Marriage and the Christian Household
Paul’s first letter to the Church at Corinth, 7:1-24
Now with respect to those matters about which you wrote to me. It is good for a man [if it comes to that] to refrain from all contact with women. But keeping in mind the [culture of] sexual license, let each husband keep his own wife and let each wife keep her own husband. Let the husband pay respect to his wife and likewise let the wife do her duty to her husband. The wife does not rule over her own body; it is the husband’s domain; and likewise the husband does not rule over his body; it is the wife’s domain. Only hold yourself back [from sexual union] by mutual agreement that you may have the leisure to devote yourselves to prayerfulness and then come back together, lest the accuser tempt you about your not being able to help yourselves. This I say is by way of concession not a strict order. I could imagine that all men should be as I am but each man has his own [specially endowed] gift from God, one has this, another has that. Now I say to the unmarried men and to the widows that it is quite alright for them to remain [in the unmarried state] as I am. But if they cannot avoid each other’s company by all means encourage their marriage. It is [much] better to marry than to live [burning up] in frustration. To the ones who marry, I advise, not my words but the Lord’s command: let not the woman be separated from her husband, but if she has been separated let her remain unmarried [unconnected] or be reconciled to her husband. And a husband is not to put his wife away from him.
But for the rest, I speak – not the Lord – if any brother has a wife who does not believe, and she is content to remain with him, he must not desert her. And [likewise] a woman with an unbelieving husband who consents to live with her should not desert her husband. For the unbelieving husband’s relationship [to his wife] is made special before the Lord, just as the unbelieving wife is made special by the brother [she has married]. Otherwise are you to consider the children [born of the marriage] unclean? But now they are special before the Lord. But if the unbelieving partner separates so be it. Let the other be separated. A brother or a sister is not to be in bondage under such circumstances. For God has called us to peace.
For how do you know, O woman, whether [through your marriage] you will save your husband? For how do you know, O man, whether [through your marriage] you will save your wife? But as the Lord has seen fit to call each [in their circumstances] so let them walk. And that is indeed the rule I insist upon in all the churches.
And the rule I insist upon in all the churches [where I make my serving contribution] is this; let each man walk according to what the Lord has apportioned him, when he receives God’s call. Is he already circumcised when called? Let him not try to uncircumcise himself. Is it in uncircumcision that a person has been called [to service]? Let him not be circumcised. Neither circumcision nor uncircumcision counts for anything [much] but the keeping of God’s commandments.
Let each remain in the calling in which he was called.
Were you a servant when you were called? No worries. But if the occasion comes to be emancipated by all means take advantage of it. But he that is called in the Lord as a servant is actually the Lord’s freed man and likewise the freed man who has been called is the slave of Christ.
You [with your freedom] have been bought for a price [and you know what that is] so do not become the slaves of men. Brothers [and sisters], let each man abide in whatever condition he was found when he was called.
Paul here reaffirms the teaching of the Bible, “Thou shalt not commit adultery”, and does so in terms that elaborate Jesus’ definitive explanation of the commandment in Matthew 5:27-30. There are other parts of the Gospels (e.g. Mark 10:1-12, Luke 16:18) to which he seems to allude, particularly when he affirms that God’s law for marriage holds directly for both partners of the union.
The Corinthian church communication to Paul had asked him to explain how they, as followers of the once crucified Messiah – now their risen and ascended Lord – should live their lives in relation to marriage. How should marriage be lived in their midst? It is a question for every generation. The first thing to note is that in this section there is a division in how Paul refers to the teaching he delivers. There is the “Thus saith the Lord!” admonitions where he is confidently articulating how Torah, has through the ages up until the present time, been applied to the life of the people of God. Hence there is a discussion of the covenantal understanding for the community of faith that the blessings of God come to both the persons who enter into the marriage relationship as well as to their children.
There is also, “This is my own teaching, not the Lord’s” that Paul develops here. How are we to understand this? Many Christians, who confess the Scriptures to be the Word of God written, stumble at this point of Paul’s letter. A careful examination of what Paul outlines will indicate that there is no need for confusion.
