Your Body Is Not the Temple, But THE Body Is

Article
02.08.2024

It’s common to hear Christians speak of their bodies as temples of the Holy Spirit. The implication is that we should treat our physical bodies with appropriate reverence. The lead text for this is 1 Corinthians 6:19, where Paul asks, “Do you not know that your body is the temple of the Holy Spirit who is in you, whom you have from God, and you are not your own?” Seems pretty clear.

The trouble is that the Bible consistently speaks of one temple for the one God. So if each Christian’s individual body were a temple in and of itself, then that would mean God has millions of isolated temples all over the world. There is a bit of a theological problem with this.

A handful of commentators and biblical theologians, however, have contended that in 1 Corinthians 6:19 Paul is talking about the body of Christ—the church—as the temple of the Holy Spirit. If so, that would change the meaning and application of 1 Corinthians 6:19 quite dramatically.

We would like to propose four lines of argument that support such a corporate reading of 1 Corinthians 6:19 and then offer a church-centered application.[1]

The first argument is grammatical. Paul’s uses of “you” in 1 Corinthians 6:19 are all plural pronouns. An English translation that specifies this might read, “Do you all not know that your collective body is the temple of the Holy Spirit who is among you all, whom you all have from God, and you all are not your own?” While grammar cannot tell the whole story, it does open the door for the communal reading.

The second consideration is historical. The idea that there might be multiple temples in the world is an entirely Greco-Roman idea. The logic goes: there are many gods, so naturally there would be many temples. If Paul means that each Christian is an individual temple, he would be subtly adopting that Greco-Roman concept. We find it more likely that Paul aligned with the Jewish concepts of God’s unity and uniqueness, necessitating a single temple. A survey of both Greco-Roman thinkers and Paul’s Jewish contemporaries demonstrates this difference.[2]

Third, the literary context, both immediately (chs. 3–6) and across the book as a whole, is vital. There are several ways that understanding Paul’s meaning in chapter 6 as a corporate temple brings cohesion to the flow of thought in the letter.

  • A central theme of the letter is not just the Corinthians’ unity, but the unity of the entire universal church (see 1 Cor. 1:2). This becomes critical for the Corinthians’ self-understanding.
  • In 1 Corinthians 3:16, only three chapters before our verse in question, Paul refers to the entire church as God’s singular temple (again with plural pronouns). All commentators agree that this reference is corporate. It would be strange if Paul uses temple imagery in chapter 3 to emphasize the Corinthians’ unity, only to use the same imagery in chapter 6 to speak of their individual temple statuses. That would be like saying, “You all are the temple of God, so you should be united. . . . Well, you’re also individual temples, too.”
  • Paul introduces the issue of sexual immorality and the church’s discipline in 1 Corinthians 5 to the end of protecting the church’s unity from external impurity. It reads naturally, therefore, that Paul is still on the topic of unity amidst sexual impurity in 1 Corinthians 6.
  • Paul argues in chapters 12–14 that the church must be united in order to experience the full manifestation of the Spirit’s gifts. There, the word “temple” is not used, but Paul does again call the church a “body” that experiences the Spirit all together.

It seems to disrupt the flow of thought if the theme of church unity in 1 Corinthians 6:19 were dropped in order to emphasize that individual human bodies are God’s temples. A corporate reading, on the other hand, is consistent with chapter 3’s message of unity and strengthens the effectiveness of Paul’s exhortations across the rest of the letter.[3]

The fourth line of evidence is canonical. Nowhere else in the Bible do we read of the one God dwelling in multiple temples. To the contrary, the one Creator God has one place where sinners meet him, hear from him, receive forgiveness from him, and pray to him. The end-times vision of the OT prophets is that the Lord will establish his singular dwelling on the earth again and that it would spread all over the world (e.g. Isa. 2; Dan. 2; Mic. 4). Paul seems to understand the Corinthian church (largely made up of Gentiles) as one localized fulfillment of these expectations, as they share their identity with “all those who in every place call upon the name of our Lord Jesus Christ” (1 Cor. 1:2).

