Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Marital Issues in Corinth

This is part 6 of 8 in a series on what the bible says concerning divorce and remarriage. For the other posts see here:
The book of 1 Corinthians has overall been one of the most difficult books to understand by Christians across the ages, resulting in many misunderstandings of Christian praxis, the proper way Christians should lead their lives, both within and without the gathering of the church. This is no less true for Chapter 7 of the book, the default passage for Christians trying to understand Paul’s take on marital issues. I will tackle this chapter by dividing it into the proper groups of verses, following the structure of the thought flow, and commenting on the salient points in each section[i].

      Chapter 7 is normally read as starting an entirely new section. Paul has been talking about hearsay concerning the Corinthian church and now shifts to discuss specific points of inquiry or concern mentioned in their letter to him. However, at other subsequent points in the letter Paul shifts his attention back towards hearsay[ii] and other points thought to be Paul response to a letter could be read otherwise[iii]. It is better, then, to read chapter 7 with chapters 5 and 6, which are all dealing with sexual immorality. In chapters 5 and 6, Paul directly addresses issues of sexual immorality that are going on within the church. Chapter 7 deals with the other side of the coin, looking at the marital relationship as the proper solution to sexual immorality, and the tenor of the chapter needs to account for the fact that Paul is dealing with a real situation of sexual immorality. There were obviously confusions within the church concerning sexual/marital issues that were stated in a letter to Paul[iv] and he chooses this point in his letter to address them.

Verses 1 – 7
      Vv. 1-2 – The understanding of the entire chapter is based on how one reads this verse. There have been two dominant understandings of this chapter:
1) The standard understanding for a long time has been to read “It is good for a man to not touch a woman” as Paul’s response to the Corinthian letter. His response is to affirm celibacy as “the good” but follows with conceding that marriage is an acceptable circumstance to deal with those who struggle with sexual sin.
2) A newer, now more dominant, understanding is to see “It is good for a man to not touch a woman” as the general content of what the Corinthians wrote in their letter. There was a contingency in Corinth who thought celibacy to be the highest calling and Paul responds by accepting both celibacy and marriage.

Both understandings are based on taking “touch” as a euphemism for general sexual activity and both can have difficulty explaining how Paul can see marriage as good in and of itself rather than celibacy being the higher good. Roy Ciampa[v] has challenged the current understanding of what Paul actually says in 1 Cor. 7:1 and, based on a much more comprehensive study of the Greek word for “touch”[vi], found a much more reasonable reading of the entire Chapter 7. The word is not a general reference for sexual activity as commonly thought but rather culturally specific, referring to specific sexual activity in which a subservient person becomes the sexual object of a dominant person. Thus a man may “touch” a boy, woman, or slave. A husband might “touch” a woman but in no way does the woman ever “touch” the husband. The problem in Corinth was not simply sexual activity. Rather, much of the church had not shed its past baggage, still operating by dominant cultural immoralities[vii]. Thus Paul, in verse 1, is agreeing with what some in Corinth said: the behavior of “touching” is not good.

Paul follows up in verse 2 with the clarifying statement: because of sexual immorality, like “touching”, each husband should “have” his own wife. The verse is not saying that everyone needs to get married to avoid sexual immorality but that everyone who is married needs to stick with the spouse in such activity.

      Vv. 3-4 – Paul expounds. The slavery imagery would have been obvious as far as the wife was concerned, but that the husband was under the authority of the wife would have been revolutionary. The balance of the imagery shifts the thought from lordship of the husband to mutual servanthood.

      Vv. 5-6 – The egalitarian shift continues in a hypothetical exception. There may be times when it is more beneficial to be apart, but this temporary separation needs to be by mutual agreement. Paul’s statement in v. 6 indicates Paul has stated a principle, not giving rules.

      V. 7 – With the new understanding of “touch” in v. 1, there is nothing solid before this verse to count as evidence that celibacy was a major issue in the Corinthian church. What seems to set off the awkward statement that Paul wishes everyone could be like him (celibate) is verses 5 and 6. The married couple should only be apart a short time and then come back together. Verse 7a is then a pastorally sensitive concession to those who probably upheld Paul as a moral example for sexual celibacy. (This no doubt played into the larger Corinthian concern for status; see 1:17ff.) There is some sense in which Paul does desire everyone to be sexually celibate but he makes the concession precisely to point out that not all are given such a gift. The gift is not simply the marital state but concerns the ability to do God’s work within a certain marital state.

Verses 8 – 16
      Paul now shifts to speak to certain groups. The unmarried are addressed first generally in vv. 8-9 and then more specifically in vv. 25ff, then the married are addressed generally in vv. 10-11 and then more specifically in vv. 12-16.

