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I see several ways to understand the meaning of Paul's phrase "all things are lawful" in 1 Cor 6:12 and 1 Cor 10:23. "Lawful" could refer to:

  1. Things not specifically forbidden in the Bible; one doesn't assume those are sin.​ Thus all has a limited sense, referring to non-sinful things.
  2. Things that are sin, but people in the ​​unbelieving world approve​ of them.​ This is supported by 1 Cor 6:1-2: the locals think it's fine to settle disputes in court (a law court, mind you), but saints should have a whole different perspective.​
  3. Things that were sin because of the power of the Law; in ​​Ch​​rist that power is broken, the offense is removed, so nothing is "unlawful".​

Grosheide's commentary1 takes the first view. A quick check on the Internet shows general agreement on this view.

I'd like to know if another view can be supported. (It's easy to marshal arguments for the first view, so there is no need to labor there too much.)

In considering alternative approaches, I am not contrarian, nor antinomian. I simply don't want to overlook any possibility that could, in fact, accord with Paul's original argument. As a parenthetical note, we can feel pretty sure Paul is making use of a known expression. Therefore we wish we knew who was using it and how. This uncertainty about the context presses us to a more thorough consideration that may include some less-obvious angles.


1 F.W. Grosheide. Commentary on the First Epistle to the Corinthians (Eerdmans, 1953).

  • I added a citation to Grosheide's commentary, but if you could add a page number (or range) that would also be helpful for those who wish to reference Grosheide's claim for themselves. Thank you – Dan Aug 29 '16 at 1:27
  • This phrase, "all things are lawful" is not Pauls, but the Gnostics of Corinth. I may submit a full answer later. Good question. – brewpixels Sep 29 '16 at 14:58
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In answer to your question of whether any view other than the first you cite can be argued in interpreting Paul's statement, "All things are lawful, but not all things are expedient" ...

In looking through the writings of the Church Fathers, it seems that many different interpretations are argued.

Irenaeus interprets 1 Corinthians 6:12 as referring to man's free will:

No doubt, if any one is unwilling to follow the Gospel itself, it is in his power [to reject it], but it is not expedient. For it is in man’s power to disobey God, and to forfeit what is good; but [such conduct] brings no small amount of injury and mischief. And on this account Paul says, All things are lawful to me, but all things are not expedient; referring both to the liberty of man, in which respect all things are lawful, God exercising no compulsion in regard to him; and [by the expression] not expedient pointing out that we “should not use our liberty as a cloak of maliciousness [1 Peter 2:16] for this is not expedient.

- Against Heresies, IV.XXXVII.4

Augustine and John Chrysostom relate the verse to temperance:

“For all things are lawful for me,” he says; “but I will not be brought under the power of any.” Thus many do not eat flesh, and yet do not superstitiously regard it as unclean. And so the same people who abstain when in health take it when unwell without any fear, if it is required as a cure. Many drink no wine; but they do not think that wine defiles them; for they cause it to be given with the greatest propriety and moderation to people of languid temperament, and, in short, to all who cannot have bodily health without it.

- Augustine, On the Morals of the Catholic Church, Chapter XXXIII

For injustice consists not merely in grasping at more wealth than belongs to us, but in giving to the belly more than its needful sustenance, in carrying mirth beyond its proper bounds, and causing it to run into frantic excesses. From the one, it learns sobriety; from the other, unchastity. For it is unchastity, not merely to have carnal intercourse with women, but even to look upon a woman with unchaste eyes. From the one, it learns modesty; from the other, conceited self-importance. For, “All things,” says the Apostle, “are lawful for me, but not all things expedient.” (1 Cor. 6:12.) From the one, decent behavior; from the other unseemliness.

- John Chrysostom, Homily V on the Acts of the Apostles

Chrysostom re-iterates the theme of temperance the Homily relating to this particular verse:

It cannot be that he speaks thus with regard to things forbidden, such not being “lawful:” but of things which seem to be indifferent. To illustrate my meaning: “It is lawful,” he says, “to eat and to drink; but it is not expedient with excess.” And so that marvellous and unexpected turn of his, which he is often wont to adopt; (Cf. Rom. 12:21; 1 Cor. 7:23) bringing his argument clear round to its contrary, this he manages to introduce here also; and he signifies that to do what is in one’s power not only is not expedient, but even is not a part of power, but of slavery.

Homily XVII on the First Epistle to the Corinthians

Jerome has a curious (to me) interpretation of the verse in his Letter to the Widow Furia, where he cautions her not to conclude that because something seems pleasant to her, that it must somehow be "lawful":

Avoid the company of young men. Let long haired youths dandified and wanton never be seen under your roof. Repel a singer as you would some bane. Hurry from your house women who live by playing and singing, the devil’s choir whose songs are the fatal ones of sirens. Do not arrogate to yourself a widow’s license and appear in public preceded by a host of eunuchs. It is a most mischievous thing for those who are weak owing to their sex and youth to misuse their own discretion and to suppose that things are lawful because they are pleasant. “All things are lawful, but all things are not expedient."

