Archive for the ‘First Corinthians’ Category

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First Corinthians: Head Coverings

January 25, 2008

What I am about to say here is not the most popular view of the passage. I was persuaded to this view by my two daughters after they studied the subject in some depth. I am well aware of contrary views, having read many of them. I have been unable to get around the plain meaning that I think I see in this chapter. I invite you to consider a perspective which you will not hear in many places these days.

How we got here

Paul began the letter addressing divisions in the church. Then he admonished the church to expel an adulterer. Next he challenged them about lawsuits among believers, and about sexual immorality. Then he turned his attention to a list of questions he had received from the church.

The first of those questions was on the subject of marriage, divorce, and remarriage. Next was a question on the subject of meat sacrificed to idols.

Moving on

As Paul transitioned to the next topic, he wrote:

1Co 11:2 I praise you for remembering me in everything and for holding to the teachings, just as I passed them on to you.

Apparently this was in response to some comments accompanying the list of questions. Amidst all the problems, there were some areas in which they were worthy of praise. They remembered some things Paul had taught and were remaining faithful to those teachings. It is easy to miss the good when focusing on problems.

Paul then turns to their next inquiry. It seems that there was a controversy about the practice of head coverings (1 Cor 11:16). Just as in Paul’s day, this teaching is controversial today. Let’s take a methodical approach to understanding what Paul said. As we go along, try to answer these questions:

  • What did Paul expect the members of the Corinthian church to do regarding head coverings?
  • What were his reasons?
  • Were his reasons valid when he wrote them?
  • Do his reasons still apply?

The basic instruction was not complicated. Women should wear a head covering (Gk κατακαλυπτεται, cover by hanging down from the head) whenever praying or prophesying. Nothing is said about the time or place where this instruction applies. So it meant wherever and whenever a woman prays or prophesies, she should cover her head.

To emphasize the point, Paul said that if a woman would not comply, her hair should be shaved off. And if she would be ashamed to have her hair shaved off, she should comply with the teaching on head covering.

Some people attempt to sidestep the issue of head coverings by saying that the woman’s hair is her covering (taken from 1 Cor 11:15). However, that cannot be what Paul was talking about. Verses 5 and 6 make no sense if the covering is her hair. Furthermore, in verse 15, Paul says that her hair is given to her as a περιβολαιου (a wrapper, something wrapped around.) But in verses 5-6 Paul said she needs a κατακαλυπτεται (something covering, hanging down from the head.) Although English translation often use the same word in both places, the original Greek used two different words. It is evident from early church writings that those who were native speakers of Greek did not think Paul was saying her hair is sufficient covering.

Paul proceeded to explain to them why women should wear head coverings when praying or prophesying, but men should not. (1 Cor 11:3-16) He offered the following reasons:

1) God is the head of Christ; Christ is the head of man; and man is the head of woman.

Modern western culture does not embrace that teaching. But Paul asserts that it is so, and it is supported by many other passages of scripture. (Eph 5:22, Eph 5:24, Col 3:18, 1 Tim 2:11-12, 1 Peter 3:1, 1 Peter 3:5-6). If we accept those passages as authoritative, then Paul’s first reason still stands.

2) Man was created in the image and glory of God, but woman is the glory of man.

This follows from the first reason. God is the head of Christ, but Christ brings glory to God. Christ is the head of man, but man brings glory to Christ. Similarly, while man is the head of woman, woman brings glory to man. The purpose behind creation has not changed since Paul wrote these reasons, so this point also stands today.

3) Woman came from man.

Eve was created from the rib of Adam. (Gen 2:21-22) The creation account has not changed since Paul wrote this, so this reason still stands.

4) Woman was made for man.

Eve was created as a helper suitable for Adam (Gen 2:18) Note that, by inspiration, Paul interpreted that to mean Eve was created “for” Adam. Again, the creation account has not changed since Paul’s time, so the reason still stands.

5) Because of the angels

Angels are actively interested in Christians. (Heb 1:14, Heb 12:22, Heb 13:2, 1 Pet 1:12) Angels are witnesses to what Christians do and say. (1 Tim 5:21) Those angels who reject authority are fallen and doomed. (2 Peter 2:4, Jude 1:6) Submission to authority is apparently a very sensitive issue among the remaining good angels. Whether or not this explanation conveys Paul’s original meaning, we have no evidence that his reason applied only in his day.

