Francis Gardom takes a leaf out of Paul’s book

From time to time the Church of God suffers from an epidemic of a particular wrongdoing.

Usually (by no means always) it is of a sexual variety. Yes – we all know that Christians sometimes indulge in the sins of scadalmongering, poison-pen lettering, or embezzlement of church funds; but these rarely become epidemics of the “everybody’s-doing-it-now” type. Unchastity is highly infectious.

Read all about it in I Corinthians chapters 5, 6 and 7!

The immediate scandal was incest; but a closer reading suggests that sexual laxity, endemic in any large seaport, had quickly reasserted itself amongst the faithful once it been condoned (or overlooked) in a single member of the Christian community.

Worse than the actual sin, some churchgoers actually applauded the evildoer. They were proud of it. St Paul writes (5:2, RSV):

“And you are arrogant (pefusiomenoi)! Ought you not rather to mourn? let him who has done this be removed (arthe) from among you?

Perhaps they saw themselves as liberated people whose reputation for being tolerant towards other wrongdoers was matched only by their self-approval for being so.

It certainly bred a crisis of confidence. Reactions hardened into irreconcilable attitudes: Hard-liners who favoured throwing out the guilty parties for good and all; Quiet-lifers who wanted things hushed up; Soft-liners who saw Christian consisting of forgiving-and-forgetting”; and a small (but intellectual) Sea-of-Morality party who had worked out that since sinning caused grace to abound the more of it there was around the better God would be pleased! Such an idea was certainly doing the rounds in Rome – see Romans 3:8, 6:1 and 6:15.

The Paul/Apollos/Cephas/Christ divisions in this letter [1:11-13, 3:4-23] may have been a by-product of these different moral attitudes adopted towards the scandal by the Corinthians. Anyone whose lack of theological understanding makes him hesitate before he “takes a strong line” on a doctrinal matter; can make up for his reticence when it comes to moral principles because, like everyone else, “he knows where he stands”! In this way any doctrinal difference supposed to exist between Paul, or Apollos, or Cephas, could easily have acquired a corresponding moral attitude to distinguish it from its rivals.

What we do know is that all four of these attitudes towards wrongdoing by their fellow-Christians were prevalent in New Testament times and have remained around in some form ever since.

Today, as then, those of us who believe that such behaviour is contrary to the mind of Christ and are rash enough to say so get labelled “hypocrites”, “pharisees”, “life-haters” or “intolerant”. Had Sigmund Freud and Havelock Ellis’s ideas been around at the time, words like “homophobic”, “repressed” or “emotionally unbalanced” – all the labels which “advanced thinkers” attach to St Paul today would have been pinned on them too.

The Western Church is presently in the throes of a similar crisis. Not incest (yet!) but extra- and pre-marital sex, and homosexual genital intercourse.

Such sins have always existed within the Church. The difference today is that instead of being condemned they are condoned and even applauded as they were in first-century Corinth.

Applauded by those who maintain that chastity is impossible (or unhealthy); and by those (often the same people) who believe that self-fulfilment and self-gratification in life are of paramount importance for every individual – so that such sensual experiences come to be regarded as their “natural right”.

The time has now come for us to set the record straight. Let us begin with the views expressed in the last paragraph.

To the claim that chastity is impossible we must insist that by the grace of God hundreds of millions of Christians throughout the ages have striven and still strive, often successfully, to be chaste.

What do we say about such people? That they are mistaken? If so, a good many people died an unnecessary martyr’s death for precisely that mistake. We must ask where this latter-day enlightenment has suddenly come from, and why God’ has kept his people so consistently in the dark about such an important matter until now.

Secondly we must reaffirm the teaching of Scripture that self-fulfilment and self-gratification, so far from being the end-all and be-all of man’s existence upon earth, may be the very things which separate him, perhaps eternally, from God and from the chief end for which he created him – namely “…to glorify God and to enjoy him for ever”. If Scripture is wrong on such a basic matter, how, we ask, can we trust it about others?

Next let us examine the popular nostrum to the effect that sexual sins “are just like any other sins”

They are not. As we shall see, there is something about them which, in the light of Christian belief makes them sui generis “in a class of their own”.

This is not necessarily to imply anything about their moral turpitude. A given sin, may depend for its actual gravity on many factors even though it is “in a class of its own”

To understand the difference between uniqueness and gravity consider the “uniqueness” of another type of sin – murder. Everybody recognizes it as an act “in a class of its own” because it by its nature irreversible; whereas for example money stolen can be paid back, damaged property repaired and relationships mended.

