*A short piece I wrote on 1 Corinthians 7 appeared in the latest print journal of the Ichthus.  For anyone interested in a more detailed (but still nowhere close to exhaustive) interpretation of this controversial passage, a significantly expanded version is offered below:

That the moral vision of the apostle Paul is despised by moderns of a typically secular mindset should come as no surprise.  This rampant hostility is entirely consistent and predictable—Paul’s various writings are severely out of step with current Western sensibilities, given his supreme commitment to the lordship of Jesus in all spheres of life.  An encounter between these jarringly antithetical worldviews was never likely to produce warm, fuzzy feelings.  However, this ideological clash is also not the whole story.  Ethical dissonance does not account, on its own, for every despised glance Paul habitually receives from his contemporary readers.  Amateurishly bad interpretation also plays a role, and at least some of the serial dislike of Paul in the present environment arises through nothing more than a misunderstanding of what he was actually trying to say.  The contention set forth here is that 1 Corinthians 7 is just such a passage.

It is generally recognized that wide swaths of the early church, subsequent to the initial apostolic era, suffered under the influence of a kind of asceticism which is foreign to the Jewish background of nascent Christianity.  This abiding suspicion of the spiritual value of sex was unwittingly smuggled in through the back door by influential Gentile converts who had backgrounds in Greek philosophical traditions.  Dennis Hollinger, in an astute recent work, helpfully defines sexual asceticism this way:

“Asceticism heralds the soul or the spirit as the real essence of human nature and destiny.  The physical body with its desires and longings, and indeed the whole of the material world, is a distraction and impediment to the soul’s highest pursuits.  Ascetics long to ‘discipline the senses and free the mind for the contemplation of higher things.’  Sexual intimacy and even marriage are obstacles to the soul’s truest quest.”[1]

Given this default syncretism of some notable Gentile Christians, Paul’s difficult, complex argument in 1 Corinthians 7 soon became, predictably enough, the fodder for a significant devaluation of marriage and sex among many believers.[2]  As Richard Hays notes, “Paul’s discussion of sex and marriage in this chapter has been widely misunderstood in the history of the church, with tragic consequences.”[3]  Even to this day, this passage is regularly perceived in popular circles to constitute Paul’s own repressed, negative take on these matters.  After all, didn’t Paul hate women, despise sex, and exalt celibacy over marriage?[4]  Whenever such views are heralded—whether in antiquity or modernity—1 Corinthians 7 inevitably hovers in the not-so-distant background.

There is not space enough here to adequately treat all the many nuances and perplexities which tend (in equal measure) to fascinate or disturb readers of 1 Corinthians 7.  Therefore, three important matters will be briefly surveyed: 1.) the likely background which gave rise to Paul’s polemical response to the confused Christians in Corinth,[5] 2.) the overall structure of Paul’s line of reasoning in the chapter, and 3.) several crucial theological values or principles which undergird Paul’s profound vision of human sexuality in the kingdom of God.

Historical Background

Perhaps the greatest hindrance to discerning the rhythms of 1 Corinthians 7 is the all-too-common assumption, shared by most contemporary readers, that the New Testament is a kind of abstract, a-historical reference work on numerous theoretical topics pertaining to religion.  In this approach, the radical contingency of these ancient Christian documents on their quite particular cultural and historical backgrounds is either unknown or ignored.  Yet as Frank Thielman points out, “Perhaps the most important hermeneutical conclusion about Paul’s letters in the last century [of biblical scholarship] has been that they are not systematic treatises but real letters, written to address a variety of practical problems within churches for which Paul felt some pastoral responsibility.”[6]  Rarely, if ever, did Paul sit down to compose timeless theological treatises unrelated to specific dilemmas taking place within his Gentile churches.  If this approach is valid, then it follows that a basic working knowledge of the historical situations and spiritual messiness which motivated Paul’s concrete rejoinders are crucial to grasping the true nature of his convictions.[7]

