Now Concerning: Sexual Relations

The first letter to the Corinthians is structured around addressing a series of problems internal to the young ekklesia. In the opening chapter, we find that the author, Paul, deals first with a report from, “Chloe’s people,” concerning divisions within the gathering. After expanding on this topic for the first four chapters, in chapter 5 Paul addresses a second issue from the report, this time about the Corinthian tolerance of sexual immorality. Continuing through chapter 6, this second issue is concluded with an exhortation to flee sexual immorality of all varieties, which in turn leads into chapter 7 and the first of several concerns which the Corinthians have written to Paul about. This transition is marked with the little phrase, “now concerning” and it occurs six times in the letter.

The first of these occurrences is found in 1 Corinthians 7:1 and is specifically called out as, “matters about which you wrote”. The first of these, now concerning’s, deals with sexual relations and is possibly paraphrased by Paul as, “It is good for a man not to have sexual relations with a woman.” Seemingly, Paul affirms this, but not without caveats and explanation. In other words, the Corinthians had assumed celibacy was the appropriate path for believers, specifically those called out of a pagan, immoral, sexually promiscuous society such as Corinth. Paul agrees to an extent, but there’s more to be said.

First is the issue of the temptation to sexual immorality. Having already addressed this in detail in the previous two chapters, here we see the solution is marriage, “each man should have his own wife and each woman her own husband”. This is followed with an appeal to the conjugal rights of each spouse over the other spouse within a marriage, and this is important. Recall that in 1 Corinthians 6:19-20, the foundational argument against sexual immorality was that the bodies of believers are not their own. They are: 1. A temple of the Holy Spirit 2. Bought with a price, which will also be the basis for living how you are called in 1 Corinthians 7:23. In the opening of chapter 7 we find that indeed we are not our own, having been bought by Christ and indwelt by the Spirit, but also that our bodies belong to our spouses, if we are married.

After laying the case for the authority of the spouse over the body of his/her spouse, verse 5 returns again to the subject of temptation to sexual immorality which began this section. Here we find a caveat, that indeed believers can refrain from sexual relations in their marriages, though only for a limited time and for a time devoted to prayer. This is followed by an exhortation to come together again specifically because of: 1. Satan’s temptation 2. Lack of Self-Control. Here we find the root cause of sin and in this case sexual immorality, namely the temptations from Satan (outside) and a lack of self-control (inside). Generally speaking, temptations come from outside the heart and the flames of their darts look for the kindling of indwelling sin due to a person’s lack of self control. When the flames hit the tinder box of desire, the resultant is the fire of sin (see also James 1:13-15).

Paul returns to his positive support of the issue about which he was written, “It is good for a man not to have sexual relations with a woman,” by offering a concession (not a command) that his wish would be that all were celibate as he is. Here, he adds now his second caveat which is that celibacy, including his own, is a gift. Summarizing the response here, the Corinthians are under the belief that when a person becomes a Christian, they ought to reflect this by becoming celibate, possibly an outworking of their disconnect between the spiritual and the physical. Paul responds that it is good, however he states two caveats against it: 1. The temptation to sexual immorality, requiring marriage 2. Celibacy is a gift.

Having now answered the Corinthian question in part, Paul next introduces 3 case studies, almost as if he anticipates the common retort, “What about this…and this…”. The first case study includes the unmarried and the widowed, to whom he again states positively the view of remaining single. However, again we read the caveat of lacking self-control, leading again to the rise of passion and sexual immorality and again the solution is marriage. Second are those in the category of married. To this group, he encourages the wife not to separate, though if she does she should either reconcile or remain unmarried, and the husband not to divorce. The third case study is a broader category identified as, “the rest”. This category specifically addresses those who are unequally yoked, i.e. a believer married to an unbeliever. Here, if an unbelieving spouse consents to live with the believing spouse, then they should remain married. The reasoning given for this has led to no small shortage of confusion. The concern is over the meaning of verse 14:
For the unbelieving husband is made holy because of his wife, and the unbelieving wife is made holy because of her husband. Otherwise your children would be unclean, but as it is, they are holy. 

1 Corinthians 7:14
In the passage above, difficulty surrounds the meaning of holy as it is applied to the unbelieving wife and husband, but especially to the children of an unequally yoked marriage. The NASB, following the lead of the KJV, chose to translate the first usages as sanctified yet both retain holy as it applies to the children. This in turn leads to separate conclusions regarding the impact that a believer has on their unbelieving spouse, i.e. sanctifying them, versus something different that happens to the children of such a marriage, i.e. they are made holy. Naturally this leads some to conclude that the unbelieving spouses are impacted positively (sanctified), but the children are made holy (covenantally), which is the general conclusion drawn from here by Paedobaptists. But this is an unnecessary and even incorrect conclusion as the same word is used in both cases, one simply in its verbal form and the other in it’s adjectival. Would anyone conclude that an unbelieving spouse is in covenant with God alongside his/her believing spouse? Of course not. Neither should they conclude that children in this case are in a covenant relationship with God alongside their believing parent by means of their parents faith.

Finally, all of this discussion on the place of sexual relations between man and women including the solution of marriage as opposed to sexual immorality, the better choice of remaining single, the various caveats, and case studies are summarized by the statement, “Only let each person lead the life that the Lord has assigned to him, and to which God has called him. This is my rule in all the churches.” Contextually, if the Lord had assigned singleness, then live single. Conversely, if one had not been assigned singleness, then in order to avoid the temptation to passion and sexual immorality, they should marry.

In expanding upon this principle, Paul gives two practical examples, no doubt actual situations that believers had been faced with. The first dealing with circumcision vs. uncircumcision and the second with slavery vs. freedom. In neither situation should one shift or change out of that in which they were called simply on the basis of being now a Christian. In other words, should one have been called to Christ while circumcised, there is no no need to be uncircumcised. In Christ it neither matters if one is circumcised nor uncircumcised (1 Cor. 7:19). The same is true of those who were called while in slavery (or even while free). Their new found freedom in Christ did not mean they must now be freed from obligations that had put them in slavery. Though as Paul said, if they can get their freedom then they should. Likewise, those who were called as freemen should not allow themselves to become slaves.

In the first Corinthian concern written to Paul, couched under the heading of sexual relations between men and women, we find God’s Word teaching us a reordering in Christ of relations between men and women. God originally created the first man and woman to be fruitful and multiply. The emphasis was on the institution of marriage and the multiplication of families to increase mankind on the earth. While we have seen the significance of marriage, in Christ the priority is not marriage first. No, instead believers have the (better) option of choosing singleness, if they can exercise self-control and if it is a gift that God has bestowed. Modern day Christianity has all too often been influenced by society’s understanding of marriage (now to the detriment) and has looked down upon those who are single, particularly if older and never married. But that societal influence is the exact opposite of God’s ordering. If we as believers are going to proclaim the divine ordination of marriage between a man and a woman, then we ought also to understand God’s divine gift of singleness and begin holding them in as high regard as God does.

About the author

Christian saved by grace through faith.

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