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

Sunday, August 18, 2013

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

Outline: 013-E2.4b-In Harmony with the Gospel
Passage: 1 Corinthians 7:10-24
Discussion Audio (1h08m)

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.

  1. Marriage and divorce
    1. Married believers
    2. Marriages where one partner is a believer, the other is not
  2. Religious and socio-economic status
    1. Jew vs. Greek
    2. 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.[1]

“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.[2]

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.

[1] New International Commentary: New Testament, The First Epistle, entry for 1 Cor. 7:16.

[2] Understanding the Bible Commentary: First Corinthians, entry for 1 Cor. 7:14, quoting Conzelmann.

Tuesday, August 13, 2013

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

Outline: 012-E2.4a-In Harmony with the Gospel
Passage: 1 Corinthians 7:1-9
Discussion Audio (39m)

Neither singleness or marriage represents the ideal spiritual condition.

Chapter 7 of the First Epistle is one that has been misread, misinterpreted, and misused by Christians from almost the very beginning of its history. It has been used to justify both singleness/celibacy and marriage as the supreme spiritual state for Christians. It has been used to allow and disallow divorce and remarriage. It has been used to support patriarchy.

Ironically, Paul wrote the words in this chapter to combat nearly the very same aberrant teachings that the Corinthian believers held in regards to sexual relations and associated issues.

The overarching theme of this chapter is:

“Do not seek a change in status.”[1]

Paul sees both singleness and marriage as charisma, spiritual gifts. Both are equally good. If a person is gifted with singleness, s/he should not envy marriage or feel guilty for not wanting marriage. If a person is gifted with marriage, s/he should not envy singleness or feel that somehow they would be “more spiritual” and be able to “devote more of their energies to God” if they were single. Churches and church members should not prioritize, idealize, or idolize either singleness or marriage as “more spiritual” than the other. Neither singleness or marriage should made to be a source of guilt and shame for any Christian. No Christian should stigmatize and shame another for their choice to either remain single or to become married.

In this passage, Paul affirms the goodness of marriage. Paul also affirms the goodness of remaining single. Paul affirms the equality of men and women. What Paul does is denounce asceticism. And Paul denounces relationships where authority between partners is unequal.

[1] New International Commentary: The First Epistle, entry for 1 Cor. 7:1-40.

Sunday, August 4, 2013

Essay 2—Men and Women in the Human Family—(3) Joining the Body

Outline: 011-E2.3-Joining the Body
Passage: 1 Corinthians 6:13-20
Discussion Audio (1h19m)

Poor theology invites arrogance, irresponsibility, immorality, reducing people to mere objects whose existence is to satisfy one’s appetites and wants (use and abuse of others), and bringing shame upon the community.

In these verses (1 Cor. 6:13-20) Paul appears to be addressing the problem of sexual immorality – which he is in the most immediate sense, yet in a larger sense, he isn’t. Immorality is the most visible symptom of a larger issue Paul is trying to point the Corinthian Christian community towards:  multiple aspects of poor theology under which they are living.

Broadly speaking, these Corinthians believers have accepted the following errors.

  1. Over-realized eschatology. They assume the kingdom of God has fully come because they have the Spirit. As a result, they are incapable of sinful behavior.
  2. Greek dualistic philosophy. They have come to believe that the body is evil and only the spirit to be good. They have also accepted the immortality of the spirit/soul which comes directly from pagan roots. Because the body is evil and will be destroyed (and only the spirit survives), they are free to do anything with the body.
  3. Misinterpretation of “freedom in Christ”. They have come to accept freedom in Christ as individual liberty to do as they please, to please themselves, regardless of how it will affect another person or the community to which they belong.

Paul writes to correct these errors.

  1. The full manifestation of the kingdom is still in the future. Yes, Christians are saved (past) and have the Spirit and are united with God/Spirit/Christ (present), but sin and evil still affect the body. What one does in and with the body carries over into the resurrection (future).
  2. The body is not merely a physical shell. Paul takes the Jewish view and considers the body to be the whole person – physical and spirit. There is no separate entity identified as the soul, and particularly not one that is inherently immortal. The body is not evil, but it is good as evidenced by Jesus’ resurrection in a body.
  3. Freedom in Christ is not individual liberty to do as s/he pleases, but the freedom to live as responsible members of their community and to the greater society.

This passage needs to be heard again and again over against every encroachment of Hellenistic dualism that would negate the body in favor of the soul. God made us whole people; and in Christ he has redeemed us wholly. In the Christian view there is no dichotomy between body and spirit that either indulges the body because it is irrelevant or punishes it so as to purify the spirit. This pagan view of physical existence finds its way into Christian theology in a number of subtle ways, including the penchant on the part of some to "save souls" while caring little for people's material needs. The Christian creed, based on NT revelation, is not the immortality of the soul, but the resurrection of the body. That creed does not lead to crass materialism; rather, it affirms a holistic view of redemption that is predicated in part on the doctrine of creation—both the physical and spiritual orders are good because God created them—and in part on the doctrine of redemption, including the consummation—the whole fallen order, including the body, has been redeemed in Christ and awaits its final redemption.1

1Gordon Fee, New International Commentary, New Testament: The First Epistle, entry for 1 Cor. 6:19-20