Celibacy and Marriage, 1-16

7:1 Now with regard to the issues you wrote about: “It is good for a man not to have sexual relations with a woman.” 7:2 But because of immoralities, each man should have relations with his own wife and each woman with her own husband. 7:3 A husband should give to his wife her sexual rights, and likewise a wife to her husband. 7:4 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. 7:5 Do not deprive each other, except by mutual agreement for a specified time, so that you may devote yourselves to prayer. Then resume your relationship, so that Satan may not tempt you because of your lack of self-control. 7:6 I say this as a concession, not as a command. 7:7 I wish that everyone was as I am. But each has his own gift from God, one this way, another that.

Paul now begins to deal with questions that had been raised by the Corinthians in their letter to him. See also 1 Cor 7:25; 8:1; 12:1; 16:1.

On the mutuality of the marriage relationship:

‘In this passage the apostle deals with the Christian attitude toward marriage, and he seems to refer to this issue as if the decisions were always the prerogative of the males, whether husbands or fathers of the women to be married. This indeed may be in conformity with the prevailing usage of the time, but it does not constitute a mandate. What needs to be carefully observed is the complete mutuality in the marital relationship emphasized here, which is stunning when considered against the Greek background of the Corinthians (1 Cor. 7:2–5, 10–11, 15–16).’ (Evangelical Dictionary of Theology, art. ‘Woman, Biblical Concept of’)

Loveday Alexander observes:

‘Unlike most ancient philosophers, Paul goes out of his way in this chapter to address both husbands and wives (‘as if he’s swallowed a manual on political correctness,’ as one of my students once remarked in disgust). Ancient philosophical texts on marriage are addressed solely to the male partner: women have little choice, and are not treated as moral subjects’

“It is good for a man not to marry” – Lit. ‘to touch a woman’, most probably a euphemism for sex within marriage (Paul would never have countenanced sex outside of marriage).

Good not to marry?
This looks like a contradiction of Gen 2:18. Various interpretations are possible:

(a) There was evidently some actual or impending crisis at Corinth that affected some of the practical guidance that Paul gave to the church there.

(b) Paul is prohibiting the sexual exploitation of women by men (so CSB translation – ‘It is good for a man not to use a woman for sex.’  This would seem to be consistent with the story of rampant sexual immorality at Corinth (1 Cor 6:12-20), but does not fit the immediate context well.

(d) This expression may be taken as a question: “Is it good…?”

(e) Most commentators agree that Paul is probably quoting from the Corinthians’ letter to him; we know that Paul’s own position was that marriage was the normal and expected state, (Eph 5:22-33; Col 3:18-19; 1 Tim 3:2) and he opposed those who forbade people to marry, 1 Tim 4:3.  There may well have been an ascetic element within the Corinthian church that advocated sexual abstinence even within marriage, in reaction against the surrounding immorality.

Notwithstanding Paul’s teaching here and in 1 Tim 4:3, by the 2nd century an increasing tendency towards sexual asceticism was found in the church.

It is possible to over-react against sexual licence:

‘The Corinthian rigorists had reacted so strongly against the sexual licence of the city, that they had swung over completely, to the other side, forbidding what God had created for us richly to enjoy. Marriage, says Paul, is the gift and plan of God. Sex is the gift and plan of God. To reject both as though they were evil is as much a deviation from the will of God as to indulge in sexual intercourse outside marriage.’ (Prior)

Since there is so much immorality – This phrase probably lies behind the preamble to the 1662 Prayer Book marriage service, where one of the three purposes of marriage is as “a remedy against sin, and to avoid fornication”.

A husband should give to his wife her sexual rights, and likewise a wife to her husband – (cf. Ex 2:1; Isa 13:16) In other words, ‘Let each husband and wife have full conjugal relations’ – which is precisely what he argues in detail in what follows.

