Read the passage here.
Our passage today is 1 Corinthians 7:25-40. And if you’ve been with us for the past couple of weeks (of 1 Corinthians), you know that our passage is closely related to, and is rightly part of, Paul’s argument through the rest of the chapter (ch. 7).
And if we remember, the whole discussion is precipitated by Paul’s responding to the Corinthians’ inquiry, which is referenced in 7:1.
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
Again, by way of review, it seems that some (if not most) in the Corinthian congregation have developed a view of spirituality and Christianity wherein only the spirit is good and everything in the physical is bad. Earlier in the letter, we saw one outworking of this philosophy that said, since the physical is bad (or alternatively, “irrelevant”), then it doesn’t matter what one does in the body. Here, we see the mirror image of the same philosophy which says, since the physical is bad, it should all be avoided.
And so the particular issue that Paul is dealing with has to do with marriage. In the first part of the chapter, Paul is working out the question (more or less), “should one leave/abandon one’s marriage?” (given that “it is good for a man not to have sexual relations with a woman”)? And his basic principle is that, one should remain in the situation he or she was in when they were called.
And in last week’s passage (17-24), we see Paul exploring this basic principle a little further. Or perhaps we might say, we see Paul using this principle as a basic foundation for spirituality.
So in today’s passage, we see Paul exploring another side of the marriage question (again, presumably these are specific questions that are being raised by the Corinthians). Specifically, given that Paul has already said that one should remain in the situation he or she was already in, if one is not yet married, but betrothed, should one go ahead with the marriage? And while Paul still holds to his basic principles, here he examines the question from yet another vantage point. And that brings us to our passage today.
Now Paul’s basic position is outlined in the first paragraph (vv. 25-28). Essentially he says, repeating his earlier maxim, that one should remain as he or she is. If one is betrothed (“pledged to a woman”), one should not seek to be released. Similarly, if one is not “committed,” one should not seek to get married. And to this, we might remember last week’s verses, upon which we reflected that one can seek God and His will (that is, one can “be spiritual”) from wherever she or he is.
And this is (probably) in response to the Corinthians’ belief that certain positions or postures are more spiritual or better for seeking and pleasing God. To which Paul responds (again) that this is not so. God calls us wherever we are.
However, that’s not all that Paul has to say. The rest of the passage seems to deal with Paul’s own decision to remain unmarried. And again, because we don’t know what the Corinthians were saying, we rely to a certain extent on educated guesswork. But it seems to me that Paul is addressing this because the Corinthians look at Paul’s choice as a way to justify their own stance. In other words, they may have been saying something like, “It is good for a man not to have sexual relations – to therefore, not get married (and I don’t want to get into the distinction between these two, but it does seem to matter for this passage). Look! Even Paul agrees that it is good not to get married.”
However, what Paul says is that the Corinthians are basing this idea on faulty theology. Again, they seem to believe in a distinction between the spiritual and the physical. So their belief in the maxim, “it is good for a man not to have sexual relations,” would be completed in their minds by the phrase (or something like it), “because the body and the physical world are evil and must be rejected.”
But Paul’s decision to not get married has nothing to do with such sideways theology. Paul makes it clear that his decision to remain unmarried is so that he can focus his life and attention on serving God (and in serving God in a particular way).
But Paul doesn’t say this explicitly – he doesn’t say, “I decided not to get married because…” What he says is that he thinks it would be good for others to choose to remain single in order to focus on the things of God. In v. 32-35, he says:
32 I would like you to be free from concern. An unmarried man is concerned about the Lord’s affairs—how he can please the Lord. 33 But a married man is concerned about the affairs of this world—how he can please his wife— 34 and his interests are divided. An unmarried woman or virgin is concerned about the Lord’s affairs: Her aim is to be devoted to the Lord in both body and spirit. But a married woman is concerned about the affairs of this world—how she can please her husband. 35 I am saying this for your own good, not to restrict you, but that you may live in a right way in undivided devotion to the Lord.1 Corinthians 7: 32-35
And in case we missed it, Paul says that he is particularly concerned about this because “the days are short…” In the previous verses, (23-32), Paul says:
29 What I mean, brothers and sisters, is that the time is short. From now on those who have wives should live as if they do not; 30 those who mourn, as if they did not; those who are happy, as if they were not; those who buy something, as if it were not theirs to keep; 31 those who use the things of the world, as if not engrossed in them. For this world in its present form is passing away.1 Corinthians 7: 29-31
Now although he doesn’t really go into detail about it here, this should make it clear that Paul’s concerns are ultimately eschatological. If we can short-hand it somewhat, Paul seems to be saying something like, “the end is coming soon; therefore, we cannot live as if the present moment is all there is.” Or perhaps, “we are in the final days; don’t get caught up in days that are passing away.”
Given this, however, Paul admits (in vv. 36-38) that there is still good reason to get married if one desires, or if it is better for that person. Paul here emphasizes that, though he does indeed have these eschatological concerns, and hopes that others share them, if one chooses to get married, then this is also good – and this brings us back to his point at the first part of chapter 7.
