1CORINTHIANS 7:1-40: QUESTIONS ABOUT MARRIAGE

© Rosemary Bardsley 2015

Note: Much of this study is based on a study in The Biblical Foundations of Marriage.

Paul's initial statement in verse 1 indicates that the Corinthian Christians had written to him about a number of issues. In these, at least, it seems that their love of Christ and their respect for Paul subdued the arrogance displayed in the issues he has addressed earlier in his letter. In Chapter 7 he addresses a range of marriage-related questions, pointing his readers to various perspectives from which to view these questions.

In his responses to these questions, Paul's dominant concern is for the glory of God and the extension of his kingdom. A secondary, but real, concern is the well-being of the people involved.

Before we look at the marriage-related issues raised it is necessary, in the prevailing cultural climate of our day, to draw attention to some things Paul says about marriage that we might otherwise overlook or take for granted.

[1] Marriage is a bond considered by God to be permanent, regardless of whether or not that marriage was officiated by Christian or pagan rites. That is made clear in 7:10,11 where Paul forbids both the wife and the husband to terminate the marriage. It is not being married by a Christian pastor and by a Christian rite that sanctifies marriage. The sanctity of marriage is embedded in the marriage union by God's creative action and by God's decree.

[2] Marriage is clearly marriage between a man and a woman. No room is left here for any other sexual relationship to be termed 'marriage'. The two Greek words translated 'husband' [aner] and 'wife' [gune] are also commonly translated 'man' and 'woman'. There is actually no other word for 'woman' and there is no other word for 'wife'. There is another word for 'man' [anthropos], which is most frequently used to refer to man as a human being, not man as distinct from woman. Both words for 'man' are used in 1Corinthians 7. A 'wife' cannot be anything other than a 'woman'. There is only the one word for both. A husband cannot be anything other than a 'man'; there is no other word for 'husband' than the word for 'man'.

[3] The Corinthian believers were well acquainted with homosexual relationships. This is clear in 6:9-11. Paul's statement 'and that is what some of you were' makes it quite certain that some of his readers, prior to their conversion, had been 'sexually immoral … adulterers … male prostitutes … homosexual offenders …' But that is what they 'once were'. A change has taken place. They have believed in the Lord Jesus Christ. They have turned to him in repentance and faith. They have been washed, sanctified, justified in his name and by his Spirit. Just like any other sinner – just like those of Paul's readers who had been idol worshippers, thieves, drunkards, swindlers and so on.

[4] None of their questions raise issues about the rightness and wrongness of homosexual relationships. They all relate to man/woman marriage issues, and specifically, to the benefits of singleness and the benefits of man/woman marriage. It was not necessary to ask questions regarding homosexual relationships because such relationships were clearly excluded by the definition of marriage that was accepted even in the highly and overtly 'gay' cultural climate of Corinth. The potential for the sexual pressures of singleness to be resolved by homosexual relationships is countered by Paul's strong warnings against being single and 'burning' with lust. Because 'there is so much immorality' it is better that 'each man (hekastos – masculine form of 'each') should have his own wife (gune), and each woman (gune) her own husband (aner)' [7:2].  

We will now look at the various perspectives from which Paul addresses the Corinthians' questions relating to marriage.


A. THE PERSPECTIVE OF SERVING GOD - 1Corinthians 7:1b [8, 26-28, 32-35]

Paul states clearly 'it is good for a man not to marry' – verse 1. Here 'man' is anthropos; what he says here applies to humans generally – both men and women. This is clear not only from the word used, but from his encouragement to both men and women to remain single.

Life without marriage is part of the eternal kingdom of which all believers are already members, but in which we do not yet live [check Matthew 22:23-33; Luke 20:34-35]. When God created the first man and woman he affirmed ‘It is not good for man to be alone’ [Genesis 2:18], and married life is still the norm, with singleness occurring either by human choice, by divorce or separation, or by widowhood.

