It is Good for a Man Not To Touch a Woman – 1 Corinthians 7:1-2

Paul begins a long discussion of marriage and divorce with what appears to be a quotation: “It is good for a man not to touch a woman” (7:1-2). Who said this? Paul, or the Corinthians? In modern commentaries, this is the Corinthian attitude about marriage and sexual relationships, possibly another slogan from a faction in the church. Alternatively, some translations and commentators take this as Paul’s statement from an earlier letter or teaching at Corinth. Like 5:9-11, this statement was misunderstood and now needs to be clarified.

Do Not Touch a Woman

In contrast to Roman sexual ethics, someone in the Corinthian church claimed it better for believers to be celibate. If they are married to an unbelieving spouse, they must divorce the unbeliever and if they are unmarried, they should never marry.

To “touch a woman” is a euphemism for sexual relations, not marriage. The NIV (1984) originally translated the word as marriage, the NIV (2011) and the ESV both have “sexual relations; the NRSV has the literal phrase, “touch a woman.” This phrase refers to sex as recreation as opposed to procreation. There are at least twenty-five examples from Greek and Roman sources (Ciampa and Rosner, 1 Corinthians, 273-4; Gordon Fee, “1 Corinthians 7:1 in the NIV,” JETS 23 (1980): 307-24). Ciampa and Rosner suggest “it is not good for a man to bed/bang/shag a woman” (1 Corinthians, 275). Perhaps to update this a bit more: “it is not good for a person to hook up” or “it is not good to have friends with benefits.”

In the Roman world, sexual relations in marriage were intended for procreation, having legitimate heirs. A man was expected by society to meet his physical needs by extramarital affairs, prostitution, or his slaves. Sex with a married woman was forbidden (adultery was outlawed by Augustus, but men could have sex with unmarried women (and slaves). Kyle Harper suggests “Slaves played something like the part that masturbation has played in most cultures” (From Shame to Sin, 27). Prostitution was legal and common, as was homosexual sex (although it was not necessarily a romantic relationship). Sexual desires were like any other physical desire. Sometimes you need to burp to feel better.

If the Christian was to refrain from extramarital relationships (which were not considered out of bounds by the culture), and the marriage relationship was the only proper place for sexual relations, then Gentile converts to Christianity may have been surprised by recreational sex in the marriage relationship. Does Paul really mean men ought to satisfy their sexual desires with their wife (as opposed to with a prostitute or slave)?

Why would some Corinthian Christians consider abstinence as a good thing?  It is possible Paul’s earlier command not to associate with sexually immoral people was misunderstood. If a person was married to a spouse who had been a “sexually immoral” person, perhaps spouses thought they should give up relations with them or even divorce them.  That some Corinthians believers were practicing celibacy even in marriage may explain why some men were visiting prostitutes (6:12-17). Men may have thought using prostitution was an appropriate outlet that did not count as “touching a woman.”

Paul therefore challenges the prevailing Greco-Roman culture with his views on sex within marriage as well as outside marriage. Although modern readers are more familiar with Paul’s restriction of sexual relations to the marriage, this would have shocked the original readers.

6 thoughts on “It is Good for a Man Not To Touch a Woman – 1 Corinthians 7:1-2

  1. This is extremely interesting. I assume this is another application of a Jewish ethic to Gentiles who come to worship the Jewish God and Messiah. Is that accurate?

  2. Yes, one of many problems which arose when Gentiles began to follow Jesus (meat sacrificed to idols is another major problem in 1 Corinthians 8). In fact, I think most, if not all, the problems in 1 Corinthians are the result of Gentiles not fully applying the Gospel to aspects of their lives, they are trying to do Christianity like a Roman.

  3. Assume, as I think most scholars do, these were primarily “God fearers,” Gentiles who worshipped the Jewish god, engaged in some aspects of Jewish religious and cultural life, but were not ready to forsake their gods and peoples to join the Jewish people. Along comes Paul with a new message about how this works: Gentiles can worship the Jewish God through his Messiah as Gentiles; i.e, without fully adopting Torah and joining the Jewish nation. Yet to do so, these Gentiles must now accept some key Jewish practices. Chief among them is rejecting other gods as worthy of worship. But also a radically different sexual ethic. These God fearers had worshipped the Jewish God just fine while maintaining a “normal” sex life. Now Paul tells them the inclusion of the Messiah requires a complete upending of that life. They’re still Gentiles. But in key ways, they must live as Jews. I think the confusion would be understandable. I think a case could be made it still is. At least in the West, most Christians (and Jews) appear comfortable with a version of a”Gentile” sexual ethic.

  4. I can get where the Corinthians must have been coming from when they advocated celibacy among themselves. They had all shared in the experience of being born again through Christ. As redeemed persons with “new bodies”, the Corinthians probably advocated sexual purity as a means of preserving or honoring their redeemed status. Also, the members of the church were all part of one united church body. So there may also be some understanding among the Corinthian church that the actions of one part affect the whole body.

    On the other hand, there appears to be a lot of what the modern Christian would immediately recognize as sexual immorality within the Corinthian church. There is little doubt nowadays among the church that prostitution is wrong, but this was not an assumption at the time that Corinthians was written. The common practice of visiting the temple prostitutes was probably just as common within the church as it was in the rest of society. Paul addresses this here by stating plainly that men should remain faithful to only their wives and women to their husbands.

    The issue essentially comes from the fact that the Corinthian Christians were trying to take half measures in their walk with God. Had they been fully devoted to doing right, they probably could have known for themselves what they should be doing when faced with their previous way of life in Roman culture. Still, Paul says what many of them already knew and just weren’t putting into practice.

  5. Sexual immorality is one of the hardest things to avoid in today’s world. We see across our social media apps post being my physically appealing to the audiences and leading on. I believe Paul was referring to fulfilling sexual desires with one person you find true love with, many relationships use intercourse as forms of growing closer and fulfilling desires, not just entertainment purposes. People in todays world though can make healthy livings from sexually immoral jobs, a field that is encouraged by media. This has led to an increase in the human sex trafficking and our jobs as Christians shall be advocate for healthier lifestyles to where people can use their educations they earned and consumers can put their money towards better things in life.

  6. Paul, yet again, is telling the Church that a person should be single or remain single than have sexual relations with a woman that is not his wife and vice versa because the culture in the Greco-Roman empire was only for procreation, to make babies.

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