First Corinthians, we have argued, was written in part to respond to a letter that the Corinthian church had sent Paul. Today’s passage makes that clear, for the Apostle begins to address a matter about which the church “wrote” him (1 Cor. 7:1). In so doing, Paul gives vital practical instruction for honorable Christian living.
Paul says that he will respond to an argument summarized by the phrase “it is good for a man not to have sexual relations with a woman” (v. 1). Some have contended that this phrase represents Paul’s actual position, that he believed lifelong celibacy was a good thing for all people. However, the whole scope of 1 Corinthians 7 makes that view impossible. The Apostle does state that some advantages attend being unmarried and celibate (vv. 32–35), but as we will see, Paul does not hold up singleness as the ideal state for every Christian. What Paul responds to at the beginning of chapter 7 is a phrase and argument held not by him but by many of the Corinthian believers. He is quoting them, just as he did in 6:12–13.
In studying 6:12–13, we argued that much of the Corinthian church had come to affirm a rigid and radical separation between body and soul. Consequently, some Corinthians had become libertines, believing that what they did with their bodies had no eternal consequences for their spirits. These Corinthians visited prostitutes without shame (vv. 14–20). In 7:1, we see that the same disdain for the body took other Corinthians in an opposite direction. This second group had become overly ascetic, believing that married people should not have sexual relations but should remain celibate. In fact, it seems from the rest of chapter 7 that they were even encouraging people not to get married and exhorting married people to get divorced.
Paul notes in today’s passage that these more ascetic Christians were incorrect. “Because of the temptation to sexual immorality,” each spouse was to cling to the other not only spiritually but also sexually. This connects his instruction to his earlier discussion of prostitutes in 6:12–20. Apparently, having attempted celibacy even within marriage, some of the married Corinthians were seeking an outlet for their sexual desires elsewhere besides the marriage bed.
Importantly, while Paul notes that marriage is the godly solution to those tempted to sexual immorality, he is not saying that marriage exists merely for that purpose. He is dealing with a practical problem, so he highlights one benefit of marriage that addresses the issue.