Nowhere is this interpretative strategy more crucial than in the letter of 1 Corinthians.  As James Dunn has argued, “An ancient text like 1 Corinthians cannot be properly understood unless it is read against the background of its historical context and as part of a dialogue with the Corinthian church itself.”[8]  This approach is vindicated by several pieces of evidence within the letter itself.  At both the beginning (1:11) and conclusion (16:17) of the epistle, Paul indicates that he is responding to several verbal reports he has personally received concerning the tawdry, inconsistent behavior of the Corinthian church after his departure.  In 5:9, Paul mentions a letter that he had previously sent to the Corinthians discussing (at least) sexual immorality, and which the immediate context demonstrates was severely misunderstood.  Most importantly for our present purposes, in 7:1 Paul implies that the Corinthians themselves had earlier composed a letter to Paul on these matters.  The current scholarly consensus is that Paul responds to the various issues and questions raised in that letter in (at least) 7:1, 7:25, 8:1, and 12:1.[9]

And here the real crux of 1 Corinthians 7 is located.  After Paul mentions “the matters about which you wrote” in 7:1, the next phrase becomes absolutely crucial for understanding everything else that follows in this chapter.  “It is good for a man not to touch a woman” sounds like a blatant contradiction of other biblical passages like Genesis 2:18-24, where we read that “it is not good for a man to be alone” apart from the sexual companionship of marriage.  How could the Jewish Paul go so obviously astray from his heritage here?  However, the vast majority of recent scholarship has been persuaded—rightly—that this phrase represents not Paul’s conviction, but rather a sentiment expressed by the Corinthians in their letter to the apostle.  To indicate this, most contemporary English translations place the words in quotation marks.[10]  Recognizing this distinction makes all the difference in the world in 1 Corinthians 7.

What then was the actual position on sex and marriage promulgated by these confused believers in their opposition to Paul’s original instruction?  Two complementary lines of thought appear probable from what the rest of the chapter reveals.  First, they were discouraging sex within presently existing Christian marriages (7:1-16)—and possibly recommending divorce in at least some situations.  “It is good for a man not to touch a woman” refers here not to the act of getting married, but rather to sexual relations of any kind (it was in fact an ancient euphemism for intercourse).  In their ascetic zeal, celibacy within “spiritual marriages” seems to have become the catastrophic ideal for these early Christians who downplayed the importance of the body in the kingdom of God.  As Richard Hays notes:

“Some of the Corinthians may very well have concluded that sexuality was part of a ‘fleshly’ unspiritual existence and that persons in Christ ought to renounce such base physical pleasures in order to ‘be holy in body and spirit’ (cf. 7:34).  This sort of asceticism was ‘in the air’ in ancient Mediterranean culture.  The Stoic and Cynic philosophical schools—whose thought, as we have seen, significantly influenced the Corinthians—debated whether a philosopher should marry or whether the unmarried state was more conducive to the pursuit of wisdom…Under these circumstances, and under the influence of cultural forces that associated holiness and wisdom with celibacy, it is hardly surprising that some of the Corinthians might have decided that the ordinary married life was incompatible with their new spiritual identity in Christ.  This is the situation that lies behind 1 Corinthians 7.  Some of the members of the Corinthian church had decided that celibacy was necessary; even some of those who were married were attempting to renounce sex.”[11]

It is even likely that the specific occurrences of “sexual immorality” (porneia, the same word found in 7:2) which Paul alludes to in the immediately preceding passage of 6:12-20 arose precisely because married Christians, now newly committed to celibacy, were not-so-discreetly turning to prostitutes to fulfill their frustrated sexual desires.  Second, the principle of 7:1 was also applied to single Christians (7:25-40), as they were certainly being encouraged to forsake entrance into the married state, and perhaps even instructed that such a change would be sin for them (cf. Paul’s reassurances against this in 7:28, 36, 38).  Even more importantly, the rationale behind these distorted positions in Corinth was that the “purity” of sexual celibacy is of superior religious value in comparison to the relative fleshliness of marriage.  Those devoted to celibacy were the true “spiritual” ones, indeed.  Paul, of course, would have none of it.  The remainder of the chapter, beginning in verse 2, constitutes his complex response to this disastrous scenario.

