(1 Cor 7:5 ESV) Do not deprive one another, except perhaps by agreement for a limited time, that you may devote yourselves to prayer; but then come together again, so that Satan may not tempt you because of your lack of self-control.
Paul seems very strict. He grants an exception, but only for prayer and only by mutual agreement. And in the modern world, how often does a husband or wife want to pray so much and for so long that sex needs to be given up?
Well, the fact that we pray so little and so poorly demonstrates how far removed we are from the mind of Paul. Paul surely spent hours a day in prayer.
I think most readers easily conclude that Paul would make exceptions for disease, travel, and the like. Paul is no legalist. Rather, he is trying to make a point. He is dead serious in insisting that Christian spouses meet one another’s sexual needs. This was for many Corinthians a dramatic change from their former lives.
(1 Cor 7:6–7 ESV) 6 Now as a concession, not a command, I say this. 7 I wish that all were as I myself am. But each has his own gift from God, one of one kind and one of another.
Paul next makes clear that marriage is not a command. The Jewish rabbis insisted that all adult males marry, but Paul saw the world differently. His priority was serving God and his mission.
(1 Cor 7:8–9 ESV) 8 To the unmarried and the widows I say that it is good for them to remain single as I am. 9 But if they cannot exercise self-control, they should marry. For it is better to marry than to burn with passion.
Paul now introduces a theme that runs throughout the chapter: It’s better to be single than married. He later gives his reasons:
(1Co 7:26 ESV) I think that in view of the present distress it is good for a person to remain as he is.
(1Co 7:28b ESV) Yet those who marry will have worldly troubles, and I would spare you that.
(1Co 7:32-34 ESV) 32 I want you to be free from anxieties. The unmarried man is anxious about the things of the Lord, how to please the Lord. 33 But the married man is anxious about worldly things, how to please his wife, 34 and his interests are divided. And the unmarried or betrothed woman is anxious about the things of the Lord, how to be holy in body and spirit. But the married woman is anxious about worldly things, how to please her husband.
In short, Paul speaks of a temporary time of distress and the more permanent need to be fully devoted to Christ in his mission. We’ll return to these verses when we get there. For now, it’s enough to realize that Paul’s thinking is heavily driven by circumstances, particularly famine:
Bruce Winter has suggested that the present crisis being experienced in Corinth was “dislocation in the city’s life caused through a series of acute grain shortages and the attendant social unrest.” He cites evidence for grain shortages in the East during the forties and fifties in Eusebius, Pliny, Suetonius and several strands of non-literary evidence. Tiberius Claudius Dinippus was curator of the grain supply in Corinth during this period, an office only filled in times of famine. Such famines invariably caused serious social upheaval. Garnsey claims that “the fear of famine rather than famine itself was enough to send people on the rampage.”
Roy E. Ciampa and Brian S. Rosner, The First Letter to the Corinthians (Pillar NTC; Accordance electronic ed. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2010), 335.
(1 Cor 7:10–11 ESV) 10 To the married I give this charge (not I, but the Lord): the wife should not separate from her husband 11 (but if she does, she should remain unmarried or else be reconciled to her husband), and the husband should not divorce his wife.
“Charge” is strong language. “Command” would be a good translation. And Paul makes a point to reference the words of Jesus as his source. Contrary to what many suppose, Paul isn’t saying that this teaching is inspired, as opposed to the rest of the letter. He is saying that Jesus has addressed this question, and he is following the teachings of Jesus.
“Separate” means divorce. He is not speaking of the Western invention: a legal separation. Rather, in Paul’s mind, you are either married, and therefore granting one another conjugal rights, or you’re not married. There’s no in-between “separation” as exists under American law. This is obvious from the phrase “she should remain unmarried.”
Paul does not reference the exception for fornication mentioned in the Gospels. But neither is he intending to be entirely comprehensive in his statement. He’s speaking in generalities.
(1 Cor 7:12–13 ESV) 12 To the rest I say (I, not the Lord) that if any brother has a wife who is an unbeliever, and she consents to live with him, he should not divorce her. 13 If any woman has a husband who is an unbeliever, and he consents to live with her, she should not divorce him.
