Summary: Marriage or singleness, celibacy or asceticism. The issue, whatever state we happen to be in, is this: "unhindered devotion to the Lord." Married or single, this is what matters: is your mind set on the things of the Lord? Are your energies directed to se
You can almost imagine Paul, sitting at his desk, with the letter that the Corinthians have sent him in his hand, as he dictates his reply. He’s been through the introductory remarks and now he comes to the questions they’ve put to him.
And again we discover just how contemporary some of their issues are. The first of the issues he responds to is the question of celibacy, which leads on to a range of questions around the issues of marriage and singleness. Despite the immorality he’s mentioned in ch6 it appears that there’s a group in Corinth who are promoting some sort of celibacy. "Is it good for a man not to touch a woman?" appears to be their question. That is, should we remain single and celibate. This is not a question about inappropriate behaviour by men towards women. It’s not a question about women as a source of evil and temptation as some have seen it. It’s a question about marriage or singleness; about adopting an ascetic lifestyle perhaps.
In fact it’s interesting that as you read through this chapter you begin to wonder whether he’s talking about not just single people remaining single and celibate, but even married people perhaps divorcing their unbelieving partners in order to become celibate in order to devote themselves to God alone.
It may well be that the question arises as a reaction to the sexual licence of the city of Corinth. Remember this is a major trading city, close to 2 major ports, with 2 large temples dedicated to sexual expression in worship. So it may be that the newly converted Christians have reacted against this overt sexual liberty the way some newly converted rock musicians reacted against rock music back in the 60s and 70s. By turning in the exact opposite direction, forbidding sexual expression altogether.
You can almost hear Paul’s mind ticking over as he answers their question, going back to his training as a Pharisee: "Is it good for a man not to touch a woman?" What do the Scriptures say? ’Then the LORD God said, "It is not good that the man should be alone; I will make him a helper as his partner."’ (Gen 2:18) And that passage from Gen 2 ends with the statement: "24Therefore a man leaves his father and his mother and clings to his wife, and they become one flesh." (Gen 2:24) So he says, "Sure it’s a good thing if a man can keep himself free from a sexual relationship with a woman." In fact he’ll go on later to say why this is a good thing for a Christian in the last days. "But the fact is, sex is part of how God has made us. Not everyone can handle celibacy. In fact it’s only those who are so gifted by God who can handle the difficulties of a celibate lifestyle. So God, in his wisdom, has ordained that we should marry. Sex within a committed marital relationship is the gift and plan of God for men and women. So if the opportunity arises, take it."
And then in this first section we find 4 statements about marriage that fundamentally challenge the prevailing view of the Corinthians and maybe even of people today.
1. Polygamy is excluded.
"Each man should have his own wife and each woman her own husband." Now the context here isn’t Solomon with his 700 wives and 300 concubines. It’s Corinth where sexual promiscuity was the norm. Last time we looked at the issue of prostitutes, male and female, being a common sight on the streets of Corinth. So when he says this is ’because of cases of sexual immorality’, that’s what he’s talking about. He’s talking about sexual promiscuity.
Today it isn’t prostitution that’s the issue, necessarily. It’s much more likely to be the short affair. What some have described as serial monogamy. The relationships that people have that are open-ended. That go on until one or other of the parties is tired of it. Then they move on. So what’s wrong with that? Well, back in the previous chapter we saw that when a man unites himself with a woman or vice versa, the two become one. Back there the issue was that the Corinthian prostitutes were servants of pagan Gods. Here the issue seems to be more to do with the creation ordinance of a man leaving his father and mother and cleaving only to his wife and the two becoming one. And we’ll see how that idea works itself out even where one partner is not a Christian in a moment.
2. Mutual conjugal rights
Secondly he emphasises the rights of husbands and wives to enjoy the physical intimacy of marriage. But notice that this isn’t actually about rights. It’s about responsibilities. The husband doesn’t have a right over his own body, nor does the wife have any right over her body. Rather they belong to each other. The covenant they’ve made with each other is that they’ll share their bodies with each other. Marriage has been instituted so that a man and a woman can enjoy physical, sexual pleasure in a stable, committed, complementary relationship, without any sense of guilt; without any sense that they should hold back from each other. Asceticism doesn’t belong in the marriage bed.