Glorify God with your Bodies: A Sexual Ethic for Christians

Glorify God with your Bodies: A Sexual Ethic for Christians December 25, 2020

Although my previous studies on sexual ethics help clarify sexual boundaries for single Christians (see part 1 and part 2 of “Single Christians and Erotic Boundaries”),[1] a person wanting to change his or her sexual behavior needs something more than simply being told what not to do. Although seclusion from society or a vow to lifelong celibacy have been solutions, most single Christians wanting to live in a way that is consistent with Christian sexual ethics desire only temporary celibacy until they get married (or so they hope).

If we derive an ethic for sexual purity based on 1 Corinthians 6–7, it will involve the concept of embodiment. When Paul warns the Corinthians congregation against fornication (porneia), he gives the positive imperative: “glorify God in your bodies” (1 Cor. 6:20; cf. 7:34). The term “glorify” here may be understood as both honoring and worshiping God; that is, giving praise and respect to God with one’s body, and living in a way in that pleases God with one’s body. This is not a command of prohibition; it is one of engagement.

For the Corinthians, the physical body seemed to be a thing of indifference (1 Cor. 6:13-14; 15:12), but Paul makes it the ground for a constructive sexual command. For Paul the body (soma) is not the same thing as the flesh (sarx). Although definitions may overlap on occasion, there are important differences: It is the body rather than the flesh that is redeemable and will be unified again with the created order God intended. Paul anticipates an incorruptible body made alive and fully empowered by God’s Spirit at the resurrection of every believer when Christ returns (1 Cor. 6:13b-14; 1 Cor. 15:12-57).

The same is not true about the flesh; the flesh is associated with the Adamic nature and old perishing self of the fallen cosmos that is hostile toward the Spirit (Rom. 8:5-7; Gal. 5:16-21). A truly positive approach to sexuality should be body affirming while at the same time opposed to the sinful nature and sensitive to the Holy Spirit’s leading.

The human person also connects and communicates with others via the body, and it is in the imagery of the body of Christ that believers share solidarity with both Christ and one another. To be joined to Christ or “in Christ,” involves communion with his body, and baptism into Christ reinforced a sense of belonging to him (1 Cor. 10:16-17; 12:13; 2 Cor. 5:17; Rom. 12:5; Gal. 3:27-28). The believer’s body is no longer a self-possession, but at conversion he or she is transferred to a new owner, Christ. Christ becomes the metaphorical husband of the believers who are considered the bride of Christ. He is viewed as the rightful owner of the body in ancient discourse (1 Cor. 6:16-17, 19b-20a; 2 Cor. 11:2f; Rom. 7:1-4; cf. Hos. 3:1-3; Isa. 54:5).

In addition, the world of Paul understands that Christ is the head of the household of believers (Eph. 1:22-23; 2:19-21; 3:13; 4:4, 15-16; 5:23-32); he has the right to give a member of his household in marriage to someone else.[2] Glorifying God in our bodies includes acknowledging Christ as the owner of our bodies; it follows from this that having sexual intimacy with another, unless given in marriage to that person by Christ, becomes unfaithfulness to Christ. Loving God and Jesus in this sense means honoring them by staying sexual pure.

Since body language relates to all believers in the body of Christ, which is his church (1 Cor. 12:13-14, 27-28; Eph. 1:22-23), Paul’s sexual ethics seems to be part of a larger social ethic, an aspect that modern sexual ethicists often miss by stressing individualism, personal choice, and authenticity. Steve Barton elaborates: “Perhaps our quest for personal freedom and individual choice in sexual and other matters has brought us to the point where we do not know any longer who we really are and what our ‘freedom’ is for.”[3]

Christians find their identity and establish their values through a community of believers. Conversely, when a believer sins, the entire community is affected. Genuine social body life means that members love, encourage, and care for one another, rejoicing when one member is honored and suffering when one member suffers (1 Cor. 12:24-25). In this sense glorifying God in and with one’s physical body means genuine fellowship with a corporate body of believers.

