1 Corinthians, Part 5

Every healthy man should have trouble with 1 Corinthians 7:1. I know I do. What in the world was Paul thinking when he wrote this –

Now for the matters you wrote about: “It is good for a man not to have sexual relations with a woman.”. (1 Corinthians 7:1. TNIV)

When you read a verse like this, you just know Paul must have had something else on his mind; he couldn’t have meant for any man to take it literally. Or could he? The TNIV did the right thing by placing this severe admonition in quotation marks. That means that Paul is actually quoting something he has read – specifically a sentence from a letter that prompted this letter we call 1 Corinthians. That letter from the Corinthians to Paul no longer exists. That’s too bad because it would be nice to know the details about what “matters” they wrote to the apostle about. One of the great difficulties in understanding the context of almost any letter in the New Testament is that we are reading only one side of a conversation. Reading most of the New Testament letters is like listening to one side of telephone conversation; you have to almost guess at what the other person is saying. Let’s make a few observations about the conversation between Paul and the Corinthians.

General context

The church in Corinth had a lot of problems, but to their credit they seemed to know they were in trouble and sought help from Paul. Today, we’d send an email or make a phone call to get help or advice, but back in Paul’s day, letter writing was the only mode of long distance communication available. In their letter to him, they wrote about problems they were having with some of their members. Paul replied to their letter with 1 Corinthians, answering their questions and concerns and he also dealt with additional issues he heard about concerning this church from other sources.

So, the first 6 chapters of this letter could be considered a “bonus” from Paul, in which he dealt with issues they hadn’t asked about. In the first four chapters, Paul dealt with divisions in the Corinthian church. In chapter 5 he wrote about a new morality that must replace their old morality because of their new faith in Christ. In chapter 6, the nature of Christian liberty was discussed in relation to what Christians should and shouldn’t do or eat and why.

But it isn’t until chapter 7 that Paul gets into the nitty gritty of answering their questions to him. As to what the issue was, Charles Erdman notes:

It seems certain that some in the Corinthian church regarded marriage as an absolute duty, Others considered the marriage state as an inferior moral condition, a weak concession to the flesh. Still others held that by accepting Christ, all existing social relationships, including marriage, were dissolved.

As Paul approached these three disparate views of marriage within the Corinthian church, he approached them from the practical standpoint, not the moral point of view. In our culture today, we view almost everything from an emotional point of view – feelings are exalted and emotions are given far more weight than objective truths. That’s why so many Christians misunderstand Paul’s teachings here in chapter 7. He’s being practical. He is not being emotional or romantic. That’s why you don’t read the word “love” anywhere in chapter 7, even though the chapter is all about marriage!

The truth is, however, Paul had a very lofty view of marriage. In Ephesians 5:22 – 28, he used marriage as an illustration of the relationship between Christ and the Church.

Wives, submit yourselves to your own husbands as you do to the Lord. For the husband is the head of the wife as Christ is the head of the church, his body, of which he is the Savior. Now as the church submits to Christ, so also wives should submit to their husbands in everything. Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her to make her holy, cleansing her by the washing with water through the word, and to present her to himself as a radiant church, without stain or wrinkle or any other blemish, but holy and blameless. In this same way, husbands ought to love their wives as their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself.

But here with the Corinthians, Paul cuts right to the chase, being as blunt as he could, as he sought to straighten these people out.

Abstinence: Not necessarily good

There were some in the Corinthian church, probably Greeks, who had come to view marriage, and in particular sex within marriage, as a concession to the flesh. In other words, if a Christian were strong enough, he wouldn’t need to get married because he would be able to control his sexual desires. That’s the idea behind the sentence in quotes in 7:1. In fact, while Paul was in all likelihood quoting from their letter, they themselves were probably quoting from a popular Corinthian philosophy. Paul put the kibosh on this philosophy –

But since sexual immorality is occurring, each man should have sexual relations with his own wife, and each woman with her own husband. (1 Corinthians 7:2. TNIV)

That’s an interesting response to their question. Basically, Paul told spouses to have sex with their own spouses (and by implication, not with somebody else’s spouse!). What was the “sexual immorality” taking place in Corinth? The whole culture was sexual in nature. Even the pagan religions were all about sex, and in particular sex with the temple prostitutes. No doubt there were some (hopefully not many) married men in the Corinthian church that took trips to the local pagan temple to indulge their sexual desires. You can see how both of these odd religious and philosophical ideas could cause trouble in the church. So in a single verse, Paul made it clear that Christian couples should only have ONE spouse, not several, and they should be having sex only with that one spouse.

