Marriage And The Trinity
Having discussed the prohibitions of Christian morality regarding immoral sexual relations, Paul now provides counsel regarding proper Christian sexuality. Seven chapters into Paul’s letter to the Corinthians Paul is still discussing the same subject, which suggests that it was a widespread and serious problem among church members. What subject? The confusion of worldly wisdom and biblical truth that was being expressed through sexual confusion, and in other ways.
All of their lives these Corinthians, who had only recently become Christians, had been under the influence of Greek culture. And, according to Scripture and history, Greek culture was saturated in sexual immorality and confusion. Because of the permissiveness or liberality of Greek culture, the proliferation of sexual perversions of every conceivable sort, Paul now turned his attention to some very basic and practical considerations regarding the exercise of sexual relations between husbands and wives. All sexual expression is reserved for biblical covenantal marriage. Scripture never speaks of sexuality between consenting adults as anything other than fornication and adultery.
The first thing to note is that the Corinthians had misunderstood something that Paul had said in a previous letter. That previous letter is lost, so we don’t know exactly what he said, but we can piece together the misunderstanding from the issue raised in the first verse of chapter seven.
Immediately preceding this section Paul had been contrasting biblical beliefs with some of the popular beliefs of the time. And we noted that some of those popular beliefs were related to what Paul had taught to other Christians, namely to the Galatians. We noted previously that the Corinthians had taken what Paul had taught to the Galatians and applied it to their own Corinthian Libertine worldview, when Paul intended it to apply only to the Gnostic worldview of the Galatians. And the result was that the Corinthians misunderstood what Paul said to the Galatians when they applied it to themselves. I mention this only because verse 1 of chapter seven falls into the same literary pattern Paul used earlier, which suggests that it was part of that earlier thought.
Except in this case they have taken Paul’s prohibition against sexual immorality (against fornication) and tried to correct their own error by jumping to the opposite view. The Corinthians reasoned that since Paul had spoken so harshly against the widespread sexual immorality that he found in Corinth, against the Libertine practices that they had been taught by their misinformed leaders, they thought that Paul intended to teach the Gnostic view of withdrawal from the world and the abandonment of bodily concerns. Thus, they surmised that Paul was teaching that “It is good for a man not to have sexual relations with a woman” (1 Corinthians 7:1). Paul was quoting a concern that they had brought to him in a previous letter, a quote that they had taken out of context.
They wrongly believed that because Paul taught against sexuality as it was understood and practiced in the permissive Greek culture of Corinth, that Paul intended to teach that all sexual activity should be avoided. Being Greek in their worldview, they jumped from one extreme (that of the Libertines) to the opposite extreme (that of the Gnostic Essenes). They jumped from the belief that everything sexual was okay to the position that nothing sexual was okay. Again, as we have seen before, their Greek philosophical categories of analysis did not allow for a trinitarian position. Their Greek philosophical training (whether implicit or explicit) meant that they could only create a false dichotomy, the choice between two equally wrong positions.
Roman Catholic theologians have played havoc with this section of Scripture. Early Roman Catholicism in an attempt to be all things to all people interpreted biblical Christianity in Greek intellectual categories in an effort to appeal to the Greeks. They made the same error that these Corinthians had made. They failed to understand Paul’s correction, and that failure still permeates the Roman Catholic Church regarding celibacy.
Paul was not teaching that it is good not to have sexual relations. He was not teaching a Gnostic or Essene view of sexuality. He was correcting a misunderstanding. Greek thinking leads to the opposing positions that all sexual relations are okay or that no sexual relations are okay. The middle position that requires a covenantal relationship (covenantal marriage) was completely foreign to them. They could not understand how or why biblical covenantal marriage could make any real difference. Biblical covenantal marriage was not even on their radar screens. Our world today is awash in the same false dichotomy, the same foolish thinking. So, it is important for us to understand what Paul was trying so hard to get at.
The first thing that Paul taught them was that all fornication is wrong, but that does not mean that all sex is wrong. It only means that all sex outside of marriage, outside of faithful adherence to God’s covenant, is wrong. Greek dualism cannot conceive of the reality of the Christian Trinity. Within the categories of Greek philosophy, the Trinity makes no sense at all. It is foolishness to the Greeks. Greek analysis attempts to understand or define the Trinity in terms of its own duality, and necessarily confuses and obscures the role of God, His Holy Spirit and His Word in the lives and practices of human beings. On the one hand, God’s covenant with humanity is the linchpin of trinitarian Christianity, and on the other it is invisible to Greek thinking. Inasmuch as we think that the Trinity is an unknowable mystery, we are stuck in Greek categories of thought. Again, this is the central focus of Paul’s message in chapter seven.
He went on to say that part of the reason for the institution of marriage was to provide an outlet for sexual desire. God knew that abstinence was beyond most people. God created both sexuality and marriage to go together for the sake of the health and stability of the family. Each man should have his own wife, and each woman should have her own husband. Notice that the language that Paul uses implies ownership, ownership of the wife by the husband and ownership of the husband by the wife. And that is exactly what he meant — reciprocal ownership.
The next two verses (1 Corinthians 7:3-4) speak of the fact of that ownership. Not only does the wife “not have authority over her own body,” but “the husband does not have authority over his own body.” Previously Paul said that we are not our own but that we “were bought with a price” (1 Corinthians 6:20). We are owned by Jesus Christ through His covenant with God, and we are owned by our spouse through our marriage covenant. Husband owns wife, wife owns husband, and God owns them both. Note that ownership is a legal relationship.
Knowing the weakness of the flesh, Paul told husbands and wives not to “deprive one another” (1 Corinthians 7:5). Sexual drives and needs are real, and cannot simply be ignored without serious consequences. And marriage is the place to deal with those concerns. Note that he also suggested that prayer would at times take precedence over the marriage bed “for a limited time” (1 Corinthians 7:5). Was Paul suggesting that husbands and wives engage in prayer with the same enthusiasm and commitment as they have for the marriage bed? I think so. Prayer in that venue would also help provide protection from Satan, who often uses sexual temptation and perversion to lure his victims into his den of iniquity.
For over 25 years Phillip A. Ross has been leading churches and writing many Christian books. He founded http://www.Pilgrim-Platform.org in 1998, which is loaded with information about historic Christianity. Demonstrating the Apostle Paul’s opposition to worldly Christianity, he published an exposition First Corinthians in 2008. His book, Arsy Varsy — Reclaiming the Gospel in First Corinthians, shows how Paul turned the world upside down.