We’ve seen over the weeks when we’ve been studying Paul’s first letter to the church in Corinth that he’s been dealing with a number of different issues which were spoiling things in the congregation. First of all, there were the divisions that existed in that church, with one group exalting themselves over another group. And so the church was divided and that was spoiling things. Secondly, Paul was concerned that the church was going to be spoilt because of the sin of one of its members. It appears that one of the members was sleeping with his step-mother; and what really shocked and concerned Paul was the fact that the rest of the congregation was tolerating this wicked thing. What they needed to do, said Paul in chapter 5, was to discipline this man and to remove him from the fellowship. And the church was in danger of being spoiled because of another problem. In chapter 6 Paul referred to how they were taking one another to court. Whenever there was a grievance between them, instead of sorting it out among themselves, they were suing one another in court, where they attacked each other’s reputation. Why did they have to rely on outsiders to settle problems in the church; can’t they sort it out themselves. So, that was another problem in the church which was spoiling their fellowship. And then at the end of chapter 6 Paul addressed another problem in the church: some of them believed everything was permissible for them and they could do whatever they wanted; they could even sleep with prostitutes if they wanted. And so, Paul had to write to them to tell them to flee from sexual immorality and to have nothing to do with it. So, that was another problem in the church.
The church in Corinth was riddled with problems. And in today’s passage, we come to another problem in the church. But this one is slightly different, because this is an issue which the members of the church raised with Paul in a letter. Look with me at the beginning of verse 1 of chapter 7 where Paul says:
Now for the matters you wrote about.
Up to now he was addressing problems which he had heard about and which had been reported to him about the church in Corinth. Now, he’s dealing with problems and issues which they themselves had raised with him in a letter. And the first issue was to do with marriage. Look at verse 1 again:
Now for the matters you wrote about: It is good for a man not to marry.
Now, that’s not a great translation of what Paul actually wrote. A more accurate translation of what Paul wrote is this:
Now for the matters you wrote about: It is good for a man not to touch a woman.
And when Paul says ‘touch’, he’s referring to the intimacy of a husband and wife. Paul wrote:
It’s good for a husband and wife not to be intimate with one another.
Now, the commentators believe that Paul is once again quoting something that some of the people in Corinth were saying. So, verse 1 begins with the words ‘Now for the matters you wrote about’; and then in the following words, Paul quotes something they had written in their letter to him.
The difficulty we have, you see, is that in biblical Greek there were no such things as quotation marks. For us, it’s easy in a letter or in a book to indicate that we’re quoting someone, because we put their words in quotation marks. But in biblical times, you didn’t have quotation marks. And so, you needed some other way to indicate that what followed was a quotation. For instance, in Matthew’s gospel we have lots of quotations from the OT; and Matthew signposts these quotations by saying:
For it is written…
This happened to fulfil what was spoken by the prophet….
Because the biblical writers didn’t have quotation marks, they had to give these little signposts or clues to tell their readers that what follows is a quotation. And many of the commentators think that when Paul says, ‘Now for the matters you wrote about’ that’s the clue that what follows is a quotation. In other words, in verse 1 Paul is saying: You say, ‘It is good for a man not to touch a woman’; and then he goes on to correct them.
Now, it’s not clear why some of them believed that it was good for husbands and wives not to be intimate with one another. However, it’s possible that some of them believed that since they were believers, and since they were holy people who must have holy thoughts, and since they were spiritual people who were called to live heavenly lives, then it was better for them to abstain from this kind of intimacy in order to serve the Lord and in order to devote themselves to him with all of their hearts. While there were some in Corinth who believed they could do as they please — because everything was permissible to them — there were others who believed the opposite and who thought it was better for husbands and wives to avoid all sexual contact so that they could devote themselves wholeheartedly to the Lord.
And so, what was Paul’s reply? Well, in verses 2 to 5 he deals with marriage in general. Then in verses 6 to 9 he offers a concession or exception to what he says about marriage. Then, in verses 10 to 16, he moves on to give instructions about divorce and whether believers are required to divorce unbelieving spouses. And finally in verses 17 to 24 he states a guiding principle which underlies what he’s been saying to them about these matters. So let’s look at these four sections now.