      Vv. 8-9 – The “unmarried” are best seen as referring generally to anyone not currently in the state of marriage[viii] with “widows” being a subset, receiving specific attention (as they usually did within the church, e.g. 1 Tim. 5:9ff, James 1:27). That it’s “good” they remain as Paul need only be a concession and not a statement that it’s better to be celibate. That it’s better to marry than burn (with passion) is not a statement as to the mere utilitarian purpose of marriage (have kids and not get into sexual trouble) but has to do with the situation at hand.  A number of people in the church are being immoral, and a marital relationship is the answer. But that doesn’t make it the sole purpose of marriage.

      Vv. 10-11 – Formally speaking, Paul’s “command from the Lord” doesn’t just speak about any and all divorces. The Greek word “separate”[ix] refers to the spouse simply leaving. Within Greco-Roman culture at this time, the husband or the wife could divorce by simply leaving – referred to as the “no-fault” divorce. Either party could simply wish to not be married if they so desired. Within the lens of the situation afforded us by this letter, this was no doubt being done in the Corinthian church. If a separation does indeed occur, Paul wants reconciliation or to remain unmarried – understandable since there was no good reason for divorce in the first place in Paul’s mind. Within this context, Paul does not want the husband divorcing (the Greek word for actual divorce is used) the wife just because she runs off. See vv. 17-24 below for the general framework of why a spouse would be running off.

      Vv. 12-16 – Since Corinth, like all of the early church, was newly founded, there is little doubt that there were many believers with unbelieving spouses. Paul turns to address this specific issue, a special situation of what he addresses in vv. 10-11. Don’t divorce an unbelieving spouse if you have one (i.e. just because he/she is an unbeliever). But, if they leave, so be it. What’s done is done and the believing spouse is free to remarry[x]. Given that one’s status was the controlling factor within the church (1:10 – 4:13), that there was considerable confusion on these matters (5:6, 9, 10), and that there were purity concerns (7:14, 6:15-17, 7:1), there would have likely been many who sought divorce simply because the spouse was an unbeliever. Paul addresses the purity concern here. Rather than the unbeliever affecting the believer, it actually works the other way around. The presence of the believer “sanctifies” the unbeliever. That is, the presence of the believer places the unbeliever in a sphere in which God’s transforming power and presence is active. The primary concern should instead be that of reconciliation (vv. 15c-16) – we are called to peace, not the strife of unnecessary divorce.

Verses 17 – 24
      For many who pause to think about it, the presence of this passage is very confusing. Why should Paul take a time-out to start talking about circumcision and slavery? However, this is standard rhetoric in Paul’s day and would have been easily recognized. The shift is abrupt for a reason and draws attention to the main point of the entire passage of Chapter 7: social status is only incidental for the Christian. Race and social strata were the two biggest social dividers within society then[xi]. Given the Corinthian inflation of spiritual status, marriage was obviously a spiritual status marker within that church[xii]. People were trying to align their marital status with their newfound spiritual status whether in marital purity (married to unbeliever) or whether to even marry at all. It’s equating (and confusing) spiritual status with social status. Paul’s simple response is “Do you really think God cares about your social status? He doesn’t, so you shouldn’t either.” But Paul isn’t advocating being completely indifferent to one’s situation. Slavery, for example, is a hindrance to one’s life and a bad manifestation of human relationships; if you can escape slavery, do it! But if you can’t, don’t think God thinks you’re second-class. “In whatever condition each was called, let him remain with God.”

Verses 25 – 40
      Paul now returns to those in the “unmarried” category addressed in vv. 8-9. In vv. 25-35 he addresses the general issue of one trying to find a virgin to marry (since some were probably trying to get a virgin in order to change marital status) and then in vv. 36-38 he addresses those who are indeed already betrothed to a virgin. Finally, he directly addresses what widows can/should do about their marital state.

      Vv. 25-35 – Concerning those who are trying to get hooked, Paul would want to spare them many of the added difficulties in life that come with marriage (vv. 26-28). Keep in mind that with marriage comes the baby carriage … and many other difficulties, especially with the famine that was going on at the time. Moreover, “the time has grown short” (vv. 29-31). That is, with the Jesus’ death and resurrection the termination and passing away of the structure of this world and age has been made certain and visible (see 1 John 2: 8, 17). Marriage is part of this earthly structure and its relative unimportance should be kept in mind throughout life; it’s not bad, just temporary. A Christian’s values need to shift in light of the cross (see Rom. 13:11-14). What matters is serving the Lord (vv. 32-35). Are you going to worry about what’s “passing away” or what’s permanent? Nevertheless, singleness is not an absolute and is not intended to be enslaving.

      Vv. 36-38 – In spite of the previous 11 verses of discussion, if someone is already betrothed and is “burning with passion” then they should go ahead and marry – it’s fine! But if someone is betrothed, does not “burn with passion”, and isn’t under obligation[xiii] (e.g. the betrothal may have been a family agreement), then that person does even better - given the situation laid out in vv. 25-35.

