1 Corinthians 7
I’m preaching my way through Paul’s First Letter to the Corinthians this fall. The Corinthian church was ground zero for the cultural mashup and confusion of its day – the Roman Empire in the 1st Century. The congregation of mixed Jewish and Gentile converts had sent a letter to Paul, asking for his advice or instruction on a number of issues that were troubling the young church. Having addressed them off his own bat on the issues of factionalism and church discipline, he then takes up these requests, one by one, and the first in the laundry list of items the Corinthians have sent him has to do with marriage.
Now, there was broad agreement in the ancient world on what marriage was for. Obviously, it involved mutual affection; people “fell in love” then as now, and sought to build a life together. But marriages were often arranged between families, as well, and this had to do not only with relationships between clans, but also with economics: in a society built upon the family, not to belong to a family, to have no home of one’s own, is to be a perpetual child, or a perpetual burden. In Sub-Saharan Africa today, this is still the case. There is no “social safety net” provided by government, so if you lose your family – as in, you’re a widow with no living children – then you don’t belong to anybody, and if you’re old or unable to work, then you’re facing extreme poverty.
So, most people married, and most marriages were about as happy as most marriages are. At the same time, there were all kinds of other relationships that competed with or paralleled marriage. People weren’t always faithful to their spouses – or were really more interested in other kinds of relationships than the traditional model. We think our generation has discovered all this, but the Roman Empire was pretty wide open on sexual matters, and there’s nothing much new under the sun. Christianity, however, did bring something new. The Christians constituted a challenge to the ethos of love, sex, and marriage prevalent in that day – and that in two ways.
As far as marriage goes, they inherited the holiness code of ancient Israel from the Jews. The Christians were very strict about all matters relating to sex, which was reserved exclusively for the marriage of man and woman. No extramarital sex of any kind was approved of. Marriage was intended to display the relationship of God toward his creation. It was one of the great binary pillars of creation to be found in Genesis, marking the six days of creation: light/dark, day/night, heaven/earth, water/dry land, man/woman. Its fruitfulness was an imitation of the creative power of God. In Christian eyes, marriage was also a symbol of the relationship between Christ and his Church; indeed, each family was a little church in itself, where all the members thereof helped each other on to godliness. Martin Luther may have been the first to say that marriage is a school for character, but he was only encapsulating the teaching of Paul and many others. Marriage isn’t just about falling in love, nor about providing for your old age, or even about having children. Marriage is a call from God, a covenant two people enter into in order to glorify God and find the fulfillment of themselves therein.
And, here’s a new wrinkle. Beyond even the law of the Jews, Christians wanted marriage to be lifelong as well as exclusive. The early Christians were very stringent about divorce, allowing it only in a very few cases – and they were even more stringent about remarriage for divorced persons. Seen against the lax and lazy customs of the Roman Empire – but even seen against the high standards of Judaism – Christianity stood out for its very high view of marriage, and its extremely protected view of sex. You might have thought that Christianity would thus be seen as unattractive to outsiders – and many no doubt thought the Christians were downright weird or repressed – but at the same time, the idea that people would value each other (their marriage partners) so highly, also was extremely attractive. Who wouldn’t like to be so valued? Who wouldn’t like to find someone to value in that way? And so we find that down the centuries, Christianity keeps coming into new cultural situations where people have more relaxed standards. And though the situation sways back and forth, and there is always much hypocrisy everywhere, nevertheless, the ideal of Christian marriage remains very attractive.
But if this view of marriage as a call from God for two people to engage in together is to be taken seriously, then that view automatically creates a new opportunity: If marriage is a calling, then so is singleness; and indeed, Christianity was the first to offer the idea of singleness to the world. Oh, there were single people back then. There have always been single people: those not yet married, as well as those widowed or divorced. But the idea of singleness – of not simply being unmarried, and certainly not of being a “player,” of a person dating around, but of someone who is (permanently or just currently) not in a love relationship, nor necessarily looking for one – was brand new.
Heretofore, celibate adults – the never married, nor sexually available – were generally limited to a few religious devotees, like the Vestal Virgins of Rome. But Christianity opened up the possibility that God’s best choice for your life right now might be to have no one as your spouse, or betrothed, or sweetheart, at all. Christianity was the first value system to say that you didn’t have to have a Somebody to be a Somebody - that you could be a whole person, a normal person, a fulfilled person, even if you weren’t married. Indeed, in some ways, the single life was to be preferred, since you could devote yourself more single-mindedly to God, without the worldly distractions of being married and managing a household.
