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
With this chapter, Paul begins to answer a series of several questions that were addressed to him from Corinth. If this request was in the form of a letter, it is now lost to us. However, we can pretty much piece together its basic contents by taking note of the questions Paul is answering here.
The apostle’s introduction is rather blunt and somewhat troubling. In the Greek, it reads that it is good for a man not to “touch” (hapto) a woman. Donald Guthrie, of London Bible College, sees this as a euphemism for sexual relations.1 Quite a number of translations continue to use the word “touch” (NKJ, NRS, NAS, etc.), but a few translations such as the NIV here render it as sexual relations in marriage. Paul’s statement strikes us on the surface as a very low view of marriage, since one marries only to avoid fornication (v.2). Rather than being a low view of marriage though, it may be a way of honestly facing the awful threat of fornication that was an everyday thing in the city of Corinth.2
When we look at Paul’s other teachings we realize that he had quite a high and noble view of marriage. We see this reflected in Ephesians 5:21-33 and Colossians 3:18-19. Of course, such a high view of marriage is seen in Genesis 2:18, Psalms 127:1-5; 128:1-6, Proverbs 18:22, 19:14; 31:10 ff., and through much of the Song of Solomon.
In their first question, the Corinthians must have asked if married couples should continue on with normal sexual relations after becoming Christians. Paul answers this question in verses 1-7. 3 The answer is “yes.” Not only should they continue, but it is their duty to each other (blessed duty).
In order to understand something about the background of this question, we need to refresh ourselves on the normal Greek philosophical idea that the earth, the flesh, the body and all that pertains to earth is evil, and that only the spiritual realm is good. The Greeks felt that abstinence from marriage was actually one of the “counsels of perfection.” 4
In ancient Greece, some philosophers went into retreat to escape the defilement of the world. Those philosophers who retired from the world were called solitaries (monachoi). The habitation of their retirement was called a place of solitude (monsasterion).5 It certainly does not take much imagination to see where this kind of thinking influenced the church in later years. Edwin Hatch says, “…To Greece, more than to any other factor, was due the place and earliest conception of that sublime individualism which centered all a man’s efforts on the development of his spiritual life, and withdrew him from his fellow-men in order to bring him near to God.” 6 The retreat to monasteries and nunneries, as well as a celibate priesthood in later years, would spell the end of marriage for millions of Christians.
It is no doubt from the Greeks that we got the idea that sex was something dirty, something that we should hardly talk about. In his teaching here, Paul absolutely destroys this idea as we shall see. The apostle was steeped in the teaching of Judaism, which saw all of God’s creation as good (Gen. 1:31). That included the body, marriage and the sexual relationship in marriage. The Bible teaches that it is not good for man to be alone (Gen. 2:18). It teaches that to deny marriage is apostasy (1 Tim. 4:1-3). How greatly we have all been affected by the Greek ideas which looked on these things as dirty, depraved and ugly.
“But since sexual immorality is occurring, each man should have sexual relations with his own wife, and each woman with her own husband” (7:2). Today we cannot even imagine how sexually polluted the city of Corinth was. As we mentioned earlier, the temple of the love goddess Aphrodite was there, and historians report that at times as many as one thousand “holy” prostitutes were at that temple and were wandering through the city plying their wares. It was literally a cesspool of iniquity. Standing against all this evil was the sacred institution of marriage.
Many ancient societies were horrible so far as their morals were concerned. Yet, today we have a large segment of our US population that seems to desire a return to this ancient immorality. Perhaps we have even exceeded Corinth with our push for homosexuality, LGBT (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual & Transsexual) rights, homosexual marriages and the like. At this writing, the highest court in the US has just approved homosexual marriage.
This return to ancient paganism is nowhere better reflected than in America’s higher institutions of learning. Ben Shapiro, in his book, Brainwashed, How Universities Indoctrinate America’s Youth, says: “Sex is promoted non-stop in the classroom. All types of sex are deemed natural and fulfilling. Homosexuality is perfectly normal. Pedophilia is acceptable, if a bit weird. Statutory rape is laughed off. Bestiality is fine.” 7
Nathan Harden became shocked at his own alma mater, Yale University. In his book, Sex and God at Yale, he details just how low this great university has stooped by introducing pure porn in massive doses to its students. He says, “I had thought of Yale as a modern-day equivalent of the Athenian agora; but all too often, I found myself sitting in the equivalent of an intellectual whorehouse.” 8 He continues, saying: “I was witnessing nothing less than a prophetic vision of America’s descent into an abyss of moral aimlessness, at the hands of those now charged with educating its future leaders.” 9
Getting back to Corinth and the dismal situation there, Morris says, “Since fornication was so common at Corinth it was hard for the unmarried to remain chaste and hard for them to persuade others that they were, in fact, chaste.” 10 Paul was certain that the only cure was Christian marriage and the pure and holy sexual relation within marriage.
