Monday, August 26, 2013

Essay 2—Men and Women in the Human Family—(4c) In Harmony With the Gospel

Outline: 014-E2.4c-In Harmony with the Gospel
Passage: 1 Corinthians 7:25ff
Discussion Audio (1h16m)

Don’t base doctrine on unclear text.

This final part of 1 Corinthians 7 is considered notoriously difficult to interpret and understand just what Paul had in mind.[1] Particularly in regards to verses 36-38, here are a few choice descriptions from a couple of commentaries:

These verses are remarkably obscure…[2]

“The literature is voluminous and unrewarding.”[3]

Generally this section is interpreted in two, broad ways: 1) It has general application to the broader Christian community; and 2) what is written is specific to the Corinthian situation and whatever principles we try to glean should be held tentatively. The weight of scholarship prefers the latter and that is the path I have chosen to take for our discussions.

This passage has been used to support the dichotomous positions of both the priority of marriage and the priority of celibacy in Christian life. On the one hand Paul appears to command singleness and celibacy as the “true spiritual way” while on the other hand Paul strongly affirms marriage.

This passage in particular, instead of being viewed as to our advantage, has often been burdensome for the young. But that is probably less Paul’s fault than or own… The irony of our present situation is that Paul insisted that his own preference, including his reasons for it, were not to be taken as a noose around anyone’s neck. Yet we have often allowed that very thing to happen. Roman Catholicism has insisted on celibacy for its clergy even though not all are gifted to be so; on the other hand, many Protestant groups will not ordain the single because marriage is the norm, and the single are not quite trusted.[4]

The specifics of why Paul wrote what he did is lost to us. Therefore we ought not be making definitive statements about what Paul intended. Throughout chapter seven, Paul himself is very tentative, making very few definitive statements. For most of what he writes, he wants his audience to understand that he is giving his opinion, not commands. He is not writing Scripture:

Does not Scripture say in fact that singleness is better than marriage? To which the answer is No. First of all, this reflects Paul’s own opinion (vv. 25 and 40), and he is concerned throughout that it not be taken as “Scripture,” that is, as some form of commandment or principle. It is an ad hoc answer in light of some “present distress.” But more importantly, vv. 36-38 are not a judgment on marriage or singleness per se at all, but on whether or not engaged couples in that setting should get married. Paul thinks it better for them if they do not; but he also makes it clear that marriage is a perfectly valid option. It has nothing to do with good and evil, or even with better or worse, but with good and better in the light of that situation. It is perhaps noteworthy that the entire discussion is carried on quite apart from one of the major considerations in our culture—love for one another. One can only guess what Paul might have said in a different setting.[5]

We have to read this last part of chapter seven in light of the entirety of Essay Two. The main issue Paul is writing against is the issue of spiritual arrogance – not sex, marriage, or immorality. Paul is writing against those who would contend that their way to spirituality is the only valid way. In particular he is writing against Platonic body-spirit (or soul) dualism. He is writing against the view that the body is evil, the spirit is good, and what one does in the body doesn’t matter because it will be destroyed. He is writing against the abuses that occur as a result of spiritual arrogance. He is writing against the culturally informed hierarchicalism and power structures that are infiltrating the Christian community. He writes against imposing one’s own preferences about spirituality upon another.

What Paul affirms is the spiritual gifting of every believer. He affirms that God does not consider gender, religion, ethnicity, or socio-economic status in calling his people to assignments and gifting them with all that is necessary to follow their calling and to fulfill their assignments. He affirms the equal spiritual value of both marrieds and singles. He affirms that each person ought to mind their own spiritual business and live the life they were gifted to live.

[1] See comments in New International Commentary on the New Testament: The First Epistle, under “3. About the ‘Virgins’ (7:25-40)”

[2] Understanding the Bible Commentary: 1 Corinthians, 1 Cor. 7:36-38

[3] Bailey, applying to 1 Cor. 7:36-38 a quote by T. W. Manson; at location 2621

[4] NICNT, 1 Cor. 7:35

[5] NICNT, 1 Cor. 7:40

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