This text is a very interesting one. The apostle Paul wrote that all things are lawful but not helpful. All things are lawful, he further states, but he adds “I will not be dominated by anything.” This itself is not all that interesting itself since Paul wrote in other places that we are no longer under law but grace (Rom. 6:14; Gal. 5:18; c.f. Gal. 3:19-4:7).
So, Paul saying that all things are lawful is not that strange. What is strange, though, is the location of this statement. The context surrounding it gives indications that this statement is not of Paul but an interlocutor. Paul is writing in a diatribe fashion. This all means that he has an imagined, or possibly real, objector that he is allowing to ask a question and then he answers.
Craig Keener says about this, “Paul cites the opinion of an imaginary opponent similar to that of his readers, and then refutes or qualifies it” (IVP Bible Background Commentary NT, 472). I believe that this is exactly what is going on in this passage. I say this because of the context.
The context immediately surrounding this passage is of sexual immorality. This and believers taking other believers to court over grievances. Paul has spent the last several paragraphs and all of chapter five correcting the immoral actions of the Corinthians. But before this we see him correcting many other bad behaviors of them.
In the first chapter, he is setting out to correct them over divisions in the church (1:10-17). He, in this section, also is correcting them on their false following of the one who baptized them. Paul explains that this is not near as important as the reason for the baptism. That reason is that they are saved by Jesus Christ alone and not the one who baptized.
He then explains to them the power of the gospel and Christ crucified and how important this is (1:18-2:16). Then he gets back into church divisions again in chapter three and the ministry that the apostles left them and how they should follow it in chapter four.
It seems clear that the immediate and surrounding context, which leads to proper actions for marriage in chapter seven, is of teaching and correcting immoral and bad behaviors in the church. Since this is the case, Paul is not telling the Corinthians that all things are lawful. He is taking a saying that obviously they believed and is correcting it.
Another reason for believing this is because of what he has written in Romans before. In Romans chapter six we see Paul saying, “What then? Are we to sin because we are not under law but under grace? By no means! Do you not know that if you present yourselves to anyone as obedient slaves, you are slaves of the one whom you obey, either of sin, which leads to death, or of obedience, which leads to righteousness? But thanks be to God, that you who were once slaves of sin have become obedient from the heart to the standard of teaching to which you were committed, and, having been set free from sin, have become slaves of righteousness” (6:15-18). Just because we are under grace does not mean that we can do anything we want to do. We have been forgiven and have everlasting life that we cannot lose, but we are not free to just live how we want to. Oh, we can, but we will receive punishment and discipline from the Lord (c.f. 1 Cor. 11:32; Heb. 12:4-6; 11; Rev. 3:19).
Paul does teach that we have freedom in the Lord. That we have Christian liberty and are free to do many things that the law had bound and did not allow (c.f. Rom. 14:12-16; Col. 2:11-23). Yet, he also teaches that we are not to cause another to stumble (Rom. 14:1-11; 15:1-6; Gal. 5:13-15).
It seems that Paul was not telling the Corinthians that everything is lawful. No, it seems that he was using a saying of theirs that was used to excuse immoral and bad behavior and correcting it. Paul knew and taught that believers were free in Christ and have liberty. But even though he did he did not teach that they can do whatever they want all the time. There are things that we are free to do but it can be bad for another. If it is we must not do it lest we cause them to stumble.
But there are many things that we are not free to do. Sexual immorality and being derogatory toward other believers and division over silly nonsensical things are a few of which we are not free to do. We are free in Christ, free from the law and the power of sin, but not free to behave however we want. That is not what this text is about. As we have seen it is about the rejection of that teaching because many, many, many things are not good or edifying for you or the body of believers. Those are the things that are not helpful and they are the things we must not be dominated by.