1 Corinthians 7 header

First (1st) Corinthians Chapter 7 Commentary

I study Bible on 1 Corinthians 7

by Earl Gosnell
ordained minister
United Congregation of Friends
First Corinthians 7 is easy as pie once you know the trick to it. The 1st one is to stick with the King James Version. A lot of modern English Bibles trying to improve on the KJV are less than helpful, and some—like the NIV—are downright misleading. I stick with the tried and true.

Next, study that chapter within the context of the other chapters of First Corinthians. It wasn't written in a vacuum. Paul is addressing an immature (carnal) church and speaks accordingly:

1 Corinthians 3

  1. And I, brethren, could not speak unto you as unto spiritual, but as unto carnal, even as unto babes in Christ.
  2. I have fed you with milk, and not with meat: for hitherto ye were not able to bear it, neither yet now are ye able.
  3. For ye are yet carnal: for whereas there is among you envying, and strife, and divisions, are ye not carnal, and walk as men?
  4. For while one saith, I am of Paul; and another, I am of Apollos; are ye not carnal?
  5. Who then is Paul, and who is Apollos, but ministers by whom ye believed, even as the Lord gave to every man?
  6. I have planted, Apollos watered; but God gave the increase.
  7. So then neither is he that planteth any thing, neither he that watereth;but God that giveth the increase.
  8. Now he that planteth and he that watereth are one: and every man shall receive his own reward according to his own labour.
Paul is speaking to them (vss. 1-2) on an altogether human level—which continues on through chapter 7. We would say, "This is not rocket science." So in chapter 7 when we encounter expressions like (7:12) "But to the rest speak I, not the Lord," we can rightly say, it doesn't take an Einstein to get this; a spiritual, faithful brother can explain it. You will see this theme repeated more than once in 1st Corinthians 7, so please take note; I am not going to return to this idea.

In 3:3 Paul is addressing their carnality: "For ye are yet carnal: for whereas there is among you envying, and strife, and divisions, are ye not carnal, and walk as men?" This frame of reference continues on through chapter 7. There is rightly a division between married and single, but they all have their "proper gifts of God." Whereas there is one consistent dynamic in the body of Christ, "I have planted, Apollos watered; but God gave the increase" (3:6), there are opposite sexual dynamics at work in various callings: the man committed to celibacy refraining from touching a woman, but the married man rendering due service to his wife.

As for strife, there can be an internal strife between one's passions and his desire to remain celibate, which is why Paul advised, (7:9) "But if they cannot contain, let them marry: for it is better to marry than to burn [with desire]."

Envying also gets addressed in chapter 7, Paul telling them not to envy another or previous marital state, but to be content with the state one finds himself in, even though it wouldn't be a sin under the right circumstances to experience a change of marital status.

Got that? You better. I won't repeat it.

Most Bible studies and commentaries on I Corinthians 7 wander off on the first half of the first verse, never to return, "Now concerning the things whereof ye wrote unto me." Paul is answering specific questions the Corinthian saints had written him. Without those questions we may not fully understand the answers, and some answers we may misconstrue altogether. No matter, Bible study after Bible study, commentary after commentary will go on expounding what Paul answered without any regard to the questions asked. And why is that? Well, we no longer have the questions, they were not preserved, so what can we do? I think that's giving up too easily.

Or if you really want to go straight to the answers without worrying about the questions, don't let me stop you. There are plenty of studies that do just that. I know I sound ridiculous concentrating on nonexistent questions, but if we could somehow understand them, the answers would be a piece of cake. In my opinion it is worth the effort.

Here's what I am going to do (for a start). In addressing the Corinthians at the end of chapter three, Paul tells them they have the wrong perspective saying "I am of this guy, and I of that." Rather than belonging to some minister, the ministers belong in service to them. (1st Cor. 3:21b-22) "For all things are yours; whether Paul, or Apollos, or Cephas, or the world, or life, or death, or things present, or things to come; all are yours." Specifically, let's look at "all things are yours; whether ... the world, or things present, or things to come; all are yours." There should be some place in the world where we can look at an example of answers apart from the questions, where we nevertheless understand the questions addressed—things present—and can speculate on a future—things to come—cultural understanding of the same answers. It's a tool to give us a perspective.

