MDR: 1 Corinthians 7, Part 1

With these concepts in mind, we now need to take up the New Testament’s central passage on marriage and divorce, 1 Corinthians 7.

Oddly, most discussions of these doctrines begin with Jesus’ statements in Matthew 5 or Matthew 19. I say “oddly” because Jesus in these passages was specifically commenting on Deuteronomy 24 — the Law of Moses. Jesus, of course, was speaking to Jews who at the time were subject to the Law of Moses. Much of what Jesus said is important for Christians — but we make a serious mistake if we try to start with a commentary on the Law of Moses.

We’ll come back to these (and other passages) after we’ve considered the one passage that most directly addresses divorce of Christians.

(1 Cor. 7:1) Now for the matters you wrote about: It is good for a man not to marry.[1]

Now here is the key to understanding this chapter. Paul repeatedly comments in 1 Corinthians 7 on his desire for Christians — virgins, widows, and the divorced — to remain unmarried. Indeed, Paul says that he wishes everyone was single, as was Paul:

7 I wish that all men were as I am. But each man has his own gift from God; one has this gift, another has that. 8 Now to the unmarried and the widows I say: It is good for them to stay unmarried, as I am. 9 But if they cannot control themselves, they should marry, for it is better to marry than to burn with passion. …

25 Now about virgins: I have no command from the Lord, but I give a judgment as one who by the Lord’s mercy is trustworthy. 26 Because of the present crisis, I think that it is good for you to remain as you are. 27 Are you married? Do not seek a divorce. Are you unmarried? Do not look for a wife. …

32 I would like you to be free from concern. An unmarried man is concerned about the Lord’s affairs-how he can please the Lord. 33 But a married man is concerned about the affairs of this world-how he can please his wife-34 and his interests are divided. An unmarried woman or virgin is concerned about the Lord’s affairs: Her aim is to be devoted to the Lord in both body and spirit. But a married woman is concerned about the affairs of this world-how she can please her husband. 35 I am saying this for your own good, not to restrict you, but that you may live in a right way in undivided devotion to the Lord.

Throughout chapter 7, Paul urges his readers to remain single. Clearly, he permits marriage — it is not a sin — but Paul would prefer his readers avoid the problems caused by the “present crisis”[2] — possibly local persecution — would bring on those committed to a spouse and children; and Paul also wishes that the Corinthians be freed from concerns about a spouse in order to be free to serve Christ. After all, Paul himself had chosen to be single and so was able to continually risk his health and life in spreading the gospel. It’s hardly surprising that he counseled his readers to follow his example.

Now the notion of voluntary celibacy is utterly foreign to modern American readers. We pass it off as a First Century curiosity and then move on to the other verses. But as we’ll see, the other verses must be read in light of this overriding theme.

After stating his preference for remaining single, Paul addresses marriage in Genesis 1 and 2 terms — placing special emphasis on the fact that sex is not only allowed in marriage but also that sex is to be a part of marriage and that denying sexual gratification to one’s spouse is wrong:

2 But since there is so much immorality, each man should have his own wife, and each woman her own husband. 3 The husband should fulfill his marital duty to his wife, and likewise the wife to her husband. 4 The wife’s body does not belong to her alone but also to her husband. In the same way, the husband’s body does not belong to him alone but also to his wife. 5 Do not deprive each other except 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. 6 I say this as a concession, not as a command. 7 I wish that all men were as I am. But each man has his own gift from God; one has this gift, another has that.

Paul explains that one God-given purpose of marriage is sex — indeed, this is certainly much of what Genesis 2 refers to as being “one flesh.” Marriage is much more, but the sexual relationship is important. So much so that Paul instructs husbands and wives that it is wrong to deny the other spouse sexual relations — except by mutual consent and then only briefly.

Paul’s reasoning is, of course, consistent not only with Genesis 2 but also rabbinic interpretation of Exodus 21:10-11. In fact, given how strictly Paul speaks, he is surely heavily influenced by Exodus 21:10-11.

Notice how carefully Paul treats men and women identically. Contrary to the Jewish and Greek culture of the day, Paul considers women to have the same rights to sexual relations as men.

8 Now to the unmarried and the widows I say: It is good for them to stay unmarried, as I am. 9 But if they cannot control themselves, they should marry, for it is better to marry than to burn with passion.[3]

Once again, we see Paul stating a strong preference for being single, but insisting on making it clear that marriage is not a sin. Many Christian have trouble with this concept, because they see the Bible as black and white — it must either be right or wrong — it can’t be good or better. But Paul plainly states that sometimes it’s okay to be less than best. It’s not sin to marry — celibacy for the sake of the Lord’s work is a gift that not everyone has.

[1] Literally, as translated in the KJV, “touch a woman,” rather than “marry.” The context makes this metaphor refer to marriage — or perhaps to having sexual relationships, which are obviously only proper in marriage — hence much the same thing in Paul’s mind.

[2] “Present distress” in the King James Version.

[3] “With passion” is added by the NIV translators. Some take “burn” to refer to burning in hell. But the NIV addition seems consistent with Paul’s teaching on grace as well as with the context.

About Jay F Guin

My name is Jay Guin, and I’m a retired elder. I wrote The Holy Spirit and Revolutionary Grace about 18 years ago. I’ve spoken at the Pepperdine, Lipscomb, ACU, Harding, and Tulsa lectureships and at ElderLink. My wife’s name is Denise, and I have four sons, Chris, Jonathan, Tyler, and Philip. I have two grandchildren. And I practice law.
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2 Responses to MDR: 1 Corinthians 7, Part 1

  1. weswoodell says:

    I believe the "present crisis" Paul brings up may have been a reference to gnostic teachings that had infiltrated the church.

    I'll have to go back and review some of the research I've done on that passage.

    Enjoyed the post 🙂

  2. Tim Archer says:

    In 1 Timothy 5, Paul advocates remarriage for widows: “So I would have younger widows marry, bear children, manage their households, and give the adversary no occasion for slander.” (1Timothy 5:14) To me, that emphasizes that the advice given in 1 Corinthians needs to read in the context of "the present crisis."

    Grace and peace,

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