1. Corinthians 7. - Christian marriage

Erkki Koskenniemi

In the seventh chapter of the First Letter to the Corinthians we find one of the most important chapters in the New Testament concerning marriage. It would be a good idea for all married couples to read this chapter and discuss it.

In this chapter, Paul gives instructions to the Church as an experienced and caring shepherd. He is not offensive or harsh, but calmly offers advice.

The passage can be read from different perspectives, but it is most important to remember that those men who had converted from paganism had had completely different family and sex ethics compared to those who had received a Jewish education: Within the Greeks, a man’s sex life started with casual sex when he was physically capable of doing so, and after a marriage contract was signed, marital fidelity as we know it was not even held as an ideal.

Was Paul not married?

Sadly we know very little about the life of people in the New Testament. It would, of course, be interesting to know whether Paul was married or not. It is precisely in this chapter, where he states he could easily live without a spouse. This does not actually give any insight into Paul’s own past. In early Judaism it was taught, more often than not, that marriage was God’s order: “Multiply, and fill the land!” is the command, binding on all of God’s own. That is why the Rabbis themselves felt obliged to follow the commandment and to marry. It is possible that the Apostle Paul had similarly complied with this command, but had been widowed. Nothing is certain in one way or another, and no one will be able to determine this matter with certainty.

Is marriage God’s will? 7:1-7

Paul refers to the question asked by the Corinthians in their letter to him. Some had understood it as best not to get married. Paul will later focus on the persecution of Christians (7:26), but at this point he appreciates Christians who do stay unmarried as a good, viable and valuable option. For his own sake, he considers not being married to be a spiritual gift from God. It is, however, not a general rule in any event. Paul leaves no room for doubt as to what is normal: everyone should have a spouse. This will eliminate the pressure to engage in so-called free relationships.

Using short, precise and beautiful sentences, Paul continues to outline the important ethical considerations of Christian marriage. Both spouses have sexual responsibilities to the other party, and these must be fulfilled. It is worth noting - and frankly this is astonishing teaching given the era in which Paul wrote - that Paul gives both spouses equal status. The wife’s body is not her own, but owned by her husband, and conversely, the body of the husband is not his own, but controlled by his wife. This is the logical consequence, according to Paul, of God uniting the man and woman as one flesh, as one being, in marriage.

Paul prohibits one spouse from choosing a monastic vow of celibacy; teaching that revelry follows from such a decision. Time limits can be agreed, so both spouses can concentrate on their prayer life, but these need to be agreed mutually. Such a contract is, however, Paul’s concession, not his rule. The normal situation is, therefore, marriage and its subsequent sex life.

Should we get married? 7:8-9

Paul returns to the question of the unmarried and widows. Again, he gives great value to being unmarried. In this section he follows the teaching of Jesus (Matt. 19:10-12), in particular, which was new even in Judaism. He teaches that being unmarried can be a gift from God and moreover a mission given by Him. It is a life situation, which one should not seek to duck from or escape. It is by no means a second class way of life, but rather a very respected and valued way of living. At the same time, however, Paul is careful not to impose this burden on anybody: If being unmarried is too heavy a thing, God prevents no-one from getting married.

Nowadays, the particulars of human sexuality are talked about more openly than in the past. To some extent this is due to the fact that in our time sexualism is highly inflated and there is little concept of sexual restraint. Never in the history of the world has ‘having sex’ been on a tripod as it is today. There is no reason for this other than the unholy partnership between human lust and money: advertisers use sex and sexual allure for commercial gain.

This is a hard thing to resist, particularly for young people. Sexual adventures - or the lack of them - are taken as the measure of worth. This is a road we should not dare to take a single step on. The value of any human being never depends on their sexuality or allure. Our worth is based on the creation of God alone, and this is why every human being is unique and admirable.

The law 7:10-11

When speaking on divorce, Paul refuses to give his own opinion on the matter, but rather states that he is giving the Lord’s command to the Corinthians. The instructions are that neither spouse is allowed to quit his/her marriage, but if it does happen, the door must be left open for their partners return. This means that no marriage may be terminated before death has separated the two spouses. Paul’s teaching is anchored clearly in Jesus’ words, which are found in Mark. 10:11-12 and Matt. 19:6.

