1 Now concerning the things of which you wrote to me:
It is good for a man not to touch a woman. 2Nevertheless, because of sexual immorality, let each man have his own wife, and let each woman have her own husband. 3Let the husband render to his wife the affection due her, and likewise also the wife to her husband. 4The wife does not have authority over her own body, but the husband does. And likewise the husband does not have authority over his own body, but the wife does. 5Do not deprive one another except with consent for a time, that you may give yourselves to fasting and prayer; and come together again so that Satan does not tempt you because of your lack of self-control. 6But I say this as a concession, not as a commandment. 7For I wish that all men were even as I myself. But each one has his own gift from God, one in this manner and another in that.
This is a well-known passage from the book of Corinthians (1 Corinthians 7:1-7 NKJV). Theologians have traditionally interpreted the first two verses of the passage to show that Paul is suggesting celibacy as a higher calling than marriage. The typical explanation we hear in this regard is that celibacy allows people to be freed from the responsibilities of marriage and family, which gives them greater opportunity to dedicate themselves entirely to the Lord. Many Bible translations render the words "touch a woman" as "marry." They believe it shows that Paul is suggesting that since it is good not to marry, therefore celibacy must be better than marriage. However, if a person is unable to control himself because of sexual immorality, he should marry to avoid sinning. It almost seems he should accept a substandard Christian walk because of his lack of self-control. The church fathers taught this view and it impacted the Roman Catholic Church as they forbade their clergy to marry, lest it keep them from their higher calling.
This explanation has always troubled me, for at the beginning of time, while the word was still perfect, God said "it is not good for man to be alone" and in a sinless world instituted marriage. Since then it would seem that marriage has been normative for Christians - unless we have a good reason not to marry, we should get married. I have often struggled with reconciling God's plan that we should marry and Paul's words that we should avoid marriage unless we will not be strong enough to avoid sexual sin.
I have recently been reading a study of 1 Corinthians by Richard Ganz entitled 20 Controversies That Almost Killed A Church. In his explanation of this chapter he provides an alternative to the traditional view. He suggests that what Paul is telling us to flee is not marriage but sexual immorality. The word that most Bibles translates "marriage" is really synonymous with "sexual intercourse" - a meaning it carries in other places in the New Testament (though he does not tell us where these words appear). Paul's usage, then, should be similar to what we read about in regards to Abimelech not touching Sarah or Boaz who ordered his men not to touch Ruth. The sexual context of these words is clear. So when Paul says not to touch a woman or not to marry, he is actually saying "it is good for a man not to be involved in sexual immorality."
When we view the verses through that understanding, the meaning changes completely! He does not say that because of the dangers of sexual immorality we should marry. Rather than teaching that marriage is a second-rate institution, the passage teaches that:
"In the face of all this sexual immorality, remember that each of you should be having a sexually intimate relationship within marriage." "Each man having his own wife" means, "Each man having this special sexual relationship only with his wife." This, friends, is very different from thinking that this passage teaches that marriage is not good! (20 Controversies - page 100)
Having dispensed with the possibility of sexual immorality within a Christian marriage, Paul explains the importance of a mutually satisfying sexual relationship. He does so with words and explanations that place him far ahead of his time. In an age where women were regarded as second-class citizens, Paul writes about the importance of a husband dedicating himself to his wife and giving to her any rights he might hold back that would keep her from enjoying sexual intimacy with him. And of course the same is true of the wife to her husband.
This passage concludes with the words "For I wish that all men were even as I myself. But each one has his own gift from God, one in this manner and another in that." In light of the traditional interpretation we would assume that Paul wishes that all Christian men were able to remain unmarried and that the gift he refers to is celibacy. In the interpretation provided by Pastor Ganz we have to change the explanation. Now we see that the gift he has is the gift of self-control. He wishes that all men were able to avoid the temptations of sexual immorality as he does.
As one who has long been dissatisfied with the standard explanation of these verses, I was intrigued by Pastor Ganz's new take. He seems to provide adequate Scriptural support and takes into account other passages of Scripture.
There is one thing that continues to trouble me, and that is in the verses immediately following the passage I outlined above. Verses 8 and 9 of the same chapter read "8But I say to the unmarried and to the widows: It is good for them if they remain even as I am; 9but if they cannot exercise self-control, let them marry. For it is better to marry than to burn with passion." It seems that these verses may be easier to understand in light of a traditional interpretation of the first 7 verses.
It is first important to note that the "unmarried" Paul is referring to are people who have been previously married but have gone through a legitimate divorce. Paul places himself in the group of people who are either previously married or divorced (we do not know which, but it is likely that Paul was married and perhaps his wife left him when he became a Christian). To these people he says that it is good for them to remain unmarried but if they are unable to exercise self-control, they should marry instead of burning with passion.
In light of the traditional interpretation, we would assume that Paul is instructing these people to place a priority on the Lord's work - dedicating themselves to that task - freed from the need to dedicate themselves to a marriage. However, if they feel they will be unable to contain themselves sexually, they should marry to avoid sin.
By the time Ganz reaches verses 8 and 9 he has begun a new chapter and looks at the verses under a different topical heading. He does not directly show how these verses apply to the preceding ones in light of his new explanation. I can assume, though, that he would provide the same explanation as before - though it may be good for them to remain unmarried, this does not make it the best or necessary decision, and certainly does not insinuate that remarriage is a lesser calling than remaining single. Or perhaps since they have already been married, they have in a sense fulfilled their obligation in that regard and are no longer normatively required to marry. I do not want to put words in his mouth, so will leave it at that.
I generally get a bit nervous (justifiably, I think) when I read words such as "I have already presented my interpretation, which is substantially different from that of my fellow Christian theologians." (page 103). Though I hesitate to accept explanations that differ from what the majority of Christian theologians have believed, they cannot be summarily disposed simply because they are new. In the case of this one I do find it satisfying, and more satisfying than the standard explanation. But that, of course, does not make it right. Sorry to defer a decision, but I am going to reserve judgment on this one for the time being while I see what other Christians have to say on the matter.
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