Marriage and Celibacy
Having completed his discussion of church purity and morality that needed a definitive command to observe the law and refrain from sin, Paul now turns his attention to two other questions of importance: marriage and food sacrificed to idols. As we will see, neither of these issues were questions of morality, but rather of expediency.
Paul says in 1 Corinthians 7:1,
1 Now concerning the things about which you wrote, it is good for a man not to touch a woman.
Here again we see that Paul was answering Chloe’s letter, where either she had given her own opinion or that of someone else in the group: “It is good for a man not to touch a woman.” These words are not Paul’s, but is rather the issue raised by Chloe’s letter, which Paul felt constrained to address.
Often the words have been assigned to Paul, because he later defends celibacy as a natural right as much as the marital status itself. This is important to understand, for many have thought that Paul himself was recommending that people not get married.
Part of the problem is that punctuation had not yet been invented in the first century. The sentences all ran together, there was no upper and lower case to tell us when a sentence began, and certainly there were no quotation marks for Paul to use. All such conveniences and clarifications are of more modern origin. To understand verse 1, we ought to punctuate it as follows:
1 Now concerning the things about which you wrote: “It is good for a man not to touch a woman.”
Having stated the issue, we note that it is also somewhat unclear, for we cannot tell the range of the question except by Paul’s answer. It is the issue of whether or not marriage was a good thing, for “to touch a woman” was an idiom for sexual relations and/or marriage in general. The fact that Paul’s answer is a “concession” rather than a “command” (1 Cor. 7:6) suggests that the question was not about immoral relations, but was specifically about whether marriage was a benefit or a hindrance to one’s spiritual life.
The first nine verses deal with marriage and celibacy. Verses 10-24 deal with marriage and divorce. Verses 25-38 deal with marriage and Christian service. Verses 39, 40 are about the law of marriage.
Duties of Marriage
Paul begins his discussion in 1 Cor. 7:2, saying,
2 But because of immoralities, let each man have his own wife, and let each woman have her own husband.
From the outset, Paul defends the marriage relationship, not to perpetuate the species, not to leave an inheritor for one’s estate, nor as if it were a command of God, but “because of immoralities,” or fornications. This was not an attempt to engage in marriage counseling, for then Paul would have brought up the subject of love, as he did in Eph. 5:25-33. Instead, Paul was dealing with specific legal obligations of marriage, as well as whether or not marriage itself was lawful.
The first legal issue, of course, focused upon immorality itself. Paul’s answer in verse 2 is that husbands and wives should have an exclusive relationship with each other. Paul then says in 1 Cor. 7:3,
3 The husband must fulfill his duty to his wife, and likewise also the wife to her husband.
If we were to consider this to be a session on marriage counseling, it would indeed be quite sterile. Marriage is far more than a matter of legal duty and responsibility. However, the law itself does not attempt to engage in marriage counseling, other than commanding love in all matters. (In marital disputes, the law concerns itself with rights.)
Exodus 21 makes a distinction between marriage to a slave and marriage to a free woman. A free woman enjoys more rights than a slave, and we see this in the case of Sarah and Hagar. In Gal. 4:22-31 Paul shows the spiritual significance of each, obviously recommending that believers be part of the Sarah bride, rather than a mere Hagar bride. To be part of the Sarah company, one must be married to Christ under the New Covenant, rather than the Old.
But in the case of a man marrying a slave woman, Exodus 21:10, 11 says,
10 If he takes to himself another woman, he may not reduce her food, her clothing, or her conjugal rights. 11 And if he will not do these three things for her, then she shall go out for nothing, without payment of money.
It is outside of our scope here to discuss polygamy, which was allowed by law and was commonly practiced. It is enough to say that polygamy is based on Old Covenant principles. Hence, it is perhaps prophetic that the three legal duties of marriage are listed in the context of marriage to a slave woman. The law defined a slave-wife’s rights, for in the law, even slaves had the right not to be mistreated (Exodus 21:26, 27). Slavery under the laws of men, as history shows, gave slaves no rights at all, and even the very life of a slave was in his master’s hands.
But God gave certain rights even to a slave-wife. Her husband was obligated by law to give her food, clothing, and conjugal rights. If he failed to do this, she had the right to appeal to a judge, and if she won her case, she was to be set free from the law of her husband. In other words, she could obtain a divorce without paying for her freedom.
In this context, we see how Paul appealed to the law when discussing the duties of husbands and wives. There were three duties, and Paul essentially commands married couples to follow these as a bare minimum requirement of marriage. Of course, if a husband merely fulfilled those obligations with no love, the marriage would be sterile indeed. Old Covenant marriages are legal, but not at all ideal.
1 Corinthians 7:4 says,
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.
Insofar as these three duties of marriage were concerned, even a slave-wife had a claim upon her husband’s body, for it was her right to have conjugal relations. However, from a broader perspective, Paul was probably speaking from the standpoint of a New Covenant marriage, where a free-wife was to have equal rights as “one flesh” with her husband. A wife is either her husband’s servant/slave, or she is a freewoman. She cannot be both, any more than a person can be under both the Old Covenant and the New at the same time.
