Getting Married (I Corinthians 7:1-9)
Now that Paul has addressed his primary concerns, he moves on to questions that he has received from the Corinthians. The first set deals with the topic of marriage. We don’t know the exact questions Paul was asked, we can only surmise what they could have been based on Paul’s answers.
We also need to keep in mind the circumstances in which Paul writes his letter. At the present moment, the church is looking toward entering a period of heavy persecution (I Corinthians 7:26). The severity of the persecution colors Paul’s response.
Paul first gives a general principle: It is good for a man not to touch a woman. We realize from the context that Paul is not saying "no touching" in the sense of casual contact but in the sense of sexual touching (Proverbs 6:29). Interestingly, the Greek word haptesthai carries the connotation of lighting a fire. Depending on the case, that is how the base word is sometimes translated. Men and women have no business lighting a fire through touch (sexually stimulating each other) when they are not married. However, sexual desire is strong in many people and instead of trying to flirt along the edges of fornication, people should marry so that they may have a proper outlet for their sexual desires. Notice that though many people think of men being the most sexually motivated, Paul’s statement shows that the desire for sex is equal in both sexes.
Another implication is that sexual expression between a husband and wife is perfectly acceptable to God (Proverbs 5:18-20; Song of Solomon 8:14; Hebrews 13:4). Many religions will claim that denial of marriage and sex is more holy (Colossians 2:23). Yet this is labeled by Paul as a doctrine of demons (I Timothy 4:1-3).
Therefore, one reason for marriage is so that both men and women have a proper outlet for their sexual desire. To deny sex to one’s spouse then holds the potential of creating a marriage under false pretenses. Paul calls it fraud in I Corinthians 7:5. It leaves the spouse in a very difficult position. Sexual desire can only be expressed with a marriage, but the marriage partner refuses sex; what is a person to do?
This is the reason Paul stated that if two people have chosen to marry, they must make themselves available for sex for their partner’s enjoyment. Paul states that it is a duty or obligation of kindness within marriage. This is contrary to the opinion of too many who view sex as a privilege within marriage which can be withheld as a weapon against their partner. Rather each husband must see his body is there for the pleasure of his wife and each wife must see that her body is there for the pleasure of her husband. “Rights” or authority over one's own body were freely given to the spouse when the marriage covenant was entered. The availability of sex in a marriage is one of the rights of those who marry (Exodus 21:10).
There will be times when a spouse is not available to fulfill his or her duty. Some are out of a person’s control, such as illness, a duty to country, or business. But when it is in a person’s control, lack of availability for sex should only be done on a temporary basis where both partners have agreed to the abstaining from sex. The example Paul gives are periods of time when a person desires to focus on petitioning God. Paul uses the word scholazo, which means to be on vacation or at leisure. These temporary times are seen as periods of being free from other obligations so that intense focus can be given to the task at hand. Such has been seen in the past (Exodus 19:15; Joel 2:16-17). But I Corinthians 7:5 can also be read as saying that when a couple must abstain for a period that should devote themselves to prayer and fasting. The additional focus on God will give fewer inroads for Satan (James 4:7-8).
Both the agreement and the temporary nature of the abstinence from sex will help prevent Satan from using the time as an opportunity to tempt a person with sexual sins. Many people have given in to such temptations because they were not able to control their desires.
I Corinthians 7:6 has caused some debate because the “this” in Paul’s statement is vague. It could be read as to what came before or what comes after. Before is the more natural reading, but there are cases that can be found where “this” refers to what comes after. The statements which follow are definitely in the form of suggestions and not absolute commands. A secondary debate then is whether Paul is referring to what immediately came before or to the entire topic.
- If it is what comes after, then Paul is stating that his wish that all remain single as he had decided was his personal advice, but it certainly wasn’t a command of God.
- If it is what comes immediately before, then Paul is stating that the advice to devote yourself to prayer and fasting when abstaining from sex for a period of time is not an absolute requirement but a suggestion.
- If it is the entire topic, then Paul is stating that discussion about getting married to avoid fornication should not be read as a command to get married, but a suggestion to keep from sinning.
Notice that both the first and last are the same point expressed from two different views. It is possible the vagueness in Paul’s statement is because both are true. Whether a person chooses to marry or not is a personal choice. God is not commanding one choice over another. Paul chose the single life (I Corinthians 9:5) and wishes that everyone could make that same choice when needed. We will see a bit later that his reason is the knowledge that severe persecution was on the horizon (I Corinthians 7:26). Paul sees being single as a less demanding and less complicating choice, but he knows it isn’t for everyone. He suggests that those not yet married or no longer married remain single for the time. He states that it is a good choice, not necessarily a better choice as some would imply.
