From:  A Torah Commentary on First  Corinthians 7-12     Return to Home

By Roland H. Worth, Jr.                               © 2011





Chapter 7—Part 1:

Theme Development and Old Testament Usage






            Human sexuality is one of the great joys of life; on the other hand, it can royally mess up one’s life beyond belief—excess, betrayal of loyalty, blindness to even the simplest human values . . . as the never fulfilled search for happiness for the all important “me” destroys the possibility of creating a reliable, ongoing relationship.   Sexuality might be compared to a two-edged sword:  one side that brings profound joy and happiness and the other side that brings hurt, pain, and even self-destruction.  There are immense varieties in its intensity of course:  in one person it seems almost demonic and driving the individual before it; yet in another it is blended in with the person’s entire essence in such a manner that it creates a positive and ongoing joy.  No matter how it is in the specific individual, one still must come to terms with it.

            Endless speculation has been made as to Paul’s view of sexual passion—was it essentially “demonic” and detrimental in his view or “angelic” and positive.  You rarely hear the latter; most who venture into this interpretive territory assume the former and that it led him to his “rigid” supposedly “anti-sexual” views.  The blunt truth is that even the most self-contented individual can look around and see so much excess that he is driven to the very views such critics falsely assume have to be driven by repressed sexual obsession. 

            Furthermore, in chapter seven the apostle is having to walk a tightrope:  he repeatedly stresses his belief that celibacy is an ideal life but that the married life is both honorable and praiseworthy.   Just because he has a preference, he realizes that he has no right to bind it as obligatory on those for whom it is not—to use modern terminology--a proper psychological “fit.”  There are “rights” and “wrongs” in regard to human sexuality, but there are also areas—such as choosing celibacy or marriage—in which there are only “rights” and no “wrongs” at all. 

These are probably his core convictions, but if you feel a little mischievous you might wish to consider the possibility that he is making the case so strongly for celibacy because his opponents are convinced that it is an intolerable option, i.e., he wishes to use against them their very “narrowness” in order to expose their folly.  (Does not the obsession that a celibate life is impossible represent a form of sexual obsession just as much as the insistence that celibacy is the only option?)  In all candor, this is a far less likely possibility than the straightforward interpretation of Paul expressing strongly his personal preference while equally carefully avoiding binding it as a necessary pattern for all.  On the other hand, either approach brings home a vital lesson:  “one size does not fit all.”                  



[Page 4] 

            There is precious little on which to build the scenario that Paul had once been married and his spouse had either died or left him.  (The zeal for anything to throw at him by the Corinthian factionalists argues that if there had been something in that sphere that could be misconstrued into evidence of Pauline weakness they would have used it and he would have had to deal with it in one of his epistles.)  But he had certainly lived long enough to know that divorce was a reality in his world just as in ours. 

His counsel on the subject is, essentially, “don’t rock the boat.”  Try to make the marriage work, but if an unbeliever insists in rejecting you, the blame is solely on his/her shoulders and not yours.  As to inter-Christian marriages he pleads for reconciliation rather than permanent separation.  He doesn’t spell out how that reconciliation is to be brought about or using what guidelines.  His assumption clearly seems to be that if he could get his listeners to accept the principle then they could use that as the “jumping off point” to work out whatever specifics of their conflict that needed to be resolved.  There is still a profound truth in that:  if both wish a marriage to work, then there is the real possibility it can be made to do so; but if one or both don’t really care, all is permanently lost.

            Finally, one should learn from this chapter that Paul can not cavalierly be dismissed as a “male chauvinist” because he speaks of the husband as head of the wife and limits the women’s leadership roles in church services.  (The latter is a two-edge sword:  if males then were anything like those today, he was putting a verbal sword to the back of many and forcing them to take their religious responsibility seriously rather than dismissing it, as many do today, “as something for the women.”) 

Furthermore, he explicitly makes it just as desirable for a man to have a woman as for a woman to have a man (7:2).  He directly makes it just as essential for a man to assure that his wife has her sexual pleasure as for her to give him his (7:3).  In avoiding separation, he unambiguously makes it equally important for both parties to preserve the marriage if at all possible (7:10-11).  He imposes the same equality of obligation in regard to maintaining a believer-polytheist marriage (7:12-13).  In short, his views are far more “balanced”[1] than ideologues of radical feminism would suggest. 

Could the modern indignation at Pauline gender role thought rest far more in our contemporary substitute theories being as rigid and unbending as anything ever attributed to the apostle?  (Example:  the possibility of an honorable life of celibate abstinence is “unthinkable,” therefore impossible.)  Because our theories are different from Paul’s doesn’t prove them wrong; the assumption that they do, would no doubt have reduced him to laughter had it been possible for him to know of them.  He would surely have regarded it as just as absurd as his contemporaries thinking their own substitute theologies were somehow automatically authoritative and superior to his because they had found an audience for them.    






How the Themes Are Developed  


[Page 5]






Real world considerations must trump theory:

however preferable celibacy is in the abstract,

marriage is essential for those who can not

live in that manner (7:1-7:2)



            ATP text:  1Now concerning the things about which you wrote to me, it is good for a man not to sexually touch a woman.  2Nevertheless, because of the strength of the temptation of sexual sin, let each man have is own wife, and let each woman have her own husband.”

            Development of the argument:  In the earlier chapters, Paul has been raising his concerns about the Corinthian congregation.  Now is it their turn to raise their concerns, as he begins to answer the questions he has received.  He starts with the subject of sexuality, highly appropriate since he has introduced sexual matters in the closing section of the preceding chapter and when discussing the issue of incest in Corinth.

            Paul’s teaching on sexuality—and on the relationship of men and women in other places in this epistle--can be discomforting for two very different reasons:  (1)  We may dislike his teachings because they have been misunderstood and/or misrepresented by those who instructed us.  (2)  We may reject his teaching because we think we (in the sense of our generation) have reached the ultimate epiphany of insight as to gender relations and gender theory[2] and that Paul is flat out wrong.

  Every generation’s attempt to provide an accurate interpretation and fair treatment of the Pauline teaching is endangered by both obstacles.  We carry within ourselves the psychological, cultural, and religious burdens of our past—as well as those of our own immediate generation--and these can become the distorting prism through which we analyze his teaching.  We easily forget that our perspectives are at least as predisposed as Paul’s own.

            To place Paul’s teaching in broader perspective, the apostle is in that most difficult position for a minister:  to give sound counsel when faced with multiple, equally moral options.  He wants his readers to understand, appreciate, and perhaps even practice his own approach but not feel stigmatized if their personal situation is such that a different but equally honorable course is embraced.[3]  The situation is made even more complex because he clearly recognizes that his own preferences are not going to be those which many of his listeners would or could follow. 

            So far as Paul is concerned, totally avoiding sexual relationships is ideal (7:1).  Assuming that verse 1 is a quote or summation of the Corinthian preference, then the thrust of what follows constitutes an effort to set their shared preference in a more realistic social, psychological, and sexual context than what they were currently doing.[4]  They were—at least a significant number of them—strongly inclined toward asceticism



[Page 6]  even in marriage[5] (contrast the demand for marital sexuality rather than on-going abstinence in the following verses), even when their theories fit the psycho-sexual needs and limitations of only some believers rather than all.  Perhaps, in part, they were viewing such a practice as marking a definitive and total break with the excesses which characterized their city.[6]  If so, one extreme still did not justify the other extreme.    

If the verse represents Paul’s personal preference[7] in contrast to their own endorsement of marriage for any and all believers—far more likely in a culture where marriage, almost by definition, was synonymous with adulthood—then he is defending his own decision while upholding their right to chose a different course.    

Whatever the reasons for the personal preference, he was ever the realist and recognized that singleness is neither practical nor desirable for everyone.  He grounds his encouragement of the celibate single life on two realities:  (1)  the impending distress that faces them in the future and (2)  the inherent tension inevitable in marriage between the desire to serve God and the desire to please one’s mate.[8] 

Furthermore, those who did not have (or were not able to develop) the right internal core of self-restraint would be guilty of folly if they attempted to practice a lifestyle that they were not constitutionally “cut out for.”  Hence the need for marriage in so many cases (7:2).  It is not a matter of their “weakness;” it is a matter of human “differentness.”






