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Family Life

Tense Times

1st Corinthians 7

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We begin our series on Marriage and Family Life with a passage written to a church living amidst debauchery. If the emphasis on sanctification and purity seems strange to you, remember that the Corinthians were living in the Las Vegas or West Hollywood of their day.

Teaching about sex

1 Corinthians 7:1-9 NASB (1) Now concerning the things about which you wrote, it is good for a man not to touch a woman. (2) But because of immoralities, each man is to have his own wife, and each woman is to have her own husband. (3) The husband must fulfill his duty to his wife, and likewise also the wife to her husband. (4) The wife does not have authority over her own body, but the husband does; and likewise also the husband does not have authority over his own body, but the wife does. (5) Stop depriving one another, except by agreement for a time, so that you may devote yourselves to prayer, and come together again so that Satan will not tempt you because of your lack of self-control. (6) But this I say by way of concession, not of command. (7) Yet I wish that all men were even as I myself am. However, each man has his own gift from God, one in this manner, and another in that. (8) But I say to the unmarried and to widows that it is good for them if they remain even as I. (9) But if they do not have self-control, let them marry; for it is better to marry than to burn with passion.

There is an implied question in here as well as the explicit one. You can imagine a woman asking about not having sex with her husband – in order that she might devote the time to prayer. It’s a pious sounding question – and Paul gives us the answer in earthy tones: not without your husband’s consent. In explaining this, Paul teaches a few things about sex as well.

So why shouldn’t she do this? The first reason is that such an action provides an opportunity for temptation. Adultery is wrong even if you think you have a good reason. But consider the implications of this:

  • First, we now have sexual desire and passion as reasons for marriage. If you can’t keep your hands off the girl, get married! It’s not a sin to desire the woman; just do it the right way.
  • St. Augustine (and the Roman Catholic Church) to the contrary notwithstanding, this implies that sex may be enjoyed for the purpose of satisfying your passions – without the necessity of procreation. “Lead us not into temptation” applies to sex too. (Do remember Paul is telling us this in the context of marriage.)
  • More terrifying, it means that you bear a responsibility for keeping your spouse from sexual temptation – by having sex with him or her. This is just a specific instance of being your brother’s keeper.

An elaboration on that last point. Adultery is a sin. If your actions encourage another Christian to sin, do you not bear some responsibility? It is wrong for a husband to seek out a prostitute because his wife refuses to have sex with him. That doesn’t absolve the wife from the responsibility of caring for her husband. In so doing, she sins as well. Two wrongs don’t make a right – but they do make two wrongs.

The second reason is in verse three; the concept that a husband has a duty to his wife (in terms of giving her sex) and vice versa. There are some interesting implications here too:

  • As stated elsewhere, the husband’s body belongs to the wife, and vice versa. It’s hers; you have an obligation, husband. Likewise, the wife.[1] The word “duty” on your part implies the obligation.
  • It’s not only her body, it’s hers by right. To say I have a duty to you is to imply that you have a right. This is a mutual duty – and therefore we have a clear instance in which the wife has authority over her husband (and vice versa). The idea that the husband is to be tyrant to the wife finds no support in Scripture.
  • Again, there is a reason – the common immorality of the time. By faithfulness to the spouse and sexual satisfaction therein the temptation to adultery is lessened.

It should be noted that celibacy (or virginity) is given by God as a gift (see verse 7). This too has its implications:

  • Some of us have it, some don’t. Some of us can withstand the desire for sex, others can’t. For those who can’t, there is marriage.
  • This is a gift from God – in other words, not something that can be acquired with a few self-help sermons. Evaluate yourself, and act accordingly.
  • Since it is a gift from God, we should not judge others in this.

Paul now takes up the questions of divorce and separation.


