Monday, October 23, 2006

On Defiling the Church

I’ve been reading First Corinthians lately, and something caught my attention in chapter 5. The issue there is that of a man in an incestuous relationship. St Paul, even in his absence, pronounced judgment on him and concluded with the exhortation: “Drive out the wicked man from among you,” though he did still hold out hope that, following repentance, “his spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord Jesus.”

But what struck me was not something in the text itself, but a topical heading for the chapter, provided by the editors of this particular Bible. It reads: “Sexual immorality defiles the Church.” What does one man’s “private life” have to do with the Church? one might easily ask these days. There is so much concern to protect one’s own privacy, which in many cases means one’s “right” to do evil behind closed doors. Yet St Paul made a big public deal of it. Why?

In this same Epistle, Paul outlines his theology of the Body of Christ (chapter 12). Part of his conclusion is: “If one member suffers, all suffer together; if one member is honored, all rejoice together.” There is a mystical connection between the members of the Body of Christ, his Church. In a sense, then, there is no such thing as an absolutely private or isolated act. If we are baptized into Christ, then we are all connected. We benefit from the holiness of the righteous members of the Body, and we suffer from the sins of the evil members. That doesn’t mean that someone else’s personal sin becomes our personal sin—for each will be judged according to his own choices—but our cross becomes a bit heavier, our labors and service are more urgently required, and we share a little more in the grief of Him who has borne all our sins, sorrows and sufferings.

There’s a kind of “ripple effect” to all we say and do, and even think. If we think in a degrading way about someone, then degradation has marred the Body. If we speak well of someone, then blessing has built up the Body. We don’t live in a neutral universe; in one way or another, all creation (especially other people) are affected by the presence of good and evil, by the outcome of our behavior. “Do you not know that your bodies are members of Christ?” exclaimed the Apostle. “Shall I therefore take the members of Christ and make them the members of a prostitute? Never! … You are not your own; you were bought with a price. So glorify God in your body” (1Cor. 6:15-20). Today’s evolved and liberated people would bristle at the suggestion: you are not your own, with all that implies. But our deep interconnection with each other—and with Christ, the Head of the Body—underlies Paul’s words.

We can see why “sexual immorality defiles the Church.” To engage in sexual activity outside of marriage is not merely a private decision. The common canard these days is that one can do whatever one wishes, “as long as it doesn’t hurt anybody.” But guess what? It hurts somebody. Sexual immorality defiles the Church, so it hurts you and me, even though we may never know just what is going on in other people’s lives. Perhaps we would all be more careful about what we do in secret, if we knew that a judgment was pending, not only at the end, but in an ongoing manner. “For nothing is hidden that shall not be made manifest, nor anything secret that shall not be known and come to light” (Luke 8:17). We send out ripples of harm and defilement throughout the Body whenever we sin, whether publicly or privately—just as we send out ripples of goodness and life when we live according to God’s will.

I’m not sure why I bring all this up now—perhaps just because that heading caught my eye; perhaps because the world, and even the Church, are riddled with sexual immorality in our time. Everyone wants to feel free to do as they please, thinking they are not accountable to anyone but themselves (if that), thinking that no one knows, no one is harmed by their choices to violate God’s commandments. But we all suffer from it; we all carry the weight of the wounded or sick members of the Body. What is needed is extraordinary goodness, purity, and sanctity among those members of the Body who are not the cause of the defilement—so as to bring grace and cleansing and enlightenment.

The Body of Christ suffers violence every day, in one way or another. Let us resolve to be part of the solution that heals, and not part of the problem that defiles. The Church is counting on us, so that at length we can all rejoice together, as one.