Chapter 7 of 1 Corinthians begins a new section of this epistle. In the first section, chapters 1 through 6, Paul answers questions raised by the household of Chloe. But in this section he answers the questions sent to him by the Corinthian church. There seemed to be three prominent questions Paul addresses: problems relating to marriage, problems involving things offered to idols, and problems concerning spiritual gifts.
First, let us look at what we know about the supposed marriage issues troubling this church. In the Word, the marriage relationship continually occupies a prominent place, because marriage for a believer becomes God’s own wonderful picture of the mystic union that subsists between Christ and His church. In Ephesians 5 we learn about this majestic illustration. Paul describes this relationship, saying, “For the husband is head of the wife, as also Christ is head of the church; and He is the Savior of the body. Therefore, just as the church is subject to Christ, so let the wives be to their own husbands in everything. Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ also loved the church and gave Himself for her, that He might sanctify and cleanse her with the washing of water by the word, that He might present her to Himself a glorious church, not having spot or wrinkle or any such thing, but that she should be holy and without blemish…for no one ever hated his own flesh, but nourishes and cherishes it, just as the Lord does the church. For we are members of His body, of His flesh and of His bones. “For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.” This is a great mystery, but I speak concerning Christ and the church.” (Ephesians 5:23-27, 29-32)
At Corinth, there were many irregularities to be corrected regarding marriage, most likely due to misunderstandings and their background of living in a pagan city within the Roman Empire. The Corinthian church had probably come to believe that sexual relations, even within marriage, were to be abstained from and avoided. So when Paul says in 1 Corinthians 7:1, “Now concerning the things of which you wrote to me: ‘It is good for a man not to touch a woman,’” he is saying this as a means of rectifying the Roman church’s misunderstanding of taking this phrase to extremes. They believed that the unmarried monk or priest and the unwedded men were holier than those who were married. Paul then has in mind here the service of the Lord, particularly as it related to that time when publicly confessing Christ in baptism was to put one’s life in jeopardy and in the face of persecution and danger. Under such conditions, Paul says, it might be best for a man to remain single, because both marriage and celibacy have certain benefits, but not all are called to be celibate, nor is either one more holy than the other. He is not suggesting that an unmarried person is holier than one who is married.
Paul continues on by saying, “Nevertheless, because of sexual immorality, let each man have his own wife, and let each woman have her own husband.” (1 Corinthians 7:2) Paul recognized that there were certain dangers attached to this regulation of marriage. Corinth was a wicked city, full of immoral temptations from pagan worship. There were also human tendencies in which one might encourage fornication and immorality of sexual sin. If this be so then Paul here urges that each man should have his own wife and each woman should have her own husband, in order that the church would be protected from desiring sexual immorality and having the benefit of appropriate sexual relations within marriage. 1 Corinthians 7:3-5 contains some instructions and advice to those who are or will be married, saying, “Let the husband render to his wife the affection due her, and likewise also the wife to her husband. The wife does not have authority over her own body, but the husband does. And likewise the husband does not have authority over his own body, but the wife does. Do not deprive one another except with consent for a time, that you may give yourselves to fasting and prayer; and come together again so that Satan does not tempt you because of your lack of self-control.” Paul addresses the oneness of the marriage union here, acknowledging that genuine marriage is a partnership, a union of two people who have become “one flesh” and struggling to fight against sin in this partnership as well as all other areas of their lives.
Paul then admits in 1 Corinthians 7:6 that these instructions which he has written in verses 2-5 are instructions from him as their spiritual guide, and should not be a command to abstain, rather a “concession” for certain times in life when the couple feels the need to fast and abstain from appropriate marital sexual relations. He is counseling by permission from God rather than giving a specific commandment from God. Paul then says, “For I wish that all men were even as I myself. But each one has his own gift from God, one in this manner and another in that. ” (1 Corinthians 7:7) Paul had chosen celibacy for the sake of the Gospel and being available to serve the Lord fully without a marriage relationship in his life. He saw the benefit of this because he would be free to move about without the responsibility of supporting a wife and home. Yet, he qualifies this statement lest he be misunderstood, because neither state – whether married or unmarried should be considered better or more holy than the other. Rather, he is saying that no matter the condition of a person, whether celibate or married, God has endowed each with a gift, by His grace, therefore we should use our gifts according to our circumstances for God’s glory. Paul admits here that for him to do this service for the Lord, he is better equipped and available as a bachelor.