6) Nature teaches that long hair is inappropriate for men, but is the glory of women.

Paul may have been referring to the tendency for women to have longer and thicker hair than men. Or he may have been referring to a universal tendency across cultures. It does seem consistent, in many different cultures, that long hair is characteristic of women and short hair of men. Regardless, we have no basis for thinking Paul’s reasoning is less applicable today than it was when he wrote it.

What do we do with this?

It seems plain that Paul expected the women in the first century Corinthian church to wear head coverings whenever they prayed or prophesied. I’m not aware of any credible Bible scholar who disagrees with that. The disagreements generally come in another form.

1) Some believe Paul was just wrong in saying this. That would mean his writings are not verbally inspired by God. If that were correct, then we could not rely on the Bible, and therefore we would have no reliable standard for truth regarding what God has done and what he calls on us to do. We would be left with the varying opinions of man. I don’t think God has left us there. I believe Paul was exactly right when he wrote these things — no matter how much I don’t like what he said.

2) Some people believe what he wrote only applied to the Corinthian church, because of some unique characteristics of that church and its environment. I don’t think that is a viable conclusion, because Paul ended the section by saying:

1Co 11:16 If anyone wants to be contentious about this, we have no other practice–nor do the churches of God.

3) Some people believe that Paul’s teaching on this subject applied in his day, but no longer applies because our culture is different from the culture of his day. I don’t accept that reasoning for a couple of reasons. First, our culture is not so different from Corinth. This teaching was contentious in Paul’s culture also, but it still applied despite the culture. Second, the reasons Paul listed for the practice have not become unsound. If they were sufficient to prove the point in Paul’s day (and remember, Paul wrote them by inspiration of the Holy Spirit), then they are sufficient today. It seems that some people just don’t think the reasons are strong enough. To hold that position, I think one has to find fault with God.

I know some women who believe the instruction about head coverings only applies when you are praying out loud. They take “prays or prophesies” in verse 5 to mean speaking a prayer or a prophecy out loud, with others present. That may be right, or it may at least be close to right. We’ll say more about this when we get to chapter 14.

As I said at the beginning, I know this is not the predominant view today among Christians. I do not consider this an issue that should divide Christians. Romans 14 should be applied here. The women I know are practicing their convictions, some on one side of the question and some on the other. The greatest danger is for those women who, deep inside, believe as I do but do not practice it. I hope at least this has helped some people to wrestle with a passage we often avoid.

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First Corinthians: Conclusion on Meat and Idols

January 25, 2008

Flee from idolatry! The Corinthians appeared to be heading down the same path that the Israelites had taken after leaving Egypt. They were immoral and inconsiderate of one another. They quarreled about their leaders. And they toyed with idolatry. Just as God’s wrath was displayed against those Israelites, it would be displayed against the Corinthians if they did not repent.

Sharing a meal together carried deep meaning. Eating food at another person’s table created a bond of closeness between the two. Partaking of the Lord’s Supper likewise creates a bond between Christians and Christ. And eating meat sacrificed to an idol created a bond with the idol. It would be unthinkable to create a bond between Christ and an idol! So a Christian must not partake both with Christ and with an idol. Those who had worshipped idols in their former lives, who were confused about the true nature of idols, must not partake of the meat that had been sacrificed to an idol.

But a Christian who recognized that an idol is nothing creates no bond merely by eating the meat. That Christian was free to eat the meat without any conscience issues. However — and this was Paul’s main point — that Christian still needed to defer to the conscience of others rather than eating the meat in their presence. They should give up their rights rather than injure another Christian.

1Co 10:31-11:1 So whether you eat or drink or whatever you do, do it all for the glory of God. Do not cause anyone to stumble, whether Jews, Greeks or the church of God — even as I try to please everybody in every way. For I am not seeking my own good but the good of many, so that they may be saved. Follow my example, as I follow the example of Christ.

Paul had set a wonderful example in this. He had earned the right to call them to the same kind of compassionate service. How much stronger would our churches be, if we would place the spiritual needs of one another above our own comfort and pleasure!