“The husband should fulfill his marital duty to his wife, and likewise the wife to her husband” (7:3). This is a remarkable statement in the male-dominated Mediterranean world of ancient times. We see here that the husband has a marital duty to his wife and not just the other way around. It is clear that the husband does not have absolute control of his own body, but the wife shares in that control. The same is true of the wife. She does not have absolute control of her body but must share that control with her husband. It is clear that marriage is to be a partnership.11 As some of the older marriage vows express it, each one must be given “to have and to hold” the other. Morris points out how the verb used here is present imperative and suggests that the close sexual relationship is to be a habitual duty for the couple.12
In Corinth there seemed to be a unique problem regarding sexual relations within marriage. Again, because of Greek ideas, some seemed to be avoiding normal sexual relations within marriage. Metz says here, “Among some of the Corinthians there existed an exaggerated spiritualistic tendency which threatened to injure conjugal relations. There existed a view among ascetics that sex relations were in and of themselves wicked, or evil; and the blight of this monastic error has fallen upon all succeeding generations.” 13
This may be termed “spiritual marriage” but in light of the Bible it is not spiritual at all. In fact, for a couple to refuse each other sexually was to defraud or even commit robbery against the partner (1 Thes. 4:6).14
We cannot tell to what degree this “spiritual marriage” had become a problem at Corinth, but we can be certain it became a big problem in later times. Around AD 175, the church father Athenagoras (c. 133 – c. 190) said: “Likewise, to us the procreation of children is the limit of our indulgence in [sexual] appetite.15 Later in 195, the popular teacher, Clement of Alexandria, taught: “To such a spiritual man, after conception, his wife is a sister and is treated as if of the same father.” 16 We can realize what a burden Greek thinking placed upon the new Christian church, and how some of those ideas have lingered on.
“The wife does not have authority over her own body but yields it to her husband. In the same way, the husband does not have authority over his own body but yields it to his wife. (7:4). In the ancient world women had very few rights. Morris remarks about this: “…Two things are noteworthy: the putting of the sexes on an absolute equality in this matter, and the indispensability of the sex act in marriage.” 17 Obviously, with Paul’s statement all ideas of a sexless marriage, or celibacy within marriage are out the window.
Do not deprive each other except perhaps by mutual consent and for a time, so that you may devote yourselves to prayer. Then come together again so that Satan will not tempt you because of your lack of self-control. 1 Corinthians 7:5
Stedman says here: “…Paul puts his finger on what is one of the most frequent causes for disaster in marriage – a unilateral refusal to grant the gift of enjoyment and pleasure to one’s mate…” 18 Paul obviously regards the sexual act within marriage as extremely important. In this way, the two persons truly become one. For either party in the marriage to withhold sex from the other party is considered an act of fraud (apostereite).19 We can understand how forced abstinence in marriage later in church history must have brought about some very tortured and unhappy Christian couples.
The apostle here does allow times of abstinence with the stipulation that they be short times as couples take time off for seasons of prayer. He does not state how long these periods should be. However, in the Mishnah (Ket. v. 6), such periods could run from a week to longer, even to thirty days.20 Clearly, the lack of sexual activity in marriage could bring either of the partners into temptation in the sexual area.
“I say this as a concession, not as a command” (7:6). There is some discussion among commentators as to what this statement refers. Morris says, “It makes good sense to say that the suspension of intercourse is the concession (it is likely to refer to the resumption of sexual intercourse).” 21 This makes clear that Paul was not opposed to marriage or to sexual relationships within marriage. He realizes that the Bible has not spoken on this particular aspect of marriage but he feels he has the mind of the Lord. Barnes says, “…Paul here does not claim to be under inspiration in these directions…It shows that he was an honest man, and was disposed to state the exact truth…” 22
“I wish that all of you were as I am. But each of you has your own gift from God; one has this gift, another has that” (7:7). Obviously, Paul was living the celibate life as an unmarried person. He desired that every man did the same, and this desire was based on “the present crisis” reflected in verse 26. We have no exact idea as to what this crisis was, but we will speak more about it when we get to this verse. In order to live a celibate life Paul makes plain that a gift from God is necessary. Clearly, everyone does not have such a gift, so the apostle makes allowances for this.
