I Corinthians 7. Sexuality Pt. III. Celibacy and Marriage.

Key Notes: Abstinence--or not--for married couples. The case for celibacy. When one partner is unbelieving. Divorce and remarriage. Eight summary points.

The section of sexuality in I Corinthians covers chapter 5–7. Paul chided the Corinthians for their sexual looseness in I Corinthians 5–6. They had tolerated an openly incestuous relationship in church. Some had been saved out of gross immorality. Some argued that sexual conduct was morally neutral and prostitution was not evil. In chapter 7 Paul discusses marriage and singleness.

When he introduces the subject of marriage in the seventh chapter, Paul is answering a question. There were at least five questions that the Corinthians had written for Paul to comment on. He starts each reply with the phrase“Now concerning….”

7:1 marriage; 7:10 to the married; 7:25 to the unmarried.
8:1 food offered to idols
12:1 spiritual gifts
16:1 a collection for the saints
16:12 a note on Apollos

7:1 It is good for a man not to touch a woman. The Greek idiom indicates that it is good not to have sexual intercourse. However, the English also serves to give us good advice for our children: “boys and girls, keep your hands in your pockets.”

We hear the warning of Song of Solomon:
“...do not stir up or awaken love until it please”. (Song of Sol. 2;7; 3:5; 8:4). “…for love is strong as death, jealousy is cruel as the grave; its flashes are flashes of fire, a most vehement flame. “ (Song of Sol..8:6)

7:2 “But because of fornications”—all kinds of sexual sin-- each man and woman should have his / her own partner. This speaks against polygamy, either legal or illicit, and for monogamous marriage.

7:3–7 Sexual intercourse is not to be denied in marriage. Paul is believed to be responding to a movement which would become more widespread in the next century:  spiritual people would aspire to live above the physical / sensual / sexual / aspects of marriage, and live as brother and sister. So as in chapter 5–6 Paul spoke against the libertines, here he speaks against the ascetics. Both are wrong.

Marriage partners share equal rights to the other’s body. It is not just “my privilege; her obligation.” It is also “my privilege; his obligation”. It is our privilege and our obligation. In fact, sexual relations between couples are to be cultivated. Paul does not speak of mere procreation here; conjugal rights are the rights to pleasure and sexual fulfillment as well. Moreover, sexual needs change over the years of marriage. Usually a wife’s interest will increase while her husband’s capacities decrease. The wise husband will respond to those changes and carefully cultivate the sexual relationship. There is plenty of advice available.

Abstinence with an agreement to spend time in prayer is authorized—and not too long, please. It is difficult indeed for married people to pray together under most circumstances. Prayer and sex do not mix very well. In marriage sharing spiritual intimacy is more difficult than sharing physical intimacy. Family worship may take years of personal discipline, but it is worth the struggle, if for no other reason than its value to the children. “The family that prays together stays together” is more than a cliché. It offers fellowship and bonding of parents and children. Supper together, sharing the day's events, a little reading of Scripture and prayer together can do wonderful things for a family. Reading Proverbs was especially valuable to our young children.

7:6–9 Paul speaks for the second time (7:1) about celibacy. As a voting member of the Sanhedrin (Acts 25:10) it is assumed that Paul was at one time married, since that was a requirement to be on the Council. That he is single now is clear. She may have deserted when Paul became a convert but we can only speculate. He had the gift of celibacy that Jesus spoke of--being a eunuch for the Kingdom (Matt.19:10–12)--but he  knows that marriage is also a gift. The “flame of passion” is God-given. He will return to the argument for celibacy in 7:25.

7:10–16 His command to marriage partners when one becomes a believer, is that she is not to separate from him and he is not to divorce her. The command comes from the Lord Himself. (Matt.19:4–6). In other situations, Paul speaks on his own authority,  since Jesus did not address these problems. We understand that Paul has authority in these situations.

We can sympathize with the unbelieving spouse:
            This is not the person I married. He / she has changed.
            Another Person is making decisions for us.
            My spouse is going places and doing things that I do not agree with.
            A lot of our money is being given away to causes I do not approve of.

But there are situations which demand not divorce but separation—physical violence against the spouse, sexual abuse of children, perhaps gambling that reduces the family to penury—and Paul makes provision for separation.

