Friday, April 16, 2010

1 Corinthians 7

Recently I have had several discussions about 1 Corinthians 7, so I felt I would share some of those insights. It is quite an interesting chapter. In the Order of Service of a wedding I just attended, it was described as recommending that we go into marriage discreetly, reverently, and in the fear of God. Now that sounds really good, and I happen to agree, and I think the Bible does support that, but unfortunately that is simply not what 1 Corinthians 7 says. At all.

This is what it actually says: “To the unmarried and the widows I say that it is good for them to remain single as I am. But if they cannot exercise self-control, they should marry. For it is better to marry than to be aflame with passion” (1 Cor 7:8-9, ESV). My summary: marriage should be based upon the foundation of mutual uncontrollable lust. Imagine that as the basis of a premarital counseling class (so now that we have established you are both incapable of self-control and are burning with passion, let us begin…). In the words of Eugene Peterson: “The difficulties of marriage are preferable by far to a sexually tortured life as a single” (1 Cor 7:9, The Message). Nothing mentioned about discretion or reverence or fearing God.

This passage is fraught with interpretive difficulties. Not only do we have a remarkably negative view of marriage, described as a “concession” against the ideal of singlehood (7:6), but we have the challenge of Paul distinguishing between a command from the Lord and his own personal opinion (“To the rest I say (I, not the Lord)” 7:12, ESV). Now how exactly does that square with the notion that “all” scripture is inspired of God (and what “scripture” is being referenced by 2 Tim 3:16)? It’s tricky.

I think the most difficult verse in this chapter is 36. This is how it reads in the ESV: “If anyone thinks that he is not behaving properly toward his betrothed, if his passions are strong, and it has to be, let him do as he wishes: let them marry—it is no sin” (ESV). Now this seems to be saying that if a couple is engaged, and they would like to be “together,” and they get married, they are not sinning. Ok, good, so the transition from engagement to marriage is not inherently sinful. I kind of took that for granted. But how is he “not behaving properly towards his betrothed”? In this translation, it seems to be related to strong passion, but I am not completely sure what that means. Now the NASU puts a totally different slant on this verse: “But if any man thinks that he is acting unbecomingly toward his virgin daughter, if she is past her youth, and if it must be so, let him do what he wishes, he does not sin; let her marry” (NASU). That is the exact same verse, in a different translation, and it says something completely different. Now someone is “acting unbecomingly towards his virgin daughter”, and apparently this means not allowing her to get married? No mention of passion in this translation. Notice that daughter is not in the Greek, and I have no idea where the translators got that idea.

But the NASU is not the only one that goes with daughter: “But if any man thinketh that he behaveth himself unseemingly toward his virgin (daughter), if she be past the flower of her age, and if need so requireth, let him do what he will; he sinneth not; let them marry” (ASV). On a literal read of this, it would seem that Paul is advocated that if man wants to marry his own virgin daughter, they should get married??? Um surely that can’t be. But if you are saying the father is allowing his daughter to get married, why would you say “they” should get married? Doesn’t make sense.

In Peterson’s translation “his virgin” is demoted to a “woman friend”: “If a man has a woman friend to whom he is loyal but never intended to marry, having decided to serve God as a ‘single,’ and then changes his mind, deciding he should marry her, he should go ahead and marry. It's no sin; it's not even a "step down" from celibacy, as some say” (The Message). That seems a very different idea also, and I am not sure why he interprets it that way.

For those that feel the Greek should answer all of these questions, here you go: Εἰ δέ τις ἀσχημονεῖν ἐπὶ τὴν παρθένον αὐτοῦ νομίζει, ἐὰν ᾖ ὑπέρακμος καὶ οὕτως ὀφείλει γίνεσθαι, ὃ θέλει ποιείτω, οὐχ ἁμαρτάνει, γαμείτωσαν (UBS4). τὴν παρθένον αὐτοῦ does mean “his virgin”, and γαμείτωσαν is 3 person plural, so any translation of let “her” or “him” marry is not correct, but rather a revision to avoid interpretive problems: it says “let them marry”. I don’t know where the ESV got the idea of strong passion (and why they dropped the idea of the virgin being past the prime of her age in some fashion), because it’s not there in the Greek.