There is considerable discussion among commentators as to the apostle’s status. Many scholars feel that Paul was once married and that his wife had either died or else left him when he became a Christian.23 Halley gives his opinion, saying, “This chapter seems to have been written by one who knew something of the intimacies of the married life” 24 Barclay has this to say regarding Paul:
We may be fairly certain that at some time Paul had been married…He was a Rabbi and it was his own claim that he had failed in none of the duties which Jewish law and tradition laid down. Now orthodox Jewish belief laid down the obligation of marriage. If a man did not marry and have children, he was said to have “slain his posterity,” “to have lessened the image of God in the world”…God had said, “Be fruitful and multiply,” and, therefore, not to marry and not to have children was to be guilty of breaking a positive commandment of God. The age for marriage was considered to be eighteen; and therefore it is in the highest degree unlikely that so devout and orthodox a Jew as Paul once was would have remained unmarried…He must have been a member of the Sanhedrin for he says that he gave his vote against the Christians (Acts 26:10). It was a regulation that members of the Sanhedrin must be married men, because it was held that married men were more merciful. 25
In many respects though, it was a great blessing that Paul was not married. Can we imagine the danger, stress and discomfort of him dragging a wife and family along on his long mission trips? Can we imagine the emotional suffering of watching Paul be whipped, stoned, cast into prison, or shipwrecked? Indeed, it was no job for a family man.
TO BE, OR NOT TO BE MARRIED
Now to the unmarried and the widows I say: It is good for them to stay unmarried, as I do. 1 Corinthians 7:8
Here Paul deals with the second question asked by the Corinthian church: Should single persons get married? The answer is given with caution. If they can control themselves they should remain unmarried like Paul, at least for the present situation. If they cannot, they should get married. He gives this answer in verses 8-9.
The term “unmarried” (agamois) is a very broad one. It includes all those who are not bound in the married state.26 This would include widows and widowers. We need to remember that this advice is based on the contingency we read about in verse 26. We should understand that some people have a calling and gifting to live a single life. Paul had such a gift. However, it cannot be done successfully without such a calling and gifting. In more normal situations Paul is very pro-marriage and even commands widows to marry (1 Tim. 5:14).
“But if they cannot control themselves, they should marry, for it is better to marry than to burn with passion” (7:9). The Greek word for burn, puroo, can simply mean to burn, or even to burn in Gehenna.27 However, many scholars see it as burning with sexual passion. In essence, this is the translations of the NET, NKJ, NRS, NASB, RSV, as well as here in the NIV. Smith feels that the burning with sexual desire is to be preferred.28
Paul is not putting down marriage but again is giving advice in light of the “present crisis.” “Marriage is the normal way to fulfill a strong and recurrent, God-given desire.” 29 Wiersbe warns us in our thinking, “…please keep in mind that Paul is replying to definite questions. He is not spelling out a complete “theology of marriage.” 30
ADVICE TO THE MARRIED
To the married I give this command (not I, but the Lord): A wife must not separate from her husband. 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
Here Paul deals with the third question asked by the Corinthians. They had asked whether or not divorce was permitted for Christians. His answer in verses 10-11 is a resounding “No!” This answer is not based upon the apostle’s spiritual leading but upon the plain commands of the Lord God.
Both Jesus and the Bible speak plainly about divorce – too plain for our age I fear. Paul speaks clearly in this verse and also in verse 39. Jesus speaks clearly about divorce in Matthew 5:31-32; 19:3-12; Mark. 10:2-12 and Luke 16:18. He says that if someone divorces his or her mate and marries another, that person is guilty of adultery. Of course all this was made clear in the Old Testament, especially in the book of Malachi. That prophet assures us that God hates divorce (Mal. 2:16 NRS).
In Paul’s day, divorce in the Greco-Roman world had already reached plague proportions. While in Israel, the woman could not obtain a divorce, in the Roman world the woman could do so. Barclay remarks that “Roman women of the aristocracy dated the years by the names of their husbands and not by the names of the consuls.” 31 Today it appears that we are doing like the Romans did regarding marriage. Sadly, the Christian divorce rate in the US remains very similar to the pagan rate. To make matters worse, the divorce rate among the clergy is rising faster than any other profession.32 So something just doesn’t add up.
Today western Christians seem far removed from the simple teaching on divorce found in the Bible. This was not the case with the early Christian fathers. They continued on with Paul’s teaching. The early writer Justin Martyr said around 160: “All who have been twice married by human law, are sinners in the eye of our Master.” 33 Tertullian around 207 said, “Christ plainly forbids divorce.” 34 Cyprian around 250 reflects the words of the Bible saying, “A wife must not depart from her husband. Or, if she should depart, she must remain unmarried.” 35
What a mess we have in today’s western Christian world! When I was a child growing up in the rural Bible Belt, divorce was almost unheard of. There were one or two divorced women in our small town and frankly, they were almost shunned. It was unthinkable for a deacon or pastor to be divorced. Now, divorce is everywhere. There is hardly a church family that has not been touched in some way by divorce. There are multitudes of divorced deacons and pastors in our churches. God help us! As we lose the mystery and holiness of marriage, we are almost destined to lose the mystery and holiness of the church.