When the disciples reacted to Jesus’ teaching on the wrongness of divorce with the comment: ‘If this is the situation between a husband and wife, it is better not to marry’ [Matthew 19:1-12], Jesus stated about singleness:

1.    Some are eunuchs because they were born that way [congenital defect].
2.    Others were made that way by men [castrated].
3.    Others have renounced marriage because of the kingdom of heaven [voluntarily celibate in order to serve the kingdom of God].
4.    Some are gifted and enabled by God to be single.

In 1Corinthians 7 Paul, concerned above all for the glory of God and the extension of his kingdom, has the last two reasons for singleness clearly in his mind. He encouraged those who are single to stay single for the sake of God and his kingdom.

Check these verses: Identify what they teach about wholehearted commitment to God and his service.
7:1

7:8

7:26-28

7:32-35

In these verses Paul sets down a basic principle: that you can serve God more whole-heartedly single [including never married, divorced, separated or widowed] because you don't have to give time and consideration to a marriage partner. He says:

It is good not to marry – verse 1.
It is good for widows to stay unmarried – verse 8.
It is good for virgins to stay virgins – verse 26.

Paul's reasons for recommending singleness are:

Because there was a 'present crisis' [verse 26], whether just in Corinth or more broadly is not clear. Obviously there was something that made life as a Christian difficult at that time.

Those who marry 'will face many troubles in this life' and Paul wanted 'to spare them' those troubles [verse 28, 32].

'… the time is short' [verse 29]. Literally, 'the time has been shortened'. [Paul may have expected Christ to soon return; but it is also possible that he is here referring to the same threatening circumstance mentioned in verse 26.]

Those who are married are committed, of necessity, to their partners and have a responsibility to attend to the needs of their partners [verse 32-35]. This necessary attention to 'the affairs of this world' reduces the time and effort they can devote to serving the Lord.

This perspective, however, is not meant to infer that marriage is not good or should be forbidden. Nor does it infer that it is impossible for a married person to serve God faithfully.

Read these verses. How do they prevent an unbalanced interpretation of the value of singleness?
1Timothy 3:2,12

 

1Timothy 4:1-4

 

B. THE PERSPECTIVE OF GLORIFYING GOD – 1Corinthians 7:2-9

Paul is a realist. He knows that we are not yet in heaven, that we live here on this earth as sinners who sin, and who face temptations to sin at every hand. He knew that the moral climate in the Roman Empire, and especially in Corinth, was extremely corrupt, with male and female prostitution, homosexual acts, paedophilia – including open peddling of young boys in the market place – all practised openly and without shame or disapproval. So he clearly sets a second priority.

Although it is his preference for people to stay single and serve the Lord whole-heartedly without the distraction of a marriage partner, he also wants us to glorify God by our sexual purity. It is more important to honour God in the way we live than to dedicate ourselves to singleness and give in to lust, or be pressured by lust. It is also more important, within a marriage, to maintain normal sexual relations, rather than refrain from sexual relations for religious purposes, yet find oneself an out of control victim of Satan’s temptations.

Read these verses. What did Paul understand about sexual temptations?
Verse 2:

Verse 5

Verse 9

There is another perspective and priority embedded in 1Corinthians 7:3-5: that husband and wife belong to each other. That in the sexual aspect of the marriage relationship the most important thing is not me and my sexual needs and satisfaction but my partner’s sexual needs and satisfaction. So Paul states that husband and wife should not deprive each other [verses 4,5]. The only conditions under which Paul permits a ceasing of sexual relations in a marriage are [1] by mutual consent for a short period, and [2] only for the purpose of prayer [which infers that this temporary abstinence from sexual relations was a form of fasting].

Read these verses again. How do they teach that sexual purity of married people glorifies God more than singleness without purity?
Verse 2

Verse 9

C. THE PERSPECTIVE OF THE SANCTITY AND PERMANENCE OF MARRIAGE – 7:10-16

Nor does Paul intend that his preference for singleness should make us conclude that we should terminate our marriages. Paul affirms the sanctity of marriage, and makes it clear that the marriage, bond once in place, takes priority over any advantage of the single state [7:10-16].