Basil the Great relates the verse to exercising discretion in Spiritual matters:

You will not love your kinsfolk more than the Lord. “He that loveth,” He says, “father, or mother, or brother, more than me, is not worthy of me.” What is the meaning of the Lord’s commandment? “He that taketh not up his cross and followeth after me, cannot be my disciple?” If, together with Christ, you died to your kinsfolk according to the flesh, why do you wish to live with them again? If for your kinsfolk’s sake you are building up again what you destroyed for Christ’s sake, you make yourself a transgressor. Do not then for your kinsfolk’s sake abandon your place: if you abandon your place, perhaps you will abandon your mode of life. Love not the crowd, nor the country, nor the town; love the desert, ever abiding by yourself with no wandering mind, regarding prayer and praise as your life’s work. Never neglect reading, especially of the New Testament, because very frequently mischief comes of reading the Old; not because what is written is harmful, but because the minds of the injured are weak. All bread is nutritious, but it may be injurious to the sick. Just so all Scripture is God inspired and profitable, and there is nothing in it unclean: only to him who thinks it is unclean, to him it is unclean. “Prove all things; hold fast that which is good; abstain from every form of evil.” “All things are lawful but all things are not expedient.”

Ambrose discusses the verse in the context of avoiding avarice:

But we do not reckon usefulness by the value of any gain in money, but in acquiring godliness, as the Apostle says: “But godliness is profitable unto all things, having promise of the life that now is, and of that which is to come.” Thus in the holy Scriptures, if we look carefully we shall often find that what is virtuous is called useful: “All things are lawful unto me, but all things are not profitable” [useful]. Before that he was speaking of vices, and so means: It is lawful to sin, but it is not seemly. Sins rest in one’s own power, but they are not virtuous. To live wantonly is easy, but it is not right.

On the Duties of the Clergy, II.VI.23

Leo the Great seems to be writing in the vein of your 2nd option in his response to the Question, "Concerning those who have professed repentance, if they begin to go to law in the forum":

To demand just debts is indeed one thing and to think nothing of one’s own property from the perfection of love is another. But one who craves pardon for unlawful doings ought to abstain even from many things that are lawful, as says the Apostle, “all things are lawful for me, but all things are not expedient.” Hence, if the penitent has a matter which perchance he ought not to neglect, it is better for him to have recourse to the judgment of the Church than of the forum.

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  • Thank you for this comprehensive review from history. I have not formally accepted your answer in the hope there will be another contribution focusing more on exegesis. – Smandoli Apr 7 '17 at 18:29
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Let's look at context to derive an answer: 1Cor 6:5 I speak to your shame. Is it so, that there is not a wise man among you? no, not one that shall be able to JUDGE between his brethren?

6 But brother goeth to LAW with brother, and that before the unbelievers.

7 Now therefore there is utterly a fault among you, because ye go to LAW one with another. Why do ye not rather take wrong? why do ye not rather suffer yourselves to be defrauded?

8 Nay, ye do wrong, and defraud, and that your brethren.

9 Know ye not that the unrighteous shall not inherit the kingdom of God? Be not deceived: neither fornicators, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor effeminate, nor abusers of themselves with mankind,

10 Nor thieves, nor covetous, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor extortioners, shall inherit the kingdom of God.

11 And such were some of you: but ye are washed, but ye are sanctified, but ye are justified in the name of the Lord Jesus, and by the Spirit of our God.

12 All things are LAWful unto me, but all things are not expedient: all things are LAWful for me, but I will not be brought under the power of any.

Paul is dealing with the church in Corinth who are brothers going to LAW with brother, and that before the unbelievers. Can a Christian take a fellow brother to judgement before a heathen non-christian, anti-christians judge or judiciary? Yes it is lawful in Rome and most any where to do so.

Is that expedient for the brother or the church? No. Why, because the judiciary in focus is ungodly, they are not of the kingdom of God. Because this judiciary is of another kingdom with another kingdom law, this judiciary (as in the now no -christian west) are made up of : fornicators, idolaters, adulterers, effeminate, abusers of themselves with mankind, thieves, covetous, drunkards, revilers, extortioners, there don't inherit the kingdom of God. So why would Christians want to be judged by those who aren't citizens of the kingdom of God? Not expedient for the Gospel at all.

And again, in context and as a common theme : 1Cor 10:21 Ye cannot drink the cup of the Lord, and the cup of devils: ye cannot be partakers of the Lord's table, and of the table of devils.

22 Do we provoke the Lord to jealousy? are we stronger than he?

23 All things are lawful for me, but all things are not expedient: all things are lawful for me, but all things edify not.

24 Let no man seek his own, but every man another's wealth.

Notice in this is as well dealing with expedience for your brother, even as Chapter 10 continues, it is the Christian's aim to edify his brother according to Paul. So why wouldn't one eat an idols offering even if it is food lawful for a Christian who knows and believes there is only one God and that idols are nothing? Here is why not: v.33 Even as I please all men in all things, not seeking mine own profit, but the profit of many, that they may be saved.

I hope this Context helps

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