In 1 Corinthians 7 Paul addresses questions on two gifts from God – marriage and singleness (v7). In two weeks time we'll be looking at singleness so this week we come to what this letter says about marriage.
Monogamous lifelong marriage between one man and one woman is under pressure and marriages including Christian marriages are under pressure and therefore also the family. In this country two fifths of marriages tragically end in divorce and cohabitation before marriage (if indeed marriage ever happens) is the norm. Some of you know that I've recently returned from two church conferences in the US where it was admitted that the number of evangelical Christians divorcing is now higher than the number of non-evangelicals. At the heart of this is the problem of the human heart, rebellion against God, disobedience of Christians to his Word and selfishness. In this chapter of 1 Corinthians Paul says to the married,
Do not deprive each other of sexual relations.
How we need to pray for and support those men and women getting married from this church, those already married and to teach our young people what God's Word says and why about sexual holiness, God's gifts of marriage and sex within marriage and God's gift of singleness and celibacy to counter the lies of Satan, who wants people to burn in hell (1 Cor 6:9 and 1 Cor 7:9). Marriage is good but it is not always easy. Paul says in v28 of 1 Cor 7:
Those who marry will face many troubles in this life.
But don't give up – remain as you are (v26), remain in the situation God called you to (v24). If you are married remain married, v17-24 being the guiding principle in this chapter. Don't deprive one another in marriage but give yourselves to one another and serve one another.
In Corinth marriage and marriages were also under pressure. From within the church at Corinth there was considerable pressure to dissolve or abstain from marriage. Look at v1 of chapter 7. Paul begins, "Now for the matters you wrote about" and then, and note this, he quotes one of their statements that they have made in a letter to him, "It is good for a man not to marry" or better and more literally,
It is good for a man not to have sexual relations with a woman and therefore not to marry or be married.
Such a view would have put pressure on the married to either dissolve their marriages or abstain from sexual relations. And it would have put pressure on the engaged and widows not to marry at all. Perhaps some of the Corinthians had reacted so strongly against the sexual licence of the city, that they had swung over completely to the other side, forbidding what God had created for us to richly enjoy. Most likely though, bearing in mind chapter 6:12-20, is that it is another expression of their 'super over realized spirituality' with its negative attitude toward the material world and the body.
So their letter to Paul might have gone something like this: 'Since you are unmarried, and are not actively seeking marriage, and since you have denied sexual immorality in your letter to us, is it not so that one is better off not to have sexual intercourse at all? After all, in the new age which we have already entered by the Spirit, there is neither marrying nor giving in marriage. Why should we not 'be as the angels' now? (Lk 20:35) Besides, since the body counts for nothing, if some wish to fulfil physical needs there are always the prostitutes'.
But despite Paul's preference for being single and celibate (v7) Paul affirms here that marriage is the gift and plan of God and that sex is the gift and plan of God within marriage alone. Look at v7,
I wish that all men were as I am. But each man has his own gift from God; one has this gift, another has that.
"So to reject both marriage and sex within marriage as though they were evil is as much a deviation from the will of God as to indulge in sexual intercourse outside marriage." (Prior)
For those gifted with celibacy and with regard to sex outside marriage Paul would go along with their statement, "It is good for a man not to have sexual relations with a woman". But as a statement to justify abstinence in marriage, divorce, or not getting married at all Paul will have none of it and neither should we. Which brings us to the first of my two headings:
First, NO ABSTINENCE WITHIN MARRIAGE
Now some of us might be thinking that this problem of advocating celibacy within marriage seems quite foreign. Yet there can be related problems today. Some Christians continue to view sex as inherently dirty, and others use it in inappropriate ways in marriage, eg as reward or punishment. Studies consistently suggest that married couples engage in sex much less frequently (usually about once a week or less often) than the three to four day cycle of peak desire, which at least younger and middle aged adult men and women on average regularly experience. So for those of you who are married I hope you're planning your second, third or fourth honeymoon shortly! All the surveys show that married couples have better sex and Christian marriages have even better sex than cohabiting couples. Monogamous lifelong marriage is not only the only right place for sex but also the best.
Certainly Paul's response here in v2 to their statement and to the problem of sexual immorality is "each man should have his own wife, and each woman her own husband". Meaning literally, "Let each man be having his own wife, and each woman be having her own husband". So Paul is saying no to abstinence in marriage. Perhaps partly because some husbands were being deprived of sexual relations and were going to the prostitutes. Now Paul does not condone the visits to the prostitutes but he wants the married couples to stay together and to keep and to know the joy of sex within marriage. So v2,
Since there is so much immorality let each man who is already married continue in relations with his own wife only, and each wife likewise.
And as we see from v3-5 that means a full conjugal life. Look at those verses:
The husband should fulfil his marital duty to his wife, and likewise the wife to her husband. The wife's body does not belong to her alone but also to her husband. In the same way, the husband's body does not belong to him alone but also to his wife. Do not deprive each other except by mutual consent and for a time, so that you may devote yourselves to prayer.
