The Corinthian church had written to Paul detailing many of their problems. But they also wanted his approval for the pious way they were managing their own Christian relationships. Paul was teaching that it was easier for a Christian to live as a single person in the present circumstances and he offered himself up as an example.
However, piety had gone too far. Some married couples in Corinth had embraced celibacy and had thought of divorcing their spouses in order to serve the Lord without any distractions. In fact, at least one couple had already divorced.
While virgins (those who never had been married before), those who were unmarried (divorced i.e if you are unmarried you’ve been married previously) and widows were deciding not to marry. They felt they could serve the Lord far better as single people. After all, the Lord was returning soon.
They thought that being married was a hindrance and living as a single person, they could devote more time to the work of the gospel.
But Paul didn’t want the Corinthians to change their marital relationships because of the present distress. Therefore his instructions to them regarding marital status must be interpreted through that lens.
“Now concerning the things about which you wrote…”
The Corinthians had no intention of going back to their spouses!
Some married couples wanted to stop having intercourse. Paul saw that it was likely to have the opposite effect. He believed that living a celibate life after being used to living in a married relationship would put more pressure on them and do more harm than good. Paul told them that they might become weaker instead of stronger Christians, as permanent abstinence would leave them open to sexual temptation.
Paul suggested temporary periods of abstinence instead
He encouraged those who were married to stay married despite it being so close to the end of the age. If they must, they could place room between each other for a period of time for prayer, devotion, and fasting, they should then at some point go back to their spouse and resume life as a married couple, so that they would not be tempted to fall into sexual sin.
For those who felt the call to stay single, Paul encouraged them to remain single. But for those who wished to get married, it would not be sinful to do so, though not ideal.
Now concerning the things about which you wrote, it is good for a man not to touch a woman. 2 But because of immoralities, each man is to have his own wife, and each woman is to have her own husband. 3 The husband must fulfil his duty to his wife, and likewise also the wife to her husband. 4 The wife does not have authority over her own body, but the husband does; and likewise also the husband does not have authority over his own body, but the wife does.
5 Stop depriving one another, except by agreement for a time, so that you may devote yourselves to prayer, and come together again so that Satan will not tempt you because of your lack of self-control. 6 But this I say by way of concession, not of command. 7 For I wish that all men were even as I myself am. However, each man has his own gift from God, one in this manner, and another in that.
Don’t Burn With Lust
8 But I say to the unmarried (divorced) and to widows that it is good for them if they remain even as I. 9 But if they do not have self-control, let them marry; for it is better to marry than to burn with passion.
Paul didn’t include virgins in verse 8 as they had never been in a sexual relationship. Therefore they would not burn for a passion that they’d never experienced before, unlike those who had been married at some point in their lives. i.e the unmarried/divorced and widows.
Paul, it seems included himself in this group and as a Pharisee, he would have been married in that culture. Scripture does not tell if he was a widow or became divorced once he left Judaism.
An early form of asceticism had led to a divorce in the church
Paul uses Jesus’s words from Matt 19:6 as the basis of his answer to a problem that had developed in the church at Corinth. The problem was an early form of asceticism i.e chastity, which had lead to at least one divorce within the church.
An ascetic is a person who follows an ascetic life i.e abstainer, recluse, hermit, solitary, anchorite, anchoress, desert saint, celibate, puritan, nun, monk.
It looks as if one of the men decided that he wanted to lead an ascetic lifestyle so that he could serve the Lord better, so he divorced his wife.
It was very easy for a gentile in the Roman empire to divorce during the 1st century. A spouse needed no paperwork and the husband just said ‘I divorce thee’ 3 times, they were divorced and he sent away his wife. There was no such thing as ‘putting away’ and written divorce certificates as in the Jewish culture (see Part 1 of my series Jesus and Divorce).
Paul saw the man’s grounds for divorce as being insufficient. He believed that the husband couldn’t divorce his wife just because he wanted to become celibate and devote much more time to serving the Lord. Even if the end of the age was approaching and they were going through distressful times.
So Paul encouraged the woman to stay unmarried i.e stay divorced and single, or else to reconcile with the husband and remarry him again.
You can tell that Paul really felt sorry for those who wanted to be celibate like himself but he could not permit the couple to do this, just in case others followed his example. All he could allow was for those married couples to practice temporary abstinence instead.
10 But to the married I give instructions, not I, but the Lord, that the wife should not leave her husband 11 (but if she does leave, she must remain unmarried, or else be reconciled to her husband), and that the husband should not divorce his wife. NASB
I think those two verses have been misinterpreted by so many as they don’t take into consideration the effect of the distress that the Corinthian Christians were experiencing at that time and their belief that the Lord was coming back in their immediate future. Paul was not speaking across time to us. He was giving instructions to a specific group of people who were going through a unique set of circumstances.
Traditionally these verses have been used by the church to support their belief that a wife should never separate from her husband. She is never allowed to remarry but she should always reconcile with her husband, irrespective of how the marriage has deteriorated and a husband is never allowed to divorce a wife. These errors come because they are ignoring the historical context of these passages.
