From this point in the book, Paul begins to answer questions that were raised in the letter the Corinthians had written to Paul. This letter had probably been carried to Paul by Stephanus, Fortunatus and Achaicus (16:17). The change is marked with the phrase, “Now concerning the matters about which you wrote” (7:1). Other questions are answered in turn, each being introduced with the phrase, “now concerning”. These questions were not mere inquiries, but were probably coming with an attitude of them wanting to justify their behaviour before Paul, and argue against the points he made in his previous letter (5:9), challenging his authority. This can be seen in the strongly combative responses that he gives at some points, especially in chapters eight to ten, where he defends his ministry as an apostle against their accusations (eg. 9:3).
Chapter seven contains Paul’s answers to two separate questions. The first is concerning marriage, including sexual relations within marriage, as well as questions about divorce and remarriage (7:1-24). The second concerns single people (virgins), and whether it is right for them to get married in the current stressful situation (7:25-40). Both of these are introduced with the phrase “now concerning”. Because the two questions cover a broadly similar area of life, chapter seven is often considered as a single unit.
Between his answers to the two questions he sets down his basic principles (7:17-24), summarising his message through the whole chapter, “Let each of you lead the life that the Lord has assigned, to which God has called you” (7:17). He uses two unrelated examples of circumcision and slavery, calling people to remain in the condition in which you were called (7:20, 24). Addressing each of the different situations in relationships, his refrain is, “remain as you are”, and do not seek to change.
Before looking at Paul’s answers, it is helpful to consider the viewpoint of the Corinthians, particularly their dualistic world-view. Chapters five and six addressed the problems of license, particularly hedonism, now we go to the opposite extreme. Some in the church reacted against the prevailing immorality in Corinth by teaching asceticism. Some were calling for celibacy because the
body was inferior to the spirit, and something as physical as sex was therefore seen as unclean and
somehow defiling, particularly if a believer was married to an unbeliever. In his answer, Paul seeks to
change their reasons for celibacy. Celibacy is good, not because sex is defiling, but instead, because it
is beneficial for undistracted devotion to the Lord, if a person has a gift of singleness.
Concerning marriage (7:1-16)
Within this question Paul addresses the following situations:
1. Married couples abstaining from sexual relations (v1-7)
2. Unmarried (probably widowers) and widows (v8-9)
3. Married couples separating (v10-11)
4. Mixed marriages - those with an unbelieving spouse (v12-16)
Married couples abstaining from sexual relations (v1-7)
Paul quotes one of their slogans, “It is well for a man not to touch a woman” (v1), a euphemism for a sexual relationship. This was not what Paul was teaching, but he quotes their slogan, then corrects it. Unfortunately Paul has a gained bad reputation for being against women and having a negative view of marriage. However in this chapter he actually consistently gives equal status and responsibility to both men and women, addressing men and women equally and in turn. For example, for married couples he makes a statement that would be shocking in Greek culture, that both members of a married couple have equal rights over each others’ bodies (v4). In Greek culture, and in many cultures before and since then, men have claimed rights over their wives, making a very unequal relationship, but here Paul says the wife also has authority over her husband’s body (v4), thus giving absolute equality. Both have a right to sexual satisfaction. Through the rest of the chapter, he continues this pattern of addressing the man and the woman separately and equally (man: v10-11, then woman: v12-13; man then woman: v14; woman then man: v16; man: v32-33, then woman: v34).
Marriage is the right setting for the release of sexual desire, and to forbid sexual relations within marriage will only raise the danger of fornication (v2), particularly when considering the immoral environment of Corinth the believers lived in. Note also that marriage is about giving (v3), rather than taking. He gives a concession that a couple may agree to abstain from sex for a brief period, so they can devote themselves to prayer (v5). Then they are to come together again, to avoid the temptation of fornication.
Paul’s personal preference is to remain single, but this is a special gift from the Lord (v7). Both marriage and singleness is a gift from God, so it is necessary for single people to seek God personally and to know which state we are called to. It is clear from this chapter that when Paul wrote this letter he was not married. However it is quite likely that Paul had been married in his earlier life. There were strong exhortations in the Jewish Talmud for Jewish men to marry and have children. Also Paul had probably been a member of the Jewish Sanhedrin (Acts 26:20), who were required to be married. Either Paul was a widower, or his wife had left him, perhaps because she was not a believer, the situation Paul addresses in 7:15.
