MARRIAGE MORALITY 1 Corinthians 7
“But since there is so much immorality, each man should have his own wife, and each woman her own husband” (1 Cor. 7:2).Marriage is intended to be a joy—and a lifelong commitment.
Confusion in Corinth.
Paul didn’t spell out the background when he discussed problems in Corinth. He didn’t need to. He and the Corinthians knew the situation well. We, however, have to re-create the situation from clues in Paul’s advice. Most scholars draw this picture. Corinth was proverbial for sexual looseness. Paul taught a strict morality, but after he left, the church became confused about how to apply his teachings. Some opted for celibate marriage, assuming sex even in marriage was sinful. Some believed Christians shouldn’t marry. Some thought they should divorce unconverted spouses. Others, who had been deserted by pagan spouses, wondered if they were somehow guilty of violating Christ’s command, and if they were still bound in a now-empty relationship. In this brief chapter Paul clarified all these vital issues, and answered questions many ask today.
Husbands and wives are to meet each other’s sexual needs (7:1–7). The unmarried with overpowering needs should wed (vv. 8–9). Christians should not seek a divorce, even from unbelieving spouses (vv. 10–14). But if one’s partner leaves, the believing spouse is not bound (vv. 15–16). Paul advised retaining the place held when converted (vv. 17–24). He advised celibacy, but didn’t restrict the virgin or the widow who wished to marry (vv. 25–40).
Understanding the Text
“It is good for a man not to marry” 1 Cor. 7:1–7. Paul frequently began by quoting what folks in Corinth had been saying. He did this here. And Paul agreed with the quote, insofar as it expressed his personal opinion. He did not agree that it expressed his official teaching (cf. v. 7). We need to be as careful as Paul in making this distinction. It’s one thing to tell someone, “Here’s what I think best.” It’s another entirely to say, “Here’s what all Christians must think or feel or do.” We shouldn’t impose our personal preferences on others. And we shouldn’t let others con us into believing their preferences are binding on us. “The husband should fulfill his marital duty to his wife, and likewise the wife to her husband” 1 Cor. 7:2–5. The Bible identifies three functions of sex in marriage. Sex is a means of procreation of children, and the seal of marital intimacy (Gen. 2). And sex meets a legitimate human need. It isn’t “spiritual” to dislike sex. It isn’t “spiritual” to have celibate marriages. What’s spiritual is to realize that as a husband you are privileged not only to love your wife, but also to be God’s gift to meet her sexual as well as other needs. What is spiritual is to realize that as a wife you are privileged not only to love your husband, but are also privileged to be God’s gift to meet his sexual as well as other needs. If you want a spiritually intimate marriage, giving your body gladly and lovingly to your partner plays an important part. “It is better to marry than to burn with passion” 1 Cor. 7:6–9. Paul was not a supporter of the “anti-sex” clique in Corinth. While he himself had gladly chosen the celibate life, he realized that “each man has his own gift from God.” Today we recognize that hormones play a key role in the sexual drive of both men and women. Some, in Paul’s terms, “burn.” And some do not. Don’t make the mistake of viewing one condition as better, or more spiritual, than the other. Paul didn’t. The structure of our bodies, including the heat our hormones generate, is part of our gift from God. So don’t look down on those whose physical nature is different from your own. And don’t envy them, either. “I give this command (not I, but the Lord)” 1 Cor. 7:10–11. Paul spoke very bluntly when he shifted from giving personal advice to passing on Christ’s command. Those folks who thought of sex as dirty and wrong, and were proceeding to divorce their spouses for “spiritual” reasons, must stop! Immediately after stating a wife “must not,” Paul added an “if she does” condition. Why? Quite likely because some in Corinth, in their eagerness to do what they thought God wanted, had already obtained divorces! Now Paul told them to remain single or be reunited with their spouses, and live together as man and wife. There are valid reasons for divorce and separation (cf. Matt. 19:9). But there are no frivolous reasons for divorce. God’s goal is a real marriage, that lasts a lifetime. “The unbelieving husband has been sanctified through his wife” 1 Cor. 7:12–15. The next question the Corinthians were sure to ask was, “What about those of us married to non-Christians? How can we have a ‘spiritual’ relationship with an unbeliever?” Paul’s answer was surprising. When just one partner is a believer, the family is “set apart” to God through His relationship with the believing person. This is no guarantee that spouse or children will be converted. It is a guarantee that God’s power flows from the believer, rather than Satan’s power flowing from the unbeliever. The Christian radiates Christ, and all within the circle of his or her influence are affected by the divine magnetism. Rather