Paul provided us some very practical advice about marriage. The Corinthians were interested in this topic, asking the apostle his thoughts about what appears to have been a controversial position: “It is good for a man not to have sexual relations with a woman.”
I wonder if the church was seeking out Paul’s thoughts on this subject because they knew him to be a single and celibate man. In every Christian community, there are some who hold more rigorous ideas than others about matters of the flesh, like food, drink, and sex. We’ve seen Paul address these issues in Romans and now in 1 Corinthians. And like with the controversies about food and drink, Paul redirects attention away from the physical activity of sex to the proper attitudes one should have about it.
Sex within marriage is a holy thing. It is a good thing. Within the marriage relationship, men and women have rights over each others’ bodies. Those who think Paul is a misogynist should read this chapter. Wives have as much of a right over their husbands’ bodies as men have over their wives’ bodies.
The important thing to Paul was peace in the marriage relationship – and sex can be a great peace-maker in marriage.
But Paul is well-known in his personal preference for singleness. He was a single man, and he knew well he could seek out the ministry of God’s kingdom with greater freedom because of his singleness. All married couples know about the additional concerns they carry around with them because of the needs of their spouses and children.
But it’s not a sin to marry. And single people are not second-class citizens. In fact, Paul said it’s a gift to be able to live as a married person, and it’s a gift to be able to live in singleness.
Paul also was an opponent of divorce. If married couples separate for a season, it should be with an eye toward reconciling sometime soon. Only in the case of the death of a spouse is remarriage explicitly endorsed by Paul – but again, he wrote, remaining single is probably better.
Even a Christian who finds him or herself married to a non-Christian ought to remain in the marriage relationship. This probably was a common circumstance in the early years of the church as people came to Christ as individual believers and as their spouses may not have followed suit.
But a believer has a good opportunity of bringing conversion to his or her spouse – with patience and loving behavior.
Paul also wrote specifically about the circumstances in Corinth – and across the Mediterranean world. Trying times had arrived or were coming, perhaps because of the coming fall of Jerusalem and perhaps because of the coming persecutions against the church in the Roman Empire. It was better for people to remain as they were, and to not take on new anxieties in the midst of those difficulties.
As we consider the many pieces of instruction in this chapter, it is good to ponder what overriding principle was driving Paul’s thought process. What was Paul’s chief concern as he thought about being married and single and conjugal rights and the “present distress” and engaged couples burning with passion?
If it is any one thing, it must be the need for the Christian to remain as free as possible in order to devote himself or herself to God. Devotion to God’s kingdom remains paramount in Paul’s list of priorities.
A single person retains the utmost freedom to pursue the things of God. He or she is not shackled to worldly concerns. But a person who is married is free as well – if by being single that person would be overrun by sexual desire (desires now taken care of by the marriage).
And a Christian spouse is free to remain with his or her unbelieving spouse. And if that unbelieving spouse chooses to leave, the Christian spouse should not be bound over by guilt. In either case, the Christian is free to pursue the things of God instead of running against the grain all the time.
“God has called you to peace,” Paul wrote. Perhaps that is it – the central theme of this passage. God has given us freedom to pursue our callings to married or single life in peace and not with a burdened conscience. We ought not to be burdened with constantly trying to stave off our sexual impulses by pursing a celibate life when that kind of life may not be within our gifting. And we shouldn’t be burdened by feeling the need to get married when that’s not the life to which we’ve been called.
The peace of God is in living out the lives in which we’ve been gifted. We must not forget, of course, what a holy life looks like. Paul doesn’t give ground to willy-nilly divorce or to sex outside the husband-wife relationship. We do have a commitment to God, and we do have a commitment to our spouses.
And we are called to peace and to a life of free worship of God. We should not put unnecessary obstacles in our own way.