Back in the good old days of the Black Death (aka, the Plague, the Magna Mortalitas, and the Pestilencia), cities faced an excruciating decision, sever all ties with the world or die. They chose, not unsurprisingly, to sever all connections to the rest of the world and to cut themselves off from all other cities, tourists and wayfaring strangers. But then came the town of Ragusa (now Dubrovnik, Croatia). In 1377, Ragusa was a very popular and busy sea port on the Adriatic. For them to cut themselves off from the world meant certain death. But to open their doors and let everyone in also meant certain death. Their solution: they legislated a trentino! Instead of sending merchant ships loaded with food and products away, they detained the whole ship and crew on a small island off the coast for 30 days. If they didn’t show any signs of the plague after 30 days, they welcomed them into their city. This period of isolation, a trentino, seemed to work pretty well; and as a result, everyone started doing it. But nearly 100 years later, the plague was still wreaking havoc, and Venice wasn’t happy. The trentino helped, but it was not foolproof. And so, they upped the ante. They instituted a quarantine (from the Italian, quaranta giorni). While the same principle applied, trentinos only went 30 days, while a quarantine went a much-improved 40 days. And why 40 days? Because 40 was a biblical number (unlike that profane, secular, and immoral number 30). Think about it. The flood lasted 40 days. Israel spent 40 years in the wilderness. Moses was on Mount Sinai for 40 days. Jonah warned the Ninevites that, unless they repented, in 40 days their city would be destroyed; and Jesus was tempted for 40 days. Since the number 40 in the Bible often symbolized a period of testing, trial or probation, the Italians concluded that what they needed to thwart the plague was to move biblically and to quarantine everyone for 40 days. And so, they moved away from 30 (trentino) and moved to 40 (quarantine), and we’ve been using quarantine ever since. Who knew our time of quarantine was so biblical?
Last week, we began a discussion of how we as Christ followers ought to view our rights. My point then and today is that we need to move biblically in regards to how we understand our rights. And one of the best places to understand what that might look like is 1 Corinthians 6.
What’s interesting about this passage, right off the bat, is that Paul starts off quoting a slogan the Corinthians were very fond of, a slogan they more than likely had learned from Paul. Today’s NIV helps us identify who is saying what, by adding the words, “you say.” 1 Corinthians 6:12 in the NIV says, “‘I have the right to do anything,’ you say. . . .” Now, at this point you may say, “Look, the Bible says we have the right to do anything we want, so case closed. I have my rights, and I can say whatever I want.” And that would be true if that was as far as you read in the passage. But before I get into that, let’s get some background.
It is apparent that the Corinthians really liked this slogan because it allowed them to do whatever they wanted to do. Now, they knew there were some things they could not do as Christ-followers (for instance, they knew they shouldn’t murder, steal, hate, or hurt others); but they firmly believed that they could have sex with all sorts of people. See, these crazy Corinthians believed in this dualistic Platonism or some form of proto-gnostic thought where our physical bodies were just a meaningless husk that covered our inner, true spiritual selves. And since this husk was not our true self, what we did with it really didn’t matter. You could eat all you want. Sleep around all you want and refuse to shower all you want. Nothing we did with our outer husks mattered because they didn’t affect our inner most spiritual self. Think of it this way. You would never think a glove you were wearing would be guilty of any sin your hand would commit. After all, it’s a glove. In the Corinthian way of thinking, our bodies were just gloves that covered up our true selves. But if that was true, then our gloves could go out with other gloves and do whatever they wanted. It was simply a meaningless and empty glove that would never contaminate the inner true person or cause the soul any harm. All that to say, the Corinthians loved their rights and loved using their rights to do anything they wanted.
