Lecture 5―Ewald Seidel

Paul’s First Letter to the Corinthians

1 Corinthians 7:1-40

In this fifth lecture we will begin looking at the issues raised by the Church in Corinth in their letter to Paul. They wanted his guidance on matters such as marriage and related questions; whether it was appropriate to eat food offered to idols; how women should behave in their Christian gatherings; the observance of the Lord’s Supper; the use of spiritual gifts; and issues relating to the resurrection of believers. In this lecture we will look at what Paul has to say regarding marriage and related issues.

Letter from Corinth—7:1–16:4

Marriage and Related Questions (7:1–40)

The General Principle (7:1–7)

Evidently, the Corinthians wanted Paul’s advice on a view that some were advocating in the Church: ‘It is good for a man not to touch a woman’.

Question: What did Paul mean when he says that a man should not ‘touch’ a woman? Surely he does not mean touch in a literal sense.

To ‘touch’ in this context is used of having sexual relations. (Gen. 20:6; Pr. 6:29). That is why some Bibles translate this as, ‘it is a good thing for a man not to marry’. It is possible that some of the Corinthians thought that it was best for people not to have sexual relations even in marriage.

Paul addresses them not from an OT perspective, which would have been more understandable to Jews, but from the context of life in immoral Corinth. He tells them that because there is so much immorality all around them, and the temptations so great, each man should have his own wife, and each woman should have her own husband. Sexual relations within the bond of marriage, says Paul, is the normal practice. He is not saying that the reason for marriage is to avoid temptation, he is merely answering a specific question. What Paul says in this case must be put together with other passages that speak about marriage.

Some people in Corinth, influenced by gnosticism, were advocating asceticism even in marriage (i.e. going without certain pleasures in life). Paul tells them that sexual relations between husband and wife is completely normal. There may be times when both agree to a pause in sexual relations, but this should be by mutual consent.

Question: What kind of situations in life could necessitate such a pause?

In the busyness of life, raising children, going to work for a living, actively involved in all sorts of activities, can be very wearing. There are times when believers need to take time off for quietness, reading of the Scriptures, meditation, and prayer. Husbands and wives should help each other to take time off for a re-orientation of their thinking and an evaluation of their activities. It is like a retreat.

Paul points out that each partner in marriage has an obligation to the other. It is not one-sided. A woman’s body is not exclusively hers; and a man’s body is not exclusively his. It is a partnership without dominance. Remember that Paul is writing to a male-dominated society. He is telling them that in a Christian marriage different standards apply.

Even when a man and a woman are related to each other in marriage, and their bodies belong to each other, primarily they are each the temple of the Holy Spirit who lives within them. That should affect the way they treat each other. Legitimate sexual relations are normal and God-given, but abuse is not normal and should never be tolerated in a Christian relationship or in the life of the Church. Christian men have often demanded their rights, but forgotten their responsibilities to their wives before the Lord.

In asceticism, going without certain pleasures in life was a way of gaining merit. In the Christian life, fasting, whatever form it takes (going without food, sex, and so on.)—is for a specific time, in order to get back to where we need to be with the Lord. It gains no merit.

Paul then goes on to give advice on three things. In v6 he tells the Corinthians that it is his personal advice, and is not a command. In v10 he gives a command, because it is something that comes directly from the Lord. In v12 he says that what he has to say, is not the word of the Lord to them.

Question: So, what is his suggestion, but not a command?

Marriage, says Paul, is not a duty to be fulfilled by everyone. He was a living example of that, but he is aware that the gift of celibacy is not given to everyone.

The Unmarried and the Widow (7:8–10)

The word for ‘unmarried’ is a broad term, and can refer to men or women. Whereas ‘widow’ is specifically a woman. The widow is singled out because she was particularly vulnerable in ancient societies. This was true in ancient Israel, and it certainly was true in immoral Corinth. In the OT God expressed concern for the fatherless, the widow and the foreigner. Israel was to care for these classes of people in a special way because God was especially concerned for them.

If God has given the ‘unmarried’ and the ‘widow’ the special gift of not needing sexual relations, then they should remain in the state in which they find themselves. But if they find themselves burning with desire, they should marry, for it is better to marry than to burn up with unsatisfied passion.

The Married (7:10–11)

Paul tells married believers they should not separate or divorce each other. That, he says, is a command. A woman is not to separate from, or divorce her believing husband. But, if she does, she is to seek reconciliation with him, or to remain unmarried.

A believing man is also commanded not to divorce his wife.

Question: Is Paul giving a categorical statement so that there are no exceptions?

