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Bible Commentaries

Arthur Peake's Commentary on the Bible
1 Corinthians 7

 

 

Introduction

1 Corinthians 7. Problems as to Marriage, Celibacy, and Divorce.—At this point Paul takes up a letter sent by the Corinthian church inviting his judgment on various questions, apparently indicating their own views with some self-satisfaction. The reply probably follows the order of the letter, not only as to the subjects in general, but the different branches of them. This explains the somewhat haphazard development of the subject in this chapter. (On the questions discussed, see p. 650.) The view put forward in the letter was that celibacy should be practised in the church. Such a view was not unnatural in a city so foul as Corinth.


Verses 1-7

1 Corinthians 7. Problems as to Marriage, Celibacy, and Divorce.—At this point Paul takes up a letter sent by the Corinthian church inviting his judgment on various questions, apparently indicating their own views with some self-satisfaction. The reply probably follows the order of the letter, not only as to the subjects in general, but the different branches of them. This explains the somewhat haphazard development of the subject in this chapter. (On the questions discussed, see p. 650.) The view put forward in the letter was that celibacy should be practised in the church. Such a view was not unnatural in a city so foul as Corinth.

1 Corinthians 7:1-7. Paul begins by asserting his own personal preference for absolute continence. But he recognises that this is a counsel of perfection. Accordingly he recommends marriage so that unchastity may be prevented, and marriage, of course, in the form of monogamy (1 Corinthians 7:2). And this must be a real marriage, in which the physical obligations of each to the other are duly observed, for in this matter both belong not to themselves but to each other. So neither may withhold from the other the marriage due unless by mutual agreement if they feel that they will thus be more undistracted for prayer (cf. Testament of Naphtali, 88, "And a season to abstain therefrom for his prayer"); but such periods of abstinence should not be prolonged or Satan will tempt them to seek satisfaction elsewhere. He says this, however, by way of concession, not injunction. It is unfortunately not clear to what "this" refers. The term "concession" suggests that it is concession to weakness, and this is supported by 1 Corinthians 7:7. The point might then be, I should prefer that your abstinence should be permanent not temporary. This is very improbable; Paul regarded the danger of incontinence as too serious to run the risk such advice would imply. Besides, the language had been that of definite injunction. It is more probable that he is referring to his general advice on the subject. On the whole, however, it seems best to take it as referring to the abstinence; the concession is to the view urged in the church letter. He does not, in the interests of the religious life, ordain that such seasons should be observed, but he is willing to make the exception to the rule, provided it can be done without moral risk. He would, of course, prefer, he continues, that all men had his own gift of continence. But there is diversity of gifts, and that by God's appointment, so that regulations must be governed not by personal preferences but by the hard facts of the situation.


Verses 8-24

1 Corinthians 7:8-24. He now passes on to special classes. First, those who are unmarried or have lost their partners. It would be best for them to follow Paul's example and remain as they are. But if they have not the gift of continence, it would be better to marry than to be inflamed with illicit desire. The married must abide in the married state, as Jesus Himself commands. If the wife should leave her husband, she must refrain from contracting a new union, or, if she feels she must have a man to live with, she must make it up with her husband. Similarly, the husband must not desert the wife. So much for the case where both are Christians. But for the cases where one is a heathen, no command of Jesus can be quoted. If the heathen is willing to continue the relationship, the Christian is not to dissolve it. It was natural for a Christian to feel that the continuance of the relation involved defilement and made the member of Christ unclean. Paul replies that the relation works in the opposite way. The unbeliever does not defile the Christian, the Christian consecrates the unbeliever. Were this not the case, were heathen uncleanness more potent than Christian holiness, the offspring of the marriage must be unclean, springing from parents both unclean, one intrinsically, the other by contamination. But the children, so Paul asserts without argument, are holy, and this involves the holiness of the parents. The conception of "holiness" here is not ethical, ultimately it is primitive (p. 196). The unbeliever, apart from any co-operation on his part and simply in virtue of the marriage with a believer, is sanctified, even if he remains an unbeliever; he is not placed by it in a state of salvation, this remains very problematical (1 Corinthians 7:16). To primitive thought holiness and uncleanness are alike infectious. The circle of ideas is strange to us, and should not be modernised. The unbeliever may, however, abandon the Christian. In that case, the latter is to hold the tie no longer binding nor seek to maintain a relationship in which peace cannot be preserved, all the more that the sacrifice may not lead to the other's salvation. The general rule which Paul lays down in all his churches applies here, let each continue in his Divinely-appointed position. If he has become a Christian while circumcised, let him not seek to obliterate the marks and adopt the Gentile mode of life; if uncircumcised let him not accept the obligations of circumcision. For circumcision and uncircumcision have no intrinsic worth, what matters is to keep God's commandments. The rule "stay where you are" applies to the slave, he must not trouble about his position; though if he can become free he should use the opportunity of freedom (p. 650). He should not make a trouble of his slavery, for the slave who becomes a Christian is thereby made Christ's slave. All alike have been bought with a price, as the purchase of God let them not make men their masters. It is quite uncertain to what Paul is alluding in 1 Corinthians 7:23 b; after 1 Corinthians 7:21 a it sounds strange. Presumably the meaning is that the Christian should, as one who calls Christ his master, refuse to become enslaved to merely human standards. The Jew who had the operation for effacing the marks of circumcision (1 Corinthians 7:18 a), that he might escape Gentile mockery, the Gentile who submitted to circumcision (1 Corinthians 7:18 b) to conciliate Jewish prejudice, are equally in his mind with the slave whom he has just been addressing. Bondage to Christ emancipates a man from bondage to human opinion; servile conformity is unworthy of the independence He confers.

