Called to Relationships
1 John 4:7–16
1 Corinthians 7
1 Corinthians 7:1–15
After participating in this lesson, each student will be able to:
1. Summarize Paul’s views on singleness, marriage, and divorce.
2. Give examples of how the secular world rejects Paul’s views on marriage and divorce.
3. Use scriptural principles to recommend godly conduct on issues or cases of singleness, marriage, and divorce.
How to Say It
Daily Bible Readings
Monday, June 26—God Is Love (1 John 4:7–16)
Tuesday, June 27—Instructions for Husbands and Wives (1 Corinthians 7:1–5)
Wednesday, June 28—Advice to the Unmarried and Widows (1 Corinthians 7:6–11)
Thursday, June 29—An Unbelieving Spouse (1 Corinthians 7:12–16)
Friday, June 30—Live as God Called You (1 Corinthians 7:17–24)
Saturday, July 1—Remain as You Are (1 Corinthians 7:25–31)
Sunday, July 2—Unhindered Devotion to the Lord (1 Corinthians 7:32–40)
I wish that all men were as I am. But each man has his own gift from God; one has this gift, another has that.
—1 Corinthians 7:7
Why Teach This Lesson?
Divorce. Marriage. Sexual activity. These sensitive issues often are avoided by church teachers. Should we talk about marriage when some in our church are single? Can we talk about divorce when people in our class are divorced? May we ever talk about sex without being embarrassed and uncomfortable?
This week’s lesson offers the opportunity to address all of these important issues. But we are not being asked to trade opinions and strive for compromise in these areas. Our primary text, 1 Corinthians 7, is the most extensive passage from Paul about marriage, divorce, remarriage, and sexual relations. Paul knew such things needed to be talked about, because the Corinthian church was floundering in these areas. Careful attention to Paul’s words will give us solid, biblical principles that help us understand God’s will for our lives in these areas.
The timeliness of this lesson should not be ignored. The Corinthian church existed in a city widely known for immorality. Our churches also live within an immorality-exalting society and also need to hear Paul’s words.
A. What Would You Do?
Ray was a godly man faced with a dilemma. He had been a faithful Christian for almost 30 years and was very active in his church. His wife, Susan, had been raised in a Christian home and was also involved in various types of service. Not surprisingly, Ray eventually was asked to consider serving as a deacon, but he was unsure whether to accept the nomination. When Ray accepted Christ, his first wife left him because she was not interested in religion.
Susan, for her part, had divorced her husband after suffering years of mental and physical abuse; he immediately remarried a nonbeliever. Ray and Susan eventually met through a mutual Christian friend, and they have been married for almost 20 years. Many in the church were not even aware that this was a second marriage for both. Yet Ray still was concerned that his divorce could threaten his credibility as an officer of the church.
Valerie also had a problem. She had lived with a man for 10 years, finally marrying him when she became pregnant. But before the child’s first birthday, her husband announced that married life was not for him and dissolved the union. She then began to date a coworker who recently was widowed. Soon after their marriage they accepted Christ together. Valerie knew that her past sins were forgiven but remained plagued with doubt as to whether she should accept certain service opportunities in the church.
Situations such as these often are the norm rather than the exception. They bring with them doubt, guilt, and uncertainty. They were all too common in Corinth, a city known throughout the ancient world for sexual immorality. Paul attempted to address such problems by giving the Corinthians clear instructions for sexuality, marriage, divorce, and remarriage.
B. Lesson Background
As we have seen thus far in our summer lessons, the Corinthian church was troubled with many problems. Paul had received reports of these issues from individuals who visited him (1 Corinthians 1:11). They apparently also had brought a letter from the church to request Paul’s insights on certain issues (7:1).
At the time Paul wrote his letter, the church in Corinth was no more than five years old. Given the moral climate within that church (see 1 Corinthians 5:1–11) and in that city, Paul sees the need to discuss at some length godly values about sex and marriage.
I. Sexual Purity (1 Corinthians 7:1, 2)
A. What Is Good, Part 1 (v. 1)
1. Now for the matters you wrote about: It is good for a man not to marry.
This statement is apparently a summary answer to a specific question that is not indicated in the text. The phrase the matters you wrote about indicates that the Corinthian believers had asked Paul whether Christians ought to be married in the first place. Some religions and philosophies of the time teach that the physical body is inherently evil. They therefore advocate strict abstinence from all physical pleasures, including sex. Or perhaps the Corinthians had asked whether Christians must be married in order to be faithful to Christ.
