In 1 Corinthians 7, Paul addresses several issues concerning sex and marriage. This a particularly important passage when it comes to divorce and remarriage — but that’s not today’s subject. I covered the divorce questions in But If You Do Marry …
Paul begins by addressing whether Christian husbands and wives would serve God by refusing sexual relations with each other. That’s a truly astonishing question to modern ears, but certain of the Greeks were influenced by Platonic thought, and as a result, they associated the physical — including human bodies — with sin — and hence sex seemed sinful to some.
Paul — as usual — goes to Genesis 2 for his answer —
(1Co 7:3-4 NET) 3 A husband should give to his wife her sexual rights, and likewise a wife to her husband. 4 It is not the wife who has the rights to her own body, but the husband. In the same way, it is not the husband who has the rights to his own body, but the wife.
While Paul doesn’t explicitly reference the “one flesh” relationship described in Genesis 2 (mentioned by Paul only a few verses earlier in chapter 6), it’s clear that his argument is built on the husband and wife being one flesh and thus having authority over each other’s body.
Indeed, this is a remarkable passage for a First Century author. Very few would have considered the wife to have the same authority over her husband as the husband has over the wife. Greek culture in particular gave wives no say regarding their husbands’ sexuality. It was expected that a Greek husband would consort with prostitutes and otherwise owe his wife no fidelity at all.
The Jews, on the other hand, granted that there was a reciprocal duty to provide sexual gratification among spouses, as shown by David Instone-Brewer in his excellent Divorce and Remarriage in the Bible: The Social and Literary Context.
(1Co 7:7-9 NET) 7 I wish that everyone was as I am. But each has his own gift from God, one this way, another that. 8 To the unmarried and widows I say that it is best for them to remain as I am. 9 But if they do not have self-control, let them get married. For it is better to marry than to burn with sexual desire.
Paul next commends singleness and celibacy to his readers. To be single and chaste is “best” but marriage is permissible for those who cannot live chastely and single.
It’s surprising that Paul plainly prefers that his readers be single, given that Jewish thought strongly urged marriage and child-bearing for all. Moreover, some years later, he assumes that elders and deacons will be married and criticizes those who prohibit marriage. Why assume this if celibacy is to be preferred?
(1Co 7:26 NET) Because of the impending crisis I think it best for you to remain as you are.
It appears that Paul is concerned about an immediate and temporary problem that would make marriage unwise — at that time and place. In After Paul Left Corinth: The Influence of Secular Ethics and Social Change (pp. 216 ff), Bruce Winter provides evidence that Corinth suffered a grain famine at this time. He further finds evidence of rioting and rebellion against the government as a result (p. 222).
(1Co 7:32-34 NET) 32 And I want you to be free from concern. An unmarried man is concerned about the things of the Lord, how to please the Lord. 33 But a married man is concerned about the things of the world, how to please his wife, 34 and he is divided. An unmarried woman or a virgin is concerned about the things of the Lord, to be holy both in body and spirit. But a married woman is concerned about the things of the world, how to please her husband.
Paul assumes that an unmarried Christian will be concerned with pleasing Jesus, without having to be concerned with pleasing a husband or wife. Notice that Paul’s ethics for Christians are again built, in part, on being a Christian. Obviously, a non-Christian has no concern for pleasing Jesus, and so Paul’s arguments would not apply to non-Christians.
But Paul certainly favored singleness and celibacy for himself and, evidently, for many in his missionary party — although not all who traveled with him were single. When we read 1 Corinthians 7 with Paul’s other letters (e.g., 1 Tim 4:3; 5:14), it appears that Paul considered both marriage and singleness a blessing from God — to be received and used to God’s glory in either case. But in times of famine and civil unrest, it would certainly be wise to be single — but not as a command.
Moreover, for those accepting the life of a First Century missionary, marriage could be a burden. Paul was frequently imprisoned, tortured, stoned, and constantly on the road. He could not have been a good father and husband given the time and energy he poured into the gospel.
Thus, we again see this pattern in Paul’s and Jesus’ thought. Ethics for Christians are not the same as for non-Christians. Only Christians might choose singleness and chastity for the sake of the Kingdom — but that is a very real option, not at all theoretical. Jesus, Paul, and most of the other apostles had no wives, preferring to be single for the sake of Jesus.
Thus, the Christian ethics of marriage are grounded in Genesis 1 and 2, and further modified in light of the gospel — which can impose even stricter requirements than pre-gospel ethics.
The gospel does not soften sexual and marital ethics. Rather, the gospel calls on some to give up their sexuality altogether for Jesus.