The sexual relationship within marriage can

only be temporarily suspended to seek greater

spirituality.  Even that  is a matter of

mutually agreed choice and not

apostolic requirement (7:3-7:6)



            ATP text:  3The husband must fulfill his sexual responsibility to his wife and likewise also the wife to her husband.  4The wife does not have sole authority over her own body, but the husband shares in it as well.  Equally true, the husband does not have sole rule over his own body, but the wife also shares in it.  5Do not deprive one another of sexual expression except by mutual consent for a limited period of time, so that you may devote yourselves to prayer.  Afterwards resume that relationship so that Satan does not tempt you successfully because of a failure in self-control.  6This instruction I give as permission and not as a requirement.”

            Development of the argument:  Viewed as his own embracal of celibacy, verses 1 and 2 are a blunt warning that it is an impractical course for most of the human race.  Viewed as, at least in part, a response to a Corinthian theory that it would be good for a married couple to embrace celibacy while living a life together, it is a rebuke of the practicality of such a scheme.

Part of the heart of marriage, he argues both here and in this following section, is



[Page 7]  that both partners need to accept the legitimacy of the sexual desires of the other and to attempt to completely fulfill them (7:3-4).  Paul has no abstract theory about sexual drive and its variances—only its reality.  Hence he is practical and down to earth:  be sure each other’s needs are fulfilled.  The couple itself are the only ones who can really know what that entails. 

The core of his thought on abstinence within marriage can be summed up in two statements:  “first, it would be occasional, occurring only in exceptional circumstances; second, it would, at any rate, always be temporary, never an ongoing permanent pattern of behavior.”[9]  Again, his teaching provides maximum adaptability:  what is most appropriate for one couple might be most inappropriate for another.

He does not approach sexual expression from a so-called “patriarchal” viewpoint, of it being a husband’s right.  Rather he speaks of it as being a mutual right.[10]  And he even avoids the use of the term “right.”  Instead he grounds his argument in the ground that both partners “own” the other.  They no longer belong just to themselves and are able to claim full and ultimate autonomy.  Instead they are now in a relationship that lets someone else share that same authority.[11] 

Corinthians acquainted with Stoicism would have found here an echo of Musonius (30-100 A.D.) in his What is the Chief Aspect of Marriage?  He argued that in marriage “everything [is] common property and nothing one’s own, not even the body itself.”[12]  In a similar vein, the stoic Hierocles (c. 117-138 A.D.) could speak of how “they agree with one another to such an extent and have everything in common, even to the point of their own bodies—even more, their own souls themselves.”[13]

            Paul warns them against allowing their religion to become a barrier to their marital relationship.  There is nothing wrong--if they mutually agree--to have a period of prayer (many manuscripts add fasting as well) and accompany it with abstinence from sexual intercourse.  But they are to recognize the limits of their self-control (7:5) and to realize that having such periods of abstinence are up to their mutually agreed upon individual choice rather than any external requirement (7:6).[14]  They don’t have to.  They—and no one else—make the decision.

            There is a major difference between “celibacy” and “chastity.”  In the Middle Ages far too many who vowed the former did not practice the latter, leading to endless scandals!  In that case, it was the clergy who were guilty of the inconsistency.  Yet, oddly enough, in our secularistic modern age we have again radically separated the two and it has become the lifestyle of literally millions of the semi-religious and non-religious to remain technically “single” (i.e., unmarried) while engaging in physical relationships whenever the occasion may present itself—relationships in which personal sexual pleasure is the major (only?) criterion and having children is the furthest thing from the couples’ minds.

            The Roman Empire in the first century was faced with a somewhat similar problem.  As Margaret T. MacDonald observes,[15]



By the first century CE, the authorities in the Roman Empire were articulating concerns about the reluctance of some citizens to marry and about the necessity to produce children for the general stability of society and to fill army legions with soldiers.  Delays in marriage and efforts to reduce pregnancies were



[Page 8]  probably sometimes inspired by the desire to preserve family wealth by limiting the numbers of possible descendants who could inherit legacies.  . . . 

Moreover the Roman state took direct measures, in the form of legislation, to discourage inclinations to remain unmarried, childless, or both.  With respect to women, the laws promulgated by the Emperor Augustus and his successors made marriage mandatory between 20 and 50 years of age.  Divorcees and widows were required to remarry after brief periods which ranged from six months to two years.

Unmarried and childless women experienced restrictions on inheritance and were denied certain privileges of legal independence.  In contrast, freeborn women who had three children and freedwomen who had four children were rewarded with the privilege of being able to conduct their legal affairs without a male guardian.


              The actual enforceability of such legislation had built-in difficulties raised by the varying attitudes of specific emperors, the hindering power of various classes of society--wealth for the rich and the individual “insignificance” of the masses of the poor--and the very size of the Empire itself.  The relative success of the policies, therefore, is a very unsettled historical question.[16] 

Even so, if Corinthian Christians felt the allure of remaining unmarried it certainly reflected a not uncommon element in their society.  Though, apparently, out of a more asture ethical theory rather than as a mere guise for sexual pleasure independent of mutual obligation.






Yet if one had the required degree of sexual

self-control, celibacy was definitely

a superior option to marriage (7:7-7:9)



            ATM text:  7I wish that all were even as I in regard to marriage.  But everyone has a unique gift from God and the gift varies from person to person.  8I say to the unmarried and to the widows: It is good for them if they remain single even as I.  9However, if they do not have adequate self-control, let them marry; for it is better to marry than to be inflamed with illicit passion.”

            Development of the argument:  Paul does not hide his view that universal celibate chastity is his personal ideal (7:7a), but he refuses to permit a theoretical ideal to override individual differences.  Hence he pointedly admits that “each one has his own gift from God” and that it will vary from person to person (7:7b).  He has already pointed to celibacy as his ideal for the never married.  He also considers it best that the currently unmarried and widows also remain as he is (7:8)--but if they choose marriage there is nothing wrong with their choice either (7:9).



[Page 9]           One can hardly over-emphasize the significance of Paul’s affirmation that “each one has his own gift from God” (7:7b) when given immediately after his own stated preference for celibacy.  The sex-drive that may require marriage is just as much a Divine gift as Paul’s own ability to live a celibate life.  It isn’t a Divine gift (celibacy) versus marrying; it is a matter of which way an individual is gifted.  

            The bottom line was prudent realism:  it was “better to marry than to burn with desire” (7:9).  In this context of martial sex, that sexual desire presumably finds expression in sexual relationships outside of matrimony instead of where it should be, within the marital relationship.  (Corinth offered plenty of such opportunities.)  Or Paul may have in mind burning in unfulfilled sexual phantasies engendered by one’s inner discontent.[17]  If the desire is all consuming, it becomes self-destructive just as would carrying out the dreams in actual behavior.[18]

            Once again, note how Paul is not a theorist who insists on his way when he knows it will not work for everyone.  He upholds his own preferences while making more than adequate room for others who are different.






The Lord Himself (during His earthly ministry)

had demanded that husband and wife

never divorce (7:10-11)



            ATM text:  10For married couples I have a command which is not my own but the Lord's: a wife must not separate from her husband.  11But if she does leave, she must remain single or else be reconciled to her husband.  Likewise a husband must not divorce his wife.”

            Development of the argument:  Paul next proceeds to the question of divorce when believers are involved.  He first cites what he calls the “command” of “the Lord:  a husband and wife who are Christians are not to divorce each other (7:10-11).  Period.[19]  Even when an “exception” is given in Jesus’ teaching (Matthew 5:32; 19:9), it is exactly that--an “exception.”  The generality is as Paul pictures it, one man and one woman for life.

            There has been discussion of whether Paul is dealing with a hypothetical divorce situation that might or was expected to arise in the future or one that had already occurred.[20]  In the “real world” of Corinth, this is a distinction with little meaning:  in that wide-open “anything goes” city it involved a fundamental matter that had to be faced sooner or later.   The only question was the “when” and not the “whether.”