Literally, it would something like this: “and if any one doth think [it] to be unseemly to his virgin, if she may be beyond the bloom of age, and it ought so to be, what he willeth let him do; he doth not sin — let him [except as noted above it should be 3rd person plural, them] marry” (Young’s Literal Translation). Doesn’t really help, does it? For those who swear by the King James, the behavior is described as “uncomely”: “But if any man think that he behaveth himself uncomely toward his virgin, if she pass the flower of her age, and need so require, let him do what he will, he sinneth not: let them marry” (KJV).

Well, at least there is no one who could be described as “my virgin”—no daughter, fiancé, or woman friend to whom I am loyal but have now decided to marry, so I don’t need to worry about applying this verse to my life…


Andrew in America said...

Lol let me know when you have some kind of an opinion.. you've almost made it sound like you just have to pick which interpretation you like best, or else just say it's not clear, cuz it sure doesn't seem to be!

Anyway it reminds me of the passage in 1 Corinthians 14 about women not speaking in church. I googled it and found this guy's article:
Sounds so ridiculous to me, but that DOES seem like its what Paul is saying, right? said...

just read 1 timothy about the widows, it clears everything up :).

glad I stumbled upon your blog--i was searching for something else, and a picture of my car stuck in Mwanza popped up. nice.


m.peter.chang said...

To Dave:
First, according to the Merriam-Webster on-line dictionary, concession is the act of conceding, which is the granting of a right or privilege. If this is correct then it would seem that Paul is saying that the following actions, which includes marriage, are a Christian's rights. But he is not framing them as a command that everyone must do.
Second, I think rather than understanding Paul as somehow against marriage, it is more helpful to see him as supporting the virtues of singleness, but also seeing the potential pitfalls of "a sexually tortured life as a single." Therefore, he concedes that Christians who cannot endure singleness should marry.
Thirdly, to understand what Paul means when he says, "I, not the Lord," take a look at 7:25 when he says, "...I have no command from the Lord, but I give my judgment as one who by the Lord's mercy is trustworthy." While God often use other Christians to speak to us, I think it's safe to say that not every good advice that we get from other Christians is going to be a direct word of God, but it could come from their life experiences by the fact that they might be more mature and more removed from the circumstances that might be clouding our judgment. So even though Paul's advice might not be a direct word from the Lord, they are a result of the Christ-like love that Paul has for the Corinthians and his close personal walk with God.
Finally, on verse 36, if I am understanding the Young's Literal Translation correctly, I think the verse means: If anyone wants to let them/him/her get married because he/she thinks it's bad that his/her virgin is getting old, and he/she ought to think so, he should do what he wants. It seems like Paul is answering a question either on whether someone should let their virgin be married, or whether he should marry his virgin. And he says in verse 38 that neither is wrong, which I think is the key to the section that either way is okay. But I do see the confusion that all the different translations have served to stir up.

To Andrew:
"Scripture without context is pretext and will result in prooftext." Mark Batterson, Pastor, National Community Church.

I think it was in New Testament Survey that I learned about the context within which Paul was writing I Corinthians, and Dave you can correct me on this if I am wrong. The Corinthian church was dealing with sexual immorality as well as other problems that was incited by some false teachings within the church from certain female members. Within that context, I think much of what Paul says about marriage or women not speaking in church makes more sense. I scanned the website you looked at and found nothing on the context that Paul was writing in, and the result as we see is prooftexting.
It's as bad as the story of the man who's dissatisfied with his life and decided to consult the Bible for guidance. Closing his eyes, he flipped the book open and pointed to a spot on the page. Opening his eyes, he read the verse under his finger. It read, "Then Judas went away and hanged himself" (Matthew 27:5b) Closing his eyes again, the man randomly selected another verse. This one read, "Jesus told him, 'Go and do likewise.'" (Luke 10:37b) (Wikipedia article on prooftexting).

