In our last essay we studied 1 Cor. 6:12-20, which brought to an end the long section in which Paul has been dealing with negative reports from Corinth, likely all from Chloe’s people. This last report, found in verses 12-20 had to do with the Corinthians’ misuse of their bodies.
Beginning at 7:1 Paul moves to a second set of problems at Corinth. They came to him not from Chloe’s people, but from another source. You may remember that in 5:9 Paul revealed that he had written an earlier letter to Corinth, of which no copy survives. Then as we see here, the Corinthians wrote to Paul, perhaps in reply to his letter. Their letter, like Paul’s earlier letter, did not survive. But we know from verse one that the Corinthians raised a series of issues in their letter. And Paul is replying to those issues one by one. Indeed the rest of the body of the letter, through 16:12, is taken up by these responses.
The first matter he deals with is exceedingly complex, and encompasses all of chapter seven. It is difficult to find a label that fits the entire chapter. Perhaps we might label it “Christian Marriage: Sex, Celibacy, and Divorce.”
In my opinion, one of the most important things we must learn from this chapter has little to do with the specific issues that Paul is addressing in it. The interpretive problems associated with the chapter make it a crucial passage for learning to interpret the Bible properly. That is to say, by learning how to interpret this chapter properly, we will learn a lot about interpreting the rest of the Bible properly.
Let’s begin with an overview of the entire chapter, and then we can come back to the first part of it. In the first 16 verses, Paul is concerned with Christian marriage. He discusses several aspects of the subject, namely, sexual abstinence in marriage (vv. 1b-7), whether or not certain singles should marry (vv. 8-9), and divorce (vv. 10-16).
Then in verses 17-24, Paul exhorts the Corinthians to maintain the social status quo, which raises one of the really difficult interpretive issues. Following that, verses 25-40 contain a further discussion of Christian singleness and marriage that concludes the chapter. Now let’s return to the beginning of the chapter.
What an opportunity for learning about biblical interpretation verse one gives us! A literalist, who doesn’t have the sense to check out the total context of the statement in the second half of verse one, easily can pervert its meaning. The legalist might say that a man cannot shake hands with a woman, or hold her hand, or give a caring pat on the shoulder, let alone have sex with one.
Of course the sentence does not mean that. The phrase “to touch a woman” occurs nine times in ancient Greek; and in every case it is a euphemism for sexual intercourse. So the meaning of Paul’s words is, “it is good for a man not to have sexual intercourse with a woman.” Of course knowing that Paul was speaking about sexual intercourse does not dissolve the interpretive problem. The task remains to find an answer to the question of why Paul made such a statement.
One approach is to accept the statement as representative of Paul’s position on sex, which then controls the interpretation of the rest of the passage. For example, taken in conjunction with verse two, it is said that Paul viewed marriage as a concession to hormones, that is, as a means of avoiding lust. Verse two then means that marriage is not the preferred Christian lifestyle. Rather it is a concession that is permitted for Christians who cannot control their sex drives. But that is an unsatisfactory approach in light of Paul’s total teaching about sex and marriage. So we need to look deeper.
This is a classic example of a Scripture that must be understood in its context. If one takes Paul’s statement in the second part of verse one out of context, it can lead to all sorts of distortion of what Paul was saying about sex and marriage.
We must remember that Paul is responding to a letter from the Corinthians. And I agree with Barrett and Fee that this statement is a slogan used by certain people at Corinth, rather than a slogan of Paul’s. Indeed Paul probably was quoting the letter.
Verse three literally reads, “Because of the immoralities, each man should have his own wife and each woman her own husband. The husband should give to his wife her conjugal rights, and likewise the wife to her husband.” Verse four reinforces that and shows us that men and women are equal partners in this matter of sex in marriage. And conjugal rights were the issue. Some of the folks at Corinth were teaching that true spirituality requires abstinence from sex, even among married Christians. And that teaching has resulted in immoralities.
The word translated “immoralities” is the familiar porneia. And the context gives us the kind of immoralities that Paul has in mind. Back in chapter six, verse 15, he had said, “Do you not know that your bodies are members of Christ? Shall I then take the members of Christ and make them members of a prostitute? Never!”
This explains what was happening. Some of the Corinthian Christians were going to prostitutes. As we saw in a previous lesson, one of the reasons was the false theology of the body that taught that it doesn’t matter what we do with our bodies. Here we see a second reason, namely, the teaching that truly spiritual people do not do sex, even if they are married. Apparently some of the married Christians bought into that philosophy, and began to deny sex to their spouses. And this led some of the spouses to go to the prostitutes.
Thus Paul was not giving his view of sex in verse one. Nor was he speaking in verse two about getting married to avoid immorality. Rather he is speaking about persons who already are married who are causing a spouse to commit immorality by abstaining from normal sexual relations with that spouse. He is talking about husbands and wives “having” one another sexually in marriage, as verses 3-5 make clear. Paul’s point is that marriage is a mutual partnership, in which both partners have a proper sexual claim on the other. Therefore they should never withhold sex from one another, except for brief periods mutually agreed upon, which they set aside for prayer (v. 5). But as soon as that period is over, they are to resume normal sexual relations. Thus Paul was not saying that marriage is a concession to hormones. Rather he was saying that temporary periods of abstinence from sex were a concession to spirituality.
Paul certainly believed that Christians should not have sexual intercourse with prostitutes. We saw that in chapter six. And he certainly believed that unmarried persons should not be having sexual intercourse with anyone. But that doesn’t mean that Paul was against sex or marriage.
Far from being against sex in marriage, Paul was counseling the Corinthians to stop the practice of abstaining from sex in marriage. Paul’s concession in verse six, then, was not marriage. Rather it was the temporary time of abstinence mentioned in verse five. Paul was not commanding the Corinthians to abstain from sex for purposes of prayer. Rather he was conceding that it was appropriate for them to do it, provided they kept within his guidelines.
According to verse seven, Paul himself was living a life of celibacy. Some live celibate lives because they are forced to by circumstances. But Paul was celibate by choice. It is important to notice that he considered it a charisma, a special gift from God. He apparently was able to successfully live a celibate life. But notice that Paul declares that a sexual life within marriage represents another kind of gift.