- But are the traditions of men more important to you than the truth?
An Unbelieving Husband or Wife
Now Paul gives his own personal opinion about unbelieving spouses.
Many in the early church had married spouses that had not converted to Christianity. Paul told those believers that they must stay in those marriages if their unbelieving spouse wanted them to. The Christian spouse was not to send away the unbelieving spouse. But if an unbelieving spouse wanted to leave the marriage then Christian spouse was to just let them leave, as they would not be under bondage.
12 But to the rest speak I, not the Lord: If any brother hath a wife that believeth not, and she be pleased to dwell with him, let him not put her away(aphíēmi). 13 And the woman which hath an husband that believeth not, and if he be pleased to dwell with her, let her not leave (aphiēmi) him. ~ KJV
14 For the unbelieving husband is sanctified through his wife, and the unbelieving wife is sanctified through her believing husband; for otherwise your children are unclean, but now they are holy. 15 Yet if the unbelieving one leaves, let him leave (chōrízō – put asunder); the brother or the sister is not under bondage in such cases, but God has called us to peace. 16 For how do you know, O wife, whether you will save your husband? Or how do you know, O husband, whether you will save your wife?
What Was The Present Distress?
25 Now concerning virgins I have no command of the Lord, but I give an opinion as one who by the mercy of the Lord is trustworthy. 26I think then that this is good in view of the present distress, that it is good for a man to remain as he is.
- The Birth Pangs of The Kingdom and Signs of The End
Nero was Emperor when Paul wrote this first letter to the Corinthian church in early 57AD, though Christians were no concern of his at that point in time. There were also now wars and rumours of wars in the Roman Empire along with the appearance of false messiahs and false prophets.
I am not entirely sure what the exact present distress Paul was referring to. All I can be sure of is that Corinth had suffered badly in the Great Famine and the effects of that food shortage were still being felt in Corinth. Paul had lived in Corinth for about 1.5 years while on his 2nd missionary journey around 51 – 53AD when the famine was at its worst in Corinth.
The Great Famine
The great famine during Claudius’s reign and its consequences had also affected the Christians in Jerusalem badly along with Christians throughout the Roman Empire. Due to repeated droughts and crop failures, famine had reached Greece and Rome, like Tacitus and Eusebius record.
many prodigies occurred during the year… A shortage of corn, again, and the famine which resulted, were construed as a supernatural warning. ~ Tacitus Ann. 12.43
‘there was a huge famine in Greece such that one modius of grain sold for six didrachmas ~ Eusebius Chronicles
A typical price for one modius of wheat (in the Roman provinces) in the first century would have been between two and four sestertii per modius. Thus the price of six didrachmas or forty-eight sestertii per modius, mentioned by Eusebius, would have been at least twelve times the normal price. Such increases could have devastating effects on the masses in the urban areas of the ancient world, when we consider that their buying power was so low that most of their income was spent on food. Furthermore, the shortage in Corinth was comparatively severe when we consider other famines for which we have similar data.
A food shortage attested in Erythrae (Asia Minor) reports a price of forty sestertii per modius.
Revelation 6:6 describes a famine equating to thirty-two sestertii per modius;
Another in Olbia equates to a price of 27:8 sestertii per modius. The food shortages in Erythrae and Olbia were not isolated events but seem to reflect chronic situations faced in each of the cities. Thus not only was the food crisis in Corinth a relatively intense one, it may also have represented a protracted situation.
The food crisis in Corinth may have persisted for as long as five years…This composite picture suggests that the food crisis Dinippus (the Corinth grain curator) and the Corinthians faced may well have constituted a substantial threat to the lifestyle and well-being of the city. It is this threat that Paul would have seen and engaged with as he visited the city and corresponded with it. And it is this vulnerability of the city that provides part of the backdrop, not only to the multitude of food references in 1 Corinthians, but to the very issues Paul addresses in his correspondence with the Corinthian church.
source The Food Shortages in Corinth by Barry N Danylak ~ Tyndale House Bulletin
The ensuing food shortages were still affecting the urban metropolis of Corinth and poorer members of the church. It’s important to realise that Corinth was a port city that sprung up out of nowhere and did not have a surrounding agrarian culture – i.e a farming industry to support it. Meantime persecution of the church from the Jews across the Empire was increasing and some were returning to Judaism (the great apostasy) due to the Judaizers. While the Zealot uprising in Israel against the Roman authorities was brewing.
The Roman Empire at that time and more particularly in the future years was not going to be the best environment to raise children, so Paul agreed with the Corinthian virgins who decided not to marry. Inevitably wives would get pregnant and men would have extra responsibilities. Parenthood would also limit the time they could serve the Lord. There wasn’t much time left and there was an urgency to spread the gospel to as many as possible.
Paul thought that if an unbelieving partner wanted to leave, to just let them leave. That is very understandable, considering that they believed that they were living in the last days.
