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Dr. Constable's Expository Notes Constable's Expository Notes
1 Corinthians 7
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These files are public domain.
Text Courtesy of BibleSupport.com. Used by Permission.
Constable, Thomas. DD. "Commentary on 1 Corinthians 7". "Dr. Constable's Expository Notes". https://studylight.org/
commentaries/ eng/ dcc/ 1-corinthians-7.html. 2012.
Constable, Thomas. DD. "Commentary on 1 Corinthians 7". "Dr. Constable's Expository Notes". https://studylight.org/
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A. Marriage and related matters ch. 7
The first subject with which Paul dealt was marriage. He began with some general comments (1 Corinthians 7:1-7) and then dealt with specific situations.
"The transition from chapter 6 to chapter 7 illustrates the necessity Paul was under of waging a campaign on two fronts. In chapter 6 he dealt with libertines who argued that everything was permissible, and in particular that sexual licence [sic] was a matter of ethical indifference. In chapter 7 he deals with ascetics who, partly perhaps in reaction against the libertines, argued that sexual relations of every kind were to be deprecated, that Christians who were married should henceforth live as though they were unmarried, and those who were unmarried should remain so, even if they were already engaged to be married." [Note: Bruce, 1 and 2 Corinthians, p. 66.]
". . . the controlling motif of Paul’s answer is: ’Do not seek a change in status.’ This occurs in every subsection (1 Corinthians 7:2; 1 Corinthians 7:8; 1 Corinthians 7:10-16; 1 Corinthians 7:26-27; 1 Corinthians 7:37; 1 Corinthians 7:40) and is the singular theme of the paragraph that ties the . . . sections together (1 Corinthians 7:17-24) - although in each case an exception is allowed." [Note: Fee, The First . . ., p. 268.]
"Two other features about the nature of the argument need to be noted: First, along with 1 Corinthians 11:2-16, this is one of the least combative sections of the letter. Indeed, after the argumentation of 1 Corinthians 1:10 to 1 Corinthians 6:20, this section is altogether placid. Furthermore, also along with 1 Corinthians 11:2-16, this is one of the least ’authority-conscious’ sections in all of his letters. Phrases like ’I say this by way of concession, not of command’ (1 Corinthians 7:6), ’it is good for them’ (1 Corinthians 7:8; 1 Corinthians 7:26), ’I have no command, but I give my opinion’ (1 Corinthians 7:25; cf. 1 Corinthians 7:40) are not your standard Paul. Second, in a way quite unlike anything else in all his letters, the argument alternates between men and women (12 times in all). And in every case there is complete mutuality between the two sexes." [Note: Ibid., pp. 269-70.]
Again Paul began what he had to say by citing a general truth. Then he proceeded to qualify it (cf. 1 Corinthians 6:12-13). The use of the Greek word anthropos (man generically, people) rather than aner (man as distinguished from woman) indicates that the statement pertains to human beings generally. To "touch a woman" (NASB) was a common ancient euphemism for sexual intercourse. [Note: Fee, The First . . ., p. 275; Lowery, p. 517; Keener, p. 62.] It was probably another Corinthian slogan (cf. 1 Corinthians 6:12-13; 1 Corinthians 6:18). Evidently the Corinthians’ question was something like this. Isn’t it preferable for a Christian man to abstain from sexual relations with any woman? This would reflect the "spiritual" viewpoint of the Corinthians that held a negative attitude toward the material world and the body (cf. 1 Corinthians 6:13; 1 Corinthians 15:12).
"Some difficulty is alleviated if these words [the slogan] are regarded as a quotation from the Corinthian letter, and this is a hypothesis that may very probably be accepted [cf. 1 Corinthians 6:12-13] . . ." [Note: Barrett, p. 154.]
Another view is that "touch a woman" was a euphemism for marrying. [Note: Morris, p. 105.] However this meaning is difficult to prove, and I do not prefer it. If this is what he meant, Paul’s advice was to abstain from marrying. Paul wrote later that because of the present distress his readers would do well to remain in their present marital state (1 Corinthians 7:26). Furthermore throughout the passage Paul viewed marriage as God-ordained and perfectly proper for Christians. He also wrote that a single life is not wrong but good (Gr. kalon), though not necessarily better than a married life.
The importance of sexual relations in marriage 7:1-7
Paul advised married people not to abstain from normal sexual relations.
III. QUESTIONS ASKED OF PAUL 7:1-16:12
The remainder of the body of this epistle deals with questions the Corinthians had put to Paul in a letter. Paul introduced each of these with the phrase peri de ("now concerning," 1 Corinthians 7:1; 1 Corinthians 7:25; 1 Corinthians 8:1; 1 Corinthians 12:1; 1 Corinthians 16:1; 1 Corinthians 16:12), a phrase commonly used in antiquity. [Note: Keener, p. 62.]