Having one's own spouse in v2 therefore means full, mutual sexual relations. V3 emphasises that sexual relations are a 'due' within marriage and v4 tells us why – our bodies (if we're married) are not our own free possession but belong to our spouse. So, v5, "do not deprive each other". Do not deprive or defraud your spouse of sexual relations and although sex is not primarily a duty, there are times when the duty aspect needs to be heard for the sake of the marriage (Fee).
Remember though, Paul's emphasis here is not on "You owe me", but on, "I owe you". You see not only are sexual relations a 'due' within marriage, but they are so because of the unique giving of oneself in Christian marriage. So in marriage I do not have authority over my own body, to do with it as I please and therefore, one cannot deprive the other. There is then an emphasis here on the full mutuality of sexuality within marriage. Sex is still sometimes viewed as the husband's privilege and the wife's obligation. But what we learn from 1 Corinthians is that the marriage bed is both unitive and an affirmation that the two belong to one another in total mutuality.
As a concession (v6) the couple can only deprive one another in order to devote themselves to prayer (v5) but only if both agree and only for a set time. Then (v5) they are to come together again so that Satan will not tempt you because of your lack of your self-control.
So no abstinence within marriage. In sexual intercourse husbands and wives express both their unity and their mutuality. And v5 not only prohibits the 'defrauding of one another' but also because of v3&4 it prohibits the holding back of sexual relations as a means of manipulation within the marriage relationship. That both abuses sex and destroys mutual love and respect.
I haven't time to deal with v8&9 except to say that the word for 'unmarried' may well mean widowers and that in the original there is no 'with passion'. So the word 'burn' may have a double meaning bearing in mind 6:9. Otherwise it's self explanatory. Which brings us to my second and final point:
Secondly, NO DIVORCE
Just as the Corinthians are not to reject sexual relations within marriage, they are not to dissolve their marriages through divorce.
First in v10-11 we read 'no divorce for what must be in the context Christian married couples' and then in v12-16 we see 'no divorce for mixed marriages – marriages where only one spouse is a believer'. And it's a principle which applies to all marriages. Look first then at v10-11:
To the married I give this command (not I, but the Lord): A wife must not separate from her husband. But if she does, she must remain unmarried or else be reconciled to her husband. And a husband must not divorce his wife.
Note that this is a command, a command that the Lord himself gave on this subject. In Mark 10 Jesus places marriage back within the creational mandate of Genesis 2:24:
At the beginning of creation God made them male and female. For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh. So they are no longer two, but one. Therefore what God has joined together, let man not separate.
And Jesus went on,
Anyone who divorces his wife and marries another woman commits adultery against her. And if she divorces her husband and marries another man, she commits adultery.
Paul here applies the word of Jesus to the wife first and commands her not to separate from or divorce her husband. She is to remain as she is. So no divorce is what is clearly commanded. But, v11, if for any reason she does separate from her husband, she must remain unmarried or else be reconciled to her husband. So no remarriage to someone else for that is adultery as Jesus states. One commentator adds this thought:
"If the Christian husband and wife cannot be reconciled to one another, then how can they expect to become models of reconciliation before a fractured and broken world?"
Marriage is permanent until death us do part (Ro 7:1-3). In v39 of this chapter Paul says:
A woman is bound to her husband as long as he lives. But if her husband dies, she is free to remarry anyone she wishes, but he must belong to the Lord.
(ie he must be a Christian which reminds us that Christians must marry Christians).
And what is true of the wife in v10-11 is likewise true of the husband,
"And a husband must not divorce his wife".
Second and with this we must conclude v12-16 – no divorce for mixed marriages. Look at v12-16:
To the rest I say this (I, not the Lord): if any brother has a wife who is not a believer and she is willing to live with him, he must not divorce her. And if a woman has a husband who is not a believer and he is willing to live with her, she must not divorce him. For the unbelieving husband has been sanctified through his wife, and the unbelieving wife has been sanctified through her believing husband. Otherwise your children would be unclean, but as it is, they are holy. But if the unbeliever leaves, let him do so. A believing man or woman is not bound in such circumstances; God has called us to live in peace. How do you know, wife, whether you will save your husband? Or how do you know, husband, whether you will save your wife?
Essentially Paul is saying this. When one spouse is Christian and the other pagan they are to stay as they are in terms of being married. Obviously one prays that the non-Christian spouse becomes a Christian but they are to stay married. The believer is not to initiate divorce (v12&13). If the unbeliever leaves then let them do so. When that happens the believer is not bound to maintain the marriage (v15) but, in the light of v11 and v39, not free to remarry. But God's call is to peace (v15), which means that one should maintain the marriage in the hope of the unbelieving spouse's conversion (v16).
But what about v14? What does it mean? V14 explains why a Christian and a pagan are to stay married. Some at Corinth believed that a believer sharing the marriage bed with a pagan defiled the believing spouse. But Paul here argues that it is not believer who is defiled but the unbeliever who is sanctified in their relationship with the believer. This doesn't mean they have acquired salvation or holiness but as long as the marriage is maintained the potential for their realizing salvation remains. When the husband is the unbeliever 1 Peter 3:1 says,
Wives, be submissive to your husbands so that, if any of them do not believe the word, they may be won over without words by the behaviour of their wives, when they see the purity and reverence of your lives.
If we're married how are we giving ourselves to one another?