James Gray - Concise Bible Commentary
Now concerning the things whereof ye wrote unto me: It is good for a man not to touch a woman.1 Corinthians 7:1-40
THE CHRISTIAN MARRIAGE
It seems a strange inconsistency that a church “puffed up” over an incestuous person in their midst, should have scruples about the lawful marriage of a Christian, but such seems to have been the case. Paul yields the point on which some insisted, that it was desirable for a Christian man to remain single (1 Corinthians 7:1), at least at that period and in those circumstances, provided he could do so without sin. But as the temptation in that case would be strong, he advised marriage (1 Corinthians 7:2), and also that married persons should live together as becometh the conjugal relationship (1 Corinthians 7:3-4). Exceptions to this for religious reasons, should be but temporary, lest the same temptation should overtake them as the unmarried (1 Corinthians 7:5). By this however, he meant not to command them to marry, but to assure them as Christians of permission to do so (1 Corinthians 7:6). He himself was unmarried, but all men did not have the same gift of control in that particular as he (1 Corinthians 7:7), hence the advice following (1 Corinthians 7:8-9).
SEPARATION OR DIVORCE
From the general subject of marriage, he proceeds to that of separation or divorce as between two parties who are believers, which he forbids (1 Corinthians 7:10-11). As he quotes our Lord in this instance he doubtless has in mind Matthew 5:32, which makes the one exception of adultery. He next touches the question where one is a believer and the other an unbeliever (1 Corinthians 7:12-16). Here he is himself speaking because the particular aspect of the subject is one on which our Lord had not expressed himself while in the flesh. This shows that he places his own words on the same level of authority as those of our Lord, thus making the strongest claim of inspiration for them. Two such persons, he teaches, were not to separate simply for religious reasons. If a pagan wife wished to remain with her husband who had become converted to Christianity, he was not to divorce her. And if a pagan husband wished to remain with his wife after she had become converted she was not to leave him. The unbelieving partner in either case would be “sanctified” by the other in the sense,that the other might continue in the relationship without impairing his or her sanctification (compare 1 Timothy 4:5). The clause, “else were your children unclean” is difficult, but may mean that such children were by the faith of the Christian parent brought into a nearer relationship to God than otherwise. Remember that this was when marriage was contracted before either husband or wife was converted. Christians are forbidden to contract such marriages. (Compare 1 Corinthians 7:39 with 2 Corinthians 6:14).
Continuing the theme, the apostle says, if the unbelieving partner departs let him or her depart: “a brother or sister is not under bondage in such cases.” His meaning is again doubtful. Not under bondage to renounce the Christian faith, or not under bondage to remain unmarried, which? Both views have advocates, but the latter is to be accepted with caution and with the understanding that human courts have rights in the case which Christians are bound to respect (compare Romans 14). The interpretation of 1 Corinthians 7:16 depends somewhat on the accent in reading it. If emphasis be laid on “save,” it is a plea to hold on to the unbelieving partner as long as possible in the hope that he or she may be saved. If it be laid on “knowest,” it is to relieve the mind of the Christian partner from an undue anxiety in the premises.
From the separation of married couples on religious grounds, the apostle digresses to speak of separation in other relationships for the same reason, apply it to Jews and Gentiles (1 Corinthians 7:18-19), and to bondmen and freemen (1 Corinthians 7:20-24). The idea is that Christianity interferes only indirectly with existing institutions. It makes men free in but not from the responsibilities of their present positions, where those positions are not in themselves sinful. It teaches us to be indifferent in a sense to our external relations.
Celibacy is the theme of 1 Corinthians 7:25-35, which the apostle opens by saying he is giving his own a “judgment” or “opinion,” having received “no commandment from the Lord.” This means that the Holy Spirit has granted him no revelation or instruction on this particular point, which, while it qualifies the authority by which he speaks on it, does not qualify his inspiration. In other words, he is as truly inspired to say that he is simply giving his own opinion as he is inspired to say anything else. This has an important bearing on the whole question of inspiration, and is an assurance that where the apostle does not state to the contrary, he is always giving us the mind of the Holy Spirit. On general terms he would recommend celibacy because of the “present distress,” i.e., the persecution and affliction being experienced by the church (1 Corinthians 7:25-27). While to marry was not sin for either sex, yet he would spare them in the trouble just ahead, and which would bear harder upon the married than the unmarried (1 Corinthians 7:28). In this light the verses following are to be interpreted (1 Corinthians 7:29-35).
But as 1 Corinthians 7:36 he is referring to a Christian father’s responsibility as to the marriage of his virgin daughter. It was humiliation in a Greek household for such to “pass the flower of her age” unmarried, and if a father felt the need of doing so he might give her in marriage without incurring sin in so doing. Nevertheless, if he acts in the opposite way he is also doing well, or better (1 Corinthians 7:37-38).
The second marriage of widows is the last subject (1 Corinthians 7:39-40), where the important clause is added that they are to marry “only in the Lord” Christians are at liberty only to marry Christians. Paul’s opponents in Corinth who held a different view of this matter, claimed to be acting by the Spirit of God, hence the irony of the closing remark, which is an irrefutable testimony to the authority with which he spake, “I think that I also have the Spirit of God” (RV).
To avoid misunderstanding, it should be said that we have not here the whole of the apostle’s views on marriage, much less the whole of the New Testament teaching about it, but only so much as connects itself with the questions put to him at this time.
1. What is here taught about marriage and the conjugal relation?
2. What strong claim of inspiration is here made?
3. What explanation of 1 Corinthians 7:14 is suggested?
4. What of 1 Corinthians 7:15?
5. How would you read 1 Corinthians 7:16?
6. What is here taught concerning the relations of Christianity to existing institutions?
7. Why does the apostle advise celibacy?
8. How would you explain 1 Corinthians 7:36?