Courtship and Guardianship
Paul’s first letter to Corinth’s church, Chapter 7:25-40
Now about the young [unmarried] women I have no definitive directive, but give my advice as one, who by the Lord’s mercy, has [on occasion] been found to be reliable. My view is this: in view of the current state of things with its stresses and strains it is just as well for a person to remain as he is. Are you bound to a wife? Do not seek to loosen the bond. Are you free of obligation to a wife? Do not go seeking a wife.
But if you were to marry you do not sin. And if the woman in your charge marries she does not sin. But there will be for such people an “affliction of the flesh” and I would spare you that.
But this is what I have come to anticipate: the time is coming together when things are being wrapped up; consequently those who have wives should live as if they have none, those who are weeping as those who are not weeping; those rejoicing as those not rejoicing; those buying as those not receiving; those using as those not making use of resources, as those who have no regard for such things. For the fashion by which this world is outfitted is simply on the way out.
But I would want you to be without distraction. The unmarried is steward of the things of the Lord. How is he to please the Lord? But the married is steward of this world, how he may please his wife and there is a difference here. The unmarried woman and the girl under care are attending to the things of the Lord, in order that she may be holy in body and in spirit. The married one cares for the things of this world, how she may please her husband. And I say this, putting this forward for your benefit not to put you under any restraint, but to promote that which has inner integrity and for the rendering of ready and willing service to the Lord without distraction.
But if any man thinks he is [thereby] conducting himself dishonourably [by not marrying the young woman in his charge], she having passed the time when she [becomes an adult and] leaves her youthfulness behind, and it seems good to do so, then let them marry. He does not sin in doing so.
On the other hand, the person who, having resolved in his heart, not being under any strain to do otherwise, has firm resolution of his own intentions, having decided to allow the young woman to remain in his care, he [too] does well to do so. So then he that gives himself to such a marriage does well and he that does not does somewhat better. A woman is bound to her husband for as long as he lives. But if he has gone to his rest she is free to marry whomever she wishes, but then, only in the Lord. But happier she will be, in my understanding of things, if she stays as she is.
And I consider that I have the Spirit of God.
Throughout the discussion refers to how the Corinthian Christian synagogue is to form their “way of life”. It is about how they are to arrange marriages and domesticate life in and between their households. It is also about coming to terms with the conditions and relationships that pertain for them as they now hear the call of Christ – many of them are sojourners, refugees having been expelled from other cities in the Roman Empire. Now we confront Paul’s presumption that these people will be living with transparent holiness in relation to each other. There is to be no deceit, no self-deception, no efforts to cover up one’s gross sins of negligence. The openness was apparent from the outset – apparently all were well aware of the scandalous innovation that provoked his initial rebuke of the man who had taken his father’s spouse for his own wife.
This openness of “life style” actually contrasts also with Paul’s awareness of a dark, looming distress that is upon them and looks like intensifying in the days ahead in that part of the world. We do not know precisely what that was, whether it was going to mean still more persecution and more flight as had fallen upon some of them who had been driven from Rome to seek asylum in places willing to receive them. Neither do we know whether it may have been Paul’s awareness of intense civil strife, or even some other scourge, that he was anticipating. But he was concerned enough to issue this caution.
Perhaps Paul was also alluding to the transitory nature that has often enough been experienced by immigrant communities. In such flight, households are disrupted, marriages are put under great stress, women and children find themselves cared for in other households with other families, in domestic networks that in more “settled” times may not have been necessary. But now it was a part of everyday life.
It is to such a situation and specifically in relation to the gift of marriage therein, that Paul addresses his comments. If a head-of-household, having taken a young woman into the family circle, finds when she has become an adult that she is willing to marry him then he does no wrong. This is no incestuous union. These are, however, cases in which Paul insists upon a strict observance of chaste conduct. He has, we recall, called for the expulsion of the one who has endorsed a way of life that accommodates PORNEIA. That was simply not acceptable, but then he comes to discuss what ought to be the open and transparent intention of the householder who would marry the young woman who had been in his care. He was her guardian, and he wills that henceforth he should be her husband. There is no sin in that, even if some raise their censorious eyebrows. Nevertheless, Paul is alert to the fact that by entering such a union, the man and the woman will, in all likelihood, have to negotiate tensions and issues of some complexity.
Paul goes on to say – following KOHELETH – that there is a time for every purpose under heaven. The days of marriage bliss will sometime or other pass requiring husband and wife to live as they would if they were not married. This is not unlike those who have been active in the market place discovering that the days of intense buying and selling have become a thing of the past. Moreover, there will be days for those who have been mourning at funerals when there is no longer any opportunity to grieve for those who have departed. Those who have delighted in an incessant round of party-going will find there is no longer any cause or opportunity for such hilarity and celebration. The comings and goings of this life, says Paul, are not here forever. The fashions in which we parade ourselves are fading away already.
This poetic and proverbial interlude seems to be directed at a man who has adjusted himself to an emergency – he has extended the walls of his household’s tent to take a younger woman in under his care. That was necessary at the time. That was what was required. But just because you have become settled, and have a mind to see how this young person has matured, and one thing leads to another after all, suggesting a possible courtship under your own roof, do not on that account ignore the lesson of the Lord’s kindness to you that has been persistently evident throughout this turmoil. You have responded to distress and, after flight, the Lord has blessed you. Don’t go assuming that because you have weathered that distress and can now order your affairs to become a faithful and dutiful husband of this young woman, that distress is now forever cancelled. Far from it! There will be, in its own way, tensions and distresses to overcome within this marriage, if that is what you decide to do, let alone any great turmoil crashing in upon your life together from causes that arise from beyond your control.
Paul’s intention is to focus the readers, the recipients of this letter, upon the service they are called to render to the Lord. Paul says something similar in a nutshell statement of another letter: it is for a life that lives freely before the Lord that the Lord has set us free (Galatians 5:1).
Is the prospect of marriage distracting you from where your life’s focus should be? Are you by proposing marriage distracting the young woman from her devotion to the Lord? Is the young woman with her devotion to you for your kindness, distracting you from your freedom before the Lord? It is possible, but do you think the Lord is going to be impressed by your neglect of your wife in order to give Him your attention?
Paul applies a stringent test to the man who, in this situation, would propose marriage. Recall that we only have a bare outline of the structure and details of the situation. To put it in terms he has previously applied to himself (6:12): is such a marriage “fit” and expedient?
Of course, Paul concedes, it may be that the time comes when you realise you are out of order by not marrying the woman, condemned by your own preference to keep her in some kind of domestic subservience. But here Paul shows that he is well capable of applying the principle in a general way that previously he applied stringently to himself:
I will not allow myself to become the servant in another’s jurisdiction, to be made captive to another’s agenda (6:12).
This is equally applicable to the woman who is being discussed here. In her case, and clearly it is relevant if she wishes to be married, she will find a freedom, or emancipation, in being wife in this household … that seems to be what Paul implies here and such a development which enhances rather than restricts the woman’s freedom is what he is commending.
Such a caveat – if any may think that by not marrying he would be acting out-of-order – characterises the rest of the passage. The household should be characterised by a “way of life” in which household members are given due respect. An ethos of presumptive overreaching must distract from service to the Lord. Household members are to be free to be members of the household.
With due respect to all, the household’s integrity is to be maintained and those who come into contact with it will experience, in this way, the way of a household, that here too God by His Spirit delights to dwell with His people.