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 7:6-11
6 Now as a concession, not a command, I say this. 7 I wish that all were as I myself am. But each has his own gift from God, one of one kind and one of another.
8 To the unmarried and the widows I say that it is good for them to remain single, as I am. 9 But if they cannot exercise self-control, they should marry. For it is better to marry than to burn with passion.
10 To the married I give this charge (not I, but the Lord): the wife should not separate from her husband 11 (but if she does, she should remain unmarried or else be reconciled to her husband), and the husband should not divorce his wife.
Paul continues his advice regarding singleness, sex, and marriage. From The Pulpit Commentaries:
I speak this. The “this” applies to his advice in general, but especially to the last verse. By permission. This phrase is generally misunderstood. It does not mean that St. Paul was permitted though not commanded to give this advice, but that his gentle advice was given “by way of permission” to Christians, not “by way of injunction.” He means to say that he leaves the details of their lives, whether celibate or married, to their individual consciences, though with large hearted wisdom and charity he would emancipate them from human and unauthorized restrictions. The clause is not, therefore, a parallel to the restrictions on the authority of his utterances, such as we find in 1 Corinthians 7:12, 1Co 7:29, 1 Corinthians 7:40, and in 2 Corinthians 8:10; 2 Corinthians 11:17.
The commentary attempts to explain Paul’s language here. Ellicott’s Bible Commentary also provides an interpretation.
(6) But I speak this by permission.—Better, Now I say this as a permission, and not as a command. As the passage is given in our English version, it might seem as if the Apostle implied that he had no actual command, but only a permission to write this, which is not at all his meaning. What he does say is, that the foregoing instructions are not to be considered as absolute commands from him, but as general permissive instruction, to be applied by each individual according to circumstances.
It has been much discussed as to what part of the previous passage the word “this” refers. It is perhaps best to take it as referring to the leading thought of the whole passage, which is that marriage is allowable, expressed especially in 1 Corinthians 7:2.
The consensus seems to be that Paul is not giving an order, but is instead expressing permissive instruction. Verse 7 begins the instruction that Paul qualifies with the sentence in verse 6. From The Pulpit Commentaries:
For I would. The verb here used is thelo (will). In 1 Timothy 5:14 he says, “I prefer (boulomai) that the younger women marry.” Even as I myself; endowed, that is, with the gift of continence, which would (in the expected nearness of Christ’s coming) render marriage needless, and the condition of man like that of the angels in heaven, who neither marry nor are given in marriage. His proper gift. The “gifts” alluded to are the “graces” (charismata) of the Holy Spirit; and the grace of perfect continence does not exist equally in all (Matthew 19:11). One after this manner, and another after that. The remark is general, but also has its special application to continence and marriage (Matthew 19:12).
gift = χάρισμα chárisma, khar’-is-mah; from G5483; a (divine) gratuity, i.e. deliverance (from danger or passion); (specially), a (spiritual) endowment, i.e. (subjectively) religious qualification, or (objectively) miraculous faculty:—(free) gift.
The word for gift here is the same that Paul uses in 1 Corinthians 12, when he discusses spiritual gifts more directly. Paul’s implication in verse 7 is that celibacy is a spiritual gift, from God, and not everyone he says has this gift. Continuing on with Ellicott in verse 8:
(8) I say therefore.—Better, Now what I say is, . . . Widows are here joined with those who have not been married, otherwise discussion might have arisen as to whether the Apostle had intended his advice for them also. It has been curiously conjectured (by Luther amongst others), from the passage where St. Paul recommends widows to “abide even as I.” that the Apostle was himself a widower. This, however, requires the word “unmarried” to be restricted to widowers, which is quite inadmissible; and even if such were admissible, the deduction from it that St. Paul was a widower could scarcely be considered logical. The almost universal tradition of the early Church was that St. Paul was never married, and unless we can imagine his having been married, and his wife dead before the stoning of St. Stephen which is scarcely possible (Acts 7:58), the truth of that tradition is evident. (See Philippians 4:3.) “Even as I;” that is, unmarried.
Paul believes it is better to be single than to be married and he gives the advice to the unmarried and widowers that they live as he does. However, he says this while acknowledging that not everyone is blessed with this gift, as he is. As a result, he makes concession in verrse 9. From The Pulpit Commentaries:
If they cannot contain; rather, if they have not continency. Let them marry. In 1 Timothy 5:14 he lays down and justifies the same rule with reference to young widows. It is better to marry than to burn. The original tenses give greater force and beauty to this obvious rule of Christian common sense and morality. The “marry” is in the aorist—”to marry once for all,” and live in holy married union; the “burn” is in the present—”to be on fire with concupiscence.” Marriage once for all is better than continuous lust; the former is permitted, the latter sinful.
burn = πυρόω pyróō, poo-ro’-o; from G4442; to kindle, i.e. (passively) to be ignited, glow (literally), be refined (by implication), or (figuratively) to be inflamed (with anger, grief, lust):—burn, fiery, be on fire, try.
In verse 10, Paul moves away from permissive advice and returns to rules from the Lord for married people. From Ellicott:
(10) And unto the married . . .—The Apostle has concluded his instruction to the unmarried and widows, and in 1 Corinthians 7:10-11 gives his advice to those married persons who had been troubled with doubts as to whether they ought (if marriage were undesirable) to continue in that state.