Paul is now addressing a situation not dealt with by Jesus. What if a woman is married and she is later converted but the husband is not? If we think of the church as a continuation of Israel, she might consider herself bound to leave him.
In Ezra 10, Ezra required the Jews who’d married foreign women to divorce their wives. Is a Christian married to a non-Christian like a Jew married to a non-Jew? If so, Ezra would seem to give the rule.
Paul concludes that Jesus was not addressing this situation, but he comes to the same conclusion: in general, divorce is not allowed.
(1 Cor 7:14 ESV) For the unbelieving husband is made holy because of his wife, and the unbelieving wife is made holy because of her husband. Otherwise your children would be unclean, but as it is, they are holy.
“The unbelieving husband is made holy because of his wife” sounds very strange to us. He’s not a believer. In what sense is he holy?
It’s hard to say for sure, but I think Paul and the Corinthians are thinking in Jewish categories. If a Jewish woman marries a Gentile, the marriage is forbidden and thus considered null among the Jews. A child of such a marriage is a mamzer and prohibited from entering the Temple, a synagogue, or marrying a Jewess (other than another mamzer). Might the same rule apply for Christians married to non-Christians?
Paul rejects this kind of thinking. The husband is “holy” in that the marriage to him remains valid and is not null. Therefore, a child of such a marriage is legitimate and not barred from any church activity.
N. T. Wright comments,
Paul’s response is a striking example of how the Christian gospel stands the old negative codes of purity on their heads. As with Jesus’ healings, in which he touched lepers and other unclean people and, instead of being infected with their diseases, infected them instead with God’s new life, so Paul believed that holiness could be more powerful than uncleanness. The relationship would not need to be damaging for the Christian. The unbelieving partner would be regularly within the reach of God’s love in Christ, shining through the believing partner.
Tom Wright, Paul for Everyone: 1 Corinthians.
(1 Cor 7:15-16 ESV) But if the unbelieving partner separates, let it be so. In such cases the brother or sister is not enslaved [or bound]. God has called you to peace. 16 For how do you know, wife, whether you will save your husband? Or how do you know, husband, whether you will save your wife?
Again, legal separation in the Western sense was unheard of to Paul. “Separates” means divorces. And the Christian spouse is free to remarry.
As Instone-Brewer notes, “Jewish marriage was based on a concept of bondage — both husband and wife were bound to keep the obligations outlined in their marriage contract, and divorce required a certificate of freedom for the wife.” Not bound here refers to freedom to remarry. Instone-Brewer explains: “The only freedom that makes any sense in this context is the freedom to remarry … [A]ll Jewish divorce certificates and most Greco-Roman ones contained the words ‘you are free to marry any man you wish,’ or something very similar.”
Roy E. Ciampa and Brian S. Rosner, The First Letter to the Corinthians (Pillar NTC; Accordance electronic ed. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2010), 302.
If marriage is a triangle — with God at the apex and the husband and wife at the base — a three-party contract, why isn’t a Christian bound in this case? Why is the Christian spouse free to remarry when divorced by a pagan spouse? And why is the rule stricter when a Christian leaves? Why should that make a difference?
Obviously, Paul reads Jesus differently from how we read Jesus. As a result, many Church of Christ commentators have refused to accept the conclusion that the Christian spouse may remarry, but Paul’s words are very clear. “Not enslaved” or “not bound” means “no longer bound by her commitment to her former husband.”
As the NET Bible translators comment,
The argument for this view is the conceptual parallel with vv. 1Co 7:39-40, where a wife is said to be “bound” (a different word in Greek, but the same concept) as long as her husband lives. But if the husband dies, she is “free” to marry as she wishes, only in the Lord. If the parallel holds, then not bound in v. 1Co 7:15 also means “free to marry another.”
More importantly, in Roman law, the wife could not prevent her husband from divorcing her. She could not insist on the marriage. She did not need to consent to the divorce. And so, if she is “not bound,” the only thing binding her was the marriage that has now been dissolved. She is no longer married, and therefore she is no longer bound to honor a non-existent marriage.
(More to come.)