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Paul's statement that "it is good for a man not to marry," at the beginning of a chapter in which he deals with issues of singleness, celibacy and marriage, as well as the appropriate place for the expression of sexuality, has raised numerous questions. This is so especially for those who take the Bible seriously as the ultimate authority for Christian life and faith.
If Paul is teaching that singleness and celibacy are superior expressions of Christian spirituality, then are all Christians who are married and choose to marry opting for an inferior lifestyle? How are Christian young people, in the process of making vocational and relational decisions about their future, to respond to Paul's words? Are they deciding against "the best" God has for them and for "the lesser good," namely, their physical-psychological needs, the passions of their flesh, if they decide to marry?
Yes would seem to be the obvious answer in light of both this text and others, such as in 1 Corinthians 7:7 ("I wish that all men were as I am"), 1 Corinthians 7:8 ("It is good for [the unmarried and widows] to stay unmarried, as I am") and 1 Corinthians 7:26 ("It is good for [virgins] to remain as you are").
Even if we are not to take Paul's apparent preference for celibacy as an expression of God's optimum will, the value and expression of physical, sexual intimacy seems to be viewed somewhat negatively, in light of statements such as 1 Corinthians 7:2 ("But since there is so much immorality, each man should have his own wife"), 1 Corinthians 7:5 ("Come together again so that Satan will not tempt you because of your lack of self-control") and 1 Corinthians 7:9 ("But if [the unmarried] cannot control themselves, they should marry").
If we are to deal fairly with this hard saying and the way in which Paul explores its implications in the rest of chapter 7, we need to take seriously some important principles for the interpretation of the Epistles. One of these is the recognition that the Epistles (and 1 Cor more so than perhaps any of the others) are occasional documents, written for specific situations in the life of Christian congregations. Thus, in the case of 1 Corinthians, in chapters 1--4 Paul is responding to concerns and problems that have been communicated to him orally, apparently by a church delegation. In chapter 7 he begins his response to matters that had been laid before him in a letter: "Now for the matters you wrote about" (1 Cor 7:1; see also 1 Cor 8:1; 12:1; 16:1). Though Paul does not explicitly tell us what they wrote, we have a good general idea about what the issues were for which they sought his advice or counsel.
A second principle of importance is the recognition of the particular historical or cultural or church context within which the needs or questions addressed by the apostle are located. Thus the pervasive sexual immorality in Corinthian society, which even spilled over into the church (Paul deals with it in 1 Cor 5--6), needs to be kept in mind when we read 1 Corinthians 7:1-24. Also to be remembered is the Corinthian Christians' view regarding the dichotomy between the spiritual and the physical, which led to various responses regarding human sexuality and resulted in a libertine view of sex ("anything goes!"). In 1 Corinthians 7, Paul seems to be responding to the "ascetic" implications of their negative views regarding the physical.
A third principle of significance for understanding this saying (as well as many other sayings dealt with in the following chapters of this book) is to recognize that the inspired, authoritative word of the apostle may be either normative for Christian life and faith generally, transcending all times and situations, or it may becorrective, intended to address a particular issue in a particular context, without necessarily intending to have universal application.
With these perspectives in mind, the issues Paul raises for us in 1 Corinthians 7:1 and several other hard sayings in 1 Corinthians 7:10, 12, 20 and 29 can be more easily understood.
The Greek sentence translated "It is good for a man not to marry" in the NIV and TEV is more literally translated "It is well for a man not to touch a woman," as in the NASB and RSV. The NIV gives this alternative reading in a footnote: "It is good for a man not to have sexual relations with a woman." That rendering recognizes that the term "to touch" is a biblical euphemism for sexual intimacy (see Gen 20:6; Prov 6:29). Since for Paul sexual intimacy and the covenant of marriage clearly belong together, the term "to touch a woman" can legitimately refer to marrying. The verses which follow strongly support such a meaning.