Paul, in essence, gives husbands and wives equal authority over each other’s bodies. The law of God contains many New Covenant statements and principles, but much is unclear on account of the veil that the Old Covenant places over men’s eyes (2 Cor. 3:15). For this reason, New Covenant marriage was not well understood until Jesus began to break Jewish tradition by speaking to women and treating them with honor and dignity.
As I also showed in my commentary on Luke’s gospel—which gives Paul’s perspective as well—women were elevated to positions of honor equal to men. Nonetheless, even in the Pentecostal Age, the church has had only a partial understanding of the distinction between the two covenants, and its lack of understanding has perpetuated the Old Covenant marriage relationship, not only between Christ and His bride, but also between husbands and wives.
For a fuller study on this topic, see my book, Old and New Covenant Marriage.
Abstention between Married Couples
Paul continues in 1 Corinthians 7:5,
5 Stop depriving one another, except by agreement for a time, that you may devote yourselves to prayer, and come together again, lest Satan tempt you because of your lack of self-control.
Apparently, some of the believers in Corinth had been influenced by the idea that sex itself was evil—or, at the least, that it hindered people from attaining true and full spirituality. There have been various religious sects throughout history which taught and enforced abstention in the attempt to attain perfection. Thankfully, these sects died out within a single generation, as well they should, for their members attained neither perfection nor immortality.
It appears that at least one couple in the Corinthian church had decided to separate, thinking that conjugal relations hindered their spiritual advancement. Paul said: “Stop it! You cannot prevent or ignore your sexual needs without natural temptation.” It is alright to separate temporarily to “devote yourselves to prayer,” but always set a time to “come together again.” Paul may have been referring to times of fasting and prayer, for he knew that extended fasting would reduce one’s natural desire (and ability) to engage in sexual relations. Hence, fasting (beyond a day or two) made abstention easier.
Concession, not Command
Paul says in 1 Corinthians 7:6, 7,
6 But this I say by way of concession, not of command [or, injunction]. 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.
Paul made it clear that being single or celibate was not a biblical command or law. In fact, God Himself had established marriage before Adam and Eve sinned. It was not a concession to the flesh after sin entered the picture. Marriage predated the entrance of sin. So it is clear that marriage was instituted by God from the beginning. In fact, it was for this purpose that God took Eve out of Adam, for without this separation, there could be no marriage.
We have already seen how the divine purpose for heaven and earth was to marry the two, not to separate the two. Hence, the most basic principle of relationships in the universe is based on marriage. So obviously, Paul would never forbid marriage. In fact, in 1 Tim. 4:3, Paul was sharply critical of “men who forbid marriage,” including it in his list of “doctrines of demons.”
Paul himself had been married at one time. Eusebius, bishop of Caesarea in the 4th century, believed that Paul himself was married, along with other apostles. He quotes Clement, third bishop of Rome, in Eccl. Hist., III, xxx,
“Clement, whose words we have just been reading, goes on from the passage I have quoted to rebut those who deprecated marriage, by listing the apostles known to have been married men. He says, ‘Or will they condemn even the apostles? For Peter and Philip had families, and Philip gave his daughters in marriage, while Paul himself does not hesitate in one of his epistles to address his yoke-fellow, whom he did not take round with him for fear of hindering his ministry’.”
In the editor’s footnote, we read a comment:
“Phil. iv. 3: though 'yoke-fellow' (syzygos) would naturally mean ‘wife,’ it could mean ‘comrade’.”
In other words, Paul's syzygos might refer to Luke as a “comrade,” but Clement uses the word in his own context to indicate that Paul was married to a syzygos, “wife, companion.”
Even so, by the time Paul wrote his letter to the Corinthians, it appears that he was no longer married. In other words, his wife had died. Hence, when he then speaks to widows in the next verses, advocating that they do not remarry, he was probably speaking from personal experience.
Paul’s Counsel to Unmarried People
Paul says in 1 Corinthians 7:8, 9,
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.
Here the apostle defends celibacy as an honorable estate, but never does he tell anyone that marriage is less honorable. Paul was not an ascetic, as some were in those days, for he spoke against asceticism or “self-abasement” in Col. 2:18-23. Some believed that to become spiritual, one had to deny any natural sexual desire, and by this they attempted to subvert human nature itself. This was not Paul’s view.
He made it clear in verse 6 that his preference for celibacy and for remaining single when widowed was a personal preference, not a command of God. Celibacy was not even a path toward greater spirituality.
Paul’s personal motive for remaining unmarried is given later in 1 Cor. 7:26,
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.
These were times of persecution, and the distress was soon to become worse, for in the next decade Rome was to outlaw Christianity, classifying it as a religio illicita, an unlicensed—therefore, unlawful—religion. Paul mentions only the present condition, but no doubt he already had a foreboding of the future. To be married in such times could be heartbreaking. Rome would soon use the threat of killing or torturing one’s spouse as leverage to get a person to renounce Christ.
Under those stressful conditions, Paul says, “it is good for a man to remain as he is.” However, under normal circumstances, marriage was good as a personal relationship, as well as being necessary to bring forth the next generation.
Apparently, there was a disagreement in the Corinthian church, which Paul needed to address. Some had pushed Paul’s advocacy of celibacy to include everyone and tied it to spiritual motives. Others had argued against celibacy. Both positions were extreme, and Paul brought balance to this teaching.