Redeeming the Body: A New Pauline Theology of Bodies

This essay was originally written for RELG 311 at McGill University

There is a pervasive belief in much of Evangelical Christianity that the human body is evil. This belief shapes everything from Evangelicalism’s extreme emphasis on “sexual purity” to Christian diet programs, and the fundamental message is the same in all of Evangelicalism’s messaging about bodies: resist your body and its desires. Whatever it tells you, do the opposite. I find that messaging to be inconsistent with other statements from Paul, such as “Do you not know that your bodies are members of Christ?” (1 Cor. 6:15), and so I wanted to investigate the issue further. By focusing on the Greek words σάρξ and σῶμα, I had hoped to find a clear distinction between the two that would prove flesh as something altogether different than body, therefore redeeming Paul’s concept of the body. Unfortunately, a close reading of Paul’s letters with attention to the Greek words used disproved my hypothesis. There is no clear and consistent distinction between σάρξ and σῶμα. However, Paul also does not treat the body with the unilateral condemnation that is often seen in Evangelicalism. Instead, Paul sees the body as intimately involved in the story of salvation: although the body is the location for sin, it is also an eschatological promise of redemption, and an instrument for glorifying God. I intend to provide a full Pauline perspective on bodies by exploring his treatment of σῶμα throughout his letters to the Romans and the Corinthians. In doing so, I will demonstrate that for Paul, the body is the physical location where Christ’s story of redemption plays out.

Before diving into 1 Corinthians in particular, I’d like to disproving the hypothesis with which I started my research, and demonstrate Paul’s understanding of the body as intimately connected to sinfulness. In Romans, Paul implicates the concept of σῶμα as something similar to flesh within his distinction between σάρξ and πνεῦμα. Taken apart from the rest of the authentic Pauline corpus, Romans seems to suggest a kind of mind-body dualism. For example, in Romans 7:23, Paul claims that his body is in a kind of conflict with his mind: “but I see in my members another law at war with the law of my mind…” The word translated as “members,” μέλος, refers literally to limbs, and should be read as referring to the parts of Paul’s body (Blue Letter Bible G3196). In light of this, it seems likely that Paul is referring, at least in some sense, to his literal body. My hypothesis was also broken down by Romans 8:3, “…by sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh, and to deal with sin, he condemned sin in the flesh.” If flesh were merely a sinful condition, distinct from the human body, then why was Jesus sent “in the likeness of sinful flesh?” The attribution of sinful flesh (σαρκὸς ἁμαρτίας) to Christ shatters any possible argument that σάρξ is some kind of stand-in for some kind of sin-nature. Nor is the word σῶμα separate from sin. Romans 8:13 implicates  it in this narrative of embodied sinfulness: “if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the σῶμα, you will live.” However, Paul does not condemn the body as without hope for redemption, nor does he assert that it is in a state of permanent opposition to God.

Throughout Romans and the rest of his epistles, Paul affirms that the body is and will be saved by Jesus. “Who will rescue me from this body of death? Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord,” (Rom. 7:24-25). Although the grammatical structure is not entirely clear, I would argue that v. 25 is the answer to Pauls question in v. 24. Paul uses his metaphor of flesh to offer his promise of redemption: “But if Christ is in you, though the body is dead because of sin, the Spirit is life because of righteousness. If the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, he who raised Christ from the dead will give life to your mortal bodies also through his Spirit that dwells in you,” (Rom. 8:10-11). Although Paul locates sin in the body, he also affirms that the body does and will take part in God’s story of salvation. 

“Therefore glorify God in your body.”
-1 Corinthians 6:20

If the body was once the location of sin, and it will later be glorified and transformed, what should Paul’s audience do with their bodies in the meantime? Paul’s argument in 1 Corinthians 6 is a tangling of physical concepts of body and a concept less tangible, but no less literal. He begins in v. 13, “Food is meant for the stomach and the stomach for food,” but is soon reminding his audience that their “bodies are members of Christ” (1 Cor. 6:15). Just as in Romans 7:23, the word here is μέλος, meaning limbs. Paul grounds his argument in the way that literal food belongs in literal stomachs, and then ties that reality to another claim: the individual Jesus-followers are limbs and body parts of Christ. The complete verse of 1 Corinthians 6:13 reads, “Food is meant for the stomach and the stomach for food, and God will destroy both one and the other. The body is meant not for fornication but for the Lord, and the Lord for the body.” For Paul, there is some kind of quasi-physical way in which the body is part of God––not just eschatologically, but in the present moment. The body is not merely a hindrance to God, as it is portrayed in Romans 7. The body of a Christ-follower is part of Christ in a real way.

It would be easy to separate the physicality of a statement such as 1 Corinthians 10:31 “so, whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do everything for the glory of God,” from the σῶμα Χριστοῦ of 1 Corinthians 12, but as I have demonstrated, the two are very much tied to one another. Returning to 1 Corinthians 6:13, we might notice that the teleological destination of food is the stomach. Therefore, the body also finds its telos in God. I believe this verse is the key to uniting the raw physicality of food, drink, and sex with Paul’s grand theological concept of believers being part of Christ’s body.