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First Corinthians: Warnings from the Israelites

January 23, 2008

Some of the Corinthian Christians were eating meat sacrificed to idols, in disregard for those brothers and sisters whose consciences would not allow it. Paul admonished them to give up their rights, refraining from meat, rather than to cause a brother or sister to stumble. In chapter 9, Paul showed from his own example how Christians should give up their rights for the benefit of others. He concluded that thought with:

1Co 9:27 No, I beat my body and make it my slave so that after I have preached to others, I myself will not be disqualified for the prize.

Being disqualified for the prize was a sobering warning. As Paul moved into chapter 10, he reminded them of some other children of God who had been disqualified.

1Co 10:1-5 For I do not want you to be ignorant of the fact, brothers, that our forefathers were all under the cloud and that they all passed through the sea. They were all baptized into Moses in the cloud and in the sea. They all ate the same spiritual food and drank the same spiritual drink; for they drank from the spiritual rock that accompanied them, and that rock was Christ. Nevertheless, God was not pleased with most of them; their bodies were scattered over the desert.

These Israelites seemingly had a lot going for them. They had witnessed the breathtaking miracles of God to free them from slavery to Pharaoh. They had witnessed the parting of the Red Sea, and had walked through it on dry ground. They had been led through the desert by God in the form of a cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night. They had received manna and quail from God in the desert. They had drunk water from a rock. Yet they had not responded to God’s deliverance appropriately. So they were disqualified for the prize. They died in the desert.

What had they done that displeased God? They had indulged in drunken revelry. They had practiced idolatry. They had committed adultery. They had challenged God and his servant Moses for leading them into the desert. They had grumbled against God and Moses.

The sobering thing for the Corinthian church was that they had been doing many of the same things. They were getting drunk at communion. They were toying with idolatry and meat sacrificed to idols. They allowed members to commit adultery. Some of them were starting to reject Paul’s inspired teaching and were beginning to turn back toward the philosophies of Greece and Rome. They were headed down the same road as the Israelites.

Paul urged them to take warning from those Old Testament examples:

1Co 10:11-13 These things happened to them as examples and were written down as warnings for us, on whom the fulfillment of the ages has come. So, if you think you are standing firm, be careful that you don’t fall! No temptation has seized you except what is common to man. And God is faithful; he will not let you be tempted beyond what you can bear. But when you are tempted, he will also provide a way out so that you can stand up under it.

In view of those warnings, Paul returned to the original question about meat sacrificed to idols. We will examine Paul’s conclusion on the subject in the next post.

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First Corinthians: Chapter 9, Paul’s Rights

January 23, 2008

In chapter 8, Paul had appealed to the church to be considerate of others, and therefore to refrain from eating meat whenever it might cause a brother or sister to stumble:

1Co 8:9 Be careful, however, that the exercise of your freedom does not become a stumbling block to the weak.

Paul had been setting a tremendous example of sacrificing his own rights for the benefit of others. In chapter 9, he held up himself as an example to inspire the Corinthians to give up their rights out of concern for the needs of others.

In the first 18 verses, he reminded them that he had given up his right to financial support as he preached the gospel to them. As an apostle of Christ, he certainly had the right to be supported financially by those who received his message. Not only that, but he also had the right to bring along a wife, and the right to support for her as well.

1Co 9:14 In the same way, the Lord has commanded that those who preach the gospel should receive their living from the gospel.

Note that it was not the congregation’s option whether to provide his support. The congregation was obligated to offer support, because the Lord commanded it. Likewise, churches today have the obligation, by command of the Lord, to support financially those who preach the gospel.

However, Paul did have the option to decline financial support. And he elected to give up his right to their support, so that he could receive the reward for preaching voluntarily.

1Co 9:15 But I have not used any of these rights. And I am not writing this in the hope that you will do such things for me. I would rather die than have anyone deprive me of this boast.
1Co 9:16 Yet when I preach the gospel, I cannot boast, for I am compelled to preach. Woe to me if I do not preach the gospel!
1Co 9:17 If I preach voluntarily, I have a reward; if not voluntarily, I am simply discharging the trust committed to me.
1Co 9:18 What then is my reward? Just this: that in preaching the gospel I may offer it free of charge, and so not make use of my rights in preaching it.

Paul gave up other rights as well. Although he was free, he made himself a slave to all — not for his own benefit, but so that they could be saved. Although he was free from the Jewish Law, he became as one under the Law so that he could save some. He accommodated those under the law, and those not under the law, the weak, and the strong. He did all this so that some of them could be saved. Rather than clinging to his own rights and his own personal interests, he gave those things up for the benefit of others.

