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Paul's First Letter to the Corinthians (16)

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Paul's First Letter to the Corinthians (16)

1 Corinthians 7:1-7

Broadcast: June 7, 1998; Message Number 1475

The Marriage Relationship

Our study of I Corinthians. brings us to chapter 7. In this chapter the apostle Paul answers several questions the Corinthians had put to him regarding marriage. It appears that many of them had a rather warped view of the institution of marriage. This was largely due to wrong ideas they had brought with them from their pagan background. So they asked Paul, "Is it better for a Christian to remain single or to get married?" The apostle deals with this and related questions throughout this chapter.

Paul begins by making a rather startling statement: "Now concerning the things whereof you wrote to me: It is good for a man not to touch a woman." What he means is, it is good for a man not to marry. To touch a woman is simply a Hebrew euphemism for sexual intercourse. The apostle uses this expression to state that it is a good thing if a man remains single or celibate. Some have concluded from this passage that Paul was opposed to marriage, in fact, that he was a woman hater. But that is not true. We must understand the background to this statement. The Greeks had a strong tendency to despise the body and all things physical. That tendency expressed itself in two ways. For some the body was unimportant. It did not mater what you did with it. To them it was all right to let bodily instincts and appetites have their way. So they indulged in sexual immorality with abandon. Others took the complete opposite view. The body is evil, they felt; therefore we must bring it into subjection to the soul or spirit. We have to deny all the instincts and desires of the flesh, and since marriage involves the coming together of two persons as one flesh, marriage was out of the question. Celibacy was the only way.

This ascetic view of life continued to influence many converts from paganism. When they became Christians, they made a complete break with the immoral lifestyle in which they had grown up and concluded that the only way to live a consistent Christian life was to abstain from all physical pleasures. Therefore, marriage was something to be avoided rather than sought. They advocated celibacy for singles and even those already married should take the so-called "brother-sister vow" and live in a kind of Platonic relationship.

There were also Christians with a Jewish background in Corinth. They reacted strongly to the notion that sex was sin. The idea of not marrying was so far from Jewish thinking that the Old Testament does not even have a word for bachelor. A godly life for them meant not only marriage, but also having children. They felt that if there was any sin involved, it was the sin of refusing to marry.

Consequently, the congregation was divided also on account of these different views on marriage. Instead of calmly discussing their differences, they viewed each other with suspicion. All kinds of strange ideas and practices arose. Newly converted husbands began to wonder if they should leave their pagan wives when they did not come to faith in Christ, and vice versa. Confusion reigned.

Paul's answer seems at first glance to favour the celibacy party. "It is good for a man not to marry," he says. Notice, however, that he does not say celibacy is better than marriage. There is no suggestion here that marriage is in any way wrong or inferior to singleness. All he says is that singleness, as long as it is celibate, can be good.

But didn't God say at the creation of man: "It is not good for the man to be alone; I will make him a helper suitable for him?" Indeed, but from this it must not conclude that singleness as such is wrong and is always wrong. According to verse 7, celibacy is all right if a person has the gift of continence. God does call some to a life of singleness for one reason or another. As Paul explains later in this chapter, being single has several obvious advantages for those who serve the Lord as ministers or missionaries, especially in times of persecution. For that reason Paul favours celibacy, but this does not imply that he views marriage as less spiritual.

In fact, he goes on to say that for most people celibacy is not the best option because of the temptation it often involves. "Nevertheless," he says in verse 2, "to avoid fornication, let every man have his own wife, and let every woman have her own husband."

Paul is realistic. Given the temptations that abound in Corinth, it is not easy for single persons to remain pure. Because of fornication, he says, it is better to marry. It may seem as if the apostle regards marriage as little more than an escape valve for man's sex drive, but I don't think this is what he means. We know that he has a much healthier view of marriage than that. Just think of what he writes in such passages as Ephesians 5:22-23, where he compares the love between husband and wife to the love of Christ for His Church. We should realize, however, that Paul has a special reason for saying what he says here, namely to stress the reality of the sexual temptations for single persons and to show that God has given man a legitimate outlet for his sexual needs in marriage. He is simply reminding us that one function of marriage is to protect us from immorality as it meets the need for physical fulfilment.

Celibacy is good in certain situations and is therefore a divinely approved option. But there are also situations when celibacy is not an option, namely for those who are married. In verse 3 Paul states: "Let the husband render unto the wife due benevolence." What is due benevolence? This is another euphemism. What Paul means is that the husband should fulfil his marital duty to his wife and likewise the wife to her husband. And what is that duty? Verse 4 tells us: "the wife has no power over her own body, but the husband does and likewise also the husband does not have power over his own body but the wife does."