The two parts of this pastoral advice are 7:1-11 and 7:12-17. The thematic “This is my teaching, not the Lord’s” is also evident further on in the next passage to be considered below (25-40). Note that 17-24 in its discussion of circumcision and indentured servitude continues to elaborate the consequences of the principles that have been identified earlier in this discussion. His usual advice to people is that they remain in the circumstances in which they initially responded to the calling of the Lord (7-8, 17).
[And note that this is what Paul, in his own way under the leading of the Lord, has done; when he was called by Jesus he was acting as a “messenger”, carrying letters from the high priest that would lead to the arrest and incarceration of believers at the Damascus synagogue (Acts 9:2). Since meeting Jesus, Paul he been kept to this task as a “commissioned messenger” by the Spirit of Jesus Himself, as he has walked on another path altogether!]
Firstly, marriage itself is affirmed. Those married are enjoined to respect the institution and to develop their marriage accordingly, by constant attention to the true needs of the other person. They are, after all, in a specific and unique relationship with its own distinctive character. We might say “structure”. They are each other’s conjugal custodians. They cannot of course be in perpetual bodily union, in ongoing sexual intercourse, and Paul is keen to remind them that they are as much married when they are “holding themselves back”, or when they are acting out their responsibilities that mean they are not in each other’s immediate company. In these circumstances too they should consider themselves as giving expression to their mutual concern for each other. Their marriage is indeed “before the Lord”.
These days due to an ideology that ascribes autonomy to a rarefied and heavily individualized (obsession with) sexuality, this mutuality will be read as if sexual gratification is what is demanded if the partners cannot agree upon abstinence or mutual restraint. That completely misses Paul’s point here. He is not suggesting a zero-sum view of marital sexual care. He is rather confirming that coming together and staying apart within the bonds of marriage is characterized by the mutual care and love of the husband for his wife and the wife for her husband. The discussion about mutual abstinence follows the description – the normative description – of the marriage purpose found in its male-female, husband-wife mutual sharing in the image of God. The accuser (who has already been identified: Satan) is always on the march trying to exploit human self-insufficiency, tempting God’s now fallen image- bearers to further misunderstand and misrepresent God’s care for them by initiating action that is inappropriate, that is not fitting (6:12 SUMPHÉREI), and simply panders to false needs. The prayerful dependence of marriage partners upon the Lord is called for, whatever their life situation may require of them.
Paul emphasizes that in this regard marriage partners should reckon with the conciliatory way in which God’s law for their union comes to them. It is not so strict as to rule out variations and special instances that come upon a marriage, and it is in that gentle concessionary way that God indeed deals with us in our fragile marriages.
Paul continues: God’s law for marriage does not at all require that those who are unmarried or widows should get married. The integrity of the marriage state in fact presupposes the integrity of life before the Lord and that also means equal integrity of those who are single, widowed, and never married. Still, regular contact between men and women is part of our created life, and that being so, it is not at all inappropriate for marriages to take place and they should be given every encouragement. Trying to restrict marriage (i.e. by some form of social engineering that will pre-empt such a possibility) is, on the other hand, certain to bring about deep frustration and this is certainly unhealthy and prevents the true flourishing of God’s purposes.
Marriage, says Paul, requires the positive caring of both the man and the woman. The Lord’s command is plain. Separating oneself is not the purpose of marriage; but if one has been separated by the action of the other, revoking responsibility to maintain the marriage, the options are set out. If you cannot be reconciled then it is best to remain unconnected in any marital sense. Presumably, the integrity of the marriage, or of the contribution of the separated woman to it, being dumped, is not going to be maintained by remarriage. Paul follows Jesus: marriage is not merely an institution where a male considers his female partner as some mind of disposable object, as a commodity that can be traded in for a new model.
