A Study of I Corinthians Chapter Seven


     The seventh chapter of Paul's first epistle to the Corinthians is a rich, intriguing chapter that has been abused and misunderstood. This misunderstanding is ironic in view of the fact that in the chapter Paul endeavored to answer their questions and correct all false views about celibacy and marriage (see vs. 1, 2). The chapter is just as timely today as when Paul penned it because it addresses matters of the avoidance of fornication and a number of marital concerns. The chapter naturally lends itself to seven topic divisions. They are: The rights and duties of married life (vs. 1-7), teaching for the unmarried (vs. 8, 9), commandments for the married (vs. 10-16, 12-16 addresses mixed marriages between believers and unbelievers), the principle of remaining in the same state (vs. 17-24), teaching regarding the unmarried, especially in view of the prevailing circumstances (vs. 25-35, see vs. 26), instructions to fathers in the "present distress" (vs. 36-38), and teaching regarding the marriage of widows (vs. 39, 40). I believe we shall find that the "present distress" very much affected Paul's special teaching regarding the unmarried and the fathers of daughters of marriage age (vs. 25-38). We shall also see that in one set of circumstances, Paul does offer some flexibility (vs. 6, 5). Hence, in these specified areas, we shall see situational teaching.

     The rights and duties of the married (vs. 1-7). It would appear that the "present distress" may have influenced Paul's statement, "it is good for a man not to touch a woman" (vs. 1, 26, see also vs. 25 and Gen. 2: 18). One purpose of marriage is "to avoid fornication" (vs. 2). Marriage involves duties, even conjugal rights and responsibilities. Paul expresses this in such language as, "The wife hath not power of her own body, but the husband…" (vs. 4). Feminists do not like such language, however, many divorces could have been avoided were it not for the selfish attitude so many husbands and wives have had. In view of the possibility of sexual temptation, Paul says, "Defraud ye not one the other…." (vs. 5). Many marriages have been destroyed because of lack of caution. Paul realized there can be different circumstances and people; hence, he allowed some choice in the matter of "defraud ye not" (see vs. 5, 6). Paul wrote by inspiration and is not denying this in verse six (compare 14: 37, see more regarding vs. 10, 12). Paul used himself as an example of continence or self-control and desired all were as he (vs. 7).

     Teaching for the unmarried (vs. 8, 9). Paul states it is good for the unmarried and widows to remain single (vs. 8). Under different circumstances, Paul later instructs widows to marry (I Tim. 5: 14). Even in view of the "present distress," it was better to marry than "to burn," burn with passion (Gk., vs. 9). Paul does not intend to advance the notion of celibacy as advocated by Catholicism but is issuing teaching that is especially applicable in view of the prevailing difficulties of the time (see I Tim. 4: 1-4, also I Cor. 7: 26).

     Commandments for the married (10-16). Paul is not pitting his authority against the Lord's when he wrote, "And unto the married I command, yet not I, but the Lord" and "But to the rest speak I, not the Lord" (vs. 10, 12). Jesus had addressed people in general regarding God's marriage law (Matt. 19: 4-9). Notice that Paul applies Jesus' teaching to the Gentiles, those whom Paul is addressing at Corinth. Therefore, Matthew 19: 4-9 does not only apply to the Jews, but to all men. Jesus taught regarding marriage in general, however, Paul is going to be more specific. "Depart not" is consistent with "defraud not" (vs. 10, 5). The view that Paul disallows departure ("divorce," see vs. 11 "unmarried") from a mate and then permits it with certain attendant consequences is not correct (vs. 10, 11). Instead of granting permission, verse eleven shows that if there is rebellion to "depart not," then one must realize one cannot remarry (vs. 11). There is also no room for inferring that if the one from whom the mate departs remarries, then they are free to remarry on grounds of fornication. The divorce (putting away) must be for the cause of fornication; not fornication the result of the leaving (Matt. 5: 32, 19: 9, for a more complete study of verse 11, click on, "'But and if' in I Corinthians 7: 11").

