Do Not Be a Stumbling Block – 1 Corinthians 8:9-13

Paul concludes his discussion of eating food sacrificed to idols by warning his readers to be careful how they use their freedom in Christ. You may be free to eat food sacrificed to idols, Paul says, but be careful to not cause another believer to stumble (1 Corinthians 8:9-10). Most people understand the metaphor of a stumbling-block. The word refers to something which literally causes someone to stumble, a hidden rock in a path, etc. How is eating food sacrificed to idols a stumbling block?

stumbling block

The situation Paul has in mind is the wealthy or elite in the churches who attend a banquet at a temple. A private meal may not have attracted anyone’s attention, but someone who is invited to an important civic function at a temple would make that sort of thing known to others. It seems highly likely the elite in the church boasted in their participation in the civic banquets, and they may have encouraged others to participate as well.

Why would the Corinthians think that they had a right to eat at a banquet? Bruce Winter suggests this may be a right as a Corinthian elite (After Paul Left Corinth, 280).  The elite can eat rich meals at a temple because they were invited. A gentile Christian might consider eating the mean their right because they are free from the Law (they can eat food forbidden by the Law).

It is possible to have knowledge the idol-food is nothing, but not express that knowledge with love, therefore harming brother or sister in Christ (8:11-12). It is possible the Gentile believers in the church had no problem attending meals at a temple, while Jewish believers would find this highly sensitive. Gentile Christians may have been more socially higher class than Jewish Christians and felt more pressure to attend civic banquets. If the Gentile believers were encouraging Jews or others who believed that attending the temple meals with sin, then they would be “causing them to stumble.”

Paul therefore declares it is better to abstain then cause a brother to sin! (8:13) Earlier in the letter, Paul said it is better to be wronged than to bring a brother to a secular court. In 1 Corinthians 8 he applies this same principle to eating food sacrificed to idols. It is better never to eat meat again than to cause someone to stumble.

Setting aside one’s freedom runs contrary to modern (American) ideas of freedom. American freedom should never be confused with Christian Liberty in Christ. Because we have a right (as Americans) to some social behavior, we must evaluate the practice through the lens of the Gospel. As an American I might have a right to do something, but should I set aside that right, as a Christian, in order to not cause another Christian to sin? There are many examples of Christians abusing their rights as Americans which might cause others to sin 9Maybe you can give your own suggestion in the comments section!)

Paul is clear: we have freedom in Christ, but that freedom is an opportunity to serve others in love. For Paul, the Gospel always takes precedence to an individual’s freedom in matters of indifference. His over-riding concern is for the outsider who may be attracted or repelled from the Gospel based on how the church looks from the outside. This does not seem fair, but it is the way things work out in the real world!

Paul must balance Christian liberty in Christ with the need to present the Gospel to an entirely pagan world. He is clear that the Gospel is more important than personal liberty; you’re your freed in Christ interferes with the Gospel, then your freedom needs to be restrained. Like Paul and the Lord Jesus Christ, we ought quickly to set aside our insistence on our rights as free in Christ so we will be able to present the Gospel without hindrance.

Married to an Unbeliever?  1 Corinthians 7:10-16

The ideal marriage for Paul is two people who get married and stay that way until “Death do they part.” Paul views marriage the way most Jews in the first century would. Based on Genesis 2:18-24 or Ecclesiastes 9:9-10, people who marry should enjoy life with their spouse. This is what Jesus taught in the Sermon on the Mount, although there is provision in the Law for divorce in the case of unfaithfulness. But what happens if a believer is married to an unbeliever? Can the believer divorce the unbeliever, so they are not “unequally yoked”?

Married to an Unbeliever

As I have stated before, this passage is not a comprehensive theology of divorce and there are many situations in a modern marriage may end in divorce not anticipated in the teaching of Jesus or Paul. If a woman is being abused by her husband, she should get out of the relationship as soon as possible, protect herself and her children. There are more ways for a spouse to break their marriage vows than simply adultery.

What is remarkable is that Paul extends the command to both the husband and the wife. The divorce law from Deuteronomy 24 only allows a husband to divorce, Paul suggests a woman could divorce a husband. In addition, the grounds for the divorce in 1 Corinthians 7 is expanded to include abandonment. If an unbelieving spouse abandons a believer, the believer can “let them go.” So Paul is opening up the possibility for a divorce beyond marital unfaithfulness.

Roman law allowed people to divorce for any reason. Divorce was permitted for infertility or infidelity, but more common among wealthy. “The Romans had one of the most liberal regimes of divorce in human history; legally, divorce could be obtained unilaterally, without cause, by either party, without cumbersome procedural obstacles; the strict separation of spousal property, and the prohibition of gifts between the husband and the wife, abetted easy separation” (Kyle Harper, From Shame to Sin, 163).

For most people, there was no official marriage with a marriage contract. Since there was no legal contract binding the two, a couple could split and simply start living somewhere else. The situation was more complicated for slaves since a master could transfer one partner to another part of his estate or even sell the partner. This makes direct application to modern (wester, American) marriage and divorce questions difficult because a marriage is as much a legal partnership as a romantic one.