Paul states that singleness isn’t for everyone. Different people have different talents which will lead them to different choices. Some are well suited for married life while others are better suited for single life. However, if a single life would lead a person to commit fornication because they are weak in this area of self-control, then they ought to marry. Any possible advantage to remaining single is greatly outweighed by sin.
- Is Paul saying that the single life is superior to the married life?
- Is a single person more holy than a married person?
- Here Paul advises widows to remain single if they can. In I Timothy 5:14, Paul tells young widows to marry. Is there a contradiction?
Staying Married - Married Christians (I Corinthians 7:10-11)
After discussing what God has permitted and what Paul suggests, this next topic is a command that is based on the Lord’s authority. He uses the “not ... but ellipses” that we discussed earlier. The shared verb is parangello, which means “charge” or “command.” Thus what Paul is stating is that not only does he give this command, but far more importantly this is a command of Jesus. This topic is what Jesus taught while he was here on earth.
The rule is that a wife is not to separate from her husband. In case someone might think this is only a rule to women, Paul also states that a husband is not to leave his wife. You will find some who make a great deal over the difference in the words used for the wife’s departure and the husband’s. The fact is that they are synonyms. The word chorizo, used in various forms for the wife’s leaving, means to divide, to separate, to depart or to divorce. The latter is particularly true when it is used in regards to a husband and wife (Matthew 19:6; Mark 10:9). The word aphienai, used for the husband’s leaving, means to let go, to leave behind, to abandon, or to divorce. When applied to sin, it means to forgive. It means divorce when applied to a husband and wife relationship (I Corinthians 7:12-13).
Jesus taught that marriage is for life. “And He answered and said to them, "Have you not read that He who made them at the beginning 'made them male and female,' and said, 'For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh'? So then, they are no longer two but one flesh. Therefore what God has joined together, let not man separate" (Matthew 19:4-6). Paul taught the same, “For the woman who has a husband is bound by the law to her husband as long as he lives. But if the husband dies, she is released from the law of her husband” (Romans 7:2).
In those teachings is the fact that marriage is not easily ended. Jesus stated that since God is the one who joins a man and woman in marriage, man doesn’t have the right to end it. Thus, a married person cannot marry another while his spouse is alive. “So then if, while her husband lives, she marries another man, she will be called an adulteress; but if her husband dies, she is free from that law, so that she is no adulteress, though she has married another man” (Romans 7:3).
Therefore, if a wife or husband does leave, they must remain unmarried or be reconciled to their spouse. The reason for the departure is not mentioned here. Some claim that the only reason for departure is sexual immorality on the spouse’s part, citing Matthew 5:32; 19:9 as evidence. The problem is that the divorce for sexual immorality does allow for the innocent party to marry another without committing adultery. The divorce mentioned here does not allow for remarriage. Therefore, the divorce that Paul is discussing is for some other reason than sexual immorality.
This is not a blanket allowance for divorce for any reason. We must keep in mind that the primary rule is that a wife must not separate from her husband and a husband is not to leave his wife. After all, God stated that He hates divorce (Malachi 2:13-16). Divorce is a clear indication that sin is involved. But sin is not solved by adding additional sins to the problem. I’m hard-pressed to come up with a situation that cannot be resolved without divorce. I do believe the requirement to remain single provides a strong incentive to prevent frivolous divorces. After all the motivation for marriage remains (I Corinthians 7:9). You will hear some argue that it is not really a divorce, just a separation, but notice that Paul’s instruction is that she must remain unmarried. He calls the new state “not married.” Probably most cases where a spouse demands a divorce, the desire to end the marriage is a sin on that spouse’s part. But given the complexities of human beings and their relationships, any divorce would need to be examined to determine who is in sin. Because the exception exists, it would be wrong to declare all divorces for non-fornication reasons to be automatically sinful on the part of the one getting the divorce.
But doesn’t Matthew 19:9 restricts divorce only for reasons of sexual immorality? The problem is that people are ignoring the “and” in Jesus’ statement. We can argue so well that repent and be baptized requires both conditions to be fulfilled in order to achieve forgiveness of sins. But we miss that Jesus states that there are two conditions which lead to adultery: divorce not for sexual immorality and remarriage. It takes both conditions to cause adultery to take place. Divorce for fornication and remarriage doesn’t cause adultery. Divorce not for sexual immorality and remaining single does not cause adultery. Again, this is not a blanket approval for divorce, it is just an acknowledgment that divorce by itself isn’t adultery. Paul is stating that this is the Lord’s command; he is just making the rule clearer.
