Since the Enlightenment, we have paid very close attention to human bodies, and we have learned a lot about them. The medical industry and our whole-hearted participation in its shaping of our bodies are indicators of this modern fascination with bodies. Louis Dupré opens his discussion of human selfhood by noting that humans have seldom been more concerned with themselves than they are today. But, remarkably, this close attention to the body has exposed it as a complex concept—although it seems that everyone knows what a body is, body has become a slippery term, and scholars from a wide diversity of fields have chimed in on this discussion. The result is a burgeoning literature that makes it impossible for anyone to hope for comprehensive knowledge of the discussion.1 However, by sampling various perspectives, we may find useful approaches to understanding this complexity and applying our understanding of the body to Christian practice.

Wendell Berry, in his classic essay “The Body and the Earth,” calls for renewed attention to our “biological existence, the life of the body in this world.” He says, “While we live our bodies are moving particles of the earth, joined inextricably both to the soil and to the bodies of other living creatures” and “the Creation is bounteous and mysterious, and humanity is only a part of it—not its equal, much less its master.”2 According to Berry, our failure to attend to our connection to the earth has decreased the quality of human life and threatened the world in which we live. He compares our patterns of living to dancing: in modern society, the community line dance has been replaced by two people alone on the dance floor.3 We might say that, in Berry’s opinion, despite the modern attention to the body, humankind has lost an awareness of its place as a creature in the creation.

From another perspective, the feminist poet Adrienne Rich argues that we have not been sufficiently attentive to particular kinds of bodies. In a 1984 essay, she narrates her transition from thinking about women’s experience in general to thinking about the ways her gendered experience is also particular—national, racial, and sexual. She explains, “To say ‘the body’ lifts me away from what has given me a primary perspective. To say ‘my body’ reduces the temptation to grandiose assertions.”4 Rich reminds me that my body, at the intersection of my private and public worlds, is quite particular. Her reflection, with her careful attention to the socioeconomic location of her body, demonstrates that what we notice about any given body is derived from the categories we deem important. However, as Susan Bordo argues, we cannot particularize our analyses indefinitely, or the analyses will become vacuous: “If the body is a metaphor for our locatedness in space and time and thus for the finitude of human perception and knowledge, then the postmodern body is no body at all.”5 When the particular becomes too singular, we are left without any basis for aggregation or analysis. To push Berry’s dance metaphor to an unhappy conclusion: we each end up dancing alone. We might say that in postmodern critical analysis, the body is actually lost because there are no conceptual maps; there are no categories with clear boundaries.

A consideration of disability suggests a third perspective on the body. Clearly there are different kinds of disability, and only recently has disability become an important category in critical theory, but one can now find rich reflective stories told by people living with physical limitations, as well as theoretical reflections on the implications of injury and disability for constructing oneself and one’s life story.6 We only have to think of the impact of pain on our own self-presentation to acknowledge that a less than perfect body complicates our concept of the body once again. We might say that the disabled body reminds us that even the concept of a lost body implies a particular construction of an ideal body.

But if recent attention to the body has ended the communal dance and created bodies that must seek their own location, there is hope for a Christian perspective in the web of possibilities. For it is clear that bodies also matter for the life of the church. I was recently in a church service where there were two baptisms and an ordination. Two young Christians were lowered into the water; people gathered around to lay hands on the pastoral candidate. The sermon connected these liturgical actions to the creation—water and community. The particularity of the bodies mattered too. A young girl and a young boy were baptized, and an elder prayed for them. He offered biblical models for each of them to live into: Mary’s obedience for the girl (Luke 1) and Paul’s spiritual armor for the boy (Ephesians 6). The gendered stereotypes seemed obvious to me. The pastoral candidate was a woman, the first to be ordained in that denomination. She is over eighty and has been in ministry her whole adult life, yet her church is only now confirming God’s hand on her as a Christian leader. Baptism and ordination are moments for the household of God to celebrate the life of God in our midst, but our celebration is clearly shaped by how we see the human body.

