Some Implications Concerning Flesh and Body
A major issue involving different views of interpretation centers upon Paul’s intended meaning in 1 Corinthians 6:16, concerning the explanation which Paul is giving for why sexual union with a prostitute is completely wrong for a Christian. The common interpretation of Paul’s meaning is as follows:
“He who joins himself to a prostitute becomes one body with her, because this is the consequence of the teaching of Scripture when it states ‘The two shall become one flesh’. That is to say, becoming ‘one flesh’ is brought about by having sexual intercourse with a person, even if that person is a prostitute, because he who joins himself to a person in sexual intercourse becomes one body with her, and ‘one body’ and ‘one flesh’ have the same meaning.”
E.g. Conzelmann (111) says explicitly, “Paul presumes that σάρξ, ‘flesh,’ is the equivalent of σῶμα, ‘body’.” So completely was this identification of “one body” and “one flesh” accepted by the translators of the original (1946) RSV that the Greek word “flesh” was left untranslated, leaving the reader to identify the “two shall become one” with the “one body” of the sentence which precedes it. The revised RSV of 1971 inserted “flesh” to translate σαρξ (sarx), so that at least the reader is now aware that two different words are used in the Greek.
The deficiency of this interpretation is that it denudes Paul’s argument of any specific point. Paul is made to be saying: "Shall I therefore take the members of Christ and make them members of a prostitute? Never! Do you not know that the Scripture says that he who joins himself to a prostitute becomes one flesh with her?"
Why this should be wrong is not explained - that is left for the Corinthians to work out for themselves. Paul is shown as building his argument up to a point - and then he fails to make the point!
The following verse (6:17) draws the contrast between bodily union with a prostitute and spiritual union with Christ without explaining why the former is wrong. But the fact that I am spiritually united with Christ does not make all sexual union wrong for me. If Paul’s point is that sexual union is wrong if my partner is a prostitute, then verse 17 is not helping to make that point.
We know that sexual union with a prostitute is wrong because of Paul’s question about this that he answers with an emphatic “Never!” But we are left without any meaning in his purported explanation of why it is wrong. This consequence should make us somewhat suspicious of an interpretation that brings us to such a situation.
Our suspicion of this interpretation must be considerably increased when its wider implications are considered.
If sexual union with a prostitute makes a customer “one flesh” with her, then it will do the same for all her customers - so either each customer is in a one-flesh relationship with the prostitute until the advent of the next customer (a very short-term relationship!); or else the “one flesh” term refers only to the actual act of intercourse and not to a relationship at all (so that Paul is here quoting Genesis 2:24 with a meaning quite opposed to that of all other biblical occurrences of this passage); or else a prostitute can be, and remain, simultaneously one-flesh with all her customers, who themselves are also one-flesh with any other prostitutes they consort with - a conclusion which evacuates the term of any meaning at all!
However, the fact is that Scripture uses “one flesh” to refer to the marriage relationship (Genesis 2:24; Matthew 19:5; Mark 10:7; Ephesians 5:31). To equate becoming “one flesh” just with physical union itself (“one body”) is to make the establishment of a marriage to be solely a matter of physical union.
This could not be restricted to liaisons with prostitutes. On this view, any two people who had sexual intercourse together would have to be held to be, in God’s sight, married to each other. The theological and pastoral implications of this are far-reaching! Some Christians, being consistent, have reached this conclusion, and thus they give pastoral counselling based on this interpretation of the passage, telling two people who have had sexual intercourse to become formally married as they have already become married in God’s sight!
Moreover, if physical union in itself (“one body”) is equated with “one flesh” (6:16) and this is then contrasted with being “united to the Lord” and becoming “one spirit with him” (6:17), then it is hard to resist the conclusion - from this interpretation - that all sexual activity (even the “one flesh” of marriage) is covered by Paul’s contrast with a spiritual relationship with Christ, and thus is wrong in itself and apparently condemned by the generalization of 6:18, “Flee from immorality”. Now this conclusion is impossible to sustain from the wider context: the instruction “Therefore honor God with your body” (6:20) is followed within a couple of verses by injunctions to both husband and wife to give sexual fulfillment to their marriage partner, and the assertion that each has the control, for sexual purposes, of the partner’s body (7:3-4).
