Read the passage here.
There’s an awful lot to say about our passage today, and unfortunately not enough time to go over all of it. However, I hope that we are able to touch base on some of the main considerations with enough depth that it helps us all get a sense of what’s going on.
The first thing to note is that our passage today begins (essentially) a new section in the letter of 1 Corinthians. Paul begins this section with the phrase (in the NIV), “Now concerning the matters about which you wrote…” This “Now about…” phrase in Greek is peri de, and it’s repeated numerous times throughout the rest of the letter. And as we can see, it indicates that Paul is responding to something that the Corinthians have brought up.
And this brings us to one of the major difficulties of reading 1 Corinthians. That is, much of 1 Corinthians is response – in other words, what we have in 1 Corinthians is a conversation to which we are only privy to one side.
Now, in addition to the content, there are other elements of this conversation that are also unclear. For example, we don’t know where in the conversation we find 1 Corinthians. And we don’t want to spend time speculating. However, following Fee, we remember that Paul was instrumental in the founding and establishment of the Corinthian Christian community. After leaving Corinth, it seems like Paul wrote to them again at some point. And it likewise seems that the Corinthian community wrote back to Paul – possibly a segment of the church, but likely the church as a whole. And it appears that, in this correspondence, the Corinthians have taken issue (in some way, shape, or form) to what Paul had previously written. The letter that we have access to – 1 Corinthians – is then Paul’s response to this Corinthian correspondence.
So a major challenge in reading and understanding 1 Corinthians is the assumptions we make regarding what exactly Paul is addressing. What was it that the Corinthians said/wrote? What behaviour are they defending or what theology are they asserting? Is there a specific question that Paul is answering? Or is he doing more than answering a question and rather something he’s trying to correct or refute? And so on. Because we only have access to one side of the conversation, in a very real way, we can only make a best guess. (and we should also note that the re-construction of the correspondence I suggested is also at best an educated guess).
Now with all of that said, what can we know or determine about our passage today? First of all – and as we often say – the verses that we’re considering today are to a certain extent arbitrary. We could consider 7:1-24 as one unit, or (slightly less likely) all of chapter 7 (vv. 1-40) as a coherent unit. We’re looking at vv. 1-16, however, because they all have to do with marriage and sexuality.
Now having said that, though it’s apparent that vv. 1-16 all have to do with marriage and sexuality, it’s likewise apparent that there isn’t one single question that governs the entire passage. Paul addresses a number of different situations, or possibilities. (At the same time, because Paul is addressing a specific community, with a specific context, and specific challenges, I tend to find it difficult to believe that Paul is making blanket or absolute statements – although maybe he is).
So having said that, Paul does begin by addressing what seems to be a specific “question” or train of thought from the Corinthians. In v. 1, Paul says:
1 Now for the matters you wrote about: “It is good for a man not to have sexual relations with a woman.”1 Corinthians 7: 1
And this seems to be what the Corinthians are saying (another of their maxims?). And if we can make some assumptions, it would seem that (some of) the Corinthians are saying that it is more spiritual (that is, better) to abstain from sexual activity. Interestingly this is the other side of the same coin of the previous belief that we discussed which says the body doesn’t matter. Here, the belief that the body is inferior leads to the belief that pursuing physical pleasure is less spiritual than abstinence. That is, it is “better” to deny the physical so that one can pursue the “purely spiritual.”
Now in response to this, Paul begins by saying (esp. v. 2) that in a culture where sexual activity (i.e. immorality) is so dominant, it is better to pursue a godly relationship in the context of marriage, than to try to stay abstinent and fall victim to the temptations of the greater culture (here, I hope it is obvious that I’m making some fairly large interpretive assumptions).
The rest of this paragraph, vv. 3-7, may give us some insight into what’s going on in Corinth. As we’ve already discussed, there may be a tendency in the Corinthian congregation to view sexual activity, even within marriage, as less spiritual. And Paul is saying, rather emphatically, that this is not so. Now there’s a lot more to say here, about the significance of what Paul is saying, both from the point of view of marriage and from that of embodied spirituality – there’s also something to be said about Paul’s view of mutual submission between men and women – but we’ll carry on with the passage.
So if we can very quickly (too quickly) make some guesses as to what’s going on based on the rest of our verses, let’s take a look at the rest of our passage:
8 Now to the unmarried and the widows I say: It is good for them to stay unmarried, as I do. 9 But if they cannot control themselves, they should marry, for it is better to marry than to burn with passion.1 Corinthians 7: 8-9
Vv. 8-9 seem to say much the same as the previous verses (as we’ve just discussed). But without getting into it, the phrase “unmarried and widows” (which some argue is better understood as “widowers and widows”) seems to set this advice as targeting a particular population of the congregation. And this makes sense given what follows, because each of the next sets of verses is targeted towards a particular audience.
10 To the married I give this command (not I, but the Lord): A wife must not separate from her husband. 11 But if she does, she must remain unmarried or else be reconciled to her husband. And a husband must not divorce his wife.1 Corinthians 7: 10-11
These verses seem to be speaking to those who are already married, but are thinking about separating from their husband or wife. Of course, embedded within these verses might be an assumption (or, better, an understanding) about the biblical guidelines regarding marriage and divorce. But given what’s going on in the larger passage, we might understand (make a guess) that Paul’s particular concern has to do with those who are thinking about separating from their spouse, as an expression or exercise of asceticism (i.e. denying oneself, specifically in regards to sexual activity), because this is presumably “more spiritual.”
12 To the rest I say this (I, not the Lord): If any brother has a wife who is not a believer and she is willing to live with him, he must not divorce her. 13 And if a woman has a husband who is not a believer and he is willing to live with her, she must not divorce him. 14 For the unbelieving husband has been sanctified through his wife, and the unbelieving wife has been sanctified through her believing husband. Otherwise your children would be unclean, but as it is, they are holy.