Paul and the Body

I may have misled you because I did not actually learn to attend to the body by reading Wendell Berry or feminist writers. I learned from the Apostle Paul, by puzzling over his letters and their interpretation. The body is especially important to Paul because it is the intersection of our private and public lives, and Paul insists that it is in the body that we see divine life. In 1 Corinthians 6:20, he concludes an especially strange passage with an exhortation to individual members of the community to glorify God in their bodies (1 Cor. 6:12–20). By this he means that they should shun fornication (NRSV), which in this context means that they should “not visit prostitutes” (1 Cor. 6:18). The word body is used eight times in these nine verses to support Paul’s exhortations. Paul does not offer us a general theory of embodiment, but he will provide a map to locate our public lives in the twenty-first century.

The situation Paul addresses in Corinth strikes me as strange for three reasons. First, I find it difficult to believe that anyone could interpret Christian freedom to include openly associating with prostitutes.7 Yet that seems to be the case here. Many interpreters think that the men uniting themselves with prostitutes were prominent men in the congregation. In my view, this makes the situation even stranger: visiting prostitutes is a shameful and hidden activity. Yet in Corinth, the visits were apparently not hidden, and the social prominence of these men meant that other members of the congregation did not censure their behavior, if they even thought that such behavior was inappropriate.

Second, in counseling the Corinthian congregation, I think Paul shows a surprising disregard for prostitutes. Later in his letter, Paul writes that unbelieving spouses can be made holy by their believing wife or husband (7:12–14), yet this kind of an effect does not seem to extend to prostitutes and their customers. In a related way, Paul and his Corinthian audience have concerns about whether the children of a religiously mixed marriage will be clean (7:14). Yet Paul doesn’t consider the children of the prostitutes. For Paul, it is one’s marital status that defines the character of the sexual encounter and the divine mercy that might extend to the sexual partner or any offspring. This is strange logic: in my world, STDs and HIV are the primary risk of an exchange with prostitutes; holiness is a moral not a religious characteristic; and children are only unclean when they need a bath.8

Third, as I read it, Paul’s advice draws a strange parallel between sex and an experience of Christian life—perhaps conversion, baptism, or prayer (6:16–17). He uses the same verb to speak of uniting with a prostitute and uniting with the Lord—the old word cleave catches his sense and retains his allusion to Genesis 2:24.9 Paul distinguishes the kind of unity that results—one is a unity of body, the other a unity of spirit—but his usage is peculiar in that we don’t often speak of our connection to the Lord in language with sexual overtones.10 As Bruce Fisk concludes, “For moderns, union with Christ and union with a prostitute are radically different in kind; for Paul, they are fundamentally incompatible.”11 The sexual act is not an effective vehicle for me as a metaphor of spiritual life.

Paul’s pastoral advice to the Corinthians is not straightforward either. There are substantial debates among biblical scholars about what he means, in part because the rhetorical form of his statements indicates that we are entering an already in-progress dialogue with the Corinthians.12 Paul makes several key points in this passage, beginning with propositions, perhaps even slogans, with which he expects the Corinthians will agree. It is possible that the Corinthians’ defense of their actions is based on earlier teaching from Paul, but as he makes clear in this passage, they have misunderstood him. The dialogical form may have been persuasive then, but it makes it harder for us to follow his reasoning two thousand years later.

Paul begins by considering Christian freedom. The Corinthians have apparently argued that Christian freedom means that all things are lawful (6:12).13 The same saying is quoted later in the letter when Paul discusses eating meat (10:23), and there he reminds his readers of Psalm 24, which begins, “The earth is the Lord’s and all it contains.” One might argue, then, that the Corinthians are right: God is Lord of the whole creation, and so everything is now acceptable for use; any food can be eaten.14 But Paul wants them to understand that consuming sex is not like consuming food, so he qualifies their claim, reminding them that their actions also need to be beneficial, or edifying, and consistent with continued freedom. Christ has set them free, and this freedom is important to Paul (see Gal. 5:1), but they need to use their freedom in a way that benefits themselves and the congregation.

