Scandalous Sex and Unjust Lawsuits—1 Corinthians 5 & 6

1 Corinthians Series, Bible study lesson 6

by Reta Halteman Finger

If you are new to this blog, read Lesson 3 for the narrative underlying Paul’s letter to the churches in Corinth.

Footprint chiseled into the sidewalk in Ephesus
Chiseled into the sidewalk on the main street of Ephesus is a footprint pointing to the brothel established near the famous library. Those (upper-class males) with leisure to read also have leisure for pleasure!

The report Chloe’s people (1:11) brought to Paul in Ephesus contained shocking news— scandalous enough, perhaps, for a headline in the ancient Roman equivalent of Rupert Murdoch’s News of the World. No wonder they’re quarreling!

Paul holds off until he has laid out the theological foundation of his gospel (Lesson 4) and explained how he and Apollos worked together for church unity (Lesson 5). Then he lets loose. “It has been reported to me that there is sexual immorality among you of a kind not found even among pagans!” (5:1). Given what we know about Roman debauchery, this must be over the top!

To us it sounds weird but hardly titillating: “a man has his father’s wife.” Here’s how it’s usually explained: the mother of a Christian man dies, so his father remarries a much younger woman, closer in age to the son. Later, the father dies, and the son moves in with his former stepmother, perhaps to keep the inheritance in the family.

Worse than the Pagans?
We can expect the Jewish faction (“those of Cephas”) to object because this violates Hebrew law. “Cursed be anyone who lies with his father’s wife” (Deut 27:20; Lev 18:8; 20:11). But why is this “not found even among pagans?” One scholar, Bruce Winter, notes that, if the father had died, Roman law would likely not prosecute the son for adultery or incest because his stepmother was no longer married. Men often married wives much younger than themselves, so the son’s action must have not been uncommon. But the law was far stricter when the woman was legally married, so Winter concludes the father was still living. The phrase is present tense: “someone has his father’s wife.”

Why would the father let himself be cheated in this way? Possibly because prosecution would expose him to public humiliation and result in exile for both his son and wife—also with drastic economic consequences. Better to hide the shame.

Why would this church tolerate and even brag (5:2a) about such a scandal? Two clues in these chapters may help. In 6:12, Paul quotes a slogan some Corinthians apparently have misapplied from his or Apollos’ preaching: “All things are lawful for me.” Some wealthier men in the church not only follow Roman custom by visiting prostitutes (6:12-20) but may be interpreting Christian “freedom” to go beyond it.

But we should also follow the money. The man must be a patron who gains honor by contributing to the church (see Lesson 4 on patronage). The fact that greed is mentioned in 5:11, 6:10 and implied in 3:16-21 suggests that wealth and inequality lie at the root of these church problems.

This incest is so extreme Paul wants the man put out of the assembly and barred from agape meals until he repents (5:11). Though we might wish the same penalty for the “johns” of 6:12-20, Paul does not ask for shunning—probably because they have not violated Roman law. But he does insist they stop this behavior because the body itself is sacred and inseparable from the human spirit.

By limiting male privilege in this way, Paul equalizes gender relations. His message is liberating both for the wives of unfaithful men and for the slave prostitutes they abuse. Imagine a slave sharing the Lord’s Supper with a church patron at evening worship—and being forced to “service” him later that night!

It’s the Law—but Is It Justice?

Ruins of a Roman Law Court in Corinth
Roman Law Court in Corinth: Here are remains of the Bema, or Place of Judgment in the Forum. Paul knew this place, having himself been arrested and judged here by Gallio, governor of Achaia in 50 CE (Acts 18:12-17). Is this the place where Jesus-believers were suing each other?

Between attacking two kinds of male sexual immorality, Paul forbids believers to sue each other in public law courts (6:1-8). Here again we confront power and inequality. The scales of Roman justice are not blind. Persons of lower rank may not sue those above them. Court proceedings are notorious for defamation of character, public shaming, and bitter arguments. Bribery is rife, and who can pay except the wealthy? Is strife within the church spilling over into pagan law courts and further splitting apart the community?

Paul’s solution is simple: settle your grievances within the house church itself. You believers will be judging the world in the future—can’t you deal with trivial matters now? (6:2). But nothing is trivial to those involved in church politics! Behind surface issues lie money, sex, or power—or all of the above. Now imagine a typical house church with a few elite patrons and a majority of lower-class handworkers, laborers, and slaves. What patron will take even mild criticism from an uneducated day laborer, or a female slave whose job is to empty chamber pots and prepare his meals? How can he humble himself to accept judgment from anyone socially beneath him?

Such hot button issues highlight how the values of “Christ crucified” challenge those of the present Empire.  Chapters 5 and 6 are clearly directed towards elite males in the church, in an effort to limit their power and privileges. Poor and enslaved women are not addressed, but they don’t need an upper-class education to figure out that Paul’s gospel message raises their own status in this alternate “kindom” of Jesus.

Questions for reflection:
1. Do any of the above problems in Corinth relating to money, sex, and power have parallels in the church today—or in your own relationships?

2. How fair is our nation’s justice system today? Is it ever appropriate to sue?

3. Was Paul’s radical vision of equality unrealistic?

Reta Halteman Finger
Reta Halteman Finger is a long-time member of EEWC-CFT and is a past Southeast representative on the EEWC-CFT Council. She holds a Ph.D. in theology and religion from Northwestern University, masters of theological studies from Garrett Evangelical Theological Seminary and Northern Baptist University, and a master of education from Boston University. Reta retired in 2009 from teaching Bible (mostly New Testament) at Messiah College in Grantham, PA. She lives in Harrisonburg, Virginia, and since her retirement from Messiah College has been devoting her time to writing and speaking projects, as well as some part-time teaching at Eastern Mennonite Seminary. For fifteen years, Reta edited the Christian feminist magazine, Daughters of Sarah (no longer published), and is a frequent writer and reviewer for Christian Feminism Today. Using the search box on the homepage of our EEWC-Christian Feminism Today website, you’ll be led to many of her online articles.


  1. Reta,
    You are helping me to understand 1 Corinthians in a way I simply had missed before. Thank you!

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