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Barclay's Daily Study BibleDaily Study Bible

1 Corinthians 7

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Verses 1-40

Chapter 7

COMPLETE ASCETICISM ( 1 Corinthians 7:1-2 )

7:1-2 With regard to your letter and its suggestion that it would be a fine thing for a man not to have anything to do with a woman--to avoid fornication, let each man possess his own wife, and each woman her own husband.

We have already seen that in Greek thought there was strong tendency to despise the body and the things of the body; and that that tendency could issue in a position where men said, "The body is utterly unimportant; therefore we can do what we like with it and it makes no difference if we allow its appetites to have their fullest play." But that very tendency could issue in a precisely opposite point of view. It could move a man to say, "The body is evil; therefore we must bring it into subjection; therefore we must completely obliterate, and if that is not possible, we must completely deny, all the instincts and desires which are natural to it." It is that second way of looking at things with which Paul is dealing here. The Corinthians, or at least some of them, had suggested that, if a man was going to be a Christian in the fullest sense of the term, he must have done with physical things and must refuse to marry altogether.

Paul's answer is extremely practical. In effect he says, "Remember where you are living; remember that you are living in Corinth where you cannot even walk along the street without temptation rearing its head at you. Remember your own physical constitution and the healthy instincts which nature has given you. You will be far better to marry than to fall into sin."

This sounds like a low view of marriage. It sounds as if Paul is advising marriage in order to avoid a worse fate. In point of fact he is honestly facing the facts and laying down a rule which is universally true. No man should attempt a way of life for which he is naturally unfitted; no man should set out on a pathway whereby he deliberately surrounds himself with temptations. Paul knew very well that all men are not made the same. "Examine yourself," he says, "and choose that way of life in which you can best live the Christian life, and don't attempt an unnatural standard which is impossible and even wrong for you being such as you are."

THE PARTNERSHIP OF MARRIAGE ( 1 Corinthians 7:3-7 )

7:3-7 Let the husband give to the wife all that is due to her; and in the same way let the wife give to the husband all that is due to him. A wife is not in absolute control of her own body, but her husband is. In the same way a husband is not in absolute control of his own body, but his wife is. Do not deprive each other of each other's legitimate rights, unless it be by common agreement, and for a limited time. You could do so in order to have time for prayer and afterwards come together again; but you must come together again, so that Satan may not get the chance to tempt you because you find it impossible to control your desires. But I am giving this advice more as a concession than as a command. I wish that all men were like myself; but each man has his own gift from God, one one way, and another another.

This passage arises from a suggestion from Corinth that if married people are to be really Christian they must abstain from all intercourse with each other. This is another manifestation of that line of thought which looked on the body and its instincts as essentially evil. Paul declares a supremely great principle. Marriage is a partnership. The husband cannot act independently of the wife, nor the wife of the husband. They must always act together. The husband must never regard the wife simply as a means of self-gratification. The whole marriage relationship, both in its physical and spiritual sides, is something in which both are to find their gratification and the highest satisfaction of all their desires. In a time of special discipline, in a time of long and earnest prayer, it might be right to set aside all bodily things; but it must be by mutual agreement and only for a time, or it simply begets a situation which gives temptation an easy chance.

Once again Paul seems to belittle marriage. This, he suggests, is not an ideal command; it is a considerate concession to human weakness. He would prefer as an ideal that everyone was as he was. What exactly was that? We can only deduce.

We may be fairly certain that at some time Paul had been married. (i) We may be certain of that on general grounds. 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." Seven were said to be excommunicated from heaven, and the list began, "A Jew who has no wife; or who has a wife but no children." 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. (ii) On particular grounds there is also evidence that Paul was married. 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.

It may be that Paul's wife died; it is even more likely that she left him and broke up his home when he became a Christian, so that he did indeed literally give up all things for the sake of Christ. At all events he banished that side of life once and for all and never remarried. A married man could never have lived the life of journeying which Paul lived. His desire that others ideally should be the same sprang entirely from the fact that he expected the Second Coming at once; time was so short that earthly ties and physical things must not be allowed to interfere. It is not that Paul is really disparaging marriage; it is rather that he is insisting that all a man's concentration must be on being ready for the coming of Christ.

