Skip navigation

Text of Pastor Ray’s message on February 2, 2014

“Anything Goes?”  1 Corinthians 5:1-8; 6:9-20

In 1934, Cole Porter wrote clever lyrics that documented changing mores and behaviors around sexual expression called “Anything Goes.”  While the tone of the song communicates uncertainty about the changes in attitudes and standards, the reality is that the change is a tidal wave that cannot really be stopped so you might as well not fight it.  In Porter’s words…

“The world has gone mad today,

And good’s bad today,

And black’s white today,

And day’s night today,

When most guys today

That women prize today

Are just silly gigolos

And though I’m not a great romancer

I know that I’m bound to answer

When you propose,

‘Anything goes’.”

Here we are 80 years later.  Attitudes have continued to shift and now we have ‘sexting’, ‘twerking’ and adult content of every conceivable sort available 24/7 in the privacy of our homes via internet.  There are few boundaries around sexual expression left.   We live in a day when, indeed, anything goes.  What will 2094–80 years into our future–look like?  If we continue the direction we’re headed, God knows, everything goes!

We are not the first society be sex-crazed.  Ancient Greece and Rome had their own “anything goes” attitude toward sexuality—at least for men.  A 2010 exhibit at the Cycladic Museum in Athens presented everyday objects from ancient Greece that were covered in sexually explicit art—cups, saucers, plates, vases, lamps, jewelry.  Adult content was always accessible to men in ancient Greece, even without the internet.  Sexual expression was built into the routines and rituals of daily life–including religious worship.  Men were encouraged to have wives for legitimate children and mistresses for pleasure.  Sexual activity between men was seen as healthy for relationships within society.  And the philosopher Plato discussed the merits of sexual expression between men and adolescent boys in his dialogue, “Symposium”.

The Greek city of Corinth, where Paul established the church, was also sex oriented.  Built at the crossroads of trade and commerce, thousands of people passed through daily.  Dominating the city was one of the largest temples built for the worship of Aphrodite, the goddess of love and fertility.  It is said that the temple housed over 1000 temple prostitutes who would welcome worshipers beneath the “fornus”–an arched area at the entrance of the temple.  (It is from the “fornus” that we derive the word, “fornication” which originally meant “prostitution”)  Through ritual sex with the temple prostitute, it was believed that the man would become united with–and thereby empowered by–Aphrodite.  Corinth was also the site of the Isthmian athletic games second only to the Olympics.  Training centers were scattered throughout the city, and sexual activity was often part of the training.

Despite having come to faith in Christ, the predominately Gentile congregation remained embedded in a sex-saturated culture and the cultural attitudes toward sexual expression walked through the church doors.  And the church didn’t seem to see it as a problem.  In fact, according to commentator Gordon Fee, the church even developed a slogan to express it’s tolerance–a slogan that Paul quotes times in 1 Corinthians 6:12.  “All things are lawful.”  It was almost a church tag line:  The Church At Corinth: Where You Can Do Anything You Want.”   No limits, no boundaries, no judgment.  Anything goes.

Evidently, not everyone in the church was comfortable with the libertine attitudes and reported to Paul several “concerning situations” that had arisen in the church.  According to the reports, a man in the church was having an open ongoing affair with his father’s wife.  (1 Corinthians 5:off)  This would have definitely been offensive to Jews who were members of the church in Corinth. Leviticus 18, which lists taboo sexual partnerships, prohibited such a relationship.  But it was also considered taboo in Greek society (yes, Greeks had their boundaries too) because an affair with the wife of one’s father dishonored the father.  With so many opportunities in Greek and Roman culture to express your sexuality outside the home, taking your father’s wife was seen as an act of hostility toward your father.  We see the same thing in the act of Absalom having open sex with his father, David’s, concubines after his successful coup (see 2 Samuel 16).  A second “situation” involved men from the church visiting Aphrodite’s temple prostitutes (1 Corinthians 6:12ff).

And the church did nothing.  In fact, the church boasted about it.  Incestuous relationships in the church—not a problem.   Visiting temple prostitutes—not a problem.  This is the church of “All things are lawful for me.”  But upon hearing these reports, Paul was horrified and issued corrective action and corrective theology.

In both situations, bad theology led to bad ethics and bad behavior.  The church had allowed pagan religions and pagan philosophies and practices to influence their thinking and the results were a distortion of the gospel of Christ who came make things new.