The force that unites Christ-followers to Christ is Christ’s πνεῦμα. Although it may be easy to view this from a modern perspective, believing Christ’s πνεῦμα to be some kind of spiritual force with little grounding in the material world, Paul did not think this way. For Paul, πνεῦμα was as much a physical substance as σῶμα. According to scholar Stanley K. Stowers, πνεῦμα was understood in the ancient world as a literal, physical substance. Stowers cites Epictetus to prove his point: “When someone has a spell of dizziness, it is not the abilities and the virtues that are thrown into confusion, but the pneuma of which they exist. When the pneuma settles down, the abilities and virtues are settled,” (360). We see this physicality—and with it, a concern for the integrity of the σῶματα of Christ followers—in Paul’s anxiety over the possibility of a Christ-follower having sex with a prostitute in 1 Corinthians 6. To quote Stowers, “The same stuff makes Christ and believers contiguous. Paul means this so realistically that for a believer to be joined to a prostitute in sexual intercourse would be to join her to Christ and create that arm-body relation,” (358). If we examine this concept in terms of the value and significance of the body, we again find that the body is not insignificant or a hopeless source of sin. Paul attributes a lot of power to the body. After all, what a Christ-follower does with their body has the potential to compromise the body of Christ. 

Since the body of Christ is not just a useful metaphor, 1 Corinthians 12 is not just a separate meaning of the word “body,” but is intimately tied up in Paul’s greater theology of bodies. “If the whole body were an eye, where would the hearing be? If the whole body were hearing, where would the sense of smell be? But as it is, God arranged the members in the body, each one of them, as he chose,” (1 Cor. 12:17-18). Although this passage is intended to make a larger point about the value of each Christ-follower to the whole community of believers, it also demonstrates that Paul believes the parts of a human body to be good and God-glorifying. Since God put the body of Christ together exactly as God wanted it, to God’s glory, it’s easy to see how Paul saw the human body in the same light. In 1 Corinthians 12:24-26, Paul offers that “God has so arranged the body, giving the greater honor to the inferior member, that there may be no dissension within the body, but the members may have the same care for one another. If one member suffers, all suffer together with it; if one member is honored, all rejoice together with it.” Again, we see that the body (of Christ, and of each person) is put together and ordered by God. We also see that the body is supposed to care for itself. Paul’s rhetoric in Romans of “body of death” (Rom. 7:24) and “our sinful passions…at work in our members,” (Rom. 7:5) could demonstrate a sense of disdain for human limbs, but 1 Corinthians 12 reveals that a person should not view their body to be bad, but should care for it.

It’s clear that for Paul, the primary purpose of the body of a Christ-follower is to glorify God. Paul argues that “your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you,” (1 Cor. 6:19). Stowers explains this verse by tying it to Paul’s idea in 1 Corinthians 15:44 that “a fully pneumatic body will replace the fleshly body only at the resurrection,” (357-358). In the meantime, the πνεῦμα of Christ dwells in their present, physical bodies. But glorifying God is about more than just what one does or does not do with food, drink, and sex. Paul states that the life of the Christ-follower involves “carrying in the body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be made visible in our bodies. For while we live, we are always being given up to death for Jesus’ sake, so that the life of Jesus may be made visible in our mortal flesh,” (1 Cor. 4:10-11). Here, the body is a physical sign of Christ’s resurrection. The sufferings of the body function as a kind of stage that displays the life and power of Jesus. It is a means of making Christ visible to those outside of Christ through endurance. To use Paul’s own words, the body’s weakness is a stage for Christ “so that it may be made clear that this extraordinary power belongs to God and does not come from us,” (2 Cor. 4:7). As I have demonstrated, Paul’s theology of the body is not a singular, clear-cut concept of the body as good or bad. Instead, the body is the stage for Christ’s story of sin and redemption. It is the location of sin and death, and it is the future location of the fullness of Christ’s redemption. In the time between co-crucifixion with Christ (Rom. 6:6) and an imperishable body, raised with Christ in power (1 Cor. 15:42-43), the body is something that is made to glorify God. It is part of God in some material way—the place where the πνεῦμα of Christ dwells. It can be infected by sin, and it is so intimately part of God that it can spread sin to the rest of Christ’s σῶμα. It was carefully designed by God, unified in such a way that its suffering matters to the whole person. And its glorification of God does not just depend on its abstention from sinful behavior: it also presents Christ to the world through its endurance in suffering. For Paul, the body is not something hopelessly wicked as many later Christians have supposed. It is something made for God: something that will be redeemed.

Bibliography

Stowers, Stanley K. “What Is ‘Pauline Participation in Christ’?” Redefining First-Century Jewish and Christian Identities. Edited by Udoh, Fabian E., Heschel, Susannah, Chancey, Mark, and Tatum, Gregory. Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 2008. 352-371.

“Strong’s G3196—Μέλος.” Thayer’s Greek Lexicon, 2011. 4 October 2019. Blue Letter Bible. https://www.blueletterbible.org/lang/lexicon/lexicon.cfm?Strongs=G3196&t=NET

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