The Flesh and the Spirit in Paul, Provisionally

I spoke on this topic a month or two ago in our college’s chapel service, and a student expressed an interest in having a written version of my thoughts for reference purposes. It emerges from a series of encounters I’ve had with the early chapters of 1 Corinthians throughout 2019. Yet any regular readers of this blog will know that I am an Old Testament guy, not a New Testament specialist, so please take that into account. Moreover, all I can offer is my understanding of this dichotomy in Paul in its present state of progress — hence, ‘provisionally’.

When Huskies Go Off Course…What?

I often have a guiding illustration, keeping my audience and myself on track. For this talk, I was thinking about sled dogs. My grandmother on my Mum’s side had two samoyeds, woolly white things that looked as though they must have been dying in the summers in Belmont, New South Wales (Australia), though apparently they can take it reasonably well. They needed grooming practically every day, and so they are a great breed for those with a lot of time to kill. Nice dogs, all the same.

Those who encountered ‘CCM’ (contemporary Christian music) in some form a couple of decades back might remember the Newsboys song, “It’s all who you know”. The Newsboys, an Australian band originally, had a lyricist called Steve Taylor who had a bit of a knack with words, and I think he was responsible for this effort. One verse says,

For the want of a cough drop,

The musher’s throat went hoarse

For the want of direction

The huskies went off course

Then the sled got snowbound

It took some time to free’em

Now they’re on display

Inside the British Museum

It’s a version of the Butterfly Effect, I guess – lack of a cough drop altering history in an unforeseen way. Nevertheless, it allows me to talk about huskies going off course. I promise to come back to this.

The Problem of Paul’s Teaching on the Flesh

Those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires. Since we live by the Spirit, let us keep in step with the Spirit” (Gal. 5:24–25).

Paul often pits the ‘flesh’ (Gk. σάρξ) against the ‘spirit’ (Gk. πνεῦμα) in his teaching. This is a whole area of exegetical and theological study in its own right, and others will lead you better in understanding that (and there’s no substitute for your own thorough study of the texts where these words occur).

Yet one pitfall in the history of the Christian church has been a tendency towards asceticism and a derision for the physical body and the physical world. This has included mandating or idealizing celibacy, imagining our eternal future as purely spiritual, and admiring self-inflicted starvation and privation. Priestly celibacy has been a dominant pattern for the Western church through most of its history, and yet it is nowhere commanded in the New Testament for ministers of the gospel, despite the personal examples of celibate living seen in Jesus and Paul.

Media and movie culture have taken this theme and run with it, and more than one murder mystery is resolved when the sexually repressed local clergyman proves to be a closet psychopath with murderous tendencies. Even the married ones, as in the movies As It Is in Heaven or Keeping Mum, are expected to have scruples even about making love to their own spouses, for reasons that remain unclear to me.

So, that’s often the popular image. People must wonder where Christian children come from! Did Paul want us to hate our bodies? Does the church have an unhealthy syndrome to do with physical life and physical desires and instincts? As is often the case, exaggeration is not invention. The church has had, and in some quarters still manifests, a rather unhealthy love-hate relationship with sex and the body generally.

The Ancient Cultural Background

Writing in the Cambridge Ancient History vol. 13, Historian Peter Brown (in the article “Asceticism: Pagan and Christian,” 601–631) notes that wider Greco-Roman late-antique culture had an ideal, the ‘philosophical life’, involving self-denial and total commitment to a higher (philosophical) cause, a commitment that could include celibacy. That is, leading pagan figures, as it were, could be admired for being so committed to their intellectual-existential cause that they would renounce marriage for it. Brown compares Hypatia, the Alexandrian philosopher lionized in the movie Agora, and Macrina, the celibate sister of Basil and Gregory of Nyssa, to show how such values were shared across the Christian-pagan cultural boundary. So the late patristic church’s fascination with a life of ascetic spirituality, often in a desert setting, shared common ground with wider cultural attitudes. Perhaps there was a kind of moral libertinism at work in Greco-Roman society that had left others besides early Christians disenchanted.

Paul’s Categories: Flesh, Soul & Spirit

Paul speaks in 1 Corinthians of the ψυχικός person and the πνευματικὸς person, appearing in the same order here:

“The natural person does not accept the things of the Spirit of God, for they are folly to him, and he is not able to understand them because they are spiritually discerned. The spiritual person judges all things, but is himself to be judged by no one” (1 Cor. 2:14–15).

The ψυχικός person is animate, alive in body but not in spirit/in Christ. The πνευματικὸς person is alive both in body and spirit/Christ. It is not good enough just to be conscious and mobile. There is another level of inward life needed to be fully alive.

