Monday, May 23, 2011

Marriage, Sex, And St. Paul - 1 Corinthians 7:1-15

The clearest and most direct discussion of marital life is in 1 Corinthians 7:1-15:
1 Now for the matters you wrote about: “It is good for a man not to have sexual relations with a woman.” 2 But since sexual immorality is occurring, each man should have sexual relations with his own wife, and each woman with her own husband. 3 The husband should fulfill his marital duty to his wife, and likewise the wife to her husband. 4 The wife does not have authority over her own body but yields it to her husband. In the same way, the husband does not have authority over his own body but yields it to his wife. 5 Do not deprive each other except perhaps by mutual consent and for a time, so that you may devote yourselves to prayer. Then come together again so that Satan will not tempt you because of your lack of self-control. 6 I say this as a concession, not as a command. 7 I wish that all of you were as I am. But each of you has your own gift from God; one has this gift, another has that.

8 Now to the unmarried[a] and the widows I say: It is good for them to stay unmarried, as I do. 9 But if they cannot control themselves, they should marry, for it is better to marry than to burn with passion.

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

12 To the rest I say this (I, not the Lord): If any brother has a wife who is not a believer and she is willing to live with him, he must not divorce her. 13 And if a woman has a husband who is not a believer and he is willing to live with her, she must not divorce him. 14 For the unbelieving husband has been sanctified through his wife, and the unbelieving wife has been sanctified through her believing husband. Otherwise your children would be unclean, but as it is, they are holy.

15 But if the unbeliever leaves, let it be so. The brother or the sister is not bound in such circumstances; God has called us to live in peace. 16 How do you know, wife, whether you will save your husband? Or, how do you know, husband, whether you will save your wife?
As a general observation, it seems that St. Paul was not a huge fan of the marital state ("Now to the unmarried[a] and the widows I say: It is good for them to stay unmarried, as I do."). He concedes, however, that sexual desire being what it is, marriage is preferable to fornication, and therefore grants to those who have less - what? self-control? - whatever it is that St. Paul sees himself possessing, the permission to marry as a way of avoiding the trap of fornication.

Beyond that, in this epistle, St. Paul is far more interested in making sure that married couples stay together, even if one is married to a non-Christian; such a relationship may provide a moment of grace to the unbeliever, as St. Paul rightly notes, and is not to be set aside.

I find the advice to marry to avoid fornication humorous. First of all, it bares witness to the reality that physical desire can be overwhelming, even to the most faithful person; it also sees in marriage an expedient release from the asceticism that St. Paul practiced, one he seemed willing to grant. Were St. Paul serious about marriage as an institution, he might well have said more here, in particular about the place of marital sexual relations within the larger context of the relations between husband and wife. He seems to be less concerned, in his dealings with the Corinthian congregation, in establishing what marriage is or can be, in a theological sense, and more concerned with pragmatic realities, including preventing a rash of fornication that might seem to be either ignored or tacitly accepted by the congregation.

In our day and age, with the attraction of marriage as a social institution waning, and the sense of social and religious approbation for sex outside of marriage all but disappeared, St. Paul's message might seem quaint. On the other hand, and with minimal textual support, it might also reveal an understanding of the weird dichotomy regarding the place of sex within the context of marriage. One could even call it contradictory. On the one hand, assuming, of course, that any couple has reached a certain maturity regarding their relationship, sex is far less important a part than, say, money, or child-rearing, or even the simple day-to-day give-and-take that makes up getting along with one another. On the other hand, there is little doubt about the basic power of the sex drive. It can lead even sensible, sober men and women to do all sorts of things that aren't very bright. Younger individuals, with less understanding and self-control, might well see sex as an overriding concern. This confusion, caused not least by the power of the desire for sex itself, can cause no end of trouble.

How do we, as a church, respond pastorally to the realities of this verse and the realities of pre-marital cohabitation? How do we talk to people about what St. Paul is saying, when it seems to violate the ethos of our day and age? Since we do a supremely lousy job of teaching young people about human sexuality - beyond the plumbing aspects, of course - whether inside the church or out, we might want to take a few steps back and think more clearly and honestly about how we do not talk about sex in general before we begin thinking about speaking clearly about this particular passage of Scripture. Simply drawing a line and stating, "Don't!" is impractical, not least because doing so without saying why begs the question of authority: "Why should I listen to you?" To this the churches just don't have an answer anymore, not least because on matters of human sexuality, we have abdicated our teaching role for one of arbitrary authoritarianism.

In order to appreciate the beauty of St. Paul's pragmatic acceding to the reality that sexual desire is powerful, and therefore marriage, rather than chastity, is an acceptable accommodation to that reality, we need first to be clear about human sexuality - not just physically, but emotionally and psychologically as well, in order to do our theology right - so that our teaching has some semblance of coherence. Until we do that, St. Paul's words will fall on deaf ears not least because we Christians just don't talk about sex beyond that, "No!" behind which stands nothing more than, "Because I say so."

Virtual Tin Cup

Amazon Honor System Click Here to Pay Learn More