Another question that often arises, is why didn’t Paul mentioned the exception clause of divorce for fornication? Because an exception clause is not mentioned every time divorce is discussed, it does not mean the exception doesn’t exist. After all, neither Mark nor Luke’s accounts mention the exception clause but neither of these parallel accounts negates what Matthew recorded for us in greater detail. Paul didn’t mention it because it would be a distraction from his primary arguments. He argued that people who want sex must marry first and that sex is expected to take place in marriage as a result. The goal is to not provide opportunities for Satan to tempt someone by not having access to sex within marriage. While Paul’s preference is for the unmarried and widows to remain single, he knows this isn’t for everyone. Thus, this also means that those already married are not to leave their spouses.
Staying Married - A Christian Married to an Unbeliever (I Corinthians 7:12-16)
We’ve covered the single Christian and married Christians, but Paul has additional instructions for Christians who are married to unbelievers. This a topic that the Lord had not covered while on earth; yet, they are no less the words of God as they were delivered through Paul (I Corinthians 2:12-13).
Just because a person’s spouse is not a believer, there is no reason to leave the marriage. Where would the Corinthians get such an idea? Well, under the law of Moses the Israelites were forbidden to marry people from certain nations (Deuteronomy 7:1-4; Joshua 23:12-13). The reason was simple: these were nations who were being driven out of the land of Canaan because of their idolatrous practices (Leviticus 18:24-30). God did not want the Israelites to pick up their practices. Thus these nations were utterly destroyed within the borders of Israel to prevent the corruption of true worship (Deuteronomy 20:17-18).
If someone violated these laws, the children of such mixed parentage were excluded from ever becoming Israelites, along with descendants of certain nations. "One of illegitimate birth shall not enter the assembly of the LORD; even to the tenth generation none of his descendants shall enter the assembly of the LORD. An Ammonite or Moabite shall not enter the assembly of the LORD; even to the tenth generation none of his descendants shall enter the assembly of the LORD forever, because they did not meet you with bread and water on the road when you came out of Egypt, and because they hired against you Balaam the son of Beor from Pethor of Mesopotamia, to curse you" (Deuteronomy 23:2-4). "Illegitimate" here does not mean "born out of wedlock" as we use it today. It means children of an illegal or forbidden marriage.
It is specifically mentioned that this sin was what lead to Solomon's downfall (I Kings 11:1-4). And in the days of Ezra and Nehemiah, the Israelites repeated the same sins. To counter it, the people who returned from captivity made a vow which included a term not to intermarry (Ezra 10:1-5; Nehemiah 10:28-31). However, it was a vow that they did not keep.
"In those days I also saw Jews who had married women of Ashdod, Ammon, and Moab. And half of their children spoke the language of Ashdod, and could not speak the language of Judah, but spoke according to the language of one or the other people. So I contended with them and cursed them, struck some of them and pulled out their hair, and made them swear by God, saying, "You shall not give your daughters as wives to their sons, nor take their daughters for your sons or yourselves. Did not Solomon king of Israel sin by these things? Yet among many nations there was no king like him, who was beloved of his God; and God made him king over all Israel. Nevertheless pagan women caused even him to sin. Should we then hear of your doing all this great evil, transgressing against our God by marrying pagan women?" And one of the sons of Joiada, the son of Eliashib the high priest, was a son-in-law of Sanballat the Horonite; therefore I drove him from me. Remember them, O my God, because they have defiled the priesthood and the covenant of the priesthood and the Levites" (Nehemiah 13:23-29).
Notice that the Philistines, Moabites, and Ammonites were particularly mentioned. These were among the nations the Israelites were forbidden to marry. Worse, members of the priesthood and other leading Jews were foremost in violating this law (Ezra 9:1-4). Priests were particularly forbidden from marrying women from other nations (Leviticus 21:14-15). And the people knew they were sinning. "On that day they read from the Book of Moses in the hearing of the people, and in it was found written that no Ammonite or Moabite should ever come into the assembly of God, because they had not met the children of Israel with bread and water, but hired Balaam against them to curse them. However, our God turned the curse into a blessing. So it was, when they had heard the Law, that they separated all the mixed multitude from Israel" (Nehemiah 13:1-3). Their violation was no accident.
Because they had broken their oath, Nehemiah forced the people to renew their vows. The end of the book of Ezra lists out the people who refused to put away their foreign wives and children. Their families were marked for life.
The impact of Nehemiah and Ezra on Israel lasted for centuries (John 4:9). But as people typically do, they went overboard. "Then he said to them, "You know how unlawful it is for a Jewish man to keep company with or go to one of another nation. But God has shown me that I should not call any man common or unclean" (Acts 10:28). Doing what God said wasn't enough. They went beyond by isolating themselves from people of all other nations and not just those God had told them to avoid.
