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The distinction which Paul makes here between a command which has its origin in the Lord and instruction which he gives to the church has raised questions for many readers. If, in terms of authority, there is no proper distinction between a word from the Lord and Paul's opinion, why does Paul seem to distinguish so clearly between what the Lord commands and what he himself has to say? If Paul intends to make a distinction between levels of authority, what are the implications of that distinction for the authority of the Gospels relative to Paul's letters? Do we need to scrutinize all of Paul's writings in light of Jesus' teaching in the Gospels and elevate those parts of his letters which are clearly corroborated by Jesus' teaching above those which are clearly the product of Paul's thought?
Beyond these questions regarding the authority of what Paul wrote is the more basic issue of Paul's apostolic authority. In several documents from his hand (including the Corinthian correspondence), his apostolic authority is a key concern. His sometimes harsh words to the schismatics at Corinth, as well as to the hyperspiritualists (1 Cor) and his opponents (2 Cor), seem to be grounded in a clear sense of apostolic authority, which he asserts and defends vigorously. What then does he mean to communicate by saying, "I say this (I, not the Lord)"?
Paul's understanding of his apostolic authority must be seen against the background of his Jewish heritage and in light of his experience of the risen Lord and his sense of divinely ordained vocation.
Within Judaism, rabbinic authority was grounded in the God-given Torah. Those learned in the law received, interpreted and passed on the authoritative tradition because they sat "in Moses' seat" (Mt 23:2). Their authority as teachers of the law was a derived authority, but it was nonetheless binding because it was understood to be in continuity with the primary authority.
Just as Paul once was a student of the rabbis and was "extremely zealous for the traditions" of his fathers (Gal 1:14)--who derived their authority from Moses, and therefore from the God who gave his law to Moses--so he now could pronounce a curse on anyone who preached any gospel other than the one he preached and the Galatians had accepted (Gal 1:8-9). Why? Because the gospel which he preached was not of human origin; rather it had its origin in the Lord (Gal 1:11-12). Thus not only Paul's gospel, but the teaching derived from it, is rooted in the authority of Christ. Therefore Paul's instruction to churches and individuals is to be received, not as merely human words, but as the word of God (1 Thess 2:13).
Further, Paul stands within the chain of "receiving" and "passing on" the authoritative tradition (see 1 Cor 11:2, 23; 15:1-3). He knows that he has been grasped by Christ (Phil 3:12), that he is a recipient of Christ's authoritative revelation (1 Cor 15:9-11) and that he is called to be an apostle not through human instrumentality, but by direct divine intervention (Gal 1:1). Though it is doubtful that the word apostolos had in this early period the later technical sense of "office" (occupied by the Twelve plus Paul), its primary meaning, "one sent," certainly involved for Paul the authority of the Sender (see Rom 1:1; 1 Cor 1:1).
Paul is endowed with the authority of the Sender, and his message and preaching are a demonstration of the power of God's Spirit (1 Cor 2:4). He is God's Sent One (apostolos), and his instruction to excommunicate an offender is accompanied by "the power of our Lord Jesus" (1 Cor 5:4).
In light of his self-understanding of apostolic authority, it is very improbable that Paul's words in 1 Corinthians 7:10 and 12 indicate a lessening of that sense of authority.
Throughout this chapter Paul frequently adopts a pastoral role, giving advice and counsel. He expresses the wish that others were as he is (1 Cor 7:7). He lays options before them and calls on them to make responsible choices (1 Cor 7:8-9, 28, 36-38). He gives instruction for a course of action in light of his concern for them (1 Cor 7:32-35). When Paul speaks in this mode, it is quite clear that he is not demanding obedience; yet he makes it also quite clear that he does not simply express neutral human opinion. His opinion does have behind it "the Spirit of God" (1 Cor 7:40), and he does want them to know that he is trustworthy as one guided by the Lord's mercy (1 Cor 7:25).
However, the instruction which follows the words "I say this (I, not the Lord)" is surely an application--in a new situation--of the instruction which follows the words "I give this command (not I, but the Lord)." The distinction Paul makes is simply this: in the matter of divorce and remarriage, Paul is in possession of a direct command of the Lord. It can hardly be doubted that his instruction in 1 Corinthians 7:10-11 is based on the teaching of Jesus preserved for us in Mark 10:2-12. But for the question of what is to be done when a believer is married to a nonbeliever, Paul was not in possession of a direct teaching from Jesus. Jesus did not address this issue during his ministry. Thus, after appealing to the direct teaching of Jesus regarding the sanctity and permanence of marriage as intended by the Creator, Paul goes on, after simply acknowledging that he does not have another direct word from the Lord, to apply the implications of that divine intention to the complex situation of marriages between believers and unbelievers. The thrust of the passage makes it difficult, if not impossible, to assume that Paul intended his words to convey a lessened sense of authority.
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