THE BOND THAT MUST NOT BE BROKEN ( 1 Corinthians 7:8-16 )

7:8-16 To the unmarried and to the widows I say, it would be a fine thing if they were to remain like myself, but if they find continence impossible, let them marry; for it is better to marry than to go on being inflamed with passion. To those who are married I give this order--and the order is not mine but the Lord's--that a wife should not separate herself from her husband; but if she does separate, let her either remain unmarried or be reconciled to her husband; and that a husband should not put his wife away. To others I say this--but I give it as my advice and not as a commandment of the Lord--if any brother has a wife who is not a believer, and she agrees to live with him, let him not put her away; and if there is any wife who has a husband who is not a believer, and he agrees to live with her, let her not put her husband away; for the unbelieving husband is consecrated by his wife and the unbelieving wife is consecrated by the husband who is a brother. If this were not so your children would not be cleansed; but as it is they are set apart for God. If the unbelieving partner wishes to separate, let him or her separate, for the Christian brother or sister in such cases is not under any slavish obligation. it is in peace that God has called us. Wife, how can you tell whether you will save your husband? Or, Husband, how can you tell whether you will save your wife?

This passage deals with three different sets of people.

(i) It deals with those who are unmarried or who are widows. In the circumstances of an age which, as Paul thought, was hastening to its end, they would be better to remain as they are; but once again, he warns them not to court temptation, not to attempt a situation which would be for them dangerous. If they have a nature naturally passionate, let them marry. Paul was always sure that no one could lay down one course of action for everyone. It all depended on the person involved.

(ii) It deals with those who are married. Paul forbids divorce on the ground that Jesus forbade it. ( Mark 10:9; Luke 16:18). If there is such a separation, he forbids remarriage. This may seem a hard doctrine, but in Corinth with its characteristic laxity, it was better to keep the standards so high that no taint of loose-living could enter the Church.

(iii) It deals with the marriage of believers and unbelievers. On this Paul has to give his own judgment, because there is no definite command of Jesus to which he can refer them. The background must be that there were those in Corinth who declared that a believer must never live with an unbeliever; and that, in the event of one partner of a marriage becoming a Christian and the other remaining a heathen, separation must at once follow.

In fact one of the great heathen complaints against Christianity was exactly that Christianity did break up families and was a disruptive influence in society. "Tampering with domestic relationships" was one of the first charges brought against the Christians. ( 1 Peter 4:15). Sometimes the Christians did in fact take a very high stand. "Of what parents are you born?" the judge asked Lucian of Antioch. "I am a Christian," Lucian answered, "and a Christian's only relatives are the saints."

Undoubtedly mixed marriages produced problems. Tertullian wrote a book about them in which he describes the heathen husband who is angry with his Christian wife because, "for the sake of visiting the brethren she goes round from street to street to other men's cottages, especially those of the poor.... He will not allow her to be absent all night long at nocturnal convocations and paschal solemnities...or suffer her to creep into prison to kiss a martyr's bonds, or even to exchange a kiss with one of the brethren." (In the early Church Christians greeted each other with the holy kiss of peace). It is indeed difficult not to sympathize with the heathen husband.

Paul dealt with this problem with supreme practical wisdom. He knew the difficulty and he refused to exacerbate it. He said that if the two could agree to live together by all means let them do so; but if they wished to separate and found living together intolerable, let them do so, because the Christian was never meant to be a slave.

Paul has two great things to say which are of permanent value.

(i) He has the lovely thought that the unbelieving partner is consecrated by the believer. They two have become one flesh and the wonder is that in such a case it is not the taint of heathenism but the grace of Christianity which wins the victory. There is an infection about Christianity which involves all those who come into contact with it. A child born into a Christian home, even into a home where only one of the partners is a Christian, is born into the family of Christ. 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.