The Message puts v3f like this:

‘The marriage bed must be a place of mutuality – the husband seeking to satisfy his wife, the wife seeking to satisfy her husband. Marriage is not a place to “stand up for your rights”.  Marriage is a decision to serve the other, whether in bed or out.’

According to Derek and Dianne Tidball,

‘Paul’s words display a remarkable symmetry about the rights and duties of the husband and wife.  Both are called to fulfil their mutual duties to their partners and both are said to have authority over their partner’s bodies.  The rights do not fall on one side and the duties on the other.  Intimacy is completely mutual.’ (The Message of Women, p236f)

Tom Wright agrees that this is

‘a striking statement of mutual equality between husband and wife.’

Marshall, spreading his net more widely, makes the same point:

‘Jesus radically overturned this situation by his declaration that a husband who has relations with another woman commits adultery against his own wife (Mk 10:11). Furthermore, Paul states that husband and wife have sexual obligations to one another (1 Cor 7:3–4), not merely the wife to the husband. Peter puts the point even more strongly by talking of husband and wife as joint heirs of the grace of life (1 Pet 3:7)’ (Discovering Biblical Equality).  However, it is less clear that this indicates a trajectory towards something yet more radical, as Marshall supposes.

The husband’s body does not belong to him alone – This is remarkable teaching, unique for its day:

‘The wife’s body is not her personal ‘property’ and neither is the man’s. Once he is married, he must not engage in sexual intercourse with another woman. It is not possible to find another reference in the literature of the ancient world which teaches that the husband surrenders his body exclusively to his wife on marriage. In fact, in the secular world, it was traditional on the wedding day to declare to the bride that when her husband committed adultery with a prostitute or a woman of easy virtue, it was not a sign that he did not love her, but simply a way of gratifying his passions.’ (NBC)

Except by mutual agreement for a specified time – ‘This one exception shows the biblical stress on the importance of sexual intercourse as part and parcel of the fabric of marriage. It was not given simply for the purpose of procreation, nor is it dishonourable.’ (cf. Heb 13:4) (NBC)

I say this as a concession – This refers to vv5f.

I wish that all men were as I am – ‘He wishes that all men were as he is i.e. unmarried. But, which is the emphatic Greek form here, he recognizes that each person has his gift, charisma, from God, i.e. one is single and another married. Singleness in some societies is the subject of cruel innuendo. At times in the church it has been either over-valued or under-valued, in each case contrary to God’s word. It, like other gifts, is a personal one to an individual from God.’ (NBC)

Each man has his own gift from God – Gk charisma. Cf. 1 Cor 1:7n.

Paul’s Teaching on Marriage and Divorce

1. Paul is giving authoritative, apostolic instruction. The antithesis he makes in v 10 and v12 is not to be taken to imply that Paul is not asserting authority for his own teaching. This is clear from vv17, 25 and 40.

2. Paul echoes and confirms Jesus’ prohibition of divorce. It does not follow that Paul knew nothing of Jesus’ exceptive clause. The ‘separation’ (choizo) referred to in v10 could refer to divorce, but it is more likely to some other form of separation.

3. Paul permits divorce after a believer has been deserted by an unbelieving partner. Although Paul does not countenance marriage between a believer and an unbeliever (v39), he does, in vv12-16, seem to have in mind a situation in which two unbelievers marry, and then one of them becomes a Christian. The Corinthians had evidently asked Paul about such a situation. His answer is that if the unbelieving partner is willing to live with the believing, then the believer should not resort to divorce. If, however, the unbelieving partner is unwilling to stay, then he should be allowed to leave.

7:8 To the unmarried and widows I say that it is best for them to remain as I am. 7:9 But if they do not have self-control, let them get married. For it is better to marry than to burn with sexual desire.