I command, yet not I, but the Lord.—The contrast which is commenced here, and again brought out in 1 Corinthians 7:12, is not between commands given by St. Paul as an inspired Apostle, and St. Paul as a private individual. In 1 Corinthians 14:37 the Apostle expressly claims that all his commands as an Apostle should be regarded as “the commandments of the Lord,” and in 1 Thessalonians 4:15 the Apostle speaks of that knowledge into which he was guided by the Holy Spirit as given “by the word of the Lord.” St. Paul must not therefore be regarded as here claiming for some of his instructions apostolic authority, and not claiming it for others. The real point of the contrast is between a subject on which our Lord Himself while on earth gave direct verbal instruction, and another subject on which He now gives His commands through His Apostle St. Paul. Christ had given directions regarding divorce (Matthew 5:31; Matthew 19:3-9; Mark 10:2-12), and the Apostle here has only to reiterate what the Lord had already commanded.
Let not the wife depart from her husband.—Better, Let her not be separated. The account of our Lord’s words given here differs in two respects from the record given of them by St. Matthew (Matthew 5:32; Matthew 19:9), where the reference is, first and more prominently, to the man putting away his wife—not, as here, to the wife separating herself from her husband—and the exception made, “except it be because of fornication,” is here omitted. The fact that St. Paul only knew from others what our Lord had said, and that the Evangelists wrote what they had heard themselves, would not sufficiently account for this difference; for surely these very Evangelists, or others who like them had heard the Lord’s words, would have been St. Paul’s informants. The reason of the variety in the two accounts is to be found, not in inaccurate knowledge on St. Paul’s part, which we have no reason to suppose, but in the particular circumstances to which the Apostle was applying the teaching of Christ; and this verbal difference is an instructive indication to us of how the Apostles understood that even in the case of the Lord Himself it was the living spirit of His teaching, and not its merely verbal form, which was of abiding and universal obligation. There was no necessity here to introduce the one exceptional cause of divorce which Christ had allowed, for the subject under consideration is a separation voluntarily made, and not as the result of sin on the part of either husband or wife; so the mention here of that ground of exception would have been inapplicable, and have tended only to confuse.
The other point of difference—viz., the mention here of the woman more prominently as separating from the husband—does not in any way affect the principle of the teaching, and indeed our Lord probably did put the case in both ways. (See Mark 10:12.) It may be also that in the letter to which St. Paul was replying the doubt had been suggested by women, who were—as their sex is often still—more anxiously scrupulous about details of what they conceived to be religious duty; and the question having been asked concerning a woman’s duty, the Apostle answers it accordingly, and adds the same instruction for the husband (1 Corinthians 7:11).
(11) But and if she depart.—Better, but if she have actually separated. These words, from “but” to “husband,” are a parenthesis, and the concluding words, “and let not the husband put away his wife,” are the completion of the Lord’s command given in 1 Corinthians 7:10. The Apostle, in case such a separation should already have taken place, anticipates the difficult question which might then arise by parenthetically remarking that in such a case the woman must not marry again, but ought to be reunited to her former husband.
The note here is lengthy, but clarifies Paul’s intentions well. Jesus gave instruction on divorce and that instruction can be found in the Gospel. Paul does not need to give permissive advice where rules from God are already in place.
The teaching here is not a complete ban on divorce. Jesus teaches in Matthew 19:9 the following:
And I say to you: whoever divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, and marries another, commits adultery.”
The teaching from Paul should likely be understood as the preferred outcome, and a thing for which married Christians should strive. However, there is an exception wherein divorce is allowed, though even then, the context suggests that reconciliation is the preferred option.
Due to the overt mention of a divorce exception in the case of adultery, there has been some teaching that divorce is not permitted in the case of abuse. In my opinion, this is not a correct reading of Scripture within its context. I have linked to an article on the topic HERE, and I will include an excerpt below.
In Jesus’ day, there was a fierce debate between two schools of thought within Judaism—the Shammaites and the Hillelites. The latter read Deuteronomy 24:1-4 as giving a man permission to divorce his wife for pretty much any reason. The Shammaites, on the other hand, argued that “indecency” in Deuteronomy 24:1-4 only meant adultery.
However, both schools of thought affirmed that a woman being neglected or abused by her husband had the right to receive a divorce, and Jewish courts could go so far as to beat the neglectful and/or abusive husband until he agreed to give his wife a certificate of divorce, thus legally freeing her to remarry.
When Jesus says a man may divorce his wife only for porneia, he is not providing a comprehensive manifesto on divorce and remarriage; he is addressing a specific intramural Jewish debate of his day. On the question of “any cause divorce,” Jesus sides with Shammai.
In Jewish culture in Jesus’ time, women could not initiate divorce and had virtually no legal recourse to protect themselves from being divorced. Divorce typically brought shame on a woman and left her economically vulnerable. Jesus’ command actually served to protect women from selfish husbands who sought to throw away their wives like trash.
Jesus, however, says nothing about Exodus 21:10-11 or Jewish interpretation of that passage, giving us no explicit evidence he interpreted the text differently or sought to overturn its teaching.
What then are the biblical grounds for divorce? Considering all of Scripture, we can say divorce is permitted—but not required—following violations of the marriage covenant: adultery, serious neglect, abandonment and abuse.
The next section of verses touches on this topic again, so we will continue the discussion when we get there.