The background of 1Corinthians 7:12-16 seems to be a prevailing perception that Christians should not be married to unbelievers; this perception appears to have resulted in newly converted people leaving and/or divorcing their non-Christian partners, which brought the accusation that Christianity broke up families. [This occurs in some pseudo-Christian cults today.] It has always been God's standard that his people should not marry those who are not his people, and in the Old Testament the Israelites were on occasion commanded to put away their foreign wives. But Paul does not understand the command not to marry unbelievers [which he affirms in 7:39 and 2Corinthians 6:14-18] as giving license to those who were formerly unbelievers, but are now believers, to divorce their unbelieving partners.


C.1 The foundational law – verses 10,11
God's foundational standard is that marriage is permanent. Paul expresses this permanence in several ways:

[1] A wife must not separate from her husband. That is the bottom line.

[2] If she does, she is either to (a) remain unmarried, or (b) be reconciled to her husband. Either choice upholds the sanctity of the marriage. The marriage union is not violated.

[3] A husband must not divorce his wife.

Paul's stated preference for and recommendation of singleness does not override God's foundational standard of the permanence of an existing marriage.

Note: In Matthew 19 Jesus identified adultery as the one exception to the 'no divorce' command. Paul is not dealing with that question. His purpose is to discuss the marriage versus singleness issue. He certainly does not intend his preference for singleness to be used to validate divorce. Rather he is encouraging those who are single [whatever the reason] to remain so.

C.2 Application of the foundational law to a 'mixed' marriage – verses 12-14
Paul binds believers to the foundational law given by God. Marriage is permanent. The husband or wife who has become a Christian does not have the right or the freedom to divorce the still non-Christian partner who is willing to continue in the marriage despite their partner's change of belief.

Paul doesn't suggest merely that maintaining the marriage is preferable to divorce. Rather, maintaining the marriage is the believer's only valid choice. Becoming a Christian does not dissolve one's prior marriage covenant; rather it gives additional significance to the marriage and its sanctity.

Paul gives two additional reasons why the believing partner must not leave the unbelieving partner:

[1] Verse 14: The presence of a believer in the marriage has 'sanctified' both partners. Paul does not mean that the unbelieving partner is 'saved' [that is obvious from verse 16]. He means that God is now present in the marriage, and wherever God is present that place is holy. In addition, the believer is declared 'holy' in Christ; the 'two become one' principle of marriage means that something of that identity now accrues to the union: their union is 'holy', their marriage is 'holy' and their home is 'holy'. God is there – indwelling the believing partner by his Holy Spirit. God is there – present in his word, his truth, his light, as believed by and spoken by the believing partner. The saving knowledge of Jesus Christ is there – the testimony of Jesus is there, because the believing partner is one who has and holds to the testimony of Jesus. God's kingdom is there because one who submits to Christ the King is there. The believer, his marriage, his unbelieving partner – all belong to God.

This holiness includes the children: 'they are holy'.

[If this concept concerns you, think of what this family, this home, this marriage, was before one partner believed in Jesus Christ: the light, the truth, the indwelling Spirit, the Gospel, the love of God, the grace of God – none of these were in that home. But now they are.]

[2] Verse 16: There is the possibility that the believing partner will 'save' the unbelieving partner. This would not be possible if the marriage was dissolved by the believer.

C.3 An exception permitted by Paul – verse 15
While Paul forbids the believing partner to initiate divorce from an unbelieving partner, he is realistic enough to realize that it may well be the unbelieving partner who decides to leave the marriage. Paul says 'let him do so'.

Various interpretations are suggested for 'is not bound in such circumstances'. Some of these suggestions are:

The believer is not bound to force the unbeliever to stay in the marriage.

The believer is not so bound by the marriage law that he/she has to bear the guilt of the unbeliever's departure.

The believer is not bound by the law forbidding remarriage after divorce. He/she is free to remarry regardless of whether the unbelieving partner has committed adultery. [Given the cultural context it is probably highly unlikely that an unbeliever would remain celibate, in any case.]