It is better to marry than to burn with sexual desire – ‘This probably reflects the belief of Greek doctors that if a man did not release semen regularly, it would cause a harmful rise of temperature inside him. Going to a prostitute was therefore regarded as a normal, and even healthy, thing to do.’ (Instone-Brewer, Moral Questions of the Bible)

Loveday Alexander thinks that Paul’s counsel here is relevant to same-sex couples as well as to heterosexual couples:

‘He recognises that celibacy is not a practical option for everyone, and states clearly that it is not to be imposed on those who have not the gift for it (7.7) — a point to be remembered by those who would impose life-long celibacy on all same-sex couples. It is better that sexual desire should be ‘quenched’ (i.e. satisfied) in marriage than left to ‘burn’ (7.9).’ (My emphasis)

But this is to assume that the Bible’s clear prohibitions against same-sex sexual activity do not exist.

7:10 To the married I give this command—not I, but the Lord—a wife should not divorce a husband 7:11 (but if she does, let her remain unmarried, or be reconciled to her husband), and a husband should not divorce his wife.

Not I, but the Lord – Should this be understood as meaning that Paul does not claim authority for his own teaching in a way that he would claim authority for the teaching of the Lord? In answer to this question, let it be noted first that Paul did in fact claim a very high level of authority for his own teaching. ‘he…could pronounce a curse on anyone who preached any gospel other than the one he preached and the Galatians had accepted. (Gal 1:8-9) Why? Because the gospel which he preached was not of human origin; rather it had its origin in the Lord. (Gal 1:11-12) Thus not only Paul’s gospel, but the teaching derived from it, is rooted in the authority of Christ. Therefore Paul’s instruction to churches and individuals is to be received, not as merely human words, but as the word of God. (1 Thess 2:13)

Further, Paul stands within the chain of “receiving” and “passing on” the authoritative tradition. (see 1 Cor 11:2,23; 15:1-3) He knows that he has been grasped by Christ, (Php 3:12) that he is a recipient of Christ’s authoritative revelation (1 Cor 15:9-11) and that he is called to be an apostle not through human instrumentality, but by direct divine intervention.’ (Gal 1:1) (HSB) As far then as the present distinction is concerned, ‘in the matter of divorce and remarriage, Paul is in possession of a direct command of the Lord. It can hardly be doubted that his instruction in 1 Cor 7:10-11 is based on the teaching of Jesus preserved for us in Mk 10:2-12. But for the question of what is to be done when a believer is married to a nonbeliever, Paul was not in possession of a direct teaching from Jesus. Jesus did not address this issue during his ministry. Thus, after appealing to the direct teaching of Jesus regarding the sanctity and permanence of marriage as intended by the Creator, Paul goes on, after simply acknowledging that he does not have another direct word from the Lord, to apply the implications of that divine intention to the complex situation of marriages between believers and unbelievers. The thrust of the passage makes it difficult, if not impossible, to assume that Paul intended his words to convey a lessened sense of authority.’ (HSB)

A wife must not separate from her husband – Paul speaks of the possibility of the wife ‘separating’ from her husband, but of the husband ‘divorcing’ his wife. The reason for the difference is that in Judaism only the husband had the right of divorce.

Don’t even think about divorce!

‘Paul’s fundamental approach to the question of Christians getting divorced is…very simple – “Don’t. The Lord has expressly forbidden it; so do not even allow yourselves the luxury of entertaining is as a possibility.” If this is the express command of the Lord, it does no good whatsoever mentally to flirt with what is so clearly beyond limits. If, as not infrequently happens, a Christian couple think they have made a mistake in getting married, then it is important for them to accept the authority of the Lord’s teaching and to apply themselves to their relationship, in the conviction that, if they work at it, God can make it new and vital.’ (Prior)

Let her remain unmarried – This counsel was given in a context where Paul urged the single state for anyone who was not married.

