1 Corinthians 7:1-16

Now concerning the matters about which you wrote: “It is good for a man not to have sexual relations with a woman.” But because of the temptation to sexual immorality, each man should have his own wife and each woman her own husband. The husband should give to his wife her conjugal rights, and likewise the wife to her husband. For the wife does not have authority over her own body, but the husband does. Likewise, the husband does not have authority over his own body, but the wife does. Do not deprive one another, except perhaps by agreement for a limited time, that you may devote yourselves to prayer; but then come together again, so that Satan may not tempt you because of your lack of self-control.

Now as a concession, not a command, I say this. I wish that all were as I myself am. But each has his own gift from God, one of one kind and one of another.

To the unmarried and the widows I say that it is good for them to remain single, as I am. But if they cannot exercise self-control, they should marry. For it is better to marry than to burn with passion.

10 To the married I give this charge (not I, but the Lord): the wife should not separate from her husband 11 (but if she does, she should remain unmarried or else be reconciled to her husband), and the husband should not divorce his wife.

12 To the rest I say (I, not the Lord) that if any brother has a wife who is an unbeliever, and she consents to live with him, he should not divorce her. 13 If any woman has a husband who is an unbeliever, and he consents to live with her, she should not divorce him. 14 For the unbelieving husband is made holy because of his wife, and the unbelieving wife is made holy because of her husband. Otherwise, your children would be unclean, but as it is, they are holy. 15 But if the unbelieving partner separates, let it be so. In such cases the brother or sister is not enslaved. God has called you to peace. 16 For how do you know, wife, whether you will save your husband? Or how do you know, husband, whether you will save your wife? [1]

With the words, “Now concerning the matters about which you wrote,” Paul moves on to the second part of his letter, the Q&A section (7:1 – 16:12). In our modern era, if we find someone in our congregation teaching or doing things we don’t like, then we simply move down the street to another congregation where we can receive and give more horizontal approval. But that simply wasn’t possible for the Corinthians. There were no denominations and there were no other congregations. There was only the Church of the Lord Jesus Christ in Corinth. People had to learn to deal with those who had opposite opinions on every topic – from the most intimate to the public.

Instead of a friendly exchange, where the new believers in Corinth are asking spiritual advice of their mentor, their letter was a response to Paul’s previous letter mentioned in 5:9. They are taking exception to his position on point after point. In light of their own theology of spirit, with heavy emphasis on “higher wisdom” and “knowledge,” they have answered Paul with a kind of “Why can’t we?” attitude, in which they are looking for his response.[2] We don’t know in what order their letter’s questions appeared, but Paul takes up their question about marriage first since he just finished dealing briefly with the issue of temple prostitution.

We have already noted that the broader Corinthian culture was hedonistic – driven by sensual pleasures – and some in the congregation defended that position because of their slavery to the Greco-Roman temple orgies. There were others on the opposite side of the pendulum. Some Christians in Corinth reacted to hedonism by being overly ascetic. It was right to react to the hedonism of the culture, especially in light of the fact that it was creeping into the church, but they overreacted. According to verse 1, some were saying, “It is good for a man not to have sexual relations with a woman.

The pendulum still swings to either side in our day. The broader culture is extremely hedonistic in its approach to human sexuality. People of faith are often criticized for being prudish and ascetic in their beliefs about sex. Writing about both extremes, Paul gives us a balanced Biblical view. Hedonism encourages people to seek out any kind of sensual pleasure at any time with anyone. The body is a morally neutral zone. As long as adults are consenting, then there is no moral implication attached to whatever they do. Ultimately, this is a dehumanizing doctrine, removing the soul from the biblical picture of sexuality and animalizing human beings. Asceticism, on the other hand, says if anything feels too good then don’t do it. The body is a morally evil zone. Giving into human sexuality is always a sin. This doctrine ultimately dehumanizes individuals by rejecting an essential part of their humanity. Asceticism over-spiritualizes human beings.

Biblical sexuality promotes individuals of the opposite sex who are in marital covenant relationship enjoying the God given gift of their sexuality together. God has given us bodies to steward for his glory and our enjoyment. Sexuality is healthy in the context for which God designed it. Ultimately, this is the only view that humanizes individuals by affirming both the body and the soul. Biblical sexuality is the only view that can properly account for the body and the soul.

