Does Paul Disagree with Jesus on Marriage? (1 Cor 7)

Last week I had a question regarding what seems to be a contradictory point in the Bible. It seems from the pages of scripture that God is pro-marriage, making His expectation known as early as Chapter 2 of Genesis. It seems on the surface that Jesus is thumbs up for marriage and Paul is thumbs down. Paul’s few points in 1 Corinthians chapter 7 seem, on the surface, to be contradictory to the teaching of Jesus and the rest of the Bible. This has always been a question of mine, so I spent some time looking into the chapter and developed the following commentary.

The verses in question are 1 Corinthians 7:8 & 9

“To the unmarried and the widows I say that it is good for them to remain single as I am. But if they cannot exercise self-control, they should marry. For it is better to marry than to burn with passion.” (1 Corinthians 7:8, 9 ESV)

On the surface it seems that we have a contradiction but my principal has always been:

“Never read a Bible verse”

So instead of taking this verse alone as the only word spoken on the issue, we need to understand the context of the passage. The paragraph and chapter speak clearly on Paul’s intent.

HISTORY OF THE CHAPTER

Paul is writing to a sexually immoral church. He spends a great deal of this chapter and the previous chapters addressing all kinds of immoral activities. In chapter 6 he is commanding those in Corinth to cast out the sexually immoral and not associate with any of them.  He is giving commands.  As we get to chapter 8 we see that Paul is specifically addressing a question.

” Now concerning the matters about which you wrote: “It is good for a man not to have sexual relations with a woman”

CONTEXT OF THE CHAPTER

We don’t know the specific question that Paul was addressing, but it seems evident that it is concerning sexual relations outside of marriage since Paul spends a great deal of time addressing this in previous chapters. In addition he seems to be addressing a church in idolatry to sex. He then affirms that marriage is the only alternative for sex in a Christian context.

“But because of the temptation to sexual immorality, each man should have his own wife and each woman her own husband.” (1 Corinthians 7:2 ESV)

Up until this point Paul is making commands to his fellow believers regarding sex outside of marriage.  The next part shows the reasons why context and reading carefully matters when dealing with the pages of scripture.  Paul then shifts from making commands to making suggestions and expressing preferences. He states this clearly in the passages making statements like:

“Not a command, I say this”

He uses the “I say” statement and defines it as not being a command of God pertaining to:

(1 Corinthians 7:6, 7 ESV) “Now as a concession, not a command, I say this. I wish that all were as I myself am. But each has his own gift from God, one of one kind and one of another.” 

(1 Corinthians 7:8, 9 ESV) “To the unmarried and the widows I say that it is good for them to remain single as I am. But if they cannot exercise self-control, they should marry. For it is better to marry than to burn with passion.”

He then Specifically states that he is not speaking but the Lord is commanding in 1 Corinthians 7:10. Paul goes out his way to make sure that those reading see the difference between his words and the words of the Spirit.

“To the married I give this charge (not I, but the Lord): the wife should not separate from her husband (but if she does, she should remain unmarried or else be reconciled to her husband), and the husband should not divorce his wife.” (1 Corinthians 7:10, 11 ESV)

Paul then shifts back to his preference in the next paragraph when he states:

“To the rest I say (I, not the Lord) that if any brother has a wife who is an unbeliever, and she consents to live with him, he should not divorce her.

“If any woman has a husband who is an unbeliever, and he consents to live with her, she should not divorce him. For the unbelieving husband is made holy because of his wife, and the unbelieving wife is made holy because of her husband. Otherwise your children would be unclean, but as it is, they are holy. But if the unbelieving partner separates, let it be so. In such cases the brother or sister is not enslaved. God has called you to peace. For how do you know, wife, whether you will save your husband? Or how do you know, husband, whether you will save your wife?” (1 Corinthians 7:12-16 ESV)

COMMENTARY

Given the context of Paul separating his personal feelings from Spirit filled commands, I don’t think it is inappropriate to state that Paul has personally experienced hurt from marriage. It seems that verses 12-16 are Paul telling his personal story. He is careful not to be dogmatic about his story and is in no way commanding fellow believers to put his experiences at the same level as Spirit filled commands.  When given the opportunity to address the church with his experience, he does so but carefully separating his personal views on marriage from that of commands of God.  Interestingly Paul also concludes that inside of marriage both men and women should not deprive each other of sex.  It is my opinion, he adds this due to the historic prostitution problem in Corinth during this time, it is well documented that the temples at Corinth prided themselves on spiritual prostitution and I think Paul is helping to prevent the use of a prostitute by both the husband and wife that are now following Christ. These believers likely still have years of tradition regarding religion and prostitution and it is not a stretch to assume that even married believers were frequenting prostitutes both together and apart. Note carefully that Paul is commanding that abstinence be forbidden in a marital unit.

The fact still remains that the bible clearly teaches that a man is incomplete without woman and Paul is stating the same thing here. Sexual relations are a part of that completeness and without the institution of marriage, sex is forbidden by the Lord. I consider these passages to be like any other sermon. Paul is blending his personal
experience with scripture to address and contextualize the message to his audience.  His audience was struggling with the idol of Sex and he forbids sex outside of marriage and then requests (not commands) them to abstain from relations and abstain from marriage.  In context when Paul states,

“I say that it is good for them to remain single as I am”

he is specifically addressing those in Corinth specifically.  I don’t believe Paul is trying to make this “policy” dogma for the entirety of Christendom.

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  1. You write: “Interestingly Paul also concludes that inside of marriage both men and women should not deprive each other of sex. It is my opinion, he adds this due to the historic prostitution problem in Corinth during this time, it is well documented that the temples at Corinth prided themselves on spiritual prostitution and I think Paul is helping to prevent the use of a prostitute by both the husband and wife that are now following Christ. These believers likely still have years of tradition regarding religion and prostitution and it is not a stretch to assume that even married believers were frequenting prostitutes both together and apart. Note carefully that Paul is commanding that abstinence be forbidden in a marital unit.”

    Might we also conclude that you are telling us a personal story?

      • schooloffish
      • May 23rd, 2012

      If by “personal story” you mean Paul as also frequented prostitutes, I doubt that to be the case. Paul (as Saul) was a Jew and leader of the Jewish church. It is always possible that this is the sin that Paul seems to be struggling with, but I think it’s a stretch to make that claim. Not only is there no evidence for that in scripture he also makes many claims to his ability (in the past) to live to the letter of the Jewish law. In my opinion Paul was married and his wife left him when he became a Christian and he was a tad pissed off about it. We really don’t know for certain though.

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