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).