We are working our way through Paul letter to the Corinthians to help us see how we like them as a diverse group of people from different backgrounds cultures and understandings can be the new people of God that we have been called to be in Christ. How can we live that out in the relationships and situations that we find ourselves in.
Today marks a shift in Paul’s letter, up to now Paul has been dealing with issues that have been reported to him, disunity, squabbling about status connected to Christian leaders, sexual immorality and lawsuits. Now he moves to address questions that the Corinthians had bought up with him in a letter. It would be great if we had the whole paper trail but we don’t. However from now on in 1 Corinthians Paul will start new sections with the words ‘now about’ he does it twice in this chapter as he deals with the issue of sex, celibacy and spirituality and it seems appropriate to do so as it flows on quite naturally from what he had been dealing with in chapter 5 and 6. Then again in chapter 8 ‘now about’ as he deals with food sacrificed to idols. ‘Now about’ in chapter 12 dealing the use of spiritual gifts…‘Now about’ in chapter 15 as he deals with the issue of the resurrection and ‘now about’ in chapter 16 concerning a collection for the church in Jerusalem.
In contrast to what Paul has been dealing with previously, in this passage the issue is asceticism, some in the church had seen the slogan “it is good for a man not to touch a women” not being about sexual immorality but about sex as a whole. The people in Corinth thought they were spiritual; they had arrived and were living a heavenly existence now on earth, for some that meant that Jesus teaching about there not being marriage or being given in marriage in heaven applied to them here and now.
Being spiritual means that they didn’t have anything to do with physical stuff like sex even in marriage. Being celibate was seen as being the spiritual thing even to the point that some were contemplating divorce. Those pledged to be married would be in a real quandary over what to do, as would people who were widowed.. Also this maybe why some were going to prostitutes because there physical needs were not being met at home, or their wives thought this the lesser of two evils.
Jewish thought and writing is often presented as a chiasm. That is that the core issue is often at the centre with parallel thoughts leading in and out of it. This chapter is chiasm. Paul deals with people who have been married in verse 1-16. Then in verses 17-24 presents his core reasoning… That we should remain in the situation that God has called us, when we were saved. He illustrates that by applying it to being Jew and gentile and whether one is a slave or free. Then in v 25-40 he applies the principle to those who are betrothed and unmarried. In the midst of that Paul puts in his preference for being single.
The central issue is that while we are the new people of God and we live this new way of being human, we live it within the boundary of the world’s structures. Yes Christ has transformed us and made us new but we are called to serve God where we are. In fact Paul says it three times so we get it.
For those who are married Paul says we serve the lord in being married, in all that being married means. It’s not better to be celibate if you’re married. Paul had quoted Genesis 2:24 in the previous passage that the two become one flesh and here he applies that to people who are married. That sex within marriage is a good thing, at its core it has to do with belonging and communication. The bible is not anti-sex , it values it so much that it should be expressed and treasured and celebrated in the confines of a lifelong committed relationship between a man and a woman.
Paul has a high opinion of marriage. One of the things that comes through very strongly in this chapter is the idea of mutuality in marriage. As you read through the passage did you notice the way Paul is at pains to address both men and women in every situation. In fact Paul addresses both men and women as equals. It is not the idea of the man as the boss or that in things sexual, sex is a man’s privilege and a women’s obligation. It’s not simply lie back and think of England. He talks of sacrificial and mutual love, that a married couple belong to each other. Even in his hypothetical example of where abstinence for spiritual reasons maybe useful he focuses on mutual consent.
While Paul’s focus here is sexual love, the reality is that Paul’s application of married people not being their own applies to all areas of life. Not only do we find our need for sexual love met in marriage, but also our emotional need to be loved and cared for, valued, companionship, security, and support.
Many think that the Christian understanding of marriage is the husband is the head of the household, that he’s the boss, but that is not the case. Partnership and mutual giving and loving and serving is the Christian understanding. People who would want to argue differently often point to Ephesians 5 and they don’t realise that that passage is about the roman household code: The Roman ideal that a man was responsible for keeping his wife, children and salves in order. Which Paul turns on its head by applying the same understanding of serving the Lord where you are planted, in this case a cultural understanding of a household, by saying submit to one another, it’s not about power and control it’s about love and service. It’s not top down it’s about mutual Christ like love.
Paul goes on to address the unmarried and widows, again there is a mutuality here, as unmarried probably means widowers, as in Greek there is no such word for widower. Its good says Paul if they can stay single if they don’t want to then that’s OK as well. There is nothing wrong with people who have been widowed getting married again. Here we may have some insight into Paul’s situation because he puts himself in this category and says Hey I’m cool with the way I am.
