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Bible Commentaries
1 Corinthians 7

Carroll's Interpretation of the English BibleCarroll's Biblical Interpretation

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Verses 1-40



1 Corinthians 7:1-40; 1 Corinthians 11:2-16; 1 Corinthians 14:33-40.

It will be recalled that we have been treating 1 Corinthians topically, and hence when we take hold of a subject we take in everything bearing on that subject and pass over some things. Heretofore we have left untouched 1 Corinthians 7:1-40; 1 Corinthians 11:2-16; 1 Corinthians 14:34-40. So that the scope of the present discussion is the three passages – all of 1 Corinthians 7; 1 Corinthians 11:2-16, and 1 Corinthians 14:33-40. The general topics embraced in these parts of the first letter are Marriage, Divorce, and the Position of Women in the Public Assemblies, all exceedingly delicate questions, and therefore my reserve in treating the matter. I don’t suppose there is much help in studying this letter in the commentaries. I myself had never reached a very satisfactory conclusion on some points involved until recently.

Before we take up the serious matter of marriage, divorce, and the whole question of sexual relation, there are certain antecedent matters to consider, and the first is, that whatever is here said by the apostle Paul is an answer to a letter that the Corinthian church wrote him. He commences 1 Corinthians 7 with a reference to that letter. He says, "Now concerning the things whereof ye wrote." So we see that he answers questions propounded to him. The next antecedent thing is that we must never forget the mixed, ethnic composition of this church. "Ethnic" means of many nationalities. The mixed, ethnic composition of this church and the particular distressed conditions existing at the time that he wrote, are matters of great importance. This church was composed of Greeks, Romans, and other Orientals, besides Jews.

Upon the subject of marriage, divorce, and the position of women, the Jews, Romans, and Greeks widely differed. Each nation had its own fixed custom or customs upon all of these points, and they were all converted in this big meeting, some from all these peoples. And they naturally wanted to know what was the bearing of the new religion upon this subject of marriage, divorce, and the position of women, slavery, and things of that kind.

Among the Jews divorce was granted for a very slight cause. Moses did permit divorce in this form, viz.: that no man could put away his wife without giving her a bill of divorcement; he could not put her away and leave her as goods and chattels that he was not responsible for. He must give her a bill showing that he claimed nothing from her in the future. Christ explained, that on account of the hardness of their hearts, divorce was allowed by Moses, who did ameliorate it, but didn’t give the highest law on divorce, because they were not in condition to hear it. Following that custom, Josephus tells us frankly that he put away his wife because she didn’t please him, and he assigned no other reason, and went before no court. It would be very hard to please some men, even some of the time, and very hard to please them all the time; and it wouldn’t be best to please them all the time, for much of the time they would be wrong. Among the Greeks and Romans divorce could be had for almost any reason. Moreover, the Orientals believed in the seclusion of women. They kept them in harems guarded by a eunuch; but the Romans had much broader views than the Greeks, and the Greeks were much in advance of the Orientals. A lady at Rome had great liberty without being subjected to invidious criticisms. This is the mixed ethnic condition of this church.

But another thing must be considered which is expressed in 1 Corinthians 7. Paul says, "I think therefore that this is good by reason of the distress that is upon us." There was a particular distress bearing upon the people at that time that modified the answers that he gave to some of their questions, and we can’t understand this 1 Corinthians 7 and the other paragraphs in 1 Corinthians 2 and 1 Corinthians 14 without keeping in mind that broad statement – "the distress that is upon us." That refers to the condition of the church at that time when all Christians were persecuted. No Christian knew one day what would be his financial status the next, for everything of his might be confiscated. He could not know one day whether he would be out of prison the next; he couldn’t know one day whether he would be banished the next. Day by day they were practically taking their lives in their own hands. If a man is living in a prosperous time ’it wouldn’t be proper to answer him on the question of marriage as if he were living in unsettled conditions. In other words, what would be expedient in prosperous times, would be inexpedient in unprosperous times.

The third important antecedent thought in the understanding of those passages is the people’s misconception of the results of regeneration. Paul had said to them, "If any man be in Christ, he is a new creature: the old things are passed away; behold they are become new." They did not know how far to carry this thought. For instance, if a married man was not converted yesterday, but became a convert today, did his marriage pass away? I will show how that this is a very practical question before we get through with this discussion. A man was a slave yesterday and unconverted; he hears the gospel of freedom preached to him, that is, that if the Son makes him free he is free indeed. He hears that in Christ Jesus there is neither bond nor free, therefore today he, being a new creature, what conclusion shall he draw from this new relation as to his slavery?

