New believers in Corinth were getting pretty confused. It’s understandable when the culture was as pleasure seeking and sex-saturated as ours. Some were throwing off moral restraint completely and others entering into celibacy to be more spiritual. So Paul starts today’s reading with a quote from their letter to him – “It is good for a man not to have sexual relations with a woman.” He himself is celibate (perhaps he never married, or is a widower, we don’t know), so he doesn’t disagree with the sentiment, but…
He knows that temptations of the flesh come at us from every angle. To be married, but abstaining from sex is asking for trouble. The intimacy of shared life without the intimacy of sex stirs up longings that can be too easily satiated elsewhere – late night TV and internet pornography being two examples. So in v.2 he tells the married it’s good to have sex – “have his own wife” is a polite way of saying have sexual relations with his wife.
Verses 3-4 tell us that husbands’ and wives’ bodies belong to each other. That was challenging then and still is now. Agape love in marriage seeks to satisfy the other, not selfishly get what you want. How that works out with the seasons of life, pressures of work or children is part of what married life is all about!
There may be occasions, like seasons of sustained and unhurried prayer where abstaining may help – Paul is not suggesting that abstaining makes you more spiritual though! It may have benefits, but it does increase the danger of falling into temptation.
Divorce and marriage
Paul now turns his thoughts to our marital status – addressing the “spiritual” teachers who pressure us towards permanent celibacy and social pressures to get married. Sadly in our society divorce is now prevalent and marriage slightly less popular, which means we face slightly different issues.
To those unmarried and widows Paul’s advice is, if you can, stay single like him and be free in that gifting to serve God. But if you are burning with passion then go for marriage!
Then, like everywhere in Scripture – avoid divorce like the plague if you can. Divorce is never God’s intention – marriages are meant to reflect the glory of God and Christ’s love for the church. When we work at marriages and make them work, they are a beautiful testimony to God’s power and work in our lives.
Where someone who is already married becomes a Christian, Paul shows us the new covenant is different from the old covenant. Under the old covenant the unbelieving partner made the believer unclean. Jesus showed us that touching a leper made them clean, not him unclean. The new covenant has an abundance of blessings to pass on. So staying married after conversion means your partner gets to be more and more within reach of the love of Christ. So the Christian should not initiate a split – their spouse may yet be won to Christ. Elsewhere Paul tells us not to marry a non-Christian (2 Corinthians 6:14), but to stay as you are if you are already married when you become a Christian.