The Expository Files


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.

Married Couples
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 unmarried.

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 marry.

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 Believer
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