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The First Epistle to the Corinthians
5- On Marriage and Celibacy (Chapter 7, continued)
At the beginning of chapter 7, St. Paul writes “Concerning the things of which you wrote to me”. It is obvious, that the Church members wrote to him concerning a number of issues related to the relations between men and women. He gave them the following opinions:
1- In general, celibacy is preferred:
St. Paul says at the beginning, “It is good for a man not to touch a woman” (7:1). He presents himself to them as a model of celibacy (7:7)(1). However, he cautions that “each one has his own gift from God; one has this gift, another has that.” This is the same as what the Lord has said to His disciples when He was talking about marriage and divorce “All cannot accept this saying, but only those to whom it has been given …” (Mat. 19:11). Concerning celibacy, the Lord said, “and there are eunuchs who have made themselves eunuchs for the kingdom of heaven’s sake. He who is able to accept it, let him accept it” (Mat. 19:12). Therefore, celibacy is a gift and a call, and a response to the call, and it is personal and not for all.
2- To the Youth that are planning for marriage:
From a physical point of view, marriage is the divine law that binds a man and a woman with a sacred love through which sexual satisfaction is fulfilled, and it brings children as a fruit. God has set sexual desire in male and female so that they seek for each other, not only to satisfy their sexual desires, but also to fulfill the divine purpose by entering in a complete partnership that involves love, giving, fidelity, responsibility, obedience, and raising children. That is what St. Paul wrote in other epistles, raising the level of sacrificial love between the spouses to the level of the sacrificial love of Christ to the Church “Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ also loved the church and gave Himself for her … He who loves his wife loves himself” (Eph. 5:25, 28, 33; 2Cor. 3: 9), confirming the sanctity of marriage (Heb. 13: 4). He repeats what the Lord has said (Eph. 5: 31). (Hence, to come to a complete picture of the purposes of marriage, we should put together all what St. Paul has said concerning marriage, rather than limit it to sexual satisfaction).
+ Limiting the relations to the physical sexual aspect, as in adultery, is a deviation from God’s plan and changing the means (sexual desire) to a goal (satisfying the lust) and undermining the purpose of life. To protect people from slipping down into inappropriately liberal sexual relations, the divine order is “let each man have his own wife, and let each woman have her own husband” (7:2), and that the man shall “leave his father and mother and cleave to his wife, and the two shall be one flesh: (Gen. 2: 24, Mat. 19:5).
3- To the unmarried and the widows:
Based on the earlier principle, it is preferable if they stay “like me” (7:8). “You are separated from a woman, do not ask for a woman” (7: 28); but if they cannot keep their purity and control their desires, let them get married, because if “you get married you are not sinning” (7:28). This is preferable than to burn with passion.
4- To the married:
The expectation that the second coming of Christ will be soon does not justify separation in marriage. Based on the commandment of God “Man shall cleave to his wife” (Gen. 2:24, Mat. 19:5), St. Paul says, “Man shall not leave his wife. You are bound to a wife do not get separated” (7:27), and “The wife should not leave her husband, but if she leaves him, she should stay unmarried or returns to him” (7:10, 11).
+ As St. Paul presents guidance in marital relations, he emphasizes the equality between the spouses, in spite of what is widely known especially in the Middle and Far East of the priority of men’s rights and that the woman should be obedient in fulfilling the desire of her husband, saying, “Let the husband render to his wife the affection due her, and likewise also the wife to her husband” (7:3). Also, he emphasizes that it is not proper that one of the spouses uses the sexual aspect of marriage to dominate the other either in giving or depriving, considering that love makes each of the spouses own the other’s body, “The wife does not have authority over her own body, but the husband does. And likewise the husband does not have authority … ” (7:4).
+ Even when a spouse wants to abstain from marital relations to fast and pray, this has to be done by approval of the other. This abstinence should be “for a time”, so that no one will be tempted by his/her desire (7:2). He then assures that this is not a “commandment” or a generalization, but as a “concession” or permission; and those who have a higher spiritual stature should be guided by the Holy Spirit.
5- To the married, if one of them is not a believer:
Since this matter happened after the preaching of the gospel and the Lord did not speak about it, St. Paul says:
+ If a brother (a believer) has a nonbeliever wife, who agrees to live with him, he should not leave her. Also, a woman (a believer) who has a nonbeliever husband who agrees to live with her, she should not leave him (7:12, 13). This is based on the concept that “the nonbeliever man is sanctified in the woman, and the nonbeliever woman is sanctified in the believing man …” (7:14)(2).
