Does Paul command celibacy in 1 Corinthians 7? How should believers today read this passage?
For many young people, myself definitely included, marriage is a wonderful dream. The desire to meet and fall in love with a woman has burned in me most of my life. I cannot remember a time when I wasn’t dreaming up love stories or getting teary-eyed at romance. Likewise, many a believer longs for that time where they will find a partner to serve God in unison. It’s a desire that’s honestly beautiful and often God ordained.
However, Paul seems to disagree in his letter to the Corinthians. And as has been seen time and again fundy atheists accuse believers of cherry picking or failing to understand the text whenever they marry. The implication made by critics is that Paul commands lifelong celibacy, but is that a contextualized reading of the passage? The verses most commonly mentioned are as follows,
“Now concerning the things whereof ye wrote unto me: It is good for a man not to touch a woman.” (1 Cor 7:1)
“For I would that all men were even as I myself. But every man hath his proper gift of God, one after this manner, and another after that.” (1 Cor 7:7)
“But as God hath distributed to every man, as the Lord hath called every one, so let him walk. And so ordain I in all churches.” (1 Cor 7:17)
“And this I speak for your own profit; not that I may cast a snare upon you, but for that which is comely, and that ye may attend upon the Lord without distraction.” (1 Cor 7:35)
Is Paul commanding lifelong celibacy? If not, is he saying that lifelong celibacy is preferable? There are few things to mention.
The first response is that in the first verse Paul is quoting a Corinthian saying (“It is good for a man not to touch a woman”), it isn’t he who is making that statement. Another key point is that Paul uses the same word for “woman” as he does for “wife’ in this passage (Gyne) which brings the conversation (in this verse) to someone unmarried abstaining from sexual relations to one who is. In the following verses, Paul tells the Corinthians that it’s best to not leave spouses wanting lest the temptation to fornicate arises. The same goes for those unmarried as Paul says that it is better to marry than to burn in their passion. The question is why would the Corinthians say that at all? Paul gives us an answer further along.
“I suppose therefore that this is good for the present distress….” (1 Cor 7:26)
In Bruce Winter’s “After Paul Left Corinth” he speaks of a food shortage in Corinth around the 40s-50s A.D. You can see why the Corinthians would say that it was better for a man not to touch his wife during that time. Birthing children would only lead to more trouble and the unmarried caring for the needs of a wife would certainly distract from the greater need at hand.
But what about the verse where Paul says this is what he teaches to all the churches? By the time Paul wrote that he has moved into matters of divorce; that everyone should walk in the way God has laid before them.
What does this mean for believers today? How should we apply this passage? We can glean from this a valuable lesson I learnt a while back when I was obsessed with finding a girlfriend. God knows the desires of the heart and He will fulfil them in due time. Yet, as was the case in Corinth, that due time may not be right now. Paul says throughout the passage that getting married during this time is far from a sin, in actuality, you would have done the right thing if it meant resisting fornication. However, the question to ask is can we really give ourselves completely to the one we love if there is a greater need to attend to first? And if we neglect that need would that be the best decision for our husbands or wives or even children? Marriage is an incredibly beautiful thing and I despair for anyone who wishes to fulfil their desire before its due time because I know it won’t be as wonderful as it could be.
Focus on what you have and where you are today. When all is said and done it will be worth it.