Others have suspected that some Corinthians wished to dissolve their marriage in order to follow the ascetic ideal Paul himself preferred.[21]  If they were falling into this trap, he wasn’t about to give them any encouragement and, if anything, goes out of his way to stress that the sexual aspect of marriage is both honorable and obligatory.  However desirable celibacy might be, it was never intended for a man or woman



[Page 10]  claiming to be married nor did it serve as a legitimate excuse for terminating that sacred relationship.      

            In the first century social context, the situation was hugely different between Roman and Jewish society (at least for the observant segment).  Among Jews, the divorce right was regarded, essentially, as the male’s prerogative.  If the woman wanted one and he didn’t, she was out of luck.  In Roman society she could, at least theoretically, gain such a divorce, but lacking independent financial wealth or parental family support that right could be very hard to actually exercise.  (Obviously, her “ideal” situation was when her spouse thought it was a good idea as well.)

            The first century Jewish understanding of proper procedure can be seen in Josephus’ discussion of how the sister of Herod the Great (Salome) was so angry at her husband Costobarus that she left him and sent him a formal divorce decree.  Josephus warned, however, that this was contrary to proper Jewish custom, “For a man among us it is possible to do this, but not even a divorced woman may marry again on her own initiative unless her husband consents.”[22]  This seems an arbitrary gloss on Deuteronomy 24:1-4, where the only limitation on her remarriage is that she can never return to be mate of her original husband.  Perhaps to protect an ex-spouse against such slurs growing out of re-marriage, it appears to have been common to include an explicit approval of her remarrying in the divorce document itself.[23]






Since Jesus had never dealt with the matter,

Paul must speak on the subject of pagan-believer

marriages:  in those situations every effort

must be made to preserve the relationship but if

the unbeliever makes it impossible, there is no sin

in accepting that reality (7:12-7:16)



            ATM text:  12But to those in mixed marriages the instruction comes from me and not the Lord:  If any brother has a wife who does not believe, and she is willing to live with him, he must not divorce her.  13Likewise a woman who has a husband who does not believe, if he is willing to live with her, she must not divorce him.  14The reason is that the unbelieving husband is set apart by the wife, and the unbelieving wife is set apart by the husband.  Otherwise your children would be unclean, but now they are pure.  15Yet if the unbelieving one leaves, let it happen!  The brother or the sister is not required to remain in the bond in such cases.  After all God has called us to live in peace.  16The reason for this is you do not know, O wife, whether you will save your husband.  Nor do you know, O husband, whether you will save your wife.”

            Development of the argument:  Having disposed of the question of divorce of believers, what is the policy to be when a believer is married to an unbeliever?  About



[Page 11] this matter Paul says “I” speak and “not the Lord” (7:12).  This is quite natural.  Jesus essentially lived His life and gave His teaching to those who were of the same religion.  The question of the path to follow when in a believer-unbeliever marriage was simply not one that would normally surface during His ministry.[24]  It had arisen by the time of this epistle, obviously.  Hence Paul had to address it when Jesus did not.  Therefore it was not a situation where “Paul did not hesitate to contribute his own interpretation”[25] of Jesus’ words, but one in which there were no words to interpret.[26]

             Here too (7:12-16) the emphasis is on marriage preservation:  so long as the spouse is willing to “live with” you, stay in the relationship (7:12-13).  This way the unbelieving spouse can be “sanctified” (converted?  reformed?) (7:14).  If the apocryphal Acts and other ancient church writers are a just indicator, this marriage preserving admonition was commonly ignored in the following centuries[27] and it is quite likely that a fear that such would occur accounts for Paul’s emphasis on the matter.

Even so, if the unbeliever refuses to continue in the relationship, the believer is “not under bondage” any longer (7:15).  This would seemingly require that the believer be regarded as free to remarry.  Otherwise one would be in “bondage” to someone long gone.[28]  (The term may also directly refer to the marital bond, which would even more directly address the issue.  In either case, the marital bond is under discussion either explicitly or implicitly and we have reflected that in the ATP.  For more detailed discussion see the difficult texts section below.)

            Trans-religion marriages today add an additional area of potential marital stress to the inevitable ones:   differences in religious doctrine, definitions of moral and proper behavior, and even the best child-raising techniques.  (In our age think child spanking versus never spanking interpretations of youthful discipline.)  There is the matter of what religion the child is to be raised in and the matter of whose services s/he will attend to worship.  These are all matters that can usually be worked out, at least when the participants are from an essentially similar religious heritage—but not without honest discussion. 

            That is how we would likely frame the question of the wisdom of such alliances  today.  But it is interesting that Paul gives no hint that such areas of potential intense disagreement are involved at all.  Not even the question of polytheism versus monotheism, which would pose more fundamental challenges than trans-religious marriages today normally encounter. 

Whatever the problem is in regard to the Corinthian marriages, they apparently involve matters independent of these particular major 21st century stress factors.  Indeed, the language is probably kept non-specific so that it would have a relevance regardless of what the stumbling block had become.         






Stability in one’s earthly relationships was pivotal:

they were to stay as they were are in a time

of uncertainty rather than take the risk

of needless change (7:17-7:24)



[Page 12]

            ATM text:  17Let every one continue the life which the Lord has assigned—the one at the time when God called them.  This is my standard in all the congregations.  18Was any man Divinely called when he was already circumcised?  He is not to have the marks removed.  Has anyone been called when uncircumcised?  He is not to have it performed.  19Circumcision matters nothing and uncircumcision matters nothing.  Keeping the commands of God is what is essential.  20Every one should remain in the life situation that existed at the time God chose them.  21Were you a slave when called?  Do not be worried about it.  But if you can gain your freedom, take advantage of the opportunity.  22The person who was called by the Lord while a slave, is  counted by the Lord as free; likewise the one who was called while free, is counted as Christ's slave.  23You were bought at a great price; do not become slaves of anyone else.  24So, spiritual comrades, in whatever situation each was Divinely called, there remain in fellowship with God.”

            Development of the argument:  The underlying premise in his discussion of preserving existing marriages is that of stability in one’s relationships.  He is, if you will, advocating a doctrine of preserving the “status quo” in their personal lives.[29]  Indeed, Paul makes the point explicit when he argues that “as God has distributed to each one, as the Lord has called each one, so let him walk” (7:17).  Then he stresses that this policy of maintaining existing relationships was one that he taught to “all the churches” (7:17).  It was not a new, special burden just imposed on them. 

In verse 20 he lays down the same principle of stability by insisting, “Let each one remain in the same calling in which he was called.”  The point is so vital in his mind that in verse 24 he returns to it yet again, “Brethren, let each one remain with God in that state in which he was called.” 

            In short, don’t rock the boat.  Don’t introduce elements into your life that may destabilize it and create potential danger.  Paul did not believe that a Christian’s life was sealed in concrete at the time of conversion.  On the other hand, he did not want it to be one characterized by dramatic reversals in lifestyle that might actually turn out to be inadvertently harmful. 

            Why does he hit so hard on this theme?  In verse 26, he reveals his underlying concern:  “this is good because of the present distress.”  Furthermore, traumatic and major upheavals were coming in the future (7:28-29).[30]  In that historical landscape one had to be extra cautious lest “change” become the preface to disaster.  

Even some pagan intellectuals reasoned similarly.  Epictetus (55-135 A.D.) also spoke of how “in such an order of things as the present, which is like that of a battlefield” it is questionable whether the good philosopher should allow himself to carry the burden of a potentially distracting marital relationship.  He had duties to perform and marriage could easily avert his attention from those.[31]  In other words stay in his current state, which is assumed to be single.

