One Christian theologian called the book of First Corinthians an interpreter’s nightmare – and chapter seven is one of the most difficult chapters in the entire New Testament to understand. There are several reasons why this is true.
First, Paul says his remarks are in response to “matters about which you wrote”. As Pastor Kelly pointed out in a previous blog, we are only hearing one side of the conversation, which makes it very difficult to accurately interpret what Paul’s answers really meant to the believers at Corinth.
Secondly, Paul says he answers these unknown questions the way he does because of “this present distress”. We do not know the circumstances that made Paul respond in this particular way. All passages of scripture, especially these difficult ones, must be interpreted by considering the events of which the writer and recipients of the letter are involved. They also must be taken in balance with the whole of scripture. We do know that Corinth was an international city involved in much idolatry and immorality and that immorality had rubbed off on the Corinthian believers (chapter 5).
And thirdly, are we to read the opinions Paul gives here as God’s word, or merely Paul’s opinions? This is indeed a hermeneutical nightmare. There are so many topics covered in such a veiled way (veiled to us, but not to the Corinthians and Paul). But there are some things we can definitely deduce from this passage. I think when we filter through all of these difficulties, Paul is saying some very important things regarding God, sex and faithfulness. Let’s look at what we know for sure from this chapter.
- Respect the power and holiness of sex. The sexual relationship is a very powerful gift of God and is very important within marriage. Like any other powerful gift of God, it can be used properly for blessing or misused, bringing heartache and destruction.
- Be faithful to God by being remaining pure and not having sex outside of the covenant of marriage. When Paul says it is good for a man “not to touch a woman” he is meaning, as the context bears out, that it is crucial to keep the gift of sex in the context of a loving and committed covenant relationship.
- Do not withhold the powerful gift of sex from your spouse. If you are married, be faithful to give your body to your spouse in sexual relationship. You can refrain from sexual relations by mutual consent, to give yourselves to prayer, but then come back together quickly. This is because this is a powerful gift, that promotes oneness in your marriage.
- If there is a situation where a man and woman cannot control themselves and may dishonor God and each other by sinning sexually outside of marriage, they should marry in order to keep their relationship pure. But, Paul also implies that God will give that couple the grace and power they need to remain pure if they seek Him together. Marriage is only one answer Paul gives for sexual purity – the other answer is self-control, which is a fruit of the Holy Spirit.
- Both marriage and singleness are a gift from God. Each is equal and we should respect the gift that each person has. Let each person lead the life that God has assigned him or her, whether singleness or marriage.
- Do not divorce (break your covenant with) your spouse merely because he or she is an unbeliever. Be faithful to your marriage covenant. You do not have an excuse to leave the marriage just because you and your spouse do not share the same faith or are not on the same level of spirituality. By remaining in the marriage as a faithful, gentle, serving follower of Jesus, you may be the very instrument that brings your spouse to faith in Christ. Honor God and love your spouse by honoring your wedding vows. If your unbelieving spouse consents to live with you, do not leave him or her. In this way you, as a believer in Christ, may sanctify your husband or children. If a marriage partner dies, you are free to marry another person, as long as they are “in the Lord”.
- Paul’s advice (not the Lord’s) about remaining single is in the context of “this present distress”, and unfortunately, we do not know exactly what was going on there. It is dangerous to apply this advice as a command to be obeyed always, especially when the balance of scripture honors marriage as God’s design for a functional human society and the procreation of the human race.
Whew, there is a lot there. In short, we must honor God and each other by understanding the power of marriage and the sexual relationship and keeping that relationship pure.