Verses 2 to 5
And when we turn to verses 2 to 5 it’s clear that Paul disagrees with the statement he quoted. They were saying it was good for a husband and wife not to be intimate with one another, whereas Paul states that it’s good for a husband and wife to be intimate with one another. Because of the temptation to immorality, he says, each man should have his own wife and each woman should have her own husband. The word ‘have’ here is a euphemism for sexual relations. So Paul is saying that in order to avoid sexual immorality, husbands and wives should be intimate with one another. They should be intimate with one another, because if they’re not, one or both of them might be tempted to sleep with someone else. And so husbands should fulfil their duty to their wives; and wives should fulfil their duty to their husbands. They should fulfil their duty to one another, because a wife’s body is not her own, but it belongs as well to her husband to whom she’s united as one flesh in marriage; and a husband’s body is not his own, but it belongs as well to his wife to whom he’s united as one flesh in marriage. So, Paul concludes in verse 5: don’t deprive one another except by mutual consent and only for a time so that you may devote yourself to prayer. So, from time to time, a couple may decide together that they need to devote themselves to prayer. So, just as someone might decide to fast from food when they want to devote themselves to prayer, so a couple might decide to fast from sleeping together when they want to devote themselves to prayer. But Paul was very clear: this can only happen by mutual consent; furthermore, it can only happen for a time and it must not be a permanent arrangement; after the agree period of time is over, they must come together again so that they don’t give Satan an opportunity to tempt them to be unfaithful to one another.
Well, perhaps some of them were thinking that they could serve God better if they avoided intimacy with their spouses. But Paul makes clear that avoiding intimacy with their spouses will only lead them into spiritual danger. They think abstaining is the road to greater holiness; but, says Paul, abstaining may lead to temptation and sin. Well, God’s word is clear: being holy doesn’t mean giving up our physical desires, but it means using them in an obedient way. Those who are not married, should not engage in any sexual activity; and those who are married, should not deprive one another unless by mutual consent and only then for a time. This doesn’t mean the Lord’s people can become demanding and they can demand their marital rights. No, the Lord’s people should never be demanding and selfish. Instead they’re to love one another and they should be willing to give themselves to one another.
Verses 6 to 9
In verses 6 to 9 Paul introduces a kind of concession or exception. He says in verse 7 that he wishes that everyone was as he is. He means that he wishes everyone was single as he was. Paul was an unmarried man; and he saw that there were certain advantages to being single. Later on he’ll talk about how married men and women are concerned about many things; and how they need to give their time and attention to caring for one another. So, I have a friend who is an unmarried minister and while I spend part of my time with Yvonne and the children, he’s free to devote as much time as he wants to study and to prayer and to visiting the people; he’s got all the time in the world because he doesn’t have a wife or children to care for. There are certain advantages to being single — though I should add that there are many, many advantages to being married. But in verse 7 Paul says that he wishes everyone was single like him. However, glance back to verse 6: this is a concession, an exception, not a command. He’s not commanding single people to remain single; and he’s certainly not commanding married people to divorce and become single. Furthermore, he adds in verse 7 that he knows that each man has his own gift from God. In other words, he’s saying that celibacy is a gift from God which God gives to some, but not to all. God gave Paul the ability to live a celibate life; he was perfectly happy to remain single; but he realises that not everyone is made the same way with the same gifts. And so, in verses 8 and 9, while it might be good for those who are unmarried and who are widows to remain single because there are certain advantages to singleness, nevertheless if they haven’t received from God the ability to live a single life, then they should marry. They should marry because while there may be advantages to remaining single, it’s better for them to marry rather than to burn with passion which they cannot satisfy if they remain unmarried.
So Paul is being marvellously flexible, isn’t he? He’s saying there are certain advantages or benefits to remaining single, nevertheless if you can’t live a single life, and if you want to get married, get married. Let nothing stop you. Don’t feel you’re being unfaithful or disobedient or less of a Christian for getting married. Don’t feel you’re only a second-class Christian if you’re married, because if God hasn’t given you the ability to live a single life, then the best way for you, the best way for you to remain faithful and obedient to the Lord is by getting married.