On the basis of the introductory phrase, "Now for the matters you wrote about," and several other places in the letter where Paul seems to be quoting slogans that the Corinthians waved in his face in support of their position (see 1 Cor 6:12-13 and 1 Cor 10:23), several modern translations suggest an alternative reading for 1 Corinthians 7:1: "A man does well not to marry" (TEV; see also the footnote rendering in the NEB, "It is a good thing for a man to have nothing to do with women"). Attributing the hard saying to the Corinthian position might lessen the problems raised at the outset, except for the fact that, if it is their slogan, Paul seems to cite it with at least restrained approval and certainly personalizes the sentiment in the same chapter (1 Cor 7:7, 8, 26).
What the slogan--whether a citation from the Corinthians' letter to Paul or Paul's summary of their views--clearly reveals is an attitude about marriage and sexual expression within it that advocates asceticism. The lofty (and haughty) spirituality of some believers in Corinth expressed itself--in relation to concrete, physical things--in the attitude "everything is permissible" (1 Cor 6:12). That same spirituality could also express itself in an ascetic attitude, the rejection of all physical, sensual aspects of life. That is apparently the view with which Paul does battle in most of chapter 7. Not only did some reject marriage as such as unworthy of "true spirituality"; some even rejected the expression of sexual desire within marriage. And for still others, divorce seemed to be desirable as a means for developing their spirituality apart from the sexual intimacy of marriage.
Within this larger context, then, Paul's personal preference for celibacy, and his equally strong affirmation of the goodness of marriage and of sexual intimacy within it, needs to be understood.
The affirmation "It is good for a man not to marry" does not necessarily or logically lead to the conclusion "It is not good for a man to marry." Paul affirms the value of singleness and the celibate state, but he does not devalue marriage and sex within it. This is shown in what follows, where he strongly qualifies the statement "It is good not to marry" and lifts up the purposes of marriage.
In 1 Corinthians 7:2-7, he affirms one of these good purposes: "Since there is so much immorality," normally people should marry. This conviction is grounded in Paul's view of created design and order, based on Genesis 1--2. God created the human species as male and female (Gen 1:26-27), with and for each other, in complementary polarity. Aloneness "is not good"; God creates the woman "corresponding to him" (Gen 2:18). Therefore the man and the woman are united in the covenant of marriage and become "one flesh" (Gen 2:24).
Paul recognizes this divinely created and ordained context for human intimacy and the expression of the sexual drive. In light of the pervasive sexual immorality (that is, sex outside the male-female covenant of marriage) in Corinth and even in the church (1 Cor 5--6), Paul affirms that one of the purposes of marriage is the legitimate expression of the God-given drive toward physical union. Sex in marriage is not to be rejected. Setting it aside should only be by mutual decision and for a limited period of time (1 Cor 7:5), not (by implication) because it is of no value or hurtful. God-given sexuality is a strong force. If it is not given its proper context for expression, it is in danger of spilling over into sexual immorality (1 Cor 7:5).
For Paul, the temporary setting aside of sexual intimacy in marriage is "a concession, not a command" (1 Cor 7:6). The norm in marriage is the mutual right of the partners to each other in physical union. The concession (a limited time of abstinence for the purpose of prayer) seems to be for the sake of the Corinthian ascetics, who probably wanted to abstain totally.
Paul concludes this carefully balanced discussion by affirming that his own celibacy, which he has experienced as a great good and therefore wished for others also, is a gift from God (1 Cor 7:7). This gift provides singleness of purpose in the service of Christ (1 Cor 7:8-9, 32-35). Those who are not gifted in this way have other gifts which they should exercise.
The latter part of the chapter (1 Cor 7:25-35) makes clear that Paul's preference for celibacy and his wish that others follow his example is strongly grounded in the early church's expectation that the reign of God--which had broken into this present age in Jesus' life, death and resurrection--would soon be consummated, perhaps even in their lifetime (1 Cor 7:26, "because of the present crisis"; 1 Cor 7:29, "the time is short"; 1 Cor 7:31, "this world in its present form is passing away"). In light of this brevity of time, Paul is concerned that Christians who have the opportunity--because they are not yet, or no longer, married--be involved in the work of the Lord, spreading the good news (1 Cor 7:32, 35). This eschatological urgency helps to explain Paul's passionate commitment regarding the value of celibacy, while at the same time strongly arguing against the Corinthian ascetics in behalf of marriage and the expression of God-intended sexual intimacy within it.