The wife does not have authority over her own body but yields it to her husband. In the same way, the husband does not have authority over his own body but yields it to his wife. (1 Corinthians 7:4. TNIV)

Paul actually did women a great service here. In this time, women, and wives in particular, were viewed as possessions, not people and certainly not life partners. Paul elevated the status of women. The Corinthians were not to live or love like the pagans around them and a Christian husband needed to be aware of the needs – all the needs – of his wife! You could probably hear a pin drop as this part of the letter was read aloud in the Corinthian church. At a time when women were considered as slightly more than nothing, what Paul wrote was a stunning, revolutionary departure from the norm. To these men in the Corinthian church, the idea that they had an obligation to meet any needs, but especially the sexual needs of their wives must have been hard to swallow, having been steeped in cultures (Jewish and Greek) that exalted men and disregarded women.

And the wacky idea that “men shouldn’t have sex with women,” is all but destroyed. Paul does make one “concession,” though. If you’re going to abstain, do it for only a single reason: a spiritual one.

Do not deprive each other except perhaps by mutual consent and for a time, so that you may devote yourselves to prayer. Then come together again so that Satan will not tempt you because of your lack of self-control. (1 Corinthians 7:5. TNIV)

The idea of abstaining from sexual relations with one’s spouse for any reason other than carrying out God’s will is done away with.

A gift nobody wants

I wish that all of you were as I am. But each of you has your own gift from God; one has this gift, another has that. (1 Corinthians 7:7. TNIV)

Here is “practical Paul” writing. There are two ways of interpreting this verse. The first one says that Paul was unmarried, and his wish was that all Christians would remain unmarried. The “gift” Paul referred to here was the gift of remaining single for a lifetime. This interpretation says that being married is the natural state and that being single in the gift. That may be the case. The other interpretation says that Paul is referring to his ability to completely control his sexual desires. He saw this ability as a gift from God that, unfortunately, not all believers have been given. So his wish, then, was not that all Christians should be single but rather all Christians be able to control themselves. Yet he recognizes that this ability is very difficult for some. I prefer this second interpretation; it seems more natural to his argument.

Unmarried and widows

Now to the unmarried and the widows I say: It is good for them to stay unmarried, as I do. But if they cannot control themselves, they should marry, for it is better to marry than to burn with passion. (1 Corinthians 7:8, 9. TNIV)

Here is more practical advice: for unmarried (or single) people and widows, it’s better to marry than to burn with passion. That’s actually a good way to translate verse 9. If certain Christians – in this case, single people and widows – are really, really, really wanting to get married, then they should. If people lack the gift Paul had (the gift to control his sexual desires) then they should go ahead and get married.

Now, we understand that Paul is addressing one church and at a particular point in time. He’s not writing to your church or to you personally. He’s addressing a strange situation that arose in the Corinthian church, a church riddled with problems, including problems of a sexual nature. To encourage people to marry just so they can have sex would be irresponsible, although that itself is one factor to consider. Is it a major factor? I guess that depends on how passionate a couple may or may not be. But this goes back to what Paul wrote a few verses back: each spouse should make sure the other’s sexual needs are being met.

Married people: Christians

To the married I give this command (not I, but the Lord): A wife must not separate from her husband. But if she does, she must remain unmarried or else be reconciled to her husband. And a husband must not divorce his wife. (1 Corinthians 7:10, 11. TNIV)

Paul next set his sights on the married folks in the Corinthian church. The wives are addressed first, but that may be because in that church (not in your church, necessarily), wives were the ones ready to pack their bags and leave their husbands. This is not Paul’s teaching on divorce and remarriage, but rather his advice flowed from Christ’s views on divorce and remarriage; Paul simply applied it to the situation in Corinth at that time. Christian Corinthian wives shouldn’t leave their husbands, but if they do they need to (1) come back and be reconciled to their poor husbands, or (2) stay unmarried.

The Christian Corinthian husband also had an equal obligation to his marriage. The big problem in Corinth was that divorce was free and easy, as it was in all cities under Roman rule. Roman law made divorces easy to get and Jewish law made divorces easy to get as well. So, you think marriage is in danger in 21st century America! In first century Corinth marriages were viewed as temporary arrangements, even in the church.

Mixed marriages

In spite of the now-well known saw, “do not be unequally yoked,” apparently there was large contingent of the Corinthian church that was. Probably these mixed marriages were the result of one spouse converting to Christ while the other spouse remained unsaved. In such cases, there was a teaching that said the believing spouse is not bound to remain married to the unbeliever. What a minute, declared Paul! That’s not right! His advice is based on this –

God has called us to live in peace. (1 Corinthians 7:15b. TNIV)

His advice concerning these mixed marriages was simple: Stay together as long as you can live at peace with your unbelieving spouse. The reason?

How do you know, wife, whether you will save your husband? Or, how do you know, husband, whether you will save your wife? (1 Corinthians 7:16. TNIV)

Paul is nothing if not pratical, even in matters of the heart.

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