[Note: Verse 15 seems to interrupt the flow of Paul's argument. In verse 14 he has referred to the sanctifying effect the presence of the believer has on the marriage and the family. In verse 16 he suggests the possibility that the unbelieving partner might be 'saved' by the believing partner. These two seem to go together – the sanctifying effect and the hoped for result of salvation. Verse 15 states the opposite of what Paul has been recommending – that the unbeliever might want to leave. In which case the believer should let him, because God has called us to peace.]

D. THE PERSPECTIVE OF GOD’S CALLING

In 7:15 Paul raises the fact of God's 'calling', and then makes quite a few statements on the basis of God's calling in the following verses. His overall emphasis is that, generally speaking, Christians are responsible to God to remain in the social or economic situation they were in when God called them [verse 24]. It appears that Paul laid down this 'rule' in 'all the churches' [verse 17] because of the many accusations that were being levelled against Christians by others in their communities.

D.1 'God has called us to live in peace' - 1Corinthians 7:15b
In the context of an unbelieving partner wanting to leave a marriage where his/her partner has become a believer [see above], Paul says to the believer 'let him do so …. God has called us to live in peace'. The Greek is simply 'God has called us to peace'.

It is not clear from the context of this statement just what Paul has in mind or at what level he is thinking. When Paul uses the concept of being 'called' by God he is usually thinking of God's effective calling by which we are saved, not a any particular command to live a certain way [as the NIV translation infers]. Peace is what God has called us to, not how he is commanding us to live. In the seven times 'called' is used in the following nine verses it refers to God's calling them to himself and saving them. Not once in these verses is it used as a command about how to live. So, whatever Paul means by 'peace' here it is not a command about how to live, but something that is the result of or part of our salvation. Obviously that result will impact the way we live [we are to live worthy of our calling – Ephesians 4:1], but that is secondary to the salvation.

God has called us to peace #1:
The believer is called to peace with God. Regardless of the disturbing events and relationships of our lives the believer is in a status of peace with God. This is because believers have been reconciled to God by the death of Christ, and by that death all the wrath of God and all the enmity between themselves and God have been removed forever.

Suggested reading:
Romans 5:1
2Corinthians 5:17-21
Colossians 1:19,20

Nothing the believer does, and nothing the unbelieving partner does in leaving the marriage, can undo or diminish this peace with God that is grounded in the death of Christ. Even if the unbelieving partner departs this peace with God remains intact.

God has called us to peace #2:
Paul commands believers to 'let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts … since you were called to peace' [Colossians 3:15]. Although Paul is here speaking about the inner peace that should dictate relationships between believers, this same inner serenity and contentment should characterise the believing partner when confronted by undesirable, frustrating, disappointing actions and attitudes of an unbelieving partner: issuing in the same compassion, kindness, humility, patience, patience and forgiveness that Paul commands believers to show to each other. The believer is called to express this peace towards the unbelieving partner regardless of what the unbelieving partner chooses to do: if the choice is to stay in the marriage, the believer responds with this peace. If the choice is to leave the believer responds with this same peace – this same compassion, understanding and forgiveness.

God has called us to peace #3:
It may be, however, that Paul has in mind something more down to earth: the obvious tensions, including anger and aggression on the part of the unbelieving partner, who feels betrayed, cheated, alienated and who knows what else by the conversion of his/her partner. This partner is no longer what they once were. This partner no longer engages in the common idol worship. This partner no longer revels in sexual aberrations. This partner no longer participates in drunken orgies. An invisible intruder now lives in their home – an intruder who has won the partner's mind and heart. Jealousy, rage, verbal and physical violence – all of these are potential reactions of the unbelieving partner. All the opposite of peace. This is not what God called the believer to. And this is not what marriage is meant to be.

In such circumstances – if the unbelieving partner has had enough, if he/she wants to leave – let him.  God has called the believer to peace. You don't have to make him/her stay, but the call to terminate the marriage should not be the believer's decision.