(ii) He has the equally lovely thought that this very association may be the means of saving the soul of the unbelieving partner. For Paul evangelization began at home. The unbeliever was to be looked on, not as something unclean to be avoided with repulsion, but as another son or daughter to be won for God. Paul knew that it is blessedly true that often human love has led to love of God.

SERVING GOD WHERE GOD HAS SET US ( 1 Corinthians 7:17-24 )

7:17-24 The one thing that is necessary is that each man should walk as God has allotted to him and as God has called him. It is thus that I order things in all the Churches. Was any man called after he had been circumcised? Let him not try to efface it. Was any man called when he was not circumcised? Let him not get himself circumcised. Circumcision is of no importance and uncircumcision is of no importance, but keeping God's commandments is everything. Let each man remain in the condition in which he was when God called him. Were you called as a slave? Do not let that distress you. But if you can become free, grasp the opportunity, for he who, in the Lord, was called as a slave is the Lord's free man; and in the same way, the free man who has been called is Christ's slave. You have been bought with a price. Do not become slaves of men. Brothers, let each man remain in the sight of God in the state in which he was called.

Paul lays down one of the first rules of Christianity, "Be a Christian where you are." It must often have happened that when a man became a Christian he would have liked to break away from his job, and from the circle in which he moved, and begin a new life. But Paul insisted that the function of Christianity was not to give a man a new life, but to make his old life new. Let the Jew remain a Jew; let the Gentile remain a Gentile; race and the marks of race made no difference. What did make a difference was the kind of life he lived. Long ago the Cynics had insisted that a true man can never be a slave in nature although he may be a slave in status; and that a false man can never be a free man in reality but is always a slave. Paul reminds them that slave or free, a man is a slave of Christ because Christ bought him with a price.

Here there is a picture in Paul's mind. In the ancient world it was possible for a slave at a great effort to purchase his own freedom. This was how he did it. In the little spare time he had, he took odd jobs and earned a few coppers. His master had the right to claim commission even on these poor earnings. But the slave would deposit every farthing he could earn in the Temple of some god. When, it might be at the end of years, he had his complete purchase price laid up in the Temple, he would take his master there, the priest would hand over the money, and then symbolically the slave became the property of the god and therefore free of all men. That is what Paul is thinking of. The Christian man has been purchased by Christ; therefore, no matter what his human status may be, he is free of all men because he is the property of Christ.

Paul insists that Christianity does not make a man kick over the traces and become querulously discontented with things as they are; it makes him, wherever he is, carry himself as the slave of Christ. Even the meanest work is no longer done for men but for Christ. As George Herbert wrote:

All may of thee partake;

Nothing can be so mean,

Which with this tincture, "for thy sake,"

Will not grow bright and clean.

A servant with this clause

Makes drudgery divine:

Who sweeps a room, as for, thy laws,

Makes that and the action fine.

This is the famous stone

That turneth all to gold;

For that which God doth touch and own

Cannot for less be told.

WISE ADVICE ON A DIFFICULT PROBLEM ( 1 Corinthians 7:25 ; 1 Corinthians 7:36-38 )

7:25,36-38 I have no command of the Lord with regard to virgins, but I give you my opinion, as one who has found the mercy of God and who can be trusted.... If anyone thinks that his conduct to his virgin is unseemly, if he finds that his passions are too strong, and if he thinks that they ought to marry, let him do what he wishes. He does no wrong; let them marry. But if any man is fixed and settled in his mind, and if there is no compulsion on him, but if he has complete power to abide by his own wish, and if in his mind he has come to the decision to keep his own virgin, he will do well. The thing comes to this--he who marries his virgin acts rightly; and he who does not marry her will do better.

1 Corinthians 7:25-38, while they form a paragraph, really fall into two parts, which it is simpler to examine separately. 1 Corinthians 7:25 and 1 Corinthians 7:36-38 deal with this problem concerning virgins; while the verses between give the reason for accepting the advice which runs through the whole chapter. This section concerning virgins has always been a problem. It has been given three different explanations.

(i) It has been regarded simply as advice to fathers as to the marriage of their unmarried daughters; but it does not read like that; and it is hard to see why Paul uses the word virgin if he means daughter; and for a father to speak of his virgin when he meant his daughter would be an odd way of speaking.