"Rather than a friendly exchange, in which the new believers in Corinth are asking spiritual advice of their mentor in the Lord, their letter was probably a response to Paul’s Previous Letter mentioned in 1 Corinthians 5:9, in which they were taking exception to his position on point after point. In light of their own theology of spirit, with heavy emphasis on ’wisdom’ and ’knowledge,’ they have answered Paul with a kind of ’Why can’t we?’ attitude, in which they are looking for his response." [Note: Fee, The First . . ., pp. 266-67.]
1. Advice to the married or formerly married 7:1-16
Paul proceeded to give guidelines to the married or formerly married. The statement "It is good for a man not to touch a woman" (1 Corinthians 7:1) may well have been a Corinthian slogan. [Note: Ibid., p. 270.] This hypothesis, which seems valid to me in light of Paul’s argumentation, results in a different interpretation of the text than has been traditional. The traditional view takes the entire section as explaining Paul’s position on marriage in general in response to the Corinthians’ question about its advisability. [Note: Advocates of the traditional interpretation include Godet, Lightfoot, Grosheide, Morris, Mare, and Wiersbe.] I believe Paul responded to the Corinthians’ false view, as expressed in this slogan, in all that follows in this section.
This verse probably begins Paul’s extended correction of the Corinthians’ view of marriage. He proceeded to urge them strongly that the type of abstinence that they were arguing for within marriage was totally wrong. Notice the three sets of balanced pairs in this verse and in the two that follow. In this verse Paul urged married couples to have sexual relations with one another because of the prevalence of temptations to satisfy sexual desire inappropriately. "Having" one’s spouse was a common euphemism in non-biblical Greek for having that person sexually. [Note: Keener, p. 62.]
The view of 1 Corinthians 7:1 that understands Paul to be saying that it is better to avoid marrying sees Paul making a concession to that statement here. Those who hold this view believe that Paul was saying that it is better to marry since many single people cannot live in the single state without eventually committing "immoralities" (fornication, Gr. porneias). This is obviously not the only reason to marry (cf. Genesis 2:18-24), but it appears to have been an important consideration in Corinth where temptations to fornicate abounded. As noted above, I do not favor this interpretation. Another unappealing interpretation is as follows.
"This [i.e., "each . . . each"] forbids polygamy, which was advocated by some Jewish teachers." [Note: Robertson and Plummer, p. 133.]
In view of the temptation to commit fornication, each partner in marriage needs to fulfill his or her sexual duty to the spouse. Part of the responsibility of marriage is to meet the various needs of the partner (Genesis 2:18), including sexual needs.
Moreover in marriage each partner relinquishes certain personal rights, including the exclusive right to his or her own body, to which he or she gives the mate a claim. Neither person has complete authority over his or her own body in marriage. Note that Paul was careful to give both husband and wife equal rights in these verses. He did not regard the man as having sexual rights or needs that the woman does not have or vice versa.
Evidently the Corinthians, at least some of them, had concluded that since they were "spiritual" they did not need to continue to have sexual relations as husband and wife. Another less probable situation, I think, is that there were some married Christians in the church who were overreacting to the immorality in Corinth by abstaining from sexual relations with their mates. For whatever reason, Paul viewed this as depriving one another of their normal sexual needs and urged them to stop doing it. Husbands and wives should commit themselves to honoring the spirit of mutual ownership that these verses describe.
There are legitimate reasons for temporary abstinence, but couples should temporarily abstain only with the agreement of both partners. When there are greater needs, spiritual needs, the couple may want to set aside their normal physical needs. However they should only do so temporarily. Laying aside eating (fasting) or sleeping (watching) temporarily to engage in more important spiritual duties (e.g., prayer) is similar.
"Three conditions are required for lawful abstention: it must be by mutual consent, for a good object, and temporary." [Note: Ibid., p. 134.]
Normally we think of sexual activity as an indication of lack of self-control, but Paul also viewed the failure to engage in sex as a lack of self-control for a married person.
Paul’s concession was allowing temporary abstinence from sex. The concession was not having sex. He did not command abstinence. He viewed regular marital relations as the norm. Paul was no ascetic who favored as little sex as possible. Abstinence was the exception to what was normal in his view.
Paul evidently was not a married man when he wrote this epistle (1 Corinthians 7:8). We do not have enough information about his life to know whether he had never married, had become a widower, or if his wife had left him.
To Paul the single state had certain advantages for a servant of the Lord such as himself. He had to put up with many hardships in his ministry that would have been difficult for a wife to share. Moreover God had given him grace to live as a single person without feeling consumed by the fires of lust (cf. 1 Corinthians 7:9). "Burning" was a very common description of unfulfilled passion in Greek and Roman literature. [Note: Keener, p. 63.]
