1 Corinthians 7:1-17,25-40 Exploring the Passage

Below are some preliminary questions to assist in the study of this passage. For a comprehensive study of the passage, download the Study Guide (PDF download).

1. What mutual obligation do a husband and wife have to one another? See 1 Corinthians 7:3-4 (printed below)

The husband should fulfill his marital duty to his wife, and likewise the wife should fulfill her duty to her husband. (4) The wife’s body does not belong to her alone, but also to her husband; and likewise, the husband’s body does not belong to him alone, but also to his wife. (1 Corinthians 7:3-4)

According to verse 3, within the marriage bond, each partner is responsible to fulfill his or her obligations to their spouse. The obligation that the apostle emphasizes here is primarily the sexual obligation: each partner must seek to meet the other’s sexual needs, so as to avoid causing their spouse to become especially susceptible to the temptation of committing fornication. Just as verse 3 speaks of a mutual obligation each spouse has to the other, so verse 4 speaks of a mutual submission each spouse must exhibit towards the other. Within marriage each spouse relinquishes the exclusive rights of his or her body to the other in a mutual self-giving love.

2. What guidelines does the apostle give to a married couple with regard to periods of sexual abstinence? See 1 Corinthians 7:5 (printed below)

Do not deprive each other of sexual relations except by mutual consent for the purpose of devoting yourselves to prayer, and only for a short time. Then come together again, so that Satan may not tempt you because of your lack of self-control. (1 Corinthians 7:5)

Based upon his teaching in verses 3-4, in verse 5 the apostle gives the command: “Do not deprive each other of sexual relations.” However, a limited form of sexual abstinence is permissible under strict guidelines. There must be mutual consent by both partners. This abstinence must be only “for a short time” (i.e.; a brief and specified period of time, as opposed to a lengthy and undetermined period of time.) This period of abstinence is to be for the specific purpose of giving one’s self to prayer. Following the conclusion of the specified time of abstinence, the couple must come together again and resume normal sexual relations so as not to be tempted to fornication.

3. What counsel does Paul give to those married couples who were contemplating separation of divorce? See 1 Corinthians 7:10-13,15 (printed below)

Now to those who are married I give this command—not I, but the Lord—a wife should not leave her husband. (11) But if she is forced to leave, let her remain unmarried or else be reconciled to her husband—and a husband must not divorce his wife. (12) To the others I, not the Lord, give these instructions: If any Christian brother has a wife who is an unbeliever, but she is willing to live with him, he must not divorce her. (13) And if any woman has a husband who is an unbeliever, but he is willing to live with her, she must not divorce her husband…(15) But if the unbelieving spouse wants to leave, let him leave; the Christian brother or sister is not bound under such circumstances, for God has called us to live in peace. (1 Corinthians 7:10-13,15)

The Greek verb translated, “to be married,” occurs in the perfect tense that signifies a continuing or permanent condition and that might literally be translated, “those who are in the married state.” What is being emphasized here is the binding nature of the marriage relationship (note Genesis 2:24). The counsel given by the Lord is that a wife should not leave her husband; but if she is forced to leave she is to remain unmarried or else be reconciled to her husband (verse 10b-11a), and the husband must not divorce his wife (verse 11b). (For a further treatment of this subject the student is referred to the commentary on this passage in the “Studying the Passage” section of the lesson.) In verses 12-16 the apostle Paul supplies biblical counsel for those who find themselves married to an unbeliever. In the case where the unbelieving spouse is content to dwell with the Christian, the biblical counsel is for them to remain together: the church must not counsel the believer to leave the unbelieving partner (verses 12-13)—the church may have been misapplying Paul’s earlier counsel referred to in 1 Corinthians 5:9-11. But in the case where the unbelieving spouse desires to leave the marriage (by means of divorce or desertion), the Christian is to allow him (or her) to do so and is under no further marital obligation to their former spouse (verse 15).

4. Why does Paul say that the unmarried state is preferable to the married state? See 1 Corinthians 7:32-35 (printed below)

Now I want you to be free from care. The unmarried man cares about the things of the Lord, how he may please the Lord. (33) But the married man must be concerned about the things of the world, how he can please his wife, (34) and thus his interests are divided. So also, the woman who is not married and the virgin care about the things of the Lord, such a woman’s concern is to be holy both in body and in spirit. But the married woman must be concerned about the things of the world, how she can please her husband. (35) Now I am saying these things for your benefit, not to put a restriction upon you; on the contrary, I am saying these things for the sake of what is proper and what will promote undistracted devotion to the Lord. (1 Corinthians 7:32-35)

The reason why the single state is good and preferable is given in verses 32-35. The one who is unmarried is able to devote himself or herself whole-heartedly to the Lord without distraction or “conflicting” obligations. The one who is married must be concerned to fulfill his or her obligations to their spouse. Note: the apostle makes clear that it is not a commandment that the single and the widowed remain unmarried—he is merely advising what is preferable, if possible. The apostle recognizes that some of those who find themselves in the unmarried state may discover that state to be intolerable for them—if such is the case, they are not only free, but are even urged, to marry (verse 9).

5. How can a Christian determine whether or not he/she has the gift of celibacy? See 1 Corinthians 7:37 (printed below)

But he who is firmly resolved in his own heart not to marry the virgin to whom he is engaged—not feeling a necessity to get married, and having his sexual desire under control, and having determined this in his own heart—he is doing a good thing. (1 Corinthians 7:37)

Verse 37 offers the biblical guidelines by which a Christian can examine himself to determine whether or not he or she has the gift of celibacy—the gift of remaining single. The person must be absolutely convinced “in his own heart” that he or she is able to live a single, celibate life. That is to say, he or she has come to this decision on their own, they are not being pressured by someone else to make the choice of remaining single. Their decision is confirmed by the fact that they do not feel “a necessity to get married” and they have their “sexual desire under control.” Throughout this passage Paul emphasizes that celibacy, like marriage, is a gift of God, and only those who possess the gift are able to live the single life.