Adultery and fornication are typically selfish and individualistic, disregarding true commitment to a relationship and losing a strong focus on the relational quality of the sexual experience. Sexual pleasure for its own sake strips sex of its truly relational meaning. As Judith and Jack Balswick affirm, “It’s like having a penis and vagina get together without the persons attached,” where the individuals take far more than they give.[4] 

Perhaps a valid social dynamic to sex is what sets apart Paul’s view from the Greco-Roman philosophers who also stood against sexual excesses. According to Lisa Cahill, Paul was concerned about sexual damage done to the community; whereas the non-Christian philosophers of his era were more concerned with the “perfection of the individual.”[5]

Since sexual intercourse binds two people together physically, emotionally, and spiritually, where two become one through the act itself, then it follows that when one partner breaks up the relationship, this will inevitably create emotional distress and scars. Some people never completely recover from such breakups. One thing is definitely false—the idea that no one gets hurt by premarital or extramarital sexual relationships.

This is why total commitment in a relationship, something only marriage brings, is vitally important. If I cannot totally commit all of myself to another person, then I have no business expecting that other person to totally commit all of herself (or himself) to me.[6] Saving our bodies for the right person, the one we intend to spend the rest of our lives with, is itself a virtue. It is through embodiment that sexual intercourse becomes the seal of final commitment to a newly married couple. John Grabowski rightly affirms, “To engage in sexual activity is to imply an unconditional and faithful gift of self within the covenant of marriage.”[7]

To sum up, glorifying God involves acknowledging Christ’s ownership of the human body and actively participating in the social body of Christ. Paul also provides two more significant remedies against sexual sin, which we will learn about in the next instalment.

[1] As with the other instalments, this study is derived from my “What is Sex? Christians and Erotic Boundaries,” appears in C. K. Robertson, ed., Religion and Sexuality: Passionate Debates (New York: Peter Lang, 2006), 27–63. A draft version is available via my academia site by clicking on “Academia.”

[2] If the patriarchal world considered the husband as owner and possessor of the bride’s body, Paul expands this to mutual ownership in human marriages – the husband’s body also belongs to the wife (1 Cor. 7:1-5). In any case, Christ is still seen as the spiritual owner of the believer. For a more intensive study on 1 Corinthians 6-7, see my commentary, 1 Corinthians (New Covenant Commentary; Eugene: Cascade Books, 2017).

[3] Stephen C. Barton, “‘Glorify God in Your Body’ (1 Corinthians 6.20): Thinking Theologically about Sexuality,” in Religion and Sexuality, ed. Michael A. Hayes, Wendy Porter and David Tombs (Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 1998), 366-79 (378-379).

[4] Judith K. Balswick and Jack O. Balswick, Authentic Human Sexuality: An Integrated Christian Approach (Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity Press, 1999), 119; cf. 121.

[5] Lisa Sowle Cahill, “Sexual Ethics: A Feminist Biblical Perspective,” Interpretation 49 (1995): 11-12.

[6] I have Henry Cloud and John Townsend’s Boundaries in Dating (2000:246) to thank for this insightful point.

[7] John S. Grabowski, Sex and Virtue: An Introduction to Sexual Ethics (Washington: Catholic University of America Press, 2003), 117; cf. Stanley J. Grenz, Sexual Ethics: An Evangelical Perspective (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 1990), 204.

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About B. J. Oropeza
B. J. Oropeza is a professor of Biblical and Religious Studies at Azusa Pacific University. He has authored numerous books and articles on Paul the Apostle, intertextuality, and other subjects. You can read more about the author here.

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105 responses to “Glorify God with your Bodies: A Sexual Ethic for Christians”

  1. You really make it seem so easy with your presentation but I find this topic to be really something which I think I would never understand. It seems too complex and extremely broad for me. I am looking forward for your next post, I will try to get the hang of it!

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