     In verse twelve, we begin to see the specificity that Paul adds, the case of mixed marriages. Not that Jesus' teaching did not apply to mixed marriages in general, but Paul is now going to deal with the situation of mixed marriages and all the involved special problems. Hence, the expression, "But to the rest speak I, not the Lord" (vs. 12). It would appear that one prevailing belief at Corinth was that the mixed marriage did not constitute a marriage bond. Paul proceeds to show that a marriage between a believer and unbeliever was binding (vs. 12-14). He extends hope regarding the salvation of the unbelieving mate (vs. 16). The view that these were marriages where one heard the gospel and became a Christian and the other mate did not, otherwise, they would have been instructed to leave their unbelieving mates is faulty. Paul would not have told the believer to remain in an adulterous union, regardless. Besides, the believer contributes an element of holiness to the marriage and family circumstance (vs. 14).

     Verse fifteen contains the so-called Pauline privilege and is believed to teach that the desertion of the unbelieving mate frees the believer to divorce and remarriage. However, the "not under bondage" cannot mean the marriage bond for a number of reasons. "Is not under bondage" is from the Greek dedoulotai. Dedoulotai is third person, singular, perfect tense, indicative mood, and passive voice. "Not in the past with the result continuing into the present time" is the meaning. Whatever "bondage" meant, it was a bondage that did not exist in the past regarding the believer. Paul had just labored to prove the believer and unbeliever were indeed maritally bound and he certainly is not now saying they had not in the past with the result continuing to the present been maritally bound. The bondage, I am convinced, refers to being reduced to slavery by man (see vs. 23, "unbeliever" usually meant a determined pagan). The unbeliever has not departed, but is in the process (present tense, vs. 15). I see the action being that the unbeliever is threatening to leave if the believer will not renounce Christ. The believer has not in the past and is not in the present under such bondage. There is only one cause for divorce and remarriage when there is a living mate, the cause of fornication (Matt. 5: 32, 19: 9). Paul is not contradicting Jesus' teaching (see the addendum).

     The principle of remaining in the same state (vs. 17-24). The principle of this passage of scripture is, "let every man, wherein he is called, therein abide with God" (vs. 24). Notice that Paul said "with God," therefore, he is not alluding to sinful situations (see 2 Jn. 9-11, and I Jn. 1: 6-9). Paul has matters in mind concerning which it can be said, "circumcision is nothing, and uncircumcision is nothing" (vs. 19). To apply Paul's principles of abiding wherein called to sinful and adulterous marriages is to do total disservice and abuse to the text. As is the case now, there was then a spirit of restlessness and discontentment. It seems this discontentment was even magnified by the "present distress." Extreme and unnecessary movement and change could have been very aggravating to the present distress, of whatever nature it was and conducive to unnecessary commotion. The gospel sought to place no more attention civilly speaking on the Christian than was necessary. Hence, Christians in servitude were not to "care for it" (be anxious over the matter and seek change regardless of civil consequences). Each was to contentedly serve God in his own position or vocation (vs. 23, 24).

     Teaching regarding the unmarried, especially in view of the present distress (vs. 25-35). Just as in verse six, Paul again issues instruction based on circumstantial and situational matters (inspired writers never, though, taught that matters that were inherently morally or doctrinally wrong were to be practiced in certain situations). Therefore, the language, "I give my judgment" (vs. 25). It should be appreciated that Paul's judgment was not simply that of an ordinary man (vs. 25). Later, Paul writes regarding the widow and said, "But she is happier if she so abide, after my judgment: and I think also that I have the Spirit of God" (vs. 40).

     Again, we see the tremendous influence the "present distress" played in Paul's teaching regarding remaining in the same calling and especially his teaching regarding the unmarried. Whatever the distress was, it was severe and had many adverse consequences (vs. 29-31). Again, I stress: the present distress only influenced the matters that were not wrong within themselves. For instance, the married had no right to unscripturally divorce their mates, it mattered not about the present distress (vs. 10-12). However, in all matters not of a moral or doctrinal issue, the distress manifestly exerted tremendous influence. The distress was so major that it was better to be single and without the extra care for a mate during that time of difficulty (vs. 27-35).

     Teaching addressed to fathers in the climate of the present distress (vs. 36-38). It is the height of folly to imagine that Paul is saying that in view of the distress, marriage between a father and his daughter would be acceptable (cp. Lev. 18: 6 ff.). However, this is the understanding some have of verses thirty-six and thirty-eight. Rather, Paul is saying that the father, even in the distress, did not sin who allowed his daughter to marry (someone else, not the father). It would be better to allow the daughter to marry even with the attendant problems associated with the distress than to put the daughter in a situation of lust and sin (vs. 36, cp. vs. 9). However, if there were no necessity, remaining single was preferred (vs. 38).

