Relationship status, ethnicity, religious status, and socio-economic status
are neither barrier nor excuse for carrying out
God's assignment for each believer.
“If only I…”
Apparently some Corinthians were saying this, or at least thinking it, when looking at their spiritual condition. There was an influential group within the Corinthian Christian community that was advocating asceticism as the only means to achieve genuine spirituality. As a result they were advocating divorce of marrieds (particularly if they could not practice celibacy), or that widows and widowers ought not remarry.
“If only I were single,
I could be more spiritual and serve God more appropriately.”
Paul wrote against this aberrant thinking and theology in the first nine verses of chapter 7. Within this same context he writes the next fifteen verses, 7:10-24. He discusses two pairs of two related topics.
- Marriage and divorce
- Married believers
- Marriages where one partner is a believer, the other is not
- Religious and socio-economic status
- Jew vs. Greek
- Slave vs. Free
In the first pair of topics, Paul sets the ideal: marriage is for life and believers ought not divorce. But it is vital to note that Paul does not forbid it. More importantly he recognizes the reality that divorces do happen. The crux to understanding this passage is to keep in mind the overall context of asceticism where one partner was advocating celibacy without the agreement of the other. It is not about the general issues of divorce and remarriage.
Our situation is usually made more complex because our concerns are often the precise opposite of theirs, which caused this to be written in the first place. They wanted to dissolve marriages; we want to know whether remarriage is permitted… Paul does not speak to the question of remarriage.
“If only I had a believing partner,
I could devote more of my energies toward God…”
In the second half the the first pair Paul moves on to discuss the case of mixed-faith marriages where one partner is a believer and the other is pagan. The crux of interpreting this passage is the Jewish purity laws. The Corinthians believed that sexual relations with a pagan partner would turn the entire marriage unclean (defiled, unholy, in effect committing sexual immorality). As a result the same group advocating asceticism saw this as defiling the church and were likely encouraging divorces among such marriages. Paul saw things differently. He affirmed that in mixed-faith marriages, Christ’s holiness could not be overcome by paganism and that such marriages conferred holiness upon the entire family.
Through the believing partner, the marriage between a pagan and a Christian is withdrawn from the control of the powers of the world. In living together with the world, the “saints” are the stronger party. The decisive idea lies not in an ontological definition of the state of the non-Christian members of the family, but in the assertion that no alien power plays any part in the Christian’s dealing with them.
An important principle Paul adds in this discussion is that Christian ideals are binding only to Christians. In this specific example, Paul places relational peace above the ideal of remaining married. Paul instructs believers that unbelievers are not bound by Christian ideals and standards. Paul tells believers that nonbelievers have a right to choose how they want to live. Christians do not have a right to force their ideals onto nonbelievers.
“If only our religious differences could be eliminated,
I could do so much more for God…”
The second section under discussion here introduces a puzzle. Why does Paul suddenly introduce the topics of religion and slavery in the middle of a large sequence dealing with marriage and sex? Scholars typically point to Galatians 3:28 in which Paul discusses the elimination of human-generated classifications of male/female, Greek/Jew, free/slave. Scholars believe Paul discusses religion and slavery here in 1 Corinthians for completeness and to broaden the discussion about the irrelevancy of human ideas of status when it comes to following God’s assignment and calling.
Paul first tackles the issue of religious differences. He uses circumcision as the ultimate illustration of religious distinctiveness that is utterly irrelevant to the Christian. What is critical to understand here is that Paul writes that it’s okay to follow Jewish traditions just as it is equally okay to not follow them (i.e., remain Greek). Religious differences do not prevent God from assigning (merizo – distributing) spiritual gifts to empower Christians to each follow their calling.
“If only I was more privileged, I could do so much more for God…”
Paul tackles slavery in the last part of today’s passage. Scholars are about equally divided when it comes to whether Paul was against slavery or not. There is good and reasonable evidence on both sides. Slavery is not the primary point of this passage. Rather it is about whether or not one can be a Christian, live spiritually, and carry out God’s assignment when a person is not free. Paul’s response is that indeed, even a slave with sometimes very limited freedom and means, can receive God’s assignment and has the power to carry it out. Having or not having privilege, means, or liberty has no bearing on whether or not a person can be fully spiritual and carry out God’s assignment for them.
What matters is faithfulness in remaining in God by being true to his call. God’s call is different for every Christian. One is not to burden another with a calling that is not for them. And one should not envy or seek a different calling than the one that was given. In other words, mind your own business and be true to who God called you to be.
 New International Commentary: New Testament, The First Epistle, entry for 1 Cor. 7:16.
 Understanding the Bible Commentary: First Corinthians, entry for 1 Cor. 7:14, quoting Conzelmann.