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. 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. 1 Corinthians 7:12-13
The apostle now deals with the fourth question raised by the Corinthians (vs.12-16). The question was: Are marriages between pagans and Christians binding? He answers yes, with one stipulation. When a Christian is married to a pagan, that relationship is still binding. However, if the pagan desires to leave, the Christian partner is freed from the bond. Paul acknowledges here that he does not have the Lord’s direct word on this. He cannot quote Scriptures about it. However, he feels that he is speaking with spiritual authority and that he is being guided by the Spirit of God.36
Obviously, God is pro-marriage. He wants relationships to remain intact, even when one member is not a Christian. We should make plain here that a Christian should not willingly marry a pagan. “It is an act of disobedience for a Christian knowingly to marry an unsaved person (1 Cor. 7:39, 2 Cor. 6:14).” 37 Still, when one becomes a Christian and their spouse is still a pagan, Kretzmann says, “the brother or the sister in the congregation is not kept in bondage under such circumstances; they are not to be told that they are still bound, but may consider themselves free, just as though the other party had died.” 38 Of course, this applies only when the pagan member is unwilling to remain in the marriage.
Love does strange things to our thinking, even to the thinking of devout Christians. Many times persons will enter the marriage relationship with unbelievers, with the pretext that they will bring that other person to the Lord. Most of these situations work only temporarily, long enough to get the marriage ceremony done. Afterward, the unsaved person will likely relapse and remain in an unsaved condition. Also, it is never a good policy to enter into marriage with the idea that we will change the other partner.
If the pagan member decides to leave the marriage, that party is free to go, and the Christian is no longer bound. Bruce notes, “in contrast to Jewish law, Greek and Roman law permitted a wife to divorce her husband.” 39 Comfort reminds us “that the divorce laws should not be used to dispose of one partner in order to get another one….” 40
Barclay says of the mixed marriage: “…in such a case it is not the taint of heathenism but the grace of Christianity which wins the victory…In a partnership between a believer and an unbeliever, it is not so much that the believer is brought into contact with the realm of sin, as that the unbeliever is brought into contact with the realm of grace…For Paul evangelization began at home.” 41
“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” (7:14). Commentators have written reams trying to explain this verse. How can an unbelieving partner be sanctified through the believing one? Commentators do not see this as actual salvation, but more like being brought under the saving influence. “The word ‘sanctified’…does not refer to moral purity – Paul is certainly not teaching that the unbelieving partner is made morally pure through a believing spouse. What the word emphasizes is a relationship to God, a claim of God on the person and family to be set apart for him (cf. Ac 20:32; 26:18).” 42
Perhaps Bruce makes the right sense of this when he compares this verse to the Old Testament idea of holiness by association. Whatever touches the altar becomes holy as we see in Leviticus 6:18. 43 Commentators generally feel that this describes a coming under the favorable influence of God; gaining the protection of God; coming into a special relationship with God. It is very similar to those Gentiles in the past that came under the influence of Israel.
The children, like the unsaved partner, also come under the influence and protection of God. The church father Tertullian comments: “The children of believers were in some sense destined for holiness and salvation…” 44 Morris adds: “Until he is old enough to take the responsibility upon himself, the child of a believing parent is to be regarded as Christian.” 45 All this assumes that the child will make his or her decision to follow Christ upon coming to the age of accountability.
LIVING IN PEACE
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. 1 Corinthians 7:15
A Christian is not called to live his or her life in dissention and warfare at home. If the unbelieving partner departs, then that partner should be allowed to divorce. The Christian partner is then free to remarry. This is commonly known as the “Pauline Privilege.” 46 It is not clearly spelled out in Scripture, but Paul claims direction by the Spirit of God. The early writer, Theodoret of Cyr, says: “The believing partner is not to be the cause of the divorce. But if the unbelieving partner wants to separate, the believing partner is innocent and free from any accusation.” 47
Utley comments: “Marriage is not primarily for evangelism; it is for companionship and fellowship, therefore, a believing partner should not stay with the unbelieving partner in a situation of abuse and unlove, simply for the hope of evangelism.” 48
“How do you know, wife, whether you will save your husband? Or, how do you know, husband, whether you will save your wife? (7:16). As we have said, marriage is not to be seen merely as a means of evangelism. Of course, one person cannot save another person. However, they can lead that other person to a saving experience with Jesus. Sometimes the other party is strongly resistant. It is possible on occasions that this is a part of the cross that the believing party is to bear. Clarke says, “Bear your cross, and look up to God, and he may give your unbelieving husband or wife to your prayers.” 49
Too often in these situations the Christian wife particularly is prone to nag her husband about becoming a believer, not realizing that lifestyle is more important than words. Peter gives advice here: “Wives, in the same way submit yourselves to your own husbands so that, if any of them do not believe the word, they may be won over without words by the behavior of their wives, when they see the purity and reverence of your lives”
(1 Pet. 3:1-2 ).
