What Should I Do?
Explore the Bible Series
June 27, 2010
Background Passage: I Corinthians 7:1-40
Lesson Passage: I Corinthians 7: 10-16, 32-39
The first six chapters of I Corinthians deal with issues the members of Chloe’s household had reported to the Apostle Paul (See 1:11). Two major concerns troubled the church: (1) divisions over personalities, (2) the immoral behavior of an incestuous man and the church’s failure to discipline the man. Beginning with 7:1, the tone and structure of the epistle changes somewhat. The Corinthians had written Paul a letter to ask his counsel on important matters that arose in the church (See 7:1). Much of the rest of the epistle focuses on these concerns.
1. Marriage and divorce (7:1-24)
2. Celibacy (7:25-40)
3. Food acquired from pagan temples (8:1-13)
4. Spiritual gifts (12:1-14:40)
5. The resurrection of the dead (15:1-58)
6. The collection for suffering believers in Jerusalem (16:1-4)
Chapter Seven addressed a series of issues related to marriage, celibacy, and divorce. It proves somewhat difficult to reconstruct the questions the Corinthians raised in their letter to Paul, but apparently the church experienced considerable confusion about proper sexual relationships, a confusion, no doubt, made worse by the immoral, pagan culture of the city of Corinth. Wisely, these believers sought Paul’s counsel.
Vaughan and Lea provide a helpful introduction to this chapter in their Study Guide Commentary, and I summarize a few of their observations for your reflection.
1. In this chapter, Paul did not present a balanced thesis on marriage; rather, he answered questions raised by the Corinthian letter. So, we must not expect a thorough exposition on the Christian view of marriage. Here, Paul dealt with specific, localized questions from his friends in Greece.
2. The questions raised by the Corinthians probably dealt with specific controversies that troubled these believers. Lea and Vaughan point out that Paul was addressing and correcting aberrant views of marriage. Some people, probably influenced by Jewish customs, thought marriage obligatory, and others, persuaded by some aspects of Greek philosophy, insisted that celibacy was a nobler path.
3. In 7:26 Paul seems to indicate that some of these questions related to specific, local distress in Corinth; therefore, some of the principles may not have universal application to all believers.
This chapter poses some very difficult interpretive problems, and, as always, I ask for your patience and understanding as I comment on the various issues addressed in the outline.
I. General Principles Related to Marriage (7:1-9): This section speaks to two underlying questions: (1) Is it permissible for Christians to marry? (2) Should married Christian couples continue sexual relations after conversion?
A. The general principle stated (v. 1): Paul observed the excellence of moral rectitude, especially as it related to sexuality, “It is well for a man not to touch a woman.” “Touch”, of course, is a euphemism for sexual relations, and the term seems to imply illicit relations. Paul took this as a principle that undergirded all his observations. Leon Morris believes “touch” refers to marriage; thus, he believes that Paul pointed out the moral excellence of remaining single and celibate.
B. Sexual relations within the bonds of marriage (vv. 2-9): Paul recognized that celibacy proves very difficult for most people, and he allowed that Christians might avoid immorality by means of monogamous marriage. Moreover, the apostle encouraged healthy, concentual relations between a husband and wife. Note the implications of Paul’s thought.
1. Christian marriage is constituted exclusively between one man and one woman. This statement seems to prohibit polygamy, most cases of divorce, and homosexuality.
2. Christian marriage should include mutually enjoyable relations, each spouse recognizing the proper, beneficial role of sexual intimacy.
3. Couples may, upon mutual agreement, refrain from sexual relations during special seasons of prayer; otherwise, each should enjoy conjugal activities.
4. Paul wished that all Christians could remain single, just as he was. Perhaps Paul had in mind the difficulties of family life and the constraints of a family on the evangelism efforts of believers. Nevertheless, he saw marriage as a beneficial institution. Please note that Paul specifically stated that his encouragements to celibacy were not commands (See v. 6), just suggestions.
II. Directions for Married Believers (vv. 10-16): No doubt, many of the Christians in Corinth came to the faith already married to unbelievers. This paragraph addresses the difficult circumstances of believers married to unbelievers.
A. The central guiding principle (vv. 10-11): Paul referenced the explicit command of Jesus against divorce (See Matthew 5:32; Matthew 19:9; Mark 10:9; Luke 16:18). Even though the Gospels had probably not been written yet, Paul knew the teachings of Jesus about marriage and divorce. As I understand Jesus’ views, divorce is not allowed except in the case of infidelity. If, however, a couple divorces, for reasons other than adultery, the divorced couple must remain single unless they reconcile with each other. Perhaps Paul knew of a specific circumstance in Corinth, a situation in which a woman divorced her husband (note the specific statement about a woman, in these two verses).
B. The case of a Christian married to an unbeliever (vv. 12-16): In a place like Corinth, this circumstance must have occurred commonly among these new converts. Paul encouraged a believing spouse to remain in the marriage unless the unbelieving spouse refused to stay in the marriage. F.F. Bruce (cited in Lea and Vaughan) thought, in the case of an abandoned, believing spouse, remarriage was permissible. 7:15-16 seem to indicate that even a “mixed” marriage is holy before the Lord, and children born to such a union are not illegitimate in God’s eyes.
C. Paul’s second principle regarding marriage (vv. 17-24): The revolutionary message of the gospel asserts the equality of believers, but the effects of the gospel should bring social change without violence. Therefore, Pal encouraged his readers to remain in the conditions in which they had been called to grace. This principle applied to married couples, but it also related to other situations like circumcision and slavery. We should not interpret this passage as Paul’s affirmation of slavery; rather, Paul, in this case, dealt with the practical circumstances of real-life converts bound in social conditions that proved very difficult.
D. The applications of Paul’s principles (vv. 25-40)
1. Directions concerning betrothal and marriage (vv. 25-38): A sense of urgency underlies Paul’s thought. For him, the time was short and the circumstances critical. The Lord could return any time, and the missionary task of Christians took precedence; therefore, believers have different priorities than non-Christians. To avoid misunderstanding, Paul affirmed that the decision to marry was not sinful; however, this choice did include some distractions that might prove very difficult for believers. The married man, by application, has responsibilities that burden him and produce anxiety (See vv. 32-35), and, in Paul’s mind, remaining single seemed preferable.
2. Directions concerning widows (vv. 39-40): Again, it seems likely that Paul, in these verses, dealt with a specific issue that arose among the believers in Corinth. A woman’s husband had died, and she wondered if her new faith permitted her to remarry. The apostle concluded that the husband’s death brought an end to the marriage covenant, and the widowed woman could marry again, so long as her new husband shared her faith in Christ. At the end of the chapter Paul asserted his authority and wisdom in these matters, “I too have the Spirit of God.”