Studies in I Corinthians
Lesson 20: The Christian and Marriage
I Corinthians 7:1-7
As we come to chapter 7 of Paul’s letter to the Corinthians we find a change in the methodology of the letter. Here the tables turn. Apparently the Corinthians had written to Paul with a whole list of questions about which they wanted answers. We don’t know exactly what they asked about, but as we work our way through the chapter we should be able to detect what they were. From Church history we know that this was the period in which Christians were being thrown to the lions, and burned to death serving as torches for outdoor parties of the rich and famous of that day. (incidentally, it is interesting to notice that many of those same things are happening in other parts of the world, even as I write today)
There are certain things that are underlying factors in every aspect of our lives – so much so that we hardly even think about them except in moments of crisis. For example, everything that we do is undergirded by the freedoms under which we live in this country. And another of those institutions is that of marriage. It surrounds us in every aspect of our lives, whether we are married or not. Most people who are not married spend a lot of their time thinking about what it would be like to be married. And, unfortunately, many of those who are married spend a lot of time thinking about how nice it would be to be unmarried. Bill Gothard says that many men don’t discover that the have the gift of celibacy until after they are married.
But as we come to chapter 7 of First Corinthians, we find some of God’s instructions on that very point. And that in itself should remind us how practical and well rounded the Word of God is. The fact that it touches on such basic and important things as this. And the fact that even something as delicate and private as the intimacies of marriage can be a part of “the Lordship of Christ.” Unfortunately, this particular passage is not the best one with which to jump into the subject of marriage, because the passage as a whole, and verse 1 in particular, has been used to say that Paul had a “low view of marriage” – and thus to discount some of the more difficult things that the scripture says about the subject.
So before we get into the passage as a whole, we need to think carefully about some of the background out of which it comes. But as we do so, we are going to see some important things for both the married and the unmarried to keep in mind about the subject. The first we thing we want to think about, then, is some qualifications that are placed upon marriage in verses 1 through 7. Why would the Word of God make a statement like verse 1?
Now concerning the things of which you wrote to me: it is good for a man not to touch a woman.”
As mentioned above, many people have the idea that Paul was just an old bachelor who had a narrow minded view of marriage. But in the first place, although Paul was unmarried at the time he wrote these things, he must have been married at some time in his life because he had been a member of the Sanhedrin, one of the ruling bodies in Israel. Acts 22:20 says that he voted for the death of Stephen, the first martyr. And it was a rule that the members of the Sanhedrin had to be married.
But to fully answer the question of why this kind of a statement would be in the scripture, we need to look at some comparative scriptures concerning marriage – and in doing so we will see that the scriptural view of marriage is a very positive one.
First, Genesis 2:18-24 clearly says that God made the specific provision of woman for man. And in Ephesians 5:22 through 32 God uses marriage as the picture of God’s relationship to man. And I Timothy 4:1-3 gives a prophecy of the last days of man which says that one of the heresies preached in those last days is that people should not marry. So clearly, the scripture’s view of marriage is one of high honor. But in spite of that high view of marriage, there were some complications of marriage in Corinth – and in principle, at least, these are still with us. First, it should be pointed out that the phrase “touch a woman” was the symbol for marriage. So it is not a reference to literal touching – holding hands, etc. Rather this is the use of a literary device known as “synecdoche” – the use of a part to describe the whole (as in “having lunch together”) eating lunch together consists of much more than just the eating of food. It usually involves conversation, information, or often the conducting of business. And the word “touch” is a euphemism for sexual contact – (used that way in several other places in scripture.) So putting all of that together, what this verse is saying is that “it is better not to get married in the unique atmosphere of 1st century Corinth.”
Now that may seem harsh, but think about the similarity of some other scriptural statements – in Mathew 19:9, for example Jesus said that anyone who divorces his wife for any reason other than sexual immorality commits adultery, and the disciples said, “then it would be better not to get married at all.
And Jesus’ answer was:
(11) But He said to them, All cannot accept this saying, but only to those to whom it has been given (12) for there are eunuchs who were born thus from their mother’s womb, and there are eunuchs who sere made eunuchs by men, and there are eunuchs who have made themselves eunuchs for the kingdom of heaven’s sake. He who is able to accept it, let him accept it.”
Now what Jesus is saying here is that there are some situations in which people may have to be single. And if a person is in such a situation God can give him the grace to do it. So both of these passages of scripture indicate that marriage is not necessarily the “norm.” Just because you are not married does not mean that you have missed the mark in life. And in fact there are some situations in which it would actually be better not to be married!
Going back to I Corinthians 7, there was another complication in Corinth, and that was the seriousness of the Corinthians’ conditions in verse 2 and verse 26 First, there is just a reminder of the problem of rampant sexual immorality in verse 2
(2) Nevertheless, because of sexual immorality, let each man have his own wife and every woman her own husband.
But the real crux of the issue is down in verse 26:
I suppose therefore that this is good because of the present distress – that it is good for a man to remain as he is.
As mentioned above, this was the time when they were throwing Christians to the lions. And a man or a woman could be a widow or a widower overnight, or children could be orphaned. There is one final complication of marriage that Paul mentions in this chapter, and that is the stresses of marriage responsibilities in verses 32 through 34:
But I want you to be without care, He who is unmarried cares for the things that belong to the Lord – how he may please the Lord (33) But he who is married cares for the things of the world how he may please his wife. [and he should] (34) Now there is a difference between a wife and a virgin. The unmarried woman cares about the things of the Lord, that she may be holy, both in body and in spirit, but she that is married cares about the things of the world, how she may please her husband. [and she should]
Now these verses can be easily misunderstood, so think carefully: What they are actually saying is that the married man’s first responsibility is to his wife (verse 33) and that is right and good. Thus he may not have time to serve the Lord as fully as the man who doesn’t have such responsibilities. And the same thing applies to women in (verse 34).
So what we have in these verses is that singleness is sometimes a perfectly legitimate alternative to God’s provision of marriage.
Sometimes it seems that the standard of “the American dream” is to be married. And certainly marriage is a wonderful provision from the Lord. But this passage demonstrates a very important principle for all of us to keep in mind: the key to the issue is what is discussed in verses 32 through 34 – how can we best serve the Lord. No one should ever get married just to be getting married. It should always be based on the question; can I bring more glory to God married than I can single? It may be that that situation is temporary – being a student or some other short term goal. But there are occasions when it is permanent.
The purpose of these studies is to draw you closer to Jesus Christ. If you do not know him, it is my prayer that they will help you understand that Romans 3:23 says that you, like all of us, have sinned and come short of the glory of God. And Romans 6:23 says that the result of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life through our Lord Jesus Christ. And Acts 16:32 says “Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ and you will be saved. If I can be of help to you in understanding any of this information I can be reached at