Structure

The structure of 1 Corinthians 7 is fairly straightforward.  After setting forth the ascetic view held by the Corinthians in 7:1, as previously voiced in their letter to the apostle, 7:2-7 constitutes Paul’s initial counter to their position.  In a nutshell, Paul argues that for those who are already in the married state, sexual relations must continue lest the temptation to satisfy these God-given desires becomes overwhelming for either spouse and receive illicit indulgence.[12]  The only exception to this general rule is for setting aside time for special prayer—and even then, only for a short season and by mutual consent.  Paul does concede that he prefers his own single state be adopted by other believers—a point he will develop at greater length later—but quickly acknowledges that not all have this gift.  Paul then applies this wisdom to various groups—in 7:8-9 to the unmarried (most likely the widowed), in 7:10-11 to those who are married to fellow Christians, and in 7:12-16 to those in spiritually mixed marriages[13] (i.e. with unbelievers).  To each group Paul applies the basic principle “remain as you are.”

In 7:17-24 Paul briefly digresses from his pastoral advice to reveal the underlying logic of his convictions throughout the chapter—a logic that can be summed up in the repeated exhortation to “remain as you are.”  Seven times the word “call” (i.e. conversion) is used in this paragraph, indicating that Paul’s concern is not so much with the social status of the Corinthians per se, but only with the spiritual significance they falsely ascribe to it.[14]  Similar to the social realities of circumcision and uncircumcision, or freedom and slavery (the examples Paul uses here), marriage and singleness are ultimately irrelevant with respect to one’s standing before God spiritually.[15]  Yet that is exactly what the Corinthians were contending in their zeal for celibacy, revealing a radical misunderstanding of the sufficiency of the gospel.  For Paul, celibacy and sex count for nothing in themselves.  What matters is being a new creation in Christ.  Be content with that state of affairs, he argues—and then, you are free to let the chips fall where they may.

Finally, in 7:25-40 Paul relates these same theological convictions to single Christians who are pondering marriage.[16]  Again repeating the mantra “remain as you are,” Paul is unambiguous that his own preference (not command—this is a crucial distinction) for unmarried Christians is that they remain single.  On the surface, this could be seen—and tragically often has been—as Paul’s own acquiescence to the ascetic view of the Corinthians.  However, the reason Paul clings to this opinion arises from an entirely divergent moral vision for the nature of true spirituality.[17]  Whereas the Corinthians value celibacy on account of their delusion that it comprises, in itself, a more religiously impressive resume than marriage, Paul prefers singleness merely because it frees Christians up to be more radically devoted to the cause of the gospel in a lost world that is running out of time.[18]  As John Piper writes:

“Paul was so completely committed to a life of celibacy that he longed for everyone to have it. But the reason he loved the single life is exactly the opposite of why many people today love singleness and will even break up marriages in order to be single again. Today singleness is cherished by many because it brings maximum freedom for self-realization. You pull your own strings. No one cramps your style.  But Paul cherished his singleness because it put him utterly at the disposal of the Lord Jesus. No wife and children had to be taken into account when the mission for Christ was dangerous. No money had to be spent on clothing and educating little Paul junior. No time had to be taken preserving and cultivating his relation to his wife.  Paul promoted celibacy because he enjoyed serving Christ with as few distractions as possible, and he wanted that for others as well. The contemporary mood promotes singleness (but not chastity) because it frees from slavery. Paul promotes singleness (and chastity) because it frees for slavery—namely, slavery to Christ. God has called many of you to a life of celibacy. The teaching of this passage for you is that this is a gift to be celebrated. You should be dreaming—as many of you are—how your freedom can be maximized for the cause of Christ here and around the world. You have some advantage that the married do not have.”[19]

However, Paul also knows that not all have this “gift” for celibacy from God,[20] and therefore he labors to distinguish his own personal preference from “sin.”  If any single Christians desire to marry, they “do well” in Paul’s mind[21]—even if those who sacrifice this “right” like Paul (cf. 9:5) for the salvation of others “do better.”

Theological Values

In conclusion, three guiding theological principles can be discerned from Paul’s argument in 1 Corinthians 7.  First, redemption trumps creation in the priorities of believers—while marriage is good and desirable by virtue of creation, something more pressing is now being undertaken in the world by virtue of humanity’s plunge into sin and God’s gracious rescue operation through Jesus and his church.  Christians gripped by this divine narrative ought to give serious consideration to whether God has gifted them with the calling of singleness, in order that they might more fully participate in the merciful extension of the gospel to all the nations than they otherwise could if married.[22]   

Second, the only thing of truly spiritual significance in life is whether a person is in Christ or not.  Whether one is married or single, Jewish or Gentile, or male or female is utterly inconsequential in the kingdom of God.

