The freedom of Christians was a major issue for the Corinthian Christians. It is likely that a number of members of the congregation were slaves and former slaves. It may well be that some slaves and masters were members of the congregation together. This sociological reality by itself would raise some big questions for a Christian community (just read Paul’s Letter to Philemon for a window into that can of worms). Here Paul tries to resolve the tension between freedom in Christ and the obedience of faith.
As he thinks about freedom in Christ, Paul makes an analogy with the human body. He will return to this analogy in chapters 10 through 13, but his usage there will be a bit different.
First, he briefly notes that just because we can eat anything we want doesn’t mean that we should eat everything we want. There is a right relationship between food and the stomach that defines freedom. It is not an exercise of freedom to eat until you make yourself sick. That’s an expression of an addiction to food. So freely adopting healthy boundaries is not a concession to law or works. Rather, it is a way of being more of who we are created to be in Christ.
Frank L. Crouch develops this in his workingpreacher.org commentary. “Soon, what I chose freely…can dominate my life. I will no longer be free. The cosmos does not actually revolve around me. God, by grace, can set us free from those dominations, but even though the power to be free is immediate, the way back to health will still be long and hard. Paul cautions us to choose our paths carefully lest the things we freely choose become our undoing or become an imposition on our neighbors and, collectively, foster suffering or oppression.”
Paul quickly moves the analogy on to the dimensions of sexual freedom and obligation in a marriage. Remaining faithful within a marriage covenant is not a restriction of freedom. Rather, having sexual relations with a prostitute constitutes the bondage. Sexual relations create a bond with another person regardless of the assumed relationship or lack thereof. To treat those relations as of no consequence is to make oneself a slave to connections not of one’s choosing.
Melanie Howard puts it well in her workingpreacher.org commentary.
“We might better understand Paul’s analogy here by considering his teachings on the marriage union later in 1 Corinthians 7. In the context of that discussion, Paul emphasizes that a married individual cedes authority of their body to their spouse (7:4). The verb that Paul uses there is the same one from 6:12 where he quotes the Corinthians’ own words against them. Thus, a connection emerges between these two chapters. An individual becomes one flesh with their spouse (6:16) and thus grants authority to the spouse over that flesh (7:4). In the same way, one becomes one spirit with Christ (1:17) and thus grants authority to Christ over both flesh and spirit alike.”
Paul has chosen two body analogies that rely on the image of union with something “outside” of oneself. Food is consumed and becomes part of one’s body. Sexual relations are an exchange of bodily integrity, and the partners become part of one another’s bodies. These analogies help Paul make the point that the Holy Spirit enters the believer from outside and unites the believer, body and all, to the Lord.
So, on the one hand, the analogy allows Paul to use a couple of familiar and graphic images to help the Corinthian believers understand what he is saying. On the other hand, he can reverse the analogy to help the Corinthian believers understand that unhealthy relationships with sex and food will interfere with one’s freedom in Christ. Those unhealthy relationships may be “lawful” in the sense that Christians are not bound by the Mosaic law. But they are not helpful or useful to the individual believer or to the community.
Valerie Nicolet-Anderson puts it this way on her workingpreacher.org commentary. “For Paul, freedom is always oriented freedom; and for the Christ believers, this freedom depends on their lord, Christ. Through their baptism, the Christ believers now belong to Christ. For them the question is no longer what is permitted or not, or what is legal or not. Rather, they have to orient their freedom in order to embody their new life in Christ”
Therefore, the misuse of God’s gifts can put us deeper in bondage. So, Paul says that in freedom in Christ he will not be “dominated” by anything. The Greek word literally means to under the power of something or someone.
We should be clear that for Paul, the modern ideal of personal autonomy is not good news at all. If you belong to no one, you are completely on your own. When things go wrong, no one will help you. You have no way to know who you are. And you will wander isolated through a heartless world. Lest we think that Paul is hopelessly old-fashioned in this regard, let’s remember the pathological prevalence of loneliness in this culture that champions individual freedom from constricting connections.
Paul is sure that we will either belong to sin, death, and evil, or we will belong to Christ. Israel Kamudzandu offers this discussion on his workingpreacher.org commentary.