than break contact by divorce, the Christian who already has an unsaved spouse who is willing to stay married to him or her should seek to deepen the relationship, not break it. Let Christ touch your spouse and your children through you. “If the unbeliever leaves” 1 Cor. 7:15–16. Sometimes a person can’t help a divorce. Are we still bound to a relationship our spouse has abandoned? Paul’s reassuring answer was, “A believing man or woman is not bound in such circumstances” (v. 15). I’ve just contributed to an InterVarsity Press book that presents four views on divorce. There may be no more hotly argued question in many churches. There certainly is no issue that causes greater pain and anguish for anyone personally affected. It seems to me that Paul here takes a stand with grace. When a marriage simply cannot be maintained, and the relationship has in effect ended, let it go. The believer is “not bound” in such circumstances. He or she is unmarried in fact, and thus free. In debates of this kind, where strong arguments exist for various interpretations of the biblical text, it’s generally best to find yourself on the side of grace. That’s where God usually is. “Retain the place in life that the Lord assigned” 1 Cor. 7:17–24. Paul summed up his teaching with a general principle that is applicable to many different situations. Did God call you as a married person? Then stay married. Were you a slave? Then don’t feel you have to be free, though you can take the opportunity for freedom if it comes. A tremendously exciting concept underlies this principle. God can use us wherever, and whomever, we may be! You don’t have to be free to be spiritually significant. You don’t have to be married. Or celibate. The chances are that God can and will use you just where you are. So don’t fall into that awful “if only” trap. If only I were a college grad, we think, God could use me. If only I had a million dollars. If only I’d gone on to seminary. If only I didn’t have a wife and 11 kids. The devil loves to have us play “if only.” It keeps our eyes on fantasy, and off reality. If we open our eyes to what’s around us, we might be used by God where we are. “What I mean, brothers, is that the time is short” 1 Cor. 7:25–35. Paul applied his “retain place” principle to marrieds and singles. But he also made an important point. It’s so easy to get caught up by concern for the welfare of a spouse. It’s so easy that we may become “engrossed in” the things of this world, in our attempt to make a better life for him or her. We should love our husband or wife. But we Christians most of all should put God first—together.
Undivided Devotion(1 Cor. 7:25–40)
“June! Can you come over tonight? We’ve just met the nicest young man!” Ever notice the matchmaking that goes on in a church? Or how we pressure people to marry? A single person starts coming to church, and within a month everyone’s busy trying to arrange a meeting with this or that prospect. It’s the same with widows and widowers. “Would you like to come over this evening. We’ve met the nicest woman, and she’s just your age!” Well, it’s not fair. Especially to those with a gift that Paul values highly: the gift of celibacy. We can make it really hard for men and women who, for their own reasons, choose not to marry. Instead of respecting their choice, we assume that there must be something wrong with them—and we mount campaigns to correct it! Paul made it clear that virgins and widows are free to marry if they wish. But he wanted us to give brothers and sisters the freedom not to marry if they wish—and not to be harassed about their choice. It may help us back off if we consider Paul’s reasons. He said (and every married person knows it’s true) that “those who marry will face many troubles in this life” (v. 28). The married become responsible for spouse and children, and thus have a powerful motive to be “engrossed in” the things of the world (v. 31). After all, we’ve got to provide a house to live in. And with the costs of a college education these days, we need to work harder and save more money than ever before! Now, it’s right to be concerned with “pleasing” our spouse. But the responsibilities that come with marriage mean we have less time, less money, and less energy to devote to pleasing God. Our choices are, rightly, shaped by considering the welfare of our families. The unmarried, however, are free from all such restrictions, able to give “undivided devotion to the Lord.” And this, the gift of undivided devotion, is something that God is certainly pleased to receive. So the next time a single person comes into your fellowship, welcome him or her gladly. And forego the matchmaking. You may have one of those special people who has decided to follow Paul’s advice, and live a life of undivided devotion to the Lord.
Welcome and honor singles in your church family.
“This is self-renunciation—to unlock the chains of this earthly life which passeth away and to set oneself free from the business of men, and thus to make ourselves fitter to enter on that path that leads to God and to free our spirit to gain and use those things which are far more precious than gold or precious stones.”—Basil the Great