7:12 To the rest I say—I, not the Lord—if a brother has a wife who is not a believer and she is happy to live with him, he should not divorce her. 7:13 And if a woman has a husband who is not a believer and he is happy to live with her, she should not divorce him. 7:14 For the unbelieving husband is sanctified because of the wife, and the unbelieving wife because of her husband. Otherwise your children are unclean, but now they are holy. 7:15 But if the unbeliever wants a divorce, let it take place. In these circumstances the brother or sister is not bound. God has called you in peace. 7:16 For how do you know, wife, whether you will bring your husband to salvation? Or how do you know, husband, whether you will bring your wife to salvation?

Paul turns now to a problem which must have been quite common in a rapidly-growing church like that at Corinth. When one partner becomes converted, enormous strain can be placed on both. The new Christian has a new life and a new lifestyle. The unbeliever will scarcely know what has hit them. ‘The devastating impact of such an event, not least in what can genuinely be called a very good marriage, cannot be overestimated. A Cape Town brain surgeon put it most movingly. When asked what he found so difficult about his wife’s new-found faith in Christ, he stressed two things: first, she was no longer the person with whom he had originally fallen in love and whom he had decided to marry; secondly there was another Man about the house, to whom she was all the time referring her every decision and whom she chose to consult for his advice and instruction. He was no longer the boss in his own house: Jesus gave the orders and set the pace.’ (Prior)

v13 See 1 Pet 3:1-2.

Sanctified spouses, holy children

1 Cor 7:14 – ‘The unbelieving husband is sanctified because of the wife, and the unbelieving wife because of her husband. Otherwise your children are unclean, but now they are holy.’

What is the meaning of ‘sanctified’ and ‘holy’ in this verse? Several options may be considered:-

1. That it is about the regeneration of the unbelieving partner.  According to this view, Paul would be stating that the unbelieving spouse has become regenerate through the believing partner.  But, notwithstanding Scripture’s greater emphasis on corporate, family-based faith compared with our own more individualistic approach, this interpretation fails to take account of the still greater emphasis on the need for personal faith.  As Ciampa and Rosna remark, Paul cannot be referring to the actual conversion/regeneration of the unbelieving partner, since 1 Cor 7:16 shows that this can only be a hoped-for consequence later on in the marriage.

2. That it is about the influence of the believing partner.  Paul may have a mind a kind of ‘holiness by association’, as is taught in Ex 29:37.  Many commentators echo the thought of Calvin:

‘The godliness of the one does more to “sanctify” the marriage than the ungodliness of the other to make it unclean.’  This is in contrast to Paul’s teaching in 1 Cor 6:15-17, where a man has sexual relations with a prostitute.  In the words of Garland: ‘A Christian who has relations with a prostitute cannot convey holiness, because that union is outside the will of God. Fornication is the antithesis of holiness. Marriage, on the other hand, is a divine institution that accords with God’s will for man and woman.’

Ciampa and Rosna would agree with Calvin, writing:

‘The notion that holiness rather than uncleanness is contagious has only marginal biblical support (cf. Exod. 29:37; 30:29; Lev. 6:18) prior to the ministry of Jesus. When Jesus touched unclean people, however, rather than becoming unclean himself his own holiness proved to be contagious, making the unclean clean (e.g., Mark 1:40–44//Matt. 8:2–3//Luke 5:12–14; Mark 5:25–34, 39–42). So also in Paul’s view, perhaps due to the example of Jesus, holiness is more powerful than impurity, at least the holiness that comes through Christ’s sanctifying work.’

For John Murray, it would seem that this sanctification is clearly not a transformation into Christlikeness, but

‘the sanctification of privilege, connection and relationship.’

For Thiselton,

‘The spouse’s example, witness, prayer, and living out of the gospel make the spouse and the children in this sense holy.’

(Blomberg, quoting Patterson)

‘“Sanctified” and “holy” cannot here mean “saved,” as verse 16 proves. Rather they refer to “the moral and spiritual impact of the life of the believer” on the rest of the family, making those other family members “set apart in a very special place … as God’s object of devotion.”’