He wished everyone could live as he did, but he realized that most could not. Each person has his or her own special gift (Gr. charisma) from God, some to live single and some to live married (cf. Matthew 19:12). These are spiritual gifts just as much as those gifts listed in chapters 12-14 are. The gift of celibacy is a special ability that God gives only some people to feel free from the desire or need of sexual fulfillment in marriage. [Note: Fee, The First . . ., p. 284.]
Who are the "unmarried" (Gr. agamois) that Paul had in view? Most interpreters have taken this word in its broadest possible meaning, namely, all categories of unmarried people. Others, however, take it to refer to widowers since Paul also specified widows in this verse and since he dealt with males and females in balance in this chapter. There is a Greek word for "widowers," but it does not appear in the koine Greek period. Agamos served in its place. [Note: See ibid., pp. 287-88 for additional support for this view.] I prefer the former view: all unmarried people.
The unmarried state has some advantages over the married state even though it is better for most people to marry (Genesis 2:18). Since singleness is not a sinful condition, married people should not look down on single people or pity them because they are unmarried. Sometimes married people tend to do this because singles do not enjoy the pleasures of married life. Notwithstanding they enjoy the pleasures of single life that married individuals do not. Married people should not pressure single people to get married just because they are single.
The legitimate option of singleness 7:8-9
Paul moved from advice to the married regarding sexual abstinence to advice to the unmarried. He advised this group, as he had the former one, to remain in the state in which they found themselves, but he allowed them an exception too.
However if a single person cannot or does not control his or her passions, it would be better to marry than to burn with lustful temptation (cf. 1 Corinthians 7:2). If a single has very strong sexual urges that may very well drive him or her into fornication, he or she would be wise to get married if possible. Of course a believer should marry a suitable Christian mate. This may be easier said than done, especially for a woman. The Lord has promised to provide the basic needs of those who put Him first in their lives (e.g., Matthew 6:33). I believe He will do so in answer to prayer either by providing a suitable mate or by enabling the single person to control his or her sexual passions. In either case, He gives more grace (1 Corinthians 10:13).
The Lord Jesus Christ gave instruction concerning what believers are to do in marriage when He taught during His earthly ministry (Matthew 5:27-32; Matthew 19:3-12; Mark 10:1-12). Paul cited some of this teaching and added more of his own. This is one of the rare instances when Paul appealed directly to Jesus’ teachings (cf. 1 Corinthians 9:14; 1 Corinthians 11:23; 1 Timothy 5:18). Usually he taught in harmony with Jesus without citing Him. Of course, God’s instructions through Paul are just as inspired and authoritative as His teaching through Jesus Christ during His earthly ministry. This is one of Paul’s few commands in this chapter (cf. 1 Corinthians 7:2-5).
The main point of Paul’s advice is that Christians should not break up their marriages (Matthew 19:4-6; Mark 10:7-9). "Leaving" and divorcing (1 Corinthians 7:12-13) were virtually the same in Greco-Roman culture. [Note: Ibid., p. 293.] "Separate" (Gr. chorizo) was vernacular for "divorce." [Note: William F. Arndt and F. Wilbur Gingrich, A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament, p. 899.] In our day one popular way to deal with marriage problems is to split up, and this has always been an attractive option for many people. Nevertheless the Lord’s will is that all people, including believers, work through their marital problems rather than giving up on them by separating permanently.
No divorce for Christians whose mates are believers 7:10-11
Some Corinthian spouses wanted to abstain from intercourse (1 Corinthians 7:1-7), but some others apparently wanted to extricate themselves from their marriages altogether (1 Corinthians 7:10-16). [Note: Keener, p. 64.] Again Paul advised remaining as they were, but he also allowed an exception.
"While Paul displays ambivalence toward whether widowers and widows should get married (1 Corinthians 7:8-9), he consistently rejects the notion that the married may dissolve their marriages." [Note: Fee, The First . . ., p. 291.]
If separation (divorce) occurs, they should either remain unmarried (i.e., stay as they are) or reconcile with their mate. Paul said this was to be the wife’s course of action because if she left her husband she would be the mate who had to decide what to do. However the same procedure would be appropriate for the husband. In Greco-Roman culture wives could divorce their husbands, but among the Jews they could not. [Note: Bruce, 1 and 2 Corinthians, p. 69.] Only the husband could initiate a divorce (Deuteronomy 24:1).
I believe Paul did not deal with the exception that Jesus Christ allowed on the grounds of fornication (Gr. porneia; Matthew 5:32; Matthew 19:9) because it is an exception. Paul wanted to reinforce the main teaching of Christ on this subject, namely, that couples should not dissolve their marriages.
Some of the Corinthian Christians appear to have been separating for ascetic reasons: to get away from sexual activity. In many modern cultures the reason is often the opposite; people often divorce to marry someone else. Regardless of the reason for the temptation, Paul commanded Christian husbands and wives to stay together and to share their bodies as well as their lives with each other. It is impossible for a Christian husband and wife to provide a model of reconciliation to the world if they cannot reconcile with each other.