Again, the gospel was preached to them as individuals, without regard to age, sex or previous condition of servitude, and it was distinctly stated that in Christ Jesus there is neither male nor female, Barbarian, Scythian, bond, free, Jew, nor Gentiles. If that be true, has not every Christian precisely the same privileges in the public assembly, whether man or woman? If there be neither male nor female in Christ Jesus, may not a woman preach as well as a man? If they stand on the same footing when they join the church, what effect does it have on the old commandment that a child should obey his parents, or that the wife is subject to her husband? It may seem that this is all a little overstrained, but the history of the world shows that these are intensely important questions.

Take the case of the "mad men of Munster," who argued from the fact that Jesus had come to establish a kingdom upon the earth, and that that kingdom was to overcome all other kingdoms of the earth. They said, "Therefore, if I be a member of the kingdom of Jesus, that absolves me from my allegiance to any kingdom of this earth." There were no subordinates in the land where they lived, as they were free from the law of the nation. They reasoned that if they had the liberty of a Christian, might they not take two or three wives? Hence the leader of the Munsterites did not stop until he got fourteen, but that was not quite so far as Brigham Young went. They went on, "Do we, being the children of Jesus Christ, have to pay tribute or taxes? If I be a member of the kingdom of Jesus Christ that absolves me from any kingdom of this earth, why not set up a purely religious kingdom?" One of these men was made king, and the whole power of the German Empire had to be invoked to put down this movement. Yet a great many people were converted people – enthusiasts misconstruing the teaching of God upon the results that would follow our becoming new creatures.

Yet again, this gospel taught that the citizenship of a Christian is up yonder, not down here, and that up yonder neither marrying nor giving in marriage takes place. Upon this they reasoned thus: "Does not that obligate me to lay down the work of this world? Why talk about farming, merchandising, and the dull, heavy round of earthly occupations?" Just so the Thessalonians went wild, because they expected Christ to come "day-after-tomorrow," and therefore there could be nothing for them to do except prepare their ascension robes. In other words, "Up there they don’t marry, and what effect does that have on me, since I am married? I have become a citizen of heaven, where they do not marry. Ought I not to abjure this marriage? Ought I not to go and live in a monastery and leave my wife and children on the care of the world? If I have never married, should I not become a sister, and enter into the nunnery?" Such were their reasonings.

The last great things that we are to consider in chapter 7 is the point that we have just presented: "If I contracted marriage before I was converted, was it dissolved when I became a new creature, and old things passed away? If I have not contracted a marriage, shall I avoid it?" The apostle answers it, first, from the viewpoint of the present distress that he refers to, i.e., in view of the present condition, when their property might be swept away in a day, when they must be silent or be in banishment. He takes the position that in this particular stress and under these conditions it was well not to marry. But we must not forget the old-time law that God instituted marriage as the only way to carry out the commandment of God to multiply and replenish the earth. Therefore, Paul says, "My advice to you is to let every man have his own wife, and every woman her own husband." It was impossible for him to take a position against the necessity of marriage, but he said that in view of that distress it might be best not to marry, but if they did marry notwithstanding the distress, they committed no sin, and if governed by the distress not to marry this was no sin, but as long as we are in this world and the sexual distinction exists, we cannot get away from that primeval law of God that marriage is honorable in all.

We know that another question was presented because of the answer given. Suppose one is already married when converted? In the middle ages this question became one of the biggest that ever occupied man’s mind. It was a common thing for a man at his conversion to say, "In view of the fact that I am now under a higher law of God, I will give up my wife and children, go from home and shut myself up in a monastery." Hundreds and thousands of men and women took the vow never to marry. There are many cases where the men took the vows of celibacy, trying to live a life like the angels. That is the most seductive form of temptation that ever came to men, and it led to the building of monasteries and nunneries all over Europe and a greater part of Asia and North Africa, where women would seclude themselves and vow not to marry, and even married men would abandon wives and children and shut themselves up in monasteries. Paul says, "If a man is married let him not put away his wife, and let not the woman put away her husband. Your being converted does not change the law of God in regard to marriage." So the question comes in another and different form. Under the old law of the Jews, a Jew could not marry a heathen, unless a proselyte, without the penalty of excommunication, and the ground was, that to marry a heathen puts him in danger of becoming an idolater. In Nehemiah we learn that when some of the Jews had violated that law, he put before them the alternative of either keeping the Jewish law or being excluded from the Jewish communion. Knowing what the law was on that subject, they put the question, "Here is a man who is converted and his wife is a heathen; shall the Christian put away his heathen wife?" That is very different from the original question, "Ought a Christian to marry a heathen?" which law holds now that it is best for believers to marry believers, but Paul answers that question emphatically, "No; the marriage relation is a divine institution and there is nothing in such a case to justify that man to put away his wife."

