[ 7 minutes to read ]
The Word of God is a sharp, two-edged sword and, if you are not careful, you will cut yourself with it.If we were to play the small-group game of biblical interpretation with the phrase, “All things are lawful unto me,” the blood would pool on the floor. You do know the game I am talking about, right? I guess such group leaders don’t call it a game. Ironically, they take it seriously. I am talking about where we all sit intimately, someone reads something from the Scripture, and then we take turns sharing what we feel about what was read. We pass the metaphorical talking stick around and everyone, with thoughtful furrowing of the brow, has the opportunity to say, “What this means to me . . .”
Much could and should be said about the folly and danger of that practice, but we must get back to the point. If we took a census on “All things are lawful unto me,” somebody, and probably many somebodies, would say something to this general effect:
“What this means to me is that we are not under the law. We don’t have to live by all kinds of rules and stuff. We can do whatever we want and anybody that says we can or can’t do something is a legalist.”
There are numerous ways to make that statement which sound intellectually sophisticated and enlightened. It’s the kind of stuff that goes over well at refined and polite dinner parties. Regardless of anyone’s personal feelings though, is that what the text means? Does this text mean there are no rules, boundaries, or limits for Christians? Does it mean that everything is open and accessible for Christians and we are just supposed to use common sense so that no one gets hurt?
What are the options?
Three primary ways of interpreting this text must be considered. I start here because of the word all in the statement. It is the important hinge pin in the statement. We must understand what all means if we are to make any sense of what is written. Anytime you have all in a statement, there are three primary possibilities—universal, rhetorical, or categorical. Let us consider each of these in relation to Paul’s statement, “All things are lawful unto me.”
The Universal All
The universal all makes a statement apply equally to all without any exceptions to what or whom is included. The well-known model syllogism begins with a major premise that illustrates the universal all.
- All men are mortal.
Aristotle is a man.
Therefore, Aristotle is mortal.
In this example, all men refers to all mankind without any exceptions. It means all human beings, male and female, are mortal. It applies universally to all subjects of the statement without any exceptions or distinctions. Is Paul using the universal absolute in his letter to the Corinthians?
In our hypothetical small-group above, the assertion that “all things are lawful unto me” means we don’t have any laws, rules, or restrictions as Christians, is reading the statement as a universal absolute. That would mean that Paul is teaching that absolutely everything, without any exceptions, is lawful, or permissible, for a Christian to do. Universal absolutes are convenient to refute when necessary because we only have to find at least one case where it does not apply. Let’s go back to small-group to ask the asserter some questions.
“So everything is permissible?”
“Yes, that’s right.”
“So it’s okay to kill somebody?”
“Well . . . no.”
“But you said everything is permissible.”
“Not murder, of course.”
“Oh, so everything is permissible except murder?”
“So then it’s okay to take a gun and make you give me your wallet and car keys?”
“Of course not. Don’t be ridiculous!”
“But you said everything is permissible.”
“Come on. You know what I mean. Murder and theft and things like that are not right.”
Logically speaking, this man argued from a flawed premise and then tried to course correct by arbitrarily applying the premise and reject the conclusions he didn’t like. He made a statement that sounds good but doesn’t hold up to examination (Proverbs 18:17). He is being arbitrary and, in scriptural terms, double minded (James 1:8). This is actually the way many people reason whether they are believers or unbelievers, but I must eschew the temptation to explore that more fully just now.
We come back to Paul’s statement and ask if there are reasons in the text to not take this as a universal absolute statement. There are several textual reasons that show us it is not a universal statement. I will mention a few.
- Paul condemns both the actions of the immoral man in Corinth and the lack of disciplinary action by the church to exclude him (1 Corinthians 5:1-2). Clearly, his fornication was not permissible and neither was the toleration of it by the church.
- In the same chapter, Paul’s denouncement was not limited to only fornication, but extended to covetousness, idolatry, railing, drunkenness, and extortion (1 Corinthians 5:11). These also were not permissible.
- In the sixth chapter, he states that church members suing one another in court is not permissible (1 Corinthians 6:7-8).
- In the same chapter, he gives a list of unlawful actions (1 Corinthians 6:9-10), making it plain that those who live in those things will not go to Heaven. They are clearly not permissible.