Both these aspects of Christian teaching need to be more widely discussed these days: That marriage is a high calling, as our traditional service says, “not to be entered into unadvisedly, but reverently, discreetly, and in the fear of God”; but also that singleness is not a defective status, and you aren’t damaged goods if you don’t have a somebody to wear on your arm.
Paul goes into all this here in 1 Corinthians 7. He affirms the exclusivity and mutual submission of man and woman in the marriage covenant. He talks about the pressures that can tear a marriage apart, and gives advice about them. He is reasonably sympathetic to people’s difficulties, while emphasizing the goal of lifelong marriage. He talks about the goodness of the single life, too. Still, the organization of his argument is sort of now here, now there, and we are sometimes still left wondering exactly what he is driving at.
This is because there’s a particular situation here in Corinth (it was found elsewhere as well) that we are not familiar with, but which can be inferred from his argument. You see, there were people in those days who were betrothed – which meant that they were legally married, but they hadn’t taken up living together yet. Probably, they had been betrothed by their families as children. And they wanted to honor that covenant – because if they didn’t, it would create economic hardship for some people, particularly the young women involved; and besides, they wanted to fulfill all their vows as honorable people. But, since they hadn’t actually set up house together yet, and since Christianity had made singleness as holy a state as marriage, therefore celibacy was very attractive to them, and they wanted to do that, too. So, these young couples were attempting to live together in the same house and operate as an economic and social unit – as husband and wife – sharing all things, but not each other’s bodies.
You can imagine how well that worked out. It was asking too much of people to try to make that work. And so, they were feeling guilty about it; they had failed in their attempts to live up to what they thought was their calling. Paul’s advice to these couples was pretty straightforward: Quit trying to be holier than God. If you’re going to be married, be married; if you’re going to be single, be single. Don’t play games with this, which can only come from your own sinful pride. Accept the state to which God has called you, and seek to please him in that state.
Only, let every one lead the life which the Lord has assigned to him, and in which God has called him. This is my rule in all the churches.And goes on, then, to say,
Are you bound to a wife? Do not seek to be free. Are you free from a wife? Do not seek marriage. But if you marry, you do not sin, and if a girl marries she does not sin. Yet those who marry will have worldly troubles, and I would spare you that.I see a lot of people today who fail to grasp this. They fall in love and want to be together, without realizing that you can fall in love with more than one person; that you can fall in love with someone who is already married, or with a person of the same sex, or whatever; and that you can fall out of love as easily as you fall in love. They miss all the teaching about marriage as a calling, as a way to seek God together, and they just snatch and grab at having a somebody so they won’t feel like a nobody any more. Sometimes, it works out, but more often they pick up a lot of hurts along the way; and if and when their relationships fail, they just reset to zero and do it all again, with much the same results. The married don’t know how to do marriage, and the singles don’t know how to get what they could out of being single. And a whole lot of people are neither married nor single, but just trying to make it work on their own terms.
Deanne and I were talking the other night about what makes a marriage last. We were so young, and so ill-prepared, when we got married. How did we make it so far? Well, we kept working at it, and we kept trying to honor God together in our marriage, and we sacrificed for each other instead of demanding things from each other. And it’s not been easy – as Paul understood it wouldn’t be – but it’s been worth it. I told Deanne (indeed, I had told her some time ago) that if I suddenly found myself unmarried – widowed, I suppose – I don’t think I’d marry again. This is not because of any sentiment about never wanting anyone to take her place, but simply because I’m too old to go through all that again: too old and too tired to do a marriage justice; to do a new spouse justice; to be remade into a new couple, instead of just two people rubbing along comfortably side-by-side.
This doesn’t mean that those who’ve lost someone should never consider a new love; that’s as may be, as God may call you. But to really love somebody, that somebody has to be more than merely a means to an end, or a comfort for someone who feels lonely. If we’re going to make the grand attempt, then let’s do it, by all means, but if we’re just passing the time, then we’re not really valuing each other properly. Marriage is a holy calling. Singleness is a holy calling. And your life may, at different times, have different calls; only, learn to discern what God is calling you to, and set your mind on fulfilling that call, so that through God you may find the fulfillment of your life.