5.7 1 Corinthians -- Christian Ethics
Paul was not a moralizer, in the sense of being a rulemaker. This is the more remarkable considering his upbringing -- he was trained to be a nitpicker: what types of thread can be woven together in one garment?, how far can one walk on the Sabbath without it being considered work? what are the steps for ritual self-purification? For at least twenty years of his life, these questions were the Serious Stuff of life. It would have been natural for him to step into the role of the New Testament Lawgiver, the heir of Moses -- binding the righteousness of faith with cords of holy conduct.
That he does not fill this role, but instead resists the legalistic tendencies of the Jerusalem Church, is a sign of the transforming power of the Gospel he preached. Because it had changed him, he could teach others. In 1 Corinthians, we see a synopsis of his moral philosophy, the ethics of the Kingdom:
"Everything is permissible"— but not everything is beneficial. "Everything is permissible" — but not everything is constructive. Nobody should seek his own good, but the good of others.... So whether you eat or drink or whatever you do, do it all for the glory of God. Do not cause anyone to stumble, whether Jews, Greeks or the church of God — even as I try to please everybody in every way. For I am not seeking my own good but the good of many, so that they may be saved (1 Cor 10:23-24, 1 Cor 10:31-33).
This is reminiscent of St Augustine's famous quote:
"Love God and do whatever you please: for the soul trained in love to God will do nothing to offend the One who is Beloved."
Note the two anchors of Paul's moral "system": the glory of God and the good of many. One of the components of Christianity that sets it apart from most other ethics, religious or humanistic, is the awareness that our freedom exceeds our benefit. Legalistic systems tend toward totalitarianism, again either religious or secular: if something is deemed "good" then it is also compulsory. Paul recognizes, as so few theorists do, that there is a divergence between righteousness and human choice, and he doesn't try to absolutize one at the expense of the other. Nor does he try to bridge the gap between them by law, compulsion or guilt.
Yes, there is a conflict between absolute freedom (license) and holiness. Its resolution, for Paul, is the voluntary limitation of freedom. The positive pole (what defines a good act) is that it serves the glory of God. The negative pole (what defines an evil act) is what causes someone else to stumble. And the individual, the moral actor, is forced to think, to examine himself, to ask the Spirit of God, before he acts. It is not mere obedience to an external command. This is what he is trying to create in the Corinthian believers themselves -- the development of moral maturity.