We’ve Misread a Key Verse About Sexual Purity

We’ve Misread a Key Verse About Sexual Purity January 17, 2023

In the last several decades, the church has frequently taught that sexual immorality is a uniquely and especially dangerous form of sin. That’s because, according to this line of thinking, sexual immorality defiles the body in a way that no other sin does. And the go-to proof text for this teaching has always been 1 Corinthians 6:18.

Here’s what that verse says.

Flee from sexual immorality. Every other sin a person commits is outside the body, but the sexually immoral person sins against his own body.

Seems pretty cut and dry, right? Sexual immorality is “against your own body” in a way that no other sin is.

Until recently, I took it for granted that this was Paul’s intended meaning. But then, as part of my ongoing quest to better understand the Bible’s teachings on sexual holiness, I began to read commentaries on 1 Corinthians 5-7. It was only then that I realized that our interpretation of this verse is likely a complete mis-reading of Paul!

In fact, even many conservative evangelical commentators find it highly likely that the phrase “every sin a person commits is outside the body” is a quote from the Corinthians, which Paul actually intends to refute in the rest of the verse!

Today, I want to summarize the case for this position, and explore the implications it has for our understanding of sexual holiness.

Quotes and Refutations in Paul

Of course, if we want to make the case that Paul is quoting somebody else in order to refute them, we might first ask whether such a thing is even within the realm of possibility. And, in the case of Paul, the answer is “yes, it absolutely is.”

In fact, quoting an opponent (whether real or imaginary) in order to refute them is a rhetorical device that Paul uses quite commonly in his letters. There’s not really any dispute about this. So the question is not whether it’s possible that Paul would quote an opponent and refute them, the question is only which of the verses he wrote should be identified as quotes.

Moreover, it’s not just that Paul has a habit of doing this in general. In fact, there’s more or less universal agreement that several parts of 1 Corinthians 6:12-20, the very passage in question, are quotes. Consider, for example, the ESV’s rendering of verses 12-13.

“All things are lawful for me,” but not all things are helpful. “All things are lawful for me,” but I will not be dominated by anything. “Food is meant for the stomach and the stomach for food”—and God will destroy both one and the other.

The translators of the ESV believe that Paul has quoted someone else (real or imaginary) three times, and then refuted or corrected their position.

Thus, we have evidence that Paul is quoting others in 1 Corinthians 6, in the very passage on sexual immorality in question, and only a couple of verses before 1 Corinthians 6:18! This suggests it’s at least plausible that Paul would introduce another quote.

But is there evidence that he actually did? The answer, in short, is another “yes.”

Would Paul Contradict Himself?

The first sign that 1 Corinthians 6:18 does, in fact, include a quote is that reading the whole verse as a straightforward Pauline teaching creates a logical contradiction.

Translated literally, the text first says “every sin a person commits is outside the body.” But then it says that sexual sin is “against the body.” It would be very strange for Paul to declare that every sin is outside the body and then immediately turn around and contradict himself by giving an example of a sin that affects the body.

Most translations (including the ESV, which I quoted at the top of the article) resolve this issue by supplying the word “other” in the verse, thereby making Paul say “every other sin is outside the body.”

There may be a case to be made for this solution, and it does resolve the difficulty. But solving the problem in this way requires us to assume that Paul was being imprecise—leaving out a word he could have supplied. Moreover, it requires us to depart from the literal translation of his words. Neither is the sort of thing we should feel very comfortable with.

But this problem is resolved if we take “every sin is outside the body” as a quotation. Now, the logical contradiction between this statement and the rest of the verse is no longer a problem. Instead, it’s the entire point of the verse! Paul intends to correct the Corinthian misunderstanding, so of course the two statements should contradict!

Does Only Sexual Sin Defile the Body?

But there’s a second problem with reading 1 Corinthians 6:18 as entirely the teaching of Paul. And this one is theological. If Paul is teaching that only sexual sin is “against the body,” we might ask why other sins like drunkenness or gluttony don’t count. Indeed, we might also compare Paul’s words to the statement of Jesus in Matthew 15:19-20…

For out of the heart come evil thoughts, murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false witness, slander. These are what defile a person.

Jesus says that sexual immorality defiles a person, to be sure. But so do a whole host of other sins!

