Summary: In our lesson for today, we examine some principles of marriage that the apostle Paul set down.
We continue our study in The First Letter of Paul to the Corinthians in a series I am calling Challenges Christians Face.
One of the challenges that Christians face is the issue of marriage. Let’s learn about this in a message I am calling, “Principles of Marriage.”
Let’s read 1 Corinthians 7:1-7:
1 Now concerning the matters about which you wrote: “It is good for a man not to have sexual relations with a woman.” 2 But because of the temptation to sexual immorality, each man should have his own wife and each woman her own husband. 3 The husband should give to his wife her conjugal rights, and likewise the wife to her husband. 4 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. 5 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.
6 Now as a concession, not a command, I say this. 7 I wish that all were as I myself am. But each has his own gift from God, one of one kind and one of another. (1 Corinthians 7:1-7)
This is the first time in The First Letter of Paul to the Corinthians that we see the expression “Now concerning. . .” in verse 1. Chapters 7 – 11 of The First Letter of Paul to the Corinthians comprise Paul’s answer to many challenges that faced the Corinthian Church.
The first of these challenges was the issue of marriage. Pastor John MacArthur notes that marriage was an area in which the Corinthians had serious problems. As with their many other problems, much of their marital trouble reflected the pagan and morally corrupt culture in which they lived and from which they had not fully separated. Their culture tolerated fornication, adultery, homosexuality, polygamy, and concubinage.
Juvenal (60-140 AD), the Roman poet, wrote about women who rejected their own sex: they wore helmets, delighted in feats of strength, and with exposed breasts hunted pigs with spears. He also said they wore out their bridal veils with so many marriages.
Interestingly, under Roman law and customs of that day, four types of marriage were practiced.
The first type of marriage was called a contubernium, which means “tent companionship.” This was the marriage that was practiced by slaves, who were considered to be subhuman chattel. If a man and woman slave wanted to be married, they might be allowed to live together. The arrangement lasted only as long as the owner permitted. He was perfectly free to separate them, to arrange for other partners, or to sell one or the other. Many of the early Christians were slaves, and some of them had lived—perhaps were still living—in this sort of marital relationship.
The second type of marriage was called usus, a form of common law marriage that recognized a couple to be husband and wife after they had lived together for a year.
The third type was called the coemptio in manum, in which a father would sell his daughter to a prospective husband.
The fourth type of marriage was called the confarreatio. This was the most elevated type of marriage practiced by the upper class of that culture. Our modern Christian marriage ceremony is actually based on this type of marriage. It was adopted by the Roman Catholic Church and used with certain Christian modifications—coming, with little change, into Protestantism through the Reformation. The original ceremony involved participation by both families in the arrangements for the wedding, a matron to accompany the bride and a man to accompany the groom, exchanging of vows, the wearing of a veil by the bride, the giving of a ring (placed on the third finger of the left hand), a bridal bouquet, and a wedding cake.
In the Roman empire of Paul’s day divorce was common, even among those married under the confarreatio. It was not impossible for men and women to have been married 20 times or more. An active and vocal feminist movement had also developed. Some wives competed with their husbands in business and even in feats of physical strength. Many were not interested in being housewives and mothers, and by the end of the first century childless marriages were common. Both men and women were determined to live their own lives, regardless of marriage vows or commitments.
The first-century Church had members that had lived together, and were still living together, under all four marriage arrangements. It also had those who had had multiple marriages and divorces. Not only that, but some believers believed that being single and celibate was more spiritual than being married, and they disparaged marriage entirely. Perhaps someone was teaching that sex was “unspiritual” and should be forsaken altogether.