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



Guilty Bystander: Confessing My Apathy

When the harvest does come; when the new life does finally produce bushels and bushels of your love, why then do I allow the crop to rot in the field while I sit idly by and wait for someone else to harvest? Or worse, why do I never leave my recliner to go into the field? God, help me.

Lord, it’s me again. Tonight, I think I have to confess that I am a guilty bystander – not an innocent bystander – a guilty one. I’m the opposite of a Good Samaritan. I’m the cast of the final episode of Seinfeld, sitting in jail because I just, well, stood by.

I see the suffering of the world; I hear the cries of injustice and suffering; I smell the stink of decay and death; I feel the coldness of a world that lacks even common decency on my skin, in my heart. And yet, with my senses all alert, I more often than not, do little or nothing about any of it.

Nobel Peace Prize Laureate, author and survivor of the Nazi death camps Elie Wiesel has said, “The opposite of love is not hate. The opposite of love is indifference.” If he is right, then perhaps one of the greatest sins against the God of love is apathy.  Hate bothers to expend the energy to turn a child of God into an object of scorn. Apathy… well, it just refuses to give a rip. I confess that this analysis – this accusation – cuts me to the bone with its sharp edged truth.

I know well that there is no room for apathy in a life of faith. Apathy is condemned in the words of I John: “How does God’s love abide in anyone who has the world’s goods and sees a brother or sister in need and yet refuses help?” (I John 3:17)  How does the rich man, who plainly sees Lazarus starving at his gate as plainly as he sees his own image in the mirror every morning, do nothing to love his neighbor? (Luke 16:19 ff) I understand the reality. But it about more than just understanding, isn’t it? How do I let things slide so easily?

I John calls – demands – “Little children, let us love, not in word or speech, but in truth and action.” And yet, I am too often unmoved by this demand; this holy, Christ-like demand. Why?

To be honest, it seems to me an overwhelming demand. There is so much suffering in the broken and busted world and frankly God, I’m busy. I can’t fit it all in. How can I solve the problems of the world with my calendar already full of things you call me to do? Well, to be honest, maybe you don’t call me to do all those other things. Maybe I use that as a little bit of an excuse. Honestly, I guess, my schedule is often full not of things you call me to do, but the things this world expects me to do; things I think I must do. The loud voices of Madison Avenue, pundits, social media and my deep desire to be accepted call me to fill my calendar. I’m really bad about saying no and making you a priority. I have to confess that while I’m busy, it is not with things that may be on your list of priorities for my life.

And yes, before you say it, Lord, you don’t ask me to solve the problem of world hunger or poverty or human trafficking. I John just points me to the one in need who is standing right in front of me. You don’t call me to solve the problem, just to be part of the solution with what you have already given me.  My apathy Lord, I confess, is sometimes due to my own lack of priorities.

So, OK, it is not that I am too busy. But it is still hard. I love the life you have given me and I really need to be a good steward of what I have, don’t I? The problems of this world are always, it seems, interruptions in the order of my day. Acting differently today than I did yesterday is a disruption and it seems to me to risk losing track of other important things. OK, I’ll be honest – we both know how we humans feel about change. As your servant, Richard Rohr has said, “The human ego prefers anything, just about anything, to falling, or changing, or dying. The ego is that part of you that loves the status quo – even when it’s not working. It attaches to past and present and fears the future.” (Falling Upward: A Spirituality for the Two Halves of Life)

Acting is one thing. But acting differently is change, and I really prefer the status quo. Respectfully, God that is a problem I have with you. You are really not a God of the status quo are you? I mean, resurrection is an ultimate stand against what was for something totally new. So I get it, but I don’t like it. How can I see the person suffering before me and not be the agent of new life and hope for them if I believe in the resurrection? Because I’m comfortable – and that is a terrible reason. For my love of the past and satisfaction with the way things are; for my resistance to change and new life, I must confess.

Lord, is it that I just don’t care? I think I do. I hope I do. I care about the things that are wrong with this world; the people who suffer. I feel pain in my soul when I see what goes on. But I still don’t do anything. Maybe it is deeper than not caring. Dare I admit to you that I’m afraid? Afraid that if I do anything, that what I do, we do – even in your name – just doesn’t matter? There. I said it.

If doing what you call me to do doesn’t matter, then perhaps I must confess not my apathy, but my despair; my hopelessness. I must confess then that I have come to believe that the suffering and evil of the world is more powerful than you; that I believe in the rottenness of this world more than I believe in or trust your love. And if that is true, I’m in trouble, Lord. Because that means that what you did on the cross doesn’t matter either.

Mercy, Lord – to say that my actions don’t matter also means that I don’t matter. And that is what I fear the most – meaninglessness. I mean, you created me; you reside in the deepest part of me. How can I think I don’t matter? How can I not matter if you are part of me? And then the question comes back, How does God’s love abide in anyone who has the world’s goods and sees a brother or sister in need and yet refuses help?” The truth is that when I do not act in your name I evict you and you cannot abide in me. Wow. For that sin I must confess.