I have taken—with their gracious permission—a list of "answers to frequently asked questions" from a local artsy movie house the Bijou Cinema—composed by Jerry W. and wife. This is a bit of tongue-in-cheek humor from the countless repetitive questions those at the counter must hear, but it gives us a tool if we contemplate how a future generation might perceive some of the answers that are obvious to us, sans questions. Mind you, a carnal person can go to the movies for all the wrong reasons; nevertheless we can use this list as a tool. If you don't get a whole lot out of it, don't worry, I'll return to it later. This is another list of answers without the questions.

  ANSWERS to frequently asked questions:  
  • Because you didn't bring enough for everyone.
  • Yep, you got it — SOLD OUT does mean no more seats available. (ML)
  • I think it might irritate the customers that showed up on time if we "rewind" it for you.
  • No.
  • Yes, but I didn't exhale.
  • Only with a Check Guarantee Card.
  • Yes.
  • Once, but I was really drunk.
  • Of course it's very dangerous, but if I didn't run the projectors then pretty girls like you couldn't watch movies.
  • Out the glass doors and to the right.
  • Fifty bucks. Same as in town.
Okay, here is my line of thought on Paul. Say, I decide to disregard 1 Corinthians 7 because I don't have a framework for the answers. Then I have to read about that chapter's various subjects elsewhere in the Bible if I am to understand them. Doing that I find my mind full of questions that aren't answered for me. How awful! We've got a list of answers with no questions and now a list of questions without answers. What gives?

The astute reader might suggest, why don't we just see if Paul in 1 Corinthians 7 didn't answer the questions we do have? That is exactly what I have done under the theory that the Holy Spirit who guided the editing of the Bible put those answers there for just that reason: we end up with questions that otherwise have no clear answer.

Here is what I am going to do. I shall construct a table with four columns and align the rows to correspond to:

Bible passage(s) Question(s) suggested I Corinthians 7 answer(s) Bijou answer comparison
(Matt. 6:31-33) "Therefore take no thought, saying, What shall we eat? or, What shall we drink? or, Wherewithal shall we be clothed? (For after all these things do the Gentiles seek:) for your heavenly Father knoweth that ye have need of all these things. But seek ye first the kingdom of God, and his righteousness; and all these things shall be added unto you." Being a Christian is an all-out proposition, coming before our regular occupation to seek food and clothing. Won't that conflict with one's obligation to materially care for his spouse? (1 Cor. 7:29-34) "But this I say, brethren, the time is short: it remaineth, that both they that have wives be as though they had none; And they that weep, as though they wept not; and they that rejoice, as though they rejoiced not; and they that buy, as though they possessed not; And they that use this world, as not abusing it: for the fashion of this world passeth away. But I would have you without carefulness. He that is unmarried careth for the things that belong to the Lord, how he may please the Lord:. But he that is married careth for the things that are of the world, how he may please his wife. There is difference also between a wife and a virgin. The unmarried woman careth for the things of the Lord, that she may be holy both in body and in spirit: but she that is married careth for the things of the world, how she may please her husband. Of course it's very dangerous, but if I didn't run the projectors then pretty girls like you couldn't watch movies. It is a dangerous leap of faith, of course, to trust God first, but if one didn't do that, how could his Christian life bear fruit?
(Exodus 21:10) "If he take him another wife; her food, her raiment, and her duty of marriage, shall he not diminish." Does my intimate relationship with the Lord absolve me from physical intimacy with my spouse? If not, how do I delegate my intimacy between them? (1 Cor. 7:3-5) "Let the husband render unto the wife due benevolence: and likewise also the wife unto the husband. The wife hath not power of her own body, but the husband: and likewise also the husband hath not power of his own body, but the wife. Defraud ye not one the other, except it be with consent for a time, that ye may give yourselves to fasting and prayer; and come together again, that Satan tempt you not for your incontinency. Yes. God does want us to enjoy sex with our marriage partners.
(Matt. 19:3-6) "The Pharisees also came unto him, tempting him, and saying unto him, Is it lawful for a man to put away his wife for every cause? And he answered and said unto them, Have ye not read, that he which made them at the beginning made them male and female, And said, For this cause shall a man leave father and mother, and shall cleave to his wife: and they twain shall be one flesh? Wherefore they are no more twain, but one flesh. What therefore God hath joined together, let not man put asunder." If Christians spouses don't get along are they allowed to divorce? What if he beats her? (1 Cor. 7:10-11) "And unto the married I command, yet not I, but the Lord, Let not the wife depart from her husband: But and if she depart, let her remain unmarried or be reconciled to her husband: and let not the husband put away his wife." No. For Christians, no divorce.
(Matt. 1:18-20) "Now the birth of Jesus Christ was on this wise: When as his mother Mary was espoused to Joseph, before they came together, she was found with child of the Holy Ghost. Then Joseph her husband, being a just man, and not willing to make her a publick example, was minded to put her away privily. But while he thought on these things, behold, the angel of the LORD appeared unto him in a dream, saying, Joseph, thou son of David, fear not to take unto thee Mary thy wife: for that which is conceived in her is of the Holy Ghost." Joseph went through with taking Mary to wife after the angel assured him the offspring was holy. If I'm on the road to marriage when I convert to "being a just man," a Christian ("thou son of David"), but my intended hasn't yet converted, am I to break it off with her or would my Christian influence on my partner be adequate to sustain a holy marriage, our future offspring being holy? If the Holy Spirit's involvement with Joseph's espoused and her child in the womb made it okay for him to proceed with the marriage, might I count on the Holy Spirit to sanctify my future spouse and children? (1 Cor. 7:14) "For the unbelieving husband is sanctified by the wife, and the unbelieving wife is sanctified by the husband: else were your children unclean; but now are they holy." Out the glass doors and to the right. Straightforward directions, two steps: through the door and down the hall. The door to marrying someone of the world was opened (1st Cor. 3:21b-22) "For all things are yours; whether ... the world, or ... things present, or things to come." Then the sanctification of any children the Christian has completes the directions. The question is in the future tense—Joseph's things to come—but the answer is in the present tense—things present—, the principle being unified: "all things are yours."
(Matt. 19:7-8) "They say unto him, Why did Moses then command to give a writing of divorcement, and to put her away? He saith unto them, Moses because of the hardness of your hearts suffered you to put away your wives: but from the beginning it was not so." Okay, suppose I'm a Christian but my spouse isn't. If my spouse is under the Mosaic "hardness of heart" that permits divorce, can I use that option? (1 Cor. 7:12-13) "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. And the woman which hath an husband that believeth not, and if he be pleased to dwell with her, let her not leave him." No.
(Matt. 19:9) "And I say unto you, Whosoever shall put away his wife, except it be for fornication, and shall marry another, committeth adultery: and whoso marrieth her which is put away doth commit adultery." If my unbelieving wife divorces me who am a Christian, am I under bondage to pursue reconciliation with her if I ever want to have a sexual relationship again or am I at liberty to remarry? Wouldn't such a pursuit of a divorced woman constitute stalking in the eyes of the world and so disturb the peace? For that matter shouldn't I be trying to convert my spouse while I have a chance? (1 Cor. 7:15-17) "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. For what knowest thou, O wife, whether thou shalt save thy husband? or how knowest thou, O man, whether thou shalt save thy wife? But as God hath distributed to every man, as the Lord hath called every one, so let him walk. And so ordain I in all churches." Only with a Check Guarantee Card. Moses is like that card: if you're under him you can charge a divorce. Unbelievers in the realm of hardness-of-heart can get away with it.
(Matt. 19:10) "His disciples say unto him, If the case of the man be so with his wife, it is not good to marry." How about celibacy as an option? (1 Cor. 7:1b-2, 8-9) "It is good for a man not to touch a woman. Nevertheless, to avoid fornication, let every man have his own wife, and let every woman have her own husband. ... I say therefore to the unmarried and widows, It is good for them if they abide even as I. But if they cannot contain, let them marry: for it is better to marry than to burn." Fifty bucks. Same as in town. Just as the world's oldest profession is recognizable through millennia, so our honorable institution of marriage survives through time and Paul's message is instantly recognizable and will continue to be so.
