Wednesday, September 06, 2006

Paul, Sex and Marraige - Reflections on 1 Cor 7 and its relevance to today

Paul and his teachings on marriage and sex have long been misunderstood by readers. Paul has been viewed by readers as a misogynist and a puritan when it comes to sexual practice. Paul has been the subject of blame, rather than the forces of history and the misinterpretation of these texts. In light of this the first question that comes to my mind is ‘Paul, what were you trying to say when you wrote 1 Corinthians 7?’ Indeed I have tried to answer this question in my essay with reference to modern hermeneutical study on this passage. In doing this I have made reference to the situation in Corinth at the time which Paul wrote 1 Corinthians, and to his theological convictions. Paul’s writing needs to be critiqued and the question needs to be asked whether or not it can be directly applied to the time in which we live. In my view we have to take historical situation into account and ask how this applies to us now. We live in a different time, and a different world from the one Paul wrote to, and our situation is thus different. The art of good hermeneutics is getting into Paul’s world and coming up with an interpretation that helps us live a life in the here and now. I try to do this in this essay.

Paul starts 1 Corinthians 7 with the statement, 'it is good for a man not to touch a woman.' Some early writers, and often others have become confused with what Paul is saying here. Paul is not saying that 'it is good for a man not to touch a woman', but is responding to this statement. Commentators generally agree that some of the Corinthians had formulated this statement as a guide for right living and Paul was responding to this maxim[1] One position argued by scholar Antoinette Clark is that a group of woman prophets in the Corinthian Christian community had withdrawn from sexual relationships (Cor 7:1-40) and were advocating asceticism as a means to gain personal holiness. The Church in Corinth had misinterpreted early Christian teaching believing the new age had come already. If they had access to the Jesus tradition they would understand from the teaching in Luke 20:34-46 that marriage did not occur in the new age and that sexual relations should be avoided.[2] The Corinthian were even more confused because the teaching of stoic and hellenistic philosophies urged celibacy or if married, abstinence from sexual relations if you wanted to gain spiritual wisdom.[3] The problem is that being married and abstaining from sexual relations asks for trouble, especially in a city like Corinth, which was known for its sexual temptations.[4] Paul’s response to the situation in Corinth is a balancing act where he upholds sexual relations between men and women while still advocating celibacy as a perfectly good lifestyle choice. Paul in fact prefers singleness to the married state (1 Cor 7:37). In this whole section Paul walks a pragmatic line with his reader. He knows that a position promoting asceticism and celibacy is untenable, as it affronts Roman mores which advocated marriage and it would run the risk of leading to immorality in the Corinthian community. These are both evils that needed to be avoided by the Corinthian community.[5] In the marriage relationship Paul allows a concession - a man and wife can abstain from sexual relations when three conditions are fulfilled: that there is mutual consent between the man and women; that abstinence from sexual relations is only for a time; and that it would be for the seeking of the Lord in prayer.[6] Paul reaffirms in these passages that sex and marriage are both good and holy, and that each partner should look out for the needs of one another. In fact Paul makes it clear that there should be equality within the marriage relationship (vv. 4-5) and that there are obligations both ways to care for one another. A husband doesn’t even have authority over his own body, his wife does; and a wife doesn't have authority over her own body, her husband does! This is a very challenging call for anyone in a marriage relationship. How this works out in the marriage relationship will be different for every couple and every situation, but the principle is that marriage partners should care for one another, make compromises and grow in their relationships with one another.[7]

On the issue of widows, Paul walks the thin line between the acceptable and unacceptable once again. He wants the reader to be free from the social pressures of the Roman society which advocated remarriage, and the pressures of those in the church who advocated celibacy. Paul states that for widows 'it is good and well for them to remain [single] as I am' (v. 8) but Paul offers the concession that if self-control is a problem they should remarry (v. 9). Paul advocates celibacy, but those who do not have the ‘gift’ of celibacy should marry, since ‘it is better to marry than to burn’.[8] As we have been alerted to earlier, Paul is aware of the situation that these single Christians face and the temptation of living in a cosmopolitan city such as Corinth, and that it is better for them to marry than fall into temptation. Paul wants the Christian to be able to choose the best solution for themselves, being free from outside influence.[9] This in my view is very freeing, both is the past and in the present situation. Many times we are driven by social conditions to fulfill certain social requirements, the need for a new house or car, et cetera. The same can be said for marriage. In this day and age in the evangelical Christian church marriage has a lot of appeal to Christians. It is seen by some as the ultimate in life to get married, settle down and have a family, but this is not the same for all people, and the church should recognize this. People in the church should not put pressure on people to marry and have a family. I have heard of many occasions where people have been hurt by members of the church, as they have been urged to quick pace, hurry up and get married. This is not what Paul was teaching. There is a flip side to this; in the Catholic and Orthodox churches it has been seen as the highest type of devotion to God to remain celibate. Holiness is not defined by your marriage state but your relationship with God. Christians should be able to make their own moral choices, through the spirit, and not be driven by a prescriptive teaching on marriage. Many will choose marriage, but some will not, and as Paul states: ‘However that may be, let each of you lead the life that the Lord has assigned, to which God called you. This is my rule in all the churches’. (v. 17) We should be content with where God places us, desiring to do his will in that situation.