      Vv. 39-40 – That “a woman is bound to her husband as long as he lives” is not meant to be absolute. In both places Paul states this general principle[xiv], it’s to show that there is then freedom in the death of a spouse. Once he (or she) dies, there is no more marriage bond and the woman (or man) is free to marry whomever she (or he) pleases. Though, given the previous considerations in this chapter, the widow is better off not marrying in Paul’s judgment.

There were influential people in the church in Corinth who elevated their place in life (upper class vs. slave, Gentile vs. Jew, married vs. single) to primary importance in determining their status within the church. With pride other problems can easily (and inevitably) sneak in and there were many who found themselves tied to this world in other ways besides status. Paul seeks above all to level sexual immorality and status inflation by subjecting it to the grounds that one must “glorify God with your body”. It is, after all, his temple[xv].

Specifically concerning divorce and remarriage, what we find is that Paul is addressing a situation where divorce has come about because of selfish reasons. But we also find Paul acknowledging that anyone is the category of “not married” may find themselves in the position to marry again. Paul does not judge that person.

[i] I am heavily indebted to Roy Ciampa and Brian Rosner for my understanding of this passage. Their first-class commentary (The First Letter to the Corinthians, Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2010) should be the first consulted on any passage of this letter and excellently lays the groundwork for a better and fresher understanding of this passage than what has been commonly held. Roy Ciampa’s brilliant article on 1 Cor. 7:1 (Revisiting the Euphemism in 1 Corinthians 7:1, JSNT 31 (2008), 325-38) trenchantly argues for a better understanding, taking into account all of the Greco-Roman cultural and linguistic data.
[ii] See 1 Cor. 11:17ff.
[iii] E.g. 1 Cor. 12:1ff. It’s quite possible that, given the hearsay referred to in 1:11ff that Paul felt the need to address the particular subject of spiritual gifts in his letter. “Now concerning” (peri de) is certainly a rhetorical shift for Paul but not necessarily an indicator of referring back to the Corinthian letter.
[iv] See 1 Cor. 5:9-10.
[v] See Roy Ciampa’s article referenced in n. 1.
[vi] Grk. aJptomai.
[vii] Per 1 Cor. 5:1-2, 5:11, 6:9-11, and 6:12-18 there were a number within the church who practiced sexual immorality before conversion and clearly practiced it after conversion. Some had habits with prostitution (standard within the culture) and someone did something that went beyond what was culturally acceptable.
I’ll make passing mention of Will Deming’s book, Paul on Marriage and Celibacy: The Hellenistic Background of 1 Corinthians 7 (2004). He argues that this chapter should be read in light of the Stoic-Cynic debate on marriage, where the Stoics most generally saw the (city-) state as the highest priority, making marriage of necessity for procreation. The Cynics, on the other hand, argued to avoid marriage for pursuit of philosophy to achieve virtue and well-being. The end result is that Paul is a Stoic informed by Judeo-Christian tradition, thus Paul is a non-ascetic. Yet the impending “crisis” (vv. 29-31), argued by Bruce Winter in After Paul Left Corinth: The Influence of Secular Ethics and Social Change, required a Stoic element of preserving the (city-) state by single people remaining celibate and not producing kids. Thus the delicate balancing act of Paul. However, at each turn, we find that so-called “Stoic elements” are already better found in Jewish biblical tradition and the resulting Stoic analysis strips the text of considerable depth. Deming’s analysis shows quite clearly the cultural impact that Stoicism and Cynicism would have had on Corinth, which would have certainly created “confusion” between polar opposites. However, though culturally pervasive Stoic thought would have allowed much interchange with Christians, it fails to convince as a true influencing factor in Paul’s thought.
[viii] Clement of Alexandria (Stromata 3.1, 2, 6, 12) and Origen (1 Cor. Frag 33) use this verse to understand that Paul views a second marriage as acceptable after a divorce.
[ix] Grk. cwrizw. Note that both instances of the verb are passive, reflecting cultural idiom of the woman’s part in divorce (see my analysis of the Matthew passages). The command is directed towards the woman who is thus the subject who should not “be separated” (not simply “separate”) “from a man” (apo androV, see also Luke 16:18 passage).
[x] This is what’s meant by that the spouse is “no longer bound”; see Instone-Brewer, p. 201ff and Ciampa-Rosner, pp. 302-303 – the phrase can hardly be properly read any other way.
[xi] The dividers were much larger and more absolute than they are today.
[xii] See Gal. 3:28 where these three categories are also found.
[xiii] The translation of verse 37 is tricky; Ciampa and Rosner have a well balanced approach to arguing for the translation: “But the man who has settled the matter in his own mind, who is under no compulsion but has control over his own will, and who has made up his mind not to marry the virgin …”
[xiv] See Romans 7:1-3.
[xv] See Paul’s intro to Chapter 7 at 6:19-20.

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