A SURE RULE FOR CHRISTIAN LIVING
Nevertheless, each person should live as a believer in whatever situation the Lord has assigned to them, just as God has called them. This is the rule I lay down in all the churches. 1 Corinthians 7:17
Paul is laying down a rule of Christian living that should apply in many situations. When a person becomes a Christian that person should not feel obligated to make a lot of changes in life-calling and work. Of course, the person should change professions if the one he or she has is immoral. This is an important principle and is seen here as well as in verses 20 and 24. Morris says, “Paul’s point is that one can serve God in a variety of places and it is not necessary to leave one’s station in life simply because one is converted.” 50
Sometimes Christians are prone to make such rash and wholesale changes without thinking through the consequences. I remember, as a church leader in Israel, that we once counseled with a young man and discovered he had left his wife and children in the US, while he had come to Israel to “serve the Lord.” All of our leaders were unanimous in advising him to return to his family and serve the Lord with them. There is a saying of Mary Engelbreit that pretty well sums all this up: “bloom where you are planted.”
It should be said that God has a right to move a person if he so wishes. Such a decision should be approached with much prayer, and it is best that confirmation be had from leaders or others in the church. It should certainly be confirmed by Scripture. The Gadarene demoniac wanted to follow Jesus in the boat but Jesus sent him back home, so that he could tell family and friends all the wonderful things the Lord had done for him (Mk. 5:18-20).
“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” (7:18). Circumcision was a huge thing for the Jewish people. It was the unmistakable mark of the covenant. For a Jewish male not to be circumcised was to cut himself off from the congregation of Israel. On occasions in the Greek world, certain Jews tried to undo the mark of circumcision. They tried to do this so they could run naked in the Greek races and not be jeered. They also tried to do it to escape the shame of being a Jew when they entered the public baths. They sometimes did it to avoid outright persecution.51
“Circumcision is nothing and uncircumcision is nothing. Keeping God’s commands is what counts” (7:19). Now that the New Covenant has come, circumcision is no longer a natural thing. Paul says it well in Romans 2:29: “No, a person is a Jew who is one inwardly; and circumcision is circumcision of the heart, by the Spirit, not by the written code. Such a person’s praise is not from other people, but from God.” He also says in Galatians 5:6: “For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision has any value. The only thing that counts is faith expressing itself through love.”
We might add a note that today most Jewish believers in Christ are circumcised and they insist on circumcising their sons. This circumcision is not a matter of righteousness but is a matter of identification with the nation of Israel. In much the same way, young Timothy was circumcised by Paul, not as a matter of belief, but so that he could better work with the Jews (Acts 16:3).
Truly we cannot add anything to the work Jesus has done in our lives. George Herbert once wrote these verses:
This is the famous stone
That turneth all to gold;
For that which God doth touch and own
Cannot for less be told. 52
“Each person should remain in the situation they were in when God called them” (7:20). Here Paul gives the rule again. The word for situation or calling is klesei. Smith sees this as one’s “station in life, position, condition.” He says this “…seems to capture this notion of one’s earthly circumstances…social, economic, geographic, or occupational at the time of his or her conversion.” 53 Paul keeps emphasizing this rule. We note that it was a practice in all the churches where he ministered.
“Were you a slave when you were called? Don’t let it trouble you— although if you can gain your freedom, do so” (7:21). In the ancient world a high percentage of the people were slaves. Sometimes, slaves even had the upper hand so far as population was concerned. Barnes mentions that in her best days the city of Athens had 20,000 freemen and some 400,000 slaves.54 We can understand how ancient societies were already nervous lest the slave population get out of hand. Keener points out how every attempted slave uprising was brutally crushed in the ancient world. 55
In light of this tense background, Paul had to choose his words carefully. Coffman says, “If one single word could have been quoted in Rome as tending to excite slaves to revolt, it would have quadrupled the intensity and savagery of the imperial government’s hatred and persecution of Christians, at a time when persecution was already under way.” 56 Paul thus advises slaves to be loyal. He says also in Ephesians. 6:5: “Slaves, obey your earthly masters with respect and fear, and with sincerity of heart, just as you would obey Christ. Obey them not only to win their favor when their eye is on you, but as slaves of Christ, doing the will of God from your heart.”
