Popular Prejudice Against Paul: and His Actual Teaching
Johnson 105f. sums up the situation re opinions about Paul:
“Throughout church history and to the present, Paul’s remarks on sex and marriage in chapter 7 have been viewed quite differently depending on the commentator or reader. Opinions range all the way from seeing Paul as a great supporter of marriage and sexual relations to viewing him as having quite a negative view of sex and marriage and being an enemy of women. Augustine and other early church fathers, for example, took verse 1 as the basis for rejecting, as a venial sin, sexual intercourse for mutual enjoyment, even within marriage (Confessions 2.3). ... While not all of the apostle’s views in the chapter resonate with modern sympathies, much of the negative attitude towards Paul’s views is based on misunderstandings of what he actually said.”
Indeed, a careful examination of what Paul actually says in 1 Corinthians 6 and 7 (with attention to the Greek) shows that the commonly-held negative picture of Paul and his teaching about marriage and sex is completely unsupported by the facts and indeed is a serious misconception. It is an interesting study in itself (but beyond the scope of our present purposes) to trace how such views about Paul’s teaching arose in the church and have been perpetuated down the years in an interpretational tradition. If however we pay heed to Paul’s actual words, assume that he chose them carefully to convey his intended meaning, and give them their full weight, we see that he is not anti-sex, nor anti-woman, nor anti-marriage.
He does not affirm that a relationship with a prostitute is on a par with the one-flesh relationship of marriage: rather, he contrasts the two.
He does not affirm that an act of sexual intercourse establishes a marriage between a man and a woman: rather, he shows how the purely physical union (“one body”) with a prostitute does violence to God’s plan that sex shall be part of a total one-flesh union.
He does not affirm that sex is somehow unspiritual or contrary to God’s perfect will: rather, he affirms the positive plan of God for sex in marriage.
He does not affirm that sex is for the purpose of procreation: rather, he describes sex entirely in terms of the relationship between a husband and wife, a vital component of their total relationship that is not to be treated as unimportant nor to be foregone (except perhaps by agreement for a short time for good reason).
He does not denigrate woman as the “unequal” partner in marriage: rather, he gives her an honored equal place alongside her husband in the sexual sphere of marriage and shows a recognition of her sexuality which is quite without parallel in the ancient world, and says about her absolutely the same things as he says about her husband.
He does not affirm that celibacy is a higher calling than marriage: rather, he emphasizes that it is by God’s gift that some people are to be single and equally by God’s gift that others are to be married - and, unless given by God the gift of being single, each man should have his own wife, and each woman her own husband.
He does not affirm that separation is the solution for a difficult marriage: rather, he quotes and underlines Christ’s prohibition on separation, and then gives guidelines for a person caught in such a situation, aimed at facilitating reconciliation.
He does not affirm that marriage is incapable of dissolution: rather, he recognizes that a person is unmarried (single) when a marriage relationship has been discontinued, and asserts that a person is not bound in the empty shell of a marriage when the reality has gone.
He does not affirm that remarriage is either wrong or impossible: rather, while affirming categorically that husband and wife must not separate he confronts realistically the situation that does result when a person becomes ἀγαμοσ (agamos) and he instructs that, if such a person has tested whether he now has the gift of being able to live a celibate life and found that he cannot, then that person should marry.
We must beware of “trendy” interpretations of Scripture which simply adjust the teaching of the Bible so as to make it more congenial to contemporary thinking. We must also beware of elevating traditional interpretations of Scripture to a position of authority co-equal with the text of the Word of God itself.
(This is one of the “Practical and Pastoral Reflections” upon Paul’s Epistle, taken from
B Ward Powers’ First Corinthians - An Exegetical and Explanatory Commentary.)
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