Context for 1 Corinthians 7:1-7 (or why Paul is talking about sex)

In the interest of time last Sunday, I didn’t discuss the context of Paul’s words about marriage and sex in 1 Corinthians 7:1-7. Paul begins chapter 7 with these words: “Now concerning the matters about which you wrote: ‘It is well for a man not to touch a woman.’” This means that Paul is responding directly to a concern that some members of the Corinthian church raised in an earlier letter. Paul is either summarizing their argument or quoting them directly. (“Touch” is a euphemism for sexual intercourse.)

Paul agrees in principle that, indeed, being celibate (and single) is a perfectly fine way for Christians to live. Paul has chosen that path—as he says in v. 7, God gave him the gift of self-control such that he isn’t tempted to porneia (broadly translated as “sexual immorality.” Our modern word “pornography” shares this root.).

Nevertheless, these Corinthians are applying this principle to married couples: now that they’re Christians, even married couples should have nothing to do with sex. Their overreaction is understandable: the predominant pagan culture was every bit as sex-saturated as ours (if not more so). In fact, sexual immorality was part of pagan religious ritual. Prostitution as part of temple worship was common. If sensitive Christians thought sex was dirty and immoral, who could blame them?

Besides many well-regarded Greek philosophers taught that celibacy was the path to spiritual enlightenment. This point of view was in the air; both Paul and the Corinthians would have heard of it.

Paul rejects this viewpoint in no uncertain terms. Paul, though himself single and celibate (we don’t know if he was ever married), isn’t squeamish about sex at all, nor is he a prude. Paul’s perspective, which I communicated in my sermon, is that sex is a necessary and fulfilling part of a married couple’s relationship. Or it ought to be.

If it isn’t, Paul writes, Satan stands ready to tempt us—then as now.

2 thoughts on “Context for 1 Corinthians 7:1-7 (or why Paul is talking about sex)”

  1. I was at Church to hear part 1 of the Sermon “Love and Marriage”. Like Paul, I am living a celibate life because I am not married. (It’s always hard to convince someone of that when they have a different plan for me). But I still paid attention. Your sermon was great.
    A comment re your statement: “sex is a necessary and fulfilling part of a married couple’s relationship”. There are still married people today who see sexual relations as ‘dirty’, something they submit to under duress,and never for pleasure. A friend even refuses to believe that Mary, Jesus’ mother, had other children. How sad! Hopefully your sermon will open the eyes and hearts of those in need of encouragement.
    Thanks, and am looking fwd to part 2.

    1. Thanks so much! I’ve gotten a lot of really positive feedback. I’m glad you still listened. 😉 Being celibate in our sex-saturated culture must seem to many people like an impossible decision, but of course it’s not. For singles, it’s a part of their Christian witness. Our culture desperately needs that witness. At the same time, it needs to know that within marriage, the Bible and the Christian tradition are decidedly pro-sex. You’re absolutely right: There are many, many Christians who think it’s a necessary evil, and they misinterpret Paul (in part) to arrive at that conclusion.

      Your friend may be Catholic. The “perpetual virginity of Mary” is Catholic Church dogma (unfortunately). It’s another thing that unhelpfully divides Protestants and Catholics. I think it also tends to promote unhealthy attitudes toward sex. It’s worth asking: How could Mary be faithful to God and not fulfill what Paul would refer to as Joseph’s “conjugal right”? Paul makes clear that sex for married people is not an optional extra. There were sensitive Christians in his day who believed that it was. He emphatically says no.

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