Flesh: what Paul meant when he used the word ‘sarx’ (Psst! — he wasn’t being sex-negative)

Ballet dancers in a ballroom. The man has his bare back to the camera holding the woman. She wraps her arms calmly around his body. She has blonde hair and is wearing dark red. The colour contrasts against the monochrome background of the room. Text: "Flesh: what Paul really meant when he used the word ‘sarx’ (Psst! — he wasn’t being sex-negative)"

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I reckon one of the biggest chasms between Christian thought and sex-positive thinking comes down to how we understand the word “flesh” in the New Testament. Or in the Greek, σαρξ.

The word appears 147 times and in the NIVUK translation it gets rendered 53 times as either “flesh” or “body”, 23 times as “sinful nature”, and a further 58 times with other meanings, translated either on its own or in conjunction with other words. These uses refer to something associated with humanity or earthliness, ranging from neutral terms like “human ancestry” to loaded terms like “perversion”. (And untranslated 13 times for those who want the maths.)[1]

Of the times that sarx is rendered as flesh or body, the context is often negative, emphasising weakness or mortality.

What’s more, the NIVUK repeatedly translates sarx as ‘flesh’ in Galatians 5.  That’s the passage where Paul writes this:

19 The acts of the flesh are obvious: sexual immorality, impurity and debauchery; 20 idolatry and witchcraft; hatred, discord, jealousy, fits of rage, selfish ambition, dissensions, factions 21 and envy; drunkenness, orgies, and the like. I warn you, as I did before, that those who live like this will not inherit the kingdom of God. (NIVUK)

Upshot: it’s very, very easy to come away from the New Testament thinking that flesh is bad, bodies are bad, and anything to do physical pleasure is very, very bad. This is particularly the case for Paul, whose letters account for 20 of the 23 times sarx is translated as “sinful nature”.

But what was Paul’s intention?

Where I first heard the word ‘flesh’

My first encounter with this word in a theological context was reading a children’s picture version of John Bunyan’s allegory The Pilgrim’s Progress. We hear about the story of Faithful who meets a man, Adam the First, who dwells in the town of Deceit (hint: he’s a villain). Adam says he has three daughters: Lust of the flesh, Lust of the eyes, and Pride of Life.

I had enough savvy to realise that these three must be bad. I also clicked that the three names were a Bible reference, but didn’t know where from and I certainly didn’t know what they meant. I guessed that “Lust of the eyes” was something to do with wanting bad things you can see (like money), “lust of the flesh” was wanting bad things with your body (like too much food) and “pride of life”… no, I had no clue about the third.

The three names are actually a reference to 1 John 2:15-17 – not that that makes them any more easily decipherable. John is warning his readers to stay away from things of “the world” including these three. Given that it’s John writing here, he could be talking about three different things or just one thing using three slightly different turns of phrase. It’s John — John does the poetic.

But all this paved the way for how I later understood the word ‘flesh’ in Paul’s letters. Flesh had to be bad. Because the lusts of the flesh were bad. And because flesh is about body… then the body is bad and what the body wants is bad. Especially when it comes to sex.

Except… no.

Equating sarx/flesh with bodies is a mistake.

In English, the idea of ‘flesh and blood’ has a meaning strongly linked to our bodies. However, the Greek word for body is ‘soma’ and it gets used 142 times in the New Testament, much more consistently translated as body/ies (129 times). So if we want a theology of our bodies, we have to reckon with how Paul used the word ‘soma’ — and he often used that word in a positive way.

Also, Paul used sarx broadly. Sometimes he meant it along the lines of kinship or blood relation; take Romans 1:3 where Jesus is descended from David ‘according to the flesh’. Other times it was about weakness and frailty, often his own (“As you know, it was because of an illness that I first preached the gospel to you”; Galatians 4:13, where sarx is used with other words).

The strongest times though when Paul used sarx, he talked about the flesh being opposed to the Holy Spirit (Romans 8:13-24, Galatians 5:13-24).[2] And I reckon this is where the confusion comes from.

We might think that the dualism is a contrast between the tangible and the intangible, but it’s not. Really truly, you might have been told a thousand times that it was, but this is absolutely, definitely not about our souls/spirits being good and our bodies bad.

Rather, when Paul pits the Spirit against the flesh, he’s saying the things that come from God are opposed to the things that come from sin.

But our bodies are not inherently sinful!

Creation is good – that’s Genesis 101. (Or rather, Genesis chapter 1.) Creation in involves bodies. Bodies are good.

Yes, I know that Adam and Eve ate the forbidden fruit, but that doesn’t mean that God now hates bodies or that bodies are irredeemably corrupt.

The whole point of Jesus’ physical, tangible resurrection was to demonstrate that God can save people and their bodies from death and decay. It’s because Paul thought highly of bodies that he kept referring to the church as the body of Christ.

Sure, as they currently are, our bodies have the problem of being mortal — they age and die. But bodies are good, were always meant to be good and will become imperishably and everlastingly good at the resurrection of the dead.

At least, that’s what Paul believed[3] (and I do too).

So if flesh doesn’t mean ‘body’, then what does it mean?

We need to appreciate that Paul’s worldview pretty much splits everything into two buckets: the things that are eternal and the things that are perishable.

His underlying understanding of ‘flesh’ is that it is perishable.[4]

When we hold that in mind, we can understand why Paul would use the word ‘flesh’ to speak of several quite different areas of his theology.

When it comes to our our current (pre-resurrection) corporeal existence (2 Corinthians 7:5) this is perishable. That is, our flesh and blood are subject to ageing, death and decay.

When it comes to the works, customs and worship of the Mosaic covenant, such as circumcision (Galatians 6:12-13), these have effect, but only for so long. They’re not bad or sinful, but they don’t last forever.

