Paul continues to develop his thought on marriage and singleness and considers: whether one is married to an unbelieving spouse or not, whether one came to Christ from Jewish or Gentile roots, whether they are redeemed being a slave or a freedman, whether they are a virgin or not, he considers when one is permitted to remarry and by implication when remarriage is prohibited.
Whatever state in life the believer finds themselves in, they are to primarily concern themselves with pleasing the Lord. Paul aims to encourage Christians to let the eternal kingdom of God be the governing factor in their lives instead of the temporal situations in which they find themselves. He starts off by saying:
“6 But this I say by way of concession, not of command.”
What’s the difference between these two terms? A concession is permission to do something, or being allowed to act a certain way (L&N §13.141), whereas a command here does not infer the giving of detailed instruction but of having the right and authority to command subjects to obedience (L&N § 37.42). Paul is making it clear that if what he refers to (the forthcoming concession), the Corinthian believers do not obey, they are not violating God’s decree which the apostles have been distinctly charged to dispense as Christ’s authoritative ambassadors.
“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.”
The term “wish” is a way of describing desire which is a state of affairs that does not necessarily exist, one which may even be impossible, but nevertheless it is felt. When Paul says, “I wish that all men were even as I myself am”, I don’t think he is referring to his apostleship, nor to his character traits, but to him being unmarried where his devotion to Christ is less distracted.
Paul reveals that he is not married (we are not sure if he was married, a widower, abandoned by his spouse because of his conversion to Christ, etc.) and desires that the Corinthian church not only be single but also self-controlled.
It is not unreasonable to think that Paul was previously married and abandoned because of his conversion to Christ Jesus. Being a Hebrew of Hebrews, zealous for the Jewish traditions unlike any of his contemporaries, he would have been an amazing “catch” in that culture, the pride of family, wife and nation. Yet this monotheistic zealot was converted on that appointed day and his world was turned “up-side down”.
If that was the case and more, then may the weightiness of his words not escape us where elsewhere he declares, “I have counted all things as rubbish for the surpassing worth of knowing Christ…”, “to live is Christ and to die is gain…” etc. Paul’s supreme treasure above all else was truly Christ; above status, possessions and human relationships.
This is who is speaking and we do well to carefully consider what he is saying and what he means. Thus, while Paul discloses his personal desire, he understands that not everyone is like him because God (the infinite self-existent one and source of all life) gifts us all with varying talents and abilities. He now addresses the unmarried and widows:
8 But I say to the unmarried and to widows that it is good for them if they remain even as I. 9 But if they do not have self-control, let them marry; for it is better to marry than to burn with passion
Note that in verse 1 Paul affirms that “it is good for a man not to touch a woman” (i.e., not commit sexual immorality), and uses the same phrase “it is good” for the unmarried to remain single. Paul is not disparaging marriage but rather accentuating something that seems to be counter-intuitive—in an age of sexual immorality, if you are single believer, then stay single.
While it’s good to abstain from fornication and adultery God has nevertheless given the human race sexual desire that longs to express itself. Is Paul encouraging abstinence at all costs? No.
While it is good to remain single, if there’s a lack of self-control, Paul says get married. It’s better than burning in passions and falling into sexual expression that is outside the confines of marriage. Now Paul addresses those married:
10 But to the married I give instructions, not I, but the Lord, that the wife should not leave her husband 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.
Several items stand out here. First, Paul here makes a distinction between the Lords instruction and his. This could be understood to mean that the former is to be obeyed, and the latter can be dismissed. The problem with that interpretation is that Paul is clearly God’s called apostle, his authoritative spokesman in a way the rest of us are not. So to think that Paul’s views are a “take it or leave it” proposition does not logically fit.
Second, one could see verse 6 linked to this where Paul distinguished between a command and a concession, between what must be obeyed and what may be obeyed. The problem though is that the Lord’s instructions, as Paul’s instructions, come with authoritative force which a concession does not possess.
Third, many understand this distinction between the Lord and Paul to mean that Jesus himself previously addresses the issue and thus taught on it (e.g., Mt.5:32; 19:3-9; Lk.16:18, etc.) and thus Paul gives the Master’s instructions on said topic. Yet, when the Lord Jesus does not give instruction on a particular topic Paul says, “I not the Lord”.
That is, the distinction is not one of authority but one of subject. This third option seems to make the best sense.
Moving on Paul discourages the immoral act of abandoning one’s husband, and the husband is also commanded not to divorce his own wife. Both husband and wife are in a position to act immorally by severing the union and both are in a position to honor Christ in their marital union.
Marriage is an amazing gift that like others requires maintenance, care, nurture and sometimes restoration. When the required care and understanding (here time must be invested) are not practiced, like a car needing an oil change before the engine blows, so too the marriage union when it’s neglected the immorality of desertion and divorce seem to follow.