Back in the 1970s, at the age of 80, psychiatrist Karl Menninger published his last book–Whatever Became of Sin?–a retrospective account of the changes he had seen in American culture over a lifetime of clinical work. His concern was that the moral language of sin had increasingly been displaced by other ways of thinking: what used to be thought of as sin was reinterpreted, from the perspectives of law and psychiatry, as crime or illness.
In other words, it’s one thing to say, “I don’t do X because it’s morally wrong.” But it’s another to say, “I don’t do X because it’s against the law.” It’s one thing to say, “I have sinned against God.” But it’s another to say, “I only did that because of the emotional scars I bear.”
That doesn’t mean that the legal and therapeutic perspectives aren’t valid. But they’re not enough. Render sin into the language of legalism, without remainder, and you end up with people who don’t understand why they can’t do whatever they want as long as there’s no specific law that forbids it. Render sin into the language of therapy (or more accurately, a stereotyped and self-absorbed version of it), and responsibility too easily gets shifted to someone or something else.
As we saw in the last post, some of the Corinthian Christians had adopted the slogan “All things are lawful for me” (1 Cor 6:12, NRSV) as a way of justifying their sexual behavior, which probably included the frequenting of prostitutes. That behavior may be hard for many of us to identify with because, well, we don’t live in ancient Corinth. But Paul’s response to this bit of bumper-sticker theology gives us plenty of reason to wonder if we have more in common than we think.
In most cases, Christians should strive to be law-abiding citizens (e.g., Rom 13:1-7)–but secular law doesn’t define what it means to follow Christ. To begin with, we are not free to do something simply because it’s not against the law. Adultery, for example, is not illegal (at least in California), though it is expressly forbidden by the Ten Commandments.
But as was suggested in the previous post, Paul has no interest in imposing new laws of behavior. He wants the Corinthians to discipline themselves according a higher vision of the place of the human body in God’s purposes. All right, he seems to say, I’m not going to dispute that “All things are lawful” in the sense that Jesus has fulfilled the requirements of the law on your behalf. But that doesn’t mean that you are free to do as you please. There are at least two things you should ask yourself about any behavior: first, is it beneficial?, and second, am I enslaved to it?
Many of us have grown up in restrictive traditions, in which being a Christian seemed largely defined by long lists of prohibitions, by what one couldn’t do. Rules have a place; they help define and protect a group’s core values. But they are not ends in themselves. Being a Christian is not the same as being a rule-maker or a rule-keeper. Discipline in the Christian life is not for its own sake, but for the sake of embodying God’s kingdom and becoming more like Jesus.
Thus Paul’s corrective: he quotes their slogan “All things are lawful for me,” then counters with, “but not all things are beneficial” (1 Cor 6:12a, NRSV). Don’t just do things because there’s no rule against it. Ask yourself: is it going to help me to grow in faith, in hope, in love? Is it going to help someone else to do the same? Is it going to further the cause of the gospel? Meet a legitimate need? Benefit the church? Strengthen our witness?
Not sure? Then let me add this. True, all things may be lawful for me. But I refuse to be enslaved by any behavior (vs. 12b).
What might that mean for us? More on that in the next post.