Does the Encouragement to the Corinthian Church to Remain Single Apply to the Christian Church Today?

***DISCLAIMER! I DID NOT WRITE THIS PAPER, MY FRIEND D. SKIP SMITH WROTE THIS PAPER***

DOES 1 CORINTHIANS 7 TEACH JUSTIFICATION FOR SINGLENESS?

Introduction and Thesis

            The contention that I am setting out to argue within this paper is that the contents of 1 Corinthians 7 relating to Paul’s encouragement to remain unmarried is not a justification for singleness, but rather statements that were occasioned to Paul’s first century readers and relevant to their present and impending persecution and suffering. My position is in opposition to those who would argue that Paul’s statements, while made within a particular context of persecution, are meant to offer justification for singleness. The distinction between the two positions, while they may seem to be a matter of semantics, actually has a significant bearing for the Church today.  1 Corinthians 7 has been used by the catholic church to justify the celibacy of the Priesthood, and within Protestantism, there has been no shortage of talks to youth groups about God’s call to singleness using Paul’s words as justification. While I do believe there is much wisdom within the Bible to offer those who are presently unmarried (contentment etc.), I do not believe Paul’s words in 1 Corinthians 7 are contextually relevant for much of our advice. The primary focus within this paper will be upon verses 26-31 and the two major interpretations that are given to explain Paul’s advice. Verses 26-31 are significant because they are “the first expression of the reason for his advice.”[1] This work is primarily expositional and theological because the nature of Paul’s argument is such. I have found that the discussion over singleness within 1 Corinthians 7 will not advance if we simply pull verses out of Paul’s argument and prop them up without his expressed contextual markers. I will begin with the argument that there is justification for singleness within 1 Corinthians 7.

The case for 1 Corinthians 7 as justification for singleness

            Most understand that Paul’s case for his advise to his hearers “to remain as he is” (v. 26), and his desire that “all were as I myself am” (v. 7), is grounded upon the statements found in the section of vs. 26-31. Paul makes three primary statements that serve as purpose indicators for his discourse.

1)     Because of the present (or impending) distress (v. 26).

2)     This is what I mean, brothers: the appointed time has grown very short (v. 29).

3)     For the present form of this world is passing away (v. 31).

These statements, which are actually eschatological statements, are understood in two primary ways:

1) Statements that are to extend throughout the church-age, or

2) Statements made for Paul’s original readers only.

I will begin by laying out the case that these contextual time indicators extend throughout the church-age.

Contextual time indicators extend throughout the Church-age

The vast majority of interpreters understand Paul’s three purpose statements in vs. 26-31 as an indication of our perpetual involvement in the already established eschatological process. In other words, Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection have begun the process that will bring about the end of the present form of this world within which we live. With these conditions being the case, Christians must now live in light of the second advent of Jesus. Ben Witherington says, “Paul is not speaking of some future apocalyptic event, but of an eschatological process already begun.”[2]  Thiselton, commenting on Witherington’s statement, says, “Although these verses imply an ethic “affected” by the “possible shortness of the time left,” the redemptive events which took place in the death and resurrection of Christ remain “decisive”: these have “shortened the time, “leaving believers ignorant of how long they have before the parousia will finally cut short all activity in this world.”[3] C. E. B. Cranfield says,

the parousia is near…not in the sense that it must necessarily occur within a few months or years, but in the sense that it might occur at any moment and in the sense that, since the decisive event of history has already taken place in the ministry, death, resurrection and ascension of Christ, all subsequent history is a kind of epilogue, necessarily in a real sense short, even though it may last a very long time.[4]

Garland concurs, arguing, “Paul believes that the end of time has already broken in…affliction is inseparable from the Christian life in this world…but he assumes that the affliction and pain, suffering and care, and sadness and fear associated with the end time will only intensify for those who are married…end-time circumstances determine his advice.”[5]  And Ciampa and Rosner admit that, “The majority of commentators… understand Paul to be referring to the tribulation or messianic woes which are the lot of all Christians and will herald the Second Coming of Christ. On this reading, vv. 29-31 reinforce the same point.”[6]

According to this view, Christians should expect the “present distress” to continue throughout the church-age because, through the inaugurated work of Christ, the appointed “time has grown very short” and because the “present form of this world is passing away.” With this in mind, it is argued that we have justification for singleness from 1 Corinthians 7. If it is the case that Paul’s grounding for his advise, although immediately impacting his earliest readers, extends to all readers for all time throughout the Church-age, then it follows that the advise itself can continue to be used for grounds of justification for singleness.  Fee expresses this point when he says,