‘When Paul speaks of children being holy and unbelieving spouses sanctified, he likely means that the presence of believers in a family places the family in a holy sphere, which gives unbelievers the possibility of salvation.’ (Paul: Apostle of God’s Glory in Christ)

This interpretation – the most common among commentators – suffers because Paul does not treat holiness as a future possibility here, but rather as an actuality.  Paul does not say, ‘might be sanctified’, but ‘has been sanctified’.

3. That it is about the legitimacy of the marriage.  In this interpretation, Paul is talking about making the marriage pure in the eyes of God, and therefore indissoluble.  The doctrine of ‘becoming one flesh’ transcends even the question of whether the two partners in the marriage share a saving faith in Christ.

John Piper quotes Paul Jewett: Paul has in view the sanctity of lawful matrimony and the purity of the resulting offspring. When he says that the unbeliever is “sanctified” by the believer, he is simply referring to the marriage covenant by which the unbeliever has been consecrated and set apart for the exclusive fellowship of the believer in the bond of marriage. He writes to assure his Corinthian converts that this exclusive propriety, which the marriage covenant seals, is in no way abrogated by any disparity of religious commitment, great as this disparity may be. Christians, then, should never fear defilement through cohabitation with an unbelieving spouse: indeed, such defilement would imply that their children were also defiled, which they grant is not the case. In other words, he reasons from what is allowed to what is in doubt. If that relationship were unclean from which the children came, then the children would be unclean too; but everyone agrees they are not. Rather, they are “holy” in the sense that they are not contaminated with the taint of illegitimacy. Therefore, the union of  which they were born is likewise above suspicion and reproach. (Infant Baptism and the Covenant of Grace, 133)


‘all that we are required to understand here is, that the unbelieving husband was sanctified in regard to the subject under discussion; that is, in regard to the question whether it was proper for them to live together, or whether they should be separated or not. And the sense may be, “They are by the marriage tie one flesh. They are indissolubly united by the ordinance of God. As they are one by his appointment, as they have received his sanction to the marriage union, and as one of them is holy, so the other is to be regarded as sanctified, or made so holy by the divine sanction to the union, that it is proper for them to live together in the marriage relation.”’

Paul’s statement about children has, similarly, attracted various interpretations:-

1. Some think that it refers to the regeneration of the children.

2. Others consider that Paul is thinking about the influence for good of the believing parent on the children.  ‘Presumably this means that the children, in coming under the influence of one Christian parent, are within the sphere of God’s love and the power of the gospel, not that they are automatically Christians’ (Wright).  ‘They are considered undefiled by paganism if at least one of their parents is a Christian.’ (EDBT)

3. Still others think that it refers to the legitimacy of the family unit.  J.I. Packer write:

‘In 1 Corinthians 7:14, Paul resolves the question of whether God accepts a marriage in which only one partner has become a Christian by invoking the certainty that the children of such a marriage are relationally and covenantally “holy,” that is, are dedicated to and accepted by God in company with their one Christian parent. So the principle of parent-and-child solidarity still stands, as Peter also indicated in his Pentecost sermon (Acts 2:39). But if infants share covenant status with their parent, it is fitting, other things being equal, to give them the sign of that status and of their place in the covenant community, and it would be unfitting for the church to withhold it. This fitness is demonstrated by the fact that when circumcision was the sign of covenant status and community inclusion, God commanded it explicitly (Gen. 17:9–14).’ (Concise Theology)

Otherwise your children would be unclean, but as it is, they are holy

Daniel Burgess (Sermon 17 in Puritan Sermons, Vol 4):

‘You, the children of believing parents, have a holiness of covenant-relation before you are born: (1 Cor. 7:14:) you have a holiness of solemn dedication, by-and-by after you are born, in holy baptism: (Col. 2:11, 12:) and God requires your parents and ministers to be dealing with you, as soon as you come to understanding, for holiness of inhesion and qualification.’