However, the culpability of the armed robber who shoots a bank-clerk is much greater than that of the clinically depressed mother who kills her child in a moment of despair.

Both acts are irreversible and therefore unique. Both entail the sudden extinction of an innocent life; but the guilt of its agent, taking into account their state of mind at the time, will be reflected in their sentence.

Like murder though for a different reason, sexual misconduct is not “just like any other sort of wrongdoing”. It has a unique feature which St Paul describes as “sinning against one’s own body” With the caveat that uniqueness is not a measure of gravity, Christians, following Paul’s understanding of the created order, believe that there are features about sexual immorality which really do “set it in a class of its own” – whatever popular secular thought may want to believe to the contrary.

The passage in question is 6:18-20. Paul says:

Shun immorality [ten porneia]. Every other sin which a man commits is outside the body [‘ektos ten somatos]; but the immoral man [porneuon] sins against his own body [‘eis to ‘idion soma]. Do you not know that your body is a temple [naos] of the Holy Spirit within you, which you have from God? You are not your own [‘ouk ‘este `eautwn]; you were bought with a price. so glorify God in your body.

A little earlier [3:16-17] he says:

Do you not know that you are God’s temple and the God’s Spirit dwells in you? If anyone destroys God’s temple, God will destroy him. for God’s temple is holy and that temple you are.

In this second passage Paul is not writing specifically about sexual morality but about the strife and jealousy resulting from their divisions, although these may have been a by-product of the immorality. (See above). However, in 6: 9-10 his meaning is quite clear and unequivocal when he says:

Do you not know that the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived; neither the immoral [pornoi], nor idolaters, nor adulterers [moichoi], nor “malakoi” nor “‘arsenokoitai” … will inherit the kingdom of God. And such were some of you. But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and in the Spirit of our God.

The two words in quotation marks are translated by the single word “homosexuals” in the RSV, which in a footnote draws attention to the fact that there are two words, not one. KJV renders malakoi (literally “soft people”) as “effeminate”; NIV translates it “male prostitute”. The word is used thrice elsewhere in the New Testament, each time in the context of John the Baptist (Matt. 11:8 [twice] and Luke 7:25 [once] referring to the “soft raiment” which Jesus pointed out was not John’s habit but worn by those “in king’s houses”. ‘arsenokoitai (literally “male-bedders”) is rendered by KJV as “abusers of themselves with mankind” and in I Tim. 1:10 as “defilers of themselves with mankind”, again with pornoi in juxtaposition, whilst RSV has “immoral persons, sodomites”.

Some of these words are, we are told, uncommon in the New Testament. The use of unfamiliar terms by itself does not mean that the particular sins to which he was referring were uncommon. Paul may be using a local Corinthian slang term in order to be understood by his hearers, like someone, not usually given to coarse words, might say “fucking is wrong” rather than “fornication is immoral” in order to be understood.

These “sins against one’s own body” [‘eis to ‘idion soma] are differentiated by St Paul from all other sins, not because of their grossness, but because of the “hidden” consequences which they entail, namely that of “becoming one flesh” with the object of one’s immorality. In 6:16 he says:

Do you not know that he who joins himself to a prostitute [`o kallomenos tÍ pornÍ] becomes one body with her? For as it is written “The two shall become one [flesh]”

So porneia, whatever other exotic meanings it may have had, is used by St Paul in 5:1 to refer to the sexual scandals of the Corinthian Church which included incest.

Even so, why does St Paul take the Corinthian scandal so seriously? He does so because of his understanding of the union of Christ and Church symbolised and foreshown in the marriage bond – “the union of one man with one woman for life to the exclusion of all others.”

What marked out Christians most significantly in the eyes of their pagan contemporaries was their strict adherence to the rule “fidelity within marriage, chastity outside it” – depending as it does on the belief that in such a sacramental act is “shown forth and represented the mystical union between Christ and his Church”.

Where this rule is ignored the whole ecclesial symbolism and the theology based upon it lie in ruins We end up with a Church which, far from being a divine creation, a living organism in a perpetual and irrefragable relationship with her Lord and Saviour, becomes instead just another human organisation.

As if to reinforce this rule Paul instructs that the offender (and presumably any others who have indulged in immoral behaviour) are to be “delivered to Satan for the destruction of the flesh, that his spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord Jesus”. Later in the same chapter he says “drive out the wicked person from among you”.

