1 Corinthians


5. Celibacy, divorce and marriage

i] Sex within marriage


Up to this point, Paul has condemned three specific failings evident in the Corinthian congregation: a case of incest, lawsuits before heathen judges, and the visiting of prostitutes, all evidence of a rather libertarian approach to morality by some church members. Paul now seeks to address an ascetic influence evident within the congregation which has prompted some members to withhold sexual intercourse within their marriage. Paul seems to quote another slogan floating around the Corinthian congregation, namely "it is good for a man (husband) not to have sexual relations with a woman (his wife)." Paul doesn't denounce the slogan, in fact, they may be his words - a kind concession to the ascetics - but he goes on to encourage his readers to consider the sexual needs of their partner, and this because of the ever present danger of "sexual immorality."


i] Context: See 5:1-13. While still addressing the issue of sexual holiness, Paul in chapter 7 now sets out to answer a number of specific questions on the subject, questions which have been put to him by members of the Corinthian congregation in a letter. His overall subject is marriage and singleness. In arguing his case, Paul affirms the maxim, remain as you are, but substantially qualifies it. It well may be that the maxim is a slogan from the ascetics / enthusiasts in Corinth, given that the weight of Paul's words fall on his qualifications, rather than the maxim.


Paul's "Remain as you are" argument in chapter 7:

First, Paul affirms the Genesis principle of marriage as an exclusive lifelong commitment, v1-5. The saying, "it's good for a man not to have sexual relations with a woman", may be Paul's position on marriage, ie., he felt it best not to marry. Yet, it seems more likely that Paul is quoting from the believers in Corinth, possibly even quoting from their letter to him. Paul responds by arguing that in marriage, where each "submits to one another out of reverence for Christ", sex outside marriage must be resisted and sexual favors within marriage should not be denied. Both partners may agree to abstain for a period of prayer, but there must be limits to this.

In v6-9 Paul concurs with their sentiment and wishes that many more had the "gift" of celibacy (a gift of freedom from sexual desire) as he does, but such is a natural gift from God, as is the gift of sexual desire, therefore each must naturally express their gifts. It's unfortunate that verses 8-9 seem to imply that the only purpose of marriage is to satisfy sexual passion. This is not Paul's point. The unmarried and widows are obviously being pressured, by the ascetics, to stay unmarried as a spiritual exercise. For Paul, this is acceptable if you have the "gift", as he has. Without the gift, it is best to get married, otherwise frustration will lead to immorality. It is possible that the "unmarried" are divorcees. This may seem to conflict with Jesus' words on divorce, but we need to remember that Jesus' instructions are idealistic, undermining any claim to righteousness, while providing an objective to aim at. The disciples certainly get the point when they exclaim "it's best not to get married." Yet, by not getting married we don't solve the problem, since then we would be overcome by lust.

Again, addressing the "ascetics, Paul speaks strongly against going even further than abstinence, namely divorce, v10-11. Findlay argues that the husbands are divorcing their "spiritual" wives and so Paul's exhortation is that the wives should resist divorce and seek reconciliation. What is clear is that Paul is not establishing eternal Cannon Law for the church. Still, he gives some practical advice on the issue of divorce, v12-16. It's likely that the "ascetics" hold that a marriage is contaminated when a partner is an unbeliever, and so for this reason they have argued for divorce. Paul states his opinion that they should stay with their partner if all is well with the marriage, as both their partner and children will, in that state, be "sanctified" (how we would love to know what that means in practice!). If the unbelieving partner wants out of the marriage, then, in that circumstance, divorce is acceptable, although not preferable.

Paul goes on to explain the maxim remain as you are, v17-24. "They should remain in whatever social setting they were in at the time of their call, since God's call to be in Christ transcends such settings so as to make them essentially irrelevant", Fee. Paul illustrates his point with reference to circumcision and slavery. Whether Jew or Gentile, both count for nothing. Similarly slavery or freedom, although he does qualify this with the encouragement to gain freedom where possible. Still, his point stands. In the end, slavery or freedom are irrelevant for a believer in Christ. As Jesus himself put it, "my kingdom is not of this world."