In Paul’s view the End has already begun; the form of this world is already passing away (v. 31). Christians do not thereby abandon the world; they are simply not to let this age dictate their present existence…In light of our present existence, with its suffering and trouble, and in light of the increased troubles that will tend to befall the married (v. 28), the single person will do well to remain that way”[7]

Conclusion

Therefore, those who argue that Paul’s advise to Christians extend beyond his original readers, see the statement “present distress” contextualized by a present, ongoing, and future interpretation of the “appointed time has grown very short” and “the present form of this world is passing away. ” Having an interpretation that extends these statements beyond Paul’s original readers, allows for Paul’s advise to flow throughout the course of Christian history in such a way that we today can read it as an admonition for us. Given the construction of vs. 26-31, it is impossible to argue that the statement “in view of the present distress” not be understood in light of the “appointed time has grown very short” and “the present form of this world is passing away.” Therefore, if one believes that the latter statements of v. 29 and v. 31 reference end-time and ongoing eschatological events, then it follow logically that the “present distress” applies to anyone that those latter statements include. This is why most commentators argue that Paul’s advise to the Corinthians can be advise for us today.

The case against 1 Corinthians 7 as justification for singleness

While it is true that the vast majority of interpreters understand Paul’s advice to perpetuate throughout the church-age, this is not the only interpretation that can be given. If it can be shown that Paul’s statements in v. 29 and v. 31 are not eschatological statements regarding the future second advent of Jesus, but rather something having a nearer referent, then a strong case can be made for 1 Corinthians 7 to be an occasional situation, not extending beyond Paul’s readers.

Contextual time indicators are relevant to Paul’s readers only

It seems that vs. 29-31 has perplexed many commentators through the years. Regarding the present distress Fee states, “But what it intends is far from certain.”[8] A little later, regarding Paul’s connection between his reason for his advice and what follows, he says, “The argument itself is in two parts (vv. 29-31, 32-35), whose relationship to each other is also something of a mystery.”[9]  Barnett comments that this “passage [7:25-35] and the next (7:36-40) are the most difficult in the epistle, as witnessed by the divergent opinions of commentators and translators.”[10] Ciampa and Rosner says, “These verses do present formidable challenges to a secure interpretation.”[11]  I am convinced that perplexed opinions about this section have more to do with commentator’s particular eschatological positions then it does with the way the section reads. The natural reading of vs. 26-31 would lead us to conclude that Paul’s concern was “present” (v26) for his readers, and thus, whatever the “appointed time” (v29) was, would have been immediately relevant for his earliest readers. Likewise, the phrase “the present form of this world is passing away” would be constrained to Paul’s immediate audience.

The case I want to argue is that Paul’s language in vs26-31 refers to first century realities, rather than end-time realities. The problem is that most people do not have proper theological and eschatological categories for Paul’s language applying to his earliest readers. In other words, people do not have an eschatological timetable that is able to account for a major prophetic event within Paul’s reader’s lifetime. Paul’s statements in v29 and v31 are usually only understood in cataclysmic and end of history ways. As we saw above, for those who extend this section throughout the church-age, Jesus’ ministry and work initiated the countdown to the end (of history), which perpetually signals woes for the Church, thus giving way for Paul’s advice for singles.

There is good reason to believe that Paul’s advice given is constrained to the events prophesied by Jesus in the Olivet Discourse relating to the tribulation that would precede the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 A.D. (Matthew 24; Mark 13; Luke 21). I will look at each statement in turn.

1) I think that in view of the present distress it is good for a person to remain as he is. (v 26)

Many commentators realize that whatever the “distress” the Corinthians was experiencing was relevant to them and not something distant. Fee argues that Paul’s usage of “present” invariably means “what is already present in contrast to what is yet to come.”[12] This can be seen in Romans 8:38 where Paul argues that “things present nor things to come” can separate us from the love of God. Notice how Paul makes a contrast between that which is present and that which is future.[13] Leon Morris argues against the prevailing notion that this has referent to the second coming of Jesus, or that it refers to suffering Christians throughout the church-age, seeing it rather as having a unique reference to the Corinthians:

Paul’s advice is conditioned by the present crisis (anangke). This is usually taken to mean the troubles that preceding the second advent, and indeed this is often held to be self-evident. But the word is never used in the New Testament in this way; the nearest is a reference to the troubles preceding the fall of Jerusalem (Luke 21:23). Paul often refers to Christ’s return, but he does not associate anangke with it…It seems here to denote more than the opposition the Christian always encounters. Some pressing constraint lay hard on the Corinthians at the time of writing. Whatever the precise meaning, Paul’s friends were at that time in unusually difficult circumstances, and in view of the troubled times Paul felt it best for them to stay as they were.[14]