The Corinthians also argue that the body will decay, from which they infer that their actions to fulfill the body’s desires are inconsequential. But Paul reminds them that, past bodily decay, there is resurrection (6:14), and the coming resurrection has important implications for the body’s present desires. Certainly Paul knows that the body is corruptible, meaning “subject to decay” (see 15:42). But Paul also knows that there is an ongoing cosmic battle to control the actions of the body, and thus, it is also fitting to say that the body is corruptible in our more usual sense of the word: “subject to perversion.” He therefore wants the Corinthians to use their body for the Lord, not for fornication. This is a point that the psalmist also makes: “Who shall ascend the hill of the Lord? Those who have clean hands and pure hearts” (Ps. 24:3–4). Ascent to God is possible for the Corinthians because God has raised the Lord and will raise those who belong to God (6:13–14). Resurrection, not decay, is God’s last word for bodies and the body is to be shaped by God’s final word.

Using a rhetorical question, Paul then reminds the Corinthians that their bodies are members of Christ. Since this is true, do they really think that they can just put such members anywhere? (6:15-16). The metaphor is somewhat risqué, but the sexual pun makes his point: one has to consider one’s relationships in deciding how to use one’s body. It is difficult to know whether Paul’s concern is for these men as individuals or for the Corinthian community as a whole (see 3:16–17), but this is a bald statement of the choices as Paul sees them. There are no shades of gray. Paul’s confidence in the spiritual experience that made the Corinthians members of Christ makes me wonder about that experience. He refers to “washing” (perhaps baptism) and being made holy, which accompanied their justification in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and in the Spirit of God (6:11). For this experience to have the ability to counter social convention and sexual desire, it must have been a very powerful personal experience.15

To press his point, Paul asks rhetorically whether the Corinthians do not remember that sexual activity creates a unity of body, one flesh? Alluding to Genesis, he reminds them that cleaving creates unity. If one cleaves to a prostitute with one’s body, there is a unity of flesh. Analogously, if one cleaves to the Lord, one experiences spiritual unity (6:16–17). The analogy suggests bondage—a permanent, intimate connection—but it is jarring to our ears. We expect conversion to create a permanent bond with God, but we do not expect intimacy with God to be similar to sexual intimacy. And while we may agree that sex creates human intimacy, the bond it creates is not necessarily permanent. Rather, the permanence of a human relationship is a function of a wider range of considerations.16

Paul seems to use a similar rhetorical strategy in his last two statements in the passage: he begins where he might have common ground with the Corinthians, and then he offers nuance.17 If this dialogical form is correct, the Corinthians have argued that sinful acts are inconsequential because they are external to the body.18 Paul might agree, except in the case of fornication when the fornicator’s own body is sinned against (6:18). It is unclear whether Paul thinks that the sexual act with a prostitute contaminates the customer or the corporate Christian body. Scholars have argued both views: just as benefit could accrue to the person or the group (6:12), presumably so could contamination. The individual has been primarily in view through this section of the letter, but the community is primarily in view through the letter as a whole.

Paul’s final argument against visiting prostitutes is that each body in the community is a temple where the Holy Spirit lives. What Paul argued earlier for the community as a whole (3:16-17) is now reiterated with the individual in view. The indwelling Spirit comes from God, and the Spirit’s occupancy is a reminder of ownership—our holy body temples belong to the God sending this Spirit. Even a fornicating believer is not his own person but has been bought with a price, and in this sense, he is owned by someone else, by God. And the body, visible to the public in all its actions, should demonstrate its allegiance to its owner.

This text, perhaps remarkably, provides positive instruction for Christian bodies. Paul gives us several important words for our consideration: benefit, freedom, resurrection, relationship, and holy temple. And he directs us to the story of God’s work for the body, which underlies his argument at every turn. In this discussion of a very bodily sin, sex with prostitutes, where one might most expect that the evil of the body would be stated—if this were indeed Paul’s point of view—it is precisely the body’s importance, individual and corporate, that is foundational to Paul’s discussion. Rowan D. Williams’s words reiterate Paul’s theology: there is “no goodness that is not bodily and realistic and local.”19

For those who know Paul, God’s story for bodies, as Paul alludes to it, will not come as a surprise: the Corinthians were bought with a price (6:20), which is certainly an allusion to the cross and the bodily price Jesus paid. A broken body. God resurrected the Lord’s body, and the Corinthians can anticipate a similar resurrection (6:14). A raised body. And finally, God sent the Spirit into their bodies (individual and/or corporate) (6:17). An infused body. For Paul, the image of a crucified and risen Lord centers his reflections, and the real presence of the Spirit enables new practices of life. There is no indication anywhere in the text that Paul envisions the body as something to be overcome for salvation. Rather, the body is the instrument for that salvation.20 To cite Williams again: “Only the body saves the soul.”21