Finally, Paul qualifies the maxim with regard single young people and widows, v25-40. The ascetics have argued that "it is good for the virgins to remain as they are", and Paul agrees (with qualifications - "better to marry than burn", and if they do marry they "have not sinned"). Paul agrees, but for different reasons; it is "because of the present crises". Those who are married will have to "face many troubles" and he wants "to spare" them. The RSV translates it "in view of the impending distress". Paul is probably referring to the coming tribulation upon the church prior to the return of Christ. The responsibilities of family will make it hard to flee in that terrible day. So, there is value in the maxim remain as you are, but if a single young person or widow wants to marry, it is no sin.


ii] Background: The Enthusiasts / Ascetics in Corinth; See 7:6-9


iii] Structure: Sexual abstinence in marriage:

Proposition, v1:

It is good to refrain from sex.

Teaching, v2-4:

Exposition of Genesis 2:18.

Instruction, v5:

Sexual abstinence should only be by mutual consent.


iv] Interpretation:

The interpretation of this passage very much depends on the statement "it is good for a man not to have sexual relations with a woman. The NIV11 adds inverted comers indicating a quote, a maxim most likely from the Corinthians themselves, but even possibly a question, "Is it good for a man not to touch a woman?" The conjunction de introducing v2, is obviously transitional, indicating a step in the argument, and this step is likely to be contrastive, as NIV, "but .....", ie., Paul has reservations about this maxim, "Yes, but ....." The next problem we face is whether anqrwpw/ means "man" or "husband", and whether gunaikoV, means "woman" or "wife"? If husband / wife, the issue at hand is a husband refraining from sexual relations with his wife, ie., an ascetic issue - this seems the likely sense. So, Paul has reservations about the maxim, and this "because of the temptation to sexual immorality", ESV. Paul's answer is simple, "Do not deprive one another (of your partner's conjugal rights) except by agreement for a limited time", v5.

This view has been challenged by a number of scholars in recent times. They suggest that Paul agrees with the maxim; "Yes indeed, it is not good to touch a woman." Roy Ciampa argues that "touching" in Roman society is a euphemism for sexual relations for pleasure outside of marriage; sex with a slave, concubine, prostitute, ...... any woman or boy other than one's wife, or another man's wife. Paul, as a Jew, would normally use the word porneia, "fornication", rather than the euphemism "to touch", and so it is possible that the Corinthians are confused, requiring Paul to clarify what he has earlier written (in the lost letter) or said. So, instead of addressing an ascetic problem, Paul may just be addressing the issue of sex for pleasure outside of marriage. His point being, marriage is for procreation, but also pleasure and therefore it is important not to "deprive one another" and so encourage "touching" / "fornication".

Text - 7:1

Sexual relations within marriage, v1-5. Paul addresses the proposition that it is good to refrain from sexual relations within marriage, a proposition likely promoted by enthusiasts who are reacting to the sexual habits rampant in their pagan culture; but see above.

de "now" - but/and. Transitional, indicating a step in the argument, as NIV.

peri + gen. "for [the matters]" - about [what you wrote]. Expressing reference / respect; "about, concerning"

anqrwpw/ (oV) dat. "for a man" - [it is good] for a man. Dative of interest, advantage.

mh aJpesqai (aJptw) pres. mid. inf. "not to have sexual relations with" - not to touch [a woman / wife is good for a man (husband)]. The infinitive serves as the subject of the assumed verb to be.

gunaikoV (h koV) gen. "a woman" - a woman, wife. Genitive of direct object after the verb "to take hold of, touch." Used in the sense of having sexual relations with a woman.