When Paul states, It is good for a man not to marry, is he saying that people who take a vow of chastity are somehow more spiritual? It is important to stress that the word good here could be paraphrased “fine” or “OK.” Thus it is valid for a person to remain single if he or she wishes—provided, of course, that such a person is not sexually active. Marriage is the norm (Genesis 2:18), but Christians are not obligated to get married.
B. What Is Good, Part 2 (v. 2)
2. But since there is so much immorality, each man should have his own wife, and each woman her own husband.
While it’s fine to stay single, Paul realizes that most people will seek sexual intimacy. He therefore clarifies two things about God’s design for sexuality. First, sex outside of marriage (immorality) is wrong. Sex between unwed people is a sin, and marriage is God’s solution. Being single is fine as long as one can control sexual desires and avoid sexual temptation. Paul’s second clarification is in the verse that follows.
II. Shared Ownership (1 Corinthians 7:3-5)
A. Duty to Fulfill (v. 3)
3. The husband should fulfill his marital duty to his wife, and likewise the wife to her husband.
Paul now describes the sexual responsibilities inherent in marriage. Sex between married partners is not simply for reproduction. The desire for sexual intimacy with a spouse is a natural and important aspect of marriage, even when it does not result in childbirth.
The idea of fulfilling one’s marital duty is one of obligation or, some would say, responsibility. In cultures where sexual immorality is rampant, a Christian should protect his or her spouse from temptation by fulfilling the partner’s reasonable desires and needs. It should go without saying that a Christian should be sensitive to his or her spouse’s needs and should not use sexual intimacy as a bargaining chip or a reward. Such conduct can ruin the marriage.
Visual for Lesson 5.
Refer again to this quarter’s outline to remind your students of the multi-faceted nature of the church.
B. Temptation to Avoid (vv. 4, 5)
4. The wife’s body does not belong to her alone but also to her husband. In the same way, the husband’s body does not belong to him alone but also to his wife.
Verse 4 emphasizes the point in verse 3 by appealing to the principle of Genesis 2:24: husband and wife are united as one flesh in a bond. The mutual nature of Paul’s remarks is encouraging, for in the ancient world women typically are viewed as the property of their husbands, with few rights.
The stress of mutual “ownership” in the marriage relationship should not be taken as a license to be insensitive or inconsiderate. The larger context of Paul’s teachings simply won’t allow that idea. That larger context speaks of the need to show respect to all, especially members of one’s family. If one’s spouse is ill or burdened temporarily with stress, it should be assumed that sexual expectations will be set aside for a time. Further, a spouse’s legal rights are to be respected because we are bound to obey the laws of the land (Romans 13:1–7). A spouse is not to be forced into unwanted sexual contact.
5. Do not deprive each other except 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.
In some cases, however, a couple may voluntarily choose to refrain from sexual contact. Such periods must be by mutual agreement and for spiritual purposes. Caution: one cannot use spiritual concerns as an excuse to withhold sexual intimacy, especially in cases where this would tempt the spouse to be unfaithful.
III. Staying Single (1 Corinthians 7:6-9)
A. Singleness as a Choice (v. 6)
6. I say this as a concession, not as a command.
This verse presents us with a slight problem: does the word this refer to what Paul has just finished saying, or does it refer to what he’s about to say next? The context of permission, and not of commandment makes us think that it’s what Paul is about to say next regarding the choice to remain single. Sexual intimacy in marriage is expected. But whether or not one gets married in the first place is a matter of personal choice. Paul therefore offers the following comments as good advice, not as an absolute rule that every person must follow.
B. Single like Paul (vv. 7, 8)
7. I wish that all men were as I am.
Very little is known about Paul’s pre-Christian life. We are not certain if Paul was ever married, but verses 7, 8 inform us that he is single at the time he writes this letter (see also 1 Corinthians 9:5). The fact that he is not responsible for a wife and children allows him greater freedom to pursue his ministry.
No Sin in SINgle
Remember the old “Pairs and Spares” Sunday school class name? We should thank the Lord that the insensitive viewpoint expressed by such a designation is largely behind us! Scripture does not consider singleness to be a sin or something that must be “corrected.” For those who can resist the sin of fornication, singleness is even praised in the New Testament.