Paul did not view the Christian life as an easy road. Instead, to him it was like training for a strenuous competition. He did it “for the sake of the gospel, that I might share in its blessings.” He did it “so that after I have preached to others, I will not be disqualified for the prize.” Paul didn’t just see this as a good idea. He believed that if he were not willing to push himself like that, he just might be disqualified.

Contrast Paul’s attitude to that of these Corinthians. They were clinging to their right to eat meat, even though by doing so they were causing others to sin. They had been unwilling to give it up. In fact it seems they loved eating meat more than they loved their brothers and sisters. Pride, comfort, and pleasure were their top priorities. Paul was setting a much different example.

Which example most resembles us today? Do we readily give up our own rights and convenience for the benefit of others? Or do our lives basically revolve around our own personal needs and comforts?

Having pointed to himself as a positive role model, Paul turned in chapter 10 to a negative example from the Old Testament. The resemblance between these Corinthians and those Israelites would be a wake-up call, driving Paul’s message home. The gospel calls for a response — one much different from the way these Corinthians were living.

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First Corinthians: Meat Sacrificed to Idols

January 21, 2008

Having addressed the first question in the letter from the Corinthian church, Paul turned to the second: Was it permissible for a Christian to eat meat that had been sacrificed to an idol? Based on Paul’s response, apparently their question was accompanied by some comments attempting to justify the practice, along these lines:

Since we know that idols are nothing, meat sacrificed to them is no different from any other meat. So why shouldn’t we eat it?”

Paul sets the stage for his answer by correcting an assumption in their argument. It is not sufficient to judge what is appropriate based only on our knowledge. Rather, our judgment must take into account love for our neighbor.

1Co 8:1-3 Now about food sacrificed to idols: We know that we all possess knowledge. Knowledge puffs up, but love builds up. The man who thinks he knows something does not yet know as he ought to know. But the man who loves God is known by God.

Paul acknowledged that, as the Corinthians had pointed out, idols really are nothing.

1Co 8:7 But not everyone knows this. Some people are still so accustomed to idols that when they eat such food they think of it as having been sacrificed to an idol, and since their conscience is weak, it is defiled.

The Corinthians who wished to eat meat sacrificed to idols were missing a couple of important points. First, they were not only free to eat, but also free not to eat. There was no spiritual benefit to eating the meat. Their knowledge, which enabled them to eat the meat, in no way made them superior to those who could not.

Second, by their eating they were harming their brothers for whom Christ died. What a profound point! Never before in human history had such a statement been possible. The very Son of God, King of Kings and Lord of Lords, had given his life for the weak brother whom they were treating with such disregard! What a striking contrast is evident between the love of God and the indifference of the Corinthians who asserted their right to eat meat! A more powerfully compelling argument could not be imagined. If by their eating they destroyed the one for whom Christ had died, they would be showing contempt for the sacrifice of Jesus, and even for our Lord himself. Jesus suffers with the very least of his followers:

Mat 18:6 But if anyone causes one of these little ones who believe in me to sin, it would be better for him to have a large millstone hung around his neck and to be drowned in the depths of the sea.

Mat 25:40 “The King will reply, ‘I tell you the truth, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did for me.’

Mat 25:45 “He will reply, ‘I tell you the truth, whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me.’

There could hardly be a more pertinent teaching for modern Christians. Because Christ died for a person, we ought to regard him as holy, sacred, and of immeasurable value. We ought to treat him with the deepest love and respect. It is unimaginable that we would knowingly do something that would put that person’s soul in jeopardy. It is no wonder, therefore, that Paul was able to say

1Co 8:13 Therefore, if what I eat causes my brother to fall into sin, I will never eat meat again, so that I will not cause him to fall.

Paul was calling the church to love, because of the gospel. Because Christ died for us, and for the other person, what would we be willing to do on behalf of a brother or sister in Christ? What service would we render? What rights would we give up? What would we be willing to forgive? What divisions between churches would be bridged, if we loved those on the other side like Jesus loves them?