Verses 10 to 16
So, married couples are not to deprive themselves, except by mutual consent and for a short time. And while there are advantages to being single, feel free to get married if that’s what you want to do. In the third section, Paul addresses divorce. And first of all, in verses 10 and 11 he makes clear that a wife must not separate from her husband. If she does — and we all know that sometimes and sadly marriages break down — if she separates from her husband she must remain single or else be reconciled to her husband. Probably the reason she must remain single is so that she can be reconciled to her husband one day. Marrying someone else prevents the possibility of reconciliation ever taking place. And then Paul adds at the end of verse 11 that this also applies to husbands: a husband must not divorce his wife. And look again at verse 10: Paul makes clear that what he’s saying to them about separation and divorce is ‘from the Lord’: God’s will for married couples is that they remain together. If the marriage does break down, they could remain single in the hope that they can one day be reconciled, for what God has joined together, we must not separate.
Now, having laid down this basic teaching about divorce, Paul goes on in verses 12 to 16 to speak to those believers who are married to unbelieving spouses. No doubt this was quite common in those days: Paul went to Corinth, a pagan city, and preached the gospel. A married man heard the gospel and believed, though his wife was not unconverted. Or a married woman heard the gospel and believed, but her husband was not converted. What should happen in that situation? If I’m a believer and my wife isn’t, should I divorce her?
That’s perhaps what some people were saying; and we can imagine why they might say it: You’re meant to be devoted to the Lord; but how can you be devoted to the Lord and live with an unbeliever? Living with an unbeliever will make you unholy. Your unbelieving spouse will tempt you to sin. God’s will is for believers to marry believers; it’s wrong for you to remain married to this person who does not believe. We can imagine people saying that kind of thing.
But what does Paul say? Look at verse 12: if any brother — that is, if any fellow believer — has a wife who is not a believer and she is willing to live with him, he must not divorce her. If the unbelieving wife is happy to live with her believing husband, the believing husband must not seek a divorce. They must remain married. The marriage bond is so sacred, so special, that it must not be dissolved even if your spouse does not believe. And Paul says the same thing to believing women in verse 13: if a woman has a husband who is not a believer and he’s willing to live with her, she must not divorce him. If the unbelieving husband is happy to live with his believing wife, the believing wife must not seek a divorce.
And Paul adds in verse 14 that the unbelieving spouse has been sanctified through the believing spouse. Now, he doesn’t mean by that that the unbeliever is saved from God’s wrath by being married to a believer. He can’t mean that, because we’re justified by faith alone and not by marriage. However, Paul seems to be saying that the unbelieving spouse doesn’t make the marriage or the believing spouse unholy. In fact, it’s the opposite: the believing spouse makes the marriage and the unbelieving spouse holy. And whatever children they have are not to be regarded as unholy so that they’re not welcome in the church. No, their children are to be regarded as holy and they should therefore be welcomed by the church.
So, believers should not seek a divorce from their unbelieving spouses. However, if the unbelieving spouse leaves, let him do so. That’s in verse 15. If the unbeliever is happy to live with the believer, stay married, but if the unbeliever wants to leave, let him go, let her go.
Most commentators connect the next statement that we’re to live in peace with what Paul has just said about letting the unbeliever leave if he wants to. So, don’t create a fuss; and don’t make things difficult; separate from one another as peacefully as possible. However, it’s perhaps better to connect the statement about living in peace with the command not to separate. So, instead of creating division in the marriage, live together in peace as much as it depends on you.
And when it comes to verse 16, most commentators think Paul is being pessimistic. They believe he’s saying that if the unbeliever wants to leave, let him go, because who knows if he’ll ever be converted anyway. However, Paul is not normally pessimistic about the power of God to save. And so it’s possible that what he’s saying in verse 16 is connected to the command not to separate. He’s therefore saying: You shouldn’t separate from an unbeliever, because you never know, your unbelieving spouse might one day by converted to a true faith in the Saviour and receive salvation from God. So stick together.