Another category that appears shortly afterward is that of the σάρκινος/σαρκικός person, two terms which despite their different form I take to mean essentially the same thing:

“But I, brothers, could not address you as spiritual people, but as people of the flesh, as infants in Christ. I fed you with milk, not solid food, for you were not ready for it. And even now you are not yet ready, for you are still of the flesh. For while there is jealousy and strife among you, are you not of the flesh and behaving only in a human way?” (1 Cor. 3:1–3).

Paul is using σάρκινος/σαρκικός of those who are clearly alive in Christ (1:4–9), so it is not equivalent to ψυχικός here. What does he mean? Is he trying to get them to deny or destroy the body?

Looking further afield, I find Paul using two meanings of ‘flesh’ (the σάρξ group of words). One is a neutral use of embodied humanity (e.g. 2 Cor. 3:3). Then there is the more neutral use of an inferior spirituality, a mere humanness of attitude and action in people who should know better, because they are now alive in Christ.

The main manifestations of ‘fleshly’ attitudes and practice in these texts are:

  • Interpersonal conflict and the kinds of speech that drive such conflict: 1 Cor. 3:3; 6:1–8; Gal. 5:20; Eph. 4:25-32; Col. 3:8–9. Included are attitudes that lead to such conflict, such as envy & malice.
  • Sexual indiscriminateness: 1 Cor. 5:1–2; 6:9–20; Gal. 5:19; Eph. 4:19; 5:3–4; Col. 3:5; 1 Thess. 4:3–6
  • Things that impede awareness of one’s situation, like drunkenness, e.g. 1 Thess. 5:5–7
  • Idolatry & occult activities, e.g. Gal. 5:20

So what does the ‘flesh’ mean in Paul’s vocabulary? Paul describes as ‘fleshly’ what people do when they react purely instinctively, in anger, lust, etc., acting on undisciplined desire. It’s a problem of reacting rather than responding, and the mindset that produces this behaviour.

Therefore, fleshy≠fleshly. Paul is not condemning being physical. If he meant the body by the ‘flesh’, 1 Cor. 5:5, handing the incestual guy over for the destruction of his flesh, would mean he’s wishing him dead. But that does not look like what he means. He understands every true Christian believer, himself included, to have put the ‘flesh’ to death, at least in transactional terms (Gal. 2:20; 5:24). So to be fleshly is a statement about motivation and mechanisms of behaviour, not about being embodied per se.

As if to prove that he is not advocating an extreme kind of asceticism. Therefore he renounces those who condemn or restrict eating, treat the body harshly (Col. 2:23), or forbid marriage to others (1 Tim. 4:3-4; 1 Cor. 7).

“Such regulations indeed have an appearance of wisdom, with their self-imposed worship, their false humility and their harsh treatment of the body, but they lack any value in restraining sensual indulgence” (Col. 2:23).

Asceticism can be, strangely, a kind of indulgence in itself!

Note too Paul’s eschatology of a resurrected body (1 Cor. 15:35–49; 2 Cor. 5:1–10). This is not the teaching of someone who hates the body. Indeed, for large swathes of intellectual culture in Paul’s Greco-Roman environment, the idea of an eternal future involving re-embodiment would have fallen under the 1 Corinthians banner of ways in which the message of the cross was foolishness. Who would aspire to yet further imprisonment in the body, when they looked for spiritual re-union with the Divine? Had Paul wanted to conform to the broadly Platonist kinds of cultural values of his time, physical resurrection would have been the first thing to go. In modern Christianity, we are still struggling to retrieve this part of Christian doctrine from the “souls floating on clouds” vision of post-mortem existence.

Living It Out

Natural desires are like a team of sled-dogs. They’re great in harness and pulling together. Their energy is channeled in productive directions. Once allowed to run riot off the harness, they get into the supplies, bite people, bite each other, and generally cause chaos. Like sled dogs, natural desires and instincts are great servants, but poor masters. Our appetites, egos, libidos, beverages, pharmaceuticals, wallets, social media accounts and electronic devices are not meant to rule us; we’re meant to rule them and use them as they prove useful.

The child of God finds in Christ a position of great authority. “All things are yours, …and you are Christ’s and Christ is God’s” (1 Cor. 3:21, 23; also Rom 14:4). Nothing has the authority to command us any more, other than things God has authorized (like governments, Romans 13, with all the necessary qualifications). Aside from these and from Christ, like princes and princesses, we are utterly free. Our instincts are a created thing, which makes them intended and good. They just aren’t our bosses. We have one Lord, and need to exercise the authority he delegates to us for the ordering of our personal lives.


Garland, David E. First Corinthians. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2003.
Inkelaar, Harm-Jan. Conflict over Wisdom: The Theme of 1 Corinthians 1-4 Rooted in Scripture. Leuven: Peeters, 2011.
Johnston, Leonard. “The Flesh and the Spirit.” The Way 11.2 (1971): 91–99.

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