            Paul’s principle of constancy had a wide application.  It applied to both circumcised and uncircumcised remaining as they were and not altering it (7:18-19).  It applied to those who were slaves when converted (7:20-23):  Be content therein, but if



[Page 13]  you have the opportunity to gain your freedom take advantage of it (7:21).  In the meantime, though, they had—so to speak—been “bought” by Christ and were free in a far more important sense of the term (7:22-23).  (This alludes to the ancient custom of permitting a slave to be freed by having a deity considered as the one who “purchased” him from his human owner.)[32]






In light of current or future difficulties,

it was advisable to neither marry nor divorce—

yet personal circumstances might be such that the

generalization would not apply (7:25-7:31)



            ATP text:  25Now concerning those who never married I have no command from the Lord.  However I give an opinion as one who, through the mercy of the Lord, is deserving of your confidence:  26I think that in view of the current distress it is prudent to remain as you are.  27Are you bound to a wife?  Do not seek to be freed.  Are you divorced from a wife?  Do not seek another one.  28On the other hand, even if you do marry, you have not sinned.  Also if the never married virgin marries, she has not sinned either.  Nevertheless such individuals will have difficulties in this life and I am trying to spare you that.  29This is what I mean, comrades:  The time is limited.  While it lasts, even those who have wives should live as though they did not.  30Likewise those who mourn should act as though they were not sad; and those who rejoice, as though they were not happy; and those who buy, as though they did not own what they bought; 31and those who use the world, as though they did not depend upon it.  The world as we know it is passing away.”

            Development of the argument:  Paul would prefer that the unmarried remain unmarried, the divorced not remarry, and the widow/widower not take a new mate (7:25-28).  Again the idea of retaining an on-going life style in which one is comfortable and well-established.  But he stresses throughout that these are not Divinely given essentials, but Paul’s own judgment as to what is most expedient and useful.  Yet that judgment should be given great consideration because it comes from one whose reasoning was “trustworthy” (7:25).

             Of course, Paul is assuming, of course, that the consistency he advocates is within a morally acceptable relationship.  Otherwise he could never have denounced the incestuous case in chapter 5 the way he did. 

            With this limitation, he recognizes that what is theoretically valid may not work in each individual’s life.  Hence, for example, he stresses that though it best not to marry, there would be no sin involved if a person did do so.  (He had mentioned at the beginning of the chapter the idea of sexual drives compelling a person to marry as an act of elementary prudence.)  Yet he casts the argument here in broader terms:  far more than



[Page 14]  just sex may encourage (or discourage!) marriage and Paul is allowing abundant room for all these factors in making one’s decision.    

            In the time of stress that they are living in—the text can carry the alternate meaning of soon to be living in, i.e., it has not yet arrived—circumstances will drive them to the need to act in a manner contrary to their normal preference (verses 29-31):   The married may have to act as if not married, the happy as if unhappy, the purchaser of property or business as if the purchase had not been made.  What is being depicted is a period of acute societal instability.

The normal ways of reacting just don’t seem to apply in such situations because anything one does or says may easily turn out to be inappropriate and not fitting the changing circumstances.  Indeed it may even be dangerous:  If one is clearly married, perhaps one’s spouse will be attacked during the period of instability out of revenge aimed at you.  If one owns property perhaps it will be savaged by robbers or burned to the ground by those who envy what you have or wish to steal it. 

If one shows oneself happy, one may face vicious verbal—and worse?—assault for one’s supposed stupidity.  Paul is not calling for hypocrisy; he is calling for the kind of reserve and caution that is a survival skill and which in a time of crisis can make all the difference between literal life and death both for oneself and for others.






Marriage in time of such difficulties created a

severe tension between obligations to

the Lord and duties to one’s spouse (7:32-7:35)



            ATP text:  32I want you to be free from anxiety.  The unmarried man is preoccupied about the Lord’s work, how he may please the Lord; 33in contrast, the married man is anxious about worldly affairs because he desires to please his wife 34and he is pulled in two directions.  Similarly, the unmarried woman or never married virgin is anxious about the things of the Lord, how to be dedicated in body and inner being; but the married woman is anxious about earthly matters, how she can please her husband.  35This I say for your own benefit--not to put restrictions upon you, but to encourage what is appropriate and to secure undivided devotion to the Lord.”

            Development of the argument:  Within this context of preserving stability he again returns to a very practical consideration of the difference between marriage and non-marriage.  The married person (if he or she intends the relationship to last) is going to be concerned about pleasing the spouse.  The unmarried need only be concerned with pleasing the Lord and does not need to worry about pleasing someone else as well (7:32-34).  Paul does not mean that it is wrong to wish to please one’s mate.  It comes with the relationship.  But he does recognize that it creates a potential tension between the two goals.  And that in a time of crisis it will be extraordinarily difficult to do justice to both goals.



[Page 15]          In our society the tension has shifted dramatically in origin:  now it is far more often the tension between job and spouse.  The loyalty that once was recognized as belonging to God has often been virtually transferred to the modern corporation.  (The “Protestant work ethic” gone amok?)  As the result the family is (grudgingly?) squeezed into whatever modest amount of time is left after fulfilling one’s corporate responsibilities.  And God is left with a token visit once a week, or month, or year. 

Paul would certainly have treated this as irresponsible abandonment of our primary responsibilities in life—the divine and our family.  If one felt that one had to live in such a manner, it is hard to imagine Paul counseling marriage.  On the other hand, if one insisted upon marriage one can easily picture Paul as rebuking such divided loyalties as undermining and potentially devastating to that relationship.         






Yet marriage in the case of the never wedded

is still right so far as the morals

of the matter are concerned (7:36-7:38)



            ATP text:  36If any man thinks that he is acting improperly toward his betrothed, if she is past her normal marriageable age, and if he is convinced it must be so, let him do what he prefers.  He does not sin; let them marry.  37Nevertheless, he also does well who stands firm in his heart—he who has no necessity, but has full control over his own will, and has so determined in his mind that he will keep her as his unmarried betrothed.  38So he who marries his betrothed virgin acts appropriately and he who refrains from marriage does even better.”

            Development of the argument:  Paul proceeds to the case of a person who has postponed marriage (7:36-38).  The counsel is that if the sexual desires are stronger than the self-control, marry.  Again, he is the realist. 

            The individuals under discussion may have been postponing marriage out of second thoughts and a strong temptation to remain celibate.  On the other hand, they may be waiting for the husband-to-be to fully establish himself as economically independent and be completely able to support a family.  Or it may be because one set of parents has been finding a reason to “nag” them into waiting longer.  Paul carefully writes his prose so that it would fit these and any other set of circumstances under which a couple have postponed their matrimony.  He wishes to give teaching that will be of maximum applicability to the maximum number of situations.   






Remarriage is also right in the case

of a person with a dead spouse




[Page 16]

            ATP text:  39A wife is bound to her husband as long as he lives.  If the husband dies, she is free to be married to whoever she prefers, but only in the Lord.  40In my opinion she will be happier if she remains as she is and I think that I also have the Spirit of God in saying this.”

            Development of the argument:  Finally, he turns to the case of a widow (7:39-40).  Remaining single is likely to make her “happier” in the long term (7:40).  On the other hand, if marriage is opted for, there is no sin involved (7:39).  He does not explicitly assert such of the widower.  However the language of 7:27-28 refers to those “loosed” from marriage (which would certainly include the widower class) and mentions that in such cases if a remarriage occurs it is without sin (7:28).        

            Her right to independently choose who to marry should also be noted (“to whom she wishes” [7:39]).  Neither family nor offspring have the right to make the choice for her.  Her independence of action is implicitly defended against any who might challenge it.     







Invoking of Explicit Old Testament

Quotations to Justify His Teaching:










How Old Testament Concepts Are

Repeatedly Introduced and Woven

into the Heart of His Argument






[Page 17]

            7:1:  “Touch[ing] a woman” as a euphemism for a sexual touching.  This ancient idiom for having a sexual relationship[33] (hence our ATP rendering, “to sexually touch”) also finds expression in the Old Testament.  King Abimilech had “taken” Sarah into his court (Genesis 20:3), presumably either as a wife or concubine.  Concubine would be more in keeping with her being a foreigner.  For unknown reasons he “had not come near her” (20:4) before Yahweh rebuked him in a dream for taking the wife of another man (20:3).  He protests his innocence of intent (20:5) and God responds that this was the reason “I did not let you touch her” (20:6), a sexual connotation being certain.

            In Ruth 2:9 we read that Boaz had warned his reapers not to “touch” Ruth.  The term may have this sexual intention here as well, though it would also fit the context as carrying the implication of not harassing, bothering, or doing physical harm of any type to her.  The poor and vulnerable women living on the remnants of the harvest would have been quite vulnerable to all of these, according to the temperament of the property owner and his employees.