As for sin itself – again, it will not, cannot last forever. So, again, we can see why Paul would use the word ‘sarx’ when he writes about the pridefulness of all creation to the extent that it stands in opposition to God (Galatians 5:16-24, Romans 8:1-13).  It’s this use of sarx that the NIVUK translates as the ‘sinful nature’ — whether it’s Paul writing, or John.

But what about the LUST of the flesh?

Let me be very clear. The word ‘lust’ gets used with different meanings, depending on who you talk to.

Sometimes it gets used simply to mean ‘desire’.

In the King James Version of the Bible (and the NKJV), Paul’s letter to the Galatians talks about the “lust” of the flesh as well as the “lust” of the Spirit — as in, Holy Spirit. It’s a morally neutral term and it doesn’t mean sexual desire. If you look at the passage as a whole, or even just Galatians 5:16-24, this should be pretty obvious because the Holy Spirit also ‘lusts’!

I’ll grant you, a good many of the practices Paul lists in this passage are ones we also associate with bad sex, but Paul wasn’t trying to write about sex.

Instead, he was drawing on traditional Jewish thought to condemn the three hallmark practices that Jews associated with unbelieving Gentiles: sexual immorality, idolatry, and witchcraft.

And before we jump to conclusions about what this might mean for our lives today, let’s remember Paul’s cultural context. In Ancient Rome there were all kinds of sexual practices that were ritualised, non-consensual and, well, very harmful. Here’s a Wikipedia link where you can read more, but fair warning it’s pretty graphic stuff.

Yes, I know there’s a debate to be had (and is already in progress) about whether Paul would indeed be opposed to all forms of consensual sex that takes place outside cis-hetero-monogamous marriage as we know them today. But I don’t want to go into that right now.

Rather, my point is this: when Paul is (translated as) condemning the ‘lusts’ of ‘the flesh’, we shouldn’t understand this to be either sex-negative or body-negative. Instead, he was talking about the things that in his worldview were fundamentally corrupting.

But bodies and sexual responses were not on that list.

Concluding thoughts

I am well aware that sex can be weaponised into a potent vehicle for false worship. But it’s not fair to say that sex and/or the enjoyment of sex is inherently bad. Neither is it fair to say that enjoyment of bodily experiences is necessarily ‘of the flesh’ and therefore also bad. Tangibility is good.

Christians sometimes doubt this is because they see spirituality as good and mistakenly think that the ‘spiritual’ is necessarily intangible.

No.

When Paul talks about ‘spiritual’ things, he’s talking about things that come from the Holy Spirit and hence are powered by the Holy Spirit. These things may or may not be tangible. They may or may not be part of who we are as human beings. And they may or may not relate to our sex lives.

The thing to remember is that imperishability or being everlasting is what makes the ‘spiritual’ different from the ordinary and/or the sinful. In the New Testament, Paul referred to both the ordinary and the sinful when he talked about the ‘flesh’, whilst very conscious of his own physical limitations. But that doesn’t make him body-negative.

The hope of the Christian faith is not that we all abandon our bodies for some ethereal existence where we’ve supposedly matured beyond the enjoyment of sex. Instead, we believe that the one who made us — sexual organs and all — will call us out of death, vindicate our bodies, and give us an everlasting life.

What exactly that will look like? God only knows. But make no mistake, the best is yet to come.

 


If you liked this, you might enjoy An open letter to my pro-porn friend: ethic impossible? or my summary of what great sex is all about in The key to lifelong sex? Get the right advice.

For more in-depth (and longer!) posts:

Masturbation: Can you separate lust from pleasure? This looks in more detail at how bodies are good, how our bodies work, and what lust is and isn’t. My views have shifted a little since I wrote it, but it largely still stands.

Let’s talk about that Deuteronomy 22 law where a girl marries her rapist. Because it’s not about marriage or sex. This one takes a very deep dive into one of the most uncomfortable Old Testament laws and I argue that the law only makes sense when viewed from the perspective of ‘honour’ based violence. Amongst other things, this challenges the validity of marriage-centric sex ethics.

 


[1] Zondervan NIV Exhaustive concordance (1999: Zondervan Publishing House, Michigan). Note that this concordance works from the 1984 translation of the NIVUK, whereas sites like Biblegateway.com use the 2011 translation.

[2] See Paula Gooder, p65, Body: biblical spirituality for the whole person (2016: SPCK)

[3] As Paula Gooder puts it in Body, p69: “Over the years some people have understood Paul to be saying here that we wait for redemption from our bodies. This all fits in with a view that sees resurrection bodies as ‘spiritual’ and not ‘physical’. Such a reading does not, as far as I can see, fit either with the rest of Romans 8 (especially vv. 10–13) or indeed with the sweep of what Paul is saying in 1 Corinthians 15. Paul’s vision seems clearly to me to be of a future embodiment in real bodies. We do not look forward to redemption from our bodies but to the redemption of our bodies; a redemption into an existence no longer marked by the limitations of mortal flesh.”

[4] This is my deduction/understanding after reading about Paul’s worldview. I’ve forgotten where I first read that Paul said everything was either “of this age” (and passing away) or “of the age to come” (and eternal). In all likelihood, it was either Tom Wright in Surprised by Hope (SPCK: 2007) or Paula Gooder in Body.

2 thoughts on “Flesh: what Paul meant when he used the word ‘sarx’ (Psst! — he wasn’t being sex-negative)

  1. Very interesting well researched post. I’ve grown up in the church and struggled to reconcile my desires with what i believed the word said. Much for the reasons you’ve talked about, my understanding that the flesh (wanting sex outside the standard mon/marriage pairing) was bad. It led to years of mental struggle. Great write up.

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