  • First, the church had a distorted theology of spiritual freedom in Christ.  Paul dealt with this in other churches as well (see Galatians 5).  The argument went something like this:  Christ has set us from the law, therefore all things are now lawful.  The Mosaic laws restricting ones diet no longer apply–enjoy that bacon cheeseburger.  The Mosaic laws regarding sacrifices no longer apply.  The Mosaic laws about circumcision no longer apply.  We are not under law, but under grace.  Therefore, there is nothing unlawful. Paul’s theology is that we are free, but we are not to use our freedom as a license to indulge the sin nature.  We are free, but never lawless.  We are free, but never released from the royal law of love.
  • Second, the church had a distorted theology of the body.  By their logic, limits on the body were moot because the body itself was nothing but a container for the Spirit. Their logic is expressed another slogan, “Food for the stomach and the stomach for food, and God will destroy them both” so what does it matter what kind of food we eat?  And what is true of food is also true of all other bodily appetites.  Sex for the body and the body for sex, and God will destroy them both, so what does it matter?  This mirrored Greek philosophy that separated the physical from the spiritual.  In Platonic thought, the spiritual was of higher reality than the physical, so the physical world was inconsequential.  Paul’s view of the body was much different. Here is Paul’s theology of the body:  Our bodies (not just our souls) have been redeemed by Christ’s sacrifice, our bodies are temples of the Holy Spirit, our bodies will one day be raised by God’s power.  Our bodies were made for the Lord.  Therefore, how we use our body matters.
  • Finally, the church at Corinth had a distorted understanding of the nature of the church.  Paul uses two images to correct their understanding. First, the church is a new batch of unleavened dough.  Paul uses the Jewish practice of getting rid of the leaven at Passover to make his point.  Yeast was very uncommon in that day.  Bread was leavened using something similar to a sourdough starter, so each loaf was made from the previous dough.  Over time, the starter could become contaminated with bacteria and ineffective.  The Jews got rid of the old starter at Passover.  Paul applies this to the church.  Through the sacrifice of Christ, the church has been made a new batch of dough.  But by tolerating and encouraging behavior that is part of the old nature, the church has been contaminated.  Paul gives a corrective:  Get rid of the old leaven (deal with the incest and the arrogance) so that you can be in practice what you are in spiritual reality.  Allowing the situation to continue only infects the church and makes its witness of Christ as the transformer of all things ineffective.  The second image Paul uses for the church is that we are members of Christ united with him in spirit.  While that is their spiritual reality, their tolerance of fornication denies that reality.  To unite with a temple prostitute, becoming one with her in body, was to become united with the diety she represented.  This was way beyond just having sex.  This was the equivalent of joining Christ to the idol.  Our bodies are not meant for false gods but for the Lord.  Uniting with a temple prostitute is a denial of our union with Christ.   Paul gives a corrective:  Flee fornication (prohibit participation in temple prostitution) so you can be united with Christ in practice as well as spiritual reality.

Implicit in Paul’s directives is a call to the church to change  their relationship to the broader culture and mindset.  Rather than mirroring the culture’s standards or even lowering the bar further (as in the situation of incest) the church must maintain a higher standard of conduct.  To the Romans, Paul wrote: “Don’t be conformed any longer to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind so that you may know God good and perfect will.”  And “give your bodies to God as a living sacrifice.”  (Romans 12:1-2)  Our sexual ethics must be different from the culture that tolerates and encourages “anything goes.”  Paul is not giving them a sexual rulebook (that would be no different from the Law), but he is guiding them to a lifestyle that raises relationships (love does no harm to a neighbor–therefore love fulfills the law–Romans 13:10) and recognizes the sacredness of the body (use the body as an instrument of justice–Romans 6:13).  Sexual expression that diminishes another’s personhood (objectification) or coerces (oppression) is NOT acceptable for members of the body of Christ–even if anything goes in the broader culture.  And idolatry is definitely out of the question.

But it goes beyond sex.  In all areas, the standards of ethics and behavior of the church must be different enough to challenge the standards of the culture.  The economic culture of our day has an “anything goes” attitude about business ethics, putting the bottom line at the top of the agenda.  The church needs to reflect higher standards, putting people above profit.  The corporate culture of our day gives lip service to preservation of life and creation.  The church needs to reflect higher standards toward care of the earth. The political culture of our day is built on a foundation of pay to play and corruption.  The church needs to reflect higher standards that promote policies that protect the least powerful not favoring those with wealth and power.   The practices of the church must reflect the new ways of the Kingdom—both personally and corporately.  Otherwise, we lose our voice and our power to witness to Christ and the Kingdom.  If we allow “anything goes”, everything goes—including our witness to the transformative work of Christ. 

We see this dynamic clearly in the scandal in the Roman Catholic Church regarding pedophile priests.  The church turning a blind eye to the problem, tolerating it and allowing it to continue by simply shifting priests from parish to parish.  The result: a diminished witness for Christ that is still impacting the church.  It has taken radical action from the top to get rid of this infectious leaven.  The rest of the contemporary church needs to learn from the scandal.

These are difficult topics, granted.  But the church needs to raise the issue and begin the dialogue so we can truly be the church that we were meant to be–a holy church that has obeyed the word of God, ‘come out from them and be separate.’ (2 Corinthians 6:17)

Where have you seen the mores and ethics of the culture seep into the church in a way that has been harmful to the church’s witness? 

Evaluate your own “separateness” from the standards of our culture.  Where do you sense that you have “gone to bed” with the world?  What radical action might you need to take to become in practice what God has made you in Christ?

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: