For modern readers, Paul’s comments on marriage and divorce seem outdated.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?