Paul also gives advice to the unmarried and widows, in 1 Corinthians 7:8, saying, “But I say to the unmarried and to the widows: It is good for them if they remain even as I am.” He urges them to remain in that state for the sake of the gospel for their availability to serve the Lord without hindrance or obligation to spouses and children. The case of young unmarried women is treated separately in 1 Corinthians 7:25-28, where Paul urges those who find themselves in the state of singleness to use it to the Lord’s advantage, but not think it sinful if they find themselves later in a marriage relationship, for this is indeed also a gift from the Lord. Paul understands that it is better to marry than to be tormented with ungratified desire, as he continues in 1 Corinthians 7:9, “but if they cannot exercise self-control, let them marry. For it is better to marry than to burn with passion.” He recognizes that if believers are tormented in this condition, there is no desire for the things of God, and therefore a danger of falling into sin.
Paul then employs very strong language here to believers in 1 Corinthians 7:10-11 regarding the problem of divorce. He says, “Now to the married I command, yet not I but the Lord: A wife is not to depart from her husband. But even if she does depart, let her remain unmarried or be reconciled to her husband. And a husband is not to divorce his wife.” Paul makes sure to note that these commands are coming directly from the Lord as the final authority, not Paul himself. Let us review these particular teachings of Paul concerning divorce. He teaches that a wife should never leave her husband, but if she does, then she must remain unmarried or be reconciled to her husband. Paul is taking this teaching directly from Jesus Himself who taught his followers this in Mark 10:1-12. Additionally, Paul is saying that aside from the wife, the believing husband too should never put away or divorce his wife either. This is strong and bold language in commanding believers not to divorce, whatever the circumstance.
Paul goes on to address his own teaching regarding divorce, aside from the letter of the law that the Lord has taught. He says, “But to the rest I, not the Lord, say: If any brother has a wife who does not believe, and she is willing to live with him, let him not divorce her. And a woman who has a husband who does not believe, if he is willing to live with her, let her not divorce him. For the unbelieving husband is sanctified by the wife, and the unbelieving wife is sanctified by the husband; otherwise your children would be unclean, but now they are holy.” (1 Corinthians 7:12-14) These words have been used to contrast the difference between inspired teaching that comes from the Lord and uninspired teaching that comes from human understanding of the inspired Word of God. When Paul says “the Lord commands,” or “the Lord says,” he means that the Lord has already given instructions regarding these things, which he is repeating. However, in this section, he is dealing with a situation not covered by the Lord, so he clarifies the teaching by saying, “I speak.” He spoke by inspiration, claiming the apostolic authority for His words as for the words of Christ Himself. The subjects of this section refer to those who were married before conversion. For instance, if the husband had been saved, Paul instructs the believing husband that if his unbelieving wife desires to stay with him, he doesn’t have to put her away or divorce her because of her unbelief, and that this situation, if reversed, should be treated likewise. In a union of this kind, the unbelieving partner could be sanctified by the believing partner; this means that they are brought into a new relationship with God.
Because there is someone in the home who loves the Lord, prays, reads the Word, and lives for Christ, the unbelieving partner is exposed to this, is privileged, and has a better chance of being saved. Furthermore, the children in a marriage like this also have the opportunity to be sanctified and holy. It is quite a privilege for a child to be brought up under the godly influence of a believing parent. There is a better chance of a child of this union being saved, so in this sense they are set apart.
Paul then describes that in a union like this, there is always the possibility that the unbelieving partners might leave: “But if the unbeliever departs, let him depart; a brother or a sister is not under bondage in such cases. But God has called us to peace.” (1 Corinthians 7:15) Under these circumstances, the believer is not bound. In other words, it would not be a sin to let him or her go. The reference to “peace” here could mean either peace in the home when the unbeliever leaves, or it is possibly an exhortation to preserve the marriage relationship; however, verse 16 certainly points to the desirability of maintaining the marriage union. Paul’s final word regarding the Corinthians’ original concerns of which they had written is in 1 Corinthians 7:17. He says, “But as God has distributed to each one, as the Lord has called each one, so let him walk. And so I ordain in all the churches.” Paul intends to commend the Corinthian church to remain steadfast in whatever circumstances they find themselves in. These instructions were not only for the Corinthian church, but were obligatory to all churches, and should be commendable to us as fellow believers today.