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To Marry or Not to Marry

The passage in I Corinthians is influential in shaping the Christian view on marriage and celibacy. Some scholars refer to it as the one passage in the entire Scripture which determines the Christian view on marriage and celibacy (Deming 1). This presents a problem in relation to the misinterpretations of I Corinthians 7 as indicative of Paul’s ascetic views which regard marriage as inferior to celibacy and sex as a morally evil (Laughery 1).

In this paper, the author argues that Paul’s view on sex, celibacy and marriage is not ascetic but primarily theological, and secondarily, pragmatic, personal and pastoral. In understanding the pragmatic view of Paul on marriage, the context which gave rise to the writing of the Corinthian letter must be elucidated. Wiersbe (590) explains that I Corinthians 7 must be read as Paul’s direct response to questions sent by the members of the Corinthian congregation.

Contrary to general interpretations, Paul is not outlining a “complete theology of marriage” in this single chapter (Wiersbe 590). At the time of Paul’s writing, the church at Corinth was in division because of several factors including their differing opinion regarding the authority of Paul (Laughery 6) and the heterogeneous composition of congregation which includes “slaves and freemen, men and women, rich and poor” brought together by their newfound faith in Christ (Wiersbe 591). As such, the church did not agree on issues discussed in I Corinthians 5-15.

Among these which are pertinent to the present discussion are sexual immorality, sex, marriage and celibacy. Laughery (6) suggests that the context in which Paul discusses marriage has something to do with the “over-realized eschatology” which the Corinthians believed during that time. He explains this as a counterargument to some scholarly claims that Paul is writing at a time of famine in Corinth, thus the presence of verse 26: “So this is what I think best because of the present distress” (The New American Bible [TNAB]).

Although Laughery does not disregard the merit of a famine, or as in Wiersbe’s (592) view, an “economic distress or persecution,” he argues that this overly spiritual enthusiasm sheds more light in understanding the pragmatic view of marriage. Laughery defines “over-realized eschatology” as: “…the imbalance or distortion in the area of eschatology…which devoured the delicate balance of the Pauline ‘already/not yet. ’ In exchange for the latter, the Corinthians opted for an exlusive ‘already’ and denied the relevance of the ‘not yet. ’ “(8)

The implication of this attitude reflects the loose morals of Corinthians as a result of their thinking that, having arrived at the renewed state which Christ promised, everything is permissible (Laughery 8). In the chapter previous to I Corinthians 7, Paul points out the immoral activities and associations of the people at Corinth. He explains that the present is still imperfect and that they are far from absolute wisdom and spirituality. From this context, I Corinthians 7 may be understood as a corrective measure by Paul on the excesses of the Corinthian congregation.

He addresses the first part of this chapter to the married members of the congregation. He presents a balance, what Laughery (17) cites as “rhetoric of equality,” between the husband and the wife as both responsible in a marriage. From the context of the previous chapters, it is clear that those who engage in the immoral sexual acts are the married men, while those who deny their spouses sex are the women (Laughery 17). Paul emphasizes the union of the husband and the wife by pointing out their equal responsibilities.

This reflects Paul’s understanding of God’s view on marriage as union of the flesh: “and the two of them become one body” (Gen. 2:24 TNAB). Their responsibilities in the marriage will keep them from falling into fornication and other immoral activities. Thus, he applies this principle in verse 8 and 9 to single believers and widows by saying that marriage is profitable if self-control proves to be lacking (Wiersbe 591). On the other hand, in lieu of the economic distress and persecution addressed in verse 26, Paul suggests that in marriage, single members of the congregation must consider the present circumstances.

He concludes that it is more profitable to be unmarried in view of the difficulties (Wiersbe 592). He does not suggest, however, that marriage per se in unprofitable or that married people should divorce their spouses. He stresses that people in marriage must accept the responsibilities entailed in this relationship. The situation during the time of Paul’s writing was imposing that Paul writes in verse 29 that those who are already married will have to live as though they were not married. (Wiersbe 592).

Paul’s pragmatic view on marriage rejects the interpretation that he considers celibacy to be more spiritual than marriage. For Paul, the single life is a personal and pastoral choice (Laughery 24). In verse 7, he says: “Indeed, I wish everyone to be as I am, but each has a particular gift from God, one of one kind and one of another” (TNAB). Paul implies that celibacy is a personal choice done within the sovereign will of God. It is a gift appropriated to some, and as such, implies no supremacy over marriage.

