Rev. L. Althouse
July 2, 2006
Background Scripture: 1 Corinthians 7:1-20. Devotional Reading: 1 John 4:7-016.
In order to understand what Paul is saying to us in 1 Corinthians 7, we really need to first read verses 26 and 29, for everything he says here is dependent upon them: “I think that in view of the present distress it is well for a person to remain as he is” (7:26), and “I mean, brethren, the appointed time has grown very short; from now on...” (7:29a)
What he teaches in this chapter on marriage, divorce, sexual relationships, circumcision and slavery is shaped entirely by his expectations in relation to the “present distress” and “appointed time.”
He is convinced that the Christ’s return is imminent. It will take place during his lifetime and most of those to whom his letters are addressed. Not only will Christ return, but the whole creation will be transformed into the kingdom of God. The “present distress” is the tension experienced as Christians await this cataclysmic event. So, much of the teaching in this chapter is interim in nature, meant to carry disciples into the radically transformed new order.
A matter of focus
Because Christ’s return is imminent, Paul’s advice on certain questions raised by the Corinthians is to remain as they are: “To the unmarried and the widows I say that it is well for them to remain single as I do.” (v. 8)
“To the married I give charge…that the wife should not separate from her husband.” (v.10)
To those who were either slaves or free, Paul says: “So, brethren, in whatever state each was called, there let him remain with God.” (v. 24)
In other words, Christ is coming, so don’t get involved with changing the circumstances of your life. The changes that will come with the return of Christ will make any changes superfluous.
Paul is often accused today of being indifferent to slavery and hostile toward marriage. But when we read these teachings in the context of what Paul thought was “just around the corner” with Christ’s return, we realize that his overriding concern is that people focus on that great event, not the temporary circumstances of their lives.
But Paul was wrong, Christ did not return in the glory of God’s kingdom during Paul’s own lifetime or that of his readers. In fact, it is now almost 2,000 years later and Christ has still not returned. So what effect does that fact have upon these teaching of Paul?
For example, I believe that, if Paul had known that the kingdom of God would be delayed several thousand years, he would not have been indifferent to the institution of slavery. Paul did not see a place for slavery in the kingdom of God. He was only counseling patience because he believed that the kingdom of God was imminent and would eliminate slavery and all other human injustices.
Contrary to what his critics maintain, Paul was not against marriage. Having said that, however, I must confess that his view of marriage leaves something to be desired. While he holds marriage as OK, he believes there is a higher level of Christian discipleship: celibacy: “I wish that all were as I myself am. But each has his own special gift from God, one of one kind and one of another” (v. 7) and “So that he who marries his betrothed does well; and he who refrains from marriage will do better.” (v. 38)
Both marriage and celibacy are gifts of God, but Paul thinks celibacy is a higher gift. Unfortunately, Paul presents marriage as, at best, God’s gift to those who cannot control their sexual urges. “But if they cannot exercise self-control, they should marry. For it is better to marry than be aflame with passion.” (vs. 8,9)
In a few hours today, I will be standing before a young couple and reading these words from the marriage ritual: “We are assembled in the presence of God to unite this man and this woman in holy matrimony, which is instituted of God, regulated by his commandment, blessed of our Lord Jesus Christ, and to be held in honor among all men.”
That is considerably more than believing that it is better to marry than to burn. And if Paul were with us today, I think he would agree.
This farm news was published in the June 28, 2006 issue of Farm World, serving Indiana, Ohio, Illinois, Kentucky, Michigan and Tennessee.