I’m concluding my series of “textual takeaways” from different Bible passages, and next week I’ll be back to commenting on timely topics. Once in awhile I may return to sharing thoughts on Scripture, as the Bible needs to be an emphasis on society, especially since today’s culture doesn’t seem to acknowledge biblical instruction, or at least adhere to it.
This week I’m offering six standpoints from 1 Cor. 7:1-17, Paul’s instructions pertaining to marriage. I think it’s one of the more unique advisements Paul offers in his epistles.
- Consider the context
The church in Corinth would not be one to emulate. I’ve heard it said that if you wanted to do a study on practical human behavior, it would be best to not use those in an insane asylum as subjects for research.
The city of Corinth had a reputation for indulging in pagan culture, especially sexual immorality. As one of the early churches, the Corinthian Church struggled with its surrounding immoral standards, and the church members asked Paul, as the church’s founder and advisor, how to handle different aspects involving marriage.
So the best way to apply the majority of Paul’s teachings in 1 Corinthians, especially chapter 7, is to understand it is written FOR all Christians not necessarily written TO all Christians. But with today’s society struggling with the purpose of marriage, Paul’s instruction here may be more applicable.
- The necessity of marriage
One verse in the Bible that is subject to misinterpretation is 1 Cor. 7:1. More than one Bible translation has the verse saying “It is good for a man not to touch a woman.” A legalistic Christian would take this literal and could consider it a sin for a man to have any physical contact with any woman who is not his wife. This would be too strong of an interpretation of what Paul is saying.
Other translations of 1 Cor. 7:1 interprets the verse saying “It is good for a man not to have sexual relations with a woman.” This would be more sensible, especially in relation with the whole context of the passage.
There’s even some translations having the verse saying “It is good for a man not to marry.” What I appreciate about this translation’s conclusion is marriage and sexual relations are equivalent. However, it can lead to misunderstandings.
Paul is beginning to answer a problem in the Corinthian church, and it involves marriage, even how to observe sexual relations in marriage. He starts with explaining the Christian life here on earth would be best observed if there wasn’t any sexual relationships as it pertains to the Christian’s purpose (share the Gospel and make disciples – Matt. 28:19).
However, he doesn’t mean to stop there. He goes on in verses 2-6 to tell the Corinthian Christians that it’s human nature to desire to have sex, and it should be observed in the marriage relationship. So husbands and wives, fulfill this marriage obligation to each other because if you don’t, Satan will take advantage of your natural desires.
- Paul’s marital status
Debates exist on whether or not the Apostle Paul was married. However, the strongest argument for Paul being single is in 1 Cor. 7:7-8. He said he wishes everybody could be like he is, that being not married. He also said he thinks it’s better for single people and widows to remain single like he is.
Some translations, KJV and NASB for example, allow for vague interpretations to occur, such as Paul desires for Christians to be motivated in ministry as he is motivated, NOT referring to his marital status specifically. I believe this interpretation is a stretch, and I don’t believe KJV and NASB support such wrong conclusions. To be clear, Paul does emphasize devotion to ministry, but he also is making known he is not married.
ESV, HCSB and NIV provide more clarity and state directly that Paul said he believes it is good to stay unmarried as he is unmarried.
Bobby Kelly, one of my favorite NT scholars, concluded that if Paul WERE married he was a bad husband, referring to his lengthy missionary journeys and living from place to place. This, of course, would mean Paul contradicted his own teachings of husbands devoting themselves to their wives (Eph. 5:25-28), so no, Paul was not married.
- To unmarried Christians
Paul mentions singleness as being a gift from God. Actually, both marriage and singleness are gifts from God, and God equips us to live under either status, as both marriage and singleness are valuable to accomplishing God’s purposes.
I did not get married until later than usual in life. In fact, Karen and I are celebrating our 10th wedding anniversary this year. Many people my age and much younger have been married for 20 or more years.
I understand what Paul means when he said he wishes Christians could get along without marrying. Some single Christians have the opportunity to serve in ministry in ways married Christians cannot. Paul wants single Christians to know they are valuable and to accept their single status, even if they are single for a season.
Tim Keller recently shared this applicable comment: “Singles, if you think you are lonely now, marriage to someone who doesn’t share your faith is the loneliest you can get.”
- To Christians married to an unbeliever who wants to remain married
Verses 12-14 offer another unique situation, as some Corinthian Christians thought they should divorce their unbelieving spouses and marry Christians. But Paul said this should not happen. He taught that God’s ideal is for husbands and wives to stay together – even when one spouse is not a believer.
The Christian spouse should be a witness to their lost mate, and if the unbelieving spouse wants to remain married to a committed Christian, the chances are good they too will make a profession of faith to follow Jesus. Also this is a good example to the children that their parents remain faithful in marriage.
- To Christians married to an unbeliever who abandons the marriage
Paul encourages Christians who have been converted after they were married to remain faithful to their unbelieving spouses. Do all that is feasibly possible to make the marriage work.
However, don’t abandon your faith for the unbelieving marriage partner. And if the unbelieving spouse wants to leave the marriage, and the Christian spouse cannot peaceably convince them to stay, Paul said in verse 15 to allow them to go. God desires for marriages to work, but He doesn’t want hostility to develop.
Paul also said in verse 16 that, even in a disappointing result, if the Christian spouse handles the divorce or separation respectfully, it could be possible, through their kind disposition expressed in the unfortunate process, they may still influence their unbelieving spouse to convert to Christianity.
The conclusion to this issue in verse 17 is very important: “Each of you should continue to live in whatever situation the Lord has placed you, and remain as you were when God first called you. This is my rule for all the churches” (NLT).