Throughout history, commentators have struggled to explain how, exactly, sexual sin is “against the body” in a way that other sins are not. John Calvin, for example, acknowledged that comparing 1 Corinthians 6:18 to verses speaking of other sins which can defile us created an “inconsistency” that was difficult to resolve.

In the end, there have been numerous theories which have sought to alleviate this inconsistency. But there are no definitive answers. And that’s ultimately because Paul never gives any explanation in 1 Corinthians 6 as to why sexual sin might be uniquely damaging to the body.

It is, of course, plausible that Paul assumed his statement needed no explanation. But I’d suggest we should at least consider the possibility that he never intended to teach that sexual sin was “against the body” in a unique way in the first place. Rather, he simply intended to refute the Corinthian position that sexual sin didn’t matter because all sin was “outside the body.”

An Unusual Choice of Words

But there’s one more piece of evidence that suggests that the phrase “every sin is outside the body” did not originate with Paul. And this is the one that was ultimately the clincher for me in convincing me that the phrase is a quote.

The word that Paul uses for “sin” in 1 Corinthians 6:18 is not the one he usually uses for sin. And, as any one who has read his letters will know, Paul talks about sin a lot. In fact, he uses his preferred word for sin 64 times throughout his letters.

But the word he uses for sin in 1 Corinthians 6:18 is not that preferred word. Instead, it’s a word that he uses only in one other place: Romans 3:25, which many scholars also suspect is a quote from somebody else (though not one Paul refutes, in that case).

It is possible, of course, that Paul simply decided not to use his usual word for sin in 1 Corinthians 6:18. But the fact that the word is so out-of-place for him should suggest to us the very strong possibility that Paul used the word because he’s quoting a phrase the Corinthians were already familiar with.

Theological Implications

Thus for all these reasons, we have good evidence to show that 1 Corinthians 6:18 contains a quote which Paul intends to refute. He’s already been using the quote-and-refute format in the passage. Taking “every sin is outside the body” as a quote prevents us from having to add a word that doesn’t exist in the text. It resolves thorny theological questions. And it explains why Paul used a strange word for sin.

Thus, if this position is correct, we might read 1 Corinthians 6:18 more like its rendering in the New English Translation.

Flee sexual immorality! “Every sin a person commits is outside of the body”—but the immoral person sins against his own body.

And this subtle change in the rendering of the verse would have at least four theological implications for our understanding of the broader 1 Corinthians 6:12-20 passage.

  1. Paul is still unquestionably opposed to sexual immorality.
  2. Paul still affirms that sexual sin is “against the body.”
  3. Paul does not rule out the possibility that other sins might also be “against the body.”
  4. Paul does not teach that sexual sin harms the body in some unique, mysterious, and ultimately unexplained way.

Thus, if we want to be faithful to scripture, we likely need to abandon the teaching that sexual sin is uniquely defiling. At the very least, if we’re going to use 1 Corinthians 6:18 as a prooftext for that teaching, we need to be honest that there’s significant scholarly disagreement about the meaning of the verse.

Understanding Paul Better

Making these changes to our thinking and teaching will ultimately help us do a better job of understanding what Paul is actually saying in the broader 1 Corinthians 6 passage. After all, Paul does make a powerful statement about the dangers of sexual sin, which is a message that’s just as relevant in the 21st century as it was in the first.

In a future article (articles?), I’ll be breaking down the different components of that message, looking at how Paul uses themes of temple, liberation from slavery, and marriage to encourage his readers to flee sexual immorality. I’d love it if you’d come back to read more!

I’d also love interacting with you if you have any thoughts or questions about today’s post! Please leave a comment below, or reach out on Twitter. I always welcome additional perspectives and friendly disagreement.

Giving Credit

I consulted a number of commentaries (e.g., John Calvin’s and J. Paul Sampley’s) and other resources (e.g., the footnotes in the NET Bible) when doing the research for this article. But I’m most indebted to Andrew Naselli at Bethlehem College and Seminary for writing an excellent paper that summarized the arguments on both sides of this issue. It’s a really helpful read and many of my arguments in today’s article were based on his summaries. So, I want to give credit where credit is due and also suggest giving his paper a look if you’d like to go deeper down this rabbit hole!

Image Credit: Allen Taylor / Unsplash

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