            Moving to Proverbs, the meaning returns to a clearly sensual sense.  As part of a admonition against adultery, the writer warns, “Can one walk on hot coals, and his feet not be seared?  So is he who goes in to his neighbor’s wife; whoever touches her shall not be innocent” (6:28-29).      



            7:1, 7:  Adopting a life of celibacy.  The Old Testament emphasis upon the glory of having a large number of children and upon marriage in general would make celibacy the rare exception.  Yet it was not totally unprecedented.  The prophet Jeremiah was instructed not to marry nor to have the children that would result from the marriage,


The word of the Lord also came to me, saying, “You shall not take a wife, nor shall you have sons or daughters in this place.”  For thus says the Lord concerning the sons and daughters who are born in this place, and concerning their mothers who bore them and their fathers who begot them in this land:  “They shall die gruesome deaths; they shall not be lamented nor shall they be buried, but they shall be like refuse on the face of the earth.  They shall be consumed by the sword and by famine, and their corpses shall be meat for the birds of heaven and for the beasts of the earth” (Jeremiah 16:1-4). 


            Although Paul’s choice of celibacy was self-made and self-imposed, Jeremiah’s was the result of a Divine instruction.  Indeed the text grounds it in the misery that external events could impose in case of marriage, a concern that was very much on Paul’s mind as well (7:26, 29-33).

            Lucien Legrand may be right when he suggests that we should take this a step further, “It is clear that Jeremiah gives his celibacy a symbolic value.  The loneliness of his unmarried life forebodes the desolation of Israel.  Death is about to sweep over the country.  Jeremiah’s forlorn celibacy is nothing but an enacted prophecy of the imminent doom.  Calamity will be such as to render matrimony and procreation meaningless.”[34]   

            J. Massingberd Ford argues that this was only designed to be a temporary period of celibacy rather than a permanent one.  He suggests that this is compatible with the



[Page 18]  wording of the Hebrew text (which is not quite the same thing as saying that is the expected meaning of the passage) and notes that at a later point Jeremiah purchased land (Jeremiah 32:6-15) as if he planned to settle down, which, in that day, included taking up a family.  Furthermore, the idea of Jeremiah being a lifetime celibate is found in no ancient Jewish tradition nor any writing from a Christian source in the first three centuries A.D.[35] 

The land purchasing argument is suggestive at best:  even single men often, to use the modern expression, like to have a permanent “roof over their head” and “set down roots.”  Furthermore, the land purchase was commanded as symbolism of that day when the people would again rest secure in their land (32:15) and is not presented as evidence of Jeremiah’s personal plans or preferences beyond conveying this message to the people.        



            7:2-4:  The propriety of the sexual relationship within marriage.  By a series of direct statements and indirect allusions (the latter probably intended in part as sexual euphemisms), the Proverbist drives home his argument for strict erotic loyalty to one’s wife,


                        Drink water from your own cistern, and running water from your own    well.  Should your fountains be dispersed abroad, streams of water in the streets?         Let them be only your own, and not for strangers with you.  Let your fountain be        blessed, and rejoice with the wife of your youth.  As a loving deer and a graceful            doe, let her breasts satisfy you at all times; and always be enraptured with her          love (5:15-19).


            Old Testament society was one where many individuals were polygamous.   The obligation to maintain the sexual relationship with the earlier wife is the point probably intended by the regulation that, “If he takes another wife, he shall not diminish her food, her clothing, and her marriage rights” (Exodus 21:10).  Since “food” and “clothing” are already mentioned, it would be most natural to take “her marriage rights” as something in contrast with these, to her right to a continued sexual relationship even though her husband has opted for polygamy.[36] 

            Some interpret it as referring to the luxuries of life that a husband can provide (“oil” and “ointments” in particular) since in both Akkadian and Sumerian records these along with attire and food are considered uniquely the rights of a married woman.[37]  Somehow, in real life, one can not help suspecting sexuality somehow entered the picture as well.  One seems guilty of reading the modern mentality of marriage-as-a-temporary aberration into the text when one interprets it to mean that she simply must be given “proper care and respect” while she has “her freedom, presumably to seek a more secure domestic arrangement.”[38]   

            Neither the Old Testament nor Paul attempt to define “how often” sexual expression must occur—probably for the very sound reason that individual situations differ as do the intensity of the sexual drive.   Both are content with stressing the need to not abandon it and leaving it to individual judgment how to apply that principle.

            The following is how Jewish written tradition came to generalize on the subject (c. 200 A.D.):[39]


[Page 19]  


                        A.  He who takes a vow not to have sexual relations with his wife—

            B.  The house of Shammai says, “He may allow this situation to continue] for two weeks.”

                        C.  And the House of Hillel say, “For one week.”

            D.  Disciples go forth for Torah study without [the wife’s] consent for thirty days.

                        E.  Workers go out for one week.

            F.  “The sexual duty of which the Torah speaks [Exodus 21:10]:  (1)  those without work [or independent means]—every day; (2)  workers—twice a week; (3) ass drivers—once a week; (4) camel drivers—once in thirty days; (5)  sailors—once in six months,” the words of R. Eliezer.”     




            7:4:  The reciprocal nature of the sexual relationship:  “The wife does not have authority over her own body, but the husband does.  And likewise the husband does not have authority over his own body, but the wife does.”

            In short, Paul stresses that the sexual bond in marriage is a two way street, designed for the pleasure and benefit of both individuals.  One does not “use” the other but both gives and receives pleasure.

            The Song of Solomon stresses this two way relationship:  “My beloved is mine, and I am his” (2:16).  The language shifts only modestly in 6:3, “I am my beloved’s, and my beloved is mine.”  The male’s commitment, in particular, is brought out in 7:10, “I am my beloved’s, and his desire is toward me.”



            7:5-6:  The propriety of periods of fasting and prayer (modern critical texts only contain the latter) in postponing the normal sexual relationship in marriage.  Paul has especially in mind not merely the acts of fasting and prayer, but using these as a reason for the temporary interruption of one’s marital sexual relationship.  Joel 2:15-17 seems to have this in mind as part of the expression of national repentance,


                        Blow the trumpet in Zion, consecrate a fast, call a sacred assembly; gather         the people, sanctify the congregation, assemble the elders, gather the children and          nursing babes; let the bridegroom go out from his chamber, and the bride from        her dressing room.  Let the priests, who minister to the Lord, weep between the            porch and the altar; let them say, “Spare Your people, O Lord, and do not give     Your heritage to reproach, that the nations should rule over them.  Why should      they say among the peoples, where is their God?”


            The text specifically refers to “a fast” (2:15) and, in light of the intense reaction of the people that is being depicted, we must read this as a period of fasting.  It involved a public meeting at the temple site (2:15-16) and the presence of newlyweds is explicitly required (2:16).  These would be the least likely ones to be expected.  By the very nature



[Page 20]  of their new relationship one would expect them to be excused.  But the occasion was so important even they (not to mention those who had been married “for ages”) had to leave behind their marital pleasures to gather in assembly and fast for their nation’s welfare. 

            We read of the priests praying (2:17) and it would be little short of incredible for us to believe that the people simply fasted, assembled in the temple, and did nothing more.  With a national problem this intense, how could it be only the priests praying?  Hence we seem to have here all three aspects of Paul’s teaching:  (1) explicitly, fasting; (2) a very clear implication of prayer; (3) the reasonable implication of the cessation of the sexual relationship for the duration of the period of the public fast and assembly.

            Zechariah 12:10-14 also refers to a period of national mourning that implies that the normal martial functions would temporarily cease during it,


                        And I will pour on the house of David and on the inhabitants of Jerusalem          the Spirit of grace and supplication; then they will look on Me whom they         pierced.  Yes, they will mourn for Him as one mourns for his only son, and grieve             for Him as one grieves for a firstborn.  In that day there shall be a great mourning           in Jerusalem like the mourning at Hadad Rimmon in the plain of Megiddo.  And         the land shall mourn, every family by itself:  the family of the house of David by             itself, and their wives by themselves; the family of the house of Nathan by itself, and their wives by themselves; the family of the house of Levi by itself, and their        wives by themselves; the family of Shimei by itself, and their wives by            themselves; all the families that remain, every family by itself, and their wives by themselves. 