(Matt. 19:11-12) "But he said unto them, All men cannot receive this saying, save they to whom it is given. For there are some eunuchs, which were so born from their mother's womb: and there are some eunuchs, which were made eunuchs of men: and there be eunuchs, which have made themselves eunuchs for the kingdom of heaven's sake. He that is able to receive it, let him receive it." Is being a eunuch simply an option, not every Christian's cup of tea? (1 Cor. 7:6-7) "But I speak this by permission, and not of commandment. For I would that all men were even as I myself. But every man hath his proper gift of God, one after this manner, and another after that." Because you didn't bring enough for everyone. My favorite treat is not going to suffice for everyone in the theater. So a proper gift of God—for marriage, celibacy, whatever— will not go around to everybody in the congregation but must be consumed in private.
(Exodus 4:24-26) "And it came to pass by the way in the inn, that the LORD met him, and sought to kill him. Then Zipporah took a sharp stone, and cut off the foreskin of her son, and cast it at his feet, and said, Surely a bloody husband art thou to me. So he let him go: then she said, A bloody husband thou art, because of the circumcision." If I'm married and decide to get circumcised won't that disturb my wife? Or if I'm circumcised and decide to undergo a painful circumcision reversal, wouldn't that disturb her too. Does she have to accept my action or should I just stay as I am? (1 Cor. 7:18-20) "Is any man called being circumcised? let him not become uncircumcised. Is any called in uncircumcision? let him not be circumcised. Circumcision is nothing, and uncircumcision is nothing, but the keeping of the commandments of God. Let every man abide in the same calling wherein he was called." I think it might irritate the customers that showed up on time if we "rewind" it for you. Maybe you think you've missed the boat with respect to circumcision, but if you try to remedy the situation, you'll likely disturb your wife with your new look.
(Exodus 21:2-6) "If thou buy an Hebrew servant, six years he shall serve: and in the seventh he shall go out free for nothing. If he came in by himself, he shall go out by himself: if he were married, then his wife shall go out with him. If his master have given him a wife, and she have born him sons or daughters; the wife and her children shall be her master's, and he shall go out by himself. And if the servant shall plainly say, I love my master, my wife, and my children; I will not go out free: Then his master shall bring him unto the judges; he shall also bring him to the door, or unto the door post; and his master shall bore his ear through with an aul; and he shall serve him for ever." Wait a second here. I'm one of the many poor slaves in Corinth. I'm a Hebrew servant of a few years, and my master has given me a wife. I was expecting to go free and on my way after six years of servitude, but now I'm hearing all this teaching on the permanence of marriage. Does that mean I have to stay a slave all my life? And if not, can I just go free now? (1 Cor. 7:21-24) "Art thou called being a servant? care not for it: but if thou mayest be made free, use it rather. For he that is called in the Lord, being a servant, is the Lord's freeman: likewise also he that is called, being free, is Christ's servant. Ye are bought with a price; be not ye the servants of men. Brethren, let every man, wherein he is called, therein abide with God." Yes, but I didn't exhale.—Spoken by Gutter, in front of the Senate Committee, in the movie PCU. You know, you inhale a drag of smoke and you expect to be able to exhale in a moment. Likewise, a Hebrew servant was to be released in the seventh year—unless he voluntarily stays for life. I mean, you can keep it in for a minute, but give me a break.
(1 Sam. 18:20-27) "And Michal Saul's daughter loved David: and they told Saul, and the thing pleased him. And Saul said, I will give him her, that she may be a snare to him, and that the hand of the Philistines may be against him. Wherefore Saul said to David, Thou shalt this day be my son in law ... . And Saul commanded his servants, saying, Commune with David secretly, and say, Behold, the king hath delight in thee, and all his servants love thee: now therefore be the king's son in law. And Saul's servants spake those words in the ears of David. And David said, Seemeth it to you a light thing to be a king's son in law, seeing that I am a poor man, and lightly esteemed? And the servants of Saul told him, saying, On this manner spake David. And Saul said, Thus shall ye say to David, The king desireth not any dowry, but an hundred foreskins of the Philistines, to be avenged of the king's enemies. But Saul thought to make David fall by the hand of the Philistines. And when his servants told David these words, it pleased David well to be the king's son in law: and the days were not expired. Wherefore David arose and went, he and his men, and slew of the Philistines two hundred men; and David brought their foreskins, and they gave them in full tale to the king, that he might be the king's son in law. And Saul gave him Michal his daughter to wife." Aren't there some potential marriages that would be a snare to us, and aren't we better off avoiding them? But if we enter them is it a sin? (1 Cor. 7:25-28, 35-38) "Now concerning virgins I have no commandment of the Lord: yet I give my judgment, as one that hath obtained mercy of the Lord to be faithful. I suppose therefore that this is good for the present distress, I say, that it is good for a man so to be. Art thou bound unto a wife? seek not to be loosed. Art thou loosed from a wife? seek not a wife. But and if thou marry, thou hast not sinned; and if a virgin marry, she hath not sinned. Nevertheless such shall have trouble in the flesh: but I spare you. ... And this I speak for your own profit; not that I may cast a snare upon you, but for that which is comely, and that ye may attend upon the Lord without distraction. But if any man think that he behaveth himself uncomely toward his virgin, if she pass the flower of her age, and need so require, let him do what he will, he sinneth not: let them marry. Nevertheless he that standeth stedfast in his heart, having no necessity, but hath power over his own will, and hath so decreed in his heart that he will keep his virgin, doeth well. So then he that giveth her in marriage doeth well; but he that giveth her not in marriage doeth better." Once, but I was really drunk. The things that one does only once—and then only when drunk—fall into two categories: "That's disgusting!" and "That's really disgusting!" Same with this ancient institution of virgin marriages. They were like married but didn't live together and have sex. I suppose that avoids a lot of complications. They had the option of getting fully married. That would be good. Or they could stay lesser involved—if they can hold out—and that would be better. Two degrees of marriage, one better than the other, just as there are two degrees of drunken behavior, one outdoing the other.