(ii) It has been regarded as dealing with a problem which in later times became acute and which more than one Church Council tried to deal with and forbade. Certainly later on it was the custom for a man and woman to live together, sharing the same house and even sharing the same bed, and yet to have no physical relations with each other at all. The idea was that if they could discipline themselves to share the spiritual life in such intimacy without allowing the body to enter into their relationship at all, it was a specially meritorious thing. We can understand the idea behind this, the attempt to cleanse human relationships of all passion; but it is clear how dangerous a practice it was, and how, on occasion, it must have resulted in a quite impossible situation. In such a relationship the woman was known as the man's virgin. It may well be that that custom had arisen in the Church at Corinth. If so, and we think that it was so, then Paul is saying, "If you can retain this difficult situation, if your self-discipline and your self-control are sufficient to maintain it, then it is better to do so; but, if you have tried it and have found that it is too great a strain on human nature, then abandon it and marry; and to do so will be no discredit to you."

(iii) While we think that is the correct interpretation of this passage, there is a modification of it which deserves to be noted. It is suggested that in Corinth there were men and women who had actually gone through the marriage ceremony but had decided never to consummate the marriage and to live in absolute continence so as to devote themselves entirely to the spiritual life. Having done so, it might well be that they discovered that what they planned to do placed too great a strain upon them. In that case, Paul would be saying, "If you can keep your vow, you will do supremely well; but if you cannot, frankly admit it and enter into normal relations with each other."

To us the whole relationship seems dangerous and abnormal and even wrong; and so indeed it was; and in time the Church was compelled to brand it as wrong. But given the situation, Paul's advice is full of wisdom. He really says three things.

(i) Self-discipline is an excellent thing. Any means whereby a man tames himself until he has every passion under perfect control is an excellent thing; but it is no part of Christian duty to eliminate the natural instincts of man; rather the Christian uses them to the glory of God.

(ii) Paul really says, "Don't make an unnatural thing of your religion." That, in the last analysis, is the fault of the monks and the hermits and the nuns. They regard it as necessary to eliminate the natural feelings of mankind in order to be truly religious; they regard it as necessary to separate themselves from all the normal life of men and women in order to serve God. But Christianity was never meant to abolish normal life; it was meant to glorify it.

(iii) In the end Paul is saying, "Don't make an agony of your religion." Collie Knox tells how, when he was a young man, he was apt to find religion a stress and a strain; and he tells how a well-loved chaplain once came to him and laid a hand on his shoulder and said, "Young Knox, don't make an agony of your religion." It was said of Burns that he was "haunted rather than helped by his religion." No man should be ashamed of the body God gave him, the heart God put into him, the instincts that, by God's creation, dwell within him. Christianity will teach him, not how to eliminate them, but how to use them in such a way that passion is pure and human love the most ennobling thing in all God's world.

THE TIME IS SHORT ( 1 Corinthians 7:26-35 )

7:26-35 I think that this is the right thing because of the present crisis-- that it is the right thing for a man to remain as he is. Have you been bound to a wife? Do not seek to be released from that bond. Are you free from marriage ties? Do not seek a wife. But, if you do marry, you have committed no sin. Those who do marry will have trouble about bodily things, and I would wish to spare you this. This I do say, brothers, the time is short, so short that, for the future those who have wives must live as if they had not, those who have sorrow must live as not sorrowing, those who rejoice must live as not rejoicing, those who buy must buy as if they had no secure possession of anything, those who use this world must use it as if they had no full use of it; for the outward form of this world is passing away. I want you to be without anxieties. The man who remains unmarried is anxious for the things of the Lord; his anxiety is how he may please the Lord. The man who marries is anxious for the things of the world; his anxiety is how he may please his wife. There is a distinct difference between the married and the unmarried woman. The unmarried woman is anxious for the things of the Lord; her aim is that she may be dedicated to God both in her body and in her spirit. The woman who has married is anxious for the things of the world; her anxiety is that she may please her husband, It is for your advantage that I am saying this. I do not want to put a halter round your neck. My aim is that you should live a lovely life and that you should serve the Lord without distractions.