Thus returning to I Corinthians 7, we can see how some reasoned that if the problem was the corrupting influence of idolatry, then wouldn't leaving a non-believing spouse be the best solution? Paul's response was, "No." The unbelieving spouse is sanctified by the Christian. This does not mean a person becomes saved by marrying a Christian. "Sanctification" means being set apart for a holy or God-approved purpose. It can refer to salvation (I Corinthians 1:2; Acts 26:18; I Corinthians 6:11; Ephesians 5:26), but it can also be applied to other things: The Sabbath day (Exodus 20:8), holy gifts (Exodus 28:38), or even food (I Timothy 4:4-5) were sanctified by God. Thus Paul is saying that the union created between an unbeliever and a Christian is sanctified, set apart for a God-approved purpose, because of the Christian.
If a person wanted to argue that the marriage must be dissolved because the union is unholy (disapproved of by God), as per Ezra and Nehemiah, then the logical result is to conclude that the children of that union must also be considered unclean by the same reasoning. Some translations use the word "illegitimate" here, but in Greek the word is "unclean." Paul is alluding back to Deuteronomy 23:2. If a person claims the marriage is unholy because it is mixed, such must come from the Old Law. But the Old Law also said that children of unholy marriages could never be a part of the covenant, even to the tenth generation. Therefore, the natural conclusion is that if a marriage must be dissolved because it is unholy, then the children are unholy and they can never enter into a covenant relationship with God. In other words, if there was such a thing as unholy marriages, then there are people who cannot become Christians because of their lineage.
But that leads us to a contradiction. Christ died for all men, not some men (II Corinthians 5:14-15). One purpose of the New Covenant was to open the way for Gentiles -- all Gentiles -- to enter into the covenant (Ephesians 2:11-13). This is because God wants all people to be saved (II Peter 3:9). What leads us to a contradiction must then be false.
Working backward then, if the children can be set apart for a purpose of God (to be able to become Christians), then the marriage is also fulfilling a purpose of God. "But did He not make them one, Having a remnant of the Spirit? And why one? He seeks godly offspring. Therefore take heed to your spirit, And let none deal treacherously with the wife of his youth" (Malachi 2:15). Therefore, there is no requirement that a Christian must divorce a non-Christian spouse.
Of course, that leads to another question: What if the non-believer doesn't want to remain in the marriage? A person who isn't a Christian isn't motivated to keep the laws of God. This doesn't mean the non-Christian isn't going to be held accountable by God regarding His laws. It is man's duty to keep God's commandments (Ecclesiastes 12:13-14). Even the lost must give an account of their actions (I Peter 4:4-6; John 12:48). So are non-Christians accountable to Christ's marriage laws? The answer is clearly, "Yes." How can we be certain of this? Because even non-believers acknowledge the sanctity of marriage in their own actions (Hebrews 13:4). Even today, people recognize that a person can't have a new spouse without dissolving the first marriage, so they recognize the bonds of marriage and the obligations that go along with it (Romans 2:12-16).
But Paul said, "A brother or sister is not under bondage." The word here is for slavery. Marriage is never viewed as a form of slavery in the Bible. In fact, there is a subtlety lacking in our English translations which appears in the Greek. When Paul said, "not under bondage" or "is not in slavery" the phrase is in the perfect indicative tense in Greek. That tense is used to state something that was completed in the past and continues to impact the present. In other words, Paul said the brother or sister didn't become a slave in the past when he or she married and so does not have to act as a slave presently. Since marriage is not a form of slavery, a Christian is not forced to keep a marriage going when the non-Christian wants to leave. To do so would cause discord, but God called us to peace.
This doesn't imply that the Christian who is abandoned by their non-believing spouse has the right to remarry. The general rule found in I Corinthians 7:10-11 still remains.
A mixed marriage is not an ideal marriage, but you just never know. The odds are that in a mixed marriage the unbelieving spouse will pull a Christian into unfaithfulness. But there is hope that the Christian can be an influence for good (I Peter 3:1-2). But such depends on the steadfastness of the Christian (II Peter 3:17-18). Because of that hope, a Christian should not leave their unbelieving spouse.
- How should the following situations be handled?
- A young Christian has no interest in marriage. He’s seen his own parent’s marriage fail and he doesn’t want to put his heart in a vulnerable position.
- A young Christian has repented of fornication several times and is distraught that he seems to lack the will-power to stay away from sex.
- A wife has lost all interest in sex and refuses to have sex with her husband.
- A married couple is facing problems because the wife had committed adultery. She wants to work it out, but he doesn’t trust her anymore.
- A married couple is facing problems because the husband has repeatedly had affairs. He acts remorseful for a while, but he often is seeing other women within months from the last time he was caught.
- A wife is distraught because her husband is an alcoholic and a gambler. There isn’t enough money in the home to support the family because it is being spent.
- A husband asks what to do. His wife is a drug addict and disappears for days or even weeks at a time.
- A wife is concerned. Her husband is getting very violent. She is worried about the safety of her children and herself.
- A husband decides to sever all earthly ties and live in a monastery for the rest of his life.