As in much of the scriptures, if we focus on detail we can miss seeing the big picture. A big picture in this chapter is the wonder of the incarnation. But more of that later!
This series is called “This is How We Live”. We can not talk about how we are to live in Christ without mentioning the powerful human appetite for sexual satisfaction. Sexual appetite is normal and it is good. It is not unclean or dirty. In this chapter Paul in explaining a healthy context for sex.
Note that his comments seem to fit into a particular time of trouble. Perhaps it was a time of persecution when believers were expecting a short life.
Verse 26: I think that in view of the present distress it is good for a person to remain as he is.
1 Sex in Marriage
When we marry, a new unit is created, for worship, service – and abundant life. The physical union helps to nourish that relationship, is an expression of love and intimacy, and ministers as an antidote to stress and anxiety. However, it is to be our servant and not our master.
The Shakers were a group in the late 1800s in the USA . They were a Pentecostal community that believed that to be very spiritual they needed to be celibate. They produced lovely furniture, the style of which influences furniture design to this day. Fitted kitchen shops in our time sell “Shaker style” kitchens. In their meetings the Shakers would gather into big circles and sing and dance. One of the songs they left us is, “Tis the gift to be simple, ’tis the gift to be free”.
Because they were celibate, did not marry. They are no more.
They may have been influenced by early Christian teaching on sex that viewed the sex act as something unclean.
St. Augustine (354 AD-430 AD) had a profound impact on sexual teachings in the Western church. He was a philosopher and theologian. He was converted from a sexually promiscuous life which he spoke about in his book “Confessions”.
It is believed that Augustine developed the first codified teachings of sexuality followed by the Western church. Augustine’s teaching still has a profound influence on Roman Catholic attitudes. He was heavily influenced by the philosophy of Manichaeism, which states that matter is evil and opposed to spirit. Stoic philosophy also influenced Augustine’s teachings, which were both specific and strict.
Augustine required that procreation be the primary focus of sexual intercourse and marriage. For hundreds of years all sexual activity that did not have procreation as its end was banned by the church being regarded as “unnatural”. This teaching was held in the RC church all the way until Vatican II (1965). He did not believe that any pleasure involved with sex should in any way be a motivation for sex. He said that such pleasure was acceptable only as a necessary “side effect.” Augustine did not view sex in terms of love or expression of intimacy, but simply as a procreative act necessary for life.
Pope Gregory “The Great” (590-604) said that all sexual desire is sinful in itself.
Such a negative view of sexual activity is not justified in scripture. See 1 Timothy 4:1-4.
Now the Spirit expressly says that in later times some will depart from the faith by devoting themselves to deceitful spirits and teachings of demons, 2 through the insincerity of liars whose consciences are seared, 3 who forbid marriage and require abstinence from foods that God created to be received with thanksgiving by those who believe and know the truth. 4 For everything created by God is good, and nothing is to be rejected if it is received with thanksgiving.
The troubles of the Roman Catholic church down the centuries regarding its attitude to sex has had a shaping effect upon western thought down the centuries. We should use both scripture and reason as our guide.
In Chapter 6, verse 14, Paul reminded them that resurrection included resurrection of the body. This chapter is reminding us that God was incarnate in human flesh and was thereby dignifying what it is to be human, to be flesh and bones. So in 7:1-7 we see the duties of husband and wife.
2 Divorce and Marriage
Discussion question: What are the possible ways of understanding this statement? “Fred hates arguing.”
Answer: He hates doing it, or, he hates witnessing it happening.
- a) God is a divorcee
How do we understand Malachi 2:16 where Yahweh is stating that he hates divorce? “I hate divorce, says the LORD God of Israel …” The answer is that God hates experiencing divorce.
After the death of King Solomon, King David’s son, the people of God had divided into two countries, the southern one called Judah and the northern one called Israel.
Ezekiel (chapters 16 & 23) described how Jerusalem and Israel were unfaithful to God. Ezekiel 16:32 “You adulterous wife! You prefer strangers to your own husband!” Israel’s sins including adultery with other gods which resulted in God divorcing her. The prophet Jeremiah (chap 3-4) reminded Judah what had happened to her sister nation and that the same fate could be hers. At this time God and Judah were only separated and God wanted a reconciliation. Whereas where God and Israel were concerned, they were divorced.
In Isaiah 50:1 God mentions the detail of a certificate. “This is what the LORD says: Where is your mother’s certificate of divorce with which I sent her away?”
God’s divorce is typical of the type we see in the Old Testament.
God’s contract or covenant with Israel involved faithfulness to God (the OT commandments) and the promised care of God for His bride Israel proved unfaithful and was divorced. Judah almost went the same way. Jer 3:8 “I gave faithless Israel her certificate of divorce and sent her away because of all her adulteries. Yet I saw that her unfaithful sister Judah had no fear; she also went out and committed adultery.”
