Sex, Love, Celibacy, and Marriage
1 Corinthians 7
1 Corinthians Lesson #032
October 6, 2002
This is one of the few chapters in the Scripture that gives some detailed analysis on some important principles related to love, sex, romance, marriage and divorce. Up to this point in 1 Corinthians Paul has been rebuking the Corinthians because of the various bad attitudes, divisiveness, various licentious attitudes that they might have and have been demonstrating, all because of their arrogance. That is the root cause of the problem in Corinth as it is with all of us, that is, that we are too often consumed with our own importance, we are consumed with the details of our own lives to the extent that it crowds our everything else, and so we want to spend our time thinking about me, me, me, as opposed to other people, and that is the direct opposite of what the Bible teaches in terms of love. That really forms the foundation for what is going to come up, especially in this chapter, but it is the core everything Paul says in the coming chapters. There is a major distinction between what Paul covers in the first six chapters, which has to do with addressing this basic problem and a strong rebuke from the apostle Paul, and his tone and the structure of the remainder of the epistle, chapters 7-15. This is indicated in the Greek text that is not always clearly translated in the English.
In the Greek is this phrase: PERI DE [Peri de]. The word DE is like KAI, it is either "and" or "now," and it always comes second in a sentence. In English it is translated first but in Greek it always takes the second position in the sentence. The preposition PERI means "concerning" or "about." This becomes a structural marker. Each time he uses this phrase he is changing topics in this epistle, and he uses it about five or six times. The suggestion here is that the Corinthians had written him a letter with various questions. They had written to Paul because he was the one who had founded the church. We have already studied that they were divided, that there were various factions in the congregation, but when it came to getting definitive answers they all recognized that Paul had an authority over and above some of these others. They had written him an epistle apparently, that we don't have, asking him certain questions that would resolve certain disputes or disagreements or problems in the congregation. So in 7:1 down through 24 we have the first PERI DE section and that deals with certain issues related to celibacy in marriage—not celibacy and marriage but celibacy in marriage. That is the problem here. Then there is another PERI DE clause in verse 25 where he addresses certain problems related to those who are unmarried. That term "unmarried," as we will see, is a term that refers to those who have never been married and those who have been married and their first marriage has ended either from death or divorce. Then we get into the next section in chapter eight which has to do with food sacrificed to idols and the whole situation of the weaker brethren. Then in 12:1 there is another shift, another use of PERI DE, and chapters 12-15 cover issues related to spiritual gifts. Then is 16:1 there is another shift where the focus is on giving for the need of the saints.
The Corinthians came out of an environment where sex was treated as just fulfilling the natural needs of the body and it was seen culturally as no different from eating or drinking or fulfilling any other physical need. So in order to understand what is going on in 1 Corinthians 7 we need to know something about the dominant ideas in Greek culture at that time. We have seen that they thought the material world is actually less significant than the immaterial world. This has its roots in the Philosophy of Plato, that everything in the real world is a reflection of the ideal and so it has less significance. Eventually this developed the idea that everything in the material world was tied to the finite and was evil, and everything in the spiritual world was good. Well the body was down in the physical world and the soul was up in the immaterial world, so they developed this dichotomy. The interesting thing was that in this dichotomy where everything related to the body was evil one of the ways that you dealt with this was to have a tremendous amount of sex. That took care of the body problems and it didn't have anything to do with the health or wellbeing of the soul. This idea also blended with the rise of the fertility cult that institutionalized temple prostitution and ritual prostitution in Greek culture. So an time you had any sexual needs you just went down to the local temple and spent some time with the temple prostitute, and that didn't have anything to do with any kind of spiritual life or spiritual reality. On the other hand, another interesting system of thought at that time developed by the Cynics, and according to their views they had an emphasis on asceticism and the idea that virtue was sufficient for happiness.
You have to understand the trends of the sin nature to understand anything in life, if you don't you are going to be living in an unreal world. Remember the sin nature has trends. One is towards asceticism and the other is towards licentiousness and lasciviousness. When people who are ascetics turn around and become licentious they tend to react and go even further into licentiousness, and people who are licentious turn around and react the other way and just get more ascetic. Both of them are operating on different ideas of self-righteousness because, remember, both are products of the sin nature and operate on arrogance. So you can have self-righteousness manifested as either licentiousness or asceticism, and so in reaction to the fertility cult they had the rise of the different ascetic groups and the Cynics were one of them. The Cynics were influenced by Socrates in three areas. First of all, they had a disregard for both pleasure and pain—the body is not really that important in Greek thought, it is secondary. The second thing they picked up from Socrates was the idea that a virtuous person was better off than a non-virtuous person, but their grounding is just an emphasis on morality and that is grounded in their self-righteousness. The third idea they picked up from Socrates was that the soul was more important than the body.
