"Marriage Matters" is our subject for this morning, this the second of our series on Paul's first letter to the church in Corinth.
By way of introduction, Corinth is a Greek city that was the sex capital of the Roman world. There was a Greek verb to "Corinthianize", used of visiting a prostitute. The Greek geographer, Strabo, writing around 20 AD said Corinth's "temple of Aphrodite was once so rich that it had acquired more than 1000 prostitutes" in the service of the goddess. Strabo may have exaggerated, but 1 Corinthians chapter 6 from last week, makes it clear that sexual immorality was a real problem in the Church of Corinth.
That is the background to our passage this morning – 1 Corinthians 7.1-16. And my headings are, first, Paul's Introduction; secondly, Another Error; thirdly, Jesus' Teaching.
First, then, Paul's Introduction
Let's start with verse one:
"Now concerning the matters about which you wrote: 'It is good for a man not to have sexual relations with a woman'."
What is Paul's response? Well, we can say two things.
First, Paul makes it clear that in the sex-soaked city of Corinth, being celibate and single is good. In verse 7 Paul says: "I wish that all were as I myself am" – i.e. single. He immediately, however, adds (verse 7):
"But each has his own gift from God, one of one kind and one of another."
The key is what God is calling you to – the married or single state. And also he underlines that the single state should be honoured in verse 8:
"To the unmarried and the widows I say that it is good for them to remain single as I am. But [he adds, in verse 9] if they cannot exercise self-control, they should marry. For it is better to marry than to burn with passion."
And, of course, Paul knew that Jesus was single, the most normal and integrated person ever to have lived, yet without any sexual relationships. So the single state, of course, is good.
And, secondly, Paul would have believed something else about being celibate and single, whether as a believer who is single because unmarried; or widowed or divorced and not remarried; or same-sex attracted. It relates to there being no marriages in heaven. Jesus said so in Matthew 22.30. But – and this is a huge but – Paul has earlier written to the Corinthians (1 Corinthians 2.9):
"What no eye has seen, nor ear heard, nor the heart of man imagined, what God has prepared for those who love him."
So for all of us, married or single, the pleasures of heaven will far exceed any that we've had, or imagined, here in this age and life. For one day the marriage of Christ to the Church (corporately – not to the individual but corporately to the Church, worldwide and down the ages) will be a reality. And it will offer infinitely more and quite unimagined pleasures, joys and interest than the best experiences of earthly marriage, including sexual intimacy and climax. John Piper, an American Pastor says,
"the pleasures of marriage, ten-to-the-millionth power, will be there."
So being single is a gift and to be honoured; and remember, Jesus was single. And, then, single and married believers should look forward to heaven.
That brings us to my second heading Another Error.
And there are five things to say on this.
First, in Corinth, yes, Paul had to teach that all sex outside heterosexual lifelong marriage is wrong. Look at verse 2:
"But because of the temptation to sexual immorality, each man should have his own [not someone else's] wife and each woman her own husband."
Sex should be exclusive to the married couple, "forsaking all others", as we say in the marriage service.
But, secondly, it seems some in Corinth were erring in the totally opposite direction and saying that sexual abstinence must be the rule for everyone, even when married.
Interestingly that was the thinking of a weird group in existence at the time Jesmond Parish Church was founded in 1861; they called themselves "Agapemonites". The members predicted the imminent return of Christ and so spiritualized marriage. Certainly, in Paul's time, there were ideas like those floating around and drawn from Greek philosophy, which said the body was intrinsically bad and so sex was bad. Paul wrote about such people to Timothy, as …
"… devoting themselves to deceitful spirits and teachings of demons … who forbid marriage and require abstinence from foods that God created … For everything created by God is good, and nothing is to be rejected, if it is received with thanksgiving, for it is made holy by the word of God and prayer" (1 Timothy 4.1-5).
So, thirdly, what does Paul do? Answer, Paul is blunt and talks about what the Corinthians who are married are to do in bed. For he says, verses 3-6:
"The husband should give to his wife her conjugal rights, and likewise the wife to her husband. For the wife does not have authority over her own body, but the husband does. Likewise the husband does not have authority over his own body, but the wife does. Do not deprive one another, except perhaps by agreement for a limited time, that you may devote yourselves to prayer; but then come together again, so that Satan may not tempt you because of your lack of self-control. Now as a concession, not a command, I say this [i.e. you don't have to give up sex like that]."