There is an interpretive problem with the latter part of this verse and that problem has persisted through the centuries. There seems to be two possibilities, or two options of interpretation in this verse. The options revolve around the words mallon chrēsai. Perhaps Smith has the best explanation: “…These two options are represented clearly by the ideas that (1) even if you have a chance of freedom, you should prefer to make full use of your condition as a slave… and (2) but if you can gain your freedom, avail yourself of the opportunity.” He says that all considerations “…tip the balance in favor of the second view…” 57 As we see, the NIV opts for this second interpretation.
“For the one who was a slave when called to faith in the Lord is the Lord’s freed person; similarly, the one who was free when called is Christ’s slave” (7:22). The kingdom of God is in one sense a crazy upside-down kingdom. The poor are rich, the giving receive, the dying live and the slaves are free. We are reminded again that the early Christians commonly referred to themselves as the Lord’s slaves (douloi). Today we have somehow lost that concept. In this day of so-called “independence” most people do not realize that there is no such thing as absolute freedom. Such a thing always ends up in deep slavery to evil. Our only true freedom is in slavery to Jesus. The Lord says in Matthew 11:29-30: “Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.”
Paul warns us here saying: “You were bought at a price; do not become slaves of human beings” (7:23). The church father Jerome remarks, “What greater price is there than that the Creator shed his blood for the creature?” 58 Ambrosiaster adds, “We have been bought at so high a price that only Christ, who owns everything, is able to pay it.” 59 The Psalmist says: “the ransom for a life is costly, no payment is ever enough— so that they should live on forever and not see decay” (Psa. 49:8-9). And Jesus asks: “What good will it be for someone to gain the whole world, yet forfeit their soul? Or what can anyone give in exchange for their soul? (Mat 16:26).
While it is blessed to be a slave of Christ, we Christians must always guard against becoming slaves of men. I well remember how the Shepherding Movement of the 70s and 80s brought thousands of Christians into deep bondage. The lines of authority in this movement were so strict that the average believer had to ask permission of leadership before making the most mundane and everyday decision. The movement eventually ran itself aground leaving thousands of broken lives behind. We must not submit ourselves wholly and exclusively to anyone but Jesus.
“Brothers and sisters, each person, as responsible to God, should remain in the situation they were in when God called them” (7:24). Paul seems to be a bit redundant with this instruction, but he wants us all to understand it clearly. We should not feel compelled to make drastic changes in our situation or station in life just because we have become a Christian.
MORE QUESTIONS FROM CORINTH
Now about virgins: I have no command from the Lord, but I give a judgment as one who by the Lord’s mercy is trustworthy. Because of the present crisis, I think that it is good for a man to remain as he is. 1 Corinthians 7:25-26
Paul here comes to question five, as to whether Christian fathers or guardians should give their daughters in marriage. The fathers and guardians were given such permission, but certain guidelines were suggested (vs. 25-38).
Paul has no specific command from the Lord or from the Scriptures. Yet, he feels that his direction is Spirit-led and correct for the specific time. The word for “virgins” (parthenos) has aroused considerable discussion from commentators. Quite a number of them feel that Paul is speaking about both sexes, however, the Greek scholar Vincent feels that he is speaking only about women. He says, “The use of the word by ecclesiastical writers for an unmarried man has no warrant in classical usage, and may have arisen from the misinterpretation of Revelation 14:4, where it is employed adjectivally and metaphorically. In every other case in the New Testament the meaning is unquestionable.” 60 Morris agrees saying, “…the whole tenor of this passage shows that Paul is referring to young women only…” 61
Again, some commentators think Paul is speaking of a sort of “spiritual marriage” where a couple lives together without any sexual interaction. Barclay notes that this was a later custom.62 Thus, it probably has little or no relevance for the discussion here.
We should understand that the decision about a virgin daughter’s marriage was a parental one in much of the ancient world. Comfort remarks, “In their culture, a young woman’s parents usually would make the decision about whether or not their daughter would marry.” 63 In the Roman world particularly, all family decisions rested with the father. He literally held the power of life and death over his children.
So, if a father or guardian had made a vow not to give his daughter in marriage, he has the opportunity to release her for marriage. He has the power here to make his own decision. As we come into more difficult times, this passage may have renewed significance for us all. Even as I write, the Islamic radical group ISIS is rampaging throughout the Middle East. Millions of people have already become uprooted from their homes and countries. Many of these from Iraq belonged to some of the oldest churches in the world. Now, this most ancient Christian community is all but destroyed. We can imagine that in this group of refugees there is little thought about giving a daughter in marriage. Most of these people escaped with only the clothes on their backs and their main thought is simply staying alive. This situation may well express “the present crisis” that Paul deals with in the next verse.
