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Titles of blog articles are designed to get people to open the link to the blog. Controversial titles get better responses than bland, intellectual sounding ones.
In this case, however, Paul was actually a champion of women’s rights. Much of what he wrote leveled the playing field that was tilted against women and people of low status.
If we read Paul’s words from the 2021 vantage point, we will not be able to see how revolutionary he was. If we travel back in time, his thoughts will become more clear.
Roman Family Customs in A.D. 50
Before we can truly understand Paul’s counsel in 1 Corinthians 7, we need to get a picture of family life in Corinth.
Marriages were arranged. Given the importance of status in Corinth, it is no surprise that the most important aspect of a marriage was whether it added status to the husband.
In addition to status, a good marriage was one that added to the wealth of the husband.
In a male dominated society, the husbands were older and ruled over their younger wives.
Unlike marriage in the western world today, love was not the most important component of a good marriage. If couples were able to live in peace and harmony with each other, that was the ultimate good marriage.
In A.D. 50 Corinth there was no marriage license requirement and neither was there a ceremony. If a couple intended to get married, they began living together.
A woman was not legally protected in the event of a divorce. If a husband wanted a divorce, he could say, “Take your things and go,” and that was the end of the marriage.
The home was not a private refuge for the family. A typical home was a place of business for the husband, a school for the children, and a location for social gatherings.
Women were able to work outside of the home. Their income added to the wealth and stability of the family.
Both followers of Jesus and Jewish persons were viewed as religions that came from “outside” forces. They were tolerated, but not accepted by the general public.
These “outside” religions provided many things that the family also provided – togetherness, a feeling of belonging, spiritual comfort and a place to be one’s self.
If you read Paul’s guidance to the Corinthian church in the light of the city’s culture, it is clear that he stood on the side of women and people of low status. The good news he proclaimed gave them freedom in an otherwise restrictive culture.
Answers to Questions
Reading the letter to the Corinthians is like listening to one side of a phone conversation. We know Paul’s answers, but have to guess at the questions.
I have guessed at questions, quoted Paul’s answers, and provided some comments in the following section.
Question: Should Christians abstain from sexual relations?
Answer: The husband should give to his wife her conjugal rights, and likewise the wife to her husband.
For the wife does not have authority over her own body, but the husband does; likewise the husband does not have authority over his own body, but the wife does. (1 Corinthians 7.3-4)
Comments: In a male dominated society, where older husbands had control over younger wives, it is probable that the women desired to have freedom with regard to sexual contact.
Paul counseled the couples to not withhold sex from one another. One thing that radically differed from Corinthian culture was that Paul granted the woman to have “authority” over her husband’s body.
When couples live by the wisdom of the cross, where people live in self-giving love the dynamic of marriage is transformed. The husband and wife both seek to give more than the other.
If couples behave toward one another in self-giving love, they will experience an award winning marriage.
Question: Should people, especially widows, remain single?
Answer: To the unmarried and the widows I say that it is well for them to remain unmarried as I am.
But if they are not practicing self-control, they should marry. For it is better to marry than to be aflame with passion. (1 Corinthians 7.8-9)
Comment: The Roman Emperor wanted widows to remarry and to produce children. It is quite possible that Paul wrote these words to give women the freedom to remain single and independent.
It is believed that this council was directed to women. In a society that “used” women but did not respect them, Paul was giving women permission to determine the direction of their lives.
Question: Can I divorce my husband?
Answer: To the married I give this command — not I but the Lord — that the wife should not separate from her husband (but if she does separate, let her remain unmarried or else be reconciled to her husband), and that the husband should not divorce his wife. (1 Corinthians 7.10-11)
Comment: Divorce almost exclusively involved the action of a husband against a wife in Greek-Roman life. Paul made it clear that a Christian husband was not allowed to tell his wife, “Take your things and go.”
I don’t know the historical context behind Paul’s command to wives. Women didn’t have the same kind of freedom that was afforded to men.
Divorce is one of the most painful experiences in modern life. There are significant levels of hurt and failure that each divorced couple feels in any relationship.
My prayer for divorced persons who read these verses is that they accept God’s forgiveness and no longer feel as if their divorce makes them second class Christians.
My prayer for couples who are struggling and have considered thoughts of divorce is that they strive for self-giving love. Try to out give your partner in every loving way possible. See how the wisdom of the cross applies to your relationships.
The Most Significant Issue
There is no escaping the culture in which we live. We are all influenced by it. There are key issues to keep in mind, as we follow Jesus in this world.
(1) At the end of our lives, the only thing of lasting value is our devotion to Jesus Christ.
(2) Jesus modeled self-giving love as being the best life possible. The best laboratory for learning self-giving love is among those who are closest to us.
About This Blog
Cultural information for this article comes from Ben Witherington’s commentary on Corinthians.
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