1 Corinthians 7:1-40

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At this point in his letter, Paul addressed matters concerning which the Corinthians had written to him. Seemingly, in view of the then-prevailing conditions believers faced, he indicated that it would be “good” or preferable for “a man not to touch a woman” (that is, in an intimate manner as a husband). (Compare Genesis 20:6.) A number of modern translations render the phrase, “not to touch a woman” according to its apparent meaning. (7:1) “It is a good thing for a man not to have intercourse with a woman.” (REB) “It is good for a man not to have sexual relations with a woman.” (NCV)

On account of the prevalence of sexual immorality, however, the apostle indicated that it would be advisable for a man to have his own wife, and a woman to have her own husband. (7:2)

A husband would be obligated to render the conjugal due to his wife, and the wife would likewise be under obligation to her husband. (7:3; see the Notes section.) Neither the husband nor the wife are to deny the other mate of the rightful marital due. For this reason, Paul mentioned that the wife and the husband do not exercise control of their own bodies but their mates do. (7:4) They should not deprive one another of the conjugal due except by mutual consent. One reason for the mutual agreement would be for the opportunity to devote themselves to prayer. Numerous manuscripts also include “fasting.” After a period of abstinence for spiritual reasons, married couples are advised to resume customary intimacies and thus avoid temptation. Strong sexual desires could leave a marriage mate open to Satan’s trap and would result in being ensnared into engaging in sexual immorality. (7:5)

Paul’s reference to his making a concession seemingly relates to the temporary withholding of marital dues by mutual consent. His words, though, were not intended as a command. (7:6)

Probably because of what he was able to accomplish as a servant of God and Christ in the unmarried state, Paul expressed the personal view that he wished all believing men were single as he was. Nevertheless, he acknowledged that this would not be possible for everyone, for each person had his “own gracious gift from God, one in this way and one in another.” (7:7)

In the case of unmarried persons and widows, Paul said that it would be good for them to remain single as he was. (7:8) If, however, they did not have the kind of self-control that would allow them to live a single life in purity, it would be better for them to marry than to be consumed with passionate desires (literally, “to be set on fire”). (7:9)

In the case of married couples, Paul directed that a wife should not separate from her husband. If a separation were to occur, the wife should either remain single or seek reconciliation with him. Also a husband should not leave his wife. This harmonized with Jesus’ teaching that marriage was to be a permanent union. (Matthew 19:3-9) To indicate that his words had Christ’s authoritative backing, Paul said, “Not I, but the Lord.” (7:10, 11)

The apostle identified guidelines for which he did not have any specific teaching from the Son of God. Relative to the situation of a believer being married to an unbeliever, Paul acknowledged, “I say, not the Lord.” If a believing husband (literally, a “brother”) had an unbelieving wife and she was willing to continue living with him, he should not to leave her. Likewise, if an unbelieving husband assented to remain with her, she should not leave him. (7:12, 13)

Neither unbelieving husbands or wives are unclean to their believing marriage mates. As far as the marriage is concerned, the unbelieving husband is sanctified or made holy, clean, or pure through his believing wife, and the same is true of a believing husband (the “brother,” according to numerous manuscripts) with reference to his unbelieving wife. If this were not the case, the offspring of the parents would be unclean, but as Paul added, “Now they are holy.” In God’s view the children are acceptable and not defiled. (7:14; see the Notes section.)

If, though, the unbeliever chose to leave, the believer would not try to prevent it. The “brother or sister” would not in that case be in a state of bondage. Believers would not be obligated to put forth extraordinary efforts in attempts to keep the marriage intact. (7:15)

The reason for the position of believers regarding the separation is, “God has called us [you, according to other manuscripts] to peace.” Manuscripts that say “called us” indicate that God’s call or invitation is one into a relationship of peace with him and, to the extent possible, with fellow humans. For a believer to try to preserve a marriage that an unbeliever did not want would lead to conflict, disrupting the peace to which God had called the believer. Other Greek manuscripts read “called you,” and could be understood to relate more specifically to the situation of believers whose unbelieving mates choose separation. In that case, their departure could serve to contribute to the restoration of the peace to which God has called believers. (7:15) The apostle then raised the questions, “For how do you know, wife, if you will save your husband? Or how do you know, husband, if you will save your wife?” (7:16)

In the event they relate to unbelieving marriage mates who are willing to remain with believers, these questions would point to the beneficial result that could come about when believers do not choose separation. Unbelievers, upon continuing to see the exemplary conduct of their mates, may eventually respond in faith to the Son of God and come to be his disciples. “Remember: a wife may save her husband; and a husband may save his wife.” (7:16, REB)