The official teaching of the Church of England according to Canon B30 is that marriage is, I quote,
"for the procreation and nurture of children, for the hallowing and right direction of the natural instincts and affections, and for the mutual society, help and comfort which the one ought to have of the other both in prosperity and adversity."
Paul, in the language of that Canon, is here saying that if the "right direction" of powerful instincts is frustrated, the devil – or Satan – can tempt you to go in the "wrong direction". Sadly, that happened with the Agapemonites, who not surprisingly came to an end in 1956 with sexual relations being forbidden. However, this was after some of the spiritual women had not been so spiritual – they became unmarried mothers!
Fourthly, Paul is saying, what he says or implies elsewhere should be the case in all areas of marriage, including the sexual side. That is, that the married pair should focus on their duties to each other not their rights. So the husband should be concerned not with his own pleasure, but pleasing his wife, and she likewise with pleasing him and not her own pleasure. That, of course, is good advice. It is possibly the reason why one major national sexual enjoyment survey found that in our sex-mad modern world, theologically conservative Protestants came out top! That apparently blew the minds of secular journalists.
And, fifthly, Paul assumes the married couple prays together – that is so important.
So, one, Paul is teaching the Corinthians that sexual relations are exclusively for heterosexual marriage. Two, some in Corinth were wrongly banning sexual relations altogether. Three, Paul says this is dangerous as it leads to temptation. Four, Paul teaches that the husband and wife should think of each other and not themselves when in bed. And, five, they pray.
That brings us thirdly to Jesus' Teaching
Look at verses 10-11:
"To the married I give this charge (not I, but the Lord): the wife should not separate from her husband (but if she does, she should remain unmarried or else be reconciled to her husband), and the husband should not divorce his wife."
"Not I, but the Lord" does not mean, this is divinely inspired and the rest of what I am saying is just my opinion. No! It means this teaching is part of the oral tradition that has been remembered of Jesus' actual teaching. You must realize this letter of Paul's to the Corinthians was written before the four Gospels were available in places like Corinth.
However, Jesus is here teaching that in marriage a couple should stay together for life. There should be no divorce or separation. But Jesus faces reality – and if there is a separation, for example, if it's dangerous being in the same house, then, Jesus says, you should "remain unmarried or else be reconciled". So he is forbidding remarriage!
And that is clear from his teaching in the Gospels. In our Gospel reading from Mark 10 we heard that Jesus first quoted Genesis. We read in Mark 10.6 Jesus saying:
"… from the beginning of creation, 'God made them male and female.' 'Therefore a man shall leave his father and mother and hold fast to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.' So they are no longer two but one flesh."
But Jesus then adds to Genesis a new truth and a command in verse 9:
"What therefore God has joined together, let not man separate."
So what has taken place in the marriage is not just a couple making promises. No! For God is the chief actor. He is joining two people together in a bond that is never to be broken by any human and so for life.
Therefore, God has created marriage as an indissoluble structure or fence within which the ups and downs of the new relationship are worked out, and that man separates to his (or her) peril. And being a creation truth, that is true for everybody, not just believers.
But the disciples had never heard such teaching before. Not surprisingly they wanted to ask questions (Mark 10.10-12):
"And in the house the disciples asked him again about this matter. And he said to them, 'Whoever divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery against her, and if she divorces her husband and marries another, she commits adultery.'"
So, if someone divorces or separates, they should not remarry.
We live now, since the 1960s in one of the most sexually decadent periods in world history. Yes, it's sanitized unlike the Corinthian temple brothels. But Jesus' teaching is now utterly counter-cultural. And it seems to many laughable because so impossible. However, at first it seemed like that, in Jesus' day. For Matthew records that Jesus once taught (Matthew 19.6) …
"… what therefore God has joined together, let not man separate … And I say to you: whoever divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, and marries another, commits adultery."
But at that point (Matthew 19.10)…
"The disciples said to him, 'If such is the case of a man with his wife, it is better not to marry.' But he said to them, 'Not everyone can receive this saying, but only those to whom it is given.'"
So his disciples were shocked by this teaching. They, too, seem to have thought it was unworkable. But Jesus says that with God's grace "those to whom it [the understanding] is given", will [at least eventually] "receive this saying [his teaching]" and take it seriously.
And it is this teaching that changed the Western World and then the wider world, when, over the centuries, it has been put into practice. It was, and still is, the official canonical teaching of the Church of England (though often ignored).