Third, Christian ethics are irreducibly a function of our eschatology—by a vision of what awaits in the future.  If this fallen world will eventually be called to account for its evil, and if God’s redeemed people will be granted resurrection bodies in a new creation to enjoy God and each other forever, then every decision and venture in the here and now must be evaluated in the light of that eternal perspective.  Whether we are contemplating sex and marriage, or mourning and rejoicing, or buying or selling, all of our dealings in the world must be conducted “as if not” (7:29-31).[23]  All such matters are to be held loosely, so to speak.  We are not to ascribe ultimate significance to them.  Indeed, it is this radically reduced emphasis that Paul places upon marriage[24] and sex within the Christian life—good, optional, and of no inherent spiritual significance in one’s final standing before God—that illuminates his brilliance and relevance for us today.


[1] Dennis P. Hollinger, The Meaning of Sex: Christian Ethics and the Moral Life, p. 44

[2] “In recent years a rough consensus has begun to emerge in which scholars agree that the problems Paul addresses in 1 Corinthians reflect the infiltration of Corinthian social values into the church…Many of their faults can be traced to their uncritical acceptance of the attitudes, values, and behaviors of the society in which they lived.” (Roy E. Ciampa and Brian S. Rosner, The First Letter to the Corinthians, p. 4)

[3] Richard B. Hays, 1 Corinthians, p. 111.  Another notable scholar speaks of “an extensive history of the misinterpretation of 1 Corinthians 7.” (Will Deming, Paul on Marriage and Celibacy: The Hellenistic Background of 1 Corinthians 7, 2nd ed., p. 1)

[4] Such a perspective, of course, must completely ignore the counter evidence of passages such as Ephesians 5:22-33, Colossians 2:16-23, and 1 Timothy 4:1-5.  In such passages Paul both affirms the intrinsic beauty of marriage and denies the central claims of asceticism.

[5] “Each of the community problems Paul needed to address grew out of the Corinthians’ inability to let the gospel message fully reshape their gentile, Greco-Roman lives, whether because they misunderstood the message or because they rejected it outright.  They were Hellenists through and through, and this eschatological, cross-centered, body-affirming Jewish sect called Christianity demanded that they enter another theological and ethical world.  It is no surprise that these residents of Corinth would seek rhetorical wisdom, be unconcerned with immorality and the preservation of the body, be infatuated with asceticism and spiritual empowerment, and preserve the distinctions between rich and poor.  The Corinthians were simply trying to be Christians with a minimal amount of social and theological disturbance.” (Lyle D. Vander Broek, Breaking Barriers: The Possibilities of Christian Community in a Lonely World, pp. 27-28)

[6] Frank Thielman, Paul and the Law: A Contextual Approach, p. 11

[7] This attempt to reconstruct the historical background behind various NT documents is often called “mirror reading” in modern biblical scholarship.  Morna Hooker has provided an apt illustration to describe the nature of this sort of necessary speculation: reading the letters of Paul is like being privy to hearing only one side of a phone conversation, the context of which you do not know, and then subsequently playing the role of detective in reconstructing what the silent voice on the other side was most likely saying.

[8] James D. G. Dunn, “Reconstructions of Corinthian Christianity and the Interpretation of 1 Corinthians,” in Christianity at Corinth: The Quest for the Pauline Church, ed. David G. Horrell and Edward Adams, pp. 308-09

[9] The phrase peri de (“But concerning”) appears in each of these transition points in the letter.  16:1 and 16:12 are also possible responses to the Corinthian letter.

[10] Quotation marks are also placed around other sayings which are commonly thought to reflect the (usually wrongheaded) sentiments of the Corinthians in places like 6:12-13, 8:1, 8:4, and 10:23.