            For New Testament purposes, it is intriguing that the text begins with a verse utilized Messianically (12:10) and the very next verse after the one we close with speaks in Messianic terms of the day when “a fountain shall be opened for the house of David and for the inhabitants of Jerusalem, for sin and for uncleanness” (13:1).  As a Jesus-centered messianic interpreter of the Old Testament, one can immediately see how Paul could find here an endorsement for periods of sexual separation, especially in a context of sorrowful “mourning.”  Fasting is not explicitly mentioned, but in a time of sorrow this traditional accompaniment would be startling if it were not present.

            The Mishnah ultimately imposed the requirement of gender separate mourning as a general practice.[40]  The requirement in Zechariah in particular is read by some as “a reference to the skilled activities of women as professional mourners.”[41]  In short, it is culturally explained and carries no further implication beyond reminding Israel of its misdeeds.[42]  The cultural interpretation could be carried out a bit differently as well:  would men feel it appropriate to express their own depth of sorrow in the presence of women?  (Even today there is a reluctance.)  Hence separate mourning provided the opportunity for both genders to fully express their sorrow and grief and not feel embarrassed by it. 

            This time of gender separation would most naturally carry with it a period of abstinence from sexual relationships as well.[43]  It becomes, if you will, a “social marker” to separate the significance of this phase from all others.          



[Page 21]         Outside the traditional canon, we find Tobiah lying in bed and turning to his wife to say, “My love, get up.  Let us pray and beg our Lord to have mercy on us and to grant us deliverance” (Tobit 8:4, New American Bible; 8:5-8 contains the prayer itself).  Paul would certainly have had no problem with the idea of a couple praying together like this, but the example is one of interrupting a single night’s sleep for prayer (with sexual congress following or not following as the case might be) while Paul’s wording clearly refers to a multi-day period without sexual activity  occurring. 

In Jerome’s Latin Vulgate translation the example of Tobiah gets creatively expanded into three nights of prayer absent sex.[44]  Furthermore, Tobiah’s dismissal of the propriety of marital “lust” (8:7) would have gained no countenance with Paul who thought it not only appropriate but, for at least some, pivotal to the marital relationship.

            Finally the ancient Testament of Naphthali (8:8) includes the caution that, “There is a time for having intercourse with one’s wife, and a time to abstain for the purpose of prayer.”[45]                 



            7:10-12:  The assumption of the permanency of marriage among God’s people.  In this section Paul parallels a woman “depart[ing] (ATP:  “separat[ing]”) from her husband” (7:10) with a husband “divorc[ing] his wife” (7:12).  Hence, Paul is probably using the two as synonyms for the legal termination of marriage.  On the other hand, he may be trying to cover both contingencies of a permanent separation (“depart[ing]”) and a legal separation (“divorce”).  The real life result, of course, is the same:  they are no longer functioning as husband and wife.

            The vaguer terminology is used of the wife, perhaps, because then (and today) an individual might leave their mate without the “formality” of divorce being instituted, at least in the short term and possibly never.  Furthermore, due to the structure of Jewish and Gentile law it was far easier for the male to get a formal divorce than for a woman and it would be far easier for her to just “leave” (as in Paul’s example) than to attempt anything judicially. 

            The Old Testament speaks highly critical words utilizing Pauline type language in denouncing indiscriminate divorce.  In Malachi 3, we read of a husband divorcing his wife (3:16).  The typical divorce of that day is described as one in which “the wife of your youth” has been “dealt [with] treacherously” (3:14).

            When Paul uses the term “depart,” he uses the language of Jeremiah, whether intentionally or because it fits his argument.  In that prophet, the action of an irresponsible woman is compared with the action of an irresponsible Israel, “ ‘Surely, as a wife treacherously departs from her husband, so have you dealt treacherously with Me, O house of Israel,’ says the Lord” (3:20). 

            The language of treachery and betrayal is applied to both sides.  No doubt either prophet could have provided examples where such was not present.  But the cases where they were obvious were so numerous and abundant that they were characteristic of separation and divorce.  The compulsion to get a divorce or justify a separation becomes such a driving force that normal inhibitions of restraint—or even honesty—can easily be cast aside to accomplish the desired goal.  Just like today.  

            The fundamental Old Testament legal provision on the subject required that there be “uncleanness” to justify a divorce (Deuteronomy 24:1-4).  Countless gallons of ink have been used attempting to explain, limit, or expand the meaning of that single word. 



[Page 22]  Put on it whatever explanatory “spin” we prefer, the divorce law was still an “if” situation; designed for a contingency.  It was not designed to become a societal norm or anything close to it. 

Has it really only taken one or two generations in the United States for the reverse to become the case—that the oddity is not divorce but a successful multi-decade marriage?  When sufficient “historical distance” has been obtained, historians, psychologists, and sociologists will grind out lengthy treatises explaining that amazing transformation in so brief a period of time.



            7:11:  In case of two believers separating, they are to remain “unmarried or be reconciled” to their original mate.  Paul speaks this of the wife in particular (7:10), but his reasoning would apply to the husband if he has done the separating:  without avoiding remarriage, how else could reconciliation be possible?

            Paul’s assumption here seems to be that if another marriage had occurred, a return to the first spouse would have been impossible.  Theories aside, this is the way things (with rarest of exceptions) work out in the real world.  He may also have in mind the Old Testament prohibition of such reunions.  Jeremiah 3:1 throws out the challenge from Yahweh, “If a man divorces his wife, and she goes from him and becomes another man’s, may he return to her again?  Would not that land be greatly polluted?”  Returning to one’s original spouse no longer becomes the ideal but becomes an outright evil.

            The fundamental divorce law of Deuteronomy 24 said the same thing,


                        When she has departed from his house, and goes and becomes another             man’s wife [note how remarriage after divorce was an acceptable “given,” RW],

            if the latter husband detests her and writes her a certificate of divorce, puts it in her hand, and sends her out of his house, or if the latter husband dies who took     her as his wife, then her former husband who divorced her must not take her back     to be his wife after she has been defiled; for that is an abomination before the     Lord, and you shall not bring sin on the land which the Lord your God is giving        you as an inheritance. (24:2-4).  


            Her remarriage is not branded “an abomination,” only any attempt to return to the original spouse.  She is not branded as “defiled” by marrying the second male; she is counted as “defiled” because after marrying a second person, she has lost all moral right to be the first man’s wife again. 

The wording implies that at least some Israelite husbands would have been quite happy to remarry their first spouse for whatever reasons good or bad.  It is fascinating that this return to the first mate is absolutely prohibited rather than encouraged; the fact that the first marriage would be “being restored” counts as nothing under the Deuteronomic legislation.    



            7:13-16:  The propriety of a marriage with an unbeliever.  The basic Old Testament thrust was against intermarrying with foreigners (i.e., polytheists).  Deuteronomy 7:3-4 roots this in the danger of religious subversion, “Nor shall you make



[Page 23]  marriages with them.  You shall not give your daughter to their son, nor take their daughter for your son.  For they will turn your sons away from following Me, to serve other gods; so the anger of the Lord will be aroused against you and destroy you suddenly.” 

            Yet the genealogy of Jesus Himself reveals that this was not uniformly adhered to.  Children of the Gentiles Rahab and Ruth are both explicitly mentioned as among the ancestors of Christ (Matthew 1:5).  

            The case of Ruth is most germane to the Corinthian situation.  The texts prohibiting intermarriage dealt with foreigners dwelling among the Israelites.  In the case of Ruth it was the Israelites were doing the dwelling among foreigners, as were Jews in the Diaspora who were dwelling in Corinth.  Possibly it could have been argued (though “rationalized” would seem a more accurate description) that the marriage of an Israelite to Ruth was proper because it took place in the foreign land of Moab. 

            The religious concern of Deuteronomy 7:3-4 certainly existed in regard to Ruth’s first marriage.  Unquestionably her sister-in-law was an idolater (Ruth 1:15).  That Ruth was also until after her husband’s death seems implied by her solemn affirmation to her mother-in-law that she would follow her back to Israel and “your people shall be my people, and your God, my God” (1:16).  One obvious reading of this is that up until then this had not been the case.

