What did Paul mean?

I’ve been reading Colossians this evening. Paul’s words about the new self we put on in Christ and the death we have died to flesh and earth and elemental spirits resound in my soul as I continue to struggle to see how the leaders of my church would have me read Scripture and live out a life of holiness.

Paul* writes:

Put to death, therefore, whatever belongs to your earthly nature: sexual immorality, impurity, lust, evil desires and greed, which is idolatry. Because of these, the wrath of God is coming. You used to walk in these ways, in the life you once lived. But now you must also rid yourselves of all such things as these: anger, rage, malice, slander, and filthy language from your lips. (Colossians 3:5-8, NIV)

On a purely exegetical level, what do we think Paul meant by the concept the NIV translates as “sexual immorality.” The NRSV uses “fornication.”

I’m trying to follow the advice of my biblical studies professors here. I’m not asking what we should make of this today. I’m just asking what Paul most likely had in mind by that litany of vices: sexual immorality, impurity, and lust?

My New Interpreter’s Bible Commentary says the first, “sexual immorality,” is “a broad term denoting general sexual immorality that is also used more particularly of adultery and intercourse with prostitutes.” The word translated “impurity” “is usually associated with sexual sin.” The word translated as “lust” is primarily understood as “uncontrolled sexual appetite.”

While this helps some, it still leave unspecified what sexual sins are for Paul or what broadly falls under the heading of sexual immorality or manifestations of uncontrolled sexual appetite.

The commentary, written by Andrew Lincoln, reflects on these issues this way:

For example, it is because Christians want to celebrate the goodness of the sexual expression of human love in committed, lifelong relationships and to affirm the option of a healthy celibacy that they will be concerned, with the writer of Colossians, that the distorted practices of an uncontrolled and exploitative sexuality be rooted out or “put to death.”

I note that Lincoln equates Paul’s list of sexual sins with “uncontrolled and exploitative sexuality.” That looks to me like a narrowing of the ideas in Paul, but perhaps not.

I wonder what Paul had in mind when he wrote these words.


*Of course, many scholars dispute Paul’s authorship, but I’m going to go with tradition for the moment.

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14 thoughts on “What did Paul mean?

  1. I don’t think we can read back the threefold right/wrong/abhorrent categories that probably had hardened as the review’s author suggests by the 4th-6th centuries precisely onto the first, or thus onto Paul. Particularly not the “right sex= exclusively procreative sex with one’s spouse.” Paul himself recognizes the value of sex between married couples other than for procreation and calls both spouses to attend to the sexual needs of the other. In this way Paul, at least, keeps sex tethered to bodies, and not merely, as the reviewer suggests Harper asserts, to wills.

    I think a huge value of the review is the degree to which is shows there being multiple levels of renegotiation of codes of sexual behavior beginning with Christians among themselves, and then escalated (and to some degree exaggerated, to the point of violence) once Christians ran the culture and so had the force of law, and not merely moral suasion, to enact what had become their version of cultural sexual norms. I also think Paul’s wider room for “right sex” than the later Christian norms indicates such norms ended up being negotiated by Christians, or perhaps simply by some of their leaders, over time as well.

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