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Keeping Commitments - Sex and Marriage (a study of 1 Corinthians 7)

Updated: Apr 26, 2021

Humans are not birds and bees.

Bible Study Ideas and Commentary for 1 Corinthians 7:1-13

Corinth had a low view of marriage. Paul had to teach the new Christians that marriage is a divine institution built on mutual respect, care, and commitment. It is also the only place where sexual desires can be rightly satisfied. That makes remaining single a unique challenge, one that requires divine help to meet.

Otherwise, Satan may tempt you because of your lack of self-control. 1 Corinthians 7:6

[Throughout the years, I have produced a newsletter for teachers to help with that week's Bible study. I'm going through the very slow process of online-ifying old lessons in order to easily reference past ideas and topics.]

Like last week, I'd like to jump right into my big idea for the week.

This Week's Big Idea: Marriage in the Jewish and Roman Worlds

When God gave laws about marriage to Moses, it was kind of unheard of. “Love” and passion have always been a part of the human experience, but they haven’t always been connected to marriage. In ancient Mesopotamia, marriage was the institution for raising children. Marriage would be contractual, and “bride auction” was a thing. However, marriage was taken seriously and divorce was rarely granted. If you’re interested, here’s a well-researched article on the subject:

When you read Genesis, you see marriage between close relatives and marriage to multiple women. God put an end to that, and He also made a big deal about intermarriage with Canaanites. Why? Because parents greatly influence the spiritual trajectory of children, and God would not risk the children being led down paths of paganism or worse. You can read Ezra to see the mixed success of how Jews tried to implement those ideas.

Rome, on the other hand, did not have such a view of marriage. Roman marriages were arranged for political or social purposes and expected to produce children. (Aside: in both cultures, women were minimized; a woman who could not have children was disgraced.) To marry for love in the Roman Empire was considered deviant. What happens in a marriage in which the man does not love the woman? Affairs. In Rome, sexual affairs were normal—a man would have sex with his wife for children and sex with others (including men) for pleasure. This is not a healthy environment for people to learn (for the first time) about God’s standards Christian marriage! Just about everything Paul says would be considered wacky. (Aside 2: in both cultures, men had authority to divorce their wives for just about any reason.)

Roman and Jewish cultures were alike in that the primary role of the wife was childbearer and child-raiser (in Rome, free women were not even allowed to keep their home—that job fell to slaves). A woman who was single or who could not bear children really had no place; many of them were driven to slavery or prostitution. Men, on the other hand, conducted business and hung around public spaces debating politics. It was a destructive double-standard that has plagued western civilization through today.

That was the culture in which Paul wrote these instructions on marriage! Hopefully just that little glimpse will help you see how difficult it was for Paul to teach the basics of Christian marriage: one man and one woman for life; no sex outside of marriage; husband and wife are of equal value and responsibility.

In a city like Corinth, these teachings would have been counter-cultural. One can imagine how difficult it would have made a marriage between a Christian and non-Christian. But the knee-jerk reaction “no Christian should have sex ever!” is not right. God gave humans sexual desires—enjoyed properly between husband and wife. The person really thrown for a loop in this new worldview would have been the single person. To all of a sudden have to exclude oneself from a social network built on casual sex would have been very challenging. I’m sure this is why Paul called being a Christian single a “gift” from God.

Bonus Idea: The State of Marriage in the USA

Here are some statistics from a February report from the Pew research center. Basically, half of American adults are married. That number is higher for those with a bachelor’s degree. But people are marrying later—the median age at first marriage is now 29.5 for men and 27.4 for women. That explains why the divorce rate is shrinking for young people—young people aren’t getting married like they used to! 7% of American adults are cohabiting (half of those are younger than 35). Not surprisingly, 40% of all marriages are now remarriages. You might find it interesting that 54% of divorced women are not looking to remarry; 70% of divorced men are. One divorce lawyer has published that 41% of first marriages end in divorce, 60% of second marriages end in divorce, and 73% of third marriages end in divorce!

This next statistic is so pertinent to our lesson that I put the whole chart below: 24% of marriages do not share their religion. And piggybacking off what I said last week, 15% of American adults have used a dating app (27% of Americans age 18-24), and 59% of Americans say that on-line dating is a positive way to meet people! (Aside: 62% of Americans favor allowing LGBT to marry, and 61% of same-sex partners have gotten married. Ten years ago, those numbers were nowhere close.) Finally, I was encouraged to see that married people in general have more sex than single people and are more satisfied with their sex lives than single people. Long-term marriages can still be sexually active!


