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).
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.
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.
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.
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 –
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)
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.’