When I conducted my first ever wedding in 1968 in Leeds, that of John Teasdale's parents, then the Church of England still had a Canon 107 entitled: In all sentences for Divorce, Bond to be taken for not marrying during each other's life. Because of that ruling, Cosmo Gordon Lang, the Archbishop of Canterbury, had refused to endorse the remarriage of Edward VIII. This, thank God, led to the abdication of the King, who, we have subsequently learnt, was a Nazi sympathizer.
But, you ask, what about that exceptive clause there in Matthew 19.9:
"And I say to you: whoever divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, and marries another, commits adultery."
The question is "what does sexual immorality mean?" Let me answer by pointing out several things.
One, it is most unlikely to mean an act of sexual unfaithfulness. For that would be "adultery"; and Jesus is suggesting it is something other than adultery, the word he applies to the remarrying husband. Two, to think it was sexual unfaithfulness would make Jesus' teaching exactly the same as one of the main Jewish divorce teachings current at the time. That clearly would not have shocked Jesus' disciples.
So, three, surely the scholars are right who say this refers to "illicit marriage". That is marriage within the forbidden degrees, or marrying incestuously a near relative which results in a nullity – there was no marriage in the first place. Four, Jesus was giving this teaching in the context of Herod's notorious "illicit marriage" to Herodias, his brother's wife; and for publicly opposing it John the Baptist was imprisoned and executed. And, five, certainly the Corinthians knew that the word translated "sexual immorality" could refer to "illicit marriages". Paul had just used it in 1 Corinthians 5.1:
"It is actually reported that there is sexual immorality (porneia) among you, and of a kind that is not tolerated even among pagans, for a man has his father's wife."
So with all that in mind we come to verses 12-16 of chapter 7.
"To the rest I say (I, not the Lord) that if any brother has a wife who is an unbeliever, and she consents to live with him, he should not divorce her. If any woman has a husband who is an unbeliever, and he consents to live with her, she should not divorce him. For the unbelieving husband is made holy because of his wife, and the unbelieving wife is made holy because of her husband. Otherwise your children would be unclean, but as it is, they are holy. But if the unbelieving partner separates, let it be so. In such cases the brother or sister is not enslaved. God has called you to peace. For how do you know, wife, whether you will save your husband? Or how do you know, husband, whether you will save your wife?"
These are clear principles for Christian people that Paul deduces from Jesus' clear teaching.
Time forbids me going over them in detail. However, just one comment about verse 15:
"But if the unbelieving partner separates, let it be so. In such cases the brother or sister is not enslaved. God has called you to peace."
The key word there is the word "enslaved". Paul uses a different verb, "bound", when he talks about being free to remarry because of the death of a partner. See verse 39 in chapter 7:
"A wife is bound [not enslaved but 'bound'] to her husband as long as he lives. But if he dies, she is free to be married to whom she wishes, only in the Lord."
Romans 7.2 says the same thing and uses the same verb – "bound". So Paul is teaching in these verses this: a Christian believer in a mixed marriage with an unbeliever is never to take the initiative in separating. But if the unbelieving partner takes the initiative, the believer should not be obstructive or feel guilty for no longer witnessing to their partner. In that situation, they are called to peace (but there is no suggestion then of remarriage).
I must conclude.
What do we take from this section of 1 Corinthians? Two things.
First, how we should all pray and work for a restoration in our churches and then in our nation, of biblical heterosexual monogamous lifelong marriage.
That is for obedience to God (see Hebrews 13.4), and for the sake of children who suffer most in marriage breakdowns; then for the sake of the couple, who suffer in different ways; and finally for the sake of the nation - no country can long survive with disintegrating families. Social science, time after time, proves how essential Christ's teaching is for children, couples and nations.
But, secondly, those of us who have been directly caught up in this dismemberment can be greatly encouraged. For Paul in chapter 6 verse 9 wrote about "the sexually immoral, idolaters, adulterers, men who practise homosexuality" and others with other sins as not "inheriting the kingdom of God." But in chapter 6 verse 11 he writes:
"And such were some of you. But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God."
So the good news is that however bad we've been or feel (like a cohabiting woman Jesus met who had had five husbands), we can be
"washed, sanctified, and justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God".
Then God can use us appropriately, as he used that woman with five husbands. But that usefulness is as we seek God's forgiveness through Christ and his Cross (as we remember at this Communion service). And then, as we seek from now on to live in the power of the Holy Spirit, in accordance with Jesus' teaching and not the world's, and, in so far as we can, from experience, teach others to learn from our mistakes.