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. All through this chapter we must have felt that he was belittling marriage. It looked again and again as if he was allowing marriage only as a concession to avoid fornication and adultery; as if marriage was only a second best.

We have seen that the Jews glorified marriage and considered it a sacred duty. There was only one valid reason, according to Jewish tradition, for not marrying, and that was in order to study the law. Rabbi ben Azai asked, "Why should I marry? I am in love with the Law. Let others see to the prolongation of the human race." In the Greek world, Epictetus, the stoic philosopher, never married. He said that he was doing far more for the world by being a teacher than if he had produced two or three "ugly-nosed brats." "How," he asked, "can one whose function is to teach mankind be expected to run for something in which to heat the water to give the baby its bath?" But that was not the Jewish point of view and it was certainly not the Christian point of view.

Nor was it Paul's final point of view. Years later when he wrote the letter to the Ephesians he had changed; for there he uses the relationship of man and wife as a symbol of the relationship between Christ and the Church ( Ephesians 5:22-26). When he wrote to the Corinthians, his outlook was dominated by the fact that he expected the Second Coming of Christ at any moment. What he is laying down is crisis legislation. "The time is short." So soon was Christ to come, he believed, that everything must be laid aside in one tremendous effort to concentrate on preparation for that coming. The most important human activity and the dearest human relationship must be abandoned if they threatened to interrupt or to slacken that concentration. A man must have no ties whatsoever to keep him when Christ bade him rise and go. He must think of pleasing no one other than Christ. Had Paul thought that he and his converts were living in a permanent situation, he would never have written as he did. By the time he wrote Ephesians he had realized the permanency of the human situation and regarded marriage as the most precious relationship within it, the only one which was even faintly parallel to the relationship of Christ and the Church.

For us it must always be true that home is the place which does two things for us. It is the place where we find the noblest opportunity to live the Christian life; and the pity is it is so often the place where we claim the right to be as querulous and critical and boorish as we may, and to treat those who love us as we would never dare to treat a stranger. Also it is the place from whose rest and sweetness we draw strength to live more nearly as we ought within the world.

Paul in this chapter looked on marriage as a second best because he believed that life as we know it had only days to run; but the day came when he saw it as the loveliest relationship upon earth.

MARRYING AGAIN ( 1 Corinthians 7:39-40 )

7:39-40 A wife is bound for as long as her husband is alive; but, if her husband dies, she is free to marry anyone she wishes, so long as the marriage is made in the Lord. In my opinion she will be happier if she remains as she is--and I think that I have the Spirit of God.

Again Paul takes up his consistent point of view. Marriage is a relationship which can be broken only by death. A second marriage is perfectly allowable, but Paul would rather see the widow stay a widow. We know now that he was speaking only of the crisis situation in which he thought men were living.

In many ways a second marriage is the highest compliment that the one who survives can pay the one who has gone before; for it means that without him or her life was so lonely as to be insupportable; it means that with him or her the married state was so happy that it can fearlessly be entered into again. So far from being an act of disrespect it can be a mark of honour to the dead.

One condition Paul lays down--it must be a marriage in the Lord. That is, it must be a marriage between Christian folk. It is seldom that a mixed marriage can be successful. Long, long ago Plutarch laid it down, that "marriage cannot be happy unless husband and wife are of the same religion." 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.

1 Corinthians 8:1-13; 1 Corinthians 9:1-27; 1 Corinthians 10:1-33 deal with a problem which may seem extremely remote to us, but was intensely real to the Christians at Corinth and demanded a solution. It was the problem of whether or not to eat meat which had been offered to idols. Before we begin to study these chapters in detail, it will be well to state the problem and the broad lines of the solutions which Paul offers in the various cases in which it impinged upon life.

Sacrifice to the gods was an integral part of ancient life. It might be of two kinds, private or public. In neither case was the whole animal consumed upon the altar. Often all that was burned was a mere token part as small as some of the hairs cut from the forehead.