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First Corinthians: Giving Up My Rights

January 21, 2008

In chapters 8, 9, and 10 of 1 Corinthians, Paul addressed the next question he had received from the Corinthian church, this one concerning whether they were permitted to eat meat sacrificed to idols. In this article we will take an overview of the answer across all three chapters. Then we will come back in subsequent posts to examine the various elements of Paul’s answer in more detail.

In chapter 8, Paul appealed to them to give up their rights for the benefit of their brothers, rather than to cling to their right to eat meat despite the harm that might be done to a brother’s conscience.

In chapter 9, he used himself as an example of giving up rights for the benefit of others. Paul demonstrated that the Christian life is not about comfort and ease. Instead it requires sacrifice and strict training. Rather than indulging every appetite of our bodies, Christians should deny ourselves, and live our lives according to God’s priorities. Giving up rights for the benefit of others is part of that.

In chapter 10, Paul exhorted the church to heed the warning from the failures of the Israelites who were not permitted to enter the Promised Land. They saw God do some great things, but that did not gain them access to the promises. They practiced idolatry and sexual immorality. They tested the Lord and they grumbled. And the Lord put many of them to death in the desert as a result. The sobering fact for the Corinthian church was that they were doing a lot of the same things. They were still carnal (NIV worldly.)

In the latter half of chapter 10, Paul wrapped up the discussion of idolatry and meat sacrificed to idols. In view of the history of the Israelites, he urged the church to flee from idolatry. Whether they ate meat or not, they needed to be absolutely sure that they did not practice idolatry, nor even create the impression of idolatry. Further, they needed to be sure that, if they exercised their right to eat meat, they did not cause a brother or sister to stumble.

In the next few posts we will examine Paul’s instructions on this subject in more detail.

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First Corinthians: Chapter 7, Marriage, Divorce, and Remarriage

January 19, 2008

After studying this topic on many occasions, and again for this series, I will present my current understanding on the subject. I do not in any way wish to create the impression that I have all of this figured out.

The Corinthian church had written Paul a letter asking questions about the subject of marriage. Paul’s response included teaching on the merits of remaining single; the more general need for people to marry; the expectation for the married to remain married; and how to handle certain scenarios where a separation / divorce has occurred.

1Co 7:1 Now concerning the things about which you wrote, it is good for a man not to touch a woman.
1Co 7:2 But because of immoralities, each man is to have his own wife, and each woman is to have her own husband.

Paul responded that it is good not to marry, for those who have the necessary gift of self control.

For the rest, Paul advised marriage. In the marriage relationship they are to meet one another’s needs, to help each other with self control.

1Co 7:8 But I say to the unmarried and to widows that it is good for them if they remain even as I.
1Co 7:9 But if they do not have self-control, let them marry; for it is better to marry than to burn with passion.

Paul then turned his attention to the subject of divorce. Before examining the teachings in the following sections, let’s spend a bit of time understanding the practice Paul was talking about.

In biblical times, divorce carried a somewhat different meaning from today. Divorce was not a legal transaction. It was simply the ending of the marriage relationship by one side or the other. To divorce a wife, a man would simply send her away, or else abandon her. A woman seeking to divorce would simply leave her husband. Under Mosaic law, a man divorcing his wife was required to give her a certificate of divorce. The certificate was not given as a government sanction or recognition of the separation. Rather, the purpose of that document (and what was clearly stated on it) was that the woman had the right to remarry. The separation itself constituted divorce. The certificate was an additional requirement on a Jewish husband, to provide the right of remarriage to the woman.

It will be useful now to do a brief survey of the words used in this chapter referring to the breaking up a marriage:

  • verse 10,11 χωρισθηνα “separate”, “leave”
  • verse 11,12 αφιεναι to put away, leave, divorce
  • verse 27 λελυσαι to be loosed, to be released, unmarried, divorce

It seems that in the original language of chapter 7, all of the above terms were used interchangeably referring to what we now call divorce.

Note that the NIV is inconsistent in the translation of the two occurrences of λελυσαι in verse 27:

(NIV)
1Co 7:27 Are you married? Do not seek a divorce. Are you unmarried? Do not look for a wife.

