Swiss Army Knife or Sword of the Spirit?

By Jim Eichenberger

One of the most “handy” passages for condemning behavior we do not like has to be 1 Corinthians 6:19, 20: “Do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit, who is in you, whom you have received from God? You are not your own; you were bought at a price. Therefore honor God with your body” (New International Version, 1984).

In fact, this verse is like the proverbial Swiss Army knife. It is useful for a variety of occasions! Here is how it works. Are you looking for a way to condemn smoking? Say, “Your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit! Do you think God wants you to turn it into a gas chamber?” Proving that tattoos are wrong? Say, “Would you paint graffiti on the walls of God’s house?” How about body piercing? “Do you really think it is right for you to knock holes in the walls of a temple?” Trying to convince a congregation that a gymnasium should be a part of a new building program? “Aren’t we responsible to help the flock with proper ‘temple’ maintenance?”

Once we speak with the authority of the Word of God that our physical bodies are temples of the Spirit, we have a ready answer suitable for multiple occasions. One problem though . . . That is simply not what the Bible says!


What the Bible Says

Yes, the Holy Spirit does live within us. That gift is promised at baptism (Acts 2:38), bears fruit in the life of individuals (Galatians 5:22, 23), and keeps us from being ruled by sinful desires (Galatians 5:16).

But the most important works of the Spirit are those done for the church as a whole. Since the Greek word for spirit (pneuma) also means breath, it is clear that the Holy Spirit is the very breath of the body of Christ, his church. The Spirit leads the church into all truth (John 16:13), immunizes it from false teaching through gifted leadership (Ephesians 4:14-16), and gives us a single-minded devotion that leads to personal and corporate peace (2 Corinthians 13:11).

When the analogy of the “temple of the Holy Spirit” is used elsewhere in Scripture, it clearly refers to the church corporately. Peter wrote that Christians, “like living stones, are being built into a spiritual house to be a holy priesthood” (1 Peter 2:5). Earlier in 1 Corinthians, Paul warned that anyone destroying the unity of the church rather than trying to build it was destroying God’s temple (1 Corinthians 3).


What This Passage Says

A big part of the confusion lies in the nature of modern English. In modern English we have different pronouns for singular and plural pronouns (I, we; he, they; etc.) except “you.” Nearly all other languages do not have that problem, including the original Greek of the New Testament.

In English, if I were to say, “You get in your car,” I could be ordering one person into one car or multiple people into a single car they own together. But if I wanted to tell more than one person to get into their individual vehicles, I would say, “You get into your cars.” Likewise, if I were to say, “You are a temple of God,” it would be unclear if I were saying that a singular individual is an individual temple or if a group of people comprised one single temple. That is because the pronoun “you” can be either singular or plural in English. In Greek, however, it is clear that Paul is using the plural form of “you” with the singular forms “body” and of “temple.”

Looking at 1 Corinthians 6:19, Paul clearly said: “Do (all of) you not know that the body [just one!] of (all of) you is the temple [just one!] of the Holy Spirit?” (I included “all of” in parentheses to indicate that “you” is plural.) Note that he is clearly speaking of one body comprised of all of the people he is addressing. He is not talking about individual human bodies and therefore individual “temples.” To say that each individual body is a separate temple is to say something Paul does not say.


Reading the Entire Argument 

Aside from the grammatical issues, isolated verses of 1 Corinthians 6:19, 20 become very clear when we look at the beautiful symmetry of Paul’s entire argument. He begins his discussion early in chapter 5. He addresses sexual immorality in the church. He commands that the person guilty of sexual immorality be removed from the fellowship. Why? Because his presence is dishonoring and weakening the entire body! (See 5:6.) Furthermore, we see a reference to celebrating the Passover in verses 7 and 8. Where was Passover celebrated? In the temple, of course! (Passover was one of the three pilgrimage festivals of the Jews—festivals for which they were expected to go to the temple to celebrate.) This is a reference to the church as the temple of the Holy Spirit, a term he already used in 3:16, 17.