In giving these instructions, we need to remember that Paul is not giving comprehensive teaching on marriage, but merely answering specific questions that the Corinthians put before him. For example, Paul does not take into consideration the exception to this command Jesus allowed on the grounds of fornication (Mt. 5:32; 19:9).

A Christian married to an unbeliever who is willing to live with the believer (7:12–14)

Next, Paul gives his advice which is not a command, because there is nothing in the Scriptures to provide any guidelines. He is speaking as a person particularly influenced by the spirit of the Scriptures. He says, If either a brother or a sister in Christ is married to a non-believer who is prepared to live with them, they are not to seek a divorce. This must refer to a husband or wife who became a Christian after their marriage. It may well have been that the Church in Corinth wanted to know what to do in cases such as this. It is quite understandable that in a young Church such as the one in Corinth, one partner or the other could have responded to the Gospel without the other one being aware of it.

Question: I can understand the problem that would have faced the Church in situations such as this. ‘What is the advice we need to give to the believing husband or wife’?

Firstly, says Paul, it depends entirely on the attitude of the unbelieving spouse.

Secondly, Paul addresses an argument that was probably put by some of the members who argued that while marriage between Christians is permitted, mixed marriages should definitely be forbidden. In marriages such as that, they claimed, the Christian partner would become defiled by the non-Christian partner, and so would the children in that marriage. Paul says the opposite is true. The unbelieving spouse is sanctified by the believing partner, and so are the children. By that, he means that the godliness of the believer has more positive effect on the rest of the family, than the negative effects of the unbeliever. The fact that the unbelieving partner is prepared to continue in his or her relationship with their partner, means that they are more open to the blessings God has for them through the believer in the family.

This is to be understood only in cases where one spouse was converted after marriage; not where a believer has deliberatedly married an unbeliever in disobedience to the clear command of Scripture.

A Christian married to an unbeliever who is not willing to live with the believer (7:15–16)

Question: What is the right thing to do in the case where an unbelieving spouse decides not to live with his or her partner who has become a Christian?

In that case, if the unbelieving partner initiates a divorce, the believing partner should not stand in the way. The believer, in this case, is not bound; meaning that he/she is free to remarry. The believer should seek ‘peace’, not a conflict in such a situation. Peace is what God has called us to, whether it involves continuing to live with an unbelieving partner, or allowing the unbelieving partner to end the relationship through divorce.

After all, says Paul, there is no guarantee that the unbelieving partner will be converted. To try to cling to a marriage that the unbelieving partner wants to end, can only lead to frustration, unnecessary stress, and lack of peace. The strain that this would bring to everyone in the family, including the children, is not worth it. In every situation the believer should seek peace.

Living the life God assigns (7:17–24)

Paul now turns from the issue of marriage, to the wider issue of contentment in whatever situation God has put us. This thought is taken up from Paul’s discussion on mixed marriages. A believer is to accept the situation in which God called them. This ‘call’ refers to the call to conversion.

The point Paul is making is that every person is able to live for Christ and serve him in whatever situation he is in, when converted.

Question: Are there no exceptions?

Obviously, there will be some cases when this cannot apply: e.g. a converted prostitute; someone working for a corrupt organisation, and so on. This is a general rule that Paul says applies to all Churches, not just to the Church in Corinth.

Vv18–19. Paul then goes on to relate this principle to circumcision and slavery. Especially since the Maccabean struggle (168 BC), the Jews regarded circumcision very highly. They insisted that anyone who was not circumcised was outside the Covenant and God’s blessings. Many Gentiles, on the other hand despised those who were circumcised. Young Jewish men who participated in Hellenic sports, where the competitors wore no clothes, tried to reverse their circumcision with surgery.

Paul says that for a believer, circumcision or uncircumcision was of no importance at all. What was important was that they kept God’s commandments. He repeats that believers should serve God in whatever condition they found themselves at conversion. That means, if they were circumcised, let them not try to reverse the procedure. If they were uncircumcised, they should not let themselves be persuaded to be circumcised.

Paul goes on to apply this to slavery as well. A converted slave should not be concerned that he is a slave, because Christ has set him free from the bondage to a worse slavery—the slavery to sin, and he is now free in Christ. If, however, he has the opportunity to be freed from legal slavery, then he should take it. On the other hand, a free man needs to realise that he has now become a bondslave of Christ. What matters in both cases, is the person’s relationship with Christ.

Both classes of people should remember that they have been bought at a price—Christ’s blood—and now belong to Him. They should never again place themselves under slavery to other people.

Question: What does he mean by placing oneself under slavery to other people?

In this case Paul is not referring to legal slavery, but slavery to man-made systems, ideas and regulations. To do so, is to display the mentality of a slave.