Undoubtedly this was because of the difficulty that would otherwise arise in the next verse, where Paul says “But if you do marry, you have not sinned.” Did Paul really say that about someone who had been divorced? Perhaps. The more literal translations (ASV, NASV, ESV, RSV, KJV, etc) all translate the two words the same — but none translate both as “divorced”. Still it is hard to imagine what else to be “loosed from a wife” would mean. It’s certainly a strange way to describe a widower! If Paul had intended to speak only of widowers, making a distinction between widowers and those who were divorced, surely he would have chosen a different term. So the difficulty remains, and honest students of the scriptures need to wrestle with it.

As Paul began to teach how Christians should view divorce, he explicitly stated that what he wrote on this subject was the instruction of God. This was not casual advice, but instruction from the Lord.

(NAS)
1Co 7:10 But to the married I give instructions, not I, but the Lord, that the wife should not leave her husband
1Co 7:11 (but if she does leave, she must remain unmarried, or else be reconciled to her husband), and that the husband should not divorce his wife.

A survey of several translations on these verses shows some subtle but potentially important differences in the translation:

(NIV)
1Co 7:10 To the married I give this command (not I, but the Lord): A wife must not separate from her husband.
1Co 7:11 But if she does, she must remain unmarried or else be reconciled to her husband. And a husband must not divorce his wife.

(ESV)
1Co 7:10 To the married I give this charge (not I, but the Lord): the wife should not separate from her husband
1Co 7:11 (but if she does, she should remain unmarried or else be reconciled to her husband), and the husband should not divorce his wife.

(HCSB)
1Co 7:10 I command the married–not I, but the Lord–a wife is not to leave her husband.
1Co 7:11 But if she does leave, she must remain unmarried or be reconciled to her husband–and a husband is not to leave his wife.

(KJV)
1Co 7:10 And unto the married I command, yet not I, but the Lord, Let not the wife depart from her husband:
1Co 7:11 But and if she depart, let her remain unmarried or be reconciled to her husband: and let not the husband put away his wife.

A literal translation of Paul’s words:

1Co 7:10 But I command the ones being married (not I, but the Lord), [that] a woman [is] not to be separated from her husband;
1Co 7:11 but if indeed she is separated, remain unmarried, or be reconciled to the husband; and a husband not to leave [his] wife.

The most striking discrepancy between these translations is whether a person “should” or “must” not separate from a spouse. Either is a reasonable translation based on the underlying Greek grammar. However, since Paul specifically stated that this was instruction from the Lord, it is hard not to understand it as a command. Yet in the very next verse, Paul addressed the scenario of a woman who has separated despite the command. If leaving was sin, common sense would tell us that repentance would require reconciliation–but that is not what Paul said. Rather, he taught that she could either remain separate or be reconciled to her husband. (Paul did not offer as a third option, to marry a different man.) What should we make of that? Perhaps we should recognize that there are circumstances where a person is justified in leaving his or her spouse. Drawing a bright and sharp scriptural line between the justified and unjustified scenarios is a much more difficult task.

The next few verses address the scenario where a Christian is married to a non-Christian. Note that the Christian is expected to honor the marriage as long as the non-Christian is willing. This is not for the benefit of the Christian but of the non-Christian. Perhaps the marriage would result in their salvation!

But if the unbeliever leaves, the Christian is no longer bound.

1Co 7:15 Yet if the unbelieving one leaves, let him leave; the brother or the sister is not under bondage in such cases, but God has called us to peace.

This is what is commonly known as the “Pauline exception”, since some understand this as permission for the Christian to marry another person after the non-Christian spouse leaves. Others believe it means the Christian is no longer bound by the marriage (ie, they are free to be unmarried, and not bound to the unbeliever); otherwise they might have to abandon the church, in order to remain with the non-Christian spouse. Doing that seems unthinkable, and yet perhaps that was at least part of what Paul was saying. So the “Pauline exception” is yet another disputed topic in this chapter.

In either case, the sense of the last part of verse 15 seems to be this: A marriage between a Christian and a non-Christian could produce much conflict and strife. That must not be due to the Christian doing unrighteous things to incite the conflict. But if the marital strife reaches a point where the non-Christian decides to leave, then the Christian is set free from the contentious relationship, to live in peace.

