1 Corinthians 6:12. “’Everything is permissible for me’—but not everything is beneficial. ‘Everything is permissible for me’—but I will not be mastered by anything.”
Paul is arguing against a popular saying in Corinth at the time that many within the church seem to have taken as gospel truth (pun intended). He does not deny the saying contains some truth, but he argues that it goes against the very heart of the gospel. Paul agrees that because Christ has fulfilled the law, “everything is permissible” for us as individuals. In Galatians Paul likens the law to a harsh taskmaster or tutor who led us to Christ, but now no longer has authority over us. “Therefore the Law has become our tutor to lead us to Christ, so that we may be justified by faith. But now that faith has come, we are no longer under a tutor.” (Galatians 3:24-25) Many Corinthian Christians were taking this newfound liberty too far though – even having sex with temple prostitutes!
Think about it: if every individual had total freedom to do whatever he/she wanted, then no one would have any freedom. For example, if I believe that I have complete freedom to swing my arms as hard as I want and in whatever direction I want, then your freedom to come within arm’s length of me without get hit in the face would be denied. If you felt that you had the freedom to take anything I owned without asking, then my freedom to own property would be negated. Anarchy sounds great on paper, but in practice, it brings more bondage rather than freedom.
Rather than “everything” being about “me” and my freedom, Paul shows us a new principle to live by. No longer are we bound by the law and its rigid rules; now we are free to limit our freedom for the benefit of others. Notice Paul does not say “not everything is beneficial for me.” Paul repeats this verse (6:12) almost verbatim in 10:23 and clarifies whose benefit should be considered. “Nobody should seek his own good, but the good of others.” (10:24) In other words, as Christians we should think of others before we do something. If it benefits me, but hurts others, then I should avoid causing them harm. For example, because I am free in Christ, I have the freedom to drink alcohol in moderation. However, if my friend is an alcoholic, it would be harmful to him if I asked him to go to the bar with me and have a few beers. Therefore I should limit my freedom to drink for the benefit my alcoholic friend so that he can stay sober. I am certainly free to drink alcohol, but my friend and I are freer if I choose to limit my freedom for the benefit of my friend.
In the past I have given my translation or paraphrase to help you understand what the author intended, but this time I will borrow heavily from Anthony C. Thiselton’s paraphrase in the NIGTC because it best shows the wordplay Paul intended in this verse. My additions are in italics.
I have “liberty to do all things,” but not all things are helpful or beneficial. I have “liberty to do all things,” but I will not let anything take liberties with me.
The last phrase is powerful. Rather than getting carried away with our individual liberty and rights, Paul is urging us to think of others to be truly free. Absolute freedom without any regard for others leads to my liberty taking liberties with me. Liberty would become my taskmaster, governing all of my actions to the exclusion of others. In order to be freer, we should limit our freedom so that others can be free. As Paul says in 10:33, “For I am not seeking my own good but the good of many, so that they may be saved.”