So either Paul is being arbitrary or he is not making a universal absolute statement. Clearly, he is not making a universal absolute statement, but that does not mean that the statement is without meaning. It must be interpreted properly and we have two other possibilities to consider.
The Rhetorical All
The rhetorical all is used for effect. It is a rhetorical device known as hyperbole, or exaggeration. Hyperbole is much overused in common conversation today. We talk of things as awesome, amazing, and totally, when they are not. Consequently, when we need words to describe truly big things, we find we have overdrawn the balance and the account is empty. So people end up talking about a mediocre coffee, a sunset, a sale at the mall, and the attributes of God in the same descriptive terms. As you would guess, the coffee gets a boost but the thoughts of God are reduced in men’s hearts and minds.
Our communication needs to be sanctified and we should be much more careful about how we talk. Jesus taught this clearly in the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5:37). I must also eschew the strong temptation to explore this more fully just now. We need to return to the consideration of hyperbole.
Hyperbole has a legitimate place and use in verbal and written communication. The most helpful use is in the realm of abstract and effect. Hyperbole is not helpful in conveying concrete facts. Let’s consider a common example of rhetorical exaggeration. Let’s say I went to the store on Saturday morning and returned that afternoon. You then ask me, “How was your shopping trip?” To which I reply, “Hectic. Everybody in town was at the store today.”
This common hyperbole has an effect but doesn’t convey anything very useful for information. The statement conveys the store was crowded, but compared to what? Obviously, everybody in town was not in the store, but how many people were there? In this instance, nothing more is needed to be communicated, so the hyperbole is fine. But what about Paul’s statement, “All things are lawful unto me?”
If Paul is exaggerating for effect, then he is really making a non-statement. He then would not mean everything but what things are lawful would be unclear. We are back to arbitrariness if this is hyperbole. It is clear that this not just rhetoric, rather Paul means to communicate something meaningful to the readers. That brings us to the third case.
The Categorical All
The categorical all makes a statement apply equally to everything within a set or category. The statement is equally true for each member or entity in the set. If I were to say something about all poodles, I would be talking about a set or category of dogs. I would not be talking about all dogs, only the set of dogs known as poodles and, given that my statement was true, it would be true of all poodles, but not necessarily true of all dogs.
We have already seen that Paul’s statement is not a universal absolute, nor rhetorical, so it must be categorical. “All things” must refer to everything within a particular category. We can rule out unlawful things, or forbidden things, i.e. murder, theft, adultery, etc. Paul has clearly condemned such in the same letter. We can also rule out things we are positively commanded to do. If we are commanded to do something, then we are required to do it by God. We can rule this out for at least two good reasons.
- “All things are lawful unto me” is a nonsensical statement if Paul means things commanded. He would be saying that everything we are required to do is permissible to do.
- Contextually, here and in 1 Corinthians 10:23 Paul is referring to something optional. He is talking about things that may be done or not done at our own discretion.
“All things are lawful unto me” then refers to things that are not inherently sinful, or things indifferent. He is not talking about unlawful things, nor things we are commanded to do. He is talking about things that of themselves are neither good nor bad. All indifferent things are permissible.
This is obviously Paul’s meaning given the verses that immediately follow our text verse. Paul uses meats as an example (1 Corinthians 6:13). When he addresses the issue of eating meat that had been part of a sacrifice to an idol, he points out that the meat itself is not inherently defiled or polluted because “an idol is nothing in the world” (1 Corinthians 8:4). When touch similarly on the subject to the Roman Christians, Paul stated, “I know, and am persuaded by the Lord Jesus, that there is nothing unclean of itself” (Romans 14:14).
There are objects and activities that are not inherently sinful and a Christian is free to choose them or refuse them. While something may be indifferent, that doesn’t mean that we cannot sin in the using of it. Meat is not inherently sinful, but we can certainly sin by eating meat in gluttony (Luke 21:34; Romans 13:13).
Paul’s meaning in the use of all things is further seen in the complementing statement that immediately follows in verse twelve, “All things are lawful unto me, but all things are not expedient” (1 Corinthians 6:12). Expedient means profitable or useful. Unlawful things are never profitable spiritually. Commanded things are always profitable. Indifferent things may be profitable or may be unprofitable. This is the point Paul is urging while pushing the Corinthians toward maturity and discernment in the edifying use of their liberty.