In private sacrifice the animal, so to speak, was divided into three parts. First, a token part was burned on the altar. Second, the priests received as their rightful portion the ribs, the ham and the left side of the face. Third, the worshipper himself received the rest of the meat. With the meat he gave a banquet. This was specially the case at times like weddings. Sometimes these feasts were in the house of the host; sometimes they were even in the temple of the god to whom the sacrifice had been made. We have, for instance, a papyrus invitation to dinner which runs like this: "Antonius, son of Ptolemaeus, invites you to dine with him at the table of our Lord Serapis." Serapis was the god to whom he had sacrificed.

The problem which confronted the Christian was, "Could he take part in such a feast? Could he possibly take upon his lips meat that had been offered to an idol?" If he could not, then obviously he was going to cut himself off almost entirely from social occasions.

In public sacrifice, that is sacrifice offered by the state, and such sacrifices were common, after the requisite symbolic amount of the meat had been burned and after the priests had received their share, the rest of the meat fell to the magistrates and others. What they did not need, they sold to the shops and the markets; and therefore, even when meat was bought in the shops, it might well have been already offered to some idol. A man never knew when he might be eating meat that had formed part of a sacrifice to an idol.

What complicated matters still further was that this age believed strongly and fearfully in demons and devils. The air was full of them and they were always lurking to gain an entry into a man, and, if they did, they would injure his body and unhinge his mind. One of the special ways in which these spirits gained entry was through food; they settled on the food as a man ate and so got inside him. One of the ways of avoiding that was to dedicate the meat to some good god whose presence in the meat put up a barrier against the evil spirit. For that reason, nearly all animals were dedicated to a god before being slaughtered; and, if that was not done, as a defence meat was blessed in the name of a god before it was eaten.

It therefore followed that a man could hardly eat meat at all which was not in some way connected with a heathen god. Could the Christian eat it? That was the problem; and, clearly, although to us it may be a matter of merely antiquarian interest, the fact remains that, to the Christian in Corinth or any other Greek city, it was one which pervaded all life, and which had to be settled one way or another.

Paul's advice falls into different sections.

(i) In 1 Corinthians 8:1-13 he lays down the principle that, however safe the strong and enlightened Christian may feel from the infection of heathen idols and even if he believes that an idol is the symbol of something which does not exist at all, he must do nothing which will hurt or bewilder a brother whose conscience is neither so enlightened nor so strong as his.

(ii) In 1 Corinthians 9:1-27 he deals with those who invoke the principle of Christian freedom. He points out that there are many things that he is free to do which he abstains from doing for the sake of the Church. He is well aware of Christian freedom, but equally aware of Christian responsibility.

(iii) In 1 Corinthians 10:1-13 he deals with those who declare that their Christian knowledge and privileged position make them quite safe from any infection. He cites the example of the Israelites who had all the privileges of God's Chosen People and who yet fell into sin.

(iv) In 1 Corinthians 10:14-22 he uses the argument that any man who has sat at the table of the Lord cannot sit at the table of a heathen god, even if that god be nothing. There is something essentially wrong in taking meat offered to a false god upon lips that have eaten the body and blood of Christ.

(v) In 1 Corinthians 10:23-26 he advises against overfussiness. A man can buy what is offered in the shops and ask no questions.

(vi) In 1 Corinthians 10:27-28 he deals with the problem of what to do in a private house. In a private house the Christian will eat what is put before him and ask no questions; but if he is deliberately informed that the meat set before him was part of a heathen sacrifice, that is a challenge to his Christian position and he will refuse to eat it.

(vii) Finally in 1 Corinthians 10:29-33 to 1 Corinthians 11:1 Paul lays down the principle that the conduct of the Christian must be so far above reproach that it gives no possible offence either to Jew or non-Jew. He is better to sacrifice his rights than to allow these rights to become an offence.

Now we can proceed to deal with these chapters in detail.

-Barclay's Daily Study Bible (NT)

Bibliographical Information
Barclay, William. "Commentary on 1 Corinthians 7". "William Barclay's Daily Study Bible". 1956-1959.