Now to the married I command, yet not I but the Lord: A wife is not to depart from her husband. But even if she does depart, let her remain unmarried or be reconciled to her husband. And a husband is not to divorce his wife. 1 Corinthians 7:10-11
As we continue to read and seek to understand the Corinthians’ mail, we saw as we began chapter 7, Paul’s reply to the Corinthians’ letter which was delivered to him by Stephanas, Fortunatus, and Achaicus (members of the church at Corinth). The first matter that Paul takes up is that of marriage. In the midst of a confused church culture still influenced by worldly notions, mixed with sexual immorality on the one hand, and ascetic practices exalting abstinence on the other, Paul writes as a nuanced pastor, giving counsel first to the married, and then to the single people in this church he loved so dearly. Considering the prevalence of divorce the Graeco-Roman world of the First Century, along with the reports of sexual immorality among married people in the church, Paul issued his first directive in verses 1-16 to the married people. He first instructed them that they ought not heed the teaching of the ascetics, and stop denying each other from sexual intimacy. The only reason he gives for mutual abstinence in marriage is for prayer for a set time, and then only as a concession. Even such a good thing as temporary abstinence for prayer is merely a concession and not a command because in this instance, Paul saw duty as more important that devotion – he wanted to leave no excuse for the idea that celibacy was in any way a ‘holier’ or more righteous way of life.
It seems that some ‘ascetic teachers’ in Corinth went so far as to suggest that it was better for the new Christians in the church to divorce – particularly their unbelieving spouse – in order to live celibate lives, and therefore be more holy and righteous. To put an end to this notion, Paul speaks a bit more firmly – even invoking the very words of the Lord Jesus (vs. 10) – to forbid separation and divorce.
His counsel continues in verses 12-16 to give specific counsel to Christians who are married to unbelievers. Here the text is very clear – a believer must not initiate separation or divorce, as long as their spouse is content to continue to live with them. He furnishes two reasons for this counsel, first the sanctification of any children and second, the possible salvation of the unbelieving spouse. The apostle Peter sheds more light on this in 1 Peter 3: 1-2 – he writes: Wives, likewise, be submissive to your own husbands, that even if some do not obey the word, they, without a word, may be won by the conduct of their wives, when they observe your chaste conduct accompanied by fear. Paul puts it this way in verse 16 of 1 Cor 7: For how do you know, O wife, whether you will save your husband? Or how do you know, O husband, whether you will save your wife?
Throughout this letter Paul tries to instill in the Corinthians a sense of living in a kingdom age on borrowed time. The already of Christ’s death and resurrection, and the nearness of the not yet of His return, is the basis for his counsel to married and single people, Jews and Greeks, slave and free. The one thing of eternal significance that Christians can do is serve the Lord and proclaim His Gospel. We must eradicate any distraction that would keep us from obeying Christ’s Great Commission in these borrowed hours we have as we await His return.
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