"The rest" refers to persons not in the general category of 1 Corinthians 7:10. Paul had been speaking of the typical married persons in the church, namely, those married to another believer. Now he dealt with mixed marriages between a believer and an unbeliever, as the following verses make clear.
For these people he could not repeat a teaching of Jesus because He had not spoken on this subject. At least as far as Paul knew He had not. Nevertheless the risen Lord inspired Paul’s instructions on this subject so they were every bit as authoritative as the teaching Jesus gave during His earthly ministry.
The Corinthians may have asked Paul if a believing partner should divorce an unbelieving mate rather than living mismatched with him or her. This is the problem he addressed. He counseled the believer to go on living with the unbeliever if the unbeliever was willing to do so.
"The point is clear: in a mixed marriage the Christian partner is not to take the initiative . . . in a move towards [permanent] separation." [Note: Barrett, p. 164.]
No divorce for Christians whose mates are unbelievers 7:12-16
In this situation, too, Paul granted an exception, but the exceptional is not the ideal. He also reiterated his principle of staying in the condition in which one finds himself or herself.
". . . one of the great heathen complaints against Christianity was exactly the complaint that Christianity did break up families and was a disruptive influence in society. ’Tampering with domestic relationships’ was in fact one of the first charges brought against the Christians." [Note: Barclay, The Letters . . ., p. 70.]
Even though an unbeliever might affect his or her mate negatively morally or ethically, it was still better to keep the marriage together. This was so because the believing mate would affect the unbeliever positively. "Sanctified" (Gr. hagiadzo) means to be set apart for a special purpose. God has set aside the unsaved spouse of a believer for special blessing, some of which comes through his or her mate (cf. Exodus 29:37; Leviticus 6:18). God will deal with such a person differently than He deals with those not married to Christians.
I do not believe Paul would have objected to a couple separating temporarily if the believer was in physical danger from the unbeliever (cf. 1 Corinthians 7:15). What he did not want was for believers to initiate the termination of their marriages for this or any other reason. Paul did not get into all the possible situations that married people face.
Likewise the children in such a marriage would enjoy special treatment from God rather than being in a worse condition than the children in a Christian home. This probably involves their protection in the mixed home and the supply of grace needed for that sometimes difficult situation. "Holy" (Gr. hagios) means set apart as different.
I do not believe Paul was saying unsaved spouses and children of mixed marriages are better off than the spouses and children in Christian families. His point was that God would offset the disadvantages of such a situation with special grace.
"This verse throws no light on the question of infant baptism." [Note: Robertson and Plummer, p. 142.]
On the other hand if the unbeliever in a mixed marriage wants to break up the marriage, the believing partner should allow him or her to do so. The reason for this is that God wants peace to exist in human relationships. It is better to have a peaceful relationship with an unbelieving spouse who has departed than it is to try to hold the marriage together. This is true if holding the marriage together will only result in constant antagonism and increasing hostility in the home. However, notice that the Christian does not have the option of departing (1 Corinthians 7:10-11).
Another view is that Paul meant that separation should be prevented if at all possible since that would disrupt the peace of the marriage union. [Note: Johnson, p. 1240.] However this view presupposes that peace existed between the husband and wife, which seems unlikely since one of them wanted a divorce from the other.
When the unbeliever departs, the Christian is no longer under bondage (Gr. douleuo, lit. to be a slave). Does this refer to bondage to hold the marriage together or bondage to remain unmarried? Many of the commentators believed it means that the Christian is free to let the unbeliever depart; he or she does not have an obligation to maintain the marriage. [Note: E.g., Robertson and Plummer, p. 143; Fee, The First . . ., pp. 302-3.] Among these some hold that the believer is not free to remarry (cf. 1 Corinthians 7:11). [Note: E.g., William A. Heth and Gordon J. Wenham, Jesus and Divorce.] Most of these believe that the Christian is free to remarry. [Note: E.g., Barrett, p. 166; Bruce, 1 and 2 Corinthians, p. 70; Lenski, pp. 294-95; Lowery, p. 518; Morris, p. 111; and Keener, p. 65.] The Greek text does not solve this problem. I think Paul was not addressing the idea of remarrying here.
I would counsel a Christian whose unsaved spouse has divorced him or her to remain unmarried as long as there is a possibility that the unsaved person may return. However if the unsaved spouse who has departed remarries, I believe the Christian would be free to remarry since, by remarrying, the unsaved partner has closed the door on reconciliation. [Note: See Robertson, 4:128.]
It is possible that Paul meant Christians should not separate from their unbelieving spouses because by staying together the unbeliever may eventually become a Christian (cf. 1 Peter 3:1). [Note: Barrett, p. 167.] He may have meant the believer should not oppose the unbeliever’s departing because he may become a Christian through channels other than the witness of the believing spouse. Both possibilities are realistic so even though we cannot tell exactly what the apostle meant here, what we should do is clear. The Christian can have hope that God may bring the unsaved spouse to salvation while the believer does the Lord’s will.