- Now the question (for us) becomes if we want to understand the culture and historical context in which the new testament was written we have to ask ourselves – the last days of what? That is the elephant in the room.
Loosed/ Released = Divorce
loo’-sis; from G3089; a loosening, i.e. (especially), divorce:—to be loosed.
Paul encouraged the divorced to remain unmarried. But it wasn’t a command and he certainly didn’t mean that divorced people should remain celibate for the rest of their lives. This is an error many church denominations teach today … and unfortunately some in the Corinthian church thought it would be better to practice this too until the end of the age. When we don’t take the passing of the age into consideration we lose the main focus of the whole chapter.
27 Are you bound to a wife? Do not seek to be released (lýsis – divorced). Are you released (lýsis – divorced) from a wife? Do not seek a wife. 28 But if you marry, you have not sinned; and if a virgin marries, she has not sinned. Yet such will have trouble in this life, and I am trying to spare you.
In other words “Are you bound (married) to a wife? Do not seek to be loosed (divorced). Are you loosed (divorced) from a wife? Do not seek a wife. But even if you do marry (after you have been divorced), you have not sinned; and if a virgin (who has never been married) marries, she has not sinned.”
If a slave was no longer under bondage, he had been set free – completely and likewise a person was free from marriage.
Church tradition incorrectly states that a person can be divorced but still bound i.e. that divorce does not dissolve a marriage. But that view is not supported in the scriptures. From Paul’s word, it is clear that divorce dissolves a marriage and that ‘unmarried’ persons do not commit adultery when they remarry. What Paul wrote was in harmony with Jesus and the Law of Moses.
Scripture cannot be divorced from its historical context!
The Time Has Been Shortened
29 But this I say, brethren, the time has been shortened, so that from now on those who have wives should be as though they had none;30 and those who weep, as though they did not weep; and those who rejoice, as though they did not rejoice; and those who buy, as though they did not possess; 31 and those who use the world, as though they did not make full use of it; for the form of this world is passing away.
Jesus had spoken of that same time in Matthew 24.
Unless those days had been cut short, no life would have been saved; but for the sake of the elect those days will be cut short. ~ Matthew 24:22
Paul said that those who remained single could focus more on pleasing the Lord. Being married was a distraction as you would have to give your spouse attention and divide your time.
32 But I want you to be free from concern. One who is unmarried is concerned about the things of the Lord, how he may please the Lord; 33 but one who is married is concerned about the things of the world, how he may please his wife, 34 and his interests are divided. The woman who is unmarried, and the virgin, is concerned about the things of the Lord, that she may be holy both in body and spirit; but one who is married is concerned about the things of the world, how she may please her husband. 35 This I say for your own benefit; not to put a restraint upon you, but to promote what is appropriate and to secure undistracted devotion to the Lord.
Then he speaks about fathers who might be thinking about arranging their virgin daughter’s weddings, but those who keep their daughters as virgins ‘will do better’.
36 But if any man thinks that he is acting unbecomingly toward his virgin daughter, if she is past her youth, and if it must be so, let him do what he wishes, he does not sin; let her marry. 37 But he who stands firm in his heart, being under no constraint, but has authority over his own will, and has decided this in his own heart, to keep his own virgin daughter, he will do well. 38 So then both he who gives his own virgin daughter in marriage does well, and he who does not give her in marriage will do better.
Paul suggests that a widow is better to stay single during this present distress.
39 A wife is bound as long as her husband lives; but if her husband is dead, she is free to be married to whom she wishes, only in the Lord. 40 But in my opinion she is happier if she remains as she is; and I think that I also have the Spirit of God.
Tradition Is The Enemy Of Truth
In conclusion, Paul and the Corinthian church were living in the transitional 40 years between Pentecost and 70AD when the birth pangs of the Kingdom and much worse persecution was on the horizon. Life was going to get so tough for the church and Paul wanted to make their lives as simple as possible.
When we read this chapter through the eyes of a group of believers who were anticipating the Day of the Lord and experiencing food shortages, inflated prices, persecution, and apostasy, it sheds new light on the text. It helps us understand why Paul wrote specifically to them about abstinence, marriage, divorce and their devotion to the Lord as so many had decided to go spouse free in the lead up to the end of the age.
If you’ve been following along with this series you’ll be aware by now that the ‘God Hates Divorce’ lie is designed to keep people in bondage for their entire lives. But Jesus came to set the captives free.
There is a great difference between what the Bible says and what men interpret it to mean!
The true follower of Christ will not ask, “If I embrace this truth, what will it cost me? Rather he will say, “This is truth, God help me to walk in it, let come what may!” ~ Tozer
Further Useful Resources:
You will find the following links very helpful too.
- Paul’s words on divorce 1 Cor 7: Paul’s advice in 1 Corinthians 7 must be understood with these tensions between celibacy, marital sex, and immorality in mind. This includes Paul’s advice about separation and divorce.
- Until Heaven and Earth Pass Away: A series that explores the passing away of the old Mosaic Covenant in 70AD.
- The Last Days
- The Termination of Paul’s Marriage