Vice Lists in Paul’s Letters: 5 Observations

Vice Lists in Paul’s Letters: 5 Observations April 3, 2022

The Apostle Paul’s letters contain a number of vice lists. These lists specify vices (sins) that tend to disrupt the Christ community and a person’s relationship with the Lord. Among the most common are vices related to factions, idolatry, sexual immorality, drunkenness, envy, and greed.

In the undisputed letters of Paul the most conspicuous lists appear in Romans 1:29–31; 13:13; 1 Corinthians 5:9–11; 6:9–10; 10:5–10; 2 Corinthians 12:20–21; and Galatians 5:19–21. In the disputed letters we find such lists in Colossians 3:5, 8; Ephesians 4:25–32; 5:3–5; 1 Timothy 1:3–11; 4:1–3; 6:4–5; and 2 Timothy 2:22–25; 3:1–9.

Vices: Five Observations

There are five observations worth repeating regarding these lists:

  1. These lists contain a surplus of “social vices,” which reflect Paul’s animosity toward sins that disrupt the churches.

Such vices included malice, envy, strife, divisions, and so forth. Victor Furnish writes, “Paul’s vice lists, unlike those of the Hellenistic world in general which emphasized ‘personal’ vices, are particularly formed for the life of the community.”[1] The lists, then, reflect a similarity with the Jewish practice of enumerating sins that violate the Torah and which were set in the matrix of establishing order in the holy community (Exodus 20; Deuteronomy 28–29; Leviticus 18).[2]

  1. The vice lists are not exhaustive so as to provide a complete catalogue of every conceivable sin Paul condemned.

At the end of his lists in Galatians and Romans, he warns against those who do “things such as these” and “things like these” (Galatians 5:19; Romans 1:32).[3] Hence, the vices Paul lists are intended merely as samplings of sins he would want the Christ followers to avoid. There were obviously many more vices Paul did not bother to mention on these lists.

  1. Vice lists can be contrasted with virtue lists (see 2 Corinthians 6:6–7; Galatians 5:22–23; Philippians 4:8; Colossians 3:12–13).

The virtue lists would help identify how Christ’s followers were supposed to act in the present age. On the other hand, the vice lists were supposed to reflect the behavior of only those who were not part of God’s community (Romans 1:29–32). The unfortunate truth, however, was that some who claimed to be Christ’s followers also practiced them.

  1. Paul does not appear to have a preconceived list that he inserts in his letters.

No term appears in every list. Furnish observes that based on six vice lists in the “Pauline homologoumena” 42 terms identify 39 distinct vices.[4] At least sometimes the vices seem to be situationally specific. In the Corinthian letters, for example, the vices are entirely related to the type of problems the Corinthians are experiencing. These include, for instance, sexual misconduct (see 1 Cor 5:1–5; 6:12–20), drunkenness (see 1 Cor 11:20–21; cf. 15:32–34), and potential compromise with idolatry through idol foods (1 Cor 10:14–22; cf. 1 Cor 8). This leads to a final and perhaps most important point.

  1. The lists identify specific vices in order to discourage Christ followers from practicing such activities.

In essence, the lists became a channel for communicating boundary markers to Christian audiences. Regardless of whether someone claims to be a Christian or not, those whose lifestyle characterizes these vices will not inherit God’s kingdom. Paul gives this warning not to unbelievers but to those who claimed to be followers of Christ (Gal 5:21; 1 Cor 6:11).

We should especially take to heart this final point today. Those who call themselves Christian ought to avoid such vices knowing the dire consequence of persisting in such practices. Even so, we should recognize that overcoming sin does not happen purely through our own efforts. It is through the power of the Holy Spirit that lasting freedom from vice takes place (Rom 8:2–13).


     [1] Victor Paul Furnish, Theology and Ethics in Paul (Nashville/ New York: Abingdon Press, 1968), 84. For further teachings on Paul and vices, see B. J. Oropeza, Paul and Apostasy: Eschatology, Perseverance and Falling Away in the Corinthian Congregation (Eugene: Wipf & Stock, 2007); and B. J. Oropeza, Jews, Gentiles, and the Opponents of the Paul: The Pauline LettersApostasy in the New Testament Communities, vol. 2 (Eugene: Cascade, 2012); B. J. Oropeza, “Situational Immorality? The Relevance of Paul’s ‘Vice Lists’ for the Corinthian Congregation,” ExpT 110.1 (1998) 9-10. These previous studies help inform this post.

     [2] Cf. Neil J. McEleney, “The Vice Lists of the Pastoral Epistles.” Catholic Biblical Quarterly 36 (1974), 203–19 (217).

     [3] Cf. Furnish, 76–77.

     [4] Furnish, 76.

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About B. J. Oropeza
B. J. Oropeza is a professor and scholar whose many publications include the subjects of Pauline studies, Corinthian correspondence, apostasy, Romans, and more. You can read more about the author here.

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