If then respect for the whole of what Paul says in this total passage will prevent us from regarding “flee from sexual immorality” and being one spirit with the Lord as a blanket condemnation of all sexual relations, we are thereby compelled to backtrack and think afresh whether we are correct in accepting the identification of “one body” and “one flesh” (6:16) as synonymous.
Consider some of the pastoral and theological implications, in a few real-life pastoral situations, of the interpretation of 6:16 that to be “one body” with a prostitute means the same as to be “one flesh” with her - that is, that an act of sexual intercourse is what makes two people “one flesh”:
1. George goes away to a Convention with his workmates, and while they are in a distant city together he gives way to peer pressure when the others decide to hire a few call girls for the evening. So he’s become “one flesh” with one of these girls, has he? What exactly does that mean? He doesn’t even know the girl’s name. He will never see her again. What exactly does it mean now to say that George is “one flesh” with her, in terms of Bible teaching? And what is the nature now of his relationship with his wife, theologically speaking? - he was “one flesh” with her before the Convention: is he still? You are his pastor, and - deeply ashamed - George comes to you for clarification. Theologically, what do you tell him? Oh, yes, and of course the call girl had several other customers that night - are they all “one flesh” with her also? Simultaneously? How many people can you be “one flesh” with simultaneously - is there a limit?
2. Muriel and her husband split up many years ago, but she never bothered with a divorce as she did not contemplate marrying again. Recently she joined a gym club, and felt attracted to one of the instructors. One thing led to another, and one day they had sex together. It was just a passing infatuation - she doesn’t love him, and they would not be a good match to get married. But where does she stand with him now, theologically speaking? If she is “one flesh” with him now, does that mean she is actually married to him in God’s sight? So is she to put through her divorce now, so that she can legally marry this gym instructor? You are her pastor, and in great distress, remembering your sermon last year on “one flesh” in 1 Corinthians 6:16, Muriel comes to you now for you to explain her situation to her theologically. What will you tell her?
3. One wet Saturday afternoon two teenage members of your youth group are fooling around, not really understanding what they are doing. And while playing around together, they end up having intercourse. Now, if having intercourse means becoming “one flesh”, they must now be married in God’s sight, right? They certainly didn’t intend to get married that wet afternoon. Judy’s mother finds her in tears, and brings her to you. What can you tell them both about the concepts of intention in relation to getting married, and giving consent to a marriage, and all the other things that you would normally say to a couple contemplating marriage? Judy and Jim don’t want to marry - they just want to complete their schooling. Do you tell them they are now actually married in God’s sight? And what must they do about this?
Or, seeing all these people this week, will you decide that being “one flesh” is not the same thing as being married before God? What will you do then with all the Bible verses that say that being “one flesh” is in fact the inner meaning of being married?
Or will you perhaps rethink now what started it all - the interpretation of 6:16 that says becoming “one body” with a prostitute means in fact becoming “one flesh” with her, with all that the Bible means by this intimate term?
The fact is, this approach is an extremely unsatisfactory interpretation, both on internal grounds, and on the basis of the other teaching of Paul (e.g., Ephesians 5:22-33) and the teaching of the rest of the New Testament. For it is difficult to deny that such an interpretation sets this verse in conflict with the meaning of Genesis 2:24 (“one flesh”) both in its original context and in each other place where it is quoted in Scripture.
There are several commentators who have noted the unsatisfactory nature of this usual approach. For example, in the Anchor Bible Commentary on 1 Corinthians, the authors William F. Orr and James Arthur Walther, write:
“Since human bodies are parts of the body of Christ, Paul declares it unthinkable that they participate in prostitution. Based on his understanding of creation he believed that sex union makes the two participants one body. [Whereas] to become one flesh is the proper destiny of those who incorporate their sex desires into a total relation of love and loyalty, so that they can become one joint personality and in their relationship express faith in God and love for the other. This cannot be done in the isolated, commercial action of prostitution. The mysterious unity of the flesh where there is no concern, loyalty, or love is sharply rejected by Paul.”