Churches must find ways to minister effectively to singles. Churches should also open doors of opportunities for singles to be involved in the ministry of the church. Both imperatives require churches to be sensitive to the special circumstances in which singles sometimes find themselves. On the occasion of a Christmas dinner in a nice restaurant, a married man sitting next to a single woman suggested that she was better off than others at this meal since she had to pay only for one. She quickly replied, “Yes, but I have only one income.”
Does your church have a deliberate, intentional plan for singles? Or do your church’s ministries to and by singles happen pretty much “by accident”? There is no sin in singleness, but there is sin in ignoring this group.
—A. E. A.
7, 8. But each man has his own gift from God; one has this gift, another has that.
Now to the unmarried and the widows I say: It is good for them to stay unmarried, as I am.
Later Paul will say that believers should serve Christ as well as they can in whatever situation they find themselves (1 Corinthians 7:17–24). Viewed from this perspective, singleness and marriage are both gifts of God, opportunities for service.
Those who are single therefore should not feel like second-class citizens. They should not rush into a marriage just because they think that that’s what “normal” people do. Paul apparently does not feel compelled to find a wife, even though almost all Jewish men in his culture have families. If you can best serve God by remaining single and celibate, then don’t get married.
C. Self-Control (v. 9)
9. But if they cannot control themselves, they should marry, for it is better to marry than to burn with passion.
This verse refers to controlling one’s sexual desires. Some may wish, like Paul, to remain single. Paul advises them to try that lifestyle for a time and see if it suits them; if sexual desires become a distraction or threaten to lead one into sin, then get married.
Singleness may open distinct opportunities for service. But if sexual temptation is too much of a distraction, then singleness becomes counterproductive. This same philosophy underlies Paul’s remarks in 1 Timothy 5:9–15.
IV. Till Death Do Us Part (1 Corinthians 7:10-15)
A. God’s Ideal (vv. 10, 11)
10. To the married I give this command (not I, but the Lord): A wife must not separate from her husband.
Paul now turns from the situation of the single believer to that of the married Christian. The Corinthians are apparently uncertain about godly standards for divorce and remarriage. As in our culture, divorce is common in the ancient world. Paul’s general rule for divorce is simply this: don’t do it.
Not I, but the Lord means that Paul is referring back to something that Jesus said about this issue, probably the teaching in Matthew 5:27–32 or 19:3–9 (or both). Jesus taught that husband and wife are joined together by God. As such, divorce must always be the very last option in marital difficulty. God hates divorce (Malachi 2:16).
Paul also undoubtedly supports Jesus’ conclusion that divorce is permissible in cases where one’s spouse is guilty of adultery (note: permissible, not required). But since the situation under consideration in these verses does not involve adultery, Paul states the general rule without mentioning Jesus’ exception clause.
11. But if she does, she must remain unmarried or else be reconciled to her husband. And a husband must not divorce his wife.
Paul seems to be touching on a loophole in the Mosaic law about divorce that Jesus also anticipated. Jesus notes in Matthew 5:31 that someone theoretically could get divorced and remarried just to avoid adultery—simply divorce your current wife, following Deuteronomy 24:1–4, and then marry the other woman whom you now desire.
To avoid this problem both Jesus and Paul insist that the divorced person must not remarry. In other words, you cannot divorce your wife and then marry another just so that you can fulfill your sexual desires, even though this technically would avoid the sin of adultery (because you did not have sex with the other person before the divorce).
B. Our Responsibilities (vv. 12, 13)
12. To the rest I say this (I, not the Lord): If any brother has a wife who is not a believer and she is willing to live with him, he must not divorce her.
I, not the Lord means that Paul now is going to extend Jesus’ principle about divorce to a situation where a believer is married to an unbeliever. In cities such as Corinth, people would often accept Christ whether their spouses did or not. This means that many Christians were married to people who continued in pagan beliefs and lifestyles.
One might point to Paul’s teaching that believers should not be unequally yoked (2 Corinthians 6:14) in order to justify the divorce of an unbelieving spouse and getting remarried to a member of the church. While this would be a more reasonable grounds for divorce than mere lust, it still violates the basic integrity of marriage. Marriage is an institution that is ordained by God even when the marriage partners do not believe in him.
