Summary: When we first come to Christ we are tempted to make radical changes to our lives in order to prove our devotion to God. But there are some dangers there - and Paul addresses these in answer to a perplexing question.
There was a saying when I first became a believer in Jesus Christ. It was a way of characterizing your devotion to the Lord – you’d say “I’m radically saved.” We meant that we had given all of ourselves to Him, and it was a good thing. But some people took the radical part to extremes. There were those who lived near my home town who thought the only way to be really radically saved was to live in a special place where they could pray and fellowship apart from the world in a commune. Yes, it was a big thing when I grew up – very popular in the culture of the world, and of the church. People left homes and jobs and families to do this – not necessarily because God was calling them to, but because it was a way to demonstrate just how “radical” they were for God.
Now when it comes to ridding your life of sin, being radical is a very good thing – but what can happen is we make radical changes to our lives just prove something, rather than to fulfill a mission from the Lord. And that’s the situation the Corinthians found themselves in.
To understand 1 Corinthians 7 you have to look at it with two things in mind. The first is the culture as it existed then – the concerns and the popular radical lifestyle changes swirling in that society – and the second is what Paul says in verse 29.
First, the culture – there were two schools of thought when it came to marriage, representing two opposing philosophical points of view - Asceticism vs hedonism. The hedonists thought that the body was bad and that the spirit part of you was the good part. Since the body was bad it might as well be ignored so it didn’t much matter what you did with it. The ascetics too thought that the body was bad, but they felt that you shouldn’t give in to what would be normal natural things, like sexual intimacy – even if you were married. What Paul talks about in this chapter make more sense when you understand that debate in the society and in the church.
The other thing is verse 29: “the time is short.” Paul believed the Lord was coming back right away – so live with that in mind – like tomorrow may be it. Now, there’s nothing wrong with living that way and we can learn a lot from what Paul says – but it colors the specifics that often trip up people reading this chapter.
And the question we need to answer is – given the fact that the Lord could come back any second – how far should we go in demonstrating our love and devotion to Him – even when it might mean hurting someone else?
We’re making a shift here, from Paul raising concerns over reports he’s heard, to answering questions that the Corinthians asked in a letter they sent to him.
1 Now for the matters you wrote about: It is good for a man not to marry.
OK – big problem right off the bat. Why did Paul say this? Especially in light of other places where he clearly lauds marriage – especially in Ephesians where he uses marriage as a picture of Christ’s relationship with the church.
The answer will come as we go through the chapter – but Paul is NOT putting down marriage.
2 But since there is so much immorality, each man should have his own wife, and each woman her own husband.
In other words – given the availability of sex on demand in Corinth through ritual prostitution – people who are married should have relations with their husband or wife and no other.
3 The husband should fulfill his marital duty to his wife, and likewise the wife to her husband. 4 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. 5 Do not deprive each other except by mutual consent and for a time, so that you may devote yourselves to prayer. Then come together again so that Satan will not tempt you because of your lack of self-control. 6 I say this as a concession, not as a command.
There were those in Corinth that, though married, would abstain from intimacy because they thought it somehow “impure.” This is the Ascetic argument. Paul is saying – don’t do that. If you really want to pray and fast and seek God then be apart for a set time – but it is unnatural for two married people to purposefully not be intimate.
Forced celibacy while married is a recipe for adultery. Celibacy is a gift, Paul says, but so is marriage.