We bemoan the decline in sexual morals that has taken place in the West since the 1960s, and the prevalence of sex on the Internet, and in both advertising and motion pictures. We have seen a vast change in what is considered immoral in our society.
But, believe it or not, sexual morals in first century Corinth were worse. Much worse. Paul spent three chapters of 1 Corinthians dealing with the subject. In this lesson and the next, we'll examine Paul's teaching about sexual immorality.
Sexual Morals in First Century CorinthWe need to begin by examining what the culture in Paul's day felt about sexual morality. And they did have some strong feelings! Wives must be chaste, for one thing. And for men, adultery was frowned upon with the wives of other men and with underage free-born females. It surely took place, but was considered immoral.
Beyond that, however, a married man thought nothing of sex with prostitutes or with his slave girls. It was taken for granted. Corinth was home to the Temple of Aphrodite, goddess of love and beauty, where 1,000 female prostitutes served, contributing to the city's reputation for immorality. In fact, the coined Greek word "to Corinthianize" meant to practice immorality, and the phrase "Corinthian girl" designated a prostitute.
Homosexuality seems to have been accepted in both Greek and Roman cultures. Among the upper classes at least, older men would mentor adolescent boys, as well as use them sexually -- a practice known as pederasty. Homosexual relations wouldn't be looked down upon -- at least for the dominant partner. An effeminate partner, however, would lose status if his role were known. There is some evidence of female homosexuality, both on the Island of Lesbos (from which we get our word "lesbian") and in Sparta, but references in ancient literature are few.
Pride over Tolerance of Immorality (5:1-2a)Of course, Paul had taught the Corinthians about sexual purity when he was with them. But since he had left five years previously, the church had grown considerably among the pagan population of the city. Apparently, the church leadership at Corinth was lax with regard to enforcing a high moral standard among members. Paul writes,
"1 It is actually reported that there is sexual immorality among you, and of a kind that does not occur even among pagans: A man has123 his father's wife. 2And you are proud!" (5:1-2a)
"Sexual immorality" (NIV), "fornication" (NRSV, KJV) is porneia, from which we get our word "pornography" -- "unlawful sexual intercourse, prostitution, unchastity, fornication."124 Bruce observes, "While porneia means primarily traffic in harlots (pornai), it may denote any form of illicit sexual relationship."125 Homosexuality would also be included in this term. While we're defining terms, "chastity" in English is, "abstention from unlawful sexual intercourse," but allowing sexual intercourse within marriage. "Fornication," (the KJV translation of porneia) means in English, "consensual sexual intercourse between two persons not married to each other."126 Adultery, on the other hand, refers to extramarital affairs of individuals who are married.
But Paul isn't dealing here with "garden variety" immorality. Not even the pagans would condone sleeping with one's father's wife (probably a step-mother). Paul sees it as outrageous!
There are two problems that Paul has to deal with:
They were not only tolerant, they were proud127 of their tolerance. Their reaction, when questioned about it is probably one you've met scores of times in arrogant sinners -- "What's wrong with that?" Their reaction should have been mourning128 that such a sin would occur openly among God's household!
We live in a day that tolerates sin, even in the church. In a church I once pastored, I had to bring before the governing board the situations of four individuals (two of them leaders), who were living with someone they weren't married to. That church previously had had no policy. Some on the governing board were against setting any kind of policy because it might discourage new people from joining the church. Our culture sees living together without marriage as "the new normal," but God's standards for his people are higher.
Q1. (1 Corinthians 5:1-2a) Why do you think the Corinthians were so proud of their tolerance of immorality? What does this say about their value system?
If we're going to be faithful to the spirit of Paul's teaching in chapters 5 through 7, we need to take such matters seriously in our churches. It isn't our job to set the world straight (5:9-13), but in the household of God we have been given standards of behavior.
The situation Paul addresses in Corinth, however, was so flagrant that even the culture didn't countenance sleeping with one's step-mother. Paul didn't have to deal with the objection: "Everybody's doing it" -- at least, not this time.