For modern readers, Paul’s comments on marriage and divorce seem outdated. After responded to several related issues reported by the household of Chole, Paul moves on to questions from the Corinthians sent to Paul in a letter. Some of these questions relate to the reported problems. Paul begins with questions about marriage since the church asked about the topic, but Paul’s answer addresses the specific situation in the Corinthian church in chapters 5-6, sexual ethics. Notice the final words of 1 Corinthians 6, “honor God with your body.” How does the Christian honor God with their body? Flee sexual immorality (6:18) and pursue healthy sexual relations within marriage (7:1-7).
The context for Paul’s comments on marriage and divorce is “this present crisis” (1 Cor 7:26). If this refers to persecution, then marriage would be less important since there is a real possibility of death. But the “crisis” might be frequent famines plaguing Corinth in the first century. If this is the case, even sex within a marriage may very well result in a child, “another mouth to feed” (Ciampa and Rosner, 1 Corinthians, 270). It is possible this explains why married couples refrained from sex while the men still visited the prostitutes (6:12-17).
Paul’s marital status is another factor which may have affected the situation. In 1 Corinthians 7:6 Paul says he remains unmarried to devote himself fully to his ministry. If 1 Corinthians 7:6 does in fact imply Paul is unmarried, then perhaps at least some in the Corinthian church took his status as a model to imitate and were taking voluntary vows of celibacy even if they were already married. There are three marital statuses addressed in this chapter: Married to a believer, married to an unbeliever, and unmarried. An unmarried person might be a widow or a “not yet married person” (a virgin in verse 25).
One last point before looking at the details of the chapter. Paul is not writing a comprehensive “theology of marriage and divorce” in this chapter. Contemporary Christianity has defined marriage in far more detail than Paul does here, and most people have far more questions about what sorts of conditions might lead to divorce. We want to define infidelity more precisely or consider spousal abuse (whether physical or emotional). Paul never addressed the question, “Should I divorce my husband if he abuses the children?” Should I divorce my husband if he is a raging alcoholic or mentally unstable?” “Can I divorce my husband if he comes out of the closet and announces he is gay?” “Can I divorce my husband if he decides he is trans and begins to transition to a woman?” Can 1 Corinthians 7 even be used to answer such questions?
Many contemporary Christians readers approach this passage with the question, “under what circumstances is divorce permissible today.” (Or better, is there any way I can get out of this rotten marriage and not go to hell?) Others are be shocked at Paul’s patriarchal attitudes toward women in the passage, but Ben Witherington suggests most women in the Greco-Roman church of Corinth “surely would have welcomed Paul’s attempts to reform the patriarchal approach to marriage and singleness” (1-2 Corinthians, 177).
Paul’s point when he wrote the original letter was not to encourage divorce. Rather than “when can I get a divorce,” Paul offers a series of encouragements to the Corinthians to stay married. Paul’s thoughts on marriage are directed at the Corinthian situation, not ours. “Paul is not answering questions but questioning answers” (Garland, 1 Corinthians 252). Nevertheless, we can draw some principles about marriage and divorce from this passage and the rest of Scripture which the Holy Spirit may use to guide our thinking about contemporary questions about marriage and divorce
What is Paul’s main concern in 1 Corinthians 7? How does he challenge views of marriage and divorce in the Greco-Roman world?
5 thoughts on “Paul, Marriage and Divorce – 1 Corinthians 7”
It seems that Paul’s main motive for 1 Corinthians chapter 7 is that Paul wants people in the church to remain married. The culture of the people of Corinth seems to be one that looks poorly on marriage and wants to divorce. As the writer of the blog said, “Rather than “when can I get a divorce,” Paul offers a series of encouragement to the Corinthians to stay married”. The people of the church were looking for reasons to be able to divorce, but Paul did not give them a way out; he instead told them that they should remain how they are. The biggest thing that Paul challenged the cultures view of marriage and divorce was that he actually told the people of Corinth to love their spouses. The people of Corinth did not get married for love, but rather to have children or convenience. Paul wanted spouses in the church to love each other and not to just live together. Paul also wanted the church members to only have sexual relations with their spouses and not with other people. Men and women could sleep with anyone who they wanted to as long as that person was not married. So, Paul telling them that they were to only have sexual relations with their spouse would have been super counter cultural to those people.