Now, what is really interesting about this slogan is that Paul does not disagree with it. Oh, he doesn’t like the extremes where the Corinthians are taking it; but as a statement of our freedom in Christ, he is all in favor of it. Not once in this section does Paul ever refute this idea or condemn the Corinthians for believing they have rights. And yet, it seems clear that what Paul meant by this slogan was not what the Corinthians meant. And so, that puts Paul in a bind. He has to correct the Corinthians in such a way that he does not do irreparable damage to the principle of Christian freedom (summed up so concisely by the Corinthians saying, “I have the right to do anything.”). And to do this, Paul uses a very helpful technique called the “Yes, but.” “Yes,” Paul says, “You’re right, we do have rights, but. . . .” You draw them in by agreeing with them, and then you slam the trap shut with the “but!” Here, Paul says, “Yes, just like you said, we have the right to do anything, but that’s not the whole story. We have to subordinate the use of our rights and ask, ‘Is the exercise of our rights beneficial?’” Here’s how I would paraphrase the whole verse. In 1 Corinthians 6:12, Paul says: “You’re right, we do have rights and we can do anything we want, as you are happy to remind us—but not everything we do is beneficial. See, it’s not only about our rights. It’s about being beneficial.” Now, what does that mean? Immediately, two questions come to mind: Beneficial to whom and beneficial for what?
Now, if I am flirting with someone and Jo catches me and accuses me of stretching our wedding vows to the point of breaking, I could respond to her that we are not legalists, but rather, we are free and that I have the right to talk to any woman I want. But Jo may not accept that with a smile. Instead, she may move to curtail my freedom. In fact, she may get angry. I’ve appealed to Paul once, but arguing for my rights has not made anything better. If the truth be told, my insistence that I can talk to these women made things worse; and if I don’t do something soon, I could find myself in hot water. So, I leave the question of rights behind and move on to question 2: Is it beneficial? What would be the most beneficial thing I could do right now to get me out of this mess? That’s easy. The most beneficial thing for me to do is to lie and tell Jo I was simply witnessing to this unfortunate woman and that flirting was the furthest thing from my mind. I was cognizant only of her soul. Bottom line: the most beneficial thing for me in this situation would be to lie through my teeth. Is that what Paul means? Absolutely not! He would side with Jo and condemn me for flirting, violating the principle of my wedding vows, abusing Scripture and being selfish. And if I was found guilty of all four of those things, I would definitely be sent to quarantine for 40 days and 40 nights (but thankfully, this is not a true story). Here’s the point: when Paul asks if it is beneficial, he is not asking what is the most beneficial thing for you to do in this situation. He is not giving you a get-out-of-jail-free card. He is asking if the exercise of our rights is beneficial in two distinct ways.
First, he is asking if proclaiming our rights would benefit our own spiritual well-being. No matter what the Corinthians were doing with their “gloves” or how they perceived it, the fact was it was not beneficial to their spiritual well-being. Just the opposite: even though they did not know it, what they were doing was seriously detrimental to their spiritual lives. Even if you embraced Corinthian dualism, this practice of “free glove” could only be neutral, not beneficial; and so Paul would dismiss out of hand. For Paul in this regard, things were more clear-cut: If it is not helping, it is hurting.
But this whole idea of asking if the exercise of our rights would be beneficial to us spiritually was not the main point of Paul’s question here. When he asked, “Is it beneficial?” he clearly had in mind whether the exercise of our rights is beneficial for others. This is the emphasis we see throughout Paul’s writings. The profit to the individual is far less important than the benefits to others. We see this clearly in 1 Corinthians 10:31-33: “So whether you eat or drink or whatever you do, do it all for the glory of God. Do not cause anyone to stumble, whether Jews, Greeks or the church of God— even as I try to please everyone in every way. For I am not seeking my own good but the good of many, so that they may be saved.” Here’s Paul’s question: Are our actions benefiting just us or are they truly benefiting others and blessing them? Maybe it would be easier to grasp Paul’s question here if we rephrase it: Is the exercise of our rights loving? Will the assertion of my rights demonstrate sacrificial love for my neighbor? That puts the entire issue in a whole other category. When I demand my rights, am I being selfish and seeking my own glory; or am I being loving and seeking what is most helpful for others?
Asking how the exercise of my rights benefits others moves this discussion away from my own selfish pursuits and propels me to see the needs of those around me. Is the use of my freedom going to have a negative effect on the people around me or will it bless them? This is a profound question and one that we seldom think about. Interestingly, there are 3 “I’s” in the sentence, “I have the right to do anything.” That seems to be the focal point. I want to do what I want, and I want my rights. Paul, however, wants me to focus on the letter that is invisible in that sentence, but makes all the difference. Paul, in Jesus’ name, wants me to focus on the “U” and asks me to use my rights (or refuse to assert my rights) to supply what you need and what is best for you. In Paul’s thinking, the U always comes before the I.