            Furthermore, Ruth married Boaz after arriving in Israel even though she was a foreigner and a Gentile.  She was still considered (stigmatized as?) a “Moabite woman” (2:6).  Yet she overcame this by her behavior and her character, so much so that she became recognized as “a virtuous woman” (3:11).  Furthermore, her future husband recognized that the Levirate obligation to marry her and raise a child to perpetuate the first husband’s name was an obligation that existed in her situation (4:13)--even though she was a Gentile and was not supposed to have been married to a Jew in the first place.

            One could argue that both Ruth and Rahab “converted” to Judaism, but with Ruth that seems very unlikely to have been the situation at the time of her original marriage to a Jew.  Furthermore, the prohibition was tied in with ethnicity, not merely idolatry.  (Presumably on the quite responsible assumption that someone of foreign ethnicity, in the vast majority of cases, would be worshipping some other deity.)  Yet these two marriages were accepted and respected.  

            There was no demand that the “improper” marriages be broken up, even though they violated an explicit demand of the Torah.  On the other hand we read of one case where such marriages were repudiated in large numbers.  This is the dramatic condemnation of such intermarriages given by Ezra, which was combined with a demand for the separation of Israelites from their foreign spouses (Ezra 9:1-10:14).

            The text does not explicitly present this as the carrying out of a direct command he had received from God.  So was this excessive enthusiasm on his part, zealotry above and beyond what was required?  Or was this viewed as a unique circumstance, necessitated because of the wishy-washy commitment to Judaism among those of that day who claimed to be its adherents?   

            The basic divorce law (Deuteronomy 24:1-4) had no provision for divorce for religious difference.  Hence, the issue would have come down to whether the marriage was inherently null because it was with an unbeliever.  If not, by what right could such a divorce occur?  On the other hand, if the relationship was inherently invalid, how could



[Page 24]  any marriage with outsiders have been acceptable--including those with Ruth and Rahab?  In short, the decision of Ezra is extremely hard to fit into a consistent pattern with that accorded these earlier marriages.  Or, perhaps, the explanation is that there was no consistency.  Different circumstances produced different results?



            7:16:  Remaining in a marriage with an unbeliever keeps the door open for the partner’s conversion.  It is interesting that Paul explicitly refers to this as a motive for both the husband and the wife.  He does not, however, explain how the conversion would be accomplished.  Peter refers to a wife being able to accomplish it through the power of example (1 Peter 3:1-4) and cites the Old Testament as verification (3:5-6).

            Another means would be possible direct encouragement and discussion.  The Old Testament would provide implied precedent for such as well.  The Proverbist speaks of how “the fruit of the righteous is a tree of life, and he who wins souls is wise” (11:30).



            7:19:  The primacy of obedience over the rituals of the law--specifically circumcision.  There was no more fundamental example from which to make his argument.  Circumcision was the initiatory ordinance marking (literally and figuratively) the newborn child as part of Yahweh’s people.  Although Paul applies the concept of the irrelevancy of the “ritualism” required by the Old Testament to circumcision in particular, writers of that earlier age were well aware of the concept though applying it to other matters instead.

            Perhaps the most remembered passage from the historical chronicles of that age was found in Samuel’s rebuke of Saul for not doing as Yahweh had commanded,


                        “Has the Lord as great delight in burnt offerings and sacrifices, as in       obeying the voice of the Lord?  Behold, to obey is better than sacrifice, and to   heed than the fat of rams  For rebellion is as the sin of witchcraft, and             stubbornness is as iniquity and idolatry, because you have rejected the word of the         Lord, He also has rejected you from being king.”  (1 Samuel 15:22-23) 


            In a similar vein, Jeremiah quotes Yahweh as reminding the people that when He had brought them out of Egypt, He had not demanded “burnt offerings or sacrifices” but obedience to “all the ways that I have commanded you” (7:21-23).  Indeed continuing to be His people was conditional upon such steadfastness (7:23).  Circumcision was important under the Torah as were its other ordinances, but underlying them all was an even more important principle:  doing what God said do because God had said to do it.



            7:20, 24:  Remaining in the “same calling” (ATP:  “life situation” and “situation” respectively) that one was in when becoming a Christian.  In context, Paul is advising against changing one’s earthly status without careful thought.  It was a potentially dangerous period (verse 26) and any alteration such as from single to married and from widow to remarried was to be undertaken with caution.

[Page 25]         Applied metaphorically, Proverbs 27:8 could be relevant to such situations, “Like a bird that wanders from its nest is a man who wanders from his place.”  The original thought was of the traveler or individual who has moved from one city to another or even to a foreign land.  The physical move might be easy or even desirable.  On the psychological level the new community would represent the unknown and potentially threatening.  The person “no longer feels an integral part of [the] family, community, or nation”[46] from whence he came and new roots would take a long time to develop.  As the result, the person typically feels “restlessness”[47] and “suffers loneliness and isolation.”[48]

            Objectively it may all have been for the better, but on the subjective level there is a sense of disruption and trauma.[49]  One has lost the sense of one’s proper “place” in the larger picture.  Whenever we change home cities, corporate work places, or specific jobs within a company we go through something similar.  Hence the propriety of Paul’s warning against promiscuous and unthinking change for change sake.  To use the modern adage, “the grass may not be greener” after all.     



            7:26:  The coming of “distress” upon God’s people.  The meaning of the phrase “present distress” as applied to first century conditions is discussed in the problems text section below.  The Old Testament provides abundant examples of “distress” coming upon God’s people, however--usually because of their disobedience to His will.  What concerns us here are cases where distress is acknowledged as occurring but no hint of guilt in provoking it is suggested.

            Two texts are of special relevance.  Job 14:1 sums up the common view of many as they get older, “Man who is born of woman is of few days and full of trouble.”  An equally pessimistic (but too often realistic) approach is argued in Ecclesiastes 2:22-23, “For what has man for all his labor, and for the striving of his heart with which he has toiled under the sun.  For all his days are sorrowful, and his work burdensome; even in the night his heart takes no rest. . . .”



            7:31:  Believers should “use” the benefits and opportunities of “this world” rather than “misusing” them (ATP:  “as though they did not depend upon it”).  There are many things that are right in themselves that the scriptures paint as sinful when used in an improper way or out of an improper reason.  Sexuality (in this very chapter) is presented as a positive good, but Paul warns (chapter 6) that the use of it outside marriage turns a good into a sin.  Religion is painted as a positive good in the Bible, but its expression in polytheism transforms it into an evil.

            The idea of putting this world to good use is alluded in a number of places.  The often pessimistic author of Ecclesiastes concedes that, “Nothing is better for a man than that he should eat and drink, and that his soul should enjoy good in his labor.  This also, I saw, was from the hand of God” (2:24).  And then in the next chapter he again embraces the honorable pleasures of the current life, “I know that nothing is better for them than to rejoice, and to do good in their lives, and also that every man should eat and drink and enjoy the good of all his labor--it is the gift of God” (3:12-13; cf. the similar observation in 5:18-20).



[Page 26]         This-world joy is depicted not in isolation, but as part of a larger picture as well.  Ecclesiastes argues that one can truly enjoy life because one not only has temporal blessings but has made peace with God, “Go, eat your bread with joy, and drink your wine with a merry heart; for God has already accepted your works” (9:7).  Reconciliation is not needed; acceptance already exists.                








Historical Allusions to the

                                    Old Testament:  None










[1] Calvin J. Roetzel, The Letters of Paul:  Conversations in Context, Fifth Edition (Louisville, Kentucky:  Westminster John Knox Press, 2009), 14-15, develops this point but then adds references to elements of Pauline teaching he views as laying the groundwork for ultimate reversal of his female limitations.  The flaw here is if Paul did not regard them as already requiring a reversal, why should we believe he himself either intended it or would ever have accepted its propriety?  Or are we saying that we understand Paul’s motives and intents better than the apostle himself?


[2] In different terminology but with much this idea, see Rupert E. Davies, 49.  


[3] Cf. Flanagan, 61.   