Unmarried and widows (7:8-9)
It is not immediately clear who the unmarried are he referring to here. He uses a different Greek word from virgin (v25), so is probably addressing widowers, as there was no commonly used Greek word for men whose wife has died. So this section addresses men and women who have been married but are now single because their spouse has died. Again Paul prefers the single life, but only for those who have the gift of self-control. He literally says, “it is better to marry than to burn”, meaning either to burn with passion, or perhaps to burn in hell. Again, to avoid the temptation of immorality, if a person does not have the gift of celibacy, it is better to follow God’s calling and remarry.
Married couples separating (7:10-11)
To married people, Paul repeats the command of Jesus, that they are not to separate or divorce (Mt 10:11-12), and if they separate they should either remain single, or be reconciled. Because he addresses the question of those married to an unbeliever in the next section, this section concerns married couples where both are believers. Perhaps there were some couples in the church in Corinth who were separating because it was thought to be more spiritual to be single. Paul’s instructions need to be heard and followed today, when there is a unacceptably high rate of divorce among evangelical Christians.
Mixed marriages (7:12-16)
Paul now addresses the remaining combination, of believers with an unbelieving spouse. He has no teaching of Jesus to quote (v12), but what he says still has apostolic authority, and is part of
the inspired Word of God, so cannot be dismissed. First he addresses the believer, saying that they
are not to initiate a divorce (v12-13). If the unbeliever is happy to stay married, then they are to stay
together. Some believers evidently thought that they would be defiled if they lived with an
unbeliever, particularly if they had sexual relations with them. Paul corrects this idea, saying that
their holiness was more powerful than their uncleanness, and pointing out their inconsistency, as they
did not think their children were unclean (v14). He draws this concept from the OT, that anyone
who touches the altar or the offering becomes holy (Ex 29:37, Lev 6:18). However we should be
clear that this passage is not teaching that people will be receive salvation merely by being married to
a believer, or by being children of a Christian parent, or being baptised as an infant. Each person
needs to respond personally to the Gospel.
Secondly he addresses the situation when the unbeliever wants to divorce (v15). Unbelievers
cannot be expected to live according to Christian standards, so if they want to leave, they are free to
go. If the unbeliever initiates the divorce, the believer is not bound and presumably is free to remarry.
The believer is not called to fight the divorce, as God has called us to peace. Christians have the
presence of the Holy Spirit in their lives, giving them the power to live according to God’s standards.
Unbelievers do not have the Holy Spirit, so there is not the same expectation on them.
For the believer, there may be an evangelistic purpose in remaining in a mixed marriage, their
witness may lead to the salvation of their unbelieving spouse (v16). However, this is certainly not
saying that it is right to marry an unbeliever with the hope that they will get saved. Elsewhere Paul
makes it very clear that marriage is to be in the Lord (7:39, 2 Cor 6:14), to a fellow believer.
There are many lessons for practical application from this passage for today. In churches
there are often very difficult marriage situations, which bring big pastoral challenges, where great
sensitivity is called for. It is important for the church to teach on marriage, the seriousness of the
marriage covenant before God, and that divorce is a breaking of the solemn vows made before him.
Single people need be encouraged to make a commitment before the Lord not to enter into romantic
relationships with unbelievers, and to trust him to provide a marriage partner at the right time. It is
also necessary to teach on singleness and celibacy as some will be called to remain single in order to
serve God, perhaps on the mission-field, but the calling on most will be to be married.
Paul’s principle (7:17-24)
As noted before, Paul’s rule for all the churches is that the course of our lives should be
determined by the call of God, not the rules of the ascetics. Each person should remain in the
condition in which they were called (v20, 24). The first example he uses is circumcision (v18-19), the
symbol of the greatest religious barrier of the first century, between Jew and Gentile. In Christ these
differences no longer matter, what matters now is obedience to God (v19). His second example is
slavery (v21-23), the greatest social barrier of the first century. All, whether slave or free, are now
slaves of Christ. If we are married, we should remain married, and the single should remain single.
Both states are equally valid, as long as God has called us that way.