D.2 Stay what you were when God called you – 7:17-24
Paul does not want his 'let him do so'  in the above context to be misunderstood as giving freedom to every believer to seek some escape from the conditions present when God 'called' them. Nor does he want his recommendations of singleness to precipitate married people into seeking singleness. To prevent this wrong reaction he says 'Nevertheless, each one should retain the place in life that the Lord assigned to him and to which God has called him' [verse 17, see also 24]. This, he says, is what he teaches in all the churches.

People who have become Christians ought not to disrupt the existing social structures by deliberately seeking to escape from the conditions in which they find themselves.

He has already inferred, and will do so again, that if a person was single when God called them, they should stay single, if they can handle it. And he has already stated that if they were married when God called them, they should stay married [verses 10,11].

In 7:17-23 he gives three examples of what he means:

If a man was circumcised when he was called, he should not become uncircumcised.
If a man was uncircumcised when he was called, he should not get circumcised.
If a man was a slave when he was called, he should not let it bother him.

Paul is here referring to ritual [circumcision] and social [slavery] conditions.

Circumcision created a great religious divide. While the Jews despised those who were not circumcised, some Gentiles despised those who were. It was an issue that for a time divided the early church, until the Council in Jerusalem [Acts 15] refused to make it obligatory for Christian believers. Its contentious nature is evident in several of Paul's letters [Romans, Galatians, Colossians]. Here in his letter to the Corinthians Paul says 'whatever was your circumcision status when you were saved, don't change it.' Remain what you were then. It is irrelevant. In verse 19 Paul states 'circumcision is nothing and uncircumcision is nothing'. It is just a ritual thing. 'Keeping God's commands is what counts'.

Similarly, slavery put a great social division between slaves and free men. Paul pauses in his argument to discuss the question of slavery as it relates to believers.

Read 7:21-23. Answer these questions:
What does Paul call Christian slaves?

Why does he do that?

What does Paul call Christian free men?

Why does he do that?

Because Christians have been 'brought with a price' what must they not do?

Paul is anxious to make sure his readers understand their equality in Christ: Even Christians who are slaves are the Lords 'freedman'. Christ has set them free from a far greater slavery than slavery to earthly masters. They should never let being slaves bother them in the least. And even Christians who are free men are Christ's slaves. He has purchased them with his blood. He has made them his own. Their obligation is not to any human being but to him. They are responsible not to any human being, but to him.

Thus slavery and freedom should never be the cause of division between believers. Both, in Christ, are free; both, in Christ, are slaves of Christ.

Paul does, however, make one exception to the general principle of staying where they were: he encourages Christian slaves to gain their freedom if they can [verse 21].


E. THE PERSPECTIVE OF TRANSIENCE – 1Corinthians 7:25-31

It appears that the Corinthian Christians had asked Paul questions about 'virgins'. In responding to their questions Paul states, firstly, that he has no command from the Lord, but gives a judgment as a trustworthy communicator of God's word.

In giving his answers, Paul makes three references to life’s changing and temporary nature:

•    ‘because of the present crisis’ [v26]
•    ‘the time is short’ [v29]
•    ‘this world in its present form is passing away’ [v31].

In all of these he is reminding us that ‘the things of the world’ are temporary – whether it be marriage, or sadness, or happiness, or possessions – whatever belongs to this world cannot be forever, and we should not let any of this world’s things consume us or dictate our perspectives and priorities. Nor should we allow our lives to be influenced by the changing value systems of this world. Only the Lord’s affairs carry through to eternity. Only this Lord’s value system carries through into eternity.

Read these texts about the transience of the world, including human life:
Psalm 39:6
Isaiah 40:6-8
2Corinthians 4:16-5:10
James 4:14
1John 2:15-17

Read these texts. Note the radical difference between the mindset of believers and the mindset of unbelievers:
John 15:19
John 17:14b,16
Romans 12:2
1Corinthians 1:20
1Corinthians 3:19a
Ephesians 2:1-3
Ephesians 4:17-24
Colossians 2:8

Both the transience of our lives and the radical difference between the believer's mindset and the unbeliever's mindset mean that the way believers view their sexuality, their marriages and their partners must, of necessity, be radically different from their unbelieving contemporaries.