Notice that Morris admits that the nearest reference for the word anangke is used in Luke 21:23 regarding the fall of Jerusalem in 70 A.D. (Luke 21:23). Morris closes his commentary on v.26 saying “whatever the precise meaning…” because he does not know exactly what Paul is referencing. I think that Luke 21:23 has much to offer us within this discussion. It says, “Alas for women who are pregnant and for those who are nursing infants in those days! For there will be great distress upon the earth and wrath against this people.” Jesus is explaining here how difficult the time of tribulation will be for those experiencing this “great distress”. Jesus explains that for those who have little children it will be a very difficult time.[15] Most understand this section in Luke to be referencing the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 A.D.  This point is enforced by the fact that Luke gives us a time indicator for the events he is warning about. He says, “Truly, I say to you, this generation will not pass away until all has taken place” (v.32). A biblical generation is 40 years. That means that when Jesus uttered these words (around A.D 30), he anticipated that within 40 years the events he spoke about would come to pass.

For Paul, getting married meant starting a family. Just as Jesus warned about the struggles mothers would have to endure during the tribulation preceding the destruction of the temple, so too, Paul, picking up on Jesus’ language warns about getting married and starting a family. This same warning was given to Jeremiah prior to a similar time of tribulation and destruction:

The word of the Lord came to me: “You shall not take a wife, nor shall you have sons or daughters in this place. For thus says the Lord concerning the sons and daughters who are born in this place, and concerning the mothers who bore them and the fathers who fathered them in this land: They shall die of deadly diseases. They shall not be lamented, nor shall they be buried. They shall be as dung on the surface of the ground. They shall perish by the sword and by famine, and their dead bodies shall be food for the birds of the air and for the beasts of the earth. (Jer. 16:1-4)

Many of the events that Jesus spoke about in Luke 21 were already beginning to press hard upon the Corinthians (Famine, Acts 11:28). As these events began to unfold, it would have been understood that all of the signs and tribulations spoken about by Jesus would soon follow. As a matter a fact, Jesus expected his followers, and those reading his words, to be able to discern exactly when the destruction of the temple was nearing by the signs and tribulation that preceded it (Mark 13:28-30). Paul astutely deciphered his time and warned the Corinthians against pursuing marriage, knowing what was upon them.

2) This is what I mean, brothers: the appointed time has grown very short (v. 29).

Fee argues that in v. 29 Paul is giving his reason for singleness, and that in it he is explaining what has come before.[16] But what does Paul mean by “the appointed time has grown very short?” Regarding the phrase Garland suggests,

The periphrastic participle…has been taken to mean that the time is “short,” “shortened,” or “compressed”… If it means that the prescribed time “has been shortened” (Weiss 1910:197), then it may reflect the divine shortening of the time until the end for the sake of the elect (cf. Mark 13:20; 2 Pet. 3:12; barn. 4:3).[17]

This phrase, as suggested by Garland, can also be connected with Jesus’ teaching in the Olivet discourse (Mark 13:20). In Mark 13:20, Jesus says, “Unless the Lord had shortened those days, no life would have been saved; but for the sake of the elect, whom He chose, He shortened the days.” Here we have Jesus describing how God will divinely intercede to shorten the days of persecution for the sake of his elect. Paul was somehow privy to the knowledge that the days in which the Corinthians were living had been “shortened” by God. For Paul, this served to illumine the “appointed time” (v. 29). This same phrase, “appointed time” can be seen further in the Olivet discourse. Jesus warns, “Take heed, keep on the alert; for you do not know when the appointed time will come” (Mark 13:33).
Some may object that within the Olivet discourse we find cataclysmic events that simply could not have taken place during the besiege of Jerusalem in 70 A.D. But the problem is that the burden of proof is not upon those who advocate a destruction and national judgment application, but rather upon those who do not, seeing that this type of language is used in the Old Testament regularly to express the coming of the Lord to judge nations (Isaiah 19:1-10; Psalm 18:4-15; Joel 2:1-11). In each instance we find within the Old Testament, no scholar would argue that God literally returned, but rather, the language expresses apocalyptic imagery for judgment.

3) For the present form of this world is passing away.