Then the question comes in another form: "Suppose when a woman joins the church that the heathen husband makes it a ground of disfellowship and refuses to live with her, what then?" Paul said, "In such a case, if the unbeliever depart, let him depart. You have done nothing wrong and are willing to stand by your marriage contract." But what does he mean by saying, "The husband or wife is not in bondage in such a case?" Does it mean that a voluntary separation totally abrogates the marriage tie so that the one left is at liberty to marry somebody else? That question comes up in our own civil law. Blackstone comments on it, saying, "You may grant divorce ’Amensa et toro,’ " which means, "Divorce from bed and board." In other words, people can separate; the man doesn’t have to live with that woman, and the woman doesn’t have to live with that man. But the law is emphatic that such separation is not breaking the marriage bond. It permits a possible separation. That is intensely practicable.

When I was a young preacher I was called into a council. A preacher’s wife had left him. She refused to live with him, left him, and went back to her father, and he afterwards married again, and his plea was that abandonment justified remarriage. He quoted that passage, "A husband and wife are not in bondage in such cases." The question for that council to decide was, "Would it be a wise thing to put a man into the ministry who lived under a cloud of that kind?" One of the oldest and most distinguished Baptists that ever lived took the position that such a one was free to marry again, but I, a young preacher, dissented from him, and do still. It does not break the marriage tie so as to permit one to marry again. I quoted the declaration of Paul where he says, "The wife is bound by the law as long as her husband lives," and he certainly couldn’t contradict himself in the same chapter. Then he says, "If her husband be dead, she shall be permitted to marry again." That settles that question.

Paul does not discuss the only cause that does thoroughly break the marriage bond, if one is disposed to plead it, which is the case of infidelity to the marriage vow discussed by our Lord. Hence my contention is that what is here said does not discuss all of the law on the subject of marriage and divorce.

Let us take up the question, "Ought widowers and widows to remarry?" There he states that a widower under the law of Christ may marry again, though it is not mandatory. There was at one time the question raised of putting a special tax on bachelors. The Greeks and Romans had a law to that effect. It is nothing to smile at; it comes from the idea that the state is more important than the individual. They carried that law further, and forbade a bachelor to Inherit; if he remained unmarried he must turn over his property to the state.

When I was a little boy we had a kangaroo court, and a candidate for the legislature was telling what he would do if he were elected. He said, "I would change the pronoun ’them’ for the word ’um,’ so all the common people could say grammatically, ’I love um,’ and I would have a law passed that would draw a tooth from an old bachelor’s head for every year he remained unmarried."

But how does Paul answer that question? He says, "If you take this present distress into consideration, it is not favorable for contracting marriage. If you want to marry, do so, but you will have trouble in view of this distress." But he says that it is lawful for a widow to marry again, and in the case of young widows, as in the letter to Timothy, he makes it a very urgent recommendation.

Let us take the next question: Does regeneration change the natural subordination of woman to the man, and the sphere in which each moves? The gospel preached was that in Christ Jesus there was neither male nor female. So in chapter II he answers, "I would have you know, that the head of every man is Christ; and the head of the woman is the man. . . . Every man praying or prophesying, having his head covered, dishonoreth his head. But every woman praying or prophesying with her head unveiled, dishonoreth her head; it is one and the same thing as if she were shaven [that was a sign of an infamous life]. . .. But if it is a shame for a woman to be shorn or shaven, let her be veiled. For a man indeed ought not to have his head veiled, forasmuch as he is the image and glory of God; but the woman is the glory of man. For the man is not of the woman; but the woman of the man: for neither was the man created for the woman; but the woman for the man." The angels of God were hovering round watching over the assemblies of God’s people, and it grieved them to see the law of God violated. Paul goes on; he ’is not only arguing from that old law, but he is arguing from nature: "Is it seemly that a woman pray unto God unveiled? Doth not even nature itself teach you that if a man have long hair, it is a dishonor to him?" I once knew a young fellow who was really pretty. He had great long curls that he spent a long time each day in combing and twisting and anointing with oil, and brushing. And I took the New Testament, marked this passage, and sent it to him. It made him very indignant.

Paul’s answer is that becoming a new creature, so that "old things are passed away and all things become new," does not mean that all old things, viz.: that God’s law of order has passed away. When we get to heaven we will live as the angels live, but while we live on earth the laws of order instituted in paradise must stand.