Is this just theological hairsplitting? No, it matters. Consider the immediate context of 1 Corinthians 6:15−20. Commonly enough, this passage is used to warn against sexual immorality. Rightly so. But as such the premise of the warning often lies in the thought that our individual bodies are temples, and so we should not defile a temple of God.

But the larger context is a discussion of temple prostitution (in the temples of other gods, of course). The concern is the effect of sexual purity upon the entire congregation, in so far as one person’s sexual impurity links the entire body of Christ to the temple-worship of other gods. “Shall I (the individual known as Paul) then take the members of Christ (all other individual saints) and (by myself) make them members of a prostitute?” (1 Cor. 6:15, cf. 5:6). The implication is not just that one’s own sexual impurity is bad for one’s own body/temple, but that one’s sexual impurity implicates the entire body of Christ in idolatry! For that one person is a member of the larger one temple of God.

Now that has far wider consequences than just one individual’s isolated actions with his or her isolated body.

As we comment elsewhere,

This does not negate the call to personal piety but heightens it. For each member of the body—each stone in the temple—plays a critical role in its makeup to where their actions do not affect others in generic ways but impact the sanctity of the whole. Each person’s sexual sin pollutes not only that person but, far worse to Paul, implicates the entire body of Christ—and therefore Christ himself—in idolatry! This thought alone should awaken believers to the devastation of personal sexual sins. And conversely, this corporate solidarity provides a deeply constructive motivation for sexual purity because it promotes the health and holiness of the entire sacred abode of God. It is one thing to tell believers their sins are harming themselves; it is another to set such sins in a wider [church] theology. . . . The answer to Paul’s question “Is Christ divided?” (1 Cor. 1:13) is decidedly no! Christ alone is the temple, and union with him by the one Spirit is what makes his people into one collective temple. As Christians grow in this knowledge, they will also mature in both their sexual purity and corporate unity.[4]

This understanding provides the opportunity for preachers to demonstrate a thematic arc across all of 1 Corinthians, rather than treating this passage as an outlying digression. We are not individual temples left in isolation to our private spiritual habits. Rather, we are a living, public declaration of Christ indwelling his community, calling us to profound corporate holiness.

* * * * *

Editor’s note: This article is by Nicholas G. Piotrowski with Ryan Johnson.

[1] What follows is a summary of our recent article in the Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society called “One Spirit, One Body, One Temple: Paul’s Corporate Temple Language in 1 Corinthians 6:19” (issue 65.4, 2022, pages 733–752).

[2] This survey can be found on pages 736–740 of the forementioned article.

[3] In the even narrower literary context it is worth considering why Paul bounces back and forth between referring to individual bodies and the body of Christ in verses 13–19. In verse 15, Paul establishes the idea that individual bodies are all members of a larger body: members of Christ. With that groundwork laid, Paul can discuss individual bodies, as in verse 18, and move right back to the corporate body in verse 19 as the grammar directs. In other words, Paul indeed speaks of the physical body in verses 13–14. Then in verse 15, to serve the larger point of chapters 5–7 (indeed, the entire book), Paul establishes how the Corinthians, so prone to divide, should move in their thinking from their own bodies in isolation to their roles as members of Christ. The joining with the prostitute in verse 16 is surely individual, but the point is to inform the corporate ramifications. The rhetorical question in this verse serves the point of the previous verse; thus the conjunction and move back to a man’s union with Christ in verse 17. That a man has joined his individual body to a prostitute hardly needs articulating, but the power of the argument is in the implication that he—as a member of the larger body of Christ—has joined the entire body of Christ to her, implicating Christ himself, therefore, in temple prostitution and idol worship! As in chapter 3, individuals are destroying the whole temple of God.

[4] Ibid., 752.

By:
Nicholas G. Piotrowski

Nicholas G. Piotrowski is the President of Indianapolis Theological Seminary. He is a member of Castleton Community Church in Indianapolis, Indiana.

Ryan Johnson

Ryan Johnson completed degrees in biology and education before becoming a professional genealogist and studying under Dr. Piotrowski. He and his wife are raising three boys in Indianapolis.

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