Question: "What does it mean that 'all things are lawful unto me' (1 Corinthians 6:12; 10:23)?"
Answer: Twice in his first letter to the Corinthian church, Paul uses the statement “all things are lawful unto me” (KJV), once in 1 Corinthians 6:12 and again in 1 Corinthians 10:23. In both instances, the apostle is warning the church against misusing Christian liberty. We’ll take a look at both passages in their immediate context.
In 1 Corinthians 6, Paul is finishing up his address of several specific sins the Corinthian believers were tolerating: some church members were taking advantage of each other in court (verses 1–8), and others were practicing immorality (verses 12–20). In this context, the apostle says, “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” (verse 12, KJV). In this verse, Paul seems to be anticipating an argument from those who justified their sin in the name of “Christian liberty.” His point is that liberty has limitations. He moves right into proofs that sexual immorality is at odds with the Christian life, and no amount of “Christian liberty” can excuse it.
The NIV translation of 1 Corinthians 6:12 brings out more clearly the idea that Paul is quoting those who objected to his reprimand: “‘I have the right to do anything,’ you say—but not everything is beneficial. ‘I have the right to do anything’—but I will not be mastered by anything.” It seems that some within the Corinthian church were using “I have the right to do anything” as a mantra, repeating it whenever they were questioned about their behavior. Paul responds to their mantra by adding his own clauses: “but not everything is beneficial” and “but I will not be mastered by anything.” Even if all things were lawful, not everything should be done, and nothing should be allowed to enslave us as a sinful habit.
In 1 Corinthians 10, the issue is eating meats offered to idols. Paul again turns to the mantra of the Corinthians: “All things are lawful for me, but all things are not expedient: all things are lawful for me, but all things edify not” (verse 23, KJV). He then goes on to make the case that eating meat sold in the marketplace is not wrong in itself; however, if eating meat offered to idols caused anyone to stumble, then that activity becomes wrong.
The NIV words 1 Corinthians 10:23 this way: “‘I have the right to do anything,’ you say—but not everything is beneficial. ‘I have the right to do anything’—but not everything is constructive.” So, Christian liberty is limited by at least two considerations: 1) what is the effect of this action upon oneself? and 2) what influence will this action have on “Jews, Greeks or the church of God” as a whole (verse 32)? Our goal must be to seek “the good of others” (verse 24), not just our own good (cf. verse 33).
Christian liberty was a major theme of Paul’s (see Galatians 5:1). So it is quite possible that the Corinthians’ mantra, “All things are lawful unto me,” was originally Paul’s teaching to that church. But the church was ignoring the limitations that love for others and holiness before God place on liberty. The Christian cannot live in sin and, when confronted, shrug and say, “All things are lawful unto me, because Paul said so.” No believer has the right to knowingly cause someone to fall into sin and excuse it with the catchphrase “I have the right to do anything.” Christian liberty ceases to be “Christian” and becomes libertinism when we engage in acts of immorality or fail to truly love one another.
First Corinthians 10:31 sums up the matter well: “So whether you eat or drink or whatever you do, do it all for the glory of God.”