[11] Richard B. Hays, 1 Corinthians, pp. 114-15

[12] “We may not discount or underestimate the fact that marriage is the divine provision for the sex impulses with which God has endowed us.  These impulses are not ignoble; they are implanted by God, ingenerated in our nature…It is not in line with biblical thought to underestimate the motivation and urge to marriage arising from the sex impulse…There is a wholesome candor about the way in which Paul develops and applies that truth.” (John Murray, Principles of Conduct: Aspects of Biblical Ethics, p. 77)

[13] These marriage relationships most likely existed prior to the conversions of one of the spouses within the marriage.  Cf. Paul’s forbidding of actively choosing to enter such a marriage in 7:39.

[14] “‘Remain’ was not intended to support the status quo; it was designed only to relativize the importance of all worldly conditions and relationships.  Yet more important, even the ‘remaining’ is relativized: those who are afforded the opportunity (for example, slaves, vs. 21) or those who experience the pressure of temptation (for example, engaged parties, vss. 36-38) can change their social condition or status without having their status with God affected.” (Vincent L. Wimbush, Paul the Wordly Ascetic: Response to the World and Self-Understanding According to 1 Corinthians 7, p. 16, cited in Witherington, 1 Corinthians, p. 178)

[15] “It is not change per se that he is against, but change as a Christian.  That is to give significance to one’s social setting.  Paul’s point is that God’s call, which comes to them where they are as his gracious gift, totally eliminates social setting as having any kind of religious significance.  And how better can he illustrate that than by the one mark of sociological distinction that formerly did have religious significance but does so no more—circumcision…Being Jew or Gentile simply means nothing to God; whatever one was when called is what one still is, with no need to change.  Christ has made such distinctions obsolete…Paul’s point, of course, is that they should themselves transfer the principle to their desire to be ‘demarried’: ‘Marriage is nothing; and celibacy is nothing.’  These things belong to the category of the irrelevant.” (Gordon Fee, 1 Corinthians, pp. 311-13)

[16] The ancient interpretation that understood this section to be addressed to the fathers of betrothed virgins is almost certainly wrong.

[17] “Indeed, he agrees with one dimension of their position, namely that singleness is preferable, but he totally disagrees with their reasons, hence he finally stands over against them with the strongest kinds of affirmations of marriage.” (Gordon Fee, 1 Corinthians, p. 270)

[18] For a terrific biblical treatment of singleness, see Redeeming Singleness: How the Storyline of Scripture Affirms the Single Life by Barry Danylak

[19] John Piper, “Satan Uses Sexual Desire,” sermon accessed at www.desiringgod.org

[20] Cf. Jesus’ similar statement in Matthew 19:11-12, where he indicates that 1.) not all have this gift and 2.) that those who do make themselves eunuchs “for the sake of the kingdom,” not because of any inherent superiority in celibacy itself.

[21] Significantly, “well” in 7:38 is the adverbial form of “good” in 7:1, providing more evidence that Paul does not in fact hold that position.

[22] “The potential danger of marriage is that it will hinder the Christian’s singleminded devotion to the mission of the church, which Paul here calls ‘the affairs of the Lord.’  It is this concern about freedom for mission that motivates Paul’s hesitation about the advisability of marriage.” (Richard B. Hays, 1 Corinthians, p. 129)

[23] “Taken literally, the five ‘as if not’ clauses become absurdities, not to mention contradictory to what Paul clearly said earlier about marriage (vv. 2-6) and what he will elsewhere say about sorrowing and rejoicing (Rom. 12:15)…after all, Paul expects the Corinthians to continue doing all five of these things…[but] as totally free from [the world’s] control.  Therefore, one lives in the world just as the rest—married, sorrowing, rejoicing, buying, making use of it—but none of these determines one’s life.  The Christian is marked by eternity; therefore, he or she is not under the dominating power of those things that dictate the existence of others…it is a word to them all about their entire existence.  In this kind of rhetoric it makes no difference whether one is married or celibate” (Gordon Fee, 1 Corinthians, pp. 340-41)

[24] “For Paul, ‘marriage’ is not the be-all and end-all of Christian life.  As he would not denigrate marriage, so also he would not deify it either.” (Ben Witherington, Conflict and Community in Corinth: A Socio-Rhetorical Commentary on 1 and 2 Corinthians, p. 180, n. 40)

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