Day 74 (Don’t Trust Paul on Marriage)

[reaction to OYB’s Aug. 11-13 readings]

1 Corinthians 7; Romans 7

THESIS: Paul’s views on sex and marriage are discredited by the positions he takes in the seventh chapter of his first letter to the Corinthians that is preserved in the Bible.

GENERAL REMARK: There is a weak discrediting of Biblical sources that goes like this: (1) You reject guidance A (e.g., selling your daughter into slavery); (2) It follows that the source (e.g., Leviticus)is not always right; (3) QED the fact that guidance is in the source (e.g., prohibition on gay sex) does not necessarily mean that the guidance is reliable. That is not the discrediting I am suggesting in this post. I am suggesting that Paul’s views on sex and marriage are so obviously wrong that all of his opinions on the subject are untrustworthy. Although he says some things that are true, they are often tautologies, i.e., sexual immorality is wrong, and are almost an accident. Paul is an important and inspired writer on many topics: church unity, the role of the Spirit, devotion to Christ by those who never met Jesus. But on sex and marriage, his thoughts are not helpful.

SUPPORT 1: Paul believes the primary function of marriage is to avoid sexual immorality–presumably sex with multiple partners or outside of marriage.

1 Now for the matters you wrote about: “It is good for a man not to have sexual relations with a woman.” 2 But since sexual immorality is occurring, each man should have sexual relations with his own wife, and each woman with her own husband. 3 The husband should fulfill his marital duty to his wife, and likewise the wife to her husband. 4 The wife does not have authority over her own body but yields it to her husband. In the same way, the husband does not have authority over his own body but yields it to his wife. 5 Do not deprive each other except perhaps by mutual consent and for a time, so that you may devote yourselves to prayer. Then come together again so that Satan will not tempt you because of your lack of self-control. 6 I say this as a concession, not as a command. 7 I wish that all of you were as I am. But each of you has your own gift from God; one has this gift, another has that.

If someone came to me and said he was getting married because he needed to have sex and that was the only way to do it, I would say, “That’s the worst reason in the world to get married.” And the follow on, if a man said to me, “I don’t feel like having sex with my wife, but I’m afraid if I don’t she’ll be tempted to have sex with someone else, so I’m going to do it.” I would say you need to get help, or she needs to get help. Sex is a loving expression of love between to people. Marriage is a sacred union that is sanctified by God. Paul’s notions are ridiculous.

ANTITHESIS: “As is always the case in Paul’s letters, he treats matters that he knows bear on the readers. He does not write general treatises and then expect his readers to apply them as they see fit.” ~NIB commentary on this passage Vol. X, p. 871 (2002 ed.)

SUPPORT: The initial maxim, “It is well for a man not to touch a woman” (NSRV) or “It is good for a man not to marry” (NIV) demonstrates that some, perhaps the majority in the church at Corinth advocated life-long celibacy, like Paul practiced. Paul’s letter provides that celibacy is best, but provides alternatives that are still permissible. Paul’s point throughout is that “[b]elievers should make moral choices with a view to (1) minimizing cares and anxieties, and (2) maximizing devotion to God.” Ibid. 870.

RESPONSE TO ANTITHESIS: That’s fine, but Paul still asserts that the primary reason to marry is to avoid sexual immorality. It would be difficult to miss the point of marriage by a larger margin.

THESIS: Paul’s justification for advocating celibacy reflects a dramatic misunderstanding of either the meaning or timing of the coming of the Kingdom of God preached by Jesus.

SUPPORT: Skipping over Paul’s views about divorce, which are contrary to Moses’ teaching that it is okay for the man to do it and which are contrary to Jesus’ teaching that either party can do it if there is infidelity, we find an even more profound failure of understanding from Paul in his reason to remain unmarried if you are unmarried.

What I mean, brothers and sisters, is that the time is short. From now on those who have wives should live as if they do not; 30 those who mourn, as if they did not; those who are happy, as if they were not; those who buy something, as if it were not theirs to keep; 31 those who use the things of the world, as if not engrossed in them. For this world in its present form is passing away.

It think his failure is in understanding the nature of the Kingdom of God, e.g., the Kingdom is at hand not some far away future happening, but even those looking for a Second Coming have to acknowledge an epic fail on Paul’s part with regard to timing. Had the early church followed Paul’s advice about what was best, then there would be no non-early church.

ANTITHESIS: Paul’s motives are two fold. The end is near AND Christians should be in the world but not conformed to it. Ibid. 886.