This command the Corinthians obeyed with such thoroughness that St Paul was obliged in his second letter to advise them to mitigate somewhat the punishment that they had imposed. This is important since implies that he clearly did not regard such sins as “unforgivable”, even though a later generation of Christians (during the “Rigorism Period”) were inclined to do so.

Until recently such sins have regularly been regarded as grave and soul-destroying. Today, influences which originate more from secular sentiment than scriptural or traditional teaching face us with a reversion to the Corinthian crisis. Not only are there Christians, priests and laymen, who do such things, but “approve of those who practise them” (Romans 1:32).

Why has this epidemic struck at this particular time? Its causes are at least threefold.

Firstly, there is the popular secular philosophy which regards the chief end of man as “self-fulfilment”. This involves a good deal of “doing what you want”. By the same token the greatest affliction anyone can endure is that of being prevented from, or incapable of, doing what his desires suggest. In the New Testament and the Fathers the word desire (‘epithumia) nearly always refers to something contrary to the will of God.

Secondly, there is the well-meant but misguided desire to “affirm” whatever people presently are or want to be in the future. This involves a corresponding reluctance to condemn, let alone exclude them for their deeds.

This “affirming” attitude is selective about what it affirms: principally those things for which pressure-groups exists to promote. Thus abortion, genital sexual activity between people of the same sex, and various “harmless” perversions are enthusiastically tolerated; it would be difficult to imagine that a fashion for female circumcision being equally “affirmed”.

Thirdly, in the background, nurtured by wishful thinking, is Universalism – the dogma that all men will necessarily be finally saved and nobody irredeemably lost. It is a dogma difficult to reconcile with the Atonement and the existence of free-will

Difficult or not, it is widely embraced. But it can lead to only one conclusion: let everyone do what he pleases for in the end he will be accepted by God.

Our immediate response must be to refute and discredit these three errors – not just their local manifestation in the form of sexual immorality. The Corinthian dilemma is only a symptom of a deeper malaise within the Church. To some extent what St Paul calls “the wrath of God” is doing the latter job for us. Immorality breeds disaster. The Aids epidemic, post-abortion Syndrome, and the consequences of families broken apart by adultery are plain to see. The pricks of pain and fear have a powerful effect upon those who are subjected to them. We should be ready at any moment for a disaster to strike on such a major scale that its victims are literally crying out to be delivered from the consequences of their wrongdoing.

In the meantime, however, we should not be content with sitting around waiting for such a disaster to happen. We need to give serious consideration how best to impress upon our erring fellow Christians the great danger they are in.

We can, and should, reason with them. But something more is required – a change of attitude towards them on our part which will signify our rejection of their position.

Here the English language is, for once, lacking an appropriate word.

Whatever term we use to denote our attitude is likely either to be too anodyne (for example: disapproval, distaste, distancing); or else carry within itself the overtones of self-righteousness and irreversibility (for example: excommunication, ostracism, driving out, anathema). If we had a single word for “setting apart with a view to reconciliation” it would serve our purpose admirably.

The lack of a convenient word need not stop us considering what we are trying to do.

We should be (a) striving to distance ourselves sufficiently both from the agent and the actions which we believe to be morally reprehensible and make such distancing apparent; but (b) not doing so in a way or an extent of giving them the impression that we neither love nor care for them any longer.

The gate of repentance must, of course, always be held wide open. Like the father of the prodigal son we do not have to wait for the sinner to come the whole way back – “while he was still a great way off his father saw him and had compassion and ran and embraced and kissed him”. The slightest sign of metanoia, of turning back or repentance must be followed up with the greatest alacrity.

What does not work is to behave as if nothing were wrong. That was the mistake the Corinthians made, and it meant that the epidemic spread far and wide before it could be controlled. “The only thing necessary for wicked men to flourish is that good men should do nothing”.

We have been conditioned by secular forces and fashions to be part of the “acceptance culture”. If this means that we accept and welcome what is unfamiliar but morally wholesome then Christians should be in the forefront of the “acceptance culture”. This is a hallmark of true Catholicity.

However, in the secular world “acceptance” is nothing but Universalism in disguise: an all-inclusive mantra, an idolatrous touchstone by which all behaviour is to be judged, but itself deeply selective about what it accepts.

Faithful Christians should, on the contrary, be seen as both accepting and demanding as Jesus was with his apostles.

He was infinitely patience and accepting of St Peter who constantly let him down. Yet he dissociated himself from the latter’s well-meaning but misguided attempt to steer him away from the path appointed by his Father.

He “set Peter aside” (however momentarily), with the words “Get thee behind me, Satan!”