1 Corinthians 7:8-16 NASB (8) But I say to the unmarried and to widows that it is good for them if they remain even as I. (9) But if they do not have self-control, let them marry; for it is better to marry than to burn with passion. (10) But to the married I give instructions, not I, but the Lord, that the wife should not leave her husband (11) (but if she does leave, she must remain unmarried, or else be reconciled to her husband), and that the husband should not divorce his wife. (12) But to the rest I say, not the Lord, that if any brother has a wife who is an unbeliever, and she consents to live with him, he must not divorce her. (13) And a woman who has an unbelieving husband, and he consents to live with her, she must not send her husband away. (14) For the unbelieving husband is sanctified through his wife, and the unbelieving wife is sanctified through her believing husband; for otherwise your children are unclean, but now they are holy. (15) Yet if the unbelieving one leaves, let him leave; the brother or the sister is not under bondage in such cases, but God has called us to peace. (16) For how do you know, O wife, whether you will save your husband? Or how do you know, O husband, whether you will save your wife?

The problem of divorce breaks neatly into two pieces: one, where the partners are both Christians. Two, where one is not.

Both Christians

The rule is simple: except for adultery, there is no divorce. (Note that I did not say that adultery requires divorce; it merely permits it.) In the time in which Paul wrote, it was very difficult for a woman to obtain a legal (secular) divorce. Men filed for divorce; women could not. So what happens when you feel that you cannot continue in marriage anymore? For example, what advice do you give a woman whose husband (we’re speaking of two Christians here) continually beats her and degrades her?

Paul’s answer comes in two steps:

  • If at all possible, work it out. It is regrettable that the evangelical church has a miserable track record in this. We have accepted divorce as being justified in that instance – and therefore we have no incentive to help work things out.[2]
  • If it’s not possible, then separate – but do not marry again.

That last seems hard – but consider it a service to Christ. Does that not place the matter in a different light? Just who is your Master?

For the husband, the matter is simpler (in this time). Don’t divorce. Period. The only exception is adultery – and even then there is forgiveness.

This may sound hard and harsh. But as we shall see in later lessons, we are dealing in marriage with things which are high and holy.

SOS – single on Sunday

A more difficult case is presented by the person – usually female[3] - whose spouse is not a Christian. Paul presents an interesting attitude to the couple in this case:

  • To the believer, his instructions are that she is commanded to stay with her husband to the extent possible. If the non-believer leaves, let him. The Christian is called to peace.
  • To the non-believer Paul makes no statement. Evangelism first, then the teaching about marriage.

The early church saw this as grace from God. Christians are told not to marry unbelievers (a statement many women in the church are shocked to discover). The question obviously then arises, shouldn’t a woman who becomes a Christian then immediately leave her husband, the pagan? Graciously, God says no. There are a number of reasons:

  • From the public point of view, this would make it seem that Christianity is opposed to marriage and wants to break it up. (People lied about the church then as well as now).
  • Marriage makes you “one flesh.” If you are sanctified in your body, and you are one flesh with your husband, then he is sanctified too. You are thus permitted to remain together.
  • You are also one flesh with your children. How would it be if your children were not allowed in church because their father was not a Christian?
  • This sanctification is imputed – that is to say, because you are a Christian, the Father looks on your spouse as being sanctified sufficiently to allow him to continue in marriage with you. It doesn’t magically save him.

One last point: none of the above sets aside the idea that the Christian should not marry the unbeliever. The number of women who regret not following this is indeed high.

Who knows?

It’s not guaranteed – but it might happen that you will bring your husband to Christ. Most of the time, it doesn’t work that way. But it can happen – especially if your words match your example.