We know why God hates divorce (Malachi 2:16), it is because He has experienced the pain of it. The story ends well for both Israel and Judah as a New Covenant is offered (Jer 31) which gives the bride a new heart. V31 “The time is coming, declares the LORD, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and with the house of Judah. 32 It will not be like the covenant I made with their forefathers when I took them by the hand to lead them out of Egypt, because they broke my covenant, though I was a husband to them, declares the LORD. 33 This is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after that time, declares the LORD. I will put my law in their minds and write it on their hearts. I will be their God, and they will be my people.”
In the OT divorce was allowed for. In the neighbouring countries, when a man discarded a woman she was abandoned to poverty and lack of support from the society. Among God’s people divorce was provided for so that the divorcee could remarry and find shelter.
See Deuteronomy 24:1 “ If a man marries a woman who becomes displeasing to him because he finds something indecent about her, and he writes her a certificate of divorce, gives it to her and sends her from his house ..” Her certificate was proof that she was free of him and he did not have any further obligation to her. Deuteronomy 24 goes on to say she could remarry. This is the sort of certificate that God gave to Israel.
- b) Divorce provided for
Divorce only on certain grounds.
The OT recognises four grounds for divorce. Neglect to provide (1) food, (2) clothing and (3) conjugal love (married/connected love, includes sex, and many expressions of committed love and tenderness). And (4) committing adultery. The Jewish marriage ceremony contained vows concerning these conditions of the marriage covenant.
Each partner had to keep their obligations. These four conditions would also cover abuse, which is an extreme form of neglect.
The only person who could enact a divorce was the victim. The victim could choose to stay or go, but was not forced to do either.
In the early centuries of the OT a man could not, technically, commit adultery as he could take more than one wife, though he had to take her as a wife and provide for all his wives.
See Exodus 21:10-11 “If he marries another woman, he must not deprive the first one of her food, clothing and marital rights. If he does not provide her with these three things, she is to go free, without any payment of money.” (Note, “she is to go free” means free to remarry).
After a time one wife was seen as the ideal among God’s people even though other nations would have thought them out of step.
By the time of Jesus attitudes to divorce had changed within the State, as they were governed both by Rome and by Jewish rabbinical law.
In ancient Rome divorce law was much as we have it in our country today. Then it was the law that a man must marry. It was unlawful to remain single. But if a marriage failed either party simply walked out of it and remarried. The Roman law did nothing to discourage this behaviour.
About the time of the birth of Jesus there was new controversial teaching within Judaism on divorce. A few decades earlier the rabbi Hillel came up with the idea that there were two types of divorce, one for adultery and the other for “Any Cause”. Those who belonged to this school of teaching believed that the “Any Cause” divorce was for men (and only men) who wanted to divorce, and it could be for any reason, even trivial, hence the name “Any Cause”. The argument was that this protected the woman from scandal, as adultery did not have to mentioned or proved. By the time of Jesus birth this type had almost replaced the traditional one within Judaism. This is seen in Matthew’s gospel.
See Matthew 1:19 “Because Joseph her husband was a righteous man and did not want to expose her to public disgrace, he had in mind to divorce her quietly.”
Jesus was asked about the “Any Cause” divorce in Matthew 19:3. “Some Pharisees came to him to test him. They asked, Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife for any and every reason?” Or for “Any Cause”, as a first century reader would have read it. (Note this is Matthew, the Jewish writer, writing firstly to Jewish readers)
Jesus taught that marriage was intended to be lifelong, Matthew 19:6 “So they are no longer two, but one. Therefore what God has joined together, let man not separate.” Note, no one “should” separate, not no one “can”.
- c) Forgiving the guilty partner
Some Pharisees believed that the innocent party must divorce the guilty partner and so they asked their question of verse 7 “Why then, they asked, did Moses command that a man give his wife a certificate of divorce and send her away?”
Jesus corrected them by saying it was allowed but not required or “commanded”, He says so in v8, “Jesus replied, Moses permitted you to divorce your wives because your hearts were hard. But it was not this way from the beginning.” He goes on to reject the “Any Cause” divorce in v9 “I tell you that anyone who divorces his wife, except for marital unfaithfulness, and marries another woman commits adultery.”
Remember he is reminding them of one of the four reasons given by God in Ex 21:10-11.
3 The Present Distress – remaining as we are
1 Corinthians 7:17-24
Verse 26: I think that in view of the present distress it is good for a person to remain as he is.
The gospel of God is the gospel of incarnation. It is the message that Christ comes into our world and into our circumstances. Circumstances may change but change is not necessary in order for the gospel to be effective in our lives.
The gospel is not subject to circumstances but is the power of God to salvation regardless of circumstances.
For I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes, to the Jew first and also to the Greek.
Remember, the claim of Christ in John 10:10. “I came that they may have life and have it abundantly.”
This was the significant promise that captured by thinking and led me to salvation, that God could give quality of life regardless of circumstances.