To Kevin:
I looked at I Timothy 5, which deals with the widows, but it still leaves Dave's question on the virgins unanswered. It is interesting though, Paul seems to have a more negative view on singleness/widowhood, at least when it applies to women.

Andrew in America said...

Peter, I'd just like to point out that I don't believe that website I linked to at all... I was linking it because I was surprised that something so ridiculous was the first link that came up on Google, and I meant that out of context that is what it just SOUNDS like Paul means.

David said...

Hey, so as far as what I wrote here it was really kind of making fun of the idea that every verse has a direct application to your life, and also challenging the notion some people seem to have that Bible interpretation is easy. I haven't really studied this at all, I just looked at different translations and was surprised by how different they were.

Peter, I think you are probably right in your interpretation. Certainly I think much of what Paul is doing here is directly related to specific problems the Corinthian church was having. If Paul were to write his view of Christian marriage and singleness, generally speaking, I am quite sure it would be very different that what he wrote here. That's why it is so dangerous to take these passages, and the ones on women speaking in the church, and make them absolute standards that apply everywhere to everyone at all times. I think one of the most important paradigm shifts I've had is looking at the Bible itself as a contextual document, dealing with very contextual issues, and this has huge implications for interpretation and application.

Andrew, that magazine is the denominational magazine of the church I attended for a long time in Maryland and the church I attended at Wheaton. They are probably one of the most if not the most conservative denominations in the country, especially as far as women's ordination. I do see what you mentioned as far as what it appears that is what Paul is saying, but I think it is addressed to a very specific situation (I disagree with his sentence breakdown by the way), and I think there is a lot more going on there. But I think that's a new post...

(Kevin, nice to see you on here, hope things are going well!)

m.peter.chang said...

I guess I took it too seriously...probably cuz I been reading intensively on Comfort Women and Japanese war crimes in's kind of depressing.

Telmarine said...

David -

Great analysis. I can tell that your seminary time is going go make you an excellent scholar. (Although admittedly this would be an overly pedantic sermon, I dare say).

I think in addition to your linguistic analysis a bit of cultural commentary might be in order--I seem to remember a version (might be NASB) that renders it betrothed--and I think that explains it a bit better. It must have some sort of idea related to betrothal--perhaps people who are betrothed, but are considering not consummating the marriage b/c of their desire to live for the kingdom or something. Just a thought. From the Middle Eastern perspective, betrothal is noteworthy b/c it allows you to spend time with your bride-to-be which would ordinarily be taboo mixing of the sexes. So it could be that the young man did not want to get married, but was being a bit too friendly with his betrothal privileges... hmmm... sounds a bit to me like what happened with "opposite sex friendship" at Wheaton... :P


Søren Dalsgaard said...

Yummy, exegetical questions! I can’t let that go unnoticed, so here’s my take on it. SOme of it has alredy been mentioned by you guys:

Paul seems to be responding to very specific questions asked by the congregation in Corinth in a letter that is now lost (7:1: “concerning the things you wrote”). The same prepositional phrase (preposition “peri” + genitive) is used in 7:1, 25; 8:1, etc. It is therefore reasonable to use this as the delimitation marker intended by Paul as he is responding to the list of questions posed by the congregation. Chapter seven thus consists of two sections, one from verse 1-24 and one from verse 25-40.

Both sections are related and we should not stress the distinctiveness of each section too much. Verse 1 specifically says that Paul is responding to more than one question (“the things that you wrote”). Thus verse 25 could possibly introduce a subsection, but in any case I think vv.25-40 should be taken as a unified whole.