Beginning in verse 17, Paul presents the two opposing forces affecting the decision to get married. On one hand, this life is brief. We should place priority on eternal matters rather than temporal. We should not become engrossed in things of this life. Paul wanted people to have undivided focus on serving God. Perhaps also on Paul’s mind, the Roman persecutions were soon to come down on them, and being married would make the distress all the more severe. On the other hand, the strong spiritual reasons for people to marry have been previously discussed. Not everyone has the necessary self-control to live a righteous life in an unmarried state. Paul’s bottom line on the subject was that marriage is good, and remaining single for the service of God is better.

Paul concluded the topic of marriage with this:

1Co 7:39 A wife is bound as long as her husband lives; but if her husband is dead, she is free to be married to whom she wishes, only in the Lord.
1Co 7:40 But in my opinion she is happier if she remains as she is; and I think that I also have the Spirit of God.

Marriage is intended to last until death of one partner– “Until death do you part…” After the death of one partner, the other is free to remarry—but only to a Christian spouse. This strongly suggests that Christians in general should only marry Christians.

Thus concludes a very difficult chapter, one that has been battleground for many heated arguments. Through the fog and the heat, what can we take away that is certain and knowable?

1) God hates divorce. (Mal 2:13-16) That did not change between the two Testaments. God clearly instructs married Christians not to divorce. (1 Cor 7:10-11)

2) God recognizes that there will be divorces, so he has instructed us about how divorced Christians should proceed with their lives. Divorced Christians are not to be treated as second class citizens in the church. And certainly this chapter makes it clear that we are not to exclude them from citizenship in the church! Grace, mercy, and peace are to be guiding principles in God’s household.

3) There are some real difficulties in this chapter. Great Bible scholars have disagreed about what is meant by some of these verses. We may prefer a world where everything is black or white, but in this passage are some shades of gray — and some dimly lit areas where it is hard to tell whether it is black, gray, or white.

I’ve encountered a lot of people who think they have the final answer on these subjects. I doubt I’ve ever encountered a mortal who really does. A good dose of humility and mercy are needed when helping people in these areas.

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First Corinthians: Chapter 7, The Gift

January 18, 2008

You know the gift I am talking about:

1Co 7:6 But this I say by way of concession, not of command.
1Co 7:7 Yet I wish that all men were even as I myself am However, each man has his own gift from God, one in this manner, and another in that.
1Co 7:8 But I say to the unmarried and to widows that it is good for them if they remain even as I.
1Co 7:9 But if they do not have self-control, let them marry; for it is better to marry than to burn with passion.

Jesus also spoke about this gift:

Mat 19:10 The disciples said to Him, “If the relationship of the man with his wife is like this, it is better not to marry.”
Mat 19:11 But He said to them, “Not all men can accept this statement, but only those to whom it has been given.
Mat 19:12 “For there are eunuchs who were born that way from their mother’s womb; and there are eunuchs who were made eunuchs by men; and there are also eunuchs who made themselves eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of heaven. He who is able to accept this, let him accept it.”

In my 32 years as a Christian, I cannot remember a lesson encouraging singles to consider whether they might have “the gift.” The focus of every singles ministry I have witnessed has been to encourage people to get married. And honestly that seems to be the hope of virtually all of the singles I have known. A great many Christian singles are not single by choice. For many, it would be in their best interest spiritually to get married. As Paul said, it is better to marry than to be inflamed with passion. Both Paul and Jesus taught that not everyone is gifted to remain single.

But there are some who could make the decision to remain single, to devote their attention to serving the Lord.

1Co 7:32 But I want you to be free from concern. One who is unmarried is concerned about the things of the Lord, how he may please the Lord;
1Co 7:33 but one who is married is concerned about the things of the world, how he may please his wife,
1Co 7:34 and his interests are divided. The woman who is unmarried, and the virgin, is concerned about the things of the Lord, that she may be holy both in body and spirit; but one who is married is concerned about the things of the world, how she may please her husband.
1Co 7:35 This I say for your own benefit; not to put a restraint upon you, but to promote what is appropriate and to secure undistracted devotion to the Lord.

Our churches need to make room for people who have “the gift.” Those who have the self control to serve God with purity as a single should be respected for that. In our culture, there is a stigma associated with remaining single. There should be no such stigma in the church. Both Jesus and Paul clearly taught that, for those who have the gift, remaining single in order to serve God is an honorable path.