That is, these authors affirm that Paul sharply rejects the idea that “the mysterious unity of the flesh” can exist “in the isolated, commercial action of prostitution”, “where there is no concern, loyalty, or love”.
The commentator who seeks to face the problem squarely, and to wrestle with it realistically, is Calvin. In his commentary he begins his discussion of what Paul says in v.16 thus:
“He makes it plainer how seriously Christ is harmed by the man who has intercourse with a harlot. For one body is formed, and so tears a member away from the body of Christ. Paul adds a quotation from Genesis 2:24 but it is not clear what connection he means it to have with his theme. For if he quotes it in order to prove that two people who commit fornication with each other become one flesh, he is distorting the meaning, from the true one to [a different] one quite alien to it. For Moses is not speaking here [Genesis 2:24] of the scandalous and forbidden cohabitation of a man and a woman, but of the marriage union which God blesses. For he teaches that that bond is so close and indissoluble that it surpasses the intimacy which exists between a father and son; and that certainly cannot be said about fornication.”
Having thus totally rejected this explanation, Calvin suggests two other ways in which the passage may possibly be understood. My suggested interpretation is akin to, though not completely identical with, the second of Calvin’s two alternatives.
The true understanding, I suggest, of Paul’s meaning in 1 Corinthians 6:16 proceeds upon the basis that when Paul has chosen to use two different words here, “body” (soma) and “flesh” (sarx), it is with two different meanings. That is, he uses these words not as synonyms but in order to contrast them.
While “flesh” (sarx) can be used as a synonym for “body” (soma), its normal use is with different meaning. It refers to all that is means to be human. To say, for example, that “the Word became flesh” (John 1:14) means more than that Jesus had a body. A “one-flesh relationship” means that marriage is a union of all that two people are as human beings in this life.
Paul asks, “Do you not know that he who unites himself with a prostitute becomes one body with her?” He is about to use a quotation containing the word “flesh”. If he intended his readers to see that this word links directly with what he is saying, with the same meaning, he had only to use the word “flesh” instead of “body” in this lead-up to the quotation. That he used different words should at least give us pause, and lead us to consider whether by them he meant different things.
Let us trace Paul’s whole argument. His emphatic “Never!” (v. 15) makes it plain that sexual intercourse with a prostitute is wrong. He is now clarifying why it is wrong. Sexual intercourse with a prostitute is a union of bodies, a coming together into one body. Moreover, that is all that it is.
This thus raises the question, unspoken but implicit in Paul’s reasoning, “Why is this wrong?” His answer is, “Because the Scripture says ‘The two shall become one flesh’” (6:16). The one-flesh union is a total union of two people. This is God’s intended type of union for sexual fulfillment. The one-body union, in contrast, is a mere physical coupling. So then, why is it wrong? Because it is a willful substitute for, and a rejection of, the full one-flesh union, which is God’s plan for mankind and the only legitimate sphere for the expression of our sexuality according to the will of the Creator.
Taking “body” and “flesh” as synonyms in this passage deprives Paul’s logical argument of any point and forces us to some very bizarre theological and pastoral conclusions. Taking “one-body” and “one-flesh” as being contrasted here (that is, accepting that Paul choose to use different words because he wanted to express different meanings) gives us the interpretation that Paul is showing sexual union with a prostitute to be wrong because this is only a union of bodies whereas God’s plan for the expression of human sexuality is that it takes place within, and is limited to, the total union of two human beings which Scripture refers to as the one-flesh relationship of marriage.
(This is one of the “Practical and Pastoral Reflections” upon Paul’s Epistle, taken from
B Ward Powers’ First Corinthians - An Exegetical and Explanatory Commentary.)
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