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In his book, What Is the Meaning of Sex? (Crossway, 2013), Denny Burk explains why it is contrary to Paul’s intended meaning for us to cite “all things are lawful” (1 Cor. 6:12) as if it is something he approves. In fact, the context makes clear that this is actually something he is refuting:

Almost every modern translations and a near consensus of commentators treat “all things are lawful” not as Paul’s words but as a slogan that Corinthian men used to justify their visits to prostitutes (cf. 1 Cor. 6:15). The NIV captures the correct interpretation: “‘I have the right to do anything,’ you say—but not everything is beneficial. ‘I have the right to do anything’—but I will not be mastered by anything” (1 Cor. 6:12).

. . . [T]he Corinthians had twisted Paul’s law-free gospel into a justification for bad behavior. Thus the phrase “all things are lawful” is not an expression of Christian freedom from the apostle Paul but rather an expression of antinomianism from fornicators! Paul’s aim in 1 Corinthians 6:12-20 is to correct the Corinthians’ misunderstanding. One of the reasons for the Corinthian error was the fact that they viewed the physical body as inconsequential in God’s moral economy (see 1 Cor. 6:13b). Yet Paul refutes the Corinthians on this point and gives them an ultimate ethical norm with respect to their bodies: “You have been bought with a price: therefore glorify God in your body” (1 Cor. 6:20). . . . Paul’s question is not “Is it lawful?” but “Does it glorify God with my body?”

This is not to say that every evangelical who uses this phrase has the wrong general idea. Christian freedom is a legitimate doctrine, rightly interpreted and applied. But I think it’s fairly clear that this is an example of a legitimate intention from the wrong text.

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2 thoughts on “Why Christians Need to Stop Citing “All Things Are Lawful” in Cultural Arguments”

  1. Shaun Little says:

    Not that I am a scholar or anything but it seems to me that the context has to do with food and drink not with fornication. I would think it absurd that the corinthians would think fornication is acceptable, and if they did I would think Paul would have met it far more clearly and ferociously . Fornication goes beyond ‘not being beneficial’, it is listed as one of the more harmful sins a member of the body of Christ can commit: 1 cor 6:18.

    I guess this raised an eyebrow for me because this verse dismantled my legalistic views I held early in my conversion and freed me from a rigid crippled walk. I need to know was Paul speaking as a straw man when he says: ‘I have the right to do anything’—but I will not be mastered by anything” It was that section of the verse which I had interpreted as Paul stating “Yes, all things are lawful, but I will not be mastered by anything”. For me this freed me to do things like drink wine or do other things my old pentecostal/holiness friends said was wrong. I took it as meaning there’s a difference between using with liberty and using for licentiousness and the key is whether or not a man is mastered by his “liberty”.For we know that if a man is mastered by anything apart from Christ then it is no true liberty at all.

    Perhaps my interpretation is flawed but I will put forth the context is not dealing with fornication. It is obviously dealing with food or drink or the like. I have to get to work, but look forward to edifying comments after work. I am not convinced Burk has this right and NIV translators are not high on my list of people I tend to listen to.

    1. Shaun Little says:

      Well I am embarrassed. I did not read the article correctly this morning. I was only considering 1 cor 10 and was not aware the same statement is made by Paul in 1 cor 6 as well (which is plainly seen in the article). I would like to thank my wise and beautiful wife for pointing this out to me. After I eat this crow I will make note that my time would be better spent before work actually reading the chapter sited before popping off sloppy comments accusing men greater than I of using poor context.

      I humbly apologize.

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Justin Taylor, PhD

Justin Taylor is executive vice president of book publishing and book publisher for Crossway and blogs at Between Two Worlds. You can follow him on Twitter.

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