A believing man or woman is not bound in such circumstances – There appears to be a further ground for divorce here, known as the ‘Pauline privilege’:

‘There is a strong body of opinion both among Protestants and Roman Catholics that 1 Cor 7:10-16 gives another ground for divorce. Here Paul repeats the teaching that the Lord had given when on earth, and then, under the guidance of the Spirit, gives teaching beyond what the Lord had given, since a new situation had arisen. When one party in a pagan marriage is converted to Christ he or she must not desert the other. But if the other insists on leaving the Christian ‘a brother or sister is not under bondage in such cases’. This latter clause cannot simply mean that they are free to be deserted, but must mean that they are free to be remarried. This further ground, which on the face of it is of limited application, is known as the ‘Pauline Privilege’.’ (NBD)

However, it is possible that the Greek underlying the translation ‘in such circumstances’ (NIV: ‘in such cases’) means ‘in this scenario and others like it’.  If so, then this would somewhat broaden out the circumstances in which divorce was permissible.  Use of the phrase in ancient Greek ‘led me to conclude that in 1 Cor. 7:15, the phrase “in such cases” should be understood to include any cases that similarly destroy a marriage,’ says Grudem (who thinks that applies especially to cases of abuse, where attempts at reconciliation and restoration have failed).  It should be noted that this represents a change of mind on the part of Grudem.

The Circumstances of Your Calling, 17-24

7:17 Nevertheless, as the Lord has assigned to each one, as God has called each person, so must he live. I give this sort of direction in all the churches. 7:18 Was anyone called after he had been circumcised? He should not try to undo his circumcision. Was anyone called who is uncircumcised? He should not get circumcised. 7:19 Circumcision is nothing and uncircumcision is nothing. Instead, keeping God’s commandments is what counts. 7:20 Let each one remain in that situation in life in which he was called. 7:21 Were you called as a slave? Do not worry about it. But if indeed you are able to be free, make the most of the opportunity. 7:22 For the one who was called in the Lord as a slave is the Lord’s freedman. In the same way, the one who was called as a free person is Christ’s slave. 7:23 You were bought with a price. Do not become slaves of men. 7:24 In whatever situation someone was called, brothers and sisters, let him remain in it with God.

If you can gain your freedom, do so – ‘The expression do so is a translation of the Greek words, which could better be rendered, make the most of, take advantage of. Commentators both ancient and modern have divided almost evenly between understanding these words to mean, make the most of your slavery, or make the most of your freedom (cf. Bartchy: Were you a slave when you were called? Don’t worry about it. But if, indeed, you become manumitted, by all means as a freed person live according to Gods calling; Bartchy 1973)…Paul seems to be saying in 1 Corinthians that social, economic and religious standing are of no significance in the church. Believers should live without anxiety in their present circumstances whether married to a believer or an unbeliever; whether they had come to Christ as Jews or Gentiles; whether they were slaves or free; whether men or women.’

v22 ‘The transforming possibilities of this…situation are hinted at elsewhere in Pauls writings. Masters who have become believers are called on to deal with their slaves in kindness and to remember that the Master who is over them both sees both as equals. (Eph 6:9) The seeds of the liberating gospel are gently sown into the tough soil of slavery. They bore fruit in the lives of Onesimus, the runaway slave, and Philemon, his master. The slave returns to the master, no longer slave but brother in the Lord (Philem 15-16).’ (Hard Sayings of the Bible)

Remaining Unmarried, 25-40

7:25 With regard to the question about people who have never married, I have no command from the Lord, but I give my opinion as one shown mercy by the Lord to be trustworthy. 7:26 Because of the impending crisis I think it best for you to remain as you are. 7:27 The one bound to a wife should not seek divorce. The one released from a wife should not seek marriage. 7:28 But if you marry, you have not sinned. And if a virgin marries, she has not sinned. But those who marry will face difficult circumstances, and I am trying to spare you such problems. 7:29 And I say this, brothers and sisters: The time is short. So then those who have wives should be as those who have none, 7:30 those with tears like those not weeping, those who rejoice like those not rejoicing, those who buy like those without possessions, 7:31 those who use the world as though they were not using it to the full. For the present shape of this world is passing away.