1 Corinthians 7:16 is a positive note on which to close instructions to Christians who have unsaved spouses.
Whether he or she is unmarried or married, married to a believer or to an unbeliever, the Christian should regard his or her condition as what God has placed him or her in for the time being. The concept of "call" is a way of describing Christian conversion (cf. 1 Corinthians 1:2; 1 Corinthians 1:9). He or she should concentrate on serving the Lord in that condition rather than spending most of one’s time and energy on trying to change it. Paul taught the priority of serving Christ, over trying to change one’s circumstances, in all the churches.
"Paul’s intent is not to lay down a rule that one may not change; rather, by thus hallowing one’s situation in life, he is trying to help the Corinthians see that their social status is ultimately irrelevant as such (i.e., they can live out their Christian life in any of the various options) and therefore their desire to change is equally irrelevant-because it has nothing to do with genuine spirituality as their slogan would infer (1 Corinthians 7:1 b)." [Note: Ibid., p. 311. Cf. Robertson and Plummer, p. 144.]
This is the second of four instances where Paul appealed to what was customary in all the churches (cf. 1 Corinthians 4:17; 1 Corinthians 11:16; 1 Corinthians 14:33). He never did this in any of his other letters. He was reminding this church that its theology was off track, not his.
2. Basic principles 7:17-24
At this point Paul moved back from specific situations to basic principles his readers needed to keep in mind when thinking about marriage (cf. 1 Corinthians 7:1-7). He drew his illustrations in this section from circumcision and slavery.
"Under the rubric ’It is good not to have relations with a woman,’ they were seeking to change their present status, apparently because as believers they saw this as conforming to the more spiritual existence that they had already attained. Thus they saw one’s status with regard to marriage/celibacy as having religious significance and sought change because of it. Under the theme of ’call’ Paul seeks to put their ’spirituality’ into a radically different perspective. They should remain in whatever social setting they were at the time of their call since God’s call to be in Christ (cf. 1 Corinthians 1:9) transcends such settings so as to make them essentially irrelevant." [Note: Fee, The First . . ., p. 307.]
This principle of remaining in one’s present condition applies to being circumcised as well as to being married. Both conditions were secondary to following the Lord obediently. God did not command celibacy or marriage, circumcision or uncircumcision (under the New Covenant). These are matters of personal choice in the church. One’s ministry might be one factor in his or her decision (e.g., Acts 16:3; cf. Galatians 5:6; Galatians 6:15).
The idea of becoming uncircumcised after one has been circumcised seems strange, but some Jews did this to avoid being known as Jews when they participated in activities at the public gymnasiums. [Note: Ibid., p. 146. See also Keener, p. 66.] They underwent an operation that reversed their circumcision.
The "condition" (NASB) or "situation" (NIV; Gr. klesis) is the calling (1 Corinthians 7:17) in life in which a person was when God called him or her into His family (cf. 1 Corinthians 1:2; Ephesians 4:1). Our calling as Christians, to bear witness to Jesus Christ, is more important than our calling in life, namely, the place we occupy in the social, economic, and geographical scheme of things.
Paul did not mean that a Christian should take a fatalistic view of life and regard his or her condition as something he or she should definitely remain in forever. If we have the opportunity to improve ourselves for the glory of God, we should do so. If we do not, we should not fret about our state but bloom where God has planted us. We should regard our call to Christ as sanctifying our present situation. In the context, of course, Paul was appealing to those who felt compelled to dissolve their marriages.
Another example of this principle would be if a person became a Christian while uneducated, he can serve Christ effectively without a formal education in a variety of ways. Many outstanding servants of the Lord have done so. If he has the opportunity to get an education and so serve God more effectively, he should feel free to take advantage of that opportunity. Unfortunately some Christians put more emphasis on getting an education than they do on serving the Lord. This is putting the cart before the horse and is the very thing Paul warned against here.
Paul’s emphasis on the wisdom of the world and the wisdom of God comes back into view in this section of verses (cf. 1 Corinthians 1:10 to 1 Corinthians 4:21). Priorities are in view. Does the Corinthian slave view himself primarily as a slave or as a freedman? A freedman was a person who had formerly been a slave but had received manumission, been set free. He was both, a slave of men but the freedman of God. Does the freedman view himself primarily as a freedman or as a slave? He was both, a freedman socially but the Lord’s slave spiritually.
"This imagery, of course, must be understood in light of Greco-Roman slavery, not that of recent American history. Slavery was in fact the bottom rung on the social order, but for the most part it provided generally well for up to one-third of the population in a city like Corinth or Rome. The slave had considerable freedom and very often experienced mutual benefit along with the master. The owner received the benefit of the slave’s services; and the slave had steady ’employment,’ including having all his or her basic needs met-indeed, for many to be a slave was preferable to being a freedman, whose securities were often tenuous at best. But the one thing that marked the slave was that in the final analysis, he did not belong to himself but to another. That is Paul’s point with this imagery." [Note: Fee, The First . . ., p. 319.]