The questions asked by the congregation are, as mentioned, very contextual. One of the difficulties of the chapter is that interpreters tend to universalize issues as if they applied to singlehood in general or to married life in general. That is a gross mistake. The answer which Paul provides is determined by the social – and in particular economic – situation of the church in Corinth. Consider the emphasis on the contextual nature of Paul’s directions, namely “because of the present hardship” (v.26). The reason for advising against marriage is that the married couple “will have troubles of a material kind, which I will spare you from” (v.28). Paul advises the unmarried couple to live as singles because “I wish that you should be without worry” (v.32).

Paul, as you have also mentioned, emphatically states concerning the young women that he does “not have a command from the Lord” (v.25a), but that he “gives his opinion as one who by God’s mercy is faithful” (v.25b). He arrives at his conclusion on the basis of his personal evaluation of what is for their “own good” (v.35) in the specific situation as he is guided by the Holy Spirit (v.40).

In sum, Paul’s moral guidance concerning singlehood in this section (7:25-40) is his personal evaluation of a situation in which he takes very specific circumstances into account. These circumstances are assumed in the question posed by the Corinthian congregation and most likely imply some level of financial hardship that makes married life difficult (this is a situation well-known from the African context where weddings are often postponed due to financial circumstances, e.g. until the man finishes his education). Paul tells the congregation that it is preferable to stay single because the couple will face financial hardship as a married couple. There are, however, concessions to Paul’s advice of singlehood. Each case should therefore be assessed individually rather than follow a rigid and universally applicable law.

... word limit ... to be continued in next reply ...

Søren Dalsgaard said...


One such concession is if a person burns with lust (vv.8-9). When weighing pros and cons, a situation where a couple struggles with financial hardship in a marriage is preferable to a situation where a single person is overcome with unfulfilled lust which could lead to promiscuity.

A second concession is if the two are already married (vv.10-11). Then they should not divorce each other even though they face financial hardship. The same applies if one part is a non-Christian, except if the non-Christian person wants a divorce (vv.12-16).

A third concession is if someone feels that he is bringing shame upon the unmarried woman because she remains unmarried in an advanced age (v.36). Thus the social stigma of an unmarried woman reaching a high age without having children could lead a person to marry her despite the risk of financial hardship in the marriage.

A literal but (relatively) smooth translation of verse 36 would be something like this: “if someone thinks he is bringing shame upon his young woman, if (time) is overripe and it has to be so, then he should do as he wishes. He does not sin; they should marry.” It does not make a big difference whether the verb “to marry” is third person plural or third person singular (following the textual variant). In most languages of traditional cultures it is the man who marries (active voice) and the girl who is getting married (passive voice) (e.g. in Kiswahili). The third singular (masculine) in the active voice and the (reflexive) plural carry the same meaning but are just two different modes of expression.

My own paraphrased translation of verse 36 goes as follows: “If someone thinks he is bringing shame upon his fiancé by not marrying her, for example if they are getting too old to have children, then he shall do as he wishes. In that case he does not do anything wrong; they should get married.”

1 Corinthians 7 assumes a context where financial circumstances make it difficult for a man to provide for his family. Paul tells people who are already married that they should stay that way. But singles who find themselves in such a context of financial difficulties if they marry should preferably stay unmarried. If they are unable to control their sexual desires or if they are growing too old to have children, leading to problems of social stigma for the woman, then they do not commit a sin by getting married. Given the economic circumstances, however, the preferred option is to stay single.

To me as a Westerner living in one of the richest and egalitarian countries in the world, I have never thought about the financial aspects and its possible constraints for married life. In a more traditional setting (as here in Kenya) where providing for the family is an important male obligation and where unmarried life and hence childlessness results in social stigma for a woman, the ethical guidelines for a Christian are much different. Thus even though 1 Corinthians 7 does not apply to me, it very much applies to the Kenyan situation. This is the kind of context for which Paul wrote his letter – and chapter 7 in particular.

What do you guys think?