1 Corinthians 7:8. widows: perhaps we should read "widowers" (so H. Bois), since "unmarried" seems to be strictly masculine, and not to include women, and Paul has a special section on "virgins" in 1 Corinthians 7:25-40.

1 Corinthians 7:10 a. Cf. Matthew 5:32; Matthew 19:9, Mark 10:9, Luke 16:18.

1 Corinthians 7:15. is not under bondage: is not bound by Christ's regulation to oppose the separation. Paul need not mean that the deserted Christian is free to marry again, desertion annulling the marriage. Still he may mean this.

1 Corinthians 7:16. Some think Paul means that the Christian should stay with the heathen in hope of securing the latter's salvation; in this case, we should render "thou shalt not save." But this should have followed 1 Corinthians 7:13; in its present position it means that the Christian should not in the very problematic hope of winning the heathen for Christ, persist in maintaining a situation leading not to peace, the Christian's vocation, but to mutual exasperation.

1 Corinthians 7:19. Cf. Galatians 5:6; Galatians 6:15, Colossians 3:11.


Verses 25-40

1 Corinthians 7:25-40. Paul now passes to the case of virgins, on which the church had invited his judgment. The section is one of peculiar difficulty. It is generally thought that Paul is dealing with the relations of a father (or guardian) to the marriage of his daughter (or ward). The decision whether the maiden should be married, and if so to whom, rested with the father. In that case his general principle holds good that in view of the impending distress it is better for no new ties to be created. But if any father (or guardian) thinks that he is acting in an unseemly way towards his daughter (or ward), she being of an age to marry and her nature imperiously demanding it, he is at liberty to carry out his desire, he does not sin in doing so, let the maiden and her suitor marry. But if there be no such compulsion in the case, and he has made up his mind not to give her in marriage, his decision is to be commended. He does well if he gives her in marriage, but better if he does not. But this interpretation is exposed to serious objections. (a) Paul is dealing with the case of virgins; but he begins by saying what is good for a man (1 Corinthians 7:26-28 a), and reverts to this in 1 Corinthians 7:32 f. (b) It is curious that he should twice assert that the marriage is not sinful (1 Corinthians 7:28; 1 Corinthians 7:36): since marriage was not regarded as sinful in itself, the case in question seems to have had exceptional features which made the view that sin was involved plausible. But on the usual interpretation the marriage was quite normal. (c) If Paul had in mind the relationship of a father to his daughter, it is strange that he does not speak of father and daughter. This difficulty is mitigated but not removed by the reply that his language is indefinite because he wishes to include the relationship of guardian and ward. Since the father was the usual guardian, it would have been proper to speak simply of that relationship, leaving the other case to be understood. (d) The phrase "act unseemly," while possible, is not a natural one to use of the father's conduct. (e) If Paul has been speaking of father and daughter, "let them marry" is harsh, since the antecedent has to be supplied. (f) "Daughter" is not expressed in the Gr., which is literally "his virgin" in 1 Corinthians 7:36, "his own virgin" in 1 Corinthians 7:37 and 1 Corinthians 7:38. The former is a remarkable, the latter an amazing, expression for "his unmarried daughter." These difficulties disappear if Paul is dealing with a spiritual marriage in which a man and woman united in taking a vow of continence. This practice is known as far back as the second century, and at a later period gave rise to serious scandal, since the man and woman often lived in the same house. Paul favours the fulfilment of the vow, but advises marriage in case the man's weakness in self-control is likely to precipitate moral disaster. This gives a coherent interpretation of the passage. It is exposed to two difficulties. One is that it requires the rendering "marry" instead of "give in marriage" in 1 Corinthians 7:38. Achelis accepts the usual rendering, but supposes Paul to advise that the man in the condition described in 1 Corinthians 7:36 should