"It is not good that man should be alone", Gen.2:18. To choose otherwise can have unforeseen consequences!

de "but" - but/and. Transitional, indicating a step in the argument, "now, ...". Paul sets out to address the proposition.

dia + acc. "since" - because of [fornication, sexual immorality]. Causal; "because of, on account of." Somewhat elliptical, so "because of the temptation of fornication; "Because of the danger of fornication", Cassirer.

ecetw (ecw) pres. imp. "[each man] should have" - let [each man] have [his own wife and each woman] have [her own husband]. "Have his own wife" in the sense of "get married." Sexual appetite is for most people powerful and habit forming. To defy such a natural inclination by demanding celibacy can only promote illicit sexual acts, or worse, unnatural sexual acts. So, Paul's rule-of-thumb is "let the position be this, that each man has his own wife and each woman has her own husband", Cassirer.


Marriage brings with it mutual responsibility.

apodidotw (apodidwmi) pres. imp. "[the husband] should fulfill" - let [the husband] give back, fulfill [the debt, duty]. "The husband should give to his wife her conjugal rights", ESV.

th/ gunaiki (h koV) dat. "to his wife" - to the wife. Dative of indirect object / interest, advantage.

de "and" - but/and. Transitional, to a coordinate statement.

kai "likewise" - and. Here adjunctive, "also"; "and likewise also the wife to the / her husband."

tw/ andri (hr droV) dat. "to her husband" - [the wife] to the man, husband. Dative of indirect object.


Neither the husband nor the wife "has authority over his / her sexuality without any reference to the other partner ....... Within marriage, as always in the Christian ethic, freedom is conditioned by loving service", Pfitzner.

tou ... swmatoV (a atoV) gen. "the wife's body" - [the woman, wife does not have authority] of the [one's own] = her [own] body. The genitive, as with "of the one's own body", is adjectival, of subordination, "over her own body", as TNIV.

alla "but" - but. Adversative.

anhr (h droV) "yields it to her husband" - the husband does have authority. Somewhat elliptic / short-talk.

oJmoiV de kai "in the same way" - and likewise also [the man, husband does not have authority of (over) his own body, but the wife does]. This construction as in v3.


Abstinence in sex only by mutual consent. Imposed abstinence may tempt a partner to find sexual gratification beyond the marital bed.

ei mhti an "except perhaps" - [do not deprive one another] except perhaps. The particle mhti here = mh, with ei mh, "except", serves to introduce an exceptive clause. The addition of the indefinite particle an intrudes a tentative sense into the clause, "it may be, perhaps." The an is not found in some early manuscripts, so NIV, but read by NIV11. See BDF #376.

ek + gen. "by [mutual consent]" - from [harmonious, agreement]. The adjective "harmonious" serves as a noun, taking the sense "agreement". The preposition ek expresses cause / basis, "on the ground of"; "on the ground of an agreement" = "by mutual agreement." The phrase is a NT hapax legomenon, but commonly used at the time. "There is nothing unreasonable in abstaining from sex for a short time to engage in prayer and fasting as long as both partners agree."

proV + acc. "and for [a time]" - toward [a time]. Temporal use of the preposition, "for a time", "for a season", Garland, is somewhat unclear. Fee is probably on the money with the identification of a specific period of time "over against an indefinite time"; "with a view to a short time", Thiselton = "temporarily". So "a limited time", ESV.

iJna + subj. "so that" - that [you may devote yourselves]. Introducing a final clause expressing purpose; "so that, in order that ...."

th/ proseuch/ (h) dat. "to prayer" - Dative of direct object after the verb suxolazw, "to devote oneself to."

kai "-" - and. Coordinative.

epi + acc. "then" - at that time. Temporal use of the preposition.

to auto "[come] together" - [may be] the same [again]. The articular pronoun serves as a substantive, "the same" = "a married couple enjoying a full sex life", so simply "together"; "together again." "But then resume normal marital relations", TEV.

iJna mh + subj. "so that [Satan will] not [tempt you]" - so that not = lest [satan tempt you]. Introducing a negated final clause expressing purpose. "Lest, through a lack of self control, Satan should succeed in tempting you", Cassirer.

dia + acc. "because of" - because of [the lack of self control]. Causal.

uJmwn gen. pro. "your" - of you. The genitive is adjectival, possessive, although often viewed as verbal, subjective.


1 Corinthians Introduction


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