Paul's answers to their questions are:

E.1 He restates his previous principle that they should remain what they were when God called them – verses 26-28
His advice is quite straight forward: if you are married, don't divorce. If you are single, don't marry. Don't even look for a wife.

However, he does not command remaining single. He makes it quite clear that for a single man or a virgin woman to marry is not a sin [verse 28]. He points out that his advice to stay single stems from his desire to spare them the 'many troubles in this life' that married people face [verse 28].

E.2 He advises them not to be dictated to by their life circumstances – verses 29-31
Paul seems very conscious of whatever difficulty or crisis was threatening the Corinthian Christians. He does not state what it was, but it was obviously quite immanent and stressful. In the context of this unnamed circumstance he wants them to be focused, not distracted by the normal cares and concerns of this life. He advises:

[1] 'those who have wives should live as though they had none' [verse 29].
We cannot understand this verse to mean that men should permanently abstain from sexual relationships with their wives, as Paul has expressly forbidden that in verses 3-5, except for a brief mutually agreeable time for prayer.

There are Old Testament precedents for temporary sexual abstinence where matters involving the purpose of God were involved: Moses left his wife and children in Midian when he went to Egypt on the dangerous mission God had given him [Exodus 18]; the men of the tribes of Reuben, Gad and Manasseh had to leave their wives and families east of the Jordan, when they were commanded to help their brother Israelites take possession of the land of Canaan [Deuteronomy 3:19; Joshua 1:12-18]. Refraining from sexual intimacy was also commanded on an occasion of extreme spiritual significance, in order to maintain ritual cleanness [Exodus 19:15].

[2] 'those who mourn, as if they did not' – verse 30
Mourning the death of a loved one is quite consuming – it consumes time, energy and focus. It distracts our attention from the realities of life, rendering us powerless and unable to deal with any crisis that erupts.

[3] 'those who are happy, as if they were not' – verse 30
Similarly, extreme happiness is also distracting, blinding us to the dangers around us, making us vulnerable to wrong choices and wrong decisions.

[4] 'those who buy something, as if it were not theirs to keep; those who use the things of the world, as if not engrossed in them'  – verses 30,31
Two of Jesus parables warn against the dangerous, seductive power of material possessions.

Suggested reading:
Matthew 13:22
Luke 14:18-20

The things that fully occupy unbelievers – their sexuality and sexual relationships, their emotions, their wealth and possessions – these should not be the focus of the believer. They are not the most important things. They are not what define believers. They should not dominate or consume believers. They are temporary, transient. But the believers, and Christ from whom believers take their identity and their significance, are neither temporary nor transient.

What Paul applies here because of the intense situation confronting the Corinthian Christians is broadly applicable to Christians in all places and at all times: the things on which the godless focus and by which the godless define themselves, ought never be the focus or definition of believers and their lives. When believers are dominated and dictated to by such things as sex, feelings and wealth they are living with the mindset of the world, not the mindset of Christ.

F. THE PERSPECTIVE OF DEVOTION TO CHRIST – 1Corinthians 7:32-35

Read verses 32-35. Answer these questions:
What was Paul's reason for giving his advice?

What makes it difficult for a married man to serve the Lord wholeheartedly?

What makes it difficult for a married woman to serve the Lord wholeheartedly?

What are the benefits of singleness for Christian men and women?

Paul is not saying that marriage is wrong for believers. He is not saying that caring for one's partner is wrong. Nor is he enforcing singleness on believers. He is saying that marriage automatically brings additional responsibilities into life, responsibilities that have to be met. Neither the marriage nor its responsibilities nor spending time meeting those responsibilities are sinful. Marriage is ordained by God. Caring for your partner is commanded by God. When a person enters into marriage they cannot neglect their responsibilities to their partner. To do so would be to disobey God. And in a crisis situation such as was threatening the Corinthian Christians even more care and attention needs to be given to partner and family.