But this brings us to a situation where the proclamation of the Good News has brought into existence a congregation where Jews, proselytes and Gentiles believe in Christ. In this situation, Paul realizes, he is now addressing a congregation in which there are those who are married to unbelievers. This is a circumstance that the Lord’s command had not exactly addressed. Hence Paul’s need to give his opinion under the leading of the Spirit. This is the context in which Paul’s application or extension of the Word of the Lord is called for. Otherwise, if he does not give his opinion, the people of the Lord are “left hanging” and this, quite clearly, is not what the Lord intends.
But let it be clearly understood that this is no endorsement of the widespread, latter-day pragmatic post-modern view that everyone should be allowed the freedom to experiment to determine what is right in their own eyes (Judges 21:25). The integrity of marriage is to be upheld. For this to happen, support is needed from the community of faith. That is what is called for in that situation. Male and female are equally required to respect marriage, their own marriages and thereby of the marriages of their neighbours. Their faith is in One who is not taken by surprise by this newly developed situation in which they have to work out their salvation in fear and trembling. And writes Paul, don’t go making judgments that render some of the marriages in your midst as “unclean” in contrast to those that are “clean”. Are you to then conclude that children born of those who are members of your fellowship, or who come into your fellowship by one of their parents, are to be considered “unclean”? They are special. The Lord requires that you give them due respect.
Still, Paul reckons with the possibility that an unbelieving partner may demand separation, even perhaps separation because the wife has embraced an alien faith, or the husband has become a Christian. The congregation is not to insist that the one separated, whether husband or wife, keep that marriage together. There is a deep difficulty here that requires spiritual wisdom. For those for whom marriage is merely a civil or economic contract, marriage as institution is in continual jeopardy, under constant tension if not threat. But the Gospel, the announcement of God’s peace to all, brings Paul to reckon with the highly diverse situations in which members of the congregation are called, even while the human situation is a broken one and in need of Divine restorative intervention.
But in addressing that situation – the tenuous brokenness of marriage that is also manifest among the people of God – Paul makes a remarkable observation, one that invites us to think very carefully: God is not taken by surprise concerning the life-situations in which we find ourselves. And that is why Paul strictly reminds the Corinthian believers to deepen their awareness and understanding of the situation and condition in which they initially responded to God’s call. Earlier on, he had reminded them of their social status.-
Who of you were considered wise with great academic qualifications, movers and shakers, eminent public figures of well-known reputations near and far? (1:26)
Not many of top-shelf standing. Now he comes to this same confrontation with the Good News from another angle:
Were you married, unmarried, divorced, separated, abandoned? Indeed were you Jew or Gentile, circumcised or uncircumcised according to Jewish customs, were you a free citizen or an indentured servant, a slave of someone who may even have presumed to own you as they may lay claim to an animal?
Well then, in whatever condition God saw fit to call you, don’t go presuming that this call is necessarily a call to set about changing the social standing that you then enjoyed. Social standing is no precondition for God’s call. Of course if you were in servitude when you received the call of Christ the crucified, by all means avail yourself of the chance to be free. Do not turn your back if emancipation comes your way!
To be called, whether male or female, is to be invited into the service of the Lord, the Almighty ruler of heaven and earth. The slave who joins the company of believers is joining himself or herself to the servants of Jesus Christ, the servant of the Lord. This person is no more and no less servant of Christ should emancipation become a possibility. Still, that also means that one should not buy into slavery. Paul is clear about that. To buy into slavery requires one to submit to the power of the institution and its rules. Reckoning with the Lord’s indulgence of slavery, qua institution – think of the revelation of the Lord God’s specific intervention to care for Hagar, Sarah’s slave, and Ishmael the son the slave had borne to Abram – does not mean that the Lord calls the followers of Jesus to initiate a revival of the institution. Certainly not (see Paul’s letters elsewhere to the Galatians 4:21-5:1 and also to Philemon where Paul counseled Philemon to take the one who had once been his salve back as a member of his household, as a friend of the family.)
There are other matters like this that show that God is not taken by surprise by the former sins of those who are called to righteousness (6:9-11). But clearly, the People of God are no more called to endorse and encourage sinful institutions any more than they are called to indulge sinful habits or activities. To presume so is simply to engage in a form of self-deception (3:18).