     Instruction as to the marriage of widows (vs. 39, 40). The "present distress" had no impact on "The wife is bound by the law as long as her husband liveth" (vs. 39). If one were bound to one and yet married to another, she was (is) "an adulteress" (Rom. 7: 2, 3). However, the widow could marry "only in the Lord" (vs. 39).

     Does the expression "only in the Lord" (monon en kurio) only apply to a widow? Does "only in the Lord" mean she must marry a Christian? If Paul had wanted to teach the widow is to marry a Christian, why did not he simply say so instead of employing an expression that does not flow with the action. Paul would literally be saying, "marry in the church." How does one "marry in the church?" The language is awkward. However, the nuance "according to the will of the Lord" smoothly flows and is in harmony with the context. Remember that Paul taught in verses 12-14 that the believer was to remain married to the unbeliever. Why would he now, in the same context, issue a command that the widow must only marry "in the church" (whatever that means) or marry a Christian, as some like to arbitrarily inject. Does it not make more sense to say that Paul is evidently teaching by the phrase "only in the Lord" that the widow (inclusive of all) must not marry one who has no right to marry, for instance? (Matt. 5: 32, 19: 9.)

     Even though I do all I can to encourage Christians to marry Christians, I become rather upset when I hear I Corinthians 7: 39 used to teach that a Christian must marry a Christian. Do not we realize that if this is the case, the Christian who marries a non-Christian is in fornication and is producing illegitimate children? Such "marriages" must be dissolved, to be consistent. Yet, Paul said the believer and unbeliever are to remain together. Remain in fornication, certainly not.

     I have witnessed the above view encourage such false doctrines as are rampant today that involve laxity toward the unscripturally married. "Yes, it is automatically a sin for a Christian to marry a non-Christian," some say, "but they can repent and remain together." Such views pervert and make a mockery out of repentance!

     In conclusion, we began our study of I Corinthians 7 by pointing out the rich teaching of the chapter and also suggesting how the chapter has been subjected to endless abuse. As we end our study, you should be able to clearly see the teaching and the abuse. Let us ever strive to separate the two.

     Addendum:   I Corinthians 7: 15 contains what has been called "the Pauline Privilege." The verse reads, "But if the unbelieving depart, let him depart. A brother or a sister is not under bondage in such cases: but God hath called us to peace" (I Cor. 7: 15).  Many religionists tell us that there are two allowable cases for divorce and remarriage when there is a living mate. Adultery and desertion, they explain based on Matthew 5: 32, 19: 9, and I Corinthians 7: 15. Is Paul actually introducing a second reason?
     Paul is addressing the situation of a believer and unbeliever being married (vs. 12-16). Hence, there is immediate restriction and limit regarding an application of "not under bondage." Also, remarriage is not even being discussed in the passage. "Not under bondage" is from the Greek dedoulotai. The grammar posture of dedoulotai is "3 person, singular, perfect tense, indicative mood, and passive voice" (Analytical Greek Lexicon, pg. 85). The perfect tense is, "…the tense is thus double; it implies a past action and affirms an existing result" (Moods and Tenses in New Testament Greek, by Ernest Burton, pg. 37). If "bondage" means marriage, as some insist, Paul is saying the believer is not and has not ever been in bondage (married?). Paul has argued that the believer is bound (marriage bond) to the unbeliever (vs. 12, 13). Deo, the word for the marriage bond, is used 44 times (see Rom. 7: 2, I Cor. 7: 27, 39). However, deo is not used in verse 15. Also of interest in establishing the exact scenario of the verse, "depart" is chorizetai and is present tense (ibid., pg. 440).
     Paul is not allowing a second reason for divorce and remarriage, but is saying that the believer has not been reduced to slavery (meaning of dedoulotai, Thayer' Greek-English Lexicon, pg. 158, see vs. 23). The use of the present tense accompanied by the other grammar contributions and the meaning of "unbeliever," presents a situation of the pagan mate attempting to cause the believing mate to depart from Christ, I am convinced.  Hence, become a slave to the pagan mate.  Such must not be allowed. The believer's relationship with Christ must take priority even over the demands of their mate (cp. Col. 3: 18).  In such matters, the believing mate is not and has not been a slave.