I have no command from the Lord – ‘Where Paul has no saying of Jesus to quote, he does not presume to invent one. While quotations of the words of Jesus in the epistles are not common, we have no evidence of the attribution to Jesus in the epistles of sayings invented to meet contemporary needs, nor do we find in the sayings attributed to Jesus in the gospels material culled from Pauline or other known Christian writings. The words of Jesus were treated as “sui generis”.’ (R.T. France, Q by Wenham, Christ and the Bible, 39)

The present crisis

What was 'the present crisis'?

As Rosner and Ciampa note, Paul’s underlying logic is plain enough:

‘Fee captures Paul’s underlying logic: “In light of the troubles you are already experiencing, who needs the additional burden of marriage as well?” Or as Morris puts it, “when high seas are raging, it is no time for changing ships.” In the absence of effective contraception in the ancient world, marriage inevitably led to having children and, all too often, to the death of the mother. The added responsibilities of the married state would be felt more acutely in times of economic or other social crises. As Francis Bacon observed, “children sweeten labours, but they make misfortunes more bitter.”’

The key word, ἀνάγκη, has been variously understood as referring to:

(a) something like famine (Bengel, Winter), or persecution.  According to Winter (NBC)

‘There is firm archaeological and literary evidence which indicates that there had been food shortages in Corinth during this period. These were inevitably accompanied by panic buying and riots because of social unrest and uncertainty about the future. Eleven inscriptions to the same person who was three times in charge of the grain supply in Corinth have been uncovered from this period. This office was only filled in times of famine, so there is good reason for connecting the crisis with the threat of famine. Tacitus also records earthquakes and famines. Many believed that these were divine portents. We know that Christians believed that the signs of the tribulation would be famines and earthquakes, and a blessedness was pronounced on those who were not pregnant.’ (Mt 24:7,19; Mk 13:17).

‘As he reminds his readers, since marriage entails providing material support for your family (vv. 32–34), getting married and bringing children into the world during a famine was best avoided.’ (Instone-Brewer, Moral Questions of the Bible)

(b) the conviction that Jesus was about to return, or, more plausibly, the expectation of troubles preceding Christ’s return (cf. Lk 21:23).  Schreiner favours this interpretation, although Morris does not think this fits the language used by Paul here.

(c) the challenges of Christian witness in a lost and hostile world (the key word being understood to mean ‘constraint’.  This would make good sense of the ‘as if not’ phrases in vv29-31.  See this article by D.A. Carson.

Circumstances determine priories

Although we cannot be sure what the ‘present crisis’ entailed, we can draw the general lesson that circumstances determine priorities.  ‘Clearly, [Paul] did not have in mind moral priorities for they always remain in place but secondary priorities, where personal choice comes into it—like whether or not to be married. A right assessment of our circumstances helps us to determine what our personal choices should be.’ (Prime)

The time is short – This could refer to:

(a) the brevity of life (Calvin); but it is difficult to see how this relates to the instructions given.

(b) the imminence of the parousia (Schreiner, Ciampa & Rosner).  ‘The generally accepted view is that what Paul has in mind is the imminence of the parousia, which renders the time short for making any long-term plans and imposes urgency upon believers in dealing with the Lord’s affairs. But it may be that there was a local crisis in Corinth that overshadowed the situation.’ (Marshall, New Testament Theology).  But, although Paul often refers to that event, he does to elsewhere issue these kinds of instructions in relation to it.

(c) the end of the present crisis was in sight (Morris).

