Notes upon the Sexual Ethics in Corinthian Society
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Both society and the church, at present, have no clue how to do sexual ethics.

A state of confusion, a cloud of grey, has fallen upon modern life – which, is strange to many of us; since, for many years  (partially as a benefit of cultural Christendom) the Western world has had a firmer idea of what sexual ethics typical looks like (even if ambivalent about acting upon these ideas).

So, as we consider the ScripturesThe sacred writings of Christianity: particularly the... (1 Cor. 5:1-6:20), what is the place of sexual ethics in Paul’s mind?

(And, in asking such question, we’re not asking just ‘what are the right answers’; but, “How do we attain these answers? How do we learn how to practice and encourage a pure sexuality within the church?” As I write, the purpose is to walk us through the process of Paul’s thought in relation to Corinthian society, only thereafter comparing it to our own.)

Often it is difficult to discern what nature says that human life should look like; but, that does not mean life is a free-for-all.1 Paul has written to impart the Judeo-Christian ethic of sexuality, which clearly was one among many views.

There exists in Corinthian society lots of competing ideas about what nature looks like and entails.2 But, when Paul was in an environment that did not possess the same sexual ethics, how did Paul convince people to live differently? The church today could probably learn from his response to the Corinthians.

[Remember, two parties came to Paul, and this was the complaint of one of the two parties. The church was divided on this issue – half the church really did see the following act as wrong!]

So, we come to the case (1 Cor. 5:1-13) where a man ‘has’ (idiomatically, ‘is sleeping’) with his father’s γυνη, ‘woman’. Such word can often mean ‘wife’, but the situation is actually fairly ambiguous. Somewhat unfortunately for us, but for the community’s benefit (as not to slander), Paul really does not detail the situation. ‘Woman’ could potentially also imply this was the father’s ‘concubine’, or not even formally a woman married (i.e., ‘girlfriend’ or ‘prostitute’).3 Most probably, this is the man’s step-mother.

(And, this is not a simple case of adultery, the Corinthians are not simply accepting, tolerating, this incestuous behavior, but they were boasting about it (1 Cor. 5:2, 6)! They were actually arrogant about the acceptability of this behavior instead of mourning!!)

There is a lot of behavior Paul tolerates in the church — it is a hospital, not just for the healthy, Paul doesn’t even tell the Corinthians to kick out the people who were engaging with prostitutes! — but, this is the line, where Paul cuts them off from the community. Only this man is singled out.

So, why? Obviously Paul is concerned with a list of other issues — but, this one particularly is one (as well as the attitude about it). We largely see illicit behavior in Corinthian society, but even the world would look at this behavior as terrible — Hollywood would even critique this happening. It is an ethic that is not tolerated by the rest of society — how much worse that these Christians are not much better than the world around when it came to this very, very, very serious matter.4t

They simply have not differentiated themselves from their neighbors enough.5 All together, I want to trace out some potential roots for these actions, which may give us some insight into our own world today, “What are the even broader sources of this behavior?”

We have some options, which may all intermix a bit.

(1) Misuse of New-Covenant freedom [“We’re free to do all things”]

(2) They may detach ethics from honor. [Alabama governor case]

(3) Possibly they are simply persisting in pagan habits and instincts.

(4) Maybe, they have an over-realized eschatology, thinking the kingdom of God is here and now.6

(5) The Corinthians lack a recognition the resurrection is physical.7

All in all, this seems to lead to a devaluation of the body8

So, these we just some loose notes on illicit sexual relations, but hopefully we can better detail Pauline ethics when it comes to these matters in a more profitable way, and think through Scriptural principles in a better, more enlightening, profitable way. Eventually, maybe we can apply them to our own church bodies, when intense discussions of these matters reappear.9


  1. Aristotle speaks of a horse cooped up in a stall, for horse perpetually cooped up in a stall, rather than running in the pastures, is clearly less horse-like than its former condition.
  2. The Corinthian society largely has the same behavior as our society) — sexual ethics completely detached Judeo-Christian ethics.
  3. This term actually could even extend to ‘sister’ or ‘step-sister’ perhaps, but such far less likely. (If taken in the latter way, the situation would be akin to what happened to Tamar, David’s daughter, in the First Testament, rather than with Cain and Noah’s nakedness, i.e., his ‘wife’. I’m reading Genesis 9:22 in light of Lev. 18:7, that Noah’s son violated his mother rather than his father, “father’s nakedness” occasionally being an idiom for your “father’s wife” in ancient Hebrew.
  4. You see, it is not hard to imagine a wealthy donor who is a patron of the church, benefiting the church in some way where those within the community have found ways to excuse someone’s despicable behavior (cf. Alabama Governor), when they have policies or behaviors that may support the church. Yet, there seems to be broader reason for this behavior; they are so mis-occupied with the idea of freedom they have applied these in a way that is illegitimate.
  5. It’s a way of living that feels normal, feels fine, and its difficult for them to internalize the idea that this is okay. And, if this behavior is not accepted by the surrounding society, that may partially make a difference for Paul.
  6. Which, I resist, preferring option 5
  7. That’s not quite over-realized eschatology, that everything in the kingdom of God is here and now — but its easier to find the resurrection is non-physical.
  8. Regardless, they are devaluing the body. As a historical note, there is a peculiar, ambiguous relationship to the body in Greco-Roman society. On the one hand it is elevated as the pinnacle of beauty in some ways, but some, namely the Stoics, say its merely a tool — to be kept under rigorous control, but yet the Corinthians seem to say that the resurrection will be spiritual, the leaving of the body aside. And, they aren’t necessarily denigrating the body, viewing the body as inherently evil, just the body is not important ethically to the Corinthians, but that is different than saying the body is evil.
  9. Just a question to ponder, “Why is the matter of court cases thrown between two cases sexual ethics? (1 Cor. 6:1-11).” Even though there are major sexual problems — competition and factionalism are the primary problem, but sexual behavior is a cause and symptom of the factionalism.

    And, this is only one of a list of sins that cause disunity (1 Cor. 6:9-11). Unfortunately, the Corinthians, having grown up in a pagan society, cannot trust their gut instincts when it comes to sexual relations, but it is not just these – rather, when it comes to a plethora of issues.

News Reporter
From Madison, Wisconsin. B.A. Biblical Studies: Moody Bible Institute, Chicago. M.Div. Student at Tyndale Seminary in Toronto, Ontario.

1 thought on “Notes upon the Sexual Ethics in Corinthian Society

  1. Interesting opening to this important discussion. Corinth had a bad moral reputation in the ancient world which Paul pointed out in chapter 5. The attitude toward the physical resurrection of the body is interesting as these Corinthians would hold the same view as the Athenians did prior to salvation. I understand the “potential” other options for “his father’s wife”but the context overwhelmingly supports the step mother understanding in my view. God bless you dear brother.

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