Regarding Engagement (1 Corinthians 7:25-28)


First Corinthians 7:25-40 is a difficult passage of Scripture to interpret. There are disputes about the meanings of specific words. And the cultural context in which Paul offers his advice is very different than our own.

Let’s try to interpret it anyway, beginning with 7:25-28:

Now about virgins: I have no command from the Lord, but I give a judgment as one who by the Lord’s mercy is trustworthy. Because of the present crisis, I think that it is good for you to remain as you are. Are you married? Do not seek a divorce. Are you unmarried? Do not look for a wife. But if you do marry, you have not sinned; and if a virgin marries, she has not sinned. But those who marry will face many troubles in this life, and I want to spare you this.

 

First, note that this entire passage is a reply to issues raised in a no longer extant letter from the Corinthians  to Paul (cf. 7:1, 8:1, 16:1).

Second, the meaning of the term virgin is obvious enough, although the precise context in which it is used is not clear. The traditional answer is that it refers to virgin daughters whose fathers are deciding whether to give away in marriage. A more recent answer is that it refers to couples who have contracted “spiritual marriages,” in which they live together as husband and wife, though without sexual union. A third answer is that this refers to engaged couples. Each of these options has strengths and weaknesses, but on balance, we’ll proceed on the assumption that the third answer is correct. I’ll try to explain why as we work our way through the text.

Third, notice that Paul offers his personal “judgment” on this issue, not a “command from the Lord.” Even so, Paul’s judgment is “trustworthy” because of “the Lord’s mercy” to him.

Fourth, in Greek, Paul uses the language of “loosing” in 7:27. The TNIV translates this more literally: “Are you pledged to a woman? Do not seek to be released. Are you free from such a commitment? Do not look for a wife.” “Loosing” is not standard terminology for divorce, as the NIV translates the term.

Fifth, as in 7:7, Paul states his personal preference for celibacy. On this one point, he was in agreement with the Corinthians. But their choice of celibacy was a principled (if extreme) asceticism.

 “It is good for a man not to have sexual relations with a woman” (7:1 [TNIV]). Paul’s choice of celibacy, on the other hand, was pragmatic, based on “the present crisis” and “troubles in this life” from which he wanted to “spare” the Corinthians.

Sixth, whereas the Corinthians’ asceticism seemed to have led them to view marriage as less spiritual and perhaps even sinful, Paul specifically says twice that individuals who choose to marry “have not sinned.”

In sum: this passage seems to address Christian engaged couples whom the Corinthians were encouraging not to marry. The Corinthians’ reasons were ascetic, however, and Paul was not an ascetic. He himself offered pragmatic reasons for celibacy. But he concluded that the either celibacy or marriage was a morally legitimate option for Christians.

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