The Twelfth in a Series of Sermons on 1 Corinthians
From a Christian perspective, paganism often leads to some form of self-indulgence. But paganism can also lead people to reject things which God ordains, and which are intended for our use and enjoyment. If the soul is pure and trapped in the prison of the body, as the Greek pagans were teaching, then the body is the source of both physical desires and sinful urges. And if the body is bad, then people will either indulge its every urge (as many in Corinth were doing), or else deny it any pleasure–even when that pleasure is ordained and blessed by God. This too is a problem in Corinth, especially when it comes to marriage, of all things. The Corinthians are confused about this and have written to Paul about asking for clarification. Which he does.
As we continue our series on Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians, we now move into that section of the letter in which Paul addresses some of the specific subjects about which the Corinthians had written Paul requesting additional information and clarification (7:1). The first of these matters concerns marriage (chapter 7), before Paul turns to the subject of idolatry, beginning in chapter 8.
As we have seen, the Greco-Roman world was thoroughly pagan in terms of the prevailing sexual mores. Denial of the biblical ethic usually took one of two directions. The first direction is toward sexual promiscuity (including fornication and adultery). Not only was it common for men to keep mistresses, concubines, and engage in adulterous behavior (7:2), it was not uncommon for people to procure the services of temple prostitutes. Paul has already addressed this topic in chapter 6, urging all Christians to flee from sexual immorality, and he has urged the Corinthian church to discipline those who engage in such behavior, but who refuse to repent and in doing so bring scandal to the church.
Another issue associated with pagan sexuality is asceticism and the denial of sexuality. Celibacy was stressed in certain quarters in the Greco-Roman world because it was thought that those who mastered all bodily urges were able to keep their souls pure from earthly defilement. This is typical of pagan dualism. It is easy to see how this would be an attractive option for Greeks who converted to Christianity, only to discover the biblical prohibitions against sexual immorality. This was clearly an issue among the Corinthians and, apparently, a number of them had questions about how celibacy relates to the biblical sexual ethic. Complete celibacy–even in marriage–was pushed by some as the norm for Christians.
Paul informs the Corinthians that while celibacy is “good” under certain circumstances, and while there are certain advantages to remaining celibate, according to 1 Corinthians 11:11, marriage is the normal human condition. Marriage can bring greater completeness while removing certain temptations. In 1 Corinthians 7:26, Paul speaks of the great distress in the church due to rampant sexual immorality, as the current climate in Corinth only exacerbated sexual temptation for those who were struggling. As Paul sees it, celibacy is a gift from God and is one way of dealing with the pressures coming from pagan immorality. While Paul prefers to remain celibate himself–he is probably widowed by this time–he does not command celibacy, but recommends it for those whom God has called to this status in life.
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