Paul's preference for singleness, particularly in the current crisis, is very obvious in these verses. He wants the Corinthian Christians to 'be free from concern' [verse 32]; he wants the Corinthian Christians to be able to serve the Lord with 'undivided devotion' [verses 32-25]. And here we have the core of the matter: that Paul is not anti marriage and pro singleness. Rather, he is pro wholehearted devotion to Christ. Anything that interferes with a Christian's devotion to Christ is to be avoided, if that is possible. If that is not possible, then whatever makes it impossible is to be so managed as to maximise devotion and service to Christ. Above all, whether single or married, Christ is to be honoured and glorified. The priority of Christ and his glory is a dominant theme in this letter.

We can see this concept of a married person maximising their devotion to Christ in several places in this chapter:

Marriage is advisable/preferable in the context of a culture of sexual immorality [verse 2].

Normal marital relationships should be maintained in order to avoid sexual temptation, which would dishonour Christ [verses 3-5].

Marriage is preferable to singleness if singleness causes lust [verse 9].

A Christian should not leave a 'mixed' marriage, because their presence sanctifies the home and family, and could result in the salvation of the unbelieving partner [verses 12-16].

Christians, as a general rule, should not dishonour Christ by seeking to change their life situation [verses 17-24].

G. THE PERSPECTIVE OF COMPASSION – 1Corinthians 7:36-38

The state of singleness with its increased liberty to serve the Lord is also subjected to the perspective of compassion. Paul refers to an engaged couple who have agreed not to marry, or have deferred marriage, for the sake of Christ’s kingdom. But the woman is getting past the socially accepted age for marriage, or perhaps getting close to menopause. Paul states that it’s fine – it’s not sin – to change that commitment not to marry, and to get married out of compassion for the girl [verse 36].

[Note that the perspective of compassion was also the initiating factor in the Biblical divorce laws; in order to protect women’s reputation in the case of divorce for reasons other than adultery, the man was required by God to write her out a ‘bill of divorce’ so that it would be known she was not immoral. See Matthew 19:8 'because your hearts were hard'; Deuteronomy 24:1,2.]

On the other hand, Paul gives a man in such a situation the liberty to remain single, if he has the freedom to make that choice – 'has control over his own will' [that is, neither the woman, nor her family, nor a legal contract are requiring him to fulfil the promises of the betrothal [verse 37].

Note: There is difference of opinion about the meaning of this verse. The more common opinions are:

[1] it is about a father and his virgin daughter, whom he has up to the present kept from marriage.
[2] it is about a man betrothed to marry a virgin, but they have not married yet, having agreed not to for the kingdom’s sake.
[3] it is about a married couple who for the kingdom’s sake have chosen to remain celibate.
[4] it is about men and their own virginity.

The study notes above assume the second of these opinions.

H. FROM THE PERSPECTIVE OF WIDOWS – 1Cornithians 7:39,40

Paul has four things to say to married women:

They are bound to their husbands as long as the husband lives [verse 39].

If the husband dies they are free to remarry anyone they wish [verse 39].

However, this 'anyone' is limited to men who belong to the Lord [verse 39].

In Paul's opinion, the woman would be happier if she remained a widow [verse 40].

Again we see the two things that recur throughout this chapter – Paul's affirmation of singleness as the preferred state, and Paul's concern that believers should not be bothered by the additional stresses and responsibilities that come with marriage. Here this is expressed in his judgment that the widow will be 'happier' single than married.

Also, as elsewhere in this chapter, Paul indicates that his judgment that widowhood is a happier choice than remarriage is his personal opinion, which he believes is in conformity to the mind to the Lord  - 'I think I have the Spirit of God' [verse 40].

Note the clear teaching that if a Christian widow does choose to remarry, she must only marry a Christian – 'he must belong to the Lord' [verse 39]. Paul here applies to widows what he teaches more broadly in 2Corinthians 6:14-17: that the state of singleness takes unquestioned priority for a believer over even the thought of entering so incongruous relationship as marriage to an unbeliever. For a believer to choose to enter marriage with an unbeliever is totally inappropriate.

Read 2Cornithians 6:14-17. List the contrasts between believers and unbelievers.