It is unfortunate that many Christians today choose to focus on their limitations rather than on their possibilities as representatives of Jesus Christ. We should use the abilities and opportunities that God gives us rather than feeling sorry for ourselves because we do not have other abilities or opportunities.
Paul’s thought returned to the Cross again (cf. 1 Corinthians 6:20). God has set us free from the worst kind of slavery having purchased us with the precious blood of His Son. How foolish then it would be for us to give up any of the liberties we enjoy that enable us to serve Jesus Christ. How ridiculous it would be to place ourselves back into a slave relationship to anyone or anything but Him. This applies to physical and spiritual bondage.
For the third time in this pericope (1 Corinthians 7:17; 1 Corinthians 7:20; 1 Corinthians 7:24) Paul stated the basic principle that he advocated. Evidently there was much need for this exhortation in the Corinthian church.
In our day upward mobility has become a god to many Christians, and its worship has polluted the church. We need to be content to serve the Lord, to live out our calling, whether in a mixed marriage, singleness, a white collar or blue collar job, or whatever socioeconomic condition we may occupy.
In this section Paul chose his examples from circumcision and uncircumcision, slavery and freedom. However the larger context of the chapter is singleness and marriage. His point was that those who were single when God called them to follow Him should be content to remain single, and those who were married should stay married. Faithfulness to God or effectiveness for God do not require a change. Yet if opportunity for more effective service of Christ presents itself, one should feel free to take advantage of it.
The "virgins" (Gr. parthenoi) were a group within the "unmarried" (agamoi) of 1 Corinthians 7:8. Paul used the feminine gender in five out of the six uses of this noun in 1 Corinthians 7:25-38. Consequently it seems clear that he was speaking of female virgins in particular.
There are three major views about the identity of these virgins. One view is that they were the virgin daughters of men in the Corinthian church and that these fathers had questions about giving their daughters in marriage. A second view is that the virgins were both men and women who were living together in a "spiritual marriage" (i.e., without sexual relations). A third view is that the virgins were females who were engaged, or thinking of becoming engaged, but were experiencing pressure from the "spiritual" in the church to forgo marriage. I believe the text supports the third view best.
The Lord Jesus had not addressed this problem during His earthly ministry as far as Paul knew (cf. 1 Corinthians 7:12). Paul gave his inspired opinion as a trustworthy (wise) steward of the Lord who had received mercy to be such (1 Corinthians 4:2). Note that Paul appealed to the Lord’s mercy, not His command. As in the first part of this chapter, Paul was offering good advice, but he was not commanding that everyone do the same thing. Thus to choose not to follow Paul’s advice did not amount to sinning.
The advantage of the single state 7:25-28
In view of the verses in this section it seems that the question the Corinthians had asked Paul was whether an engaged girl should get married or remain single. One might understand 1 Corinthians 7:17-24 as saying no unmarried person should change her situation and get married (cf. 1 Corinthians 7:8), but this was not what Paul advocated necessarily.
3. Advice concerning virgins 7:25-40
The second occurrence of the phrase peri de ("now concerning") occurs in 1 Corinthians 7:25 and indicates another subject about which the Corinthians had written Paul (cf. 1 Corinthians 7:1). This was the subject of single women. This section belongs with the rest of chapter 7 because this subject relates closely to what immediately precedes. Paul continued to deal with questions about marriage that the Corinthians’ asceticism raised.
What is the present distress or crisis (Gr. anagke) to which the apostle referred? It may have been a crisis in the Corinthian church or in Corinth, about which we have no more specific information. However in view of Paul’s description of this distress (1 Corinthians 7:29-31) it seems as though he was speaking of the fact that we live in the last days. [Note: Barrett, p. 175; Barclay, The Letters . . ., p. 77; et al.] They are last days because the Lord’s return for us could end them at any time.
If this is correct, we live in the same present distress as the Corinthian believers did. It is a time of distress because of the hostility of unbelievers and increasing apostasy (cf. 1 Timothy 4; 2 Timothy 3). Committed Christians constantly face opposition, antagonism, and stress because we hold values, morals, and priorities that the world rejects. The Apostle Paul consistently viewed the inter-advent age as a time of crisis and distress.
The last part of the verse restates Paul’s basic principle of abiding in one’s calling (1 Corinthians 7:17; 1 Corinthians 7:20; 1 Corinthians 7:24). "Man" (NASB) or "you" (NIV) is anthropos, meaning "person."
Paul thought it prudent to stay married rather than seeking a life of singleness with a view to serving the Lord more effectively. Obviously it would be wrong to split up a marriage for this purpose. If an unbelieving spouse had abandoned the Christian, or if he or she had lost his or her spouse to death, a single life would provide greater opportunity for Christian ministry.
