In his first correspondence with the “church of God” at Corinth, the apostle Paul dives waist deep into the Corinthians marriage troubles. These were not typical marriage troubles—more like extreme marriage troubles, as in an extreme misunderstanding of what constituted holiness within a marriage.
Two overriding circumstances drive Paul’s teaching in 1 Corinthians 7—both are vital to understanding this text:
• Apparently, the Corinthians somehow had come to a conclusion that all sexual activity was immoral—even within marriage—that abstaining from sex even when married was the best choice to avoid immorality. This is what Paul first responds to (7:1—not to “touch” means not to engage in sex with), which provides the framework for the rest of the chapter.
• “The present crisis.” It is crucial to realize that Paul’s answer to their marriage questions were framed by some type of urgent crisis—specific to that situation. The crisis is not identified for us. Some have speculated it could have been famine, persecution or some other challenging circumstance. Whatever it was, Paul makes clear it would be easier faced alone if at all possible. Perhaps if this crisis had not existed at that moment, his answers might have been different. There is no way for us to know, but this does have significance to unpacking this section of Scripture.
Moving into the text, it is vital to know how these two points inform and frame every bit of marriage theology Paul shares.
Enjoy the Marriage Bed (1-9)
Immediately Paul counters the idea that sex even within marriage is unholy. The extreme idea of the Corinthians that sex was somehow too dirty even for husband and wife was incorrect. Rather—couples have a responsibility to one another in this regard. They belong to each other in this way, so enjoy—do not withhold sex from one another. What they were promoting was not holiness—it was dangerous. Satan could seize it and create real trouble.
Understanding the nature of the flesh and of Satan, this was Paul’s best advice. He did not command it so, but conceded it. In his opinion the best practice was celibacy, but he knew not everyone shared that gift with him. (At this writing Paul was single, but he might not always have been so—Acts 6:10; Philippians 3:4-6.) To those who did not share this gift—the “unmarried and the widows” Paul advised them to marry rather than “burn with passion.” The overall point of this section—enjoying sexual relationships within marriage is a natural part of that relationship. While singleness may be preferable considering the current crisis, marriage is preferable to singleness if temptation and lust are the alternatives.
One note—the word rendered “unmarried” in verse 8 is only used by Paul in Scripture and only used here in this text—four times (verses 11, 32, & 34 also). He uses it to differentiate the unmarried from the widows (who technically are unmarried). The meaning of the word for Paul would have likely included those who had been divorced. Our versions translate it using our broad term for all unmarried, but contextually Paul seems to use it in a different way.
Christian Couples (10-11)
Out of the idea that abstaining from sex within a marriage might be a godly approach, some Christian couples apparently took it a step further to consider dissolving their marriages altogether. Paul speaks to this next. He references Christ’s teaching (Matthew 19:1-12; Mark 10:1-12) to reinforce the marriage bond. Absolutely these couples should honor their marriage vows—no reason to consider divorce even under the current distress. Even if separation occurs—work it out or remain single.
Mixed Marriages (12-16)
The next question Paul considers is the validity of marriages in which a Christian is joined to an unbeliever. Are these marriages sacred? Should a Christian remain in them? Paul answers in the affirmative—if at all possible—except in this situation he has no direct teaching from Christ to reference. Instead, he offers his apostolic advice based upon the overall circumstance and what is best for the family. The presence of the Christian within this type of marriage brings a sanctifying aspect to the union—to the unbelieving spouse and to their children if present. Like the leaven Christ mentioned—the believer could be God’s instrument to bring salvation to the rest of the family. So Paul instructs the believer to stay within that marriage. Of course the unbeliever may see things differently and abandon the marriage. If so, Paul advises the believer to accept that for the sake of peace. In this situation, the believer is not bound to the departed unbeliever and would be free then to pursue remarriage.
Stay Where You Are (17-24)
After answering their specific questions Paul offers some general advice to all of the Corinthians. Again, considering the overall context of the crisis, he suggests the best course is for everyone to remain exactly as they were when called by Christ. If married—stay married. If single—remain that way. Don’t try to abandon your ethnicity—nothing to gain in doing so at this point. He even advises slaves to not seek their freedom unless an obvious opportunity arises. From Paul’s perspective, this was the least complicated situation from which each person could most effectively serve God. He stated this was his rule for all the churches, but he also knew not everyone would be able to keep it. Already in the text he has make exceptions and he will continue to do so.
Never Married? (25-35)
Now Paul addresses the “virgins” or those never married. Once more he has no direct word from Jesus to consider, so he offers his own judgment based upon the “present crisis” and encourages those never married to stay that way if at all possible. He realizes not all can accept this and once more allows for marriage (while again instructing those married to remain so), but foresees potential trouble for such marriages. This could mean the coming of persecution; the effects of a famine—whatever the crisis was—Paul thought it to be impending and being single with no dependents would be the best way to face it. Being single under these circumstances would also be the best possible way to serve God with “undivided devotion”.
To Those Engaged (36-38)
Some in the Corinthian church were engaged. What about them? Paul leaves that decision up to those in that relationship. If for reasons of conscience, age, or self-control, the decision to marry is made, so be it—marry. But if the decision is made to not marry, that too, is permissible. Couples should feel no compulsion—in such distressful times—to honor their engagement. Both are good, but being consistent, Paul concludes being single is the better option.
Christian Widows (39-40)
He concludes his marriage Q&A in the same manner. Christian widows would be best served to remain single—she would be “happier” is his judgment. He acknowledges their freedom to remarry, instructs them if they do so to only marry another Christian, but fortifies his instruction to remain single by speaking as one who has “the Spirit of God.” This was Paul’s way of putting the divine, authoritative apostolic seal on his teaching in this text. In his ministry, Christ did not address all of these specific situations, but Paul, inspired by the Spirit of God has the authority to do so—creating a marriage theology consistent with and flowing from that of Christ.
As we go about applying these teachings to our own current situations, it is imperative that we understand their context of the impending crisis. The takeaways for us remain: It is less complicated to serve God as a single person. Not all have the gift of celibacy. Marriage is holy and honorable including the sexual component—commit to make it work in every way. However if abandoned or widowed—the marriage bond is broken. Remarriage is possible, but don’t rush and if desired–find a good Christian mate. The overall goal is to make sure God is served first if married or single.