Then he addresses those contemplating divorce. Paul again emphasises the importance of marriage that it is not to be thrown away lightly. That Christians are about reconciliation and forgiveness. Now, this passage always needs to be taken in the context of the issue Paul is dealing with. That of choosing to be celibate rather than married, Paul is saying that should not happen and if it does then the women or man should stay single, or be reconciled to her husband it is not freedom then to change her mind and find someone else. This is not teaching on divorce and remarriage per sae, which is often the way we want to look at it. Paul here says that he is applying Jesus commands, Jesus teaching about marriage and divorce. Jesus did allow for divorce on certain grounds. The issue here as Christians we are called to be about forgiveness and reconciliation so divorce is a last resort.
Paul then moves on to address a new category that of people married to non-believers. People have often thought that when Paul says ‘this is what I am saying rather than what the Lord had said’, that he is simply giving his advice, but in actual fact he is dealing with an issue here that Jesus did not give any teaching on, so he is using his apostolic authority to address it, and it is helpful for us to see how he does it as we too have to deal with many issues that Jesus did not address.
It seems that some had become believers who were married to non-believers. So Paul addresses them specifically. He says that they should remain married. The talk of a partner being sanctified has always been something that people wrestle with. My mum was a Christian and my dad wasn’t and she would often quote this passage. It maybe that Paul is countering the idea that the ascetics and spiritual ones would have had that maybe by being married to a non-believer they would be somehow tainted. But Paul says it’s the other way round that the grace and the love of God was present in that family and maybe the spouse would see their partner and children become followers of Jesus. I always remember a woman in our home group in Titirangi coming bouncing in full of Joy. She had become a Christian and her husband was not, and he had been antagonistic for years about her faith, she was over joyed that night because he had become a Christian, he even waited a few weeks after the fact before he told her just to make sure it was it was real so he wouldn’t disappoint her if it wasn’t real.
Paul goes onto say if the non-believing partner wants to divorce because of the faith then the person is free. It is sad and a difficult situation to go through and Paul does not want to see the person in that situation being tied up by legalistic stuff.
Paul also deals with those contemplating marriage. “Virgin” is seen as a technical term for young women who are betrothed to be married. Again he deals with men and women. They both should be free to marry, they are not doing anything wrong.
Marriage is a serious step and Paul encourages those who are betrothed to consider whether it is the best thing for them. Form Pauls perspective it’s easier to serve the lord if you are single. Because once you are married you have to think of your partner. For Paul he saw time as short, that the Lord’s coming was imminent so he would rather be about God’s business. But also there was a famine about the time of Pauls writing and he gives sage advice about thinking about the times before getting married. It may not seem that romantic but in the end Paul says if you are mad about each other get married, if you are not then don’t. because in the Christian understanding it is a lifelong commitment, you are no longer your own you belong to each other.
The assertion that it’s good to be single, also needs to be heard, historically the church has oscillated between affirming singleness like in Corinth as being more spiritual and over emphasising marriage, leaving little room for single people. But Paul leaves room for both, to affirm both as being ways in which we can serve the lord. Neither is more spiritual that the other, they are rather different gifts, different callings. Warren Wiersbe says that the church was probably the only assembly in the roman world where slave and freeman, men and women, rich and poor could fellowship on an equal basis… and the hope is that it is a place where both single and married can be one as equals as well, were we are valued for where we are.
Ok we need to finish up here.
Probably the best way to do that is by focusing on the core principle Paul has been applying… then to apply it to the here and now… The core principle Paul was applying is That we serve God where we have been called… He uses the illustration of circumcised and non-circumcised, Jew or Gentile, our culture is who we are and God calls us to serve him in that culture, in our multi-cultural world. But these cultural markers are not the end all be all rather it is that we keep the Lord’s commandments.
He goes on to use the other social identifier of his day salve and freed. He says if you are a slave don’t let it worry you, you’ve been bought with a price, your status in Christ is free, if you are a free person don’t laud it over others, you’ve been bought with a price so you are a slave of Christ. Serve the lord where you are. Now some have wondered whether Paul is pro slavery, he is not, and the answer is Paul does encourage slaves to become free if the opportunity arises.
The key thing is that we should not be anxious about these kinds of things, our culture, our status in society be it socioeconomic or marital should not be seen as a burden to change, rather they should be seen as different ways and situations in which we are called to serve the Lord, so let’s serve the Lord and encourage each other in that.