Paul continued his argument and concluded at the end of chapter 6. How did he do it? He said the same thing he did at the beginning of his argument—that allowing sexual immorality to take place in the church is defiling the whole church (the temple of the Holy Spirit).

Therefore, in context, not only is the reference to the temple of the Holy Spirit dealing with sexual immorality alone, it is a clear reference to the church, not the individual physical bodies of each Christian. Furthermore, saying that each individual Christian is his or her own temple is totally incongruous to the entire message of 1 Corinthians. Paul was commanding Christian unity. Why would he say to a group of “I wanna do my own thing” Christians that each of them was a complete temple of God? That would be directly contradicting his point!

Unfortunately, the misunderstanding that Paul was saying that the individual physical bodies of individual Christians are individual temples is so widespread that it is nearly beyond question. In fact, some recent translations are actually mistranslating 1 Corinthians 6:19, 20 to conform to that misunderstanding! For example, the 2011 revision of the New International Version reads: “Do you not know that your bodies [but the Greek is body!] are [Greek, is] temples [Greek, temple] of the Holy Spirit, who is in you, whom you have received from God? You are not your own; you were bought at a price. Therefore honor God with your bodies [Greek, the body].”

So what do we do with our “Swiss Army knife”? Let’s put it back in our pocket! Wielding of the sword of the Spirit is a much more solemn responsibility than using a pet proof text to carve up cultural practices that we do not like!


Jim Eichenberger is a senior editor on the adult/teen product development team at Standard Publishing. He is the author of books and articles about understanding the Bible and culture, including Discovering God’s Story (Standard Publishing, 2010) and the current revision of Training for Service (2011). 

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  1. October 15, 2011 at 7:42 pm

    Thank you for the excellent article on 1 Corinthians 6:19-20. I have been guilty of that misinterpretation in the past. When you hear sermon after sermon making that point, it is hard to see it for what it really says. Besides, it is a convenient verse when we Christians want to condemn someone else’s actions.

    Stephen Frantz

  2. October 20, 2011 at 9:40 pm

    Likewise JIm. I concur with Stephen Frantz; he couldn’t have worded it better. I much appreciate your scholarly insight on a topic that needed addressed. For the glory of our God and Savior Jesus Christ.

    Randall Laraway

  3. Brian Mowers
    October 21, 2011 at 11:24 am

    Great article! One of our long-time Bible teachers in our local congregation has a favorite saying: “Proof-text out of context is pretext”. This article is a wonderful example of why this is so.

    Christians are constantly being accused of being hypocrites and I’m afraid our miss-application of Scripture is one of the leading reasons. We know there is no inconsistency in the Word of God but unfortunately our traditional miss-interpretations introduce them. Articles like this help us to adjust and avoid these pitfalls.

    Thank you, C.S., for equipping us to “Watch your life and doctrine closely. Persevere in them, because if you do, you will save both yourself and your hearers.” 1 Timothy 4:16

    Grace and peace.

  4. October 21, 2011 at 5:00 pm

    Down here in the South, we have an easy fix.


    I suppose we have an advanced language of our own…lol

  5. October 22, 2011 at 11:06 pm

    Thanks for rightly dividing the word for us. Hadn’t heard it explained so clearly.

    (Does that mean I can smoke now? : – )

  6. James Whisenant
    November 5, 2011 at 8:34 pm

    I have sat under many a noted teacher. This now has given me pause. Were they all wrong? Are we fussing about words? Have we become judges or condemning with proof texting? What happens when we are overburdened with hurt and losing our battle with sin and can’t get to the church (the temple of the Holy Spirit)? Too weak to lift the sword? Up until now thinking I was a temple (little “t”) of the Holy Spirit gave me crawling strength to make to the Church body. There my heart’s eyes are able to see the whole picture. As you see I am confused. Thank you for an open forum to make strong our brothers.

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