1 Corinthians 7:1-17
Now concerning the things whereof you wrote to me: It is good for a man not to touch a woman.…
There are two preliminary considerations which throw some light on this passage.
1. Paul had to speak about marriage as he found it. Hence he makes no allusion to that which with us is the main argument and motive, viz., love. In the marriages of Jews and Greeks, love had, as a rule, little to do. The marriage was arranged by the parents.
2. He was here only giving answers to some special questions, and not discussing the whole subject (ver. 1). Certain scruples about marriage had arisen. Among the Jews marriage was a duty, "so much so that he who at the age of twenty had not married was considered to have sinned." Among the Gentiles the tendency to celibacy was so strong that it was considered necessary to counteract it by legal enactment. The questions referred to Paul resolve themselves into two. So we have —
I. PAUL'S COUNSEL TO THE UNMARRIED. This is summed up in ver. 8, "It is good for them if they abide even as I"; i.e., unmarried. But if any man's temperament be such that he cannot settle to his work without marrying; and if he is so full of natural cravings which make him feel sure he would be less distracted in married life — then, says Paul, let such an one by all means marry. But he adds, I do not say you ought to marry; I say you may, and in certain circumstances ought. Those among you who say a man sins if he do not marry, talk nonsense. Those among you who feel a quiet superiority because you are married are much mistaken. Personally, I would that all men were even as I myself, only I know that to many men it is not so easy as it is to me to live unmarried; and therefore I do not advise them to a single life.
1. This proceeds, not from any ascetic tendency, but from the practical bias of Paul's mind. He merely thought that unmarried men were likely to be most available for the work of Christ (vers. 32, 33). No doubt a good wife may stimulate a man to liberality, and may greatly increase his tenderness towards deserving objects; but he who has seven mouths to fill cannot have so much to give away as if he had but, one. With the unmarried man there need be no other consideration than this: How can I best serve Christ? With the married man there must always be other considerations. It is therefore to the unmarried that the State looks for the manning of the army and navy, that society looks for the nursing of the sick and for the filling of posts of danger, that the Church depends for a large part of her work, from teaching in Sunday schools to occupying precarious outposts in the mission field.
2. But Paul says also, Beware how you individually think yourself a hero, and able to forego marriage. Beware lest, by choosing a part which you are not fit for, you give Satan an advantage over you (ver. 35, cf. ver. 7). What is good for one man is not good for another; every man must ascertain for himself what is best for him. And this is precisely what is lacking in popular feeling about marriage. People start, and are encouraged to start in life, on the understanding that their happiness cannot be complete till they are married. Now, on the contrary, they should be taught to consider their own make and bent, and not to take this for granted. Marriage is but one path to happiness, and it is possible celibacy may be the straightest path for some. Above all life is very wide and multifarious, and to effect His ends God needs persons of all kinds and conditions.
3. This not only illustrates the judicial balance of the apostle's mind, but gives us the key to the whole chapter. The capacity for celibacy is a gift of God which may be of eminent service, but no moral value can be attached to it. There are many gifts of immense value which may belong to bad as well as to good men. In the Roman Church celibacy is regarded as a virtue in itself, so that men with no natural gift for it have been encouraged to aim at it, with what results we need not say. But while there is no virtue in remaining unmarried, there is virtue in remaining unmarried for the sake of serving Christ better. Some persons are kept single by mere selfishness; but all honour to that eldest son of an orphaned family who sees that it is not for him to please himself, but to work for those who have none to look to but him! There are here and there persons who from the highest motives decline marriage: persons conscious of some hereditary weakness, &c. We may be thankful that there are men and women of sufficiently heroic mould to exemplify the wisdom of the apostle's counsel. Such devotion is not for every one. There are persons of a domestic temperament who need the comforts of home-life, and nothing can be more ill-advised than to encourage such persons to turn their life into a channel in which it was never intended to run. But it is equally to be lamented that, where there are women quite capable of a life of self-devotion to some noble work, they should be discouraged from such a life by the false, foolish, and petty notions of society. No calling is nobler than marriage; but it is not the only calling.
II. ST. PAUL'S COUNSEL TO THE MARRIED.
1. Some of the Corinthians seem to have thought that, because they were new creatures in Christ, their old relations should be abandoned. Paul had shrewdness enough to see that if a Christian might separate from an unbelieving wife on the sole ground that he was a Christian, this easy mode of divorce might lead to a large influx of pretended Christians into the Church. He therefore lays down the law that the power of separation is to rest with the unbelieving, and not with the believing, partner (vers. 12-15). It frequently happened in the early ages that when a man was converted in middle life, and judged he could serve God better without the encumbrance of a family, he forsook his wife and children and betook himself to a monastery. This directly contravened the law here laid down (ver. 20), which is of wide application (vers. 21, &c.).
2. But the principle to which Paul chiefly trusts he enounces in vers. 29-31. Whatever is temporary in our relation to the present world it is foolish so to set our heart on, for death may end all our joy and usefulness. The man who is sent abroad for five years would consider it folly to accumulate a large collection of the luxuries of life; how many times five years do we expect to live, that we should be much concerned to amass goods which we cannot remove to another world? This world is a means, and not an end; and those use it best who use it in relation to what is to be. It is the thought of our great future which alone gives us sufficient courage and wisdom to deal with present things in earnest. The very intensity of our interests and affections reminds us that we cannot root ourselves in this present life, but need a larger room.
(M. Dods, D. D.)
Parallel VersesKJV: Now concerning the things whereof ye wrote unto me: It is good for a man not to touch a woman.