No easy answers
There are some parts of the bible that give great clarity on what we are to do, no doubts, no ifs, no buts, just clarity and specifics such as we find in the ten commandments. As helpful as these specifics are, we often encounter situations in which the bible gives no specific and easy answers.
Some people just love lists of dos and don’ts but often God invites us to work out the right way to live from principles. In this 7th chapter Paul gives some direct instructions which are not for discussion but he also gives some opinions and advice to assist the Corinthians as they needed to deal with some specific problems.
We live in a period in the history of God’s dealings with man and the world that has a direct bearing on the understanding of this passage. The world was originally created by God and God’s verdict on his creation was that it was good. It was mankind who messed things up. Following the mess that resulted from Adam’s sin, God promised that there would one day be a resolution to the mess, a king would come to re-establish a right rule and a restoration of the world. When the king arrived, he was rejected by his people and was crucified. Jesus spoke just before his formal rejection (when the rejection was certain) of a period of interregnum. He would be going away but would return. In this period of absence his followers were given work to do, but the restoration plan would have to wait. We live in this period interregnum. This means that the world and society remains messed up, it is in the environment of this complexity that we work in God’s church building programme. During this period we have some certainties to help and guide us, but there are many situations we encounter that are complicated by the sinfulness of mankind, situations for which there is no easy solution. In chapter 7 Paul points the Corinthians to some certainties but also offers some judgements on complex situations for which there was no clear God-given instruction.
In chapter 6 of this letter Paul stated ‘Neither the sexually immoral nor idolaters nor adulterers nor male prostitutes nor homosexual offenders nor thieves nor the greedy nor drunkards nor slanderers nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God.’ That’s pretty clear and we can be sure that the activities listed are to be avoided like the plague, but some of Paul’s opinions are also expressed e.g. in verse 10 he says ‘I say this, not the Lord’. This seems to be advice offered by a knowledgeable and wise counsel to a set of particular circumstances in Corinth. We need to bear this in mind as we study this chapter. This approach also suggests to us that sometimes there is simply no easy answer, opinions need to be sought and solutions based on biblical principles need to be developed.
So what exactly was the problem at Corinth? We can’t be sure but we do know that this letter was a reply to one Paul had already received from the Corinthian church (verse 1 of this chapter says ‘’now for the matters you wrote about’). We also know that there was a significant issue in the church – Paul referred to ‘the present crisis’ in verse 26. The ‘present’ crisis seemed to involve divisions in the church as well as gross immorality that was not being adequately dealt with, it may have been a lack of self control amongst the believers.
The cultural environment and thinking in Corinth certainly seems to have influenced attitudes in the church, Paul needed to bring the thinking of the people back to something more God-centred. There was without doubt a culture of immorality in Corinth and this seems to have in part been associated with the idea that the spiritual was important but the physical was not. Strangely this perspective could lead in two very different directions. One line of thinking went like this; if the physical world didn’t really matter much then what one did in that world didn’t really matter much either. Immoral acts were thus considered acceptable because they were done in the unimportant physical realm – we saw in the previous chapter that Paul had to state categorically that the Corinthians were to run as fast as they could away from sexual immorality. On the other hand, the ‘spiritual-good, physical-bad’ idea could lead in the other direction: if physical was bad then it was to be avoided at all costs and thus any physical activities (including those of a sexual nature) were to be totally shunned.
It’s into this mix of thinking and crisis that Paul sends his letter. In this seventh chapter he offers advice to those who are married, those who are not married and those who found themselves in complicated relationships.
- Married life
In the letter the Corinthians had written to Paul it seems that they had suggested that ‘it is good for a man not to have sexual relations with a woman.’ This is the physical-bad/spiritual-good philosophy in action and was probably suggested as an antidote to the immorality that undoubtedly was going on amongst the believers. But this was neither a practical nor a biblical solution. Paul indicates that such an approach will undoubtedly lead to frustration and would likely make the immorality problem in Corinth even worse than it already was. So how were married people to behave? Paul says that sexual activity must not take place outside of the married setting, perhaps this sounds obvious to us, but it needed to be repeated to the Corinthians, and as we see huge changes in our society with respect to marriage we probably need reminded too. The principle under which this was to take place was one of mutual ownership and respect. Love is not about taking, it is about giving. Marriage involves joint ownership; Paul says that in a married situation the man does not have authority over his own body but he yields this to his wife and vice versa. There is nothing worse than a husband who lords it over his wife, treating her as a piece of property and as a slave, likewise a marriage in which the husband is hen-pecked is neither to be encouraged nor envied. Paul gets the balance correct and his advice and counsel would have been of great help to the Corinthians.
In more than one place in this chapter Paul refers to a lack of self control and burning with passion. It seems that such was the climate in Corinth that sexual matters were never far from people’s minds and as a result of this they needed to ensure that they did not make matters worse by trying to avoid sexual interactions. Paul states that it is better to be married than to ‘burn with passion’.
