Introduction: Why adultery was so prevalent in the Corinthian church
Corinth, a pivotal city in the canvas of Paul’s gospel ministry, was not only an ancient jewel of Greece but also a crucible of wealth, culture, and immorality. The rich tapestry of Corinth’s history traverses epochs of opulence and debauchery, leaving an indelible mark on antiquity.
As early as the 8th century B.C., Corinth prospered, emerging as the preeminent power in southern Greece. This was a city where art, poetry, pottery, and architecture thrived, with the term “Corinthian” transcending its geographical roots to describe a distinct architectural style.
Sexual Misconduct in Corinth
However, the Peloponnesian War in 431 B.C. dealt Corinth a crippling blow, and it subsequently aligned with Athens and other city-states against Sparta. Later, Corinth lost its sovereignty during the Punic Wars in 338 B.C. under Macedonian rule. After the Romans swept through Greece, Corinth lay in ruins, awaiting rebirth as a free city, a mantle bestowed by Julius Caesar around 46 B.C.
The Corinth of antiquity was a melting pot of mainland Greeks, Jews, emancipated Roman slaves, Roman officials, and traders. Roman emperors showered favor upon this city, adorning it with the patronage of their time, and Nero himself exhibited his creative talents by staging extravagant games within its walls.
Within this captivating backdrop, the city acquired a notorious reputation. Roman-era Corinth was synonymous with wealth and debauchery. To “live like the Corinthians” meant indulgence in luxury and unbridled immorality. This flourishing port city, almost inevitably, drew to it the dregs of the world.
Perched atop a Corinthian hill stood Greece’s sole temple dedicated to Aphrodite. A thousand priestesses, the hierodouloi, or sacred slaves, resided there, practicing prostitution in the service of the goddess of love.
Sexual Corruption in the Corinthian Church
In this city drenched in decadence and debauchery, the Apostle Paul embarked on a mission to preach the gospel, imparting a message of transformation. He laid the foundation for the Corinthian church, kindling a light amidst this moral darkness. However, the pervasive decadence cast a shadow on the fledgling congregation.
In response to the ethical dilemmas that the Corinthian church grappled with, Paul penned several letters, two of which have endured. In his first letter, 1 Corinthians, the apostle confronted an unsettling issue: fornication.
It is actually reported that there is sexual immorality among you, and of a kind that is not tolerated even among pagans, for a man has his father’s wife. 2 And you are arrogant! Ought you not rather to mourn? Let him who has done this be removed from among you.(1 Corinthians 5:1-2, ESV)
The Apostle Paul’s Wrath Against the Fallen Corinthian Church
In this verse, the case under scrutiny was one of extreme gravity. It involved a man who had engaged in a relationship with his stepmother, a form of adultery that even the heathen Gentiles would frown upon. It is vital to note that Paul was the founding figure of the Corinthian church, a fact that lent particular weight to this revelation. If he had foreseen that his letter to the Corinthians would become part of the biblical canon, he might have hesitated to record it, but Paul’s primary concern was to address the immediate issues plaguing the Corinthian church.
He rebuked the church for concealing these transgressions, asserting that “a little leaven leavens the whole lump.” Fornication, in particular, was likened to “vile and malignant leaven,” a vice that, if left unchecked, would cast a dark shadow over the entire community.
Paul’s command “Do not associate with fornicators” met with some misunderstanding among the congregation.
9 I wrote to you in my letter not to associate with sexually immoral people— 10 not at all meaning the sexually immoral of this world, or the greedy and swindlers, or idolaters, since then you would need to go out of the world. 11 But now I am writing to you not to associate with anyone who bears the name of brother if he is guilty of sexual immorality or greed, or is an idolater, reviler, drunkard, or swindler—not even to eat with such a one.(1 Corinthians 5:9-11, ESV)
Paul emphasized that the prohibition on association was primarily applicable to brethren within the church. It was essential to maintain a distinction. His declaration provided an ethical basis for abstaining from fornication that set it apart from other sins.
Flee from sexual immorality. Every other sin[e] a person commits is outside the body, but the sexually immoral person sins against his own body.(1 Corinthians 6:18. ESV)
The Distinctive Nature of Fornication
Here, the distinctive nature of fornication was underscored. It was categorized as a sin against one’s own body, setting it apart as a transgression of unparalleled devastation. Fornication could serve as a gateway to pornography addiction, leading down a treacherous path toward sexual assault and even homicide.
Marriage and the family were presented as powerful bulwarks against fornication. Paul’s admonitions made this resoundingly clear.
Now concerning the matters about which you wrote: “It is good for a man not to have sexual relations with a woman.” 2 But because of the temptation to sexual immorality, each man should have his own wife and each woman her own husband.(1 Corinthians 7:1-2)
This verse elucidates that abstinence is virtuous but should not be practiced as a remedy to combat fornication. It was vital for every man to possess his own wife, and for every woman to have her own husband. The phrase “as a balm for fornication” alluded to preventing individuals from engaging in uncontrolled fornication.
How to Get Out of Adultery
Paul continued with a comprehensive set of instructions for marriage.
First, he underscored the obligation of husbands to fulfill their conjugal duties to their wives, and wives to their husbands.
Second, he introduced a pivotal shift in perspective regarding the claiming of bodies. A wife did not own her body exclusively; her husband did. Similarly, a husband did not have sole ownership of his body; his wife did. This conveyed the transition toward a more balanced view of women’s rights within the early church.
Lastly, Paul warned against division. It was perilously easy for couples to drift into the snare of separate sleeping arrangements. While temporary separation for prayer or other duties was permissible, reuniting promptly was paramount. By following these guidelines, the sanctity of the home was upheld as a bulwark against the encroachment of fornication.
Conclusion: Marriage, Built on Mutual Respect and Fulfillment of Conjugal Duties
In summary, Paul’s teachings in Corinth illuminated the gravity of fornication and its unique impact as a sin against one’s own body. Marriage, built on mutual respect and fulfillment of conjugal duties, stood as the citadel against fornication. In ancient Corinth, a city once steeped in decadence, the apostle’s wisdom revealed a path to redemption and purity.