Paul is making clear that the marriage bond is so sacred that a believer should not contemplate divorcing their unbelieving spouse. God’s will is for those who are married to remain married. His will is for husbands and wives to live together in peace. And who knows? Your unbelieving spouse might one day be won over to the faith. So — as far as it depends on you — remain married; and don’t think that by remaining married you’re disobeying the Lord and going against his will for your life. It’s God’s will for married couples to remain married.
Now, I should add that whenever a believer is thinking about who to date and who to marry, they should only date and marry another believer. Paul will go on to talk about marrying in the Lord. In other words, believers should only marry other believers. What Paul is writing about here in these verses are those occasions when someone who is already married is converted to faith in Christ. What should the new believer do in that situation? And the answer is: the believer should remain married.
Verses 17 to 24
And finally we come to verses 17 to 24 which contain the guiding principle which underlies what Paul has been saying. And the principle is stated there in verse 17:
each one should retain the place in life that the Lord assigned to him — as [or when] God has called him.
And he repeats the same principle in verse 20:
Each one should remain in the situation which he was in when God called him.
And he repeats it one more time in verse 24:
Brothers, each man, as responsible to God, should remain in the situation in which God called him.
Now, when Paul refers to our calling here, he’s referring to the call to believe. You see, when God wants to convert a sinner to faith in Christ, he calls us through the preaching of the gospel; and when God calls us, he enables us to repent and to believe the good news. God’s call is always effective, because when God calls us, he enables us to respond to the call.
And the principle Paul is setting down here is that we should remain in the situation we were in when God called us. So long as we’re not doing anything unlawful — for instance, so long as we’re not a thief when God calls us — then there’s no need to change the circumstances of our life whenever we’re converted to faith in Christ.
And Paul gives two examples to illustrate his point. First of all in verse 18 he asks: Were you circumcised when God called you? Well, remain circumcised and don’t try to have a procedure to reverse the circumcision. Were you uncircumcised when God called you? Well, remain uncircumcised, because whether you’re circumcised or not doesn’t really matter in God’s kingdom. The second example is in verse 21: Were you a slave when God called you? Well, don’t let it trouble you. Now Paul adds that if you can gain your freedom, then go ahead and take it. But if you can’t, don’t worry about it, because whether you’re a slave or free doesn’t really matter in God’s kingdom.
So, there you have two examples: Were you circumcised or uncircumcised when God called you? Were you a slave when God called you? Don’t worry about it. And so, were you married when God called you? Well, whether you were or whether you weren’t doesn’t really matter in God’s kingdom. Don’t worry about, but remain in the situation you were in when God called you to faith in Christ. Some people in Corinth seemed to think believers who were married should live as if they weren’t. Some people in Corinth seemed to think believers who were married to unbelievers should seek a divorce. Paul was saying to them: Remain as you were.
Now this is an very important passage. You see, we have a tendency to think about our lives as Christians in these terms. We think to ourselves:
Things would be so much better for me as a Christian if this was different or if that was different.
If this was different, it would be far easier for me to be a Christian.
If that were different, it would be a lot easier for me to obey God.
In Corinth, the thing people wanted to change was their marriage:
If I weren’t married, it would be a lot easier for me to obey God.
If I weren’t married to that person, then my life as a Christian would be a lot better.
For them, it was marriage. For us, it might be marriage; but it could just as easily be something else:
If I had a different job.
If I lived somewhere else.
If I were smarter.
If I were better educated.
If I were younger.
If I were older.
And on and on I could go. We have this tendency to think:
Wouldn’t it be good if….
We have a tendency to say to ourselves:
If only this could be changed, then I could really devote myself to obeying God.
But what is Paul’s point in this passage? It’s really this: We can love and obey the Lord in whatever circumstances we find ourselves. Even if a Christian is married to an unbeliever, it doesn’t really matter. We are still called to love and serve the Lord in whatever circumstances we find ourselves.
This is the life God has assigned to us; this is the life he has called us to; and we can look to him to help us to love him and to serve him and to bring glory to him in this life under these circumstances and in this situation. What counts, according to Paul in verse 19, is not circumcision or uncircumcision, or being a slave or being free, what job we have, whether we’re married or single, or who we’re married to. None of these things count in God’s kingdom. The thing that counts is keeping God’s commands and obeying him everyday.