In verses 10 and 11, we have not an opinion of Paul, but God’s view on marriage, it is straightforward: ‘a wife must not separate from her husband. But if she does, she must remain unmarried or else be reconciled to her husband. And a husband must not divorce his wife.’
- Complicated relationships
In his discussion about marriage, Paul gives some advice to those who find themselves in complicated relationships. Note that this is his opinion rather than that of the Lord. The situation he describes is that of a husband who has an unbelieving wife and the wife is willing to continue to live with him. Under these circumstances, Paul states that the husband should not divorce his wife (and vice versa). Paul goes on to state that in such situations there is benefit for the unbelieving partner, they are ‘sanctified’ (or set apart) and that this results in benefits for their children. It’s not exactly clear what Paul means when he mentions that the believing partner is sanctified and that the children are holy, but we can at least be sure that the presence of a believing partner does bring spiritual benefits to the rest of the (unbelieving) family.
The presence of a believing partner in a marriage can however also cause tensions and conflict and Paul recognises this. It may be that the unbelieving partner decides to leave the marriage as a result, if this happens Paul says ‘let it be so’ because ‘God has called us to live in peace’. In spite of this concession Paul is keen to emphasise that we become Christians from a wide range of backgrounds and situations and that we should accept this. It can be tempting for new believers to try to unscramble their complicated background, but Paul advises against this ‘each person should live as a believer in whatever situation the Lord has assigned to them’. The examples Paul gives are of circumcision and slavery. If someone who has previously been circumcised becomes a believer then they should not seek to become ‘uncircumcised’ and vice versa. If someone was a slave at the time of their conversion they should not let this trouble them, – although if they can gain their freedom they should do so. Paul sums this up with the following statement ‘each person, as responsible to God, should remain in the situation they were in when God called them’. He seems to have applied this to social status, married status as well as circumcision (which would have conferred some recognition of religious status). This is a useful piece of advice for us too. Note however that these circumstances under which these Corinthians had become believers were spiritually neutral, if their circumstances had involved sinful practices they would not have been encouraged to remain in such situations.
- The unmarried
Note that this last part of chapter 7 concerns Paul’s judgement. His judgement is offered by one who is trustworthy. We need sensible, grounded and trustworthy leaders in our churches.
There is something of urgency in Paul’s advice – he refers to the present crisis as well as referring to the time being short. What does he mean about the time being short? It becomes clear that Paul sees the present time in which he operated as being temporary and passing away – see verse 31. The apostle Peter also wrote in the second chapter of his first letter to his readers as being aliens and strangers in the world. This is a good context for a discussion on how we ought to live. There are various views expressed about this church age by theologians, some say it is a period in which the church will eventually triumph in the affairs of the world, others state that the present age is one of God’s spiritual kingdom, but Paul seems to be indicate that the present time is one characterised by a world that is passing away. If we were to invest our life savings in a company would we choose one that was on the way out? I think not! And Paul indicates that in view of the status of the world there was little point in making substantial investment in it. He says, I believe with more than a hint of overstatement to make his point, that the Corinthians believers ought to, live as though they did not have a wife (even if they did), to live without mourning (even if they were mourning), to live without being happy (even if they were happy), to not keep a tight hold of possessions and finally to not become engrossed in the ‘things of the world’. Why invest in a system that is on the way out!
In this context and given the ‘current crisis’ in Corinth, Paul suggests that to become married forces the participants to invest more in this world; the husband and wife have to please one another and have an interest in the affairs of the world. In contrast Paul states that those who remain unmarried are in a better position to serve the Lord. We can’t help wondering if this was a general advice from Paul intended to be applied throughout the ages or not. I think the answer to this question comes in verse 26, where Paul mentions the context of his advice; ‘because of the present crisis’. It seems therefore that this is a specific piece of advice intended to address a specific circumstance. Nonetheless the advice is of interest to us as it gives us some general principles relating to the temporariness of the present world system and order – don’t waste your investment says Paul. I recall an old Sunday school song that said ‘store up treasure in the bank of heaven, where no thief can steal it away, there you’ll find it safely waiting for you, when you get to heaven – someday!’ How true!
The chapter finishes with one last piece of advice for married women. Paul says that they are bound to their husbands for as long as their husband is alive. The question arises as to what they should do if their husband dies. Paul advises that in such circumstances the woman is free to re-marry, but only to one who ‘belongs to the Lord’. Paul however adds that he thinks such women would be better to stay as they are – but this is his judgement only, although Paul believed that his judgement was consistent with that of the Spirit of God. This is an interesting comment and suggests that Paul was not certain of God’s view, but he was free to form an opinion as a trustworthy person. We should seek to become trustworthy opinion leaders in our churches too, recognising when to make judgement s and when to recognise God’s direct and unequivocal guidance and directives.