Summary: The blessing of marital sex.
1 Corinthians is good letter for pastors to read whenever they are feeling discouraged. They read about Paul’s pastoral problems with the Corinth church and think to themselves at least their problems aren’t that bad!
Let’s review for a moment the situation at First Church of Corinth. This is a spiritually gifted church, particularly in the area of knowledge and speech. They prophesy, speak in tongues, and think they have the inside track on spiritual knowledge. They have outgrown the pedantic teachings of their spiritual father Paul, who remains stuck on the old-fashioned (foolish) theme of the cross. They have spiritually arrived and would like to move to higher things. Meanwhile, there is blatant sexual immorality taking place, even the kind that scandalizes pagans – a man having sexual relations with his stepmother. They don’t seemed troubled by it. What they are troubled by is not getting their due, and so they sue one another in civil court. Our last passage in chapter six addresses the issue of a number of the church members going to prostitutes. How much weirder can these people get? We are about to find out.
Now concerning the matters about which you wrote: “It is good for a man not to have sexual relations with a woman.”
We need to get straight the meaning of this verse. The KJ and NKJ reads that it is good for a man not to “touch” a woman. “Touch” is the literal rendering of the Greek word. The question is what is meant by that term in this context. The NIV interprets the word to mean “to marry.” The ESV has “sexual relations.” The latter seems the proper rendering. According to Gordon Fee, all other uses of the term in Greek antiquity refers to sexual relations. Commentators choosing “to marry” give no other grounds than the context, which itself is a matter of interpretation.
The question has to do with whom the phrase, It is good for a man not to have sexual relations with a woman, belongs to. There are no quotations in the Greek manuscript. Thus, is Paul saying, “Now concerning the matters you wrote about, here is my response: It is good…”? Or is Paul saying, “Now concerning the matters you wrote about, and let me quote from your letter: ‘It is good…”? As in chapter 6:12ff, it appears that Paul is responding to comments of the Corinthians themselves. It is likely that they are using Paul’s own teaching, but distorting it so that some of them are making the following claim: It is good for husbands and wives to abstain from sexual relations within their marriages. The following verses, as we will see, put the context within marriage, not in getting married, but in the present state of married life.
Where did the Corinth saints come up with that strange idea? Some of it may be a misunderstanding of Paul’s teaching. As will be seen in the next passage, he was celibate and thought well of it as a spiritual gift. Perhaps some were thinking that celibacy was a higher gift and they should be practicing it, even if they were married. As Christians, they have entered into a new spiritual state where the old ways have passed and the new age has arrived. Speaking of arriving, they have demonstrated, have they not, their high spiritual state with their impressive gifts.
Whether they understand it or not, their “higher spiritual” mentality is influenced by their pagan wisdom culture, which teaches that the spiritual is real and the material is not or at least not of relevance. Such a teaching can lead to two contrasting lifestyles. The ascetic route is that one should give little attention to the material life, disciplining the body to be subservient to the spirit or soul. Have as little to do with physical pleasure as possible so one can be focused on the spiritual. The Epicurean route takes the opposite perspective. If the material is not real and does not matter, then, hey, do whatever you want with the body. It does not matter. That is the argument some of the Corinthians were making in chapter 6, verses 12 following.
In the Corinth church, then, are people of both persuasions. They all take the perspective of being “spiritually elite.” For some, that means to be above physical pleasures; for others, it means to indulge in them. How do you think such contrary views were affecting marriages? We learn from chapter six that some of the men were visiting the local temple to use the services of the “priestesses”; could it be they were married to wives convinced of celibacy? Verse two speaks of such a problem.
2 But because of the temptation to sexual immorality. The ESV does not give the accurate picture of what is going on. There is no word corresponding to “temptation.” The Corinthians’ problem is not that they are tempted to be sexually immoral; they have passed that stage. They are engaging in sexually immoral acts. That single word translated in the singular is plural. As noble as celibacy might seem, it is not working and, for that matter, should not work within a marriage.