The point of “glorifying God,” individually or communally is Paul’s final message that human bodies belong to God. Theologically, Paul offers a new vision, one that builds the ecclesial community where individuals gather as the body of Christ. In a world where people are torn between rights and Spiritual faith, Paul calls believers to live a countercultural way of life — a life of discipline and discernment. The life being called for is one in which one ceases to be a free-range individual but one who submits to the authority of God, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.
Luther devotes one of his most important treatises to the topic of Christian freedom. “One thing and one thing alone is necessary for the Christian life, righteousness, and freedom,” Luther writes in The Freedom of the Christian, “and that is the most holy word of God, the Gospel of Christ” (page 490). From his Small Catechism, we know that the Holy Spirit has called us into Christ through the Gospel. Therefore, the work of the Holy Spirit is the work that makes us free. As Paul reminds us in 1 Corinthians, no one can even say “Jesus is Lord,” except by the power of the Spirit.
The Holy Spirit calls us through the Gospel and creates in us the gift of faith, Luther says. That gift forms our souls for love for God and neighbor. That faith regards God as truthful and deserving of our absolute trust. And that faith “unites the soul with Christ, like a bride with a bridegroom” (page 499).
We find ourselves back in 1 Corinthians territory (although Luther most likely had the words of Ephesians 5 in mind here). This union brings about the “wonderful exchange” at the heart of Luther’s theology. “Accordingly,” he writes, “the faithful soul can both assume as its own whatever Christ has and glory in it, and whatever is the soul’s Christ claims for himself as his own” (page 500).
This wonderful exchange frees us from any need to placate or please God with our works, wealth or worry. We can therefore devote ourselves fully to loving service toward the neighbor. “In this life,” Luther writes, “a person’s own body must be ruled and be in relation with other human beings” (page 511). Like Paul, Luther understands freedom as a “oriented freedom” rather than mere autonomy. Freedom must serve a purpose, otherwise it lapses into bondage to the self.
The Christian ideal is not a detached personal autonomy but rather faith active in love. Just as Paul talks about the relationship between healthy boundaries and spiritual freedom, Luther makes the point. “The purpose of putting the body in subjection,” he writes, “is so that it can serve more genuinely and more freely” (page 520). Luther takes a couple of paragraphs to point out that this is the rational for keeping oneself healthy and fit, so that we “can protect and support those who are in need” (page 520).
We live in this way because the Holy Spirit fills us with the freeing power of Christ for lives of meaning and purpose. We are made for loving service, and living that way makes us most fully alive in Christ. “Therefore, I will give myself as a kind of Christ to my neighbor,” Luther writes, just as Christ offered himself to me [notice “to me” rather than “for me”!]. I will do nothing in this life except what I see will be necessary, advantageous, and salutary to me neighbor,” Luther concludes, “because through faith I am overflowing with all good things in Christ” (page 524).
It’s not surprising that Paul brings a conclusion to this central section of the letter in chapter thirteen with his poem on love. Overflowing with all good things in Christ for the sake of the neighbor is how Luther defines and describes that love. And that loving service is the essence of what it means to live free in Christ by the power of the Holy Spirit.
References and Resources
Frankfurt, Harry G. On Bullshit. Princeton University Press. Kindle Edition.
Glaude, Eddie S. Begin Again: James Baldwin’s America and Its Urgent Lessons for Our Own. New York: Crown, 2020.
Kashdan, Todd. Curious? Discover the Missing Ingredient to a Fulfilling Life. New York: HarperCollins, 2009.
Luther, Martin. Martin Luther’s Large Catechism. Bente and Dau, 2012.
Luther, Martin (Timothy Wengert). Luther’s Small Catechism with Evangelical Lutheran Worship Texts. Minneapolis, MN.: Augsburg Fortress Press, 2008.
Morris, Jerome. “Can Anything Good Come from Nazareth? Race, Class, and African American Schooling and Community in the Urban South and Midwest.” American Education Research Journal, Spring 2004.
Rothstein, Richard. The Color of Law: A Forgotten History of How Our Government Segregated America. New York: Liveright Publishing Corporation, 2017.
Ruge-Jones, Phil. The Word of the Cross and The Word of Glory. Minneapolis, Mn.: Augsburg Fortress Press, 2008.
Taylor, Barbara Brown. An Altar in the World: A Geography of Faith. New York: HarperOne, 2009.
Wengert, Timothy J. The Freedom of a Christian 1520 (The Annotated Luther Study Edition). Minneapolis, Mn.: Fortress Press, 2016.