What about people married to unbelievers (7:12-16). In this section, Paul deals with what was likely a common problem for the first generation of Christians. Some women may have converted to Christianity, but their husbands do not. In the Roman world, a wife would convert to her husband’s gods when she married. This would not be a problem in most cases since she would adopt the family gods of her new family.

“A wife’s conversion to Christianity undoubtedly would have created strife, if only as a slap at her husband’s authority over her…. a wife’s refusal to accept Christianity after her husband’s conversion also would have made things quite awkward since the Christian faith was highly intolerant of other religious beliefs and practices” (Garland, 1 Corinthians, 284).

The reason wives are addresses is a husband who converted to Christianity would simply force the whole family to “convert” to the new faith. A pagan wife might simply see worship of this “new God” as her natural duty, whether she really believed or not.

It is likely some in the Corinthian church were using their new relationship with Christ as a “ground for divorce.” After all, Paul has taught the church they need to separate from the world and to not be with immoral people. If a Christian woman took that seriously, she might have sought to divorce her idolatrous husband, who was most likely participating in all the immoral things most Roman men would.

I will treat verse 14 in another post, but for now it is important to hear what Paul has said (and what he has not said).  Paul does not declare all divorce sinful and anyone who divorces their spouse is damned to hell. He recognizes that marriages do end for good (and bad) reasons. People who find themselves in a marriage that breaks up need the support of their family, in the context, their brothers and sisters in Christ.

Widowers and Widows – 1 Corinthians 7:8-9

While some in the Corinthian church struggled with immorality, there were others who sought to set marriage aside as a hindrance to attaining deeper levels of spiritual life. Paul agrees there is some benefit remaining single, but only if the person is already single. He does not want believers to divorce their unbelieving spouses. Beginning with widowers and widows, Paul turns at this point to a few examples of marital statuses to emphasize the importance of marriage. What does Paul say about how the church should care for widows?

Widow Funeral

The “unmarried” (ἄγαμος) in verse 8 is paired with widows (χήρα), so it may be Paul has in mind both men and women who had been married but lost their spouse to death. Later in this chapter he will address people who have never been married, but in this first section his focus is on people who may want to remarry.

The best case, Paul says, is that they remain as Paul is. The word “single” is not in the Greek and “what Paul is” remains unstated. They knew, we are not quite sure. Possibly Paul had been married and was widowed or divorced, but at the present time he is not married. In 7:7 he expressed his wish that everyone could “be as I am,” but even there he does not explicitly say he is practicing celibacy. Give the context of the whole chapter, it is likely Paul means that he is able to practice self-control and live an unmarried life in order to devote himself to ministry.

Paul needs to address people who are unmarried because their spouse had died because women often married young, just after puberty. Since arranged marriages between older men and younger women were common, a woman might be quite young when her husband died. Since young women often died in childbirth, men were left without a wife. If there where Christians in the Corinthian church in these common situations, how does “I wish that all were as I myself am” apply to them? Should they remarry or stay single?

Unlike 1 Timothy 5:3-16, Paul does not make a distinction between younger and older widows, nor does he command the church to care for older widows (although 1 Timothy is clear the church ought to take care of them). Paul does not consider a widow any different than a person who has not yet married. Marriage is good, so they should remarry if they desire, or they can stay single if they prefer. But if they do not remarry, the church ought to take care of widows as a family should.

I realize I am including widowers (men who have lost their spouse) in this discussion although Paul does not directly address them as much as he does widows. I do this because in a modern context, churches need to care for older men who have lost their wives as much as they do women who have lost their husbands. Since modern marriages are between people of similar ages (unlike the Roman world), the church needs to care for all spouses who have lost their partners.

Verse 9 has two difficult phrases. First, Paul says if the widowers and widows “cannot exercise (or practice, NRSV) self-control” (ESV), or “if they cannot control themselves” (NIV 2011). The verb (ἐγκρατεύομαι) refers to controlling passion and desire. Later Christians used the word for abstinence (for example, Justin, Apology, 1.29). But in 1 Corinthians 9:25 Paul uses the same word for the self-discipline of an athlete.

Second, Paul says it is “Better to marry than to burn (πυρόω).” The word “passion” does not appear in the Greek. The ESV and other modern translations add the word to avoid the impression of “burning in hell.” Paul does not say, “you better get married, or you are doomed to hell!” The verb burn here refers to burning with passion.  Achilles Tatius (Leuc. Clit. 5.26.2) is an example of the verb “burn” used for sexual passion: “However angry you make me, I still burn with love for you…. Make a truce with me at least for now; pity me, a single consummation will be enough. It is a small remedy I ask for so great an illness. Quench a little of my fire” (cited by Garland, 1 Corinthians, 275).

Self-control is Paul’s overriding concern in this passage. Marriage is good, Paul says, and sex is part of God’s plan, but in all things believers ought to control their passions.

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.

Paul, Marriage and Divorce – 1 Corinthians 7

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).

Marriage and Divorce

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?