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Bible Commentaries
1 Corinthians 7

Layman's Bible CommentaryLayman's Bible Commentary

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Verses 1-40

SEX AND MARRIAGE

I Corinthians 7:1-40

Paul now turns to the problems the Corinthians themselves had raised when writing him. It is not surprising that the pressing problem on their list was sex and marriage. The Jews had for centuries held and practiced a high ideal of sex and family life. Some of the plainest commandments in the Old Testament have to do with sex. The Gentiles of early Christian times, on the other hand, were among the most loose-living people of history, especially when it came to liquor and sex. One of the leading Ro­man biographers of Julius Caesar admired that general, among other things, for his "chastity." By that he meant only that Caesar was not a homosexual; his relations with women were promiscu­ous. Now when people like the Romans came into the same re­ligious community with the Jews, there was bound to be a clash of opinions on the right and wrong of sex and marriage. Paul, of course, upheld the Jewish ideals. He believed, and we believe with him, that God had already shown mankind, through the Jews who were bearers of his word to the world, what the divine intention for man is in this vital aspect of his life. That intention, in a word, is: before marriage, continence; in marriage, faithfulness through­out life. But of course this general principle did not settle all the questions.

Before looking at some details, we need a little background. (1) This whole chapter is neither Paul’s last nor his best word about marriage. It undoubtedly represented his sincere view at the time, but by the time he wrote Ephesians he had come to a much higher conception of Christian marriage. The best he can say for marriage in this entire chapter 7 is that it is no sin. He con­cedes that marriage is necessary for most persons, but only to avoid fornication. Marriage for Paul seems a concession to the necessities of weak-willed people. (2) He draws on his own ex­perience, as he often does, to form his conclusions. He argues that unmarried people are happier than married people, for he has found it so himself. It is a question often asked: Was Paul ever married? Obviously not at the time he wrote this letter. Many scholars believe that Paul had been a member of the San­hedrin (the high court) at Jerusalem, and that therefore he must have been married, as bachelors were not admitted to this high position. Perhaps he had had a wife who left him, or died. To the mind of your commentator (who of course knows no more about this than others do!), all that Paul says about marriage in this chapter suggests that he had been through a marriage that almost but never quite succeeded—a marriage which he felt in­terfered with his spiritual life, a marriage in which it had been impossible to be both a good husband and a good Christian missionary (7:32-35). By the time he wrote Ephesians, he could actually think of marriage as an illustration of the relation be­tween Christ and the Church, something quite far from his thought in the Corinthian letter. Had he seen a real Christian marriage in the home of Aquila and Priscilla? Had he perhaps met some Christian woman who opened a window in his heart? We can only speculate, remembering that Ephesians 5, not 1 Corinthians 7, is Paul’s last word on marriage. (3) Paul was still at this time expecting the end of all things to come to pass in his own lifetime—and soon. The advice he gives on marriage is not given with an eye to long years ahead for individuals or na­tions or the human race, but rather for the short time before the final catastrophe. If you had pointed out to him that if his wish came true and everyone felt just as he did, happiest when unmar­ried, and with no wish or need to marry, then the human race would soon disappear, Paul would not have been embarrassed. "Coming generations" is a phrase the Old Testament uses (or words to that effect), but not Paul till he was older than when writing this letter, not till the long years had given him another perspective.

The advice Paul gives to the unmarried and the married can be summed up in a few sentences, all but one difficult paragraph. We can make it clear by outlining it.

To the unmarried (including widows): Stay as you are; that is better (7:8-9). It is better for a man not to live with a woman at all. But if you find this to be impossible, then get mar­ried; it is no sin, and enormously better than fornication or con­stantly burning desire. Whether you are a bachelor or a spinster, a widow or a widower, whether you never had a wife or lost the one you had through death, desertion, or divorce, no matter; stay as you are. As a single person, you will be happier and better able to serve the Lord with an undivided mind.

To the married: Stay as you are. Do not leave your wife or husband; do not drive away your partner; do not refuse to live with her, or him, as if you were not married at all. Suppose you are married to an unbeliever? Still stay as you are. If your partner stays, you can be a blessing to him (her) and to the children (7:14-16). If your partner leaves, and in Corinth this would be very common, let him (her) go in peace. Be reconciled if you can (7:11); otherwise realize that you are always in a better state when single.

To men who have virgins for whom they are responsible. This is the puzzling section of this chapter (vss. 36-38). Under what circumstances would a man be in charge of a virgin without being married to her? Commentators are not agreed about this. Most translations are interpretations at this point; "betrothed" is one interpretation: the Greek word is simply "virgin." A strict translation of the Greek casts no light on the question. There are two main interpretations: (a) the man and the virgin are father and daughter; (b) the man and the virgin are an engaged couple. The latter is the interpretation of the Revised Standard Version. (A variety of the second interpretation, held by some Bible students, is that the man and girl are living in a kind of celibate marriage, that is, marriage in name only, without inter­course. We do know that such marriages were sometimes tried out by Christians at a later period. The idea was to "spiritualize" marriage entirely. The Church finally forbade such experiments.) In the Greek of this passage there are difficulties with each of these theories. In this writer’s opinion, there are fewer difficulties with (b) than with (a). In any case, Paul’s advice is just what would be expected from what he has already said. Let the virgin remain a virgin ("Stay as you are"), unless there is desire beyond control, in which case marriage is to be advised. Paul here repeats his point, "He who refrains from marriage will do better" (1 Corinthians 7:38).

Bibliographical Information
"Commentary on 1 Corinthians 7". "Layman's Bible Commentary". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/eng/lbc/1-corinthians-7.html.
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