The apostle is likely saying that we should not make things worse than they are by our decisions and vows. We should not turn our religion into agony for ourselves and our families.64
In another sense, we should not make a decision to marry in a crisis time. It is one thing for a man to endure tribulation, but it is quite another thing when his wife and children are involved. It was Francis Bacon (1561-1626) who said, “He that hath wife and children hath given hostages to fortune…” A man alone may prove strong, until his wife and children are being tortured.65 This very thing was not far removed from the believers of the first century.
“Because of the present crisis, I think that it is good for a man to remain as he is” (7:26). This one statement seems to control this whole portion of Scripture. Barclay says, “It is in many ways a pity that Paul did not begin the chapter with this section because it has the heart of his whole position in it.” 66
The word for the present crisis is anagkē. Pett says that the meaning of this word could be distress, calamity, necessity or compulsion.67 The real question is that to which Paul is referring here. Commentators have suggested a number of things like a period of severe persecution at that time; the fall of Jerusalem in AD 70 (Matt. 24:8-21). Actually the Jewish war with Rome began in AD 66. Perhaps it was due to the famine(s) in the time of Emperor Claudius. Utley tells us that there were three famines during this period that were empire-wide.68
A number of commentators have tried to tie this distress to that which would precede the coming of the Lord Jesus. Morris says regarding this opinion: “…Paul often refers to Christ’s return, but he does not associate anangke with it. When he uses this word it has meanings like ‘compulsion’ (v. 37), ‘compelled’ (9:16), ‘hardships’ (2 Cor. 6:4), etc…Some pressing constraint lay hard on the Corinthians…When high seas are raging it is no time for changing ships.” 69
“Are you pledged to a woman? Do not seek to be released. Are you free from such a commitment? Do not look for a wife” (7:27). The apostle’s rule of the previous verse still applies as we see. This verse seems like it has to do with betrothals. Smith mentions that the word used here is gynaiki, meaning “woman.” Thus it is not speaking of a wife. He says, “…it seems best to understand Paul to be making a ‘specific recommendation that men not dissolve existing betrothals.’” 70
“But if you do marry, you have not sinned; and if a virgin marries, she has not sinned. But those who marry will face many troubles in this life, and I want to spare you this” (7:28). Paul is saying to the couple that they have not sinned if they get married. He just warns them that because of the troublesome times, it likely would have been better to have waited. McGee says here, “The sea of matrimony is rough under the most favorable circumstances. He is trying to save them from much trouble.” 71
HOLDING THE WORLD LOOSELY
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; 1 Corinthians 7:29
For all of us the time is short – threescore or fourscore years at best. Our lives are short and sometimes our opportunities are short-lived. We must make the most of them while there is time. Obviously, Paul was dealing with a compressed and troublesome time that was either there already or close at hand. Barker and Kohlenberger state, “This is not necessarily a reference to the second coming of Christ, for Paul may have been anticipating severe persecutions and a resulting curtailment of freedom to witness.” 72
So, the apostle is not in any sense describing normal times. Still, all his advice is given in reference to the trouble mentioned in verse 26. Trapp describes the word used for “short” saying, “The time is short [Gr. synestalmenos], contracted and rolled up, as sails used to be by the mariners, when the ship draws nigh to the harbour.” 73 Clearly, God is wrapping things up, and that does not just relate to difficult times but to all our times. Our salvation is nearer than when we first believed (Rom. 13:11).
Paul says, “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;” (7:30). Our mourning and our joy must always be tempered by the times. We must not get too excited about the things we buy, realizing that they are not really ours. In a real sense we hold them in trust for the saints of God and others in need. Corrie Ten Boom once said, “The measure of a life is not its duration but its donation.”
The apostle continues saying, “those who use the things of the world, as if not engrossed in them. For this world in its present form is passing away” (7:31). I remember hearing a woman who was absolutely ecstatic and was gushing on the TV because a new store was opening in her community. How can people get so excited over another “stuff” store when our lives in the west are literally running over with stuff? We must hold the things of this world loosely and carefully. They must not distract us from our main concern, which is the Kingdom of God.
Paul says that “this world in its present form is passing away.” We need to notice that it is not the world itself that is passing away. The Bible makes clear in several places that the earth is established forever (Psa. 78:69; 93:1; 96:10; & 104:5). What Paul is saying is that the present form of the world is passing away. The word for form is schēma, meaning figure or shape. Robertson sees the word as meaning outward shape.74 There is a real world which will be totally remade at the coming of Christ. However, there is a world system that will be destroyed in the fires of the last days. John says, “The world and its desires pass away, but whoever does the will of God lives forever” (1 Jn. 2:17).
FREEDOM FROM CONCERN
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. 1 Corinthians 7:32
While marriage is wonderful, the married life does burden us all with certain concerns. How can we provide for our wives and children? How can we protect them from the many dangers that surround us, especially in this postmodern age? While these concerns are normal and commendable, they do tend to keep us from concentrating on the Lord and his kingdom. If we are not careful, we can become divided people as we juggle these responsibilities.