According to Paul, Jesus provides the image of the invisible God in his perfect, coherent practice of his identity, even to an ugly death. This death was the culmination of his life and his vocation as God’s Son. God endorsed this pattern of life when He raised Jesus bodily from the dead, which makes possible the presence of the Spirit in believers who now have the power to imitate this image as they await Jesus’s return. One occasionally hears arguments that Paul’s eschatology led him to devalue present human existence, but that argument is impossible to sustain in this text, as we have seen. Rather, it is precisely Paul’s understanding of the radical change that God has effected in Jesus Christ, along with the binding, empowering presence of the Spirit, and Paul’s anticipation that God will complete this work, not only for bodies but for the whole creation, that makes present life in the body significant.22

Paul says that these things were written down to instruct us, on whom the ends of the ages have come. Thus, a Christian theology of the body begins by remembering this embodied story. It is this broken, raised body, a very particular body, which is to be our primary image, a visible revelation of the invisible God, a pattern to imitate with our own bodies, even as God also endows us with the power to be transformed into this image. That body connects us securely to the rest of the creation. That particular body will help us to overcome the temptation to grandiose assertions, keeping questions of gender, race, socioeconomic status, and sexual orientation in perspective. That broken body will assist us in forming appropriate ideals. In short, it will make it possible for us to imagine a map on which to locate our bodies because we first locate ourselves with respect to God.23

Reimagining Our Bodies

The task of imagining is required of us for precisely the reasons that we have seen as we worked through Paul’s instructions. Our context is changed because our perception of the world has changed.24 Clean and unclean are understood differently. Intimacy and permanence are not connected to spirituality and sexuality in the same way. The corporate repercussions of our individual actions are not envisioned in the same way. Even the conception of inner and outer worlds has changed.25 Our world is different.

I see here a delightful irony at work: according to Paul, the primary categories for a Christian theology of the body come not from what we can see and touch—from the earth to which we are connected, as Berry would have it, or from others like us in some socioeconomic group, as in critical discourse—but from our orientation to the One who was seen and touched and, in the end, disabled. To use the language of the Psalm, the gates of heaven were raised up, and we saw the king of glory, but the bodily form of this glory was a broken body on a Roman cross.26 According to Paul, this is a king strong and mighty, whose Spirit indwells his captives so that they are able to overcome their bondage to the cosmic powers of sin and death.

I do not want to return to the social realities of Paul’s world. I hope that visiting prostitutes remains a shameful, hidden activity if it can’t be eliminated altogether. I think that all people are children of God, and no body is unclean. As I understand it, purity is about my actions and motivations rather than my substance. I am grateful to God for those who offer assistance to sex workers or who lobby for systemic changes that make prostitution a less attractive choice for people with no other options. I do not think sex transmits holiness or contamination to my partner or to babies; it transmits genetic material, and in unfortunate circumstances, STDs and HIV. Marriage, in my world, is the most intimate of relationships, a relationship that flourishes when both partners thrive in a mutual exchange. Its sanctity is not based in sexual union, though a carefully guarded sexual union is important to sustain it. This makes it the most challenging relationship to nurture, and divorce rates confirm its challenging character. All of this means that the best application of Paul’s letter will not be a question of the letter but of the story.

The basic story Paul tells is simple: the One Man, Jesus Christ, died and was raised; as a result, God’s Spirit can dwell in the whole creation in a new way. This is God’s story for our bodies, and it invites an invigorated spirituality that will be demonstrated in life practices. Paul calls us to strive for coherence between our private and public worlds. However, the challenge facing us is the same challenge that has faced every Christian generation since the cross: we must determine the practices for our context that express our love of God, whom we confess we have seen in Jesus, and our love of neighbor, when we are empowered by the Spirit. In fact, this challenge goes back farther in time than the cross; recall that the psalmist asked, “Who will ascend to the mountain of the Lord and stand in his holy place? The one with innocent hands and a clean heart.” In his advice to the Corinthians, Paul was working with an age-old question and relying on the wisdom of the traditions of Israel.