 

 

 

 

 

CONCLUSION
Nothing that Paul has advised in this chapter was intended to generate personal guilt or any sense of superiority and inferiority. Paul is not laying down laws by which Christians can be divided into 'good' Christians and 'bad' Christians, or 'better' Christians. He is concerned about what is best in the current circumstances, which include both the intensely immoral culture, and some unnamed crisis or disturbance that was either present or immanent. For some 'best' will mean marriage. For some 'best' will mean remaining single. For some 'best' will be letting an unbelieving partner leave the marriage. But in any and every situation his aim is that believers should choose the option that will glorify God. For some glorifying God will mean marriage, because that is the only way they can avoid lust. For others glorifying God will mean staying single, because that will maximise their freedom to be wholly devoted to Christ. For others, glorifying God means remaining married to an unbeliever.

This chapter is not about rules and judgment and guilt. It is about providing perspective and direction – boundaries within which to make such decisions.

A NOTE ON THE TRANSCENDENT GRACE OF GOD

Like the church in Corinth, our churches today include Christians who were once involved in sexual relationships forbidden by God, or whose marriages have, through no fault of their own, been terminated. Their present lives and their families are coloured by their history, and their history cannot be undone.

Because we are under the rule of grace and not the rule of law, and because of the sovereign power of God, God is able to, and does, take the lives of those that have sinned against him, and even the results of their sin, and the lives of those who have been sinned against, and weaves them into his grand and glorious purpose. Thus we find:

Tamar’s story [Genesis 38]. This woman was widowed, unjustly refused marriage by the next brother, kept by her father-in-law, Judah, from marriage to the third son. In despair she disguised herself as a prostitute and offered herself to Judah for a one-night arrangement. She became pregnant and gave birth to twin boys, one of whom is an ancestor of Christ [Matthew 1:3]. [Judah acknowledged that he was at fault, not her, for he had withheld his third son from marrying her according to the law concerning widows.]

Rahab, a Gentile prostitute and a liar, had faith in the living God. Having protected two Israelite spies from detection, she was saved from the destruction of Jericho, married an Israelite, and became the mother of Boaz, who married Ruth; she is in the ancestral line of Jesus Christ [Joshua 2; 6:22-23; Matthew 1:5]

Ruth, a non-Israelite, was married by an Israelite [against the law of God], and widowed; yet in the sovereign grace and purpose of God she is woven into his grand eternal plan of salvation as one of the ancestors of Jesus Christ [Ruth; Matthew 1:5]

David sinned greatly against the Lord in his adultery with Bathsheba and arranged murder of Uriah, yet was used by God in his purposes, in the writing of the Psalms, and as an ancestor of Christ. The child born of this adultery died; but a later child of David’s polygamous marriage to Bathsheba became the next king of Israel, whom God blessed with wisdom, and whom God allowed to build the temple. It was also this child, Solomon, whom God used to write two books of the Bible – Proverbs and Song of Songs, and possibly also Ecclesiastes. Solomon is also in the ancestral line of Christ.

These examples testify to the grace and purposes of our sovereign God reigning in the lives and circumstances of those who have unwittingly or deliberately acted in disobedience to his commands, or have been the victims of the sins of others. They do not validate the sin in any way. But they do give us hope in the presence of sin and its results.

Do we find ourselves in a divorce situation? God’s sovereign power and grace are greater.

Do we find ourselves single parents with children resulting from our fornication? God’s sovereign power and grace are greater.

Do we find ourselves married to an unbeliever because of an act of disobedience in our past? God’s sovereign power and grace are greater.

Do we find ourselves remarried for biblically non-valid reasons? God’s sovereign power and grace are greater.

Do we find ourselves a victim of domestic violence, having had to leave our marriage to save our lives and our children's lives? God's sovereign power and grace are greater.

God’s grace transcends both the sin and the situation. No matter what our sin or the sin of our partner, no matter what undesirable situation it has resulted in, God can and will still use us in that situation. God can and will still be glorified in the resulting situation. God can and will use for his glory children born through our sin. Whatever our situation, whatever the sin that caused it, let us trust in his transcendent grace and commit to glorifying him by the way we live.