+ If the nonbeliever does not want to stay and wants to separate, let him/her separates. In such a situation, the believing man or woman is not restrained by such a relation, as they are not responsible for the salvation of those who refuse the faith (7:15, 16).
6- Other Situations (outside of marriage):
In a similar manner, St. Paul deals with those who were, before accepting the faith, circumcised, uncircumcised, slaves, or free; he says in many ways, “Let each one remain in the same calling in which he was called … let each one remain with God in that state in which he was called” (7:20-24).
+ “Was anyone called while circumcised? Let him not become uncircumcised” and vice versa, for what matters is “keeping the commandments of God” (7:18, 19).
+ “Were you called while a slave? Do not be concerned about it … For he who is called in the Lord while a slave is the Lord’s freedman” (7:21, 22), “but if you can be made free, rather use it”. “Likewise he who is called while free is Christ’s slave” (7:22). This is what the free man should feel towards his slave, that both of them are slaves of Christ. He has bought us with His blood, and therefore, we are not slaves to anyone, “You are bought at a price, do not become slaves of men” (7:23).
7- For the Virgins and the Celibates:
St. Paul offers his opinion concerning the virgins “as one whom the Lord in His mercy has made trustworthy”; considering that there is no command from the Lord in this matter written in the Gospels. Based on the principle mentioned earlier, he encourages them to continue in their virginity because of the present difficulties from persecution, world pressures, and the approaching end of the days (7:26). However, this does not mean that the virgin is doing wrong in getting married. St. Paul confirms that he says that because he has compassion for them all. Marriage encompass in itself difficulties of the body and worries, and time is not adequate neither for marriage, nor for weeping, nor for joy, nor for buying, nor for owning, nor for the worries of this world; “I want you to be without worry” (7:32).
+ He explains the difference between the celibate and the married: The first is concerned about what pleases God, while the second is concerned for the world how to please his wife, and consequently minds all the material matters. Regarding the virgin (unmarried), she takes care of what pleases the Lord, to be sanctified in the body and spirit, while the married is concerned about the world how to please her husband (7:32-34). He insists that he says that for their good, and not to put any burden on them, for the purpose is to have a proper relation with the Lord and to persevere in a holy life without worries.
8- For the Youth who are engaged to Virgins:
Apparently, his words address youth who are engaged to virgins and planning that both of them live a life of purity, without physical relation, but they may have become unable to continue in such a relation. Based on the same previous principles, St. Paul was telling them:
+ “He who stands steadfast in his heart (i.e. decided to stay virgin), having no necessity (i.e. freely willing), but has power over his own will, and has so determined in his heart that he will keep his virgin (without bodily relation), does well” (7:37).
+ “However, if any man thinks he is behaving improperly (i.e. not with chastity) towards his virgin, if she is past the flower of youth (or if they have been in this relation for long time), and thus it must be , let him do what he wishes. He does not sin; let them marry” (7:36).
St. Paul again reveals that the change from celibacy to marriage is not a sin or a deviation, as long as the abstinence is unbearable; and this is preferable than the impurity of the thought, or being inflamed with lust under a false pretense of purity. We observe that St. Paul is giving the man the responsibility to take the decision, considering that he is the head of the woman and of the family, and it is expected from him to have a strong will and overcome his lust more easily than the woman, who is the weaker vessel (1Peter 3:7), and who is more motivated by love and affection “to your man will be your desire” (Gen 3:16). (However, as stated earlier, there is equality of men and women, and there should be no compulsion to any one.)
+ In concluding the matter he says “if you marry you are doing well, if you are not marrying, you are doing better” (7:38).
9- To the Widows:
As he mentioned previously (7:10), as long as the husband is alive, his wife is bound to him according to the law, and should not leave him. But the widow is free to marry whom she wants, but only in the Lord (i.e. a believer). However, St. Paul, speaking according to the Spirit of God, who is in him, confirms what he said before, that the widow will be more blessed (without worry) if she stayed without marriage (7:39,40).
In this way, St. Paul responded to all the inquiries of the Church. He has dealt with all the situations found in the Church from the celibates, virgins, those who are planning to get married, those who are married, unmarried,, widows, and even the slaves and the uncircumcised.
(To be continued)
(1) Although some scholars suggested that St. Paul was married before his conversion (being a strict Pharisee, to whom marriage is essential) and became separated or widowed later, this view did not get wide acceptance.
(2) Needless to say that what was suitable for these exceptional cases in the early church, should not be applied nowadays, i.e. to allow the marriage of believers with nonbelievers. This violates the sanctity of the sacrament of matrimony and is a threat to the faith.
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