You once told a parable about sowing seed on different kinds of ground that made it impossible for the good news, the new life, the reign of God to take root and thrive. (Mark 4) I love that parable. It has taught me to be aware of the ways that the concerns and cares of the world; the fears of my own heart; the noise of the voices of hate and sin can lead to desolation. As I stand before you tonight, I wonder if there is not another dimension of this parable that could be added. When the harvest does come; when the new life does finally produce bushels and bushels of your love, why then do I allow the crop to rot in the field while I sit idly by and wait for someone else to harvest? Or worse, why do I never leave my recliner to go into the field? God, help me.

For my apathy, despair, and hopelessness; for my refusal to let you in to my thoughts and my actions; for my excuses and for leaving the fruits of the kingdom rotting in the field, I confess, gracious Lord. Redeem me and take root in my life; take up residence in me so that I may love as you love. Amen.


Copyright © 2016 Timothy V. Olson. All rights reserved. Any use of this material must be attributed to Timothy V. Olson. To reproduce this material in published format, please contact Tim.

John 3:16 Redux

I’ve been watching the NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament (and my bracket is pretty wrecked partially due to my confidence in the three teams from Iowa. Oh, well). I have always enjoyed basketball – even though I have no skills to play the game. (I’m slow as a garden slug and have a vertical jump of about one-quarter inch). I noticed something in the games I have watched. At least as far as I could tell, as I scan the crowds I have not seen any of the often ubiquitous hand-lettered signs that say “John 3:16.” My feeling about that? Oddly enough, relief.

That may seem like a crazy response for a pastor. Hear me out. I think, along with Martin Luther, that this verse is a summary of the whole gospel. In a minimum of words it expresses a deep truth about God in Christ. Along with verses 17-21 that follow, this is a beautiful part of the Gospel according to John that every Christian should know and ponder for a lifetime. While I am always wary of taking one Bible verse and plucking it from the page as if it somehow is just content for a bumper sticker version of the Bible, I don’t object to folks who want to hold up signs with any Bible verse cited.

My problem is that John 3:16 gets hijacked to condemn “non-believers” far too often for my taste. It also is used to turn the abundant life Jesus brings into some kind of ethereal, death avoidance program that is of no earthly good in the here and now. Given that this is pretty close to the polar opposite of what the verse (and those that follow) have to proclaim, I worry about how people use those signs.

John 3:16 says: “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.”  Three simple moves render this verse hopeless.

  1. We think that “believe” means a conscious decision to accept something that makes no sense.
  2. We add a non-existent clause after the word “believes” that reads “but nobody that doesn’t believe the way I do.”
  3. We read “eternal life” as “life after death.” With these three little moves we squeeze all the grace of the gospel out of this verse and render it one more dry, lifeless law we must obey so we don’t have to worry about really dying. You better believe the right way or you won’t ever get into heaven!

These 27 words (NRSV) actually say nothing like this. They are full of grace and hope. Jesus says them to Nicodemus, a law-abiding leader, who Jesus is trying to extricate from thinking his law-abiding will give him eternal anything! So, Jesus says to Nicodemus and all of us little “Nicodemuses” the following:

For God so loved the world… Hold up. “World” is always a negative word in John. It describes the powers, principalities, and people who stand against God, against Jesus, against the light of God. This “world” is something in which you and I are deeply mired. This dark broken place, shapes us all. You and I are part of what “world” means. So, we could read it “For God so LOVED the broken, violent, self-absorbed, God-hating, darkness loving world…”

That he gave… Gave, like you give a gift to your kid or spouse. Not “offered” or “dangled in front of us.”

his only Son…  the thing closest to the heart of God; the most valued possession.

so that everyone who believes in him… The Greek word pistueo, translated as believes does not refer to assenting to a doctrine or choosing the right thoughts. It means to have faith or trust in something or someone. Trust is something that happens, it is a move as much of the heart and soul as mind. You don’t trust your parents or spouse because you decided to do so. You do it because they have proven trustworthy, because you love them. So, the people included here are every single person who trusts Jesus – no matter how haltingly or imperfectly. Jesus is telling Nicodemus to let go of “right belief” and replace it with loving trust.

may not perish… This does not refer to death. Everyone will die. The death rate is one per person. Remember you are dust and to dust you will return. This refers to life lived in the darkness, putting our trust in dead laws, dead possessions, dead promises made by dead power brokers. We are all perishing right now because we put our trust in things that die or fade away. The list of things that do not die has just one item – Jesus.

but may have eternal lifeTo trust Jesus Christ, the freely given son, is to have eternal life and live in the light right now, this very moment. If Nicodemus can trust this Messiah, he can live free of the terrifying thought that he might not follow the law perfectly. He can live free of the expectations placed on him by the world (which is broken) and most brutally, by himself. He can live in an eternity today because Jesus gives that gift away like water.

So, if signs that say “John 3:16 ” are offering more darkness and plans for me to get myself out of trouble with God, then please, put them away. But, if they are  proclaiming the powerful, liberating grace of God, get busy making signs.