English: Saint paul arrested
English: Saint paul arrested (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

by: Phillip Ross

Paul’s marriage counseling in 1 Corinthians 7:6-17 is not a biblical command but a personal recommendation based on his knowledge of both Scripture and people. It was a recommendation based on his observations about the Corinthians and their church difficulties. And because it comes from Paul, who wrote much of the New Testament, it deserves serious consideration.

What is Paul’s recommendation? He began by setting the context, “I wish that all were as I myself am. But each has his own gift from God, one of one kind and one of another” (1 Corinthians 7:7). From very early in Christian history this verse was considered to refer to Paul’s married life. But in spite of the fact that the Roman Catholic Church believes that he was not married, the evidence is not conclusive. He may have been married, or he may have been a widower when he wrote these words. There really isn’t enough evidence to establish anything certain about his state of marriage.

Nonetheless, we note that the traditional understanding has been that Paul was not married, and that his celibacy is here spoken of as a “gift.” But if we examine both the context and the implications of this idea, we will find that Paul was not speaking about celibacy at all. The idea that Paul was saying that celibacy is a gift is absurd for a couple of reasons.

First, he wished that “all” people were like he was with regard to whatever he was talking about. Do you think that Paul really wished that all people were celibate? Ridiculous! We know that Paul clearly understood that the gifts of the Spirit were many and diverse, and that their diversity was a strength. Paul celebrated the diversity of spiritual gifts (Romans 12:6; 1 Corinthians 12:1-12, 30). So, for him to want all Christians to have the same gift is ridiculous.

Secondly, Paul surely knew that if all Christians were celibate, they would die out. The Essenes believed that Paul wanted all Christians to be celibate, and they actually died out. Paul was not stupid. Celibacy is a strategy of death, not life. This all suggests that Paul was not speaking in this verse about celibacy as a gift of the Spirit. This misunderstanding has been read into the verse, not taken from it. Even more, it suggests that he was not talking about celibacy as a lifestyle at all. Why not?

St Paul, Huddersfield - detail
St Paul, Huddersfield – detail: Tim Green via Flickr

We have already determined that Paul was trying to correct a Greek misunderstanding that lead to confusion about the nature of biblical sexuality, that the Bible taught neither that all sex was okay, nor that all sex was to be avoided. Rather, the Bible teaches covenant responsibility with regard to sex — covenant responsibility, or marriage. And celibacy is an avoidance of covenantal responsibility in as much as it is an avoidance of marriage. But don’t jump to the false conclusion that this means that unmarried people are unfaithful. It does not mean that. The point is simply that the whole idea that Paul was talking about celibacy is a Greek misunderstanding about what the Bible teaches.

So, what did Paul mean? Actually, his words are not perfectly clear. He assumed that his audience knew exactly what he meant, and it is likely that they did. The subject that Paul was talking about was assumed rather than stated. But it is nonsense to think that he wished that all Christians were celibate. It just doesn’t fit with anything that Paul taught anywhere, and especially not here in First Corinthians.

So, what was Paul talking about? Earlier Paul urged Christians to “be imitators of” him (1 Corinthians 4:16). In all likelihood, Paul was referring to this idea. It is more likely that Paul was referring to his commitment to Jesus Christ, to the fact that he had been waylaid by the Holy Spirit on the Road to Damascus, to the fact that he had been born again by the power and presence of the Holy Spirit, and to the fact that his regeneration had actually changed his life. This is what Paul wanted for every Christian. Paul was referring to the gift of regeneration, not celibacy. Paul wanted every Christian to be born again, to enter into a covenantal relationship with Jesus Christ and with the fellowship of saints.

About The Author

Author of many Christian books, Phillip A. Ross has been a pastor for over 25 years. In 1998 he founded http://www.Pilgrim-Platform.org , which is loaded with information about historic Christianity. He published an exposition First Corinthians In 2008 that demonstrates the Apostle Paul’s opposition to worldly Christianity. Paul turned the world upside down and Ross captures the action in Arsy Varsy — Reclaiming the Gospel in First Corinthians.

The author invites you to visit: http://www.pilgrim-platform.org