Concerning virgins (the unmarried) (7:25-40)
Paul now begins to respond to their second question, about virgins, those who have never
been married. He has already written about those who have already been married and are now single
again as widows or widowers (7:8). He does not give explicit instructions to those who have
previously been divorced. Here he is addressing single people, as well as those who are engaged to be
married. This time he is expressing his personal opinion, rather than quoting a commandment of
Jesus. However this opinion is now part of the inspired writing of the NT, so cannot be dismissed as
merely being what Paul said.
Single people (7:25-35)
The Corinthians were probably arguing that it is better to remain single because marriage is defiling. Paul agrees with their viewpoint, but for a different reason. He says it is better to remain single because of the impending crisis (v26). In the light of difficult times ahead it is better to remain
single, so be able to serve the Lord without the responsibility and cares of a family. Again he is
changing their reason for remaining single. Singleness is preferable, not because marriage is defiling,
but because a crisis is immanent when times will be very difficult (7:29-31). It is not a sin to marry,
but Paul wishes to spare people from the distress or tribulation coming (7:28). In a time of
persecution it can be particularly difficult for people with a family, especially if threats are made to
their wives or children, leaving people with the heart-rending choice between remaining loyal to the
Lord, and caring for their family. If a father is martyred, he will leave his wife a widow and his
children orphans in a hostile environment.
The question is what crisis is he speaking about. There are a number of different possibilities.
Many have claimed that Paul was speaking about the crisis associated with the second coming of
Christ, when the present time of suffering will come to a climax. However, because we are still here
nearly two thousand years later, many have said that Paul was mistaken to claim that it was immanent
in the first century. Otherwise he could be referring to a local crisis in Corinth. This could be
persecution, such as Paul experienced throughout his ministry. It also appears that in the middle
decades of the first century there were famines and food shortages in many areas, including Corinth.
The shortage of food caused high prices for basic foodstuffs, which led to social unrest, including
disorder and riots, especially directed against those who were hoarding food and profiteering from
the high food prices. This may be the same severe famine predicted by Agabus during the reign of
Claudius (AD 41-54) (Acts 11:28), which affected wide areas of the Roman empire. For more
information on this, please read chapter ten of Winter’s book.
In the Greek text of 1 Corinthians, the crisis is described as being 'present', rather than impending, which would imply that it was already happening, rather then being some future event. Perhaps these famines and food shortages were interpreted by the Christians as being signs of the end, as famines had been predicted by Jesus as the beginning of the birth-pangs (Mt 24:7-8). Perhaps they were abstaining from marriage and sexual relations to avoid pregnancy because of the warnings that Jesus gave to those who are pregnant and those nursing infants in those days in the Olivet Discourse (Mk 13:17).
Engaged couples (7:36-38)
It is very difficult to translate verse 36, as the Greek is ambiguous. Hence there are wide variations between different translations. These are some examples:
KJV - “But if any man think that he behaveth himself uncomely toward his virgin, if she pass the flower of her age, and need so require, let him do what he will, he sinneth not, let them marry.”
NASB - “If a man think that he is acting unbecomingly toward his virgin daughter ...”
NIV - “If anyone thinks he is acting improperly towards the virgin he is engaged to, and if she is getting on in years, ...”
NRSV - “If anyone thinks that he is not behaving properly toward his fiancee, if his passions are strong ...”
It is difficult to determine what should be the best translation. I would recommend you read about
this passage in several different commentaries. In the context of the situation in Corinth, the
translations referring to strong passions are to be preferred over the woman being past the flower of
youth, which would indicate she was past the years of child-bearing. In light of the coming distress
mentioned before, he has a preference for engaged couples remaining single, but they are free to
marry if they wish. He would far rather them be married, than to fall into immorality. Marriage is the
normal state, and it is not a sin to marry.
Marriage should last until one partner dies, after which the surviving spouse is free to
remarry. They should marry in the Lord, to a fellow believer. Again, Paul’s preference is that they
Conclusion of chapter 7
Paul has a positive view of celibacy, not a negative view of marriage. His reasons for preferring celibacy are different from the Corinthians. They think that remaining single is more spiritual, probably because they thought the sexual element of marriage was defiling. Paul recommends singleness for whole-hearted devotion to the Lord, especially in the light of the coming crisis. Neither marriage or celibacy should be seen as a superior state, or more spiritual. Marriage should be seen as the normal way of life, but some will have the calling from God to remain celibate. This section has many practical applications for today, so it is good to study it carefully and consider how it addresses today’s situation in the church.