The final verses, 39-40, may feel a little out of place. Or at least it’s a little puzzling as to how these two verses fit in here, as the final word in this chapter. But following (Gordon) Fee, it seems that as previous verses (36-38) serve as the conclusion (or wrapping up) for the men in the audience, vv. 39-30 serve as the conclusion for the women. And the message is indeed a wrapping up. For Paul says again what we have already heard. Firstly, that if one is married, one should remain married; and if one is unmarried (here, Paul refers to widows – for women who have never been married yet, we could refer again the previous vv. 36-38), one can re-marry if they choose to – though, as he has just said, there is an advantage to remaining unmarried.
Now we’ve gone through today’s passage rather quickly. I hope that we’ve gained some understanding of what’s going on in these verses, and also how these verses are situated in the larger passage (that is, chapter 7 as a whole). So at this point, I thought it might be useful to sort of review, but more reflect on what we might “do with this passage” (as much as I dislike thinking of scripture in this way).
Though I also hate beating a dead horse, it might be useful to remember that this whole section seems to be Paul’s response to the Corinthians’ questions or thoughts which is introduced by the phrase, “Now for the matters you wrote about: “It is good for a man not to have sexual relations with a woman.” Now I don’t want to re-hash what’s probably going on with the Corinthians. But keeping all this in mind, and the discussions we’ve had about where this comes from, we have postulated that Paul’s response and reflections which might be summed up as follows:
One of the first things that Paul deals with is the notion of Embodied spirituality. That is, Paul refutes the idea prevalent among the Corinthians that only the “spirit” matters and the things of the physical body are either irrelevant (which he addressed earlier) or evil (which is what he seems to be addressing here).
The particular issue at hand is sexual relations. But while Paul would agree with the Corinthians’ desire to oppose the attitudes of the prevailing culture regarding sex (that is, around sexual immorality), he vehemently disagrees with the Corinthians that this also applies (or might apply) to married couples. Paul understands that sexual relations in marriage is actually a God-created, God-ordained, and God-given good. God created us as physical beings, in a physical world, in time and space, and God saw that it was very good.
So more broadly speaking, Paul affirms the basic scriptural truth that we are meant to inhabit this world. We cannot seek to be more spiritual, we cannot speak to be more human, by ignoring how we are in fact created.
Related to this idea, Paul tells the Corinthians repeatedly throughout this passage that they should remain in the situations they were in when they were called by God. Now, we shouldn’t understand this to mean we should never seek to change or never seek to grow. Rather, we might say that we don’t have to try to be something else before God will bless us or before God will use us. We might say that God isn’t waiting for us to become better, become greater, before He calls us for His purposes.
We talked a little about what this means for us, though we didn’t get into too much detail. But if I can suggest something that we might reflect on, there is often the belief (the pressure?) in western churches that in order for God to really work in us, work through us, we have to become bigger, brighter, and better. But maybe, God calls us precisely as we are, to be who we are. Again, I’m not saying that we aren’t called to change or grow. But maybe God calls us precisely to be a small church; maybe He calls us precisely to be an eclectic church; maybe He calls us precisely to focus on who we are rather than who someone or something else tells us we’re supposed to be.
Now of course this raises a number of other questions, not least of which has to do with identity, but I’ll leave that with you for now.
Now the final part of chapter 7, we talked about today. And of course, I don’t want to re-hash what we’ve just talked about. But it’s worth recognizing that, to some extent, all of what Paul is concerned about is set in the context of what, for him, it means to be a kingdom people in the last days. Now I don’t want to get into a discussion of what “the last days” means, or what Paul’s thoughts about that might be here. And of course, here we are two thousand years later. So it might be more useful for us to frame this idea in terms we usually use here – that is, that we are in the in-between time. What does it mean to be a kingdom people in the in-between time? What does it mean to be a Jesus people, knowing that everything has changed because of the death and resurrection of Christ? What does it mean knowing that the kingdom of this world have become the kingdom of our Lord and of his Christ; and he shall reign forever and ever?
And to be fair, that’s what the Corinthians are trying to do, I think. According to Paul, they are getting an awful lot of things wrong – but they want to get it right, I think. They want to be a kingdom people, a Jesus people, in the midst of a fallen and broken world. At some point, they have all presumably responded to the truth of Jesus Christ, and they want to take hold of the life of faith, the salvation life. But in order to do so, in order to keep from going astray, as Paul says, it becomes exceedingly important that they pay attention to the word of God. In their immediate context, it meant paying attention to Paul and his teaching (and presumably the teaching of the other apostles), as they are all led by the Holy Spirit.
And in order to do all of this well, they have to continue to examine themselves – to allow the Holy Spirit to reveal how and to what extent they are being formed by the world instead of being formed by the Spirit. To repent appropriately and seek instead the Lord our God with all their hearts, minds, and strength.
And what I want to say to us, as a community, as a body of Christ is that this is what we are also still doing – I hope and I pray. We, like the Corinthians, want to take hold of the life for which Christ Jesus died for us.
And even if we can’t really relate to what the Corinthians are wrestling with here, even though the world of 1st century Corinth may be very different than our own, the experience of being human, the challenges of being human in this world are not very different (I suspect) than in that world.
So as we continue through this letter to the Corinthians, I invite us all to try to learn from the struggles of the church in Corinth. I invite us to see in their challenges, encouragement for our own walk in faith. And as we keep working out what it means to be a kingdom people in this world, this in-between time, may we pay attention to the word of God through Paul to His church then, as it speaks to and works in us even now.