Part 1: Marriage and Intimacy (1 Corinthians 7:1-7)

Now in response to the matters you wrote about: “It is good for a man not to use a woman for sex.” But because sexual immorality is so common, each man should have sexual relations with his own wife, and each woman should have sexual relations with her own husband. A husband should fulfill his marital duty to his wife, and likewise a wife to her husband. A wife does not have the right over her own body, but her husband does. In the same way, a husband does not have the right over his own body, but his wife does. Do not deprive one another—except when you agree for a time, to devote yourselves to prayer. Then come together again; otherwise, Satan may tempt you because of your lack of self-control. I say this as a concession, not as a command. I wish that all people were as I am. But each has his own gift from God, one person has this gift, another has that.

I like the leader guide suggestion of opening class with “common advice given at weddings”. I would add to it “advice given to singles”. There’s lots of advice out there, some good and some bad. We need the Bible to help us sort it out! I also like the idea of dividing your class into two teams and summarizing what Paul sys in these verses to husbands and to wives. Take note of those things your class doesn’t like to hear, and see if you can encourage them to understand why Paul would be saying those things to the Christians in Corinth. (And feel free to write down questions and send them to me after class!)

Remember that 1 Corinthians is not actually the first letter between Paul and Corinth (and remember how immoral Corinth was as a city; the verb “to corinthianize” was used to mean “to have immoral sex”!), so Paul’s word about sexual self-control had garnered a wide range of responses. Some members of the church were taking Paul’s command about sexual self-control to an extreme: that its best for no one to have sex ever. That’s not what Paul said! Sexual desires are good and normal, but only in the context of marriage. They had ample proof around them that humans were willing to go to great lengths to satisfy their desires; it is very difficult to “turn those desires off”. If you are married, you can keep away from sexual temptation by being sexually satisfied in your marriage! (Think about it: is a person more likely to break a diet when full or when hungry?) Christians must know that Satan is very good at twisting our circumstances into temptations—we should do what we can to protect our spouse from temptation.

But catch this: in no culture did wives have authority over husbands—but here in Paul’s letter they do! Husbands have a “duty” to wives (we give that a negative connotation today, but the word just means “obligation”; a husband or wife does not have the right to use sex as a manipulative tool or punishment—that’s not why God created marriage). Paul was giving wives power that no one had given them. This is also Paul’s way of making it clear that no husband would be allowed to mistreat his wife (he goes into more detail about this in Ephesians 5).

Note Paul’s exception: for a time of prayer. In other words, when a spouse is so broken over a crisis that he/she needs to pray and fast, that’s the wrong time to ask for sex. Instead, join your spouse in ardent prayer. Now, when Paul talks about “a concession”, there is debate over whether he is referring to the time of sexual abstinence (i.e., he is not commanding couples to do that) or to the practice of celibacy (i.e., he is not commanding all Christians to be celibate). Either one would make sense. See the sidebar for my take on the gift of being single.


Aside: When Sex Was a Sin

Opinions toward sex among Christians are wide-ranging, and many Christians are not comfortable talking about sex at all. This is an unfortunate consequence of an age-old Catholic teaching that still affects us today. To make a long story short, Christians believe in “original sin”, that all people are born sinful, which is why all people (even babies) need a Savior. But how can babies be sinful unless they inherited it from their parents? That led some influential early Christian leaders to conclude that the act of sex itself is how babies inherit sin (which is why Jesus was sinless). That meant that for the next 2,000 years, many Christians have been taught that sex is a “necessary evil”—you have to have it to have children, but you should not enjoy it. Of course, the fact that there is so much sexual sin and deviance in the world only reinforces the idea that sex is bad.

Even when Protestants came out from under the Catholic umbrella, they brought with them this idea that sexual activity is inherently sinful (remember The Scarlet Letter?). That is understandable considering how easily sex can be misused, but also very unfortunate because it has probably driven more people into sexual indulgence, not having a safe place where they can talk about what sex is and how God intends it to be used. The truth is that God created sex to be enjoyed fully by married couples, and it is nothing to be ashamed of. Sadly, it’s just awkward for most Christians to talk about in public.

In summary, sexual desire is a gift from God—but it is only good if it is satisfied in the context of a marriage between a man and a woman.


Part 2: Marriage and Singleness (1 Corinthians 7:8-9)

I say to the unmarried and to widows: It is good for them if they remain as I am. But if they do not have self-control, they should marry, since it is better to marry than to burn with desire.

