Most of First Corinthians can be understood in terms of boundary issues between the church and the world.

church and world

In other words, what can be brought in and what can be taken out. For example, lawsuits were not to be taken outside the church, while immorality and observance of special days were not to be allowed in. Many of the boundaries involve sexual matters.

Paul generally envisioned a two-way relationship between the church and the world when it came to questions of marriage, divorce, and celibacy. It was not, however, a balanced relationship. Existing relationships were not to be abandoned (“let every man remain in the calling in which he was called”), but future relationships were often constrained (“only in the Lord”).

First Corinthians can also be viewed as Paul’s attempt to reign in overzealous applications of his personal example and prior teachings. For example, Paul’s defense of his apostleship during earlier visits to Corinth may have been behind the party spirit that threatened to split the church. His emphasis on spiritual gifts may have driven their preoccupation with speaking in tongues. His stress on freedom in Christ may have inspired some to eat meat sacrificed to idols, thereby offending their Corinthian brethren. Most important, Paul’s single lifestyle may have caused some at Corinth to adopt a celibate lifestyle they were not able to sustain, resulting in immorality when affected members sought sexual fulfillment in illegitimate ways.

In chapter 7, Paul is light in theology, but heavy on practical matters.

1 Corinthians 7:1-40

Now for the matters you wrote about: It is good for a man not to marry.

2 But since there is so much immorality, each man should have his own wife, and each woman her own husband.

3 The husband should fulfill his marital duty to his wife, and likewise the wife to her husband.

4 The wife’s body does not belong to her alone but also to her husband. In the same way, the husband’s body does not belong to him alone but also to his wife.

5 Do not deprive each other except by mutual consent and for a time, so that you may devote yourselves to prayer. Then come together again so that Satan will not tempt you because of your lack of self-control.

6 I say this as a concession, not as a command.

7 I wish that all men were as I am. But each man has his own gift from God; one has this gift, another has that.

8 Now to the unmarried and the widows I say: It is good for them to stay unmarried, as I am.

9 But if they cannot control themselves, they should marry, for it is better to marry than to burn with passion.

10 To the married I give this command (not I, but the Lord): A wife must not separate from her husband.

11 But if she does, she must remain unmarried or else be reconciled to her husband. And a husband must not divorce his wife.

12 To the rest I say this (I, not the Lord): If any brother has a wife who is not a believer and she is willing to live with him, he must not divorce her.

13 And if a woman has a husband who is not a believer and he is willing to live with her, she must not divorce him.

14 For the unbelieving husband has been sanctified through his wife, and the unbelieving wife has been sanctified through her believing husband. Otherwise your children would be unclean, but as it is, they are holy.

15 But if the unbeliever leaves, let him do so. A believing man or woman is not bound in such circumstances; God has called us to live in peace.

16 How do you know, wife, whether you will save your husband? Or, how do you know, husband, whether you will save your wife?

17 Nevertheless, each one should retain the place in life that the Lord assigned to him and to which God has called him. This is the rule I lay down in all the churches.

18 Was a man already circumcised when he was called? He should not become uncircumcised. Was a man uncircumcised when he was called? He should not be circumcised.

19 Circumcision is nothing and uncircumcision is nothing. Keeping God’s commands is what counts.

20 Each one should remain in the situation which he was in when God called him.

21 Were you a slave when you were called? Don’t let it trouble you—although if you can gain your freedom, do so.

22 For he who was a slave when he was called by the Lord is the Lord’s freedman; similarly, he who was a free man when he was called is Christ’s slave.

23 You were bought at a price; do not become slaves of men.

24 Brothers, each man, as responsible to God, should remain in the situation God called him to.

25 Now about virgins: I have no command from the Lord, but I give a judgment as one who by the Lord’s mercy is trustworthy.

26 Because of the present crisis, I think that it is good for you to remain as you are.

27 Are you married? Do not seek a divorce. Are you unmarried? Do not look for a wife.

28 But if you do marry, you have not sinned; and if a virgin marries, she has not sinned. But those who marry will face many troubles in this life, and I want to spare you this.

29 What I mean, brothers, is that the time is short. From now on those who have wives should live as if they had none;

30 those who mourn, as if they did not; those who are happy, as if they were not; those who buy something, as if it were not theirs to keep;

31 those who use the things of the world, as if not engrossed in them. For this world in its present form is passing away.

32 I would like you to be free from concern. An unmarried man is concerned about the Lord’s affairs—how he can please the Lord.

33 But a married man is concerned about the affairs of this world—how he can please his wife—

34 and his interests are divided. An unmarried woman or virgin is concerned about the Lord’s affairs: Her aim is to be devoted to the Lord in both body and spirit. But a married woman is concerned about the affairs of this world—how she can please her husband.

35 I am saying this for your own good, not to restrict you, but that you may live in a right way in undivided devotion to the Lord.

36 If anyone thinks he is acting improperly toward the virgin he is engaged to, and if she is getting along in years and he feels he ought to marry, he should do as he wants. He is not sinning. They should get married.

37 But the man who has settled the matter in his own mind, who is under no compulsion but has control over his own will, and who has made up his mind not to marry the virgin—this man also does the right thing.

38 So then, he who marries the virgin does right, but he who does not marry her does even better.

39 A woman is bound to her husband as long as he lives. But if her husband dies, she is free to marry anyone she wishes, but he must belong to the Lord.

40 In my judgment, she is happier if she stays as she is—and I think that I too have the Spirit of God. (NIV)

In vv.1-40, Paul usually explains the positives that accompany his directions, but often takes for granted the wisdom behind the constraints he places on his readers. Except for a particular interpretation of v.39, chapter 7 is noticeably silent on a mystical understanding of marriage that would argue for the continued existence of marriage bonds in heaven despite the dissolution of their earthly counterparts. Verse 39 may not even be the exception (see below). If so, chapter 7 seems to view marriage as spiritually significant in terms of wise or unwise things that men and women do (or undo) on earth.

The application of Paul’s teachings on marriage in 1Cor 7:1-40 is controversial because the relative priorities of his various instructions can be ordered differently. For example, how does Paul’s assertion that “a believing man or woman is not bound” in 7:15 relate to his statement that “a woman is bound to her husband as long as he lives” in 7:39? Some see v.15 as an exception to the v.39, while others see the latter statement as an overarching principle that relativizes all other teachings on marriage. If so, a deserted wife would not be free to remarry until her deserting husband died. Which view is valid?

Whether v.39 is understood as an absolute principle depends largely upon whether it relates to vv.38 and 40 or whether it is totally disconnected from its context, thereby giving it an unconditional character. If the latter is true, v.39 would seem to have an overarching significance. If not, its import would be mitigated by the verses that surround it.

The question then is how does v.39 relate to its context. One suggestion is that vv.36-38 deal with the issue of marriage versus celibacy from the standpoint of the prospective bridegroom (or father-in-law). Verse 39 then can be seen as implicitly dealing with the same issue, but from the viewpoint of females who experience a disproportionate liability in marriage. Whether this liability is cultural or theological is a further question. In any case, verse 39 could also be understood as making it easy for Paul to close his instruction in v.40 by coming full circle on celibacy. The circuit would be from the female perspective in v.40 (“she is happier if she remains [unmarried]”) to the male perspective in v.1 (“it is good for a man not to marry”). Verse 39 could therefore function to balance gender perspectives and to facilitate closure by allowing Paul to return to a central point in chapter 7– marriage is good, but celibacy in God’s service is better.


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