15 But if the unbeliever leaves, let it be so. The brother or the sister is not bound in such circumstances; God has called us to live in peace. 16 How do you know, wife, whether you will save your husband? Or, how do you know, husband, whether you will save your wife?1 Corinthians 7: 12-16
These verses seem specifically to do with believers who are married to unbelievers. To which, Paul says that if the spouse is willing to stay, then don’t seek to leave that spouse. Again, this seems to me to suggest some sort of inclination to think that it is “more spiritual” to be alone/celibate than it is to remain with an unbelieving spouse.
However, Paul of course makes a concession for those whose spouses do not wish to remain with a believer. Paul says, “God has called us to live in peace.”
Now, before we carry on, I should make brief mention that marriage in 1st century Corinth would have been very different than marriage today. Or, the expectations and assumptions around marriage in Corinth would have been very different than what we expect and assume about marriage in 21st century Canada.
Of course it’s a little difficult to know and appreciate the extent of those differences. And even as we speak, the understanding of marriage in our world is changing. But we today do still largely have the understanding that marriage is about love and, to varying degrees, mutuality. There is the expectation that a married couple is trying to build a life together. And there is mostly the practice that marriage is something entered into freely and by choice. All of these things would have been different in 1st century Corinth.
But I don’t want to dwell on that because, while it certainly affects how we read Paul’s responses, that doesn’t seem to be the main thing that Paul is addressing (i.e. his main purpose isn’t to provide a “correct” or biblical view of marriage). Rather, as we read through these verses, and indeed the rest of chapter 7, the main motif that Paul repeats over and over again is, “don’t seek to change your current circumstance.” We can see this sentiment stated in various ways throughout the passage:
- 8 Now to the unmarried and the widows I say: It is good for them to stay unmarried, as I do.
- 10 To the married I give this command (not I, but the Lord): A wife must not separate from her husband
- 12 To the rest I say this (I, not the Lord): If any brother has a wife who is not a believer and she is willing to live with him, he must not divorce her. 13 And if a woman has a husband who is not a believer and he is willing to live with her, she must not divorce him.
And then continuing on beyond our verses today, we get this stated explicitly:
- 17 Nevertheless, each person should live as a believer in whatever situation the Lord has assigned to them, just as God has called them.
- 18 Was a man already circumcised when he was called? He should not become uncircumcised. Was a man uncircumcised when he was called? He should not be circumcised.
- 21 Were you a slave when you were called? Don’t let it trouble you…
- 26 Because of the present crisis, I think that it is good for a man to remain as he is.
In other words, maintaining one’s current situation – “don’t seek change” – seems to be Paul’s guiding motif in considering these questions. And if we flesh that sentiment out a little more, based on the text, Paul seems to be saying something like, “you can seek God, be faithful, live for His purposes, in whatever situation you find yourself.”
So if we return to Paul’s original remarks, we remember that he opened this section of the letter by writing:
1 Now for the matters you wrote about: “It is good for a man not to have sexual relations with a woman.”1 Corinthians 7: 1
And remember that we suggested that the situation which Paul is addressing is (possibly) a belief that complete celibacy, or denying the physical aspects of humanness, is more spiritual. Therefore, we have a congregation with members in various circumstances – formerly married, widowed, married to a believer, married to an unbeliever – who are thinking that they can become “more spiritual” by leaving their spouse, which is to say by forsaking the physical.
And to these various circumstances, Paul is saying, don’t change your situation, but “live as a believer in whatever situation the Lord has assigned to them, just as God has called them.”
Now again, I don’t want to ignore the fact that Paul has undoubtedly has convictions about marriage, that arise out of his theology and understanding of scripture. But I do tend to think that he is here addressing a particular situation, or at least a particular population, and that what he is saying here more reflects an approach to biblical wisdom than it reflects any kind of absolute mandate.
But at any rate, what does this have to do with us? Most of us aren’t thinking about changing our situations any time soon. And we’ve already discussed on numerous occasions the importance of considering the whole person – the spirit and the body – in thinking about spirituality. So does this passage even “apply” to us?
N.T. Wright has an interesting take on this. It’s nothing revolutionary or shocking, but it’s definitely worth noting. And recognizing that I’m probably taking some liberties, one element which Wright picks up is the question of, “where is this pressure coming from?”
That is, the Corinthians are clearly feeling pressure to – in this case – change their marital status, but where is this pressure coming from? They are being told, presumably, that in order to be more spiritual, more Godly, they need to change their status. And where is this coming from? Well, we’ve actually already talked about some of the places where these ideas are coming from. We’ve seen that the Corinthians have been listening to various different “leaders,” or various different philosophies and ideas, all of which have been leading them astray from the gospel.
Now I should note that Paul is not, by any means, saying that Christians can continue to do and to be whatever they want. He’s not saying, for example, if you’re a sinner, keep on sinning. What Paul is talking about is a particular way of adding to or taking away from the gospel to make it into something that fits in with worldly expectations rather than the good news of Christ.
But I think that what Paul is saying has a lot to do with, where do we get our ideas about spirituality? Where do we get our ideas about what it means to follow Christ, to be Christ-people? And where do we get our ideas about what it means to do all of that in this world? I think that what Paul is saying – or beginning to say, as we continue to read through 1 Corinthians – has something to do with fully being present, with our whole bodies, in our whole spirits, in this time and this place. Maybe part of what Paul is saying is to not let ourselves be so easily pulled off-track; to not be too easily distracted. Wherever we are can be where Christ is working in us. So let us pay attention to the work that Christ is doing in us, right here, and right now.