saying in Corinth, popularized by Greek philosophy, that said “All things are lawful for me.” (I Cor. 6:12 NRSV). Note the quotation marks – Paul is saying something the Corinthians say. Richard Hays, in his commentary on I Corinthians, is convinced that it is closer to the original to translate it “I am free to do anything,”  Folks in Corinth believed that enlightened and wise persons were absolutely free to determine what they could or should do, because they were enlightened and wise. Sound familiar? (Greek teachings are still alive and well in our culture).

Paul counters the popular saying about personal liberty by quoting it and then pushing against it. “For me everything is permissible’; maybe, but not everything does good. True, for me everything is permissible, but I am determined not to be dominated by anything.” (I Cor. 6:12, NJB) Paul is acknowledging that we have freedom. He is also, however, correcting the misuse of liberty as a means of seeking personal gratification or engaging our addictions that trade one form of slavery for another. We are free to do good to and for others, not to be selfish and do evil. We are free, but not free to engage in things that enslave us.

Another move you have to make to turn someone into a sex-object is to negate the value of the body. You have to be convinced that another person’s body is just a means to your endgame of self-gratification. You also have to be convinced that your own body is just an object to be fed and satisfied. Paul knows this too, because, once again the Corinthians have a saying.

“Food is meant for the stomach and the stomach for food,” and God will destroy both one and the other. (I Cor. 6:13, NRSV) Many scholars think the quotation marks belong at the end of the verse, not the middle. I agree. Paul is not one to dismiss the importance of the body. The meaning is that food and body both are meaningless because everything dies. This is not from Paul, the premier proclaimer of resurrection power.

The whole verse testifies to the dualism of Greek thought which separates body and soul, material from spiritual. Material things, like the human body, are disposable objects simply to be used as desired – kind of like those cheap razors and paper cups we all use. This means that things like drunkenness, gluttony, and yes, sex, really have no connection with our spiritual life. You can harm the body – yours or somebody else’s – and it has no relationship to the spirit of the person. Paul knew this was not how God’s creatures or creation worked. Neither are ever disposable. Spirit and body are one; what happens to body affects spirit and vice versa.

Paul doesn’t buy the degradation of the body one bit because of the resurrection. God does not work with disembodied spirits.  The resurrection is about the physical body being raised from death (v. 14). How could it be that the body is disposable or unrelated to God’s life in us when we believe in the resurrection of that body? On top of that, Paul says “you were bought with a price; therefore glorify God in your body.” (v. 20). Because your body and soul (the whole enchilada) are part of Christ’s body because of his death on the cross, what you do with your body reflects upon and witnesses to Christ in the world. The material things of life, including the body, have deep spiritual implications.

If you read on into chapter 7 regarding the mutuality of the sexual relationship between husband and wife, Paul says: “The husband should fulfill his marital duty to his wife, and likewise the wife to her husband. The wife’s body does not belong to her alone but also to her husband. In the same way, the husband’s body does not belong to him alone but also to his wife.” (I Cor. 7:3-4 NIV) The person who is the beneficiary of a sexual relationship is not yourself, it is your partner. It is the intimacy of being for the other that makes sexuality a blessing. Sexuality done for the sake of self leads to immorality, according to Paul.

This idea of how human relationships work is fleshed out further in Paul’s discussion of our unity in the body of Christ (I Cor. 12); and again in how Paul makes self-giving love the centerpiece of Christian behavior (I Cor. 13).  Sexual relationships are created by God to be about joy, pleasure, intimacy and love rooted in divine love. They are, therefore,  always relationships carried out for the sake of the other. When, as we engage in a sexual relationship intent on giving love, giving joy, sharing intimacy and giving pleasure, that we receive those things in return is a gift of grace made possible by another’s self-giving love. A selfish lover loves only themselves; a selfish lover is no lover at all.

Something that all the abusers, named and unnamed, have in common is the use of power over others. The sense of personal liberty may bring the evil act to sprout, but only being in a position of power over someone can force your desire on another human being. Mutuality, an absolute necessity in God-given relationships, is impossible when power is asserted and demands are made. If you can look at the cross of Christ and see any evidence that God allows people to use power for personal gratification and gain, you are deluded. Once again, Paul precludes power as a possibility in sexual relationships because Christ redeems the world in powerlessness.

This is why Paul is hard on sexual relationships that do not reflect such self giving love, and mutuality. Paul is direct:“Shun fornication! Every sin that a person commits is outside the body; but the fornicator sins against the body itself.” (I Cor. 6:18) “Fornication” is related to a Latin word which referred to brothels. “Fornication” is used to translate the Greek word, porneia, which refers to sexual immorality, very often sexual relations with prostitutes. Eugene Peterson, in his translation, The Message, tries to get at porneia as “sex that avoids commitment and intimacy.”

In verses 15 & 16, Paul is referring to sex with prostitutes. Prostitution in Paul’s time had an added religious element (not just economic), where paying for sex with a temple prostitute affiliated with some Greek or Roman deity was akin to making an offering to an idol. Paul is not condemning sex or sexuality in a general manner. He is addressing sex that is out of sorts with God’s intention and redemption. Sex with a prostitute is about self–gratification and not about self-giving love. Any sexual relationship that is not rooted in self-giving love, mutuality, life-long commitment and monogamy (see ELCA Statement on Human Sexuality) does not provide the framework for the beauty, joy, intimacy and pleasure intended by God. Paul would call any sex that does not meet these standards “fornication,” and unworthy of our Lord and of our standing as heirs to the resurrection.

The final move Paul makes in this text is to elevate the use of the body – our eating and drinking and our sexuality – to the level of sacred acts of love. Because of the love revealed in Christ, and because in Christ’s sacrifice we have been redeemed, we have been made one with the body of Christ now raised in this world at this time. We are therefore, the temple of the risen Christ and our souls AND bodies are to be used accordingly. Paul asks, “Or do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you, which you have from God, and that you are not your own? For you were bought with a price; therefore glorify God in your body.”  (I Corinthians 6:19-20 NRSV)

There is no glory for God or humanity when men make women into victims and cause pain. When sex is degraded to a transaction, or is sought purely for personal gratification, the temple is defiled. Paul shows us another way. So, glorify God in your body – give joy, intimacy, pleasure and love to one other to whom you are joined in the body of Christ, and by grace, God will be glorified and love will bloom.


copyright © 2018, Timothy V. Olson



One thought on “St. Paul, Fornication, and #MeToo

  1. Elizabeth Olsen Alsleben

    Exceptional sermon ….
    I know of at least three women that suffered at the torment of an older sibling and cousin (same person) .. and ‘he’ walks free at this time ..
    and one of them is me. He did not ‘eventually destroy’ me though he continues to promise to if I speak the truth. He did though, accomplish convincing my other siblings, sister in law’s, nieces, nephews, great nieces, great nephews etc. that I was mentally deranged and they should have nothing to do with me ever again.. (translation: never believe anything she says)
    I lost my entire dysfunctional family .. whom I loved .. and still do.
    The other cousin he physically and sexually assaulted has also ‘wallowed’ through the healing process and is whole and healthy again ……..
    sadly, the beloved sister of this cousin is dying of self destructive behaviors .. still terrified of the death threats against her family by my brother … if she tells. She refuses to tell…
    thanks for your willingness to address this darkness of the world ..
    and give hope, affirmation and support to those that have been strong beyond belief, weakened at times beyond recovery ( in their mind), and too many times to count, hoped and given up on restoration and ultimately justice. For me, restoration would be the desired outcome …. but it has been overwhelmingly rejected …
    thank you for giving us a ‘voice’ ❤️

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