I Corinthians 7:6 clearly points out that celibacy is permitted, even profitable according to verse 26, but is not the only way nor is it the better one. Paul says that when a man marries a woman he does not sin, and the reverse holds true. In Genesis 2:18, it is said that God designed man to have companion, “It is not good for the man to be alone” (TANB). However, Paul writes that singleness is a calling and is dependent on the will of God; it is neither “subspiritual” or “superspiritual” (Wiersbe 590).

As a minister to the congregation at Corinth, Paul has responsibility over it and because of the pressing distress which the congregation faces, he privileges celibacy over marriage “to spare [them]” from experiencing “affliction in their earthly life” (I Cor. 7:28 TNAB). This indicates the pastoral aspect of Paul’s choice to put emphasis on celibacy. As mentioned, this does not favor singleness over marriage as it will contradict Paul’s statements on verse 28 in which he implies the liberty each member has to choose a socio-status he or she desires.

Finally, in verses 17 to 24, Paul reveals that the primary source of his views on marriage, sex and celibacy is theological in that in the eyes of God who redeemed them all, socio-status is irrelevant. Laughery (21) points out that some scholars label these passages as a “digression” or “excursus,” signaled by the sudden incoherence of syntax. However, he argues that they in fact form the central link which he uses to persuade Corinthians into choosing marriage or celibacy (21).

Paul contextualizes the question which he poses in verse 1 within the larger picture of God’s redemption and the responsibility of those who receives His grace to obey his commands. In clarifying the crux of his theology, Paul shifts the focus of Corinthians on the importance of celibacy and marriage, brought about by their over zealous spirituality, to their calling as Christians. Laughery (22) adds that these passages form the pegs of Paul’s argument, providing a ground “from which to argue, both to the married and the non-married, that social status is irrelevant.

” By providing a theological anchor to his arguments, Paul is able to “relativize” celibacy and marriage in relation to circumcision/uncircumcision (verse 18) and slave/free (verse 21), thus establishing the overriding fact of God’s call over the issue (Laughery 29). Paul puts emphasis on living for the Lord as stated in verse 32. His definition of marriage and celibacy are immaterial to their spirituality, and this transition in verses 17 to 24 seem to be a refocusing of his rhetoric after responding to the questions posed on him in the first part of I Corinthians 7.

Contrary to popular interpretations of I Corinthians 7 which root back from the period right after the completion of the New Testament, Paul does not promote celibacy or favors it over marriage. It is clear in the passage that his views on the two issues are relative because to him what should matter to the Corinthian church is God’s calling and not their status in their earthly lives. However, as a pragmatic response to the present conditions of the congregation at Corinth, Paul suggests celibacy to spare them from the burden of a married life.

This is not a suggestion of the married couple should divorce or that singleness is more spiritual than being married. Furthermore, Paul views marriage in terms of responsibility and not sexual activity. He reminds married couples in the congregation of their fleshly union sanctified by God, a union that should not be tainted by fornication and other immoral acts. Laughery provides a context for this passage by citing the over-realized eschatology the Corinthians hold, causing them to act even if they transgress the boundaries of marriage.

Providing a balanced view on marriage and non-marriage, Paul makes the two choices relative in light of their calling and Christian responsibility. Paul’s choice to be a celibate is a personal one. He views singleness as a gift from God and is therefore equal to marriage as both are blessed and allowed by God. I Corinthians 1:7 is not a doctrinal treatise on celibacy or marriage, for that matter, but essentially an explication of Paul’s theology from which all matters of faith and practice are anchored. Works Cited Deming, Will.

Paul on Marriage and Celibacy: the Hellenistic background of I Corinthians 7. UK: Cambridge UP, 1995. Laughery, Gregory. “Paul: Anti-marriage? Anti-sex? Ascetic, a dialogue with I Corinthians 1:7- 40. ” Livingspirituality. org. 9 December 2008 <http://www. greglaughery. com/docs/paularticle. pdf> The New American Bible [TNAB]. Thomas Nelson, 1987 Wiersbe, Warren W. The Bible Exposition Commentary: an exposition of the New Testament comprising the entire “BE” series. Vol 1. Colorado: Cook Communications Ministries International, 2001.

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