So those ideas were prevalent. There was on the one hand extreme licentiousness, on the other hand there was this emphasis on asceticism as something that was inherently virtuous, and then behind all of this was the idea of a dichotomy between the material world and the immaterial world. Along with this there was a tremendous debate going on in the first century between Cynics and Stoics on the nature of marriage. The Stoics emphasized marriage as something that was inherently good for mankind and provided stability in a nation. They understood is in terms of what we would call establishment truth. The Cynics, on the other hand, thought that people should marry only under certain circumstances. In other words, there was a certain value to asceticism and to not getting married. So all of that was boiling around in the background thinking of the people in the church at Corinth.
So we come to chapter seven which is going to address this problem and how this has influenced certain views in Corinth. This chapter is not Paul's main exposition on the doctrine of marriage. Here he is simply answering questions related to specific situations in Corinth. From what he says we can extrapolate some principles but he is not writing a definitive chapter on marriage. The subject he is addressing in this chapter is the subject of celibacy and the value of celibacy for the spiritual life. That is the issue in Corinth, the idea that refraining from sex is somehow more spiritual than being married and having sex. The problem has developed here because there are those in the congregation who are married who are imposing celibacy on their marriage thinking that that is going to make them more spiritual. Paul's main chapter where he discusses marriage is at the end of Ephesians chapter 5 and on through chapter six, and where he expresses an extremely positive view of marriage. The other thing we are going to discover as we go through chapter seven is that this is one of those passages where there is a tremendous amount of controversy and disagreement. There are several verses here that are misunderstood so it is going to be important to do some clear exegesis and clear look at the context in order to understand what is going on here.
1 Corinthians 7:1 NASB "Now concerning the things about which you wrote, it is good for a man not to touch a woman." Notice that at the end of chapter six Paul virtually sets up by way of transition what he is going to cover in the remainder of this epistle. Now he is going to start applying a lot of the principles from the first six chapters to these particular questions that they have addressed to him. Then we have the phrase, "it is good for a man not to touch a woman." This has caused a great deal of concern in terms of interpretation, especially to young men. Does this forbid hugging, kissing, holding hands? What does that mean? Of course, legalists will come along and you can just imagine what they do with that verse. We have to understand, and it has become more and more clear from studies of Greek literature, especially 1 Corinthians over the past few years, that many times what Paul is doing is taking some phrase, rationalization, or some slogan that is being repeated by certain groups within the church at Corinth, and he restates them and then he straightens them out. This phrase, "it is good for a man not to touch a woman," is not Paul writing a doctrinal mandate, it is what the ascetics, the anti-sex crowd in the Corinthian church, were saying. They were arguing that celibacy was a good of intrinsic value, it had inherent virtue that a man should not touch a woman. Problems with sex for pleasure—and God designed sex for pleasure, it was not just designed for procreation—in marriage isn't a result of Puritan influence, it is not the result of Victorian influence from the 19th century, it has always been prevalent in human history. There has always been those who have a trend toward asceticism who somehow have a problem with sex for pleasure. In contrast, what we see in these nine verses at the beginning of chapter seven is that Paul is in complete contradiction to that human viewpoint thinking and he is affirming that sexual desire and pleasure have their rightful place in marriage and is encouraging them to give it its rightful place, that there is nothing wrong with sex, God designed sex to be part of marriage and to be a celebration of the love that exists between a man and a woman in marriage. So sex in marriage is to be enjoyed to its fullest extent for the glory of God.
In this statement, "it is good for a man not to touch a woman," Paul uses the aorist active infinitive of the word "touch." This is just a generic term in Greek for various kinds of touching—HAPTO [a(ptw], and here it would be the infinitive of prohibition. This word is used in various different contexts in Scripture. In Matthew 8:3 Jesus touches the lepers when He heals them. The woman who had a haemorrhage for twelve years "touched" His cloak and was healed. So this is just a simple reaching out and touching. Later we discover that Jesus in several instances touches the eyes of the blind and they are healed, and we can imagine that that is a gentle touch. When Mary Magdalene met Jesus in the garden after the resurrection she "clung" to Him, and that is the idea there. So HAPTO is going to vary depending on context. It has a range of meanings and context is what indicates it, and in Koine Greek it had become an idiom for sexual intimacy as well. So in this slogan, "it is good for a man not to touch a woman," it is not talking about hugging or kissing, it is talking about sexual intimacy. The context will indicate that this slogan is referring to within marriage, not outside of marriage.
