Letters to the Corinthians: Family Matters

1 Corinthians 7:1-16 will be today’s section. First I think it’s worth noting that it reads a little bit like an advice column, asking about how they ought to have relationships as Christians and as Christians, what their relationships ought to look like. One thing that is also worth considering is that family was different for them then than it is for us now. Rome’s reach extended far beyond the reams we’re used to – laws and traditions were in place that governed everything from civil matters to family dynamics. Heads of the households weren’t just husbands presiding over their families, but law and tradition vested in them power over the members of their household, their wife, their unmarried daughters, their sons, their son’s families, their slaves, their slaves’ families and even their clients and freedmen who are connected to them. They were, in essence, a representative of the state in form of the leader of a family, as well as the priest over the spiritual life of the family, and the lawyer over the legal matters that affected the family, and the businessman that represented the family business all in one, the husband and father and master. It was a tricky thing to outwardly obey the Roman law and traditions concerning family and marriage and yet to inwardly redeem the institution with Christian teachings. Most of that is dealt in the household codes passages in Ephesians 5:22-6:9, Colossians 3:18-4:1, throughout 1 Timothy, Titus 2:1-10, and 1 Peter 2:13-3:7. This section gives us an even closer look at those dynamics – and they break rules and shatter expectations in a big way.

Now for the matters you wrote about: “It is good for a man not to have sexual relations with a woman.” But since sexual immorality is occurring, each man should have sexual relations with his own wife, and each woman with her own husband. The husband should fulfill his marital duty to his wife, and likewise the wife to her husband. The wife does not have authority over her own body but yields it to her husband. In the same way, the husband does not have authority over his own body but yields it to his wife. Do not deprive each other except perhaps 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. I say this as a concession, not as a command. I wish that all of you were as I am. But each of you has your own gift from God; one has this gift, another has that.

One of my least favorite Christian movements emphasize the duty of a wife to fulfill her marital duty to her husband so much so they ignore this section which gives her a choice and which requires the husband to respect it. We have to remember to keep it in context of the Corinthian’s culture – he knows that they a lot of problems with sexual immorality and he has to speak to that. Paul himself is actually single and he advocates singleness, but he knows that not everybody can live up to that idea.

Now to the unmarried and the widows I say: It is good for them to stay unmarried, as I do. But if they cannot control themselves, they should marry, for it is better to marry than to burn with passion.

And this is the big “Singleness is good …” verse – but since it ends with “it’s better for them to marry …” then in almost every single context I hear this verse spoken it’s almost a back-handed compliment. In today’s marriage-obsessed church, there really does need to be something more for singleness than :”It’s a good thing you’re single, but it’d be so much better if you were married. Why settle for less than the best?”

To the married I give this command (not I, but the Lord): A wife must not separate from her husband. But if she does, she must remain unmarried or else be reconciled to her husband. And a husband must not divorce his wife.

So which is it? “A wife mustn’t …” “But if she does …” Another cultural difference is that we tend to view rules as completely and equally applicable to everyone. But in other cultures, rules tend to have exceptions. I think there is concession being made here – it’s not ideal for a woman to separate from her husband but it’s not a sin if she does. The husband doesn’t get similar command.

To the rest I say this (I, not the Lord): If any brother has a wife who is not a believer and she is willing to live with him, he must not divorce her. And if a woman has a husband who is not a believer and he is willing to live with her, she must not divorce him. For the unbelieving husband has been sanctified through his wife, and the unbelieving wife has been sanctified through her believing husband. Otherwise your children would be unclean, but as it is, they are holy.

This is a conundrum – if Paul is saying something that he says the Lord isn’t saying, but it ends up in the Bible – the word of God, and God includes Jesus Christ our Lord, then isn’t the Lord saying the very thing he isn’t saying? Paul couldn’t have known that his letter – his advice column – on marriage and relationships would eventually wind up in the Bible. After all, his first and third letters didn’t.

But if the unbeliever leaves, let it be so. The brother or the sister is not bound in such circumstances; God has called us to live in peace. How do you know, wife, whether you will save your husband? Or, how do you know, husband, whether you will save your wife?

And that wraps up these sections – It seems to me that the difference in interpretation lies in us. Some people prefer to read the Bible as literally (wooden) as possible looking for the plain-sense interpretation. But we are a different society in every way. I think we’ll see more clearly just how different we are as we read through the next sections.


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