The Very First Wife Swap

(This is part 3 in my series on 1 Corinthians 5. Click here to read from the beginning.)

Most of us probably imagine the first swingers as 1960’s hippies in a free-love commune. But in fact, it started earlier than that, in World War II. Christopher Ryan explains:

It seems that the original modern American swingers were crew-cut World War II air force pilots and their wives. Like elite warriors everywhere, these “top guns” often developed strong bonds with one another, perhaps because they suffered the highest casualty rate of any branch of the military. According to journalist Terry Gould, “key parties,” like those later dramatized in the 1997 film The Ice Storm, originated on these military bases in the 1940s, where elite pilots and their wives intermingled sexually with one another before the men flew off toward Japanese antiaircraft fire…

Joan and Dwight Dixon explained to Gould that these warriors and their wives “shared each other as a kind of tribal bonding ritual, with a tacit understanding that the two thirds of husbands who survived would look after the widows.”

I’m going to do something silly, anachronistic, and completely improbable. I’m going to retell the Story of the Corinthian Stepmother in these terms.

All we know from the Apostle Paul’s account of the story is the bare minimum:

It is actually reported that there is bad sexual behavior among you, and such a kind as exists not even among the pagans, that a man is having sex with his father’s wife! (1 Corinthians 5:1)

And Paul didn’t approve of this, no not one bit. And he demanded that the Corinthian church ostracize this guy, who was sleeping with his stepmother.

But what if we were to flesh out the details of the story?

An elderly Corinthian man took a young wife, whom he loved dearly. He knew his time on this earth was coming to much too quick an end. He expressed his concerns to his wife. And his wife proposed that his son, his heir, should also be bonded to her, so that after he was gone, she would not be a widow, but would be well taken care of.

Maybe a little self-serving on her part. But this certainly should have let the son off the hook. No, I don’t actually believe that narrative. But I tell it in order to focus not on what the Corinthian man was doing, but what Paul was really afraid of.

Off the top of my head, here are a few possibilities:

  1. He really was reacting to the wrong kind of people having the wrong kind of sex. (Remember, not an egalitarian society.)
  2. He was afraid the Corinthians would make Christians everywhere look bad, because word of them had spread far and wide.
  3. He was afraid they would make him look bad.
  4. He was afraid that this would give his fellow Jews another reason to reject Christianity.
  5. One or more of the above (to various degrees, plus others not listed).

I think most people naïvely assume option A. And that indeed may have been the only thing going through Paul’s mind. But I doubt it.

With regard to option B, Paul certainly cared how the church looked to the rest of the world. It’s even a theme expressed in 1 Corinthians: “I have become all things to all people so that by all possible means I might save some. I do all this for the sake of the gospel, that I may share in its blessings” (9:22-23). But more often, sexual conservatism in the modern world makes the church look petty and vicious. Not, I’m sure, what Paul had in mind.

The only thing option C has going for it is that Paul, like the rest of us, was human, a human being living in a human society. This life lesson I learned when my own father was pastor of a church, and some people blamed him when the church youth leaders left their respective families and ran off together. And we don’t know the social and political pressures Paul himself personally may have faced.

Option D is fairly intriguing. Remember, when Paul went to Corinth, in Acts 18, he started by talking to people in the local synagogue. But his fellow Jews there became abusive, and so he said, “Your blood be on your own heads! I am innocent of it. From now on I will go to the Gentiles” (Acts 18:6). And yet, he admitted in his letter to the Romans, “Inasmuch as I am the apostle to the Gentiles, I take pride in my ministry in the hope that I may somehow arouse my own people to envy and save some of them.” This could have been on his mind, even when he wrote 1 Corinthians. Christianity, on the other hand, gave up on this vision many centuries ago.

Where does this leave us?

Bad sexual behavior, the Greek word porneia, was one of the items on the short halachah-for-Gentiles that came out of the Jerusalem council in Acts 15: “Abstain from food sacrificed to idols, from blood, from the meat of strangled animals, and from porneia.” In fact, porneia is the only item on this list that does not refer back to the covenant God made with Noah in Genesis 9.

Over the centuries, we’ve read into porneia all manner of idiocy. For example, Christians used to believe that women ought not to enjoy sex. They had to have sex, of course, because otherwise how could they become pregnant and bear babies? But they definitely shouldn’t enjoy it, because that was supposedly sinful. (And for all I know, some still might believe this.) That’s only one example. Only God knows the countless couples who have been condemned to marital misery because of this kind of nonsense. “Porneia” is so vague, part of me would have preferred the New Testament writers had simply left it out.

But they didn’t. And this is one reason I increasingly believe we need a more refined sexual ethic. If the end of ethics is to promote well-being, we need a sexual ethic that promotes sexual and emotional well-being.

But that’s another post.