‘Is it wisdom to lay out so much cost on thy tenement, which thou art leaving, and forget what thou must carry with thee? Before the fruit of these be ripe which thou art now planting, thyself may be rotting in the grave: ‘Time is short,’ saith the apostle, 1 Cor. 7:29. The world is near its port, and therefore God hath contracted the sails of man’s life but a while, and there will not be a point to choose whether we had wives or not, riches or not; but there will be a vast difference between those that had grace, and those that had not; yea, between those that did drive a quick trade in the exercise thereof, and those that were more remiss; the one shall have an ‘abundant entrance into glory,’ 2 Peter 1:11, while the other shall suffer loss in much of his lading, which shall be cast over-board as merchandise that will bear no price in that heavenly country.’ (Gurnall)

Christians in the World

‘The Christians are distinguished from other men neither by country, nor language, nor the customs which they observe.  For they neither inhabit cities of their own, nor employ a peculiar form of speech, nor lead a life which is marked out by any singularity…They dwell in their own countries, but simply as sojourners.  As citizens, they share in all things with others, and yet endure all things as if foreigners.  Every foreign land is to them as their native country, and every land of their birth as a land of strangers…They are in the flesh, but they do not live after the flesh.  They pass their days on earth, but they are citizens of heave.  They obey the prescribed laws, and at the same time surpass the laws by their lives.  They love all men, and are persecuted by all…They are poor, yet make many rich…To sum up all in one word – what the soul is in the body, that are Christians in the world.’ (Letter to Diognetus, c. AD 150)

7:32 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. 7:33 But a married man is concerned about the things of the world, how to please his wife, 7:34 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. 7:35 I am saying this for your benefit, not to place a limitation on you, but so that without distraction you may give notable and constant service to the Lord.

Paul’s meaning is that ‘unmarried men and women are free from the cares and attachments of the married and can thus give themselves with greater devotion to the Lord and the things of the Lord…Other people, relationships and things can, of course, divert Christians from full commitment to Christ. But marriage might be described as the most intimate and demanding of all human commitments. Hence the possibility of a clash or division of interests is especially high at this point.’ (Geoffrey Bromiley)

7:36 If anyone thinks he is acting inappropriately toward his virgin, if she is past the bloom of youth and it seems necessary, he should do what he wishes; he does not sin. Let them marry. 7:37 But the man who is firm in his commitment, and is under no necessity but has control over his will, and has decided in his own mind to keep his own virgin, does well. 7:38 So then, the one who marries his own virgin does well, but the one who does not, does better.

If anyone thinks he is acting improperly toward the virgin he is engaged to – If a parent or guardian thinks that he should not keep his betrothed in an indefinite unmarried state.

7:39 A wife is bound as long as her husband is living. But if her husband dies, she is free to marry anyone she wishes (only someone in the Lord). 7:40 But in my opinion, she will be happier if she remains as she is—and I think that I too have the Spirit of God!

Dies lit. ‘falls asleep’.

He must belong to the Lord – ‘Christians should marry Christians, but Christians are to strive for a godly home even when this is not the case. The expectation for a Christian to marry another Christian is implicit in Paul’s instructions about marrying “only in the Lord,” (1 Cor 7:39) and in his words about not being mismated with unbelievers (2 Cor 6:14).  As important as family relations are, a person’s commitment to God takes precedence in those unfortunate situations when the two commitments are in conflict (Mt 10:37; Lk 9:59-62). A Christian who is married to a non-Christian should seek to maintain the relationship, to raise any children as believers, and to win the unbelieving spouse. (1 Cor 7:12-16; 1 Pet 3:1-12) There is no evidence that Timothy’s father was a believer, (Ac 16:1). but his mother passed her faith along to her son’ (2 Tim 1:5 3:14-15). (Holman)

I think that I too have the Spirit of God – Paul may simply mean that this is not merely his personal opinion, but comes with divine authority.  Or, he may have in mind those Corinthians who took pride in their own spiritual giftedness while doubting Paul’s.  MHC paraphrases: ‘Whatever your false apostles may think of me, I think, and have reason to know, that I have the Spirit of God.’