If there is an unequal yoke, it is presumed that one became a believer after the marriage. The probability that the spouse will follow into the Kingdom is good. The children can be brought up in the Lord (“be holy”). If the believer marries outside the Faith, however, the prognosis for a Christian marriage is dim. Paul says marry “only in the Lord”. (7:39)

If the unbelieving spouse wishes to separate “the believer is not bound”. Modern writers have called this “Pauline privilege”, “not bound” meaning that the deserted spouse may marry again. This would seem to be a second basis for divorce and remarriage. However, my sources (commentators) do not always agree that desertion of the unbelieving spouse is grounds for remarriage.

The primary permission for divorce and remarriage is adultery of the other spouse mentioned in Matt. 19:9 by Jesus. A third basis for divorce and remarriage is conjured up for divorces that occurred before one became a Christian. This is based on “...if anyone is in Christ, he a new creature.” (IICor.5:17)  Finding multiple grounds for remarriage is a symptom of our age. Many pastors simply overlook the rules in order to keep couples in the church.

7:17–27 Paul makes a primary point of not changing status.
Circumcised or uncircumcised matters not. Don’t try to remove the marks. Jews were easily identified in the public baths. Christians who came out of Judaism might like to remove the stigma of Judaism.
Slave or free? Never mind. But get free if possible and do not sell yourself into slavery.
Married or unmarried? Stay as you are.

7:26–31 The present distress, the time growing short,  suppressing mourning and rejoicing, being indifferent to worldly affairs, the form of this world passing away, suggests some catastrophic event such as immanent widespread persecution. I Corinthians was written  about 55AD. Nero’s persecution did not begin until 64AD. Paul’s perspective is not clear. One commentator thinks that Corinthians coming out of paganism would not have any view of the future, no eschatological  information,  and that Paul was giving them a perspective. In any event, it is a fact that those who are married have worldly troubles.

7:32–38 The case for celibacy is not a case of forbidding marriage which elsewhere Paul denounces. (I Tim. 4:3). Pragmatically, the single person is unhampered by worldly affairs and making a partner happy. Paul wants good order and undivided devotion to the Lord. We need to remind ourselves that in Western Christianity, the single person has been a second-class citizen. Single people, including widows, are not easily included in society, which consists mainly of couples. Single people are the subject of suspicion ("Why isn’t she married?", and prodding "Haven't you found someone yet?"). In a similar way, married people without children are reminded periodically of their duty: “are you trying to have children?’  Paul’s admonition is that everyone stay in the original calling and we should not cause our fellow believers unnecessary distress.

Single adults have difficulty not only with their perceived status, but also in the practical matters of finding a society in which they are comfortable. We moderns are more isolated and lonely than people in former generations. We live in sterile city apartments instead of rural communities. Paul taught Timothy at length about the care of widows (and presumably other single women). (ITim.5:3–16). It is the task of the church to look after the material and social needs of single men and women.

In the modern church, celibacy is wisely encouraged for beginning missionaries. They will have plenty of problems with language and cultural adjustment, as well as meeting their mission’s obligations. Happily, marriages do occur among missionaries although a large number of women on the mission field remain single. On the other hand, we see senior Christians pushing young couples together in ways that Paul would deplore and which can be sometimes catastrophic. We advise caution. If a couple are not fired with passion, refraining from marriage is fine. However, we parents were ill at ease until all three of our children were well married.

7:39–40 Finally, Paul speaks to the widow. She is free to remarry, but Paul believes she will be happier alone. It is well known that older single women are happier and live longer than older single men. Note that Paul taught Timothy that it was better for young widows to remarry and have children. (ITim.5:14-)

In summary:

  1. Celibacy is better than marriage, for the sake of the Kingdom.
  2. Polygamy is forbidden
  3. The married should stay married.
  4. The unmarried should stay single, if feasible.
  5. If married to an unbelieving spouse, do not leave.
  6. Virgins should stay virgins although marriage is all right.
  7. Widows should stay widows for their own comfort.
  8. In general, everyone should remain in God’s calling.

Much of what Paul advises goes against our grain. However, we must remember that I Corinthians 7 is not the sum of Paul’s thinking. We must include Eph.5:22- in which Paul extols marriage as a spiritual model verging on mystery. Why, in the OT, for example, was the high priest forbidden to marry anyone other than a virgin? (Lev.2:13). There is much that we do not yet understand.