I Corinthians 7
I Corinthians 7:1-16: Paul ended chapter 6 with the encouragement to “glorify God in your body.” He now begins to address issues brought to him by the Corinthian Christian community, beginning with issues that have to do with the body and with sexuality. Discussions of appropriate sexual expression for Christians have apparently been around a long time, as we have already seen in this letter. As we read Paul’s words it is helpful to remember that “what Paul writes is not an essay on marriage but part of a letter conditioned by one particular situation” (People’s New Testament Commentary).
Regarding the earlier situation of the man who had taken up with the widow of his father, one group of Corinthian Christians seemed to argue that they were not bound by some traditional notions of appropriate sexuality. Paul disagreed with them – Christian freedom did not mean the freedom to do anything one liked. This chapter begins with the polar opposite. Some others in the Corinthian Jesus community have as a motto – “It is well for a man not to touch a woman.” “Touch” here has distinctly sexual meaning – it is being used euphemistically. While this point of view seems to be the opposite of that discussed in chapter 5, there is a common root. For many in the Greco-Roman world, body and spirit were understood to be very distinct. For Paul, body and spirit are intertwined, interconnected. For those who view the body and spirit as distinct and separable, two responses are common: (1) it doesn’t matter what I do with my body because it is separate from my spirit – the body is inconsequential because it is distinct and separable from spirit, or (2) being spiritual means denigrating or denying my body and the pleasures of bodily existence – the body is a distraction at best and evil at worst because it is distinct and separable from the spirit. Paul has already rejected #1. Here he will also reject #2, though not always, perhaps, in the most positive way. The history of the Church indicates that #2 remains a real temptation for Christians – a denigration of bodily existence, seeing the body as a distraction at best and evil at worst. When that happens, the Church is not being very faithful to its own best theological insights.
The superspiritual argue against sexual contact even among married couples. That is the context in these verses. Paul argues that married couples should have a normal sex life, that each should give to the other their conjugal rights. Christian faith can be very earthy and it seems to reach into every area of our lives. Notice the equality presupposed in verses 3-4. Now one primary reason Paul gives for married couples having a normal sexual life is that otherwise they may be tempted toward “sexual immorality.” Paul seems to undercut his own basic point about glorifying God with our bodies, though realistically, he may have something of a point. Paul does allow that there may be times when couples jointly decide to abstain from sex, but they should come back together again. Paul is not commanding or advising this, only conceding that there may be certain circumstance where sexual abstinence within marriage has some spiritual benefit – but not as a permanent condition. Paul does hint that an unmarried celibate life has advantages (“I wish all were as I myself am”), but he goes on to say that both celibacy in singleness and a joyful and robust married life are gifts from God. Paul, in places, comes close to saying that the body is a distraction to the spiritual life, but I would argue when he does so, he undercuts his own best insights.
Paul comes close to making that mistake in the following verses (8-9). Paul encourages the widows and widowers (probably the meaning of “unmarried” in this verse) to stay unmarried, unless self-control becomes an issue then “it is better to marry than to be aflame with passion.” Not the most ringing endorsement of marriage, but one should not push Paul’s point too far. It is some of the Corinthian superspiritualists that argue that marriage and a normal sex life within it hamper spiritual development. Paul is saying that marriage can be an important part of the life of a Christian disciple, and if you are inclined to marry do so with joy. It is interesting to see how Paul in places evokes the name of Jesus in giving advice and in other places says this is just his best judgment. Such statements seem to undercut some of the charged language about the Bible being the inerrant word of God. Inspired, yes, inerrant, that’s questionable.
Paul discourages divorce. Is this an absolute prohibition? To read this passage in that way does not do it justice in its context. Verse 15 acknowledges a situation in which divorce might indeed be an option. Paul, however, encourages those married to “unbelievers” to stay in those relationships. God has called us to peace.
I Corinthians 7:17-24: Whether married or not Paul invites all to “lead the life that the Lord has assigned, to which God has called you.” Paul says, “This is my rule in all the churches.” Paul goes on to illustrate his point that Christians, after becoming Christians, can retain some of their previous lives – married or not, circumcised or not, slave or free. Paul is not endorsing slavery here. Paul’s point is that God calls each of us in different circumstances, and while God wants to transform our lives, not everything about them must change. Sometimes circumstances change and sometimes they do not, but the opportunity to live as a person of God is always a possibility.
I Corinthians 7:25-40: Paul now addresses the topic of the unmarried (virgins). Here again, he offers opinion. With a crisis impending, though what Paul has in mind here is left vague, he may have had a sense of an immanent return of Christ. He may also have been talking about something more mundane. The married should stay married and the unmarried should stay unmarried – “but if you marry, you do not sin.” That last line seems absurd to most of us, but remember the Corinthian church had those who would have seen sin in marriage.
Paul’s sense of imminent crisis pervades some of the verses. Paul is not saying that we should not marry, or that mourning, rejoicing, buying are evil. He is trying to say that we need to keep our perspective on all of this. We need to remember that “the present form of this world is passing away.” This reminds me a little bit of the Buddhist idea of the impermanence of life. Things change and pass away. Keep things in perspective. Live by your values.
Marriage can bring with it a whole set of “anxieties,” and Paul is concerned about these. Marriage is not second rate spirituality. Singleness can offer persons the opportunity to focus more on God’s work in the world without having to worry about how God’s work in the world might involve a family. Paul’s big concern is to promote good order and deep devotion to Jesus. Marriage or singleness both can be ordered well and are compatible with a deep devotion to Jesus. If you marry, great; if you don’t – great (v. 38).
Christian faith has implications for all of our lives, for how we express our sexuality, for the intimate relationship of marriage. No question seems out of bounds to Paul. No area of life is left untouched by Christian faith.