There is a greater likelihood, though, that the questions are more directly linked to the situation where the unbeliever leaves the believer, as suggested by the conjunction “for.” The thought appears to be that there is no way for a believing wife or husband to know whether the unbelieving mate would become a disciple of God’s Son and be saved from the condemnation to which sin leads. This, then, would be another reason for not trying to hinder the unbeliever from leaving. “But God has called you to live in peace: as a wife, how can you tell whether you are to be the salvation of your husband; as a husband, how can you tell whether you are to be the salvation of your wife?” (7:15, 16; NJB) “After all, God chose you and wants you to live at peace. And besides, how do you know if you will be able to save your husband or wife who isn’t a follower?” (7:15, 16; CEV)

Believers should regard their lot, portion, or station in life as one “the Lord” has given them. Their Lord Jesus Christ has not regarded it as needful to effect a change in their circumstances to make their service to him more acceptable. His Father called them or invited them to be his people in the state in which they continued to find themselves. Accordingly, it was right for believers to “walk” or to conduct themselves in keeping with the state in which God had called them. This is the guiding principle Paul set forth in all the congregations or the communities of believers to which he had ministered. (7:17; see the Notes section.)

If a man was called as one circumcised, he should not seek to become uncircumcised. Likewise the uncircumcised one should not conclude that he must get circumcised. Neither the circumcised nor the uncircumcised state means anything in relation to how God regards persons who accept his Son. What does count is whether believers observe God’s commandments. (7:18, 19)

Believers should remain in the condition or state in which they were individually called, not resorting to extraordinary means to force changes. (7:20) If a person was called while a slave, he should not let that be a cause for concern or worry. (7:21)

After introducing the thought about the possibility of becoming free, Paul directed his words to a slave, “rather use.” This could mean that the slave should use his present circumstances to the full. Another possibility is that, if he can rightfully obtain his freedom, he should do so, affording him more opportunities in the service of the Lord Jesus Christ. (7:21) Translations convey both meanings in their renderings. “Even if you can gain your freedom, make use of your present condition now more than ever.” (NRSV) “Even if you have a chance of freedom, you should prefer to make full use of your condition as a slave.” (NJB) “Though if a chance of freedom should come, by all means take it.” (REB) “But if you can win your freedom, you should.” (CEV)

For a slave, his condition of servitude had no bearing on his relationship to the Son of God. He had been called “in the Lord” while a slave in order to enjoy this new relationship. The calling “in the Lord” may denote being invited to a life of fellowship with him. A slave who was thus called to be at one with the Lord Jesus Christ would then be his freedman, one set free from enslavement to sin and granted the noble standing of a son of God and a person who belonged to Christ as his Lord. The one who enjoyed the status of a free man, never having been a slave, would likewise have a new relationship as one belonging to Christ as his servant or slave. (7:22)

All believers share the same dignified standing as servants or slaves of God and Christ. This is because all of them were bought with a price, the precious blood of the Son of God who sacrificed his life for them. As divinely owned persons, believers should not become slaves of men, granting them the kind of authority over them to which only God and Christ have the right. In view of their new relationship as children of God and as his and his Son’s servants or slaves, believers should remain in the state or condition in which he has called them to belong to him, not attempting to force a change in status. (7:23, 24)

Regarding virgins, the apostle did not have any specific teaching or command from the Lord Jesus Christ. Therefore, based on the mercy the Lord had shown him, commissioning him as an apostle to the nations because of regarding him as trustworthy, Paul gave his opinion. (Compare 1 Timothy 1:12-14.) His view would have been that of a dependable apostle who was keenly aware of the need to be guided by God’s spirit. (7:25)

On account of the then-existing difficult situation (anánke, meaning “necessity,” “constraint,” “pressure,” or “distress”), Paul thought it good for a man to remain in the state in which he found himself. If bound to a wife, he should not seek a separation. As for a man who was free from a wife, he should not be looking for one. If, however, the unmarried man chose to marry, he would not be sinning. Likewise, if a virgin married, she would not be committing sin. (7:26-28)

Nevertheless, marriage would not be without problems. As Paul indicated, those who married would have “distress” in the “flesh.” He wanted to spare fellow believers, encouraging them to remain single if this would not pose a problem for them on account of the prevalence of sexual immorality in the world. The “distress” for those who married included the cares and concerns for a marriage mate and children, especially when experiencing sickness in the family or facing situations that would make obtaining life’s necessities difficult. Believers often faced persecution. Their homes might be plundered or they could even be forced to flee. Marriage mates, parents, and children could be separated because one or more of the family were imprisoned. At times, Christ’s disciples were tortured or even killed. (7:28)

The apostle did not know when Jesus Christ would return in glory, but he had firm faith that this would take place. Possibly the existing circumstances prompted him to conclude that the time was short, or he may have referred to the shortness of the time to express certainty about what lay ahead. At any rate, the instability in the human sphere makes it essential for believers to live their lives with a measure of detachment, for relationships and circumstances can change very quickly. (7:29)

