1 CORINTHIANS 7
The Corinthian leaders had already sent Paul a long list of questions or statements on all kinds of lifestyle issues. For example: “It is good for a man not to have sexual relations with a woman?” (They seem to assume that Paul will agree with them unreservedly.) But Paul always upholds the covenant of marriage and never undermines the responsibilities of married believers towards one another.
For example, he tells husbands and wives to fulfil their ‘marital duties’ to one another; this means that they should work at deepening their sexual relationship. It is significant that Paul, and therefore God, should actively encourage sexual relationships within marriage, which are regarded as so important that three conditions have simultaneously to be satisfied for them to stop: 1. Both parties must agree to stopping; 2. Even then this must only be for a short time; 3. It must fulfil a useful purpose, such as an enhanced period of prayer. Otherwise, having sexual relations with your spouse regularly is your duty and theirs.
Why is sex within marriage promoted in this way? It is a major means of deepening communication between husband and wife; it is part of the covenant promise of Genesis 2:24; and it acts as a strong defence against sexual immorality outside marriage. A good sex life leads to a good relationship and vice versa. For all these reasons, I might be bold enough to suggest that most Christian married couples probably don’t have enough sex and should consider working a bit harder at it and be more intentional! It is something too important to be left just to the whim of ‘feelings. And it is not just for your pleasure, but for your partner’s satisfaction too. Notice that Paul doesn’t mention procreation at all in this context.
Some firm regulations on divorce and remarriage follow in the remainder of this chapter. E.g. 1 Corinthians 7:10-11: Don’t separate or divorce, but if you do, you are not permitted to remarry someone else. As Paul points out, Jesus first said this in his earthly ministry. (Jesus also gave the exception in Matthew 5:32 and 19:9.) Then verses 12-15 tell us: if one person in a marriage gets saved, they mustn’t divorce the other one; however, if the unsaved one abandons the Christian then it is OK for the Christian to remarry someone else. They are ‘released’ from their marriage covenant by God. (Compare the use of the word ‘bound’ in verse 15 to its use in verse 39.). As Paul points out, Jesus did not cover these situations in his earthly teaching ministry. It is quite likely that Paul himself was in this very situation – having been abandoned by an unbelieving wife after he became converted to Christ. It is highly unlikely that a good Jewish rabbi like Paul had never married, since that status was expected.
Finally, Paul does make the point that before you marry, you do have a choice. No-one is forced to marry. You can sometimes serve God more effectively – particularly in times of intense persecution – if you stay single. And a single person’s loyalties are not divided in the way that a married person’s are. Paul, in his zeal for Christ and the Kingdom, does not hide his preference for the single life. But he acknowledges that most people do not have the ‘gift’ of being celibate all their lives, and that getting married or – in certain circumstances – remarried is absolutely fine. However, once you have married, your marriage is automatically blessed by the Lord, and you need to follow through all its obligations. A married man is partly concerned how he should please his wife, and this is both a necessary and yet inevitable distraction from some kinds of ministry calling. Often the needs of marriage will override some of the calls of ministry – for better or for worse – and that is just a fact of married life.
Some people, upon hearing Paul’s restrictions on marriage and divorce, will claim that we are ‘now living in an age of grace’ and that these restrictions should not be so rigidly applied. However, it is worth pointing out that we get most of our doctrine of grace from Paul’s own writings; if anyone understood grace and its applications, it was Paul! Alongside all this, there is always total forgiveness for those who have sinned sexually, and those who have married or remarried wrongly.