The New Christian

“Now that I’m a Christian, what do I have to change?” A good question. Paul here tells us what not to change – including marriage. His principle is that of remaining as you are – because your status in this world matters little compared to your status in the kingdom:

1 Corinthians 7:17-24 NASB (17) Only, as the Lord has assigned to each one, as God has called each, in this manner let him walk. And so I direct in all the churches. (18) Was any man called when he was already circumcised? He is not to become uncircumcised. Has anyone been called in uncircumcision? He is not to be circumcised. (19) Circumcision is nothing, and uncircumcision is nothing, but what matters is the keeping of the commandments of God. (20) Each man must remain in that condition in which he was called. (21) Were you called while a slave? Do not worry about it; but if you are able also to become free, rather do that. (22) For he who was called in the Lord while a slave, is the Lord's freedman; likewise he who was called while free, is Christ's slave. (23) You were bought with a price; do not become slaves of men. (24) Brethren, each one is to remain with God in that condition in which he was called.

Two examples of this principle are given: circumcision and slavery. Neither of this is much of a problem today – but sex and marriage still have this difficulty.

1 Corinthians 7:25-40 NASB (25) Now concerning virgins I have no command of the Lord, but I give an opinion as one who by the mercy of the Lord is trustworthy. (26) I think then that this is good in view of the present distress, that it is good for a man to remain as he is. (27) Are you bound to a wife? Do not seek to be released. Are you released from a wife? Do not seek a wife. (28) But if you marry, you have not sinned; and if a virgin marries, she has not sinned. Yet such will have trouble in this life, and I am trying to spare you. (29) But this I say, brethren, the time has been shortened, so that from now on those who have wives should be as though they had none; (30) and those who weep, as though they did not weep; and those who rejoice, as though they did not rejoice; and those who buy, as though they did not possess; (31) and those who use the world, as though they did not make full use of it; for the form of this world is passing away. (32) But I want you to be free from concern. One who is unmarried is concerned about the things of the Lord, how he may please the Lord; (33) but one who is married is concerned about the things of the world, how he may please his wife, (34) and his interests are divided. The woman who is unmarried, and the virgin, is concerned about the things of the Lord, that she may be holy both in body and spirit; but one who is married is concerned about the things of the world, how she may please her husband. (35) This I say for your own benefit; not to put a restraint upon you, but to promote what is appropriate and to secure undistracted devotion to the Lord. (36) But if any man thinks that he is acting unbecomingly toward his virgin daughter, if she is past her youth, and if it must be so, let him do what he wishes, he does not sin; let her marry. (37) But he who stands firm in his heart, being under no constraint, but has authority over his own will, and has decided this in his own heart, to keep his own virgin daughter, he will do well. (38) So then both he who gives his own virgin daughter in marriage does well, and he who does not give her in marriage will do better. (39) A wife is bound as long as her husband lives; but if her husband is dead, she is free to be married to whom she wishes, only in the Lord. (40) But in my opinion she is happier if she remains as she is; and I think that I also have the Spirit of God.

To put it shortly: As much as possible, remain as you are in earthly things. It’s a reflection of the times, which are rather similar to ours. We may draw some conclusions from this:

  • The relationship of marriage and celibacy changes with time and circumstance. Paul speaks here in terms of a difficult time
  • The single, celibate person DOES have a place in the church – even if they’re not our “target market.”[4]
  • Finally, for the widow: consider well whether or not remarriage is something you want to pursue. There should be no judgment on this from the rest of us – but it’s something you want to think and pray about.

[1] The astute reader will note that Paul, and this writer, studiously avoid the question of how often this duty is to be fulfilled. The matter is to be worked out between husband and wife, and must take into account the circumstances. It would be futile to deny, however, that this writer is of the opinion, “the more, the better.”

[2] I have understated the problem. By way of example, on two occasions my wife has heard a wife of an elder in our church tell her that she should divorce me right away – otherwise, she would never be “fulfilled.” Our criteria for divorce do not seem to be Scriptural, do they?

[3] Incidentally, this fact is testimony to the man’s spiritual leadership of the family. Over thirty years of teaching I have had several hundred women who are single on Sunday. Men? I can count them on one hand.

[4] You might detect some steam in this. Our new pastor went out of his way to disband the Bible Fellowship that was targeted at singles out of college – causing most of them, including my daughter, to leave the church for no other reason than being single past college age.

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