Counter-Cultural Advice on Marriage and Family Life—1 Corinthians 7

1 Corinthians Series, Bible study lesson 7

by Reta Halteman Finger

“… we are inviting God’s judgment on our nation when we…say ‘we know better than you as to what constitutes a marriage.’ I pray God’s mercy on our generation that has …the audacity to define what marriage is about. We are very much supportive of the family— the biblical definition of the family.” –Dan Cathy of Chick-Fil-A

The above statement, familiar to many American readers of this website, angered me not only because of its hostility to gay marriage, but also because of its ignorance of “biblical marriage and family.” After the creation stories of two necessary genders, the biblical record that follows is rife with polygamy, adultery, rape, and prostitution—mostly perpetuated by powerful men in patriarchal cultures. Heroes like Abraham, Jacob, David, and Solomon seem little concerned to exemplify “biblical marriage.”

Centuries later, in 1 Corinthians 7 the Apostle Paul wields marriage-and-family advice within his context in the Roman Empire. What principles of “biblical marriage” does this celibate Jewish man lay out for his newly-converted Corinthian flock?

Hints from a Lost Letter

Folio from Papyrus 46 - An ancient Greek manuscript (probably 175-225) containing most of Paul's epistles.
Folio from Papyrus 46 – An ancient Greek manuscript (probably 175-225) containing most of Paul’s epistles. The folio pictured is actually a portion of 2 Corinthians. This photo from Wikipedia and is in the public domain.

Although this chapter continues the sex-and-family theme of our previous lesson, now Paul shifts from responding to the oral report from Chloe’s people (1 Cor 1-6) to a written letter from other believers. Some of them have a very different problem from the loose-living men of 6:12-20. In 7:1, Paul quotes from their letter, “It is good for a man not to touch a woman.” This male-oriented statement is more extreme than any conservative Christian attitude today. No wonder the Corinthians can’t agree!

Yet both attitudes assume that the human soul is superior to the physical body. We can call these different views about the body “libertine” and “ascetic.” The Libertines say, “Since the body isn’t important, why worry about how we use it? Enjoy food and sex while we can!” The Ascetics say, “The body isn’t important, but it gets in the way of our spiritual lives. If something feels good, it must be wrong.”

Paul has already challenged the denigration of the physical body in 6:13-15:  your bodies belong to the Lord. To counter the Ascetics, he calls for married couples to continue their sexual relationship.

With limited space, I can include only a few cultural observations we must consider in order not to misapply this text or wrongly criticize Paul. If he seems like a micromanager, recall that most Corinthian believers are very recent converts from paganism.

Marriage and Family Life in the Roman Empire
Most marriages are arranged by families based on economics and social class, not on modern western ideals of love, romance, and common interests. The husband is usually about ten years older than his wife, with greater power and authority. Though he expects faithfulness and legitimate children from his wife, she usually has to accept his casual sexual encounters with slaves or prostitutes. But Paul challenges such male privilege. Romans would agree that the husband has authority over his wife’s body (7:4), but Paul insists that wife has authority over her husband’s body as well!

Paul’s encouragement of singleness is also countercultural. In Roman society, every normal person is expected to marry in order to maintain the population. But Paul suggests virgins and widows remain single for two reasons. “This present crisis” (7:26) probably refers to the local famine, which can be inferred from other sources. With no reliable birth control and with moral objections to abortion or infanticide, do not risk having another mouth to feed. Second, Paul believes “the present form of this world is passing away” (7:29-35, here v 31), so he does not prefer believers to be overwhelmed by the struggles of ordinary survival.  

Paul’s Opinions
However, Paul is flexible. It is not a sin to marry (7:36-40). Paul also differentiates between his own opinions and teachings he had heard “from the Lord,” i.e., from Jerusalem leaders who had known the living Jesus (7:12). Since holiness is more powerful than pagan “pollution,” Paul thinks believers should not leave their unbelieving spouses unless the latter wants to separate (7:12-16).

Paul deals with two further social issues: circumcision and slavery. Again, he is adjustable. From Paul’s letter to the Galatians, we know circumcision was a problem for gentile men attracted to Judaism. Less well-known was the practice among young Jewish men who want to remove the marks of circumcision (by an operation called an “epispasm”—v 18) so they can compete nude in the Isthmian Games without shame. Paul counsels men in either condition to remain as they are “with God” (v 24).

Ruins of a Roman Bath
The ruins of a huge Roman bath on the island of Cyprus hints at the vast number of slaves needed to maintain it. Stacks of bricks under the floor of this calderium (hot room) were heated by wood chopped and brought in by slaves.

Paul also addresses slaves (21-24), surely a large proportion of these house churches. Neither married nor single, a slave is sexually available to his master or to anyone with the master’s permission. Here, against the NRSV, the NIV is more accurate: “Were you a slave when you were called? Don’t let it trouble you—although if you can gain your freedom, do so” (21). In other words, do not be worried if you cannot remain sexually pure in your condition—but get out of it if you can!

Reread this chapter to compare Paul’s nuanced views with Dan Cathy’s rigidity as seen  in the opening quotation.

Question for reflection:
Given our cultural distance from Paul’s context, what “biblical” principles of domestic life can we draw from 1 Corinthians 7?

Reta Halteman Finger
Reta Halteman Finger is a long-time member of EEWC-CFT and is a past Southeast representative on the EEWC-CFT Council. She holds a Ph.D. in theology and religion from Northwestern University, masters of theological studies from Garrett Evangelical Theological Seminary and Northern Baptist University, and a master of education from Boston University. Reta retired in 2009 from teaching Bible (mostly New Testament) at Messiah College in Grantham, PA. She lives in Harrisonburg, Virginia, and since her retirement from Messiah College has been devoting her time to writing and speaking projects, as well as some part-time teaching at Eastern Mennonite Seminary. For fifteen years, Reta edited the Christian feminist magazine, Daughters of Sarah (no longer published), and is a frequent writer and reviewer for Christian Feminism Today. Using the search box on the homepage of our EEWC-Christian Feminism Today website, you’ll be led to many of her online articles.