Paul advised that married men be as though they had no wives, that mourners be as persons who did not weep, that joyful persons be as those not rejoicing, that buyers be as individuals who did not possess what they purchased, that those using what the world had to offer as persons who did not make full use of the world. The apostle recommended this course because the “form [schéma] of this world is passing.” (7:29-31)

The transitoriness of everything related to human life makes it advisable for believers not to become unduly attached to whatever is subject to change. Unforeseen occurrences can deprive one of friends and loved ones. Neither times of sorrow or joy continue indefinitely. If possessions are not lost, they will eventually wear out. Believers live in the world, and so make use of what human society makes available. The apostle’s admonition is not to use the world to the full, probably meaning not to become totally absorbed in the mundane affairs of life but to limit one’s focus to essentials. (7:29-31)

In the earthly sphere, humans find themselves as on a stage with ever-changing backdrops and props. The Greek word schéma can denote the “form,” “outward appearance,” “shape,” or “aspect.” In its present form, the world or everything that makes up the human sphere is continually changing or passing away. (7:31)

Paul wanted fellow believers to be as free from worry or anxiety as possible, attaining this objective by limiting their attachments. The unmarried man is anxious or concerned about the Lord’s matters, how he might please Jesus Christ his Lord. A married man has additional anxieties or concerns relating to the world or the human sphere, how he might please his wife. As a result, “he is divided.” It is not possible for him to focus exclusively on pleasing his Lord. (7:32-34)

Likewise an unmarried woman or a virgin can be anxious or concerned about the affairs of the Lord. This would be by maintaining a holy or pure state in body and in spirit, not defiling her body through sinful acts or her spirit by manifesting an improper disposition (envy, jealousy, a lack of love or compassion). A married woman, like a married man, has additional cares and concerns. She is anxious about the affairs of the world or matters pertaining to the sphere of human existence, desiring to please her husband. (7:34)

When referring to singleness as preferable, Paul did not mean to put a restraint on fellow believers as one might put a noose on an animal, endeavoring thereby to stop them from getting married. His objective was to set forth thoughts that could benefit them when they considered what would be the better course for them personally and, if possible, to choose the one he recommended. Under the existing circumstances, the state of singleness would have been appropriate and would have permitted them to be fully devoted to the Lord Jesus Christ, free from the added concerns that attended married life. (7:35)

There is considerable uncertainty about the situation Paul had in mind when referring to someone who thought he was acting inappropriately (aschemonéo) toward his “virgin” (parthénos). While the “someone” is a man, there is a question regarding his relationship to the virgin. (7:36)

A view that has not gained wide acceptance takes the Greek word parthénos to denote “virginity” and so represents Paul as speaking of an unmarried man’s own virginity. This seems unlikely. In Greek, the word for “virginity” is parthenía (found in Luke 2:36), and one would expect the apostle to have used this term if that is what he had meant. (7:36)

Translators have commonly represented the virgin as a young woman to whom the man is engaged. “If anyone thinks that he is not behaving properly toward his fiancée, if his passions are strong [hypérakmos], and so it has to be, let him marry as he wishes; it is no sin. Let them marry. But if someone stands firm in his resolve, being under no necessity but having his own desire under control, and has determined in his own mind to keep her as his fiancée, he will do well. So then, he who marries his fiancée does well; and he who refrains from marriage will do better.” (NRSV) “But if a man feels that he is not behaving properly towards the girl to whom he is betrothed, if his passions are strong and something must be done, let him carry out his intention by getting married; there is nothing wrong in it. But if a man is steadfast in his purpose and under no obligation, if he is free to act at his own discretion, and has decided in his own mind to respect her virginity, he will do well. Thus he who marries his betrothed does well, and he who does not marry does better.” (REB) “But suppose you are engaged to someone old enough to be married, and you want her so much that all you can think about is getting married. Then go ahead and marry. There is nothing wrong with that. But it is better to have self-control and to make up your mind not to marry. It is perfectly all right to marry, but it is better not to get married at all.” (CEV) The Greek text, however, is not as definitive as these renderings of 1 Corinthians 7:36-38 would suggest.