Paul’s main concern in 1 Corinthians 7 is that the Corinthian church develops a healthy spiritual lifestyle of living in “undivided devotion to the Lord” (1 Cor 7:35 ESV) in their present marital relationships and make no change to themselves, from when they were first called by God into faith in Christ (1 Cor 7:17). Some in the Corinthian church may have though that since Paul appears to be single, celibacy is the best way to live honoring Christ (long). Paul’s opens chapter 7 addressing the question of “it is good for a man not to have sexual relations with a woman” (1 Cor 7:1 ESV). Paul continues to say that due to Corinthian churches own “lack of self-control”(1 Cor 7:5 ESV). It is better for the Corinthians who are married to have sexual relations often, only with their spouse that they are married to. Paul challenges the Greco roman culture by looking at marriage from the viewpoint of Judaism. that marriage and sexual intercourse is to be between one husband and one wife (Gen 2:23-24, Exodus 20:14). That sex in the context of a marriage relationship between a husband and wife is a gift from God and is to be enjoyed (Proverbs 5:15-20). This concept would be foreign to most non-Jews especially that both men and women are to freely give themselves over to meeting each other’s needs in a sexual relationship (1 Cor 7:4-5).
Paul also addresses people in various relationship statuses such as unmarried and widows. Paul suggests it would be best for them to practice self -control as He does, but if they cannot, they should marry (1 Cor 7:8-9). Pual also addresses divorce. In Paul’s time Roman law allowed people to divorce for any reason” (P. Long, Bible 410 class notes, September 29, 2022). Paul holds to traditional Jewish law that only for unfaithfulness of being in a relationship with another could one be divorced. In the early Christian church, one might also divorce their spouse if they have not become a Christian. Paul refutes this saying if the one who is a Christians chooses to stay with their spouse, they might bring them to be saved (1 Cor 7:12-16).
In conclusion Paul is looking after the church’s best interests saying in 1 Corinthians 7:32 “I want you to be free from anxieties” (ESV). That, if possible, the church ought to practice self-control at every stage of life they are in. Whether that means being single, betrothed, married, or widowed. If they are unable to control their desires, then it is in their best interests to marry then have lust be carried in within them (1 Cor 7: 9). Towards the end of chapter 7 Paul says how “it is no sin” for one to marry. But if one has self-control in being betrothed that is good, one who has self-control in marriage is better and self-control as to remain single is even better. So, Paul’s main purpose to the Corinthians in this passage is not to have the church only remain single but for them to demonstrate self-control.
In 1st Corinthians 7, we see that the Corinth Church had sexual immorality and needed Paul’s help. Paul puts it plainly, women should only have a sexual relationship with their husbands, and husbands should only have sexual relations with their wives, no exception. Additionally, Paul tells the people that the wife’s body is not her own and neither is the husband’s body his own, so if one person wants to have sexual relations, the other shouldn’t say no because they shouldn’t deprive of a sexual relationship. Unless they are being unfaithful with each other, and in that case, they should pray about it and hold off on having sexual relations with their wife or husband until the temptation of cheating stops and they can gain self-control.
However, Paul also talked to two other groups of people: the Widowed and the Single. He brags to them about his ability to stay single. He continued to tell them they should remain single and widowed so they don’t have the temptation to prostitute themselves.
Then, things go sideways: Paul tells the people that a woman can leave her husband but can never marry someone else and if she thinks he is cheating on her, but the husband can’t divorce his wife. This statement makes it sound like the husband is above his wife even though his “body” belongs to his wife, not himself.