What are the hardest lifestyles for a Christian? (i.e., being in Hollywood, being a politician, being a professional athlete) and why? I think we should add “being single” to that list. There was a lot of pressure to get married/remarried in Paul's day (life expectancy was only 40s)—social acceptability, child raising, property rights. By encouraging women to remain single, Paul was saying something very counter-cultural. Later in 7:26, he mentions “this present distress” as a reason to stay single. You can imagine that during times of persecution, trying to protect a family would be soul-draining. But don’t ignore the power of sexual desire! Not everyone can remain single. If you can’t live a celibate life, you should get married and fulfill your sexual desires with your spouse. This seems like an odd reason to get married, but we still have to follow all of Paul’s other directives for finding the right spouse. (By the way, “burn” here does not refer to hell but to desires.) If you have someone in your class recently widowed, be very sensitive. This verse can be no fun to talk about.


Aside: The Gift of Being Single

This is entirely speculation—because Paul was a Pharisee, and because Pharisees believed strongly in marriage, I wonder if Paul was a widower. Whatever the case, the word he used for the “gift” of being single was the same word for the “spiritual gifts” of chapter 12. That’s very interesting. Here’s what it means:

It is difficult to remain single and sexually pure (you saw the figures I showed you last week about today’s 20-somethings). But if you can, you have more time, energy, and focus to be able to devote to the kingdom of God. God “needs” families to be salt in a community, but He also "needs" singles like Paul to blaze trails and go where families cannot. (Paul does not expect families to take children into dangerous mission fields or places of financial need. If they do, the parents spend time and energy worrying.) Some aspects of Christian life demand so much focus that families would otherwise be neglected. Singleness, then, for the glory of God is a wholesome inclination to be single but sexually pure—and have the spiritual and emotional reserves to live that life well and fully. A spouse is supposed to be God’s support system; singles have to build that network themselves.

Here’s what’s most important to note: there is nothing more spiritual or unspiritual about being married or single. They are simply different stations in life! Unfortunately, cultures then and now tend to look askance on single people (for reasons that I don’t fully understand). Paul wanted to make it clear that being single was not only okay, but doing it well was a gift from God! We should not put pressure on any Christian to get married out of time.


Part 3: Marriage and Divorce (1 Corinthians 7:10-13)

To the married I give this command—not I, but the Lord—a wife is not to leave her husband. But if she does leave, she must remain unmarried or be reconciled to her husband—and a husband is not to divorce his wife. But I (not the Lord) say to the rest: If any brother has an unbelieving wife and she is willing to live with him, he must not divorce her. Also, if any woman has an unbelieving husband and he is willing to live with her, she must not divorce her husband.

The comments about “the Lord’s” commands is not to say that something is more or less authoritative, but that we have records about what Jesus said. Jesus definitely said the first command; we don’t know if He said the second. (The second is still true.) Jesus doesn’t want anyone to walk away from a marriage. He specifically mentioned infidelity as a cause for divorce, and based on what He said about the treatment of people, when a spouse does the unthinkable of abusing the other, that’s a betrayal just as bad as infidelity. Those situations are not what Paul is talking about here. Divorce was easy in Corinth. A spouse simply had to abandon the other. In that day, it was common for one spouse to become a Christian but not the other, making for an awkward relationship. Well, “awkward” is not a reason for divorce. (Now, if the unbelieving spouse left, that’s not the Christian’s fault!) But don’t bury the lead—Paul says that if a Christian leaves a marriage because “it’s just not working out” (again, he’s not talking about abuse or infidelity here), you need to remain unmarried until you can get back together with your spouse. That was a tough teaching then, and it’s tough now. (Note: if the other spouse remarries or dies, then this command is null). These rules may be difficult to talk about, especially if we have been getting our marriage advice from the culture. And that’s the main point: Christians should not treat marriage the way their culture does; marriage belongs to God, not the culture. If you are married, do your intentions or actions in marriage line up with what God says about marriage in the Bible? Are you doing everything for your spouse that God would have you do? If you are single or widowed, are you committed to purity as God would have you to be?

[Knowing that you might get sidetracked here, let me say this: there is no consensus teaching on biblical grounds for divorce/remarriage, so we need to be gracious when expressing what we believe the Bible teaches. We need to support marriage and pray like crazy for marriages to succeed. But when a divorce happens, we need to support the hurting individuals and pray like crazy for their healing and restoration. And invest heavily into our own marriages if we have them.]


Aside: Did Paul Condone Slavery?

In the passage immediately following our focal passage, Paul makes the controversial statement, “Let each one remain in the situation he was when he became a Christian”. If that meant staying a slave, then stay a slave. A lot of moderns have accused Paul of condoning slavery (if only by not speaking against it as a social institution). That misses this point of Paul’s letter to the Corinthians! Because of how immoral their city was, several Corinthians had concluded that there was no way to be a good Christian and stay “in place” (i.e., same home, same job, same family). Paul was telling them that while some circumstances would be harder than others, no one could blame circumstances for their Christian walk. If you became a Christian as a single, a slave, married, divorced, you could stay there and serve God. He was making no points about good or bad therein.


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