From the Greek text, one cannot determine whether the adjective hypérakmos (literally, “above the acme”) applies to the man or the virgin. When describing the virgin it has been understood to mean “past the prime” or “past marriageable age.” Translations that render the verse to apply to the man opt for such meanings as “strong passions” or “at one’s sexual prime,” basing this on the meaning of “exceedingly” for the prefix hypér. Moreover, the context is not clear about the nature of the inappropriate thinking toward the virgin. The Greek word aschemonéo does not in itself have a sexual connotation but refers to acting in a manner that is contrary to an accepted standard. (7:36)

Among the Jews and others in the Greco-Roman world, the accepted standard for virgins was for them to get married. So there is a possibility that Paul described a situation involving a father and his virgin daughter. This view is reflected in alternate renderings of 1 Corinthians 7:36-38 found in the footnotes of various translations. “If you feel that you are not treating your grown daughter right by keeping her from getting married, then let her marry. You won’t be doing anything wrong. But it is better to have self-control and make up your mind not to let your daughter get married. It is all right for you to let her marry. But it is better if you don’t let her marry at all.” (CEV, footnote) “Still, if there is anyone who feels that it would not be fair to his daughter to let her grow too old for marriage, and that he should do something about it, he is free to do as he likes: he is not sinning if there is a marriage. On the other hand, if someone has firmly made his mind up, without any compulsion and in complete freedom of choice, to keep his daughter as she is, he will be doing a good thing. In other words, the man who sees that his daughter is married has done a good thing, but the man who keeps his daughter unmarried has done something even better.” (NJB, footnote)

If the words of 1 Corinthians 7:36-38 apply to a father and his virgin daughter, the man who decided not to give her in marriage would be one who was settled in his “heart” (meaning either his mind or within himself) and had “authority” or full control over “his own will,” not feeling pressured by the prevailing views in the community. The determination not to give his daughter in marriage would be a resolve of his “own heart” or his own inner conviction. He would not be a father with the kind of concerns expressed in the book of Sirach (42:9, 10, NRSV), “A daughter is a secret anxiety to her father, and worry over her robs him of sleep; when she is young, for fear she may not marry, or if married, for fear she may be disliked; while a virgin, for fear she may be seduced and become pregnant in her father’s house.” (See the Notes section for a literal reading of 7:36-38.)

Regardless of the specific situation involving the virgin, the main point is that Paul recommended the unmarried state as the preferable one. The Corinthians would have understood the specifics. Culturally, we today are not in the same situation, and the precise application of the apostle’s words is immaterial. There is, however, no ambiguity about his view of singleness and the clarity with which he identified thoughts that represented his opinion as an apostle of the Lord Jesus Christ.

In the case of a married woman, she is bound to her husband for as long as he lives. His death would free her to marry another man if she chose to do so. For a believing widow, remarriage should be “in the Lord,” meaning that it would be a marriage to a fellow believer who was at one with the Lord Jesus Christ. According to Paul’s opinion, the widow would be happier if she did not marry. When expressing this opinion, the apostle believed that he had God’s spirit and so his words agreed with the spirit’s guidance. (7:39, 40; see the Notes section.)


In 1 Corinthians 7:3, a few later manuscripts read opheiloménen eúnoian (“owing benevolence”), which would not be limited to conjugal dues.

The oldest extant manuscripts and quite a number of others read “brother” in 1 Corinthians 7:14, but numerous later manuscripts say “man” or are more specific in identifying the man as believing.

In 1 Corinthians 7:17, many later manuscripts refer to “God” (not “the Lord”) as apportioning each one’s lot and then “the Lord” (not “God”) as doing the calling. Instead of diatássomai (“I order” or “I command”), a number of manuscripts read didásko (“I teach”).

A literal reading of 1 Corinthians 7:36-38 would be, “But if anyone thinks inappropriately about his virgin, if being beyond the prime, and so it ought to be, what he wants to do, let him do; he is not sinning. Let them marry. But one who stands settled in [his] heart, not having necessity, but having authority over his own will, and this he has judged in his own heart, to keep his own virgin, he will do well. So also the one giving in marriage does well, and the one not giving in marriage will do better.”

In Book V of The Republic, the Greek philosopher Plato presents a discussion wherein Socrates expresses his views about the acme of life. In this discussion the question is raised, “What is the prime of life?” The answer follows in the form of a question, “May it not be defined as a period of about twenty years in a woman’s life, and thirty years in a man’s?” Subsequent comments reveal that a woman was regarded as being past her prime when her childbearing years ended at the age of forty. A man was considered past the prime of physical and intellectual vigor at the age of fifty-five.

In the Greco-Roman world, widows of childbearing age were expected to marry again. In view of Paul’s letter to Timothy encouraging younger widows to marry (1 Timothy 5:14) , it would appear that his statement about widows to the Corinthians (7:39, 40) applies to older widows. Among the Romans, it was regarded as honorable for women to have been faithful to one husband for their whole life, with inscriptions on tombstones including the word univira (of one husband). A late first-century BCE inscription (known as the Laudatio Turiae) contains the husband’s praise of his deceased wife, a woman to whom the designation univira applied. Regarding the marriage, the inscription reads, “Marriages as long as ours are rare, marriages that are ended by death and not broken by divorce. For we were fortunate enough to see our marriage last without disharmony for fully 40 years.” (Translated by E. Wistrand)