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June 25, 2006


Copyright 2006: Dr Gregory J. Laughery

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Originally published in the Evangelical Quarterly. Laughery deals with
the apostle Paul and his views of sex, marriage, and celibacy in 1
Corinthians 7. Is Paul against marriage? Is marriage only valid choice in order to
avoid sexual immoralities? Does Paul believe that celibacy is spiritually
superior to being married?


Dr Gregory J. LAUGHERY

1. The Scope of the Study
This study will focus on an examination of the apostle Paul's attitude to sex, marriage, and celibacy in 1 Corinthians 7. Are we to view Paul as ascetic? Is Paul against marriage ( or sexual relations within it ) per se? Does this chapter affirm that the celibate life is morally or spiritually superior to the married life? Does Paul actually argue that it is evil for a man to have sex with a woman or for that matter to even touch one? Many interpreters from the patristic era to the modern would respond in the affirmative regarding such questions. In their opinion, Paul was ascetic, held the celibate life to be a higher, more spiritual form of existence than the married, and thought sex was evil. The only reason to get married, if at all, was to avoid sexual immoralities.

Tertullian, the Father of Latin theology, writing around the year 200, sees Paul implying that it was evil for a man to have contact with a woman. Ambrose argues that all Christians, especially the clergy, should keep themselves untainted by sex. Jerome, born sometime in the 340's, argues for a similar view.
As we move into the more contemporary era it is evident that there continue to be many interpreters who maintain comparable views to those of the early church. Paul is often accused of having a negative, even misguided view of marriage and sex.
J. Weiss, for example, argues that Paul views sexual intercourse as leading a man away from God. Davies, speaks of Paul giving his, 'grudging approval of marriage' and of his perspective that 'sex is in itself an evil and undesirable thing.' Bornkamm argues that one cannot find anything positive in this chapter concerning love or marriage. Marshall regards Paul's position to be affirming complete sexual abstinence. Grant sees Paul's attitude toward sex as distasteful and pejorative. Conzelmann and Senft argue that Paul only offers marriage as an option in order to avoid sexual immoralities.
These interpretations of Paul in 1 Cor. 7, in our opinion, are not justified. We share essentially the same view of this chapter as Fee, Witherington, and other commentators, who argue that Paul is not an anti-sex, anti-marriage, ascetic. It is our contention that such a view can be strengthened and complemented through an examination of the situational context, the discourse cotext, and the structure of 1 Corinthians 7.

2. Situational Context
It is important to develop a perspective of the situational context in order to have a better understanding of how Paul is going to deal with the issues of sex, marriage, and celibacy in chapter 7.
At the outset of our discussion we will briefly address B. W. Winter's suggestion that the situational context for our chapter is a famine and that the Corinthian questions (7:1, 25) emanate from this specific concern. We are not, in principle, against the excellent evidence that Winter has established regarding the likelihood of a famine in Corinth at this time, but only intend to disagree with his conclusions in regards to 1 Corinthians 7.
Winter proposes that the Corinthian questions in 7:1, 25 are centered on whether or not, in light of the famine, they should continue to have children or consummate marriages. This conclusion, in our opinion, over-reads the present 'distress' in 7:26 and the sociological context, at the risk of under-reading the epistle itself.
We will argue, that while there may have indeed been a famine in Corinth, it is unlikely to be the genesis of the Corinthian questions in chapter 7. We propose, working from the letter itself, another reconstruction.
First, Paul writes to a church divided. There were factions, (1:10-12; 3:4-5) perhaps, the most serious of all between Paul and the community. Some in the community may have suspected that Paul was not wise or spiritual (2:6-16; 7:40), and as such had no authority over them. This crisis of apostolic authority and the divisions it produced, mixed with the variety of religious and cultural backgrounds of the members of the community resulted in a good deal of confusion concerning the meaning of being Christian.
This is evident in Paul's treatment of several problems: Sexual immorality, some form of incest (5:1-13), lawsuits among believers (6:1-11), sexual immorality, sex, marriage, and celibacy (6:12-7:40), food sacrificed to idols (8-10), the misunderstanding over the Lord's supper (11:17-34), spiritual gifts and their function in the gathered assembly (12-14) and finally and most seriously, the denial of the resurrection of the body (15). This series of problems are likely to be the outgrowth of a larger problem in the situational context to which we now turn.
Second, Paul writes to a divided, splintered, but fiercely independent community steeped in what could be described as an over-realized eschatology. This imbalance or distortion in the area of eschatology can be defined as a spiritual enthusiasm which devoured the delicate balance of the Pauline 'already / not yet.' In exchange for the latter, the Corinthians opted for an exclusive 'already' and denied the relevance of the 'not yet.' Paul unambiguously sets things in the context of a future eschatological perspective and rejects the Corinthian one dimensionalism (1:4-9; 3:1-15; 4:5, 8; 6:12; 7:29-31).
Ellis argues against this situational reconstruction declaring that it is centered on primarily one verse (4:8). Thiselton, however, sees this problem as the thread that ties the whole epistle together. This may be correct, if it is seen, as we would argue and Thiselton affirms, to be the umbrella under which the assorted matrix of problems Paul addresses find their place. Nock describes the situation as one in which the Corinthians thought too highly of themselves and their new found spirituality. They thought they had arrived and therefore could do as they pleased. Lincoln concurs with this point of view. He argues that many in Corinth believed that the kingdom had already fully arrived and that they were already living a heavenly existence (15). Paul attempts to respond to this attitude in various ways. He emphasizes his own suffering as an apostle (4:9ff.), speaks of the race not yet completed (9:24ff.), and that the perfect is still future (13:8-10).
This second point, in our opinion, is especially important for our understanding of 7:1-40. We will have cause to return to it in the course of our study. The situational context out of which the Corinthian questions arise, as developed from the epistle, is more likely to be a crisis of authority and an over-realized eschatology, than a famine. When the particular problems of marriage, sex, and celibacy are viewed in this light and in the wider context of the letter, we gain a better perception of the macro problem and its micro manifestations in Corinth.

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