Paul’s teaching on divorce is the only point in this section of 1 Corinthians that Paul lays down a command. He refers to the teaching of Jesus and the command that Jesus made in Mark 10:9 and bases his teaching on divorce.[10] Paul believes that divorce was never intended for God's children. Men and women and made in God's image, and there is something mysterious about this relationship which reflects God's image back onto the world. Destroying this bond brings damage to the people involved and also dishonours God.[11] Under Roman law, the man or the woman was allowed to institute the divorce; Paul accommodates this by stating that he does not allow either man or women to divorce.[12] Paul’s advice to those who have divorced is that they should either ‘remain unmarried’ or ‘be reconciled’ with their partner.[13] To those believers married to unbelievers he admits that his advice is his own opinion. He echoes his earlier advice in v. 11, extending Jesus’ teaching on divorce, stressing that the marriage should continue if the unbeliever still wants the relationship to continue.[14] He then gives further rationale for his advice. He holds the hope that the unbelieving spouse would become a Christian, as they are shown the love of Christ in the marriage relationship. The other rationale is that the children would be made ‘holy’ rather than unclean, and, being under the influence of one Christian parent, the love of the God and the power of the Gospel would be shared with them, and that they would be brought up to live a Christian life.[15] But, if the non Christian partner did not want to be associated with the Christian partner and Christian movement, Paul would not oppose the split. The problem with Paul’s teaching is that it doesn’t deal with the complexity of relationships. It doesn’t answer questions on what should be done when a spouse is abused by the other in particular. Almost all would agree that in situations of abuse that the partner should leave both for their welfare and the welfare of the children involved.

For the unmarried, Paul has no word from the Lord, but he has his own maxim for them. His maxim is ‘in view of the impending crisis, it is well for you to remain as you are’ (v. 26). He then states that if you marry, you do not sin (v.28). Paul’s maxim and advice is bound up with his belief that the impending conclusion of history and of God's work began in Christ.[16] Paul’s view that the end of the ages is coming shapes his opinion on believers' present conditions and the institutions of the present age and how Christians should relate to them. Does it make sense to marry and start a family if the end of the ages is about to come? Not really. What would people do presently if we found out there was going to be a massive cataclysmic event in the next two years, especially in a community of faith who believed that salvation came through the gospel? The most important thing for the Christian to do would be to share the gospel, not to start a family. [17] So what does this mean to Christians who live today, 2000 years after these letters were first written, who still haven’t seen ‘the end of ages’ talked about so regularly in the New Testament, and don’t have the same sense of an impending end that the early Christians have? Tom Wright suggests that it should bring the sense for the Christian that they can never settle down and treat the world as if it is going to last forever. The Christian should be not alarmed with the turbulence and the stress of the world around them, and should not be distressed in having to put off the life that one would expect to enjoy or experience. Paul wants his readers to reevaluate their whole view of the world and how they react to the world around them.[18] 'Remaining as you are' is seen as a way of maximizing devotion to the Lord – which is seen as the better option for the Christian in this time.[19] The aim of the Christian should be to put as much focus into the Christian community as possible, and bringing others into that community as well. Those who are betrothed/engaged should remain single in this time and devote their time to the Lord, but if their passions are too strong, and they are acting inappropriately towards their fiancĂ©e, they should get married. Paul does not consider this a sin.[20] Paul concludes with the belief that pleasing your spouse and pleasing the Lord ultimately lead in different directions.[21] This is a highly negative and disturbing view of the marriage relationship - believing the rationale for marriage only is to stop physical temptation. He does not even suggest that the intimacy of the marriage relationship can be pleasing to the Lord. Nor does he suggest that a Christian marriage can be helpful in achieving similar ministry aims and strengthen a person’s ministry. His conclusions are driven by the strength of his eschatological convictions rather than these other concerns.[22]

Paul’s teaching on marriage, sex and divorce is written to address a certain audience with a set of concerns. Paul’s teaching on marriage and the marriage relationship seems rather brief and not very deep, and is not prescriptive either, but aims to deal with the pastoral needs of those to whom he is writing. His desire is not to produce a treatise on the marriage relationship, but answers the concerns of his readers. It would be wrong to say that it is an adequate guide for marriage counseling in this day and age. It probably was never seen as a guide for marriage counseling. It's a set of answers to questions that Paul was given. So what then do these teaching mean for us? Paul’s personal view seems to be that singleness is the preferred state, but he does not oppose marriage and sees it as good and holy. Paul views his readers as rational beings who can decide for themselves what state of lifestyle they should choose, not driven by social mores. Paul’s rationale for marriage seems to be rather negative but should be viewed in reference with his eschatology. He is primarily concerned that Christians put their relationship with God first and not get caught up in the desires of the world. Probably his strongest word is on divorce, echoing the commands of Jesus and trying to dissuade people from divorcing. This comes from his belief that the Marriage covenant should not be broken because of the emotional damage it causes and the dishonour it causes to God. The most striking and important remark from Paul is on equality within the marriage relationship. Taking this to light, Paul should not be considered a misogynist; rather he is very bold and revolutionary in this proclamation. These words are still some of the most challenging and relevant words from 1 Corinthians for the Christian involved in a marriage partnership. Living a life of love, and giving yourself wholly to your partner is a central element of the marriage partnership and these are the most important words to me in this day and age.
[1]J. Paul Sampey, 'First Letter to the Corinthians', in New Interpreter's Bible, Vol X, Nashville, p865
[2] Brendan Byrne SJ, Paul and the Christian Women, Homebush, 1988, p18
[3]N.T. Wright, Paul for Everyone – 1 Corinthians, (2nd ed), London, 2003, p77
[4]Ibid, 78
[5] Bonnie Thurston, in the New Testament: Questions and Commentary, New York, 1998 , p42
[6] SJ, p.20
[7] Wright, pp.78-79
[8] SJ, p.22
[9]Wright, pp81-82
[10] Wright, p82
[11] Ibid
[12] Sampey, p875
[13] Ibid
[14] Ibid, p877
[15] Wright , p84.
[16] Sampey, p.885
[17] SJ, pp24-25
[18] Wright, pp91-92
[19] Sampey, p.890
[20] Ibid, p889
[21] SJ, p25
[22] Ibid

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