A special case 7:12-16

Paul agrees to talk about one specific case and here offers his own opinion. When Christianity spread, it also divided families. In some cases one of the spouses came to follow Jesus, the other did not. What should be done in such cases? Should the believer run away from the world and leave their spouse? No, states Paul, this can only happen if the non-believer throws their spouse out. If that does happens, Paul encourages the Christian to leave in good conscience, since God has called them to peace and not to fight a constant sense of agony. It is, however, unclear if Paul allows a new marriage in such cases.

Verse 14 is quite ambiguous. In any case, God’s Holiness will flow from His people. What kind of holiness is meant, however, is not clear here. It is important therefore, not to make conclusions out of this one verse, but rather be guided by the unambiguous passages.

The main rule 7:17-24

Paul widens his teaching on marriage. According to him, everyone should live in front of God, doing their God-given part. If God has called someone who had been circumcised, she/he should follow the Lord as a Jewish-Christian. If the one called by God is not circumcised, that person is not obliged to become Jewish first in order to then become a Christian. What is crucially important is that you belong to Christ.

Slave or free, those who received the gift of remaining single or of being married, all Christians should stay in the role that God has given to them without trying to fight against it. What does it mean to a slave that they are free to serve God, compared to those who have legally bought their freedom? At the very least, this means that it is not necessary that a Christian has high or visible standing (in society); being admired by everyone is not a Christian character trait.

It is, however, unclear what Paul means in verse 21. The first half of the verse is straightforward: “Even if you could get free”, but the sequel can be read in two ways: a) “then play your part” or b) “use your chance”. In any case, it is clear that Paul does not base the foundation of human dignity on social status.

Preferably! 7:25-40

Paul goes on to talk about unmarried young women and widows. He refuses to issue mandatory regulations in these matters. Instead, he gives his personal opinion. Paul focuses on the persecution of Christians, which was imminent. All in all, he sees that the world as they know it is disappearing. When thinking about their own life every Christian needs to take the future trials into consideration. For the Christian, when Heaven comes into its own, the world will lose its significance. Because of the persecution, in Paul’s view, Christians are therefore advised to stay as they are. If already married, do not divorce, if single, don’t get married. Indeed, he warns that during the persecution, family considerations may cause the greatest grief.

Paul gives the Corinthians some further instructions: If someone wants to marry his spouse, Paul has nothing against it. Whether married or not, Corinthians were to do right in this matter, following the Lord’s commandment. The main thing is that everything is done “in the Lord”. This almost certainly means that both spouses must be Christians.

It should be noted that in this section Paul states that widows may remarry, although he encourages them to do only after careful deliberation. Paul’s personal opinion is that widows would be happier not remarrying, but it is clear that he doesn’t want to enslave anyone by this teaching.

Sexuality is a gift from God

Our horizon today is blurred by the fact that in Western thought, the Jewish and Greek way of thinking are intertwined with each other.

In the Greek world, a man’s sexuality was not confined to marriage. At the same time some philosophic ideals of that time seem to suggest that any attraction towards the other sex was seen as weakness and the flesh. This ascetic perspective gained popularity over the centuries. As with food and all other amusements, one’s sexuality should be taken seriously and with a “platonic” restraint. Thus, marriage and its resultant family-life came to be considered by many as a necessary evil.

1 Cor 7 clearly shows how the Bible consents to sexuality. From the pages of Old Testament, we can also find the fresh winds of the God’s creation work. The Bible talks about sexuality and marriage unashamedly, naturally and beautifully. God's laws are clear and based on his creative work. They are intended to protect and preserve us, so that which is beautiful would not be changed into infernal weapons of destruction.

Today these two ways of thinking are often jumbled up. That is why Christianity is often wrongly considered to be entirely negative about sexuality. Here, too, we should read and consult the Bible more, rather than simply being influenced by what we see around us.

Disregarding this teaching throws the will of God and his laws to the ground. This happens in other situations as well, so it is no surprise to find it happening in the area of sexuality and marriage too. Whoever rejects the word of God, rejects the path of life given by him, and takes responsibility for their lives into their own hands. Protect us from that, dear Heavenly Father!