What about Sexual Abstinence? – 1 Corinthians 7:1-40

Since this chapter is main arguments are concerning marriage and social status (especially slavery), we better look into the historic-cultural situation of Roman Corinth in those regards. Before we do so it is generally advised that we need to be careful that we are not projecting 21st century (or any other century than the 1st century for that matter) social norms into the biblical witness.
In Roman Corinth as in Roman society at large marriages were arranged and had little to do with affection and romance. Roman society was mainly concerned with social status and influence and thus it is of no surprise that marriage was used to enhance “one’s property and status” (Ben Witherington, Conflict And Community In Corinth: A Socio-Rhetorical Commentary On 1 And 2 Corinthians [Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1995], 170). Concerning divorce it is observed that there were no legal arrangements necessary to dissolve a marriage bond (idem., 171). What is surprising in this chapter however is that Paul argues for a man’s body belonging to the wife – which would have been unheard of in the dominant male society.
The other aspect to the Greco-Roman world is that of slavery. Slavery was a common and accepted social structure and even some slaves owned their own slaves. To be a slave was not necessarily of disadvantage since it provided a household and security in such. Slaves were given almost any task in society and they could earn their own money with which some bought their own freedom. Not every slavery situation was that beneficial and abuse and misuse can also be found in Roman society.    
Having thus seen the historical and social background let us now get into today’s passage. Being reminded that Paul is addressing a specific situation in the Corinthian church, we need to be careful not to take his words as a full blown philosophy of marriage (sexuality) and social status (slavery).
In vv. 1-7 Paul talks about sexuality in the marriage bond. If the citation “It is good for a man not to marry” (v. 1) is of Corinthian origin or Paul’s opinion is not clear, whereas the former interpretation seems more likely. Paul encourages in vv. 2-3 married partners to have intimate relations so that immorality could be avoided. Since our bodies do not belong to ourselves, but to our marriage partner (v. 4), there needs to be mutual agreement if abstaining from sex for times of prayer is to be practiced (v. 5; notice the construction “except perhaps”). Though being single is a gift from God, Paul sees that each one has his or her own gift and singleness is not given to everybody (v. 7).
Now Paul turns to the unmarried and widows (vv. 8-9). They might stay single if chosen to do so but marriage is preferred if they do not have the gift of sexual abstinence. In vv. 10-16 Paul prohibits divorce for married Christians and Christians living in a “mixed” marriage (i.e., one of the spouses is an unbeliever; except if the unbeliever wants a divorce).
The status quo of vv. 17-24 states that each believer should live the assigned task God has given him/her. For example those who are circumcised and people who are uncircumcised and those who are slaves and people who are freeborn or freedmen should remain and be satisfied in their social status.
Coming now to the engaged or widows (vv. 25-40) Paul advises the unmarried Christian not to marry. This seems to be an advice given from an eschatological standpoint. For Paul the end of the world has come near and the social status and situations will be overturned in the end of time. Believers should not be entangled in the realities of everyday life so that there service to the Lord is diminishing meager (vv. 29-31).
There are practical reasons for staying unmarried (vv. 32-35), like being fully concerned for the Lord’s kingdom instead of worrying also about the needs of a wife (and children). But Christians who are engaged can marry, although it is better to stay unmarried (vv.36-38). Verses 39-40 given then the application of the principle of vv. 25-28 to widows in the church.
The people of God need to be concerned about injustice in society. Paul also states that slaves can gain their freedom if they have the opportunity to do so.
There needs to be good sexual education in the church. We should educate the people of God about God’s view on sexuality (He created sex!) and how culture (in regards to sexual issues and manner other topics) is contrary to that which God has given and blessed. One should consider his/her calling and gift in order to discern if marriage should be pursued at a given time.
This, as always, was just a brief survey of one passage in the Corinthian correspondence. If you are interested in taken a class on 1 Corinthians where we will go into more detail, here is your chance. Starting on April 6th I will be offering a class at First Evangelical Free Church Chicago (http://www.firstfree.com/). Hope to see you there (at least those who can make it…I would love to offer a class to my Russian and Slovenian friends as well, but that it a bit complicated right now…).

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