Susanna Wesley, mother of the famous John and Charles Wesley, was the mother of 19 children in all, nine of whom had died. When the ten remaining children saw mother Wesley throw her apron over her head, they knew that this was mother’s private prayer time and they dared not interrupt her.75 O that we could have such commitment to the really important things in life today! We remember how Martha chose that which was really important to the seeming neglect of some earthly things (Lk. 10:38-42).
“But a married man is concerned about the affairs of this world— how he can please his wife— 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 (7:33-34). Morris points out that this is not a problem of worldliness with the married man. He simply must think about the interests of his family.76 To fail to do this would become a sin in itself (1 Tim. 5:8). In a similar manner, this situation would also apply to a woman. Once married, her devotion is divided and she must care for husband and children. This is only normal and expected, but of course, single persons could concern themselves with serving the Lord rather than all these natural things. No doubt, we can all think of some godly single women who did wonderfully well on the mission field.
We are in no way talking about people sinning who are faithful in these natural things. Smith clarifies it saying: “The virgin is no more righteous than the wife, but her consecration is unmodified by family responsibilities.” 77
“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” (7:35). Comfort says here: “These were not regulations that the churches had to follow. Instead, this advice came from Paul’s heart, to help the struggling believers at Corinth…” 78 Paul is giving advice that we might have good form in our devotion to the Lord.
FREEDOM TO CHOOSE
If anyone is worried that he might not be acting honorably toward the virgin he is engaged to, and if his passions are too strong and he feels he ought to marry, he should do as he wants. He is not sinning. They should get married. 1 Corinthians 7:36
This verse through the centuries, has been difficult to interpret. Keener says, “Scholars debate whether this passage addresses the fathers of virgins (see NASB) or their fiancés (see NIV, NRS, TEV); evidence within the text can be read either way.” 79 He continues to say, “Full age: (7:36 – NASB) could mean mid-teens (parental arrangement of marriages allowed couples to wed at a younger age than in our culture)…There is no evidence in this period for unconsummated ‘spiritual engagements,’ which became common in later Christianity…” 80
Smith is certain that Paul is speaking of an engaged couple, and he claims that this view is the dominant one in today’s scholarship.81 It looks like we will have to leave this question to the discretion of our readers.
Should this be speaking of the parent, Morris adds: “Anyone means the parent or guardian of a girl, and acting improperly means not providing for her marriage…To withhold marriage from a girl of marriageable age and anxious to marry would have been to court disaster in first-century Corinth and bring dishonor on both father and daughter.” 82
“But the man who has settled the matter in his own mind, who is under no compulsion but has control over his own will, and who has made up his mind not to marry the virgin—this man also does the right thing. So then, he who marries the virgin does right, but he who does not marry her does better” (7:37-38). Paul is essentially saying that he who marries is right and he who does not marry is also right. It is a personal decision and Paul is not willing to legislate how it should be handled.
“A woman is bound to her husband as long as he lives. But if her husband dies, she is free to marry anyone she wishes, but he must belong to the Lord” ( 7:39). With these two verses, Paul deals with the last of a series of six questions apparently asked by the Corinthians. The question was probably whether or not a Christian widow should remarry. Rather than being difficult, this question is simple, as Coffman says, “this one contains some of the most instructive teaching in the New Testament, and affords glimpses of the apostolic method which add greatly to one’s faith in the integrity of the apostles.” 83 The widow may remarry, but she must marry another Christian.
Clearly, marriage is a bond that lasts until death (Rom. 7:1-3), but with death, this bond is broken. The widow is free to remarry. Comfort thinks that there may have been some teaching in the ancient world that forbade such a marriage.84 We do know that in India there is the practice of Sati, where the widow is burned on the deceased husband’s funeral pyre. This was apparently a pagan practice even before the coming of Christ.85
In Christianity, the widow is free to remarry but she must marry a Christian. As we have seen, this rule applies to all believers who marry. This is a serious command that is taken lightly by many Christians today. Coffman warns, “It is a rare and exceptional thing indeed that mixed marriages between Christians and unbelievers can produce anything but sorrow.” 86 Barclay adds: “The highest love comes when two people love each other and their love is sanctified by a common love of Christ. For then they not only live together but also pray together; and life and love combine to be one continual act of worship to God.” 87
“In my judgment, she is happier if she stays as she is— and I think that I too have the Spirit of God” (7:40). Again, Paul gives his judgment, as he considered the seriousness of the times that had come upon them. Clearly, there is nothing morally higher about celibacy, 88 but it is Paul’s advice because of the perilous times.