 "But because of immoralities, each man is to have his own wife, and each woman is to have her own husband." Here we have the word PORNEIA [porneia] again, which includes the whole realm of immorality from simple sex outside of marriage, to promiscuity, to temple prostitution, bestiality, all of the various perversions that can be thought of from homosexuality on; "each man is to have his own wife." Here "have" is the word ECHO [e)xw] which is also used as a euphemism for sexual involvement in certain contexts; "and each woman [wife] is to have her own husband." Notice it goes both ways. This was a revolutionary idea in the ancient world. It is the idea of mutual submission which is discovered in Ephesians 5:20, the mutuality that takes place within the marriage. It is not a drill sergeant to his troops. That totally misses the concept of a relationship. Marriage is a relationship based on mutuality of love which is always a give and take situation. This was a really new idea for the Greeks, they had never thought of this concept that sex was a two-way road between the husband and the wife.
Introductory thought on the biblical view of sex in marriage
1) Marriage is a divine institution established by God for the stability and perpetuation of the human race. That means that the rules for marriage as a divine institution are the same whether a person is a believer or an unbeliever. In the church age this is stepped up a notch for believers with the institution of Christian marriage. Ephesians chapter 5 gives the principles for Christian marriage and the guidelines for Christian marriage are higher than they are for divine institution marriage which is for believer and unbeliever. The reason for that is that Christian marriage is an analogy of the union between Jesus Christ and the church. So that means that more is expected of a male believer who is a husband and a female believer who is a wife than unbelieving husbands and unbelieving wives.
2) Marriage was established before the fall, before there was sin. That means there is a constitutional makeup in the human race and the human being which demands this kind of relationship. That is why God said it is not good for the man to be alone. The implication is that male and female were created in order to, in ideal situations, function together as a team. Man was not created to function in isolation but in terms of partnership. This means that marriage is an inherently ideal situation and it has not been designed to circumvent or to resolve some problems that relate because of sin.
3) Marriage is related to the concept of the image of God—Genesis 1:26, 27. Before the fall marriage was designed so that together they could fulfil the mandate of God in terms of their life. When we come to the New Testament we will see that it is only as we are being sanctified and maturing as a believer that that function of the image begins to be recovered and restored in Christian marriage. Christian marriage allows two believers to begin to fulfil the original intent and design of mankind before the fall. It is only after they are both regenerate and are growing and maturing as believers that as they grow and mature together they can begin to fulfil the original function God designed, which makes marriage part of ministry. It is part of your ministry and part of your testimony in the angelic conflict.
4) Sexual enjoyment was part of marriage from the inception before there was a fall. Cf. Genesis 2:24 (Moses speaking) with Ephesians 5:31. God has designed the marriage union as the core union, not the extended family. Some cultures put a lot of emphasis on the extended family. You are to leave and cleave. That means if you have to, you have to tell your parents you have a new family: "when I am married I started a new family. I will come over to your family when I deem it necessary, but if you think you are going to dictate to me as your child you are completely wrong." They have established an independent autonomous family unit that is no longer tied to the parents. If you can continue to have a good relationship and enjoy fellowship together as adults, that is great. But as a parent you have no legitimate expectation of any relationship after they are married. "For this reason a man shall leave his father and his mother, and be joined to his wife [sexual intimacy]; and they shall become one flesh." That shows part of the role of sex in marriage, it develops soul intimacy.
5) Sexual intimacy is an important element of the marriage union because it celebrates and enhances soul intimacy. Sex is designed as a celebration of love between the man and the woman and the emphasis is on providing pleasure for the other person, it is not on satisfying one's own lust or gratifying one's own desires. Sex is designed for mutual pleasure and the beauty of it is the proper function of the man and woman in marriage in terms of the man's leadership and the woman's response. By that is not meant that the man is the one who initiates sexual involvement and the woman doesn't. Soul intimacy, though, precedes sexual intimacy. If there is not soul intimacy there, and husband remember your wife is a responder, there will be the wrong response. Sexual intimacy is a result of soul intimacy, and who takes leadership responsibility in soul intimacy? The husband. Women were designed with a soul that is going to respond, and they are either going to respond or react to you. Sex is designed to promote the team and to develop that soul intimacy that is already established.