SUPPORT: In verse 31 Paul writes that the happiest people are “those who use the things of the world, as if not engrossed in them.” This is a separate and independent justification for his writing than noting “[f]or this world in its present form is passing away.” Furthermore, the phrase “in its present form” could mean more than just the Second Coming.

RESPONSE TO ANTITHESIS: First, this is very shaky. The only reason you would be happier not to ever get married that Paul offers is that the world was coming to an end. Paul was clearly wrong about that. Furthermore, earlier scripture give a clue about why Paul was so wrong about sex and marriage.

THESIS: Paul was conflicted by his own sexual desires.

SUPPORT: Paul writes about being tempted by his own flesh; and the temptation is painful for him. This is from Romans 7.

14 We know that the law is spiritual; but I am unspiritual, sold as a slave to sin. 15 I do not understand what I do. For what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate I do. 16 And if I do what I do not want to do, I agree that the law is good. 17 As it is, it is no longer I myself who do it, but it is sin living in me. 18 For I know that good itself does not dwell in me, that is, in my sinful nature.[c] For I have the desire to do what is good, but I cannot carry it out. 19 For I do not do the good I want to do, but the evil I do not want to do—this I keep on doing. 20 Now if I do what I do not want to do, it is no longer I who do it, but it is sin living in me that does it.

“Sinful nature” can be translated as “my flesh.” That is how the NSRV still translates it. Now, look, in the age of Larry Craig and Ted Haggard, it is easy to assume that an inexplicably unmarried, Helenistic Jew in 40 C.E. is gay. As I’ve mentioned before, I find this rather compelling, but I have to admit it involves projecting a lot, maybe too much, from the modern world. But regardless of whether he was gay, or promiscuousness, or a furry, it was clearly a difficult topic for him. And the when mixed with the end of the world that he saw just around the corner, it becomes a real problem.

Despite what Paul says, I believe marriage is good. I believe marriage is good for reasons other than avoiding sexual immorality. I believe a couple should only have sex when both people want to have sex. Does anyone want to defend Paul’s position?

6 replies on “Day 74 (Don’t Trust Paul on Marriage)”

I certainly would not defend Paul's position on the grounds you propose, though some of your antitheses are not bad. But none of them is on the mark. Paul knows the same anointing as the psalmist and as is portrayed in the parable that is Job and so do Paul's hearers 'in the Spirit'. The point is that our sexuality is 'in Christ' as he says elsewhere – your body is the temple of the Holy Spirit – you are bought with a price. This has ramifications for all sex of any type. The real issue here is purity.

And you are right, the reasons given by Paul in the immediate context of 1 Cor 7 (which already has 1 Cor 6 as its prelude) do not satisfy us by themselves. But what is sufficient and remarkable in this part of the letter is the absolute equality between husband and wife with respect to power over the body. The wife and the husband have gifts for each other that no one else can – and not even God – will supply.

You make the mistake of thinking that the words he writes are the substance of his thought. I on the other hand read his mind :). In other words, he was thinking things that he couldn't say.

Job died sated.

Like too much of Paul, the more you think about it, the less sense it makes.

We try to pretend today that we can use these words as a guide to our life, but no doubt even the most liberal thinker in the ancient world in terms of male-female relations would be horrifyingly backward today.

I have always thought that the Paul that makes the most sense, and that requires fewer back bends of interpretation is to see him as a misogynist who thought the world would end before his natural death.

By misogynist, I very much mean by today's standards. By his day's standard he seems pretty enlightened–as Bob said, he gives the wife some rights–but still a misogynist by our standards.

But mostly, above all, these passages are *all* easier to understand in the context of Paul believing he would live to see the end of the world.


Considering some of the ideas Paul was confronting, I would not be so fast to judge. One the one side, he had those who were arguing that a believers should divorce their unbelieving spouse and on the other side there were those who were forbidding marriage like a bunch of Shakers. In light of the all the present problems of pedophilia among priests, I don't think Paul's advise was all that bad.

First, a link from someone higher up on the blogging food chain is pretty awesome. A public thanks to Dr. McGrath.

Second, I posted a definitive position (one that is my own but with some of the hedging removed) on purpose because such positions often generate great discussion. This one is no exception.

Third, I think all the Pauline Defenders amoung the comments make good points about why Paul should not be judged too harshly, and even why his insights suggest a trend in the right direction. The NIB, for example, also notes that this passage treats men and women the same. I don't know that I disagree with that. I don't suggest striking Paul's letters, or even the excerpts that are displeasing to me, from the Canon. That said, there are those who take Paul's letters as direct guidance to be followed literally today, and I stand by my initial thesis that in matters of sex and marriage, that practice is not advised.

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