The word "power" means authority or right. To give himself to his wife is a duty and a debt the husband owes to his wife, just as it is her duty to give herself to her husband. The reason for this mutual obligation is that their bodies are no longer their own exclusively, but they now share them. This is the implication of the two being one flesh.

That celibacy is wrong for married people may be obvious to us, but it was not so obvious to the Corinthian Christians. Because they thought sexual abstinence made them spiritually superior some practised it even within marriage. Some overzealous husbands apparently had set themselves apart for God to the point where they were neglecting their wives and some wives had done the same thing. This probably took place mostly in homes were one of the spouses was an unbeliever. Paul, however, applies his command to all marriages as is clear from verses 10 through 17. Married believers are not to sexually deprive their spouses, whether the husband or wife is a Christian or not.

In God's eyes all marriages are sacred and He considers sexual relations between husbands and wives not just proper, but even obligatory. The importance of this apostolic advice cannot be over-emphasised. Here we have the secret of a happy marriage, where both husband and wife live for each other in all areas of married life, including this one. If what Paul says here would be taken more seriously, much marital unhappiness could be avoided and many marriages kept from breaking up. Often the reason why either husband or wife start messing around is that things are not what they should be in this department. I'm not saying that this is the only problem area in marriage, but who will deny that it is one of the most important, and Paul knows it.

I don't think it is necessary to enlarge on this any further. Paul's meaning is clear enough. There are good and valid reasons for abstaining, but these must be agreed on mutually. As Paul says, defraud ye not one the other. Do not deprive one another except by agreement for a time that you may devote yourselves to fasting and prayer.

I wonder how many can give this as their reason for abstaining? I'm afraid that in most cases far less worthy excuses are advanced, resulting in bitterness, resentment and temptation. When sexual love is withheld for long periods of time for reasons other than the ones mentioned here, it is very easy for evil thoughts to enter the mind of the deprived partner and for such thoughts to turn into sinful action. Paul warns the Corinthians and us as well: Don't deprive your marriage partner of the love you owe him or her, for in doing so you may become Satan's agent in leading your spouse into paths of sin. If you truly love your husband or wife, you will never wilfully put him or her in a potentially tempting situation.

Summing up then, sex is an honourable aspect of marriage, not only because God intends us to enjoy each other physically, but also and especially because He wants our marriage to reflect the love between Christ and His Church. "Marriage is honourable in all and the bed undefiled," the apostle says. That does not mean, however, that anything goes. As one Puritan author puts it: husbands and wives must not think that their relation legitimizes every folly which they can perpetrate, or that inordinate or immoderate pleasures can ever agree with the "bed undefiled." An intemperate man in wedlock differs little from an adulterer.

The apostle Peter, pointing out to wives their duty to submit to their husbands, has this to say to their mates: "Likewise ye husbands, dwell with them according to knowledge, giving honour unto the wife as unto the weaker vessel, and as being heirs together of the grace of life; that your prayers be not hindered" (I Pet. 3:7). When these things are not observed, the relationship between husbands and wives will suffer and a strain will be put on their relationship with the Lord. Your prayers will be hindered, the apostle says. Even when prayers continue to be said, one should not expect an answer from heaven in such cases. The sighs and tears of an injured wife can become a thick wall through which no answers can descend, even if petitions are still sent up.

Heaven knows how many marriages are impoverished because of the coarse, thoughtless, overbearing attitude of an otherwise good husband, or--let me hasten to add--by the unreasonable, tactless and selfish attitude of an otherwise good wife. Could this be a problem in your marriage perhaps? Has your failure in this respect perhaps created a spiritual bottleneck, so that no communication to and from heaven can get through?

Only a life of obedience to God and His law leads to a truly happy life. This is certainly true of marriage. Follow the divine blueprint for marriage and you will have a happy marriage. The Lord rewards those who fear and obey Him. "No good thing will He withhold from them that walk uprightly," the Psalmist says (Psalm 84:11). At His right hand there are pleasures forevermore (Psalm 16:11). Not only in heaven, after this life, but here and now already He gives His people much happiness--first of all in Christ our heavenly Bridegroom, but also as husbands and wives who are married in the Lord.

Additional Info

  • Audio: 110520912
  • Speaker: Rev. C. Pronk
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