What Makes Food Different from Sexual Immorality? (1 Cor. 6:13)

by Aug 26, 20190 comments

In 1 Corinthians 6:13, the Apostle Paul draws a contrast between food and sexual immorality:

“Food is meant for the stomach and the stomach for food”—and God will destroy both one and the other. The body is not meant for sexual immorality, but for the Lord, and the Lord for the body. (1 Cor. 6:13)

Paul’s point is simple: God created food to be digested by our stomachs, and he fitted our stomachs to glean necessary nutrition from food. God did not, however, fit out bodies for sexual immorality in the same way. 

Why, though, does Paul contrast food with sex? What is the link between the two?

Among the Seven Deadly Sins as formulated by medieval Christians, the deadly sin of Gluttony was always linked closely with the deadly sin of Lust and sexual immorality (Willimon, Sinning Like a Christian, 133). The fourth-century desert monk Evagrius of Pontus famously called gluttony the “mother of lust.” Even after the Reformation, the Westminster Larger Catechism includes gluttony as one of the sins forbidden by the seventh commandment against adultery (WLC #139).

But again, why should we consider the issues of food and sex together? The simple explanation is that the two issues are linked through the body. Our bodies uniquely interact with food and sex in a way that is different from other activities.

In this case, however, a simple explanation is not quite sufficient. Paul argues in 1 Corinthians 6:13 that what we eat is inconsequential, but that sexual immorality carries with it the most serious consequences possible.  It is critical that we understand the difference.

The False Religion of Food

Let’s start by considering the significance of food. In regard to food, there are two important contexts to consider: (1) the old covenant ceremonial laws that separated clean foods from unclean foods, and (2) the modern obsession with “clean eating.”

Old Covenant Ceremonial Food Laws

In the Mosaic covenant, God insisted that his people distinguish between clean and unclean foods. Importantly, though, God does not initially limit humankind to eating only clean foods.

We first see God’s distinctions between clean and unclean animals in Genesis 7. There, the Lord commands Noah to take seven pairs of all clean animals, but  “two and two, male and female” of whatever is unclean (Gen. 7:2–3, 8–9; cf. Gen. 8:20). After the flood, though, God gives explicitly every animal to humankind for food—clean and unclean alike (Gen. 9:3).

It is only much later that the Lord gives Israel a much stricter set of food regulations under the Mosaic covenant. The old covenant Israelites were not to eat all foods, but only the foods that God designated as clean (Lev. 11; Deut. 14:1–21). 

Then, in the New Testament, Jesus declared all foods to be clean (Mark 7:19). Then, Apostle Peter saw a vision three times that confirmed the cleanness of all foods (Acts 10:9–16). Thus, the Bible makes clear that the old covenant food laws were not part of God’s timeless, moral law. Rather, human beings ate all foods before and after God established his old covenant through Moses. 

Permissible, forbidden, and then permissible again. Why establish these ceremonial food laws at all?

The Purpose of the Old Covenant Ceremonial Food Laws

The purpose of the external, physical ceremonial laws was to give us a picture of the internal, spiritual holiness that God seeks from his people.

The food laws, however, could only portray a picture of that holiness. Keeping the food laws could not bring about the reality of holiness in our lives. That is, the food laws pointed us in the right direction, but food could never bring us to our intended destination. 

Rather, God’s purpose for giving us a picture was always to point us to a person. So, once Jesus Christ came into the world, the picture gave way to the person.

Today, then, Christians are no longer bound under the burdens of the ceremonial food laws: “For the kingdom of God is not a matter of eating and drinking but of righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit” (Rom. 14:17). As with anything in this life, it is possible to idolize food by the sin of gluttony. In moderation, however, food is adiaphora (indifferent) to living the Christian life.

Modern “Clean Eating” Movements

In this light, our culture’s obsession with food is backwards and misguided. As Sarah Boesveld observes, “While most of us have ditched religious dietary restrictions, there is a growing tendency in the broader culture to apply moral values to food choices.”

Whether the emphasis is on gluten-free, locally sourced, ethically sourced, vegan, non-processed, grass-fed, heirloom, artisanal, free-range, non-GMO, whole foods, raw foods, or fair trade foods, our culture pursues purity, ethics, goodness, justice, and righteousness (that is, religious values) through food. Food fads are sold under the guise of religious ideas.

Ironically, this emphasis on the religious value of food coincides exactly with our culture’s increasing rejection of religion itself. Food, however, is a false religion: “Food will not commend us to God. We are no worse off if we do not eat, and no better off if we do” (1 Cor. 8:8).

The False Reasoning of Sexual Immorality

It seems, though, that the Corinthians understood that food cannot commend us to God. In fact, they were too willing to assert their Christian liberty to eat food sacrificed to idols, even though it caused fellow believers to stumble (1 Cor. 8:9–13).

More than this, it seems that they also defended their sexual immorality by an analogy to food. The true (but temporary) idea that “Food is meant for the stomach, and the stomach for food” gave them justification for an entirely false idea: “The body is meant for sexual immorality, and sexual immorality for the body.” Just as our stomachs were fitted for food, so our bodies were fitted for sex. Therefore, we may eat as we please and have sex as we please!

Food is Not Spiritual

Paul insists, though, that the two bodily activities are not at all similar. Our stomachs were created for food, but our bodies were not created for sexual immorality. Rather, our bodies were created for spiritual union with the Lord Jesus Christ. Our bodies are not merely physical or material, but also spiritual.

Sexual immorality, then, does not only have physical effects, but spiritual effects too. Specifically, the physical union of sexual immorality tears us away from our spiritual union with Christ (1 Cor. 6:15).

Food is indifferent because it is not spiritual. Sexual immorality is forbidden because it is spiritual. Food cannot defile us because it is merely physical, arising from its cultivation outside of us; sexual immorality, on the other hand, can defile us because it is primarily spiritual, arising from the indwelling sin inside of us (Mark 7:14–23).

It is simply false reasoning to equate sexual immorality with food.

Sexually Immorality Does Not Point us to the Person of the Lord Jesus Christ

Additionally, we must remember that the whole purpose behind the food laws was to give us a picture—a picture that would point us to a person. Food is not spiritual in itself, but it gave us an external picture of the holiness that Christ came to give to his people.

Sex also gives us a picture—a picture of the spiritual that God intends for us to enjoy with Christ. Our bodies (that is, our whole persons, physically and spiritually) were created for the Lord, and the Lord for our bodies (1 Cor. 6:13). God blessed the one-flesh union of marriage because it pointed to our one-spirit union with Christ (Gen. 1:28; 2:24; 1 Cor. 6:16; Eph. 5:32).

The picture of sexual immorality, however, does not point to the faithful, covenantal unity of Christ and the church. Instead, sexual immorality points to the faithlessness of covenant breakers who fall away from Christ.

Our culture tells us that our food carries serious ethical implications, but that sex is a matter of indifference without any moral absolutes. This is the exact opposite of what God teaches in his word. It is food that is a matter of indifference, and sex that carries serious ethical implications.

Therefore, “Flee from sexual immorality” (1 Cor. 6:18).

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