Do you not know that you are the temple of God, and that the Spirit of God dwells in you? If anyone destroys God’s temple, God will destroy that person; for the temple of God, which you are, is holy.—I Cor 3:16-17.
This is one of my favorite examples for showing the importance of reading a biblical passage in context. Read without reference to the first three and a half chapters of Paul’s letter, these two verses lend themselves to a variety of meanings. I have heard these verses applied to smoking, sexual abuse, and suicide. Given Paul’s application of the temple metaphor to the individual human body in his treatment of sexual infidelity in chapter six of this same letter, it makes sense that people read these verses in chapter three in that context.
Respect for one’s physical person, however, is not the subject in this early part of the letter to the Corinthians. In these early chapters, Paul is addressing the way the Corinthian Christians are dividing the body of the community with their rivalries and factions.
One hindrance to understanding Paul correctly in this passage is that the English word “you” is ambiguous; that is, it can apply to an individual or to a group. (Southerners have solved this by using “y’all” when they address several people.) This is not a problem in Paul’s Greek. Greek has one pronoun for addressing an individual, sy, and another pronoun for addressing a group, hymeis. Paul uses the plural here. Drawing upon an early Christian understanding of the community as the new sacred space, the new temple (indeed, the fulfillment of Ezekiel’s prophecy contained in the today’s first reading), and he is reminding them that the Holy Spirit dwells among them as community (“among you [plural]”). Thus their factious divisions are destroying the temple of God—a serious matter indeed.
Hearing Paul’s words in context helps us hear his challenge to our factious Christian community as well. Ironically, our relationships with our “separated brethren” of other Christian denominations are often more harmonious and civil than the divisions within our local denominational communities. I hear some of my fellow Catholics use the word “orthodox” in a more-orthodox-than-thou manner. And the good words “conservative” and “liberal” are sometimes used is a way of dismissing community members who “disagree with me.” Reading this passage in Paul’s obvious context can provide an opportunity to rest from preoccupation with other body issues for a moment and hear this scriptural challenge to deal with how we “destroy the temple of God” with our sometimes divisive ways of treating one another.
In this regard, Saint Ignatius of Loyola has a helpful hint at
the beginning of his Spiritual Exercises:
This can be a great help in keeping the temple of the community intact.
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