Sexuality, Celibacy and Marriage

1 Corinthians 7

Chapter 7 is a new section, the third in this letter. We can be certain that a new section has begun because Paul says in verse 1: Now for the matters you wrote about: “It is good for a man not to have sexual relations with a woman.”

When we keep in mind that this letter was written to address problems that were facing the church in Corinth c. 55 AD, we can infer that they had written to Paul asking him for help in at least one area which we can glean from the text as concerning sexuality, celibacy and marriage. Since we are inferring and gleaning, you can imagine how many theories scholars have debated concerning this short section and considering the delicate and personal nature of Paul’s subject matter, you can also imagine how fierce those debates have gotten over the years.

As amusing as such arguments might be for some people, I won’t trouble you with a listing here of arguments. Oh, it isn’t that some of them aren’t quite interesting, no. It’s because there is simply no way to settle any of them. Here’s what I mean: Notice verse 1 above… We can see that they wrote him a letter, but Paul doesn’t mention what the letter was actually about. Of course, he really didn’t need to restate its contents, for they would have known already. Yet for those of us who came along later, it sure would have been nice to know what Paul is talking about. Then he goes on to quote someone: “It is good for a man not to have sexual relations with a woman.”  Who said that− Paul or someone else? Was that Paul’s conclusion to the matter, or was there a question associated with this statement in the letter? Did this mean that it was better for a man to be celibate, or that is was better for a man to be a homosexual? Was someone making that case in the letter, or… what?

If this were a traditional Sunday school exercise, these questions would never come up; instead everything wonderful and nice would be conveniently assumed, and you are welcome to make those assumptions. However, we must acknowledge that there is really no way to answer these questions for sure, although we can gain insight from Paul’s comments, there is no absolute certainty and thus, context here cannot be a sure thing.

I did mention that this was a tricky book, right?

Look at verses 1 and 2 together:

Now for the matters you wrote about: “It is good for a man not to have sexual relations with a woman.” But since sexual immorality is occurring, each man should have sexual relations with his own wife, and each woman with her own husband.

Do you see how verse 2 begins with the word “but”? Grammar aside, a reasonable person might look at this and come away with the impression that Paul is telling people that marital sex is only appropriate when there is sexual immorality in the church or community. Of course, that would be silly in light of what comes later, but that is exactly how teaching with “proof texts” works, and since the exact context of this chapter is so difficult to establish, a fair argument could be made for that proposition. Of course, a better argument could be made that Paul is saying that husbands and wives should be celibate in their marriage unless they just can’t control themselves. Oh yes, from this chapter such an argument could be made, and it would be very difficult to overcome.

I would never make that argument myself however.

I’ve taken you through this little exercise so that you might get a feel for how tricky this section is to keep straight. As we go through the section, I will take big pieces of it, and try to glean basic principles that are in harmony with Paul’s other writings, and the New Testament as a whole, rather than discuss what this or that particular statement might mean for us, as I usually do.

About Don Merritt

A long time teacher and writer, Don hopes to share his varied life's experiences in a different way with a Christian perspective.
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9 Responses to Sexuality, Celibacy and Marriage

  1. This one is tricky indeed. Thanks for the insight. Very helpful.

    Be blessed. God is with you.

  2. Barbara Lane says:

    OK You got my attention! I’ll be looking forward to your next posts on this subject!

  3. My thought about this had always been around the expectations of the times. Paul is cautioning people against sexual relations, but that if you had them they should be within the confines of the marital partnership. Paul was expecting the imminent return of Christ within their lifetimes, so it wasn’t as though he was planning for additional generations to listen to these commands. These were short-term warnings.

  4. pipermac5 says:

    It looks to me like the original statement came out of the Ascetic tradition, and besides not “indulging” in sex, they would have chosen a salad rather than a steak-dinner with all the trimmings. Sex of any kind, even for procreation, would have been unthinkable. Sadly, they have had their devoted-disciples throughout much of church history.


  5. Pingback: Paul’s Advice to Married Couples | Christianity 201

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