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First Corinthians: Introduction to chapter 7

January 18, 2008

Marriage, Divorce, and Remarriage

In chapter seven, Paul delves into one of the most difficult topics in all of scripture. The most learned biblical scholars of our time and over the centuries have struggled to come to grips with the biblical teaching on this subject. There is no shortage of scholars who have arrived at a strong conviction from their study of the subject. But unfortunately, there is nothing close to a consensus. Those scholars have arrived at a dizzying array of contradictory convictions. If that is not enough to make us cautious on the subject, then consider the virtually unlimited number of unique circumstances in marriages today, to which those principles must be applied! This seems to be one subject for which this scripture is true:

1Co 8:2 The man who thinks he knows something does not yet know as he ought to know.

We will not attempt to examine every nook and cranny along the way as we examine this chapter. Instead we will attempt to present a framework from which sound conclusions may be drawn.

It would be a good idea at this point to review some of the applicable passages on the topic of marriage, divorce, and remarriage:

Gen 1:27
Gen 2:18-24
Deut 24:1-4
Mal 2:13-16
Matt 5:31-32
Matt 19:3-12
Mark 10:1-12
Luke 16:18
1 Cor 7

The above links are for the New American Standard Version. Even though I often use the New International Version for this blog, I do not recommend relying on that version for 1 Corinthians chapter 7. The NIV translators seem to have applied their doctrinal interpretations to the translation of this passage, in an apparent attempt to clarify the passage based on their preferred doctrine. However, by doing so they have masked some of the important questions that we need to examine. Comparing a variety of translations is a wise practice in cases like this.

Most people, when trying to discern Christian teaching on the subject of marriage and divorce, begin with the statements of Jesus in the gospels. But notice that Jesus was teaching Jews, still living under the Mosaic Law. He even referred directly to the Law in several of these passages, applying his comments to what the Jews had heard taught from the Law. Jesus was correcting the improper applications of Deut 24:1-4, which were widespread in that day. To understand what he was saying, it is necessary to understand the prevalent practices he was addressing.

Since Paul addressed the Corinthian letter to the Christians in Corinth, “together with all those everywhere who call on the name of our Lord Jesus Christ” (1 Cor 1:2), this is a reasonable place for us to start to understand how Christians should understand marriage, divorce, and remarriage. Here Paul gives teachings to a diverse Christian congregation made up of Jews, Greeks, and Romans. (That is in contrast to the audience Jesus addressed, which consisted only of Jews still living under Mosaic Law.) The Corinthian church had asked the apostle for clarification on this topic (1 Cor 7:1). If the Christian church today wants clarification on the same topic, this seems to be an ideal place to begin.

We will leave many questions unanswered. But hopefully we will understand the clearest teachings from this passage, to serve as a framework for understanding the more difficult situations.

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First Corinthians Sidebar: Do You Not Know?

January 15, 2008

The Corinthians were infatuated by worldly wisdom and knowledge. They took pride in what they thought they knew. So when Paul had a message to deliver to them, he began by acknowledging that God had indeed supplied them with knowledge:

1Co 1:4 I give thanks to my God always for you because of the grace of God that was given you in Christ Jesus,
1Co 1:5 that in every way you were enriched in him in all speech and all knowledge

But as Paul corrected them on a long list of deficiencies, he repeatedly pointed out that their supposed wisdom was lacking. Did they not know?

1Co 6:2 Do you not know that the saints will judge the world? And if you are to judge the world, are you not competent to judge trivial cases?

1Co 6:3 Do you not know that we will judge angels? How much more the things of this life!

1Co 6:9 Do you not know that the wicked will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived: Neither the sexually immoral nor idolaters nor adulterers nor male prostitutes nor homosexual offenders

1Co 6:15 Do you not know that your bodies are members of Christ himself? Shall I then take the members of Christ and unite them with a prostitute? Never!

1Co 6:16 Do you not know that he who unites himself with a prostitute is one with her in body? For it is said, “The two will become one flesh.”

1Co 6:19 Do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit, who is in you, whom you have received from God? You are not your own;

1Co 9:24 Do you not know that in a race all the runners run, but only one gets the prize? Run in such a way as to get the prize.

Paul was speaking their language when he reasoned like this. They wanted to know. They wanted to be wise. The Holy Spirit, speaking through Paul, crafted the message in terms that would most readily reach their hearts and values, where they were. As Paul said in 1 Cor 9:22, “I have become all things to all people, that by all means I might save some.