Many commentators will emphatically argue that this phrase implies that the literal earth is passing away, and through this statement we should understand the preceding time texts. Indeed, it may be the case that the present earth is passing away, but that is not the point Paul is making within the context of his argument. What is important to understand is that, for Paul, there is a major covenantal shift taking place. For Paul, the New Covenant had already been inaugurated in the life, death, resurrection and ascension of Jesus, but the Old Covenant had not completely vanished (Hebrews 8:13). This would take place when the covenantal judgment of God would come upon the Jewish nation who rejected the Messiah (John 19:11; Matthew 21:33-45; Matthew 22:1-7; Matthew 23:29-36; Matthew 24; Mark 13; Luke 21; 1 Thess. 2:14-16).  Therefore, there is an overlap of the times between the Old and the New, with the Old coming to an end with the destruction of its primary symbol, the temple.

The bible uses a variety of images to signify the establishment of a covenant, as well as the closing of a covenant. One such image is the variety of ways the terminology of “heaven and earth” is used.  This can be seen from several passages (Is. 34:1-4; Is. 51:15,16; Is. 65:17-25; Jer. 4:23-28; Hag. 2:6; 2 Peter 3:3-13; Hebrews 8:13; Heb.  12:25-28). Recounting the establishment of the covenant with Moses, Isaiah says, “And I have put my words in your mouth and covered you in the shadow of my hand, establishingthe heavens and laying the foundations of the earth, and saying to Zion, ‘You are my people” (Is. 51:16). Isaiah associates the making of a covenant with Moses as “establishing the heavens and laying the foundations of the earth.” Why is this significant? It is significant because within this context Paul expresses concern over the “present distress” and claims that the “appointed time has grown very short.” If, as I have shown, that these phrases are to be understood as referring back to the statements Jesus made in the Olivet discourse (Mk 13:20), then it only stands to reason that this last phrase also refers back to the same event.

When commenting upon 2 Peter 3:3-13, and the “present heavens and earth” being burned up, John Owen, the great Puritan theologian says,

On this foundation I affirm that the heavens and earth here intended in this prophecy of Peter, the coming of the Lord, the day of judgment and perdition of ungodly men, mentioned in the destruction of that heaven and earth, do all of them relate, not to the last and final judgment of the world, but to that utter desolation and destruction that was to be made of the Judaical church and state…[18]

Likewise, John Lightfoot says regarding the same passage,

(Peter, in the second epistle,) sets forth the destruction of that cursed Nation and their City in those terms that Christ had done, Matt. 24, and that the Scripture doth elsewhere, Deut. 32.22,23.24; Jer. 4.23, namely as the destruction of the whole world, the heavens passing away, the elements melting, and the earth burnt up. And accordingly speaks of a new heaven and a new earth, from Isa. 65.17. a new state of the Church under the Gospel among the Gentiles, when this old world of the Jews state should be dissolved.[19]

Elsewhere Lightfoot states, “The destruction of Jerusalem is phrased in Scripture as the destruction of the whole world.”[20]

Therefore, when Paul states that the present form of this world is passing away, he is making the connection between the present and fast approaching signs and tribulations and the destruction of the temple, which is the passing of the old way, the old heavens and earth (Is. 51:16; Heb. 12:26,27). This same phrase can be found in all three accounts of the Olivet discourse (Matthew 24:35; Mark 13:31; Luke 21:33). Jesus says, “Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away.” This is simply another way of saying that the Jewish economy will come to an end with the destruction of its symbol (the temple), but his words of life and of the Kingdom will continue throughout the new age to come.

Regarding the language found in Acts 2:19,20 where Peter describes earth shattering cataclysmic events, G. K. Beale says,

If the Old Testament usage of this kind of language is determinative for Peter,           then here also the wording connotes the end of one kingdom and the emergence of another. The kingdom ending is of course, Israel, but this time it is her definitive end. Rome would destroy Jerusalem and her temple in AD             70. Joel’s language of the earth’s destruction in Acts 2 is also appropriate as a          figurative portrayal of the temple’s destruction, since, as we have seen so           often earlier, the temple itself and its parts symbolized the cosmos.[21]

The connection that Beale makes with the language of Acts 2:19,20 is the same connection that should be made with Matthew 24:29-35. In Matthew 24 we are told that the sun will be darkened, the moon will stop giving off its light, and the stars will fall to the earth. This type of language is meant to convey nothing short of the destruction of the heavens and the earth. Yet, within the context of Matthew, the destruction of the temple is in view (Matt. 24:1,2). This explains why Jesus says, “heaven and earth will pass away” (vs. 35). Jesus is not making a statement unrelated to his previous discourse, but rather drawing a connection between the fall of the temple and the fall of the universe. Paul Penley, explains how we should understand the language of “heaven and earth” from Matthew 24:35:

In the context of the eschatological discourse Jesus is answering the disciples’          question about the destruction of the Temple and speaking of events that will affect them and the land of Judea. So we must consider the possibility that            Jesus’ reference to ‘heaven and earth’ that he just promised to pass away             within a generations time may actually fit into the Temple’s destruction          rather than a doomsday scenario that destroys the physical universe. A    number of texts that represent a first century CE Jewish mindset need to be   consulted to determine the plausibility of associating the destruction of          ‘heaven and earth’ with the destruction of the Temple…According to these      sources the Temple represented a microcosm of the universe in Jewish          cosmology.[22]

Therefore, we find in Paul’s three contextual phrases, which are meant to ground his advice, elements that can be traced back to Jesus’ words in the Olivet discourse, which refers to the destruction of the temple (Matthew 24:2, 34), and thus indicating the immediate relevance for Paul’s earliest readers.

Conclusion

I think that given the context of Paul’s grounding phrases (vs. 26, 29, 31), we have sufficient reason to understand Paul’s advice as relevant for his immediate context and not as suggested advice to be stretched throughout the church-age. It no more makes sense for us to stretch Paul’s language out then it would for us to stretch Jeremiah’s language out (Jer. 16:1-4). Both instances are unique and come under extreme circumstances. When rightly understood, as any good hermeneutical method would suggest, Paul’s advice could be applied to contemporary contexts as long as the circumstances reflected the conditions under which he wrote to his readers. But, the utilization of Paul’s words in 1 Corinthians 7 as marriage advice for each person in any context would deflate the conditions in which Paul wrote and even possibly do harm to our present outlook on marriage. This is certainly something Paul would not have wanted for his distant readers.


[1] Gordon Fee, The New International Commentary on the New Testament: The First Epistle to the Corinthians (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans Publishing, 1987), 328.

[2] Ben Witherington, Jesus, Paul, and the End of the World (Carlisle: Paternoster, 1992), 27-30.

[3] Anthony Thiselton, The New International Greek Testament Commentary: The First Epistle to the Corinthians (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans Publishing, 2000), 582.

[4] C. E. B. Cranfield, “The Parable of the Unjust Judge and the Eschatology of Luke-Acts,” SJT 16 (1963), 300-301.

[5] David E. Garland, Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament: First Corinthians (Grand Rapids: Baker Publishing, 2003), 324, 325.

[6] Roy E. Ciampa and Brian S. Rosner, The Pillar New Testament Commentary: The First Letter to the Corinthians (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans Publishing, 2010), 336.

[7] Fee, Corinthians, 330.

[8] Fee, Corinthians, 329.

[9] Ibid., 335.

[10] Paul Barnett, First Corinthians (Scottland: Christian Focus, 2002), 124.

[11] Ciampa and Rosner, First Corinthians, 328.

[12] Fee, Corinthians, 328.

[13] This same point can be seen in 1 Corinthians 3:22, “whether Paul or Apollos or Cephas or the world or life or death or the present or the future—all are yours.” Notice again how Paul contrasts the “present” with the “future.”

[14] Leon Morris, Tyndale New Testament Commentaries: First Corinthians (Downers Groove: InterVarsity Press, 1985), 115.

[15] These same themes are seen within other literature as well. 3 Macc. 1:16, 19, 20 utilizes the Greek expression found in 1 Corinthians 7:26, te enestose ananke (Present distess). Within this passage we find a description of the desecration of the temple by Antiochus IV Epiphanes: “Then the priests in all their vestments prostrated themselves and entreated the Supreme God to aid in the present situation [variant: ‘the present crisis’] and to avert the violence of this evil design, and they filled the temple with cries and tears…Those women who had recently been arrayed for marriage abandoned the bridal chambers prepared for wedding union, and, neglecting proper modesty, in a disorderly rush flocked together in the city. Mothers and nurses abandoned even newborn children here and there, some in houses and some in the streets, and without a backward look they crowded together at the most high temple.”

[16] Fee, Corinthians, 334,335.

[17] Garland, First Corinthians, 328.

[18] John Owens, Works of John Owen, Vol. 9 (Carlisle: Banner of Truth Publishing, 1966), 134.

[19] John Lightfoot, The Whole Works of Rev. John Lightfoot: Vol. 1 (London: Cambridge, 2010), 338.

[20] John Lightfoot, A Commentary on the Acts of the Apostles (London: J. F. Dove, 1825), 141.

                [21]  G. K. Beale, The Temple and the Church’s Mission: A biblical theology of the dwelling place of God (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2004), p. 214.

            [22] Paul Penley, The Common Tradition Behind Synoptic Sayings of Judgment and John’s Apocalypse (New York: T&T Clark, 2010), p. 102,103.

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