When Paul concludes this section by repeating that each person should remain in the state in which God called him, he does not mean that a person should not try to improve his situation. He means that a person should not change positions simply because he has become a Christian. There are too many Christians who seek a simpler, quieter life, working with Christian organisations, leaving their former places of employment without a Christian witness.

Virgins (7:25–38)

On the issue of virgins, or the unmarried, Paul says that he has no commandment of the Lord on which to base his judgements, but, by the grace of God, his pronouncement is reliable. Paul had been writing about married couples; now he turns to those who never married.

The advice that Paul gives is in the light of some crisis that seemed to be facing the Christian Church. This crisis has been understood in different ways.

Some have interpreted this crisis as one that was to be expected prior to Christ’s second coming. Those who see it in these terms say that the early Church believed that the second coming of Christ would take place during their life-time.Some see the crisis as the building up of problems in Judea prior to the destruction of Jerusalem by the Romans, or,It could have been a local crisis that we are not aware of.

In the light of the crisis facing the Church in Corinth, and the troubles that would follow, it would be best for them, says Paul, to avoid any additional problems of relationships that usually occur in families. Let them stay the way they are. If they are married let them not try to separate; if they are single, let them not look for a partner. However, if a single person marries, she is not sinning. Let them remember that married people do have more problems to face than single people.

He then tells them that the time is short, and people should live without putting the roots of their lives too deeply in this world. They are on the way to a better world. The relationships established here, and the things we accumulate in this life are all temporary. Twice Paul tells them that he wants to save them from unnecessary worries (28, 32).

Paul wants even married men and women to recognise that in marriage their loyalties are split between pleasing their spouses, and pleasing the Lord, and to make every effort to put Christ first in their lives and in their service. A single person finds it much easier to have an undivided heart towards the Lord, than a married person.

Question: Verse 36 seems difficult to understand. What does Paul mean when he says if anyone thinks he is acting improperly towards the virgin he is engaged to…?

V36 is difficult to interpret. It says, If anyone is worried that he might not be acting honourably towards the virgin he is engaged to, and if she is getting beyond the usual age for marrying and he feels he ought to marry, he should do as he wants. He is not sinning. They should be married.

There are three main interpretations, so let us consider them.

  1. ‘Anyone’ refers to a parent or guardian who ultimately has to give permission for the girl to marry. He is acting improperly by not providing for her marriage by insisting that she remain celibate. As time goes on, he begins to wonder whether he has made the right decision to withhold marriage for her. This could create a disaster for him and for her in future, and bring disgrace upon them both.

    One objection to this interpretation is that ‘his virgin’ is not the usual way to refer to ‘his daughter’. The second objection comes in the phrase ‘let them marry’, seems to refer to the marriage of the man (father) and his daughter, which is not possible, unless ‘them’ refers to the daughter and a young man who has been waiting to marry her.
  2. The second view regards ‘anyone’ as a young man who is engaged to his fiancée. The pair have agreed to remain celibate, but after a while change their minds and decide to get married.

    The objection to this view is two-fold. There was no engagement in those days in the modern sense. The couple became betrothed as the first stage of marriage, and the only way they could be separated after that, is through divorce, but in this case it is not their decision that is in mind, but the decision of their parents. Acting ‘improperly’ in this interpretation, makes no sense.
  3. The third interpretation that has been given to this verse, is that the couple entered into a ‘spiritual marriage’, or what we sometimes call a Platonic relationship, where the couple decided to live together, but have no sexual relations.Paul had already told the Corinthians that withholding sexual relations in a marriage was not acceptable. Secondly, the concept of ‘spiritual marriages’ was not generally known before the 2nd Century AD.

Despite the problems in the first explanation, it is probably the best explanation of what Paul was suggesting to the Corinthians. That is, ‘Anyone’ refers to a parent or guardian who ultimately has to give permission for the girl to marry. He is acting improperly by not providing for her marriage, by insisting that she remain celibate.

Paul reaffirms that a man who gives his virgin in marriage does well; but if he does not give her in marriage (with her consent), he is doing even better. Either way, he is not sinning.

Widows (7:39–40)

Marriage is permanent, says Paul. The only way it can be terminated is through the death of one of the partners. If that happens, the woman is free to remarry. Paul is not saying the same thing about men, simply because the focus of his answer to the Corinthian question is the situation of women. The only condition on the remarriage Paul places, is that the new partner is ‘in the Lord’, i.e. a believer. His personal opinion is that she would be better off if she remained single. This attitude needs to be understood in the light of the crisis that was facing the Corinthians.