Following Paul, Christian bodily practices should be characterized by a certain freedom, taking into due consideration their benefit to myself and others with whom I am in relationship, especially those to whom I am now joined in worship. The exercise of that freedom grows out of a permanent and intimate bond with God, which I experience in my body because that is where God’s Holy Spirit dwells.

This text also calls me to reconsider the relationship of human and divine intimacy. Our bifurcated world leads us to expect a disjunction because sex is of the body and prayer is of the spirit. But Paul did not separate the world in the same way, and his analogies lead me to reconsider the intersection of body and spirit. It also intrigues me that Paul raises the question of individual transgression in the context of a communal letter. I do not relate the individual’s actions to the health of the group in the same way. But his example brings me back to Wendell Berry and Adrienne Rich, because it is exactly our relationship to the earth and other people that they seek to bring to our attention.

Perfection, the pursuit of saintliness, as Jane Barter Moulaison reminds us, is about the competent practice of the Christian story.27 It is a skill set. Saints are people who demonstrate integrity in their lives, a coherence between their interior and exterior worlds. They are imitators of Christ who remember his story and imagine faithfulness to live well in their time. They know their Ideal and they imitate him. In the end, Paul’s instructions to the men at Corinth, far from producing a body-denying theology, instead encourages a body-affirming theology. It is a theology appropriate to the God of Life that Paul proclaimed.


1. Dupré, Transcendent Selfhood: The Loss and Rediscovery of the Inner Life (New York, NY: Seabury Press, 1976), vii. There is a helpful introduction to the distinctions made by various religious traditions in William R. LaFleur, “Body,” in Criticial Terms for Religious Studies, ed. Mark C. Taylor (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 1998), who notes that the medically malleable body is a part of the recent Judeo-Christian tradition, 41. For a wide-ranging survey, although now twenty years old, see medical historian Roy Porter, “History of the Body,” in New Perspectives on Historical Writing, ed. Peter Burke (University Park, PA: Polity Press, 1991). Also helpful is Sarah Coakley, “Introduction,” in Religion and the Body, ed. Sarah Coakley, Cambridge Studies in Religious Traditions (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1997).

2. Berry, “The Body and the Earth,” in The Unsettling of America: Culture and Agriculture (San Francisco, CA: Sierra Club Books, 1977), 97 and 98. Republished in Psychoanalytic Review 81 (1994): 125–69; page numbers refer to the original publication.

3. Ibid., 118.

4. Rich, “Notes Toward a Politics of Location,” in Literary Theory: An Anthology, ed. Julie Rivkin and Michael Ryan (Oxford, UK: Blackwell Publishing, 1998), 639.

5. Bordo, “Feminism, Postmodernism, and Gender-Scepticism,” in Feminism/Postmodernism, ed. Linda J. Nicholson, Thinking Gender (New York, NY: Routledge, 1990), 145. Cf. Caroline Walker Bynum’s observation that, in medieval times, the major issue was not gender, nationality, sexual orientation, race, or [dis]ability, but suffering and death (“Why All the Fuss about the Body? A Medievalist’s Perspective,” Critical Inquiry 22 [1995]: 5).

6. For examples of (auto)biography dealing with disability or disease, see John Hull, Touching the Rock: An Experience of Blindness (New York, NY: Pantheon, 1990), and Will Schwalbe, The End of Your Life Book Club (New York, NY: Alfred A. Knopf, 2013); for theoretical considerations, see Arthur W. Frank, The Wounded Storyteller: Body, Illness, and Ethics (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 1995).

7. There is a possibility that the problem is a congregation which condones the association rather than actually associating; for a discussion of the cultural context, see Craig S. Keener, 1–2 Corinthians, New Cambridge Bible Commentary (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2005), 2–5.

8. For a thorough treatment of the differences in conceptions of purity between present and ancient worlds, and within the ancient world, see Dale B. Martin, The Corinthian Body (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1995); and for an extended discussion of prostitution and slavery in the ancient world, see Jennifer A. Glancy, Slavery in Early Christianity (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress, 2006).

