Welcome back to my study/review of 1 Corinthians. If you missed the previous parts of this study, you can find them HERE.
1 Corinthians 7:1-5
7 Now concerning the matters about which you wrote: “It is good for a man not to have sexual relations with a woman.” 2 But because of the temptation to sexual immorality, each man should have his own wife and each woman her own husband. 3 The husband should give to his wife her conjugal rights, and likewise the wife to her husband. 4 For the wife does not have authority over her own body, but the husband does. Likewise the husband does not have authority over his own body, but the wife does. 5 Do not deprive one another, except perhaps by agreement for a limited time, that you may devote yourselves to prayer; but then come together again, so that Satan may not tempt you because of your lack of self-control.
In chapter 7, Paul begins to outline his views on sexual relationships and he apparently do so as a response to a question received from the Corinthians. The evidence that this portion of the Epistle is a response, is Paul’s use of “now concerning” in verse 1. Paul gives his answer, initially, in the context of marriage. Starting with The Pulpit Commentaries:
Now concerning. This refers to questions of the Corinthians. It is good for a man not to touch a woman. The word used is not agathon, good, but kalon, fair; “an excellent thing.” In 1 Corinthians 7:26 he limits the word by the clause, “good for the present necessity.” There is no limitation here, and it is probable that St. Paul is quoting the actual words of the letter which he had received from Corinth. There had sprung up among them some antinomians, who, perhaps by perverting his own teaching or that of Apollos, had made liberty a cloak of lasciviousness. In indignant reaction against such laxity, others, perhaps, with Essene proclivities, had been led to disparage matrimony as involving an inevitable stain. Gnosticism, and the spirit which led to it, oscillated between the two extremes of asceticism and uncleanness. Both extremes were grounded on the assertion that matter is inherently evil. Ascetic Gnostics, therefore, strove to destroy by severity every carnal impulse; antinomian Gnostics argued that the life of the spirit was so utterly independent of the flesh that what the flesh did was of no consequence. We find the germs of Gnostic heresy long before the name appeared. Theoretically, St. Paul inclines to the ascetic view, not in the abstract, but in view of the near advent of Christ, and of the cares, distractions, and even trials which marriage involved in days of struggle and persecution. Yet his wisdom is shown in the cautious moderation with which he expresses himself. The tone of the letter written by Gregory the Great to Augustine with reference to similar inquiries about Saxon converts is very different. The example of St. Paul should have shown the mediaeval moralists and even the later Fathers how wrong it is “to give themselves airs of certainty on points where certainty is not to be had.” Not to touch a woman. St. Paul means generally “not to marry” (comp. Genesis 20:4 [LXX.]). Celibacy under the then existing conditions of the Christian world is, he admits, in itself an honourable and morally salutary thing, though, for the majority, marriage may be a positive duty. He is not dreaming of the nominal marriages of mediaeval ascetics, for he assumes and directs that all who marry should live in conjugal union.
The note here provides a Church history lesson and sets out wrong teaching, regarding sexual immorality, that has existed for as long as the Church has existed. Christianity does not demand eternal celibacy, nor does it favor that its members embrace sexual liberty such that what a person does sexually is of no consequence. Paul wants the Corinthians to avoid fornication. Continuing in Ellicott’s Bible Commentary:
(2) To avoid fornication.—Better, because of the (prevalent) fornication. This was so general in Corinth, and so little regarded as sin. that the unmarried were liable to be led into it.
It may at first sight appear as if the Apostle thus put marriage upon very low and merely utilitarian ground: but we must remember that he is here writing with a definite and limited aim, and does not enter into a general discussion of the subject. St. Paul gives a reason why those who wrote to him should marry, and the force of the argument does not extend beyond the immediate object in view. St. Paul’s view of the higher aspects of matrimony are fully set forth when he treats of that subject generally (2 Corinthians 11:2; Romans 7:4; Ephesians 5:25-32).
Sexual immorality is so common in Corinth that it garners little comment. That is very similar to current cultural norms in the Western world, so this discussion should simultaneously be both relatable and difficult (as it was for those in Corinth.) I think the note makes an important point regarding this section. There might be a temptation as a modern reader to interpret Paul as having a limited and mostly utilitarian view of marriage. The problem with that perspective though is that Paul is not writing about marriage here, generally. He is addressing a very definite issue, of which marriage is related to his advice. Continuing on in the next verse with The Pulpit Commentaries:
Due benevolence. An euphemistic and needless modification by the copyists of the pure and simple expression of St. Paul, which, as shown by the best manuscripts, is “her due”—debitum tori. St. Paul is evidently entering on these subjects, not out of any love for them; but because all kinds of extreme views—immoral indifference and over scrupulous asceticism—had claimed dominance among the Corinthians.
The wife hath not power, Marriage is not a capricious union, but a holy bond. “They two” become “one flesh.”
This is relatively straight-forward. As the note in verse 4 states, the point Paul is making is that once married, the two are one flesh, so each spouse has rights to the other. Evenhere though, Paul does provide an exception. Looking at Ellicott and verse 5:
(5) Except it be . . . that ye may give yourselves—i.e., that ye may have leisure. Any such separation should be temporary, and with consent of both parties. Even then it must not be from mere caprice, but for some religious purpose, such as a special season of prayer. (See Exodus 19:15; 1 Samuel 21:4.) The alteration in the Greek text of the word “give” into the present tense, so as to make the word “prayer” refer to daily devotions, and not to special and exceptional seasons, and the interpolation of the word “fasting”—not found in the older MSS.—are a striking example of how the ascetic tendencies of a particular ecclesiastical school of thought led to their “amending” the sacred text so as to make it be in harmony with their own views, instead of reverently regarding it as that by which those very views should be corrected.
And come together again.—Better (as in the best MSS.), and be together again. This is still an explanation of the purpose of the separation, not to be a lasting one, but that we may again return to the state of union. The text here bears further traces of having been altered so as to make it seem that the Apostle meant that the return to matrimonial life should be only to a temporary union, and not to a continuous state of life. The proper reading implies the latter, the word “be” being used as in Acts 2:44.
For your incontinency.—Better, because of your incontinency; the reference being, as in 1 Corinthians 7:2, to the moral condition surrounding them, and to the influence to which a man thus separated would be subject. The Corinthian Christians are here solemnly reminded that this sin, as all sin, is from Satan—because the Corinthians at large did not regard it as sin at all, but even mingled sensuality with worship.
Paul does not want to impose legalism, on this topic, to married people within the Church. He suggests that there may be valid reasons for denying each other conjugal rights, but he states that this denial should be made “in agreement” and for a good purpose.
The note here points out that when Paul writes “because of your lack of self-control” he appears to be addressing the Corinthians specifically. I suspect that anyone who argues that his own culture is so unlike that of Corinth, that the admonition need not be given to it, should be quite careful in that assertion.
In the next section, Paul continues on, giving advice to those who are unmarried, widowed, and to those in marriages with unbelievers.