Today the blog returns to its examination of the Corinthian correspondence of St. Paul, which it interrupted to consider its implications for a contemporary Christian view of sexual behaviour. In chapter 7 Paul continues to deal with sexual issues. The headline is a reminder of the world we live in.
CHURCH OF SCOTLAND SUPPORTS GOVERNMENT IN MAKING THE SALE OF SEX ILLEGAL.
1 Corinthians 7 Complete Jewish Bible (CJB)
7 Now to deal with the questions you wrote about: “Is it good for a man to keep away from women?” 2 Well, because of the danger of sexual immorality, let each man have his own wife and each woman her own husband. 3 The husband should give his wife what she is entitled to in the marriage relationship, and the wife should do the same for her husband. 4 The wife is not in charge of her own body, but her husband is; likewise, the husband is not in charge of his own body, but his wife is. 5 Do not deprive each other, except for a limited time, by mutual agreement, and then only so as to have extra time for prayer; but afterwards, come together again. Otherwise, because of your lack of self-control, you may succumb to the Adversary’s temptation. 6 I am giving you this as a suggestion, not as a command. 7 Actually, I wish everyone were like me; but each has his own gift from God, one this, another that.
8 Now to the single people and the widows I say that it is fine if they remain unmarried like me; 9 but if they can’t exercise self-control, they should get married; because it is better to get married than to keep burning with sexual desire.
10 To those who are married I have a command, and it is not from me but from the Lord: a woman is not to separate herself from her husband 11 But if she does separate herself, she is to remain single or be reconciled with her husband. Also, a husband is not to leave his wife.
12 To the rest I say — I, not the Lord: if any brother has a wife who is not a believer, and she is satisfied to go on living with him, he should not leave her. 13 Also, if any woman has an unbelieving husband who is satisfied to go on living with her, she is not to leave him. 14 For the unbelieving husband has been set aside for God by the wife, and the unbelieving wife has been set aside for God by the brother — otherwise your children would be “unclean,” but as it is, they are set aside for God. 15 But if the unbelieving spouse separates himself, let him be separated. In circumstances like these, the brother or sister is not enslaved — God has called you to a life of peace. 16 For how do you know, wife, whether you will save your husband? Or how do you know, husband, whether you will save your wife?
In some ways this is amongst the most interesting things Paul wrote. On the face of it, it seems unattractive to modern readers because of its evident lack of enthusiasm for sex and it’s slightly legalistic language about loving relationships. But it is an extended example of Paul’s pastoral wisdom, showing detailed attention to different conditions of people. It also gives explicitly equal attention to men and women, to husband and wife, brother and sister. Doubtless Paul had become used in his pastoral care of converts to dealing with married men and women whose spouses were not believers. This must have been difficult for a Pharisaic Jew, who would never have encountered unbelieving spouses amongst his own people. Paul’s careful attention here to both men and women shows how much he had been able to overcome his own prejudices, in his work as messenger to the Gentiles.
Again his sexual advice – agony aunt Paul! – is meticulously even- handed if a bit brusque. He dismisses the suggestion from the “spiritual knowledge” group in Corinth, that “it’s good for man not to handle a woman.” He expresses no enthusiasm for sexual activity but is realistic enough to know that most people want it and will get it regardless of what ultra- pious people say. He holds out marriage as the best state for most people and insists that it involves a complete surrender of each partner to the other. Ears sensitised by modern awareness of marital rape may hear danger in Paul’s words about men and women having authority over each other’s bodies, but again here it’s important that Paul uses the same words for both husband and wife. He is not talking about a brutal insistence on communal rights but rather a mutual recognition of bodily needs. Again the modern reader may find his language unattractive but in fact it deals matter-of-factly with intimate issues. He insists that sexual activity is an essential part of marriage and is not to be ruled out for pious reasons. Doubtless there may be times when the couple agrees to forgo sex, but these should not last too long.
All of this seems good to me and is proof against the frequent claim that Paul is against sex or women.
Yes, Paul does recommend celibacy to those who can live comfortably without sex and is clear that it is his own choice, out a belief that the existing form of the world would soon be disrupted by the return of Messiah Jesus. To those who are attempting celibacy he offers the notorious but actually sympathetic advice that it’s better to marry than burn. There’s nothing extreme here, just a useful recognition that there are both men and women who don’t want sex, or are ready to give it up for the sake of something more important.
Interestingly he seems to know the teaching of Jesus prohibiting divorce and he interprets this for the benefit of those who are married to non-believers. In this case also he is scrupulously just to believer and non-believer, to.husband and wife. In his view the marriage relationship makes the unbelieving spouse holy, that is, fit to be in the presence of God. This transfer of holiness applies also to the children of such a marriage. We should note that this making holy is not the same as being saved or rescued; the definitive liberation of a human being cannot take place without that person’s own desire.
This advice cannot have been given by Paul without an extraordinary re-examination of his Pharisaic views in the light the revelation of Jesus and the needs of gentile converts. As he himself says, neither circumcision or foreskins are important, what counts is new creation. His pastoral care is an instance of new creation even if it’s not expressed in Mills &Boon or Agony Aunt language.