Maintaining Marital Purity
1 Corinthians 7
Paul’s remarks on marriage in 1 Corinthians chapter seven address one of the
major problems that plagued the Corinthian church. Previously Paul had dealt
with the problems of party divisions, gross immorality and lawsuits among
brethren. First Corinthians chapter seven and verse one marks the beginning of
the second section of the book in which the apostle answers questions which
the church in Corinth had apparently asked in the letter they had written to
him. This section continues to the end of the book. His comments on the
questions raised are generally introduced by the phrase “now concerning” or
“now about” (7:1, 8, 12, 25; 8:1; 12:1; 16:1), which is how his remarks on
marriage are introduced.
Clearing the Ground
Before getting into the specifics of Paul’s instructions, we will first deal
with two objections that are often raised against Paul’s marriage advice.
First of all, the accusation is made that Paul was simply a male chauvinist
woman hater who does not even deserve to be heard on the subject. Besides,
some say, he was never married so what does he know anyway? Well, let it be
known that the New Testament, including the inspired books of Paul, lift
womankind to heights of glory which are not achievable outside of Christ. For
example, 1 Peter 3:7 points out that women are to be treated with respect and
are equal heirs with men in the gracious gift of life. Ephesians 5:22-33
commands that a husband love his wife as Christ loves the church and also care
for his wife, or nourish her (i.e. promote the health and strength of -
Harper’s Analytical Lexicon). Furthermore, speaking of several societal
groupings including men and women, Paul says in Gal 3:28 “for you are all one
in Christ Jesus”
The second objection to taking Paul’s instructions seriously have to do with
the unusual references we find in verses 10 and 12, where Paul modifies his
instructions with “not I, but the Lord” and “I, not the Lord”. In these two
interjectional remarks he is simply referring to words spoken or not spoken
personally by Christ. For example, in verse 10, Paul appeals to the authority
of Jesus who taught personally on the subject of divorce (Mt 5:31; Mk
10:11-12; Lk 16:18). In verse 12 Paul speaks from his own apostolic authority
because Jesus said nothing specifically about marriage between a Christian and
non-Christian, which is the subject of verse 12. Thus explained, the
interjection of these comments provide no basis upon which to reject either
the divine inspiration or authority of the instructions being giving.
In 1 Corinthians 1:1-5 Paul addresses his remarks to married couples. Probably
the best translation of I Cor 7:1b is: “It is good for a man not to have
sexual relations with a woman.” To “touch a woman” seems to be an obvious
reference to sexual intimacy. Also, in light of the overall teaching in the
New Testament, it seems that Paul here is referring to marriage since any
sexual activity outside of marriage stands condemned anyway.
The following guidelines for sexual conduct between a husband and wife can be
inferred from Paul’s comments in verses 1-5:
1) Sexual activity is confined to the context of marriage.
2) Sex should be egalitarian, i.e. for the equal sharing and mutual benefit of
both husband and wife.
3) Sex need not be exclusively for procreation.
4) Sexual activity should be consistent in marriage (postponed temporarily
only by mutual consent) in order to avoid temptation.
5) Sex should not be used as a weapon to gain an advantage over one’s mate.
The Unmarried and Widows
In verses 6-9 the singles and widows are addressed. Paul chose not to be
married. Others would choose differently. Neither decision was wrong in and of
itself. In this section, therefore, Paul is simply advising that under the
current conditions it would be “good” but not absolutely necessary, to remain
He then describes the strength and self discipline to remain unmarried and
sexually pure as being a gift from God (verse 7)
which he had been given, but that all people do not possess. Paul recognizes
that many people do not have the moral strength to live a celibate life. He
continues (verse 8) by advising that the unmarried (single) and widows remain
unmarried (due to the present distress, verse 26, which no doubt was
persecution). But if they are unable to control themselves then they should
The Married Couple Seeking Divorce
In verses 10-11 Paul addresses the married couple who, for whatever reason
(the exception of adultery is not considered here) seek to divorce. There is a
command involved (as opposed to the “concession” of verse 6). The command is -
DO NOT DIVORCE. Paul recognized that some however, would not live according to
the commandment and for them there are only two options, remain single or be
reconciled to your mate. We may be left with questions here regarding the
sinfulness of the person who goes ahead and seeks a divorce , but one point is
clear, sexual relations are confined to marriage.
The Believer Seeking Divorce From an Unbeliever
Paul now (verses 12-14) discusses those in mixed marriages (i.e. a believer
married to an unbeliever). This discussion assumes that New Testament marriage
laws pertain to believers as well as unbelievers. Paul here may be alluding to
the possible custom of first century Greeks to divorce a mate who became a
Christian (Truth Commentaries, I Corinthians. Mike Willis. p 187). Under this
scenario the unbeliever may choose to seek a divorce, but the Christian is
commanded not to initiate a divorce procedure. If the unbeliever is willing to
continue living with a mate who has become a Christian, then the Christian
partner in the marriage should be willing to live peaceably with the
unbeliever. Such an attitude on the part of the Christian would bring
blessings to the union as well as to any children involved.
The Unbeliever Seeking a Divorce From a
Here (verses 15-16) Paul looks at the other side of the previously described
situation. If the unbeliever does seek a divorce from a spouse who is a
believer, then the believer is not bound to remain in the marriage. In other
words, a believer is not acting sinfully in being divorced from a mate who is
insistent on destroying the marriage. Paul goes on to say that in this
difficult situation the believer should strive to conduct himself or herself
peaceably in the hope of eventually saving their unbelieving mate.
For the Engaged Couple
In verses 28 - 38 Paul discusses virgins, and those contemplating marriage.
His advice is the same as before. If you can live without marriage, it would
be better to live a single life under the present crises, but if you choose to
be married, you are not sinning.
For the Widow Considering Marriage
The apostle points out that a widow would be happier is she stays unmarried,
but she is not sinning if she chooses to remarry. The only condition is that
her re-marriage must be to one who is “in the Lord” i.e. a Christian.
In conclusion, there are two basic lessons within the context of I Corinthians
7 that our modern culture is badly in need of. Both lessons concern one’s
sexual conduct. First of all, there needs to be more mutual respect and
consideration between husband and wife with regard to their sexual life within
the marriage. Paul’s instructions concerning this “sanctified sex” should be
considered more seriously and practiced more consistently. Secondly, there is
no “sanctified sex” outside of marriage for anyone. Thus Paul’s divinely
inspired instructions on abstinence should be taken more seriously also.
By Ed Barnes
From Expository Files 16.2; February 2009