9. The allusion works for those who remember the KJV or the RSV; the verb is in the Septuagint, the Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible. Other wisdom texts may also be significant for Paul, as argued by Bruce N. Fisk, “PORNEUEIN as Body Violation: The Unique Nature of Sexual Sin in 1 Corinthians 6:18,” New Testament Studies 42 (1996): 555–6.

10. Perhaps this just shows my Protestant heritage: nuptial imagery (e.g., from Ephesians 5 or the Song of Songs) is certainly part of the conversation within the broader Christian tradition.

11. Fisk, “PORNEUEIN,” 554.

12. Scholars refer to an apparent diatribe form, Denny Burk, “Discerning Corinthian Slogans through Paul’s Use of the Diatribe in 1 Corinthians 6:12–20,” Bulletin for Biblical Research 18 (2008): 99–121; the classic statement of the problem is found in Jerome Murphy-O’Connor, “Corinthian Slogans in 1 Cor 6:12–20,” Catholic Biblical Quarterly 40 (1978): 391–96.

13. As most commentators note, the Corinthians’ reinterpretation of Paul aligns with positions advocated by Greek philosophers. Jay Smith argues that there are also connections to Jesus traditions: “The Roots of a ‘Libertine’ Slogan,” Journal of Theological Studies 59 (2008): 89–45.

14. In fact, Paul qualifies eating habits as well in concern for the well-being of the broader community.

15. Gordon D. Fee speaks of being united “through [Christ’s] resurrection,” which is undoubtedly true, but the phrase doesn’t speak to the experiential power that is necessary to make sense of Paul’s statement; see The First Epistle to the Corinthians, New International Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1987), 257.

16. I am not alone in wondering about Paul’s analogy. For example, Jean Calvin provides two interpretations, because he anticipates that neither will be fully persuasive; see The First Epistle of Paul the Apostle to the Corinthians, trans. John W. Fraser, Calvin’s New Testament Commentaries (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1960), 130–31.

17. This is the most difficult section of Paul’s argument to understand. At issue is whether Paul cites the Corinthians’ logic with the words “every sin which a man does is outside the body” or whether he represents himself. See Richard B. Hays, First Corinthians, Interpretation, A Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching (Louisville, KY: John Knox, 1997), 105.

18. See Mark 7:14–15.

19. Williams, Silence and Honey Cakes: The Wisdom of the Desert (Oxford, UK: Lion Book, 2003), 89.

20. See also, Brendan Byrne, “Sinning against One’s Own Body: Paul’s Understanding of the Sexual Relationship in 1 Corinthians 6:18,” Catholic Biblical Quarterly 45 (1983): 611.

21. Williams, Silence and Honey Cakes, 94.

22. See also Fee, The First Epistle to the Corinthians, 266.

23. This is similar to Calvin’s metaphor that Scripture functions as a pair of spectacles, focusing what we might come to know in other ways; see Institutes of the Christian Religion, trans. F. L. Battles, ed. J. T. McNeill, vol. 20 and 21, The Library of Christian Classics (Philadelphia, PA: Westminster, 1960), I.VI.1.

24. This is also Louis Dupré’s argument: our changed outlook actually changes reality; we cannot withdraw from what we now know but “History carries an ontic significance that excludes any reversal of the present,” (Dupré, Passage to Modernity: An Essay in the Hermeneutics of Nature and Culture [New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1993], 6).

25. Even Calvin still seems to think the soul has an essence, so the loss of materiality of the spiritual/inner world must be historically later; in his discussion of the relation of body and soul, for example, he refers to the soul as “created essence” (Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, 20 and 21, I.XV.2).

26. Following Augustine who interpreted the Psalm title (not included in English translations because it is absent from the Masoretic Text) as “dealing with the glorification and resurrection of our Lord,” John E. Rotelle, ed. Expositions of the Psalms, Volume 1: 1-32, The Works of Saint Augustine: A Translation for the 21st Century (Hyde Park, NY: New City Press, 2000), 246.

27. Moulaison, “‘Our bodies, our selves?’ The Body as Source in Feminist Thinking,” Scottish Journal of Theology 60 (2007): 355. James C. Howell makes a similar argument in “Christ was Like Saint Francis,” in The Art of Reading Scripture, ed. Ellen F. Davis and Richard B. Hays (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2003).