[4] For a detailed survey of explanations for celibacy’s possible appeal to a significant number of Corinthian Christians, see Will Deming, Paul on Marriage and Celibacy:  The Hellenistic Background of 1 Corinthians 7 (Cambridge:  Cambridge University Press, 1995), 16-49.  Terrance Callan, Psychological Perspectives on the Life of Paul:  An Application of the Methodology of Gerd Theissen, in the series Studies in the Bible and Early Christianity (Lewiston, New York:  Edwin Mellen Press, 1990), 54, argues that verses 1-24 deal with the Corinthian inclination toward asceticism but concedes that they did not apply this to the “virgins” of verses 25-40.  But if this negation of sexual expression was viewed as appropriate for the married why would they be so disinclined to apply it equally to the never married?   



[Page 52]         [5] Bassler,  323; Norbert Baumert, Woman and Man in Paul:  Overcoming a Misunderstanding, translated by Patrick Madigan and Linda M. Maloney (Collegeville, Minnesota:  A Michael Glazier Book/Liturgical Press, 1996), 33; and Pheme Perkins, Ministering in the Pauline Churches (Ramsey, New York:  Paulist Press, 1982), 63.   


[6] Kistemaker, Exposition, 210.  


[7] Traugott Holtz, “The Question of the Content of Paul’s Instructions,” in Understanding Paul’s Ethics:  Twentieth Century Approaches, edited by Brian S. Rosner (Grand Rapids, Michigan:  William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1995), 59.  


[8] Fitzmyer, Sketch, 105.    


[9] Vincent L. Wimbush, Paul, The Worldly Ascetic—Response to the World and Self-Understanding according to 1 Corinthians 7 (Macon, Georgia:  Mercer University Press, 1987), 34.


[10] Mary Rousseau and Chuck Gallagher, Sex Is Holy (Amity, New York:  Amity House, 1986), 59


[11] Ibid.  In a similar vein, Theodore Mackin, What Is Marriage?  Marriage in the Catholic Church (New York:  Paulist Press, 1982), 56.  


[12] As quoted by Deming, 120.  For a much lengthier collection of extracts from his remarks on the subject—that drive home his position even more emphatically—see Wimbush, 63-64.   For similar statements from other sources see the quotations in Deming on 119-120 and accompanying footnotes.   


[13] As preserved by Stobaeus 4:22, and quoted by Boring, Berger, and Cope, 409.


[14] The pseudepigraphical work Testament of Napthali (from sometime between 100 B.C. and 100 A.D.) stresses the need for both sexual expression and prayer, but  seems to go a step beyond Paul and require that the time of prayer be rigorously segregated from the time of normal sexual relationships.  For the text, see Deming, 124.   


[15] Margaret T. MacDonald, 213.   


[16] Ibid., 212.   


[17] Ellis, 69.  One ancient Jewish tradition goes this way (Kidd. 29b):  “R. Huna turned his face from a man who was not married, for he said, ‘He who is twenty years of age and is not married spends all his days in sin.’  ‘In sin’—can you really think so?—But say, spends all his days in ‘sinful thoughts.’   As quoted by J. Massingberd Ford, A Trilogy on Wisdom and Celibacy (Notre Dame:  University of Notre Dame Press, 1967),  22.    



[Page 53]         [18] Cf. Barrett, Corinthians, 161.   


[19] For first century Jewish interpretive schemes of the Torah provision concerning divorce and the possibility that Qumran may have prohibited all divorce and remarriage in contrast to a generally more permissive attitude in the rest of contemporary Judaism, see the summary of evidence in Tomson, Jewish Law, 109-111.  For a most interesting analysis of a stream of Jewish interpretation that permitted the divorcing husband to prohibit his spouse from remarrying a specific individual or type of individual, see 121-122.        


[20] For a discussion of which it may have been, see Raymond F. Collins, Divorce in the New Testament (Collegeville, Minnesota:  Liturgical Press, 1992), 22-24.   


[21] Furnish, “Pauline Views,” 16.       


[22] Antiquities 15.7.10, as quoted by Fitzmyer, Corinthians, 289.


[23] See the concise discussion in Ibid.


[24] Barrett, Corinthians, 163-164.   


[25] Michael G. Lawler, Marriage and Sacrament:  A Theology of Christian Marriage (Collegeville, Minnesota:  Liturgical Press, 1993), 80.     


[26] Hellerman, 107.    


[27] Elisabeth S. Fiorenza, In Memory of Her:  A Feminist Theological Reconstruction of Christian Origins, Tenth Anniversary Edition (New York:  Crossroad, 1983, 1994), 223.   


[28] One of the finest discussions of the meaning of the term—and the entire question of whether Paul is binding on the mixed believer-polytheist marriage the same restrictions Jesus speaks of in the gospels—can be found in the sadly now out of print book by James D. Bales, Not Under Bondage (Searcy, Arkansas:  J. D. Bales, 1979).  It is currently available on the internet, however, at:  [July 2010.]


[29] Flanagan, 61, 72.   


[30] On the possible impact of Stoic or Cynic philosophy on Paul’s mind-frame as found in verses 29-31, see Romano Penna, Paul the Apostle:  Jew and Greek Alike, Volume 1, translated by Thomas P. Wahl (Collegeville, Minnesota:  Liturgical Press, 1996), 181-190.   


[31] Epictetus, Discourses (3.22.69-70), as quoted by Boring, Berger, and Colpe, 406.



[Page 54]         [32] Gonzalo, Baez-Camargo, Archaeological Commentary on the Bible (Garden City, New York:  Doubleday & Company, Inc., 1984), 250.          


[33] Brendan Byrne, Paul and the Christian Woman (Collegeville, Minnesota:  Liturgical Press, 1988), 19.    


[34] Lucien Legrand, The Biblical Doctrine of Virginity (New York:  Sheed & Ward, 1963), 26.  In defense of this approach, he cites (27) Jeremiah’s actions in 19:1-11 as carrying intentional symbolism as well as the actions of Isaiah (20:1-6), Ezekiel (4:1-5:4), and Hosea (chapters 1-3).   


[35] J. Massingberd Ford, Trilogy, 24-25.    


[36] This would seem to be the view of Brevard S. Childs, The Book of Exodus:  A Critical, Theological Commentary, in the Old Testament Library series (Philadelphia:  Westminster Press, 1974), 469, and W. H. Grispen, Exodus, translated by Ed van der Maas, in the Bible Student’s Commentary series (Grand Rapids, Michigan:  Zondervan Publishing House, 1982), 209, though the language is vague enough not to necessarily carry this connotation.


[37] J. Philip Hyatt, Commentary on Exodus, in the New Century Bible series (Greenwood, S.C.:  Attic Press, Inc., 1971), 220.


[38] J. Gerald Janzen, Exodus, in the Westminster Bible Companion series (Louisville, Kentucky:  Westminster John Knox Press, 1997), 162.


[39] M. Ketuboth 5:6, as quoted by Boring, Berger, and Colpe, 410.


[40] George G. Baldwin, Haggai, Zechariah, Malachi, in the Tyndale Old Testament Commentaries series (London:  Tyndasle Press, 1972), 194.


[41] Carol L. Meyers and Eric M. Meyers, Zechariah 9-14, in the Anchor Bible commentary series (New York:  Doubleday, 1993), 360.


[42] Ibid.


[43] One of the few who seems to have caught this implication that the gender separation would have inevitably produced a period of sexual abstinence is W. Emery Barnes, Haggai and Zechariah, in the Cambridge Bible for Schools and Colleges series (Cambridge:  Cambridge Unviersity Press, 1917), 95.


[44] Fitzmyer, Corinthians, 281.


[45] As quoted by Ciampa and 714.



[Page 55]         [46] Robert L. Alden, Proverbs:  A Commentary on an Ancient Book of Timeless Advice (Grand Rapids, Michigan:  Baker Book House, 1983), 191. 


[47] R. B. Y. Scott, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, in the Anchor Bible commentary series (Garden City, New York:  Doubleday & Company, Inc., 1965), 163.


[48] R. N. Whybray, Proverbs, in the New Century Bible Commentary series (Grand Rapids, Michigan:  William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1994), 381.


[49] Marvin E. Tate, Jr., “Proverbs,” in Proverbs-Isaiah, in the Broadman Bible Commentary series (Nashville, Tennessee:  Broadman Press, 1971), 85.