That question comes up in a little different form in 1 Corinthians 14:33: "God is not a God of confusion, but of peace. As in all the churches of the saints, let the women keep silence in the churches: for it is not permitted unto them to speak; but let them be in subjection, as also sayeth the law. And if they would learn anything, let them ask their own husbands at home; for it is shameful for a woman to speak in the church." Now they are meeting that by saying that the word of God had come to women. And it is unquestionable that the spirit of prophecy did come to women. But Paul teaches that that spirit of prophecy was subject to the person that had it; that it was not given him to violate order; and that if the spirit of prophecy did come to them, let them remember that it came to other people also.

North of the Mason and Dixon’s line we occasionally come upon a church with a woman for a pastor – a Baptist church at that. I was both cheered and hissed for a statement I made when I preached in Chicago. I don’t know which was the louder, the cheering or the hissing. I started out expounding this passage of Scripture,. 1 Timothy 2:8: "I desire therefore that the men pray in every place, lifting up holy hands, without wrath and disputing. In like manner that the women adorn themselves in modest apparel, with shamefacedness and sobriety; not with braided hair, and gold or pearls or costly raiment; but (which becometh women professing godliness) through good works. Let a woman learn in quietness with all subjection. But I permit not a woman to teach, nor to have dominion over man, but to be in quietness. For Adam was first formed, then Eve." Adam saw Eve and said, "Issha," woman; it means that woman is derived from man; that she got her soul and her body from Adam. She is as much a descendant of Adam as we are. I read the scripture, and took the position that there are two distinct spheres, the man’s sphere and the woman’s sphere; that the man’s is more public; that the woman shall live in her children. When a worldly woman came to visit Cornelia and paraded her fine jewels that blazed on her head and arms and her ankles before her, Cornelia, drawing forward her two sons, Gaius and Tiberius Gracchus (the Gracchi), said, "These are my jewels, and I am going to live in these. My sphere is my home and my boys."

There is one other question – that of the slave. They said, "If I am a freedman of Christ, shall I be a slave to man?" But Paul answers that Christianity does not propose to unsettle the established order of things. Its object is to develop the inner life: "Let each one of you abide in the law you were in when God called you." In other words, if he was circumcised, let him not try to efface his circumcision. If he was a slave when God called him, let him be satisfied with being Christ’s freedman, and with knowing that his master if Christ’s servant, and let him in his position of slavery illustrate that the truth and the power of the Christian religion is in serving, not with eye service, but showing that Christianity can come to any form of life and glorify ’it. In yet other words, being converted and becoming a new creature, we should not disregard the established order of things which God has appointed for this world. When we get up into the other world we can adapt ourselves to conditions there.


1. What is the scope of this chapter, and what are the several topics?

2. What is the first important antecedent matter in 1 Corinthians 7?

3. What is the second antecedent matter, and of whom was the church at Corinth composed?

4. What is the position of Jews, Romans, and Greeks, respectively, on marriage and divorce, and the woman question in general?

5. What is the difference between the Orientals, on the one hand, and the Greeks and Romans, on the other hand, with respect to this question?

6. What condition at the time Paul wrote this letter greatly modified his answers to some of their questions?

7. What is the third antecedent thought essential to an understanding of these scriptures?

8. How did their application of this thought affect their earthly relations? Illustrate fully.

9. What was Paul’s answer to their inquiry as to whether one who was not married should marry, and what its bearing on the primal law of marriage?

10. What question arose about those who were converted after marriage, what Paul’s answer to it, and what the results of this misconception of the Corinthians as practiced in the Middle Ages?

11. Ought a Christian to marry an unbeliever?

12. What is the Christian wife or husband to do in case the unregenerated husband or wife makes it a ground of disfellowship, and refuses to live ill the marriage relation?

13. What does Paul mean by saying, "The husband or wife is not is bondage in such a case"?

14. What illustration of the author’s interpretation from his own experience?

15. What is the only cause which breaks the marriage bond, and where do we find the statement of it?

16. What is the law of marriage in the case of widowers and widows, and what legislation against bachelors?

17. What is the bearing of this subject on the relation between man and woman in the sphere in which each moves, what Paul’s teaching on this, and what his arguments for it?

18. What is the form of this question as treated in 1 Corinthians 14, how do some people meet Paul’s argument here, and what does Paul teach that settles the question beyond all dispute?

19. What is the author’s experience on this line in Chicago, and what is his interpretation of 1 Timothy 2:8-15? Illustrate.

20, How did this subject affect the relation, of the slave and his master, and what Paul’s answer to their reasoning on the subject?

Bibliographical Information
"Commentary on 1 Corinthians 7". "Carroll's Interpretation of the English Bible". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/eng/bhc/1-corinthians-7.html.
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