Nevertheless marrying in such a case is not sinful. Furthermore if a young woman decides to marry rather than staying single, she has not sinned. However the decision to marry may complicate her service of the Lord.
For example, suppose a single woman gets into a position where an adversary may torture her for her faith. She could face that possibility more easily than a married woman who has children for whom she has responsibility could. It is that kind of "trouble" that Paul evidently had in mind.
"One of the unfortunate things that has happened to this text in the church is that the very pastoral concern of Paul that caused him to express himself in this way has been a source of anxiety rather than comfort. Part of the reason for this is that in Western cultures we do not generally live in a time of ’present distress.’ Thus we fail to sense the kind of care that this text represents. Beyond that, what is often heard is that Paul prefers singleness to marriage, which he does. But quite in contrast to Paul’s own position over against the Corinthians, we often read into that preference that singleness is somehow a superior status. That causes some who do not wish to remain single to become anxious about God’s will in their lives. Such people need to hear it again: Marriage or singleness per se lies totally outside the category of ’commandments’ to be obeyed or ’sin’ if one indulges; and Paul’s preference here is not predicated on ’spiritual’ grounds but on pastoral concern. It is perfectly all right to marry." [Note: Fee, The First . . ., p. 334.]
While it is true that the time a person has to serve Christ grows shorter with every day he or she lives, Paul probably meant that the Lord’s return is closer every day. However it is not the amount of time that we have left that concerned Paul but the fact that we know our time is limited. Christians should live with a certain perspective on the future and, therefore, we should live with eternity’s values consciously in view. We should be ready to make sacrifices now in view of the possibility of greater reward later (1 Corinthians 3:14; cf. Matthew 6:19-21).
Married men should live as soldiers of the Cross willing to forgo some of the comforts and pleasures of family life, but not its responsibilities, since we are in a spiritual battle. Those who weep should remember that present sorrow will be comparatively short (cf. Luke 6:21). Likewise those who rejoice should bear in mind that we have a serious purpose to fulfill in life (Luke 6:25). When we make purchases, we need to consider that we are only stewards of God and that everything really belongs to Him. The Christian should use the world and everything in it to serve the Lord, but we must not get completely wrapped up in the things of this world. Therefore, whether a person is single or married he or she should live with an attitude of detachment from the world. We should not let it engross or absorb us.
Reasons for remaining single 7:29-35
Paul next called his readers to take a different view of their relationship to the world since they lived in distressing times and the form of the world was passing away. We, too, need this view of the world since we also live in distressing times and the form of the world is still passing away.
The reason for viewing life this way is that earthly life as we know it is only temporary and is passing away. This world is not our home; we’re just a-pass’n’ through.
Paul wanted his readers to be free from concerns about this present life so devotion to the Lord would be consistent (1 Corinthians 7:35; cf. Matthew 6:25-34; Philippians 4:11; 1 Peter 5:7). He wanted us to live as eschatological people. Our new existence in Christ should determine our lives, not the world in its present form. Buying and marrying should not determine our existence. A clear view of the future should do that.
Comparing two equally committed Christians, an unmarried man can give more concentrated attention to the things of the Lord. A married man also needs to think about his family responsibilities. This is true of women, and particularly virgins, as well as men. Queen Elizabeth I said that England was her husband. [Note: Robertson and Plummer, p. 158.] Some interpreters put more emphasis on the negative anxiety feeling while others stress the positive legitimate care that each person needs to show. Both aspects of concern are probably in view. Even though the unmarried state is in one sense preferable, it is not intrinsically better. [Note: Barrett, p. 181.] Unfortunately many single people who have more time to devote to serving the Lord choose to live for themselves.
Paul did not want his readers to regard his preceding comments as an attempt to build too strong a case for celibacy, as ascetics do. He wanted to help his readers appreciate the realities of the single and married states so they could express unhindered devotion to the Lord. Christians have genuine freedom under the Lord to choose to be single or married. Similarly we have freedom to choose how many children to have and when to have them, assuming we can have them. There is no New Covenant legislation in this regard. However, we need to view life in view of the "present distress" and the "shortened times" as we consider our options.
Paul counseled, not commanded, single women to remain unmarried for three reasons: the present difficult time for Christians (1 Corinthians 7:26-28), the imminent return of Christ (1 Corinthians 7:29-31), and the opportunity to serve Christ undistracted (1 Corinthians 7:32-35). Nevertheless, single women have freedom to choose whether they want to get married, as do single men. Yet the realities of life in Christ that Paul outlined in this pericope need to inform that decision.
Paul urged any man not to feel that he must remain single or that he and his virgin girlfriend (or daughter) must forgo sexual fulfillment after marriage (1 Corinthians 7:1-7). He might have been reluctant to marry (or give her in marriage) because of what Paul had written about the single state being preferable (1 Corinthians 7:8; 1 Corinthians 7:28-34). He might also have hesitated because of ascetic influences in the church that were due to a false sense of "spirituality" and possibly an overreaction to the fornication in Corinth.