13. And if a woman has a husband who is not a believer and he is willing to live with her, she must not divorce him.
The fact that one’s husband does not go to church is not sufficient grounds for divorce. In verse 16 (not in today’s text), Paul urges Christians who are married to nonbelievers to view their situations as opportunities for evangelism. It is hard to imagine that a man would accept Christ after his wife had left him due to his lack of faith. Paul hopes that over time the witness of a godly wife will gradually win her husband.
C. Sanctified Homes (v. 14)
14. For the unbelieving husband has been sanctified through his wife, and the unbelieving wife has been sanctified through her believing husband. Otherwise your children would be unclean, but as it is, they are holy.
Paul’s remarks about the unbelieving husband being sanctified by the wife reflect the purity language of the Old Testament. The Christian may feel that the unbelieving spouse’s influence is unhealthy, leaving her unholy in God’s sight. She may fear that her husband’s evil influence will corrupt her and her children, providing just grounds for divorce.
But Paul argues that the presence of the believer will sanctify the household; the believer’s influence should pervade the home (compare Romans 11:16). God will not judge the children by the father’s unfaithfulness but will rather bless them through their mother’s faith.
One may be concerned legitimately about the moral influence of an unbelieving spouse on the family. Yet the fact that an unbeliever presents a threat of moral corruption is not grounds for divorce. It simply means that the believer will have to work that much harder to create a Christian atmosphere in the home.
While Paul hopes that a believing spouse eventually can lead an unbelieving partner to faith, he clearly does not think that the believing partner’s faith can save the nonbeliever. Such an interpretation would be entirely inconsistent with Paul’s emphasis elsewhere on personal acceptance of God’s grace.
My Mission, My Mate
Leslie’s wife became a Christian. She desired nothing more than to see her husband come to Christ as well. But Leslie was more involved in things he enjoyed, and church was not one of those things.
Leslie’s wife sought to live out a life of faith before her husband. A small group would gather weekly with Leslie’s wife to pray for his salvation. Over time Leslie’s resistance to the gospel melted away. He became a Christian.
Mac and Jane, a married couple, were both seeking the Lord. They attended church where they heard many sermons and lessons. They participated in home Bible studies as well. Each waited for the other to make the first move.
One Sunday evening during a closing song of commitment, Mac decided it was time to go forward to proclaim to the congregation his desire to commit his life to Christ. Jane was looking at the words in the hymnal, so she did not see Mac go forward. When she looked up and saw Mac standing with the preacher at the front of the auditorium, she stepped out to join her husband. Together they committed their lives to Christ.
Do you have a mate who needs the master? If so, make it your mission to be that influence personally. If you are not in this situation but know someone who is, make a commitment to be a prayer warrior on his or her behalf.
—A. E. A.
D. Not Under Bondage (v. 15)
15. But if the unbeliever leaves, let him do so. A believing man or woman is not bound in such circumstances; God has called us to live in peace.
Paul’s reference to being not under bondage means that we are not responsible for another person’s actions. Just as the unbelieving spouse cannot be saved by the faith of the believer, the believer is not responsible if the unbeliever seeks a divorce on his or her own initiative. In this instance, the believer is free to remarry a Christian if desired.
In considering divorce or remarriage, it is important to avoid two extremes. On the one hand, some act as though divorce were the unpardonable sin. There are, in fact, biblical provisions for divorce and remarriage. On the other hand, the fact that Jesus and Paul allow for divorce in some circumstances does not mean that the church can take a lax posture toward that practice. Solid marriages and families are the backbone of a stable society. The church always must protect the integrity and sanctity of marriage as an institution and must denounce every form of sexual sin.
It is also critically important to remember that God forgives through the grace that is available to us through the blood of Jesus. In today’s society most people are sexually active before marriage—indeed, before they finish high school. Thus most members of any given congregation have been guilty at some point of sexual immorality. Further, many are divorced, some more than once. Yet sins are erased when we embrace Jesus as Savior. God is not concerned about what we used to do when we were sinners; he is concerned about how we use our bodies now.
Underwood, J., Nickelson, R. L., & Underwood, J. 2005. New International Version Standard Lesson Commentary : 2005-2006 . Standard Publishing: Cincinnati