The RSV changed the wording to refer to a father withholding or giving his daughter rather than the man his virgin (wife). Paul has covered such situations if one includes parents in the decision making process. The RSV approach is both redundant and overkill, as the strong wording about willpower appropriate to a virgin marriage is out of balance in a regular situation.

The Pilgrims had a somewhat similar institution called being under contract. A man and woman would pledge themselves before witnesses and then enjoy all the prerogatives of marriage except the bed—at least in theory. Later they could marry and consummate the relationship. In The Gulag Archipelago Solzenitson tells of prison weddings with no hope of ever getting together physically, but some of those ephemeral marriages actually came together. Today the closest I've seen is internet romance with a long delay in bringing the distant bride home.

(Deut. 25:5) "If brethren dwell together, and one of them die, and have no child, the wife of the dead shall not marry without unto a stranger: her husband's brother shall go in unto her, and take her to him to wife, and perform the duty of an husband's brother unto her."

(1 Tim. 5:11-12) "But the younger widows refuse: for when they have begun to wax wanton against Christ, they will marry; Having damnation, because they have cast off their first faith."
Widows. Are they to remain loyal to their dead husband, or may they remarry? If they remarry does it have to be to a near relative of the deceased? Isn't there a real danger that they will wantonly depart from the faith in marrying again? (1 Cor. 7:39-40) "The wife is bound by the law as long as her husband liveth; but if her husband be dead, she is at liberty to be married to whom she will; only in the Lord. But she is happier if she so abide, after my judgment: and I think also that I have the Spirit of God." Yep, you got it — SOLD OUT does mean no more seats available. Would this be understood a thousand years from now? Yes, if they can still do basic deductions: all seats sold means no seats left. Unfortunately, we may have diminished reasoning capacity since we got the Bible. The yoking passage of II Corinthians 6 gets imported illegally into the widow remarks, especially by the NIV™. I Corinthians 7 gives the strongest statement that mixed marriages are sanctified. Then in II Corinthians 4:2 Paul tells us he is "not handling the word deceitfully." In Genesis 34:13 we've seen "the sons of Jacob answered Shechem and Hamor deceitfully" saying they are allowed to intermarry when they are not; they wanted revenge for Dinah. Therefore Paul's II Corinthians statement not to be unequally yoked in Christian ministry cannot be applied directly to mixed marriages which were earlier undeceitfully allowed.
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Earl Gosnell
1950 Franklin Bv., Box 15
Eugene, OR 97403

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