"Roman and Greek fathers had the control of the marriage of their daughters." [Note: Robertson, 4:135.]
The legitimacy of marriage 7:36-40
This section concludes Paul’s entire teaching on marriage in this chapter. However it contains problems related to the meaning of "virgin" as is clear from the three different interpretations in the NASB, the NIV, and the NEB. These verses may introduce a special case (advice to fathers of virgins [Note: E.g., Robertson and Plummer, p. 158; Lowery, p. 520.] ) or connect with 1 Corinthians 7:35. Perhaps the man in view is the fiancé of the virgin who is considering the possibility of marriage with her. [Note: Barrett, p. 184.] In the second case, the pericope then summarizes what Paul has already taught. I prefer the second view, but the first one has much to commend it.
Likewise the man who preferred to take Paul’s advice to remain single should feel at peace about his decision. External pressure from the ascetic Corinthians or from what Paul himself had just written need not constrain him. He should follow his own convictions about marrying or not marrying, guided, of course, by the Holy Spirit.
The decision in view is one involving the good and the better rather than the right and the wrong or not sinning and sinning. This is a good example of an amoral (non-moral) situation. Paul addressed other amoral situations later in this epistle (cf. 1 Corinthians 8:1 to 1 Corinthians 11:1).
"So at the end Paul has agreed, and disagreed, with the Corinthians in their letter. They prefer celibacy for ’spiritual’ reasons; he prefers it for pastoral and eschatological ones. But quite in contrast to them, he also affirms marriage; indeed, he does so strongly: Such a man ’does well.’ But there is one final word. These verses are addressed to the man; but in keeping with his response throughout, there is a final word for married women as well." [Note: Fee, The First . . ., p. 355.]
The remaining two verses conclude both major sections of the discussion by repeating that women should not separate from their husbands (cf. 1 Corinthians 7:1-24). This concluding reminder is especially important for virgins considering the possibility of marrying. Again Paul referred to marriage as a binding relationship (cf. 1 Corinthians 7:15; 1 Corinthians 7:27). The wife is bound (Gr. deo) to her husband as long as he lives. Does this mean that even if he leaves her the marriage tie is unbroken? That is what many interpreters have concluded. If that is the case, remarriage after a divorce or separation would constitute adultery (cf. Matthew 19:9; Mark 10:11-12). In that case, one should avoid remarriage before the death of the spouse.
Another possibility is that Paul conceded, but did not restate, the fact that desertion by an unbelieving spouse freed the Christian and he or she was no longer under bondage to the mate (1 Corinthians 7:15). This applied only to mixed marriages, however.
Paul regarded death as the only thing that always breaks the marriage bond. This may imply that present marital relationships will not continue in heaven just as they are now (cf. Luke 20:34-36). Jesus taught that fornication may lead to adultery if the marriage partners do not reunite (Matthew 19:9). God may permit separation or divorce in certain circumstances (cf. Matthew 19:9; 1 Corinthians 7:15), but remarriage usually results in adultery, unless the former spouse of the divorced person has died.
When a Christian woman’s husband dies, she is at liberty to marry whomever she chooses provided he is a believer (cf. 2 Corinthians 6:14). The same rule would apply to a Christian man whose wife dies.
"Long, long ago Plutarch, the wise old Greek, laid it down, that ’marriage cannot be happy unless husband and wife are of the same religion.’" [Note: Barclay, The Letters . . ., p. 79.]
Paul expressed his opinion, that a widow would probably be better off to remain unmarried, with a very light touch, one that he used throughout this chapter. This decision, as well as all decisions about whether to marry or not, pivots on a delicate balance. Paul later acknowledged that given certain conditions some widows would usually be better off to marry (cf. 1 Timothy 5:9-13). For example, faced with the prospect of choosing between a fine Christian husband and a life of destitute poverty it would probably be better for her to remarry. However if all other things were equal, the single state seemed preferable to the apostle. Notice that the issue is the widow’s happiness, not her obedience.
Paul undoubtedly knew he represented the mind of the Spirit in what he said. He simply expressed himself as he did to avoid laying too much weight on his preference.
This chapter is one of the central passages on the subject of marriage in the Bible (cf. Deuteronomy 24; Matthew 5; Matthew 19; Mark 10). [Note: See the bibliography of these notes for other helpful resources on this subject.] It reveals that Paul was not a hard-nosed bigot and advocate of celibacy, as some have accused him of being. He was extremely careful to distinguish his personal preferences in amoral aspects of this subject from the Lord’s will. Even when the will of God was unequivocal (e.g., 1 Corinthians 7:39) he did not "pound the pulpit" but simply explained God’s will in irenic fashion. May all of us who preach and teach on this sensitive subject follow his example.