determine the situation by giving the virgin in marriage to someone else. This is wholly unnatural; the obvious and proper advice would be that the man and his virgin should marry, which is indeed suggested by 1 Corinthians 7:36. If the usual rendering is necessary, we must either set aside altogether the reference to a spiritual marriage, or suppose that 1 Corinthians 7:38 is a later insertion, for which we have no warrant. But it is not improbable that the rendering "marry" is legitimate. The other objection is of a more general character. We have no evidence that the custom originated so early, and, if it had, would Paul have sanctioned a relationship so fraught with possibilities of moral peril? Our ignorance as to the origin of many things should make us chary of pressing the former point. As to the latter, we must beware of viewing the institution through the scandals which later discredited it. With Paul's strong preference tor celibacy, pledges to observe it might seem praiseworthy, and that a man and woman should combine for mutual encouragement in such a pledge would seem perhaps not unfitting. The moral peril would be met by the possibility of marriage in case the strain on continence became too severe. And we must not underrate the elemental force of primitive enthusiasm, or too hastily apply to the church of the first century our own standards of what is fitting.

Paul has no word of Jesus to settle the matter, but gives his opinion as one endowed through Christ's mercy with a judgment worthy of trust. The impending trouble, "the woes of the Messiah" which are to usher in the new era, makes any change of state undesirable. Let the married and the single remain as they are. It is accordingly best that the intention to continue in the relationship in question should be carried out. Still, if the man marries, he has not sinned, nor yet the virgin. They will suffer in the troubles that are coming, and he would guard them from this. The interval that will elapse before the Second Coming is cut short, so that all human ties and relationships should be held with indifference—marriage, mourning, merriment, purchase; the world must be used, but not to the full, for it is a fleeting show. In such a situation they should be free from distractions. In the unmarried state interest can be concentrated on the Lord's affairs, but the married man is preoccupied with secular matters and consideration for his wife and is distracted. The unmarried woman and the virgin are preoccupied with the things of the Lord, to maintain body and spirit holy alike; the wife is preoccupied with secular affairs and the pleasing of her husband. Paul says this for their advantage, not to put constraint (mg.) upon them, but to secure what is seemly, and undistracted concentration on service for the Lord. However, if in any instance the man feels that he may be guilty of an offence against the virgin's chastity, if he is troubled with excess of virility and his nature demands marriage, he may carry out the desire without sin, let them get married (1 Corinthians 7:36). But if he is firm in purpose and driven by no such necessity, and is gifted with self-control and resolved to keep his virgin partner intact, he will do well (1 Corinthians 7:37). If he marries her he will do well, if he refrains from marriage he will do better still (1 Corinthians 7:38). Finally, a word as to widows. A woman cannot marry a second husband till her present husband is dead; then she may marry any man she likes, provided that he is a Christian. His judgment, however, as one who possesses the Spirit (as much as those who lay claim to it) is that she would do better to remain as she is.

1 Corinthians 7:33 f. The text is very uncertain. Probably we should accept the second mg.; "divided" means distracted between the two claims. The unmarried woman is distinguished from the virgin, the latter meaning one dedicated to the celibate life.

 


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Bibliography Information
Peake, Arthur. "Commentary on 1 Corinthians 7:4". "Arthur Peake's Commentary on the Bible ". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/pfc/1-corinthians-7.html. 1919.

Lectionary Calendar
Monday, November 18th, 2019
the Week of Proper 28 / Ordinary 33
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