The modern hedonistic view is a highly western, white, individualistic, therapeutic understanding of the self—in which sexual expression is a key part of authenticity. It’s the reason modern people find sexual boundaries (and sexual identities) oppressive. This therapeutic view of identity is predominant in modern Western culture. It turns sex into a commodity. The modern therapeutic self is a recent approach to identity. We are told to look within at our desires—especially our sexual ones–and then determine (Freud) or create (Foucault) who we are, not allowing anyone else to validate or define us or make us feel guilty. We are then to demand that the world affirm our expression of ourselves. Anyone who questions our self-view is by definition doing violence, questioning our very existence, and denying us agency. In other words, it is based on natural man’s desire to be his or her own god.[3]

In most of the non-western world, identity is communal. You don’t get to define yourself—identity is negotiated with the community—and self-esteem comes more from doing duty to God, family, and others rather than from satisfying desires and self-interest. When the therapist says: “Don’t let anyone tell you who you are—you decide who you are!”—at that moment he or she is ironically imposing a very individualistic, western, ‘white’ way of understanding identity on the patient as if it is the only approach possible. It is “white” because it was grounded in the European Enlightenment, and later added to by Freud, and framed to be a new form of social liberation based on French philosopher Michel Foucault’s account of language and power.[4]

First, you cannot discover a ‘real you’ by looking at your changing and contradictory inner feelings. We need a standard of values by which we can sift our inner drives and determine which ones characterize our ‘true’ and ‘false’ selves. Christians believe the Bible gives us that standard to determine our de-humanizing desires and our right, humanizing ones. Second. the modern identity is highly performative. You must realize and achieve your inner dreams and desires or constantly experience suffering. This leads to fragility and a need for constant re-affirmation. No wonder any criticism at all is crushing or feels “controlling.” Christians’ deepest identity is in Christ, who loves and accepts us counter-conditionally, despite all our flaws.[5]

That has been Paul’s point since the beginning of this letter: your identity is in Christ, not in your personal and horizontal demands or desires! Marriage problems, like all other horizontal conflicts, are simply failures to receive and rest on the identity God has already given you in Christ. Sex was created for persons to say non-verbally but powerfully to one another: “I belong completely and exclusively to you.” It must not be used to say anything less than that or you are not respecting sex’s power, depth, and force. The Bible teaches that, because sex was created as an agent for self-giving, when you have (even consensual) sex outside of marriage, very often one or both people get exploited because the sex draws you toward deep union as it was made to do. When you withhold it in marriage, you violate your self-giving identity. If you cultivate sex for self-affirmation instead of self-giving, you diminish sex’s power to function as a commitment method and covenant renewal agent within marriage. You harden or dehumanize yourself.[6]

Beset with a very Western, individualistic, white, inwardly-authoritative doctrine of sexuality, it’s no wonder there is no shortage of brokenness in marriage on display in both the world and the Church. We need an outside perspective to recover the beauties of marriage. That’s why Paul writes three primary characteristics about marriage: beauty, ugliness, and the archetype of marriage.


Paul doesn’t explicitly teach the idea of oneness in this particular text, but he does assume it. His vision of marriage comes from Christ’s teaching on the Genesis account. Jesus taught, in Mark 10:6-9:

But from the beginning of creation, ‘God made them male and female.’ ‘Therefore a man shall leave his father and mother and hold fast to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.’ So, they are no longer two but one flesh. What therefore God has joined together, let not man separate.” [7]

Paul had already specifically taught this in 6:16-17. Now, he assumes it here in this chapter. Marriage is a one-flesh union intended to be a literal melding of identities. It’s an abandonment of autonomy. All other aspects of our identity take a back seat to the oneness that we are to share with our spouse. And this is the normative relationship that forms all other relationships. Every other relationship in our lives changes when we are married. The Bible only views the context of human sexuality within the context of marriage. We see this in verse 4 where Paul writes, “For the wife does not have authority over her own body, but the husband does. Likewise, the husband does not have authority over his own body, but the wife does.” In a healthy marriage, there is a beautiful giving up of one’s autonomy to the other. Ultimately, their oneness is to point toward the mutual relationship they each have with the Lord. In fact, later on in this chapter Paul will specifically say that Christian marriage is something that is done “only in the Lord” (7:39).

Scripture teaches that a beautiful marriage happens when a husband and wife put one another’s needs before his or her own and serve each other selflessly. Paul writes clearly in Philippians 2 that we should be concerned about the other person’s interests before our own. In first Corinthians 7, the discussion of self-giving service is in the context of sexual relations. Husband and wife should complement one another, to serve the other in his or her weakness. In verses 2-4, the discussion of self-giving service revolves around the asceticism of some who believes the body is evil and should be denied and punished. Asceticism leads to temptation. A spouse cannot be self-giving and self-withholding at the same time. Paul frames a beautiful balance in this other-serving relationship.

What Paul commands is utterly upside down from the patriarchal society of the Greco-Roman world. Male sexual dominance was woven into the fabric of the Corinthian world. The needs of women were rarely considered. Paul’s teaching was radical. Paul is claiming equal rights in the marriage bed. Sex is not a means of serving oneself; it is a means of serving one’s spouse. Paul acknowledges that human beings have sexual passions, and he envisions a healthy marriage where those passions are exercised regularly, excepting only brief, mutually-agreed-upon seasons of prayer. Ultimately, selfless service is intended to spur both partners on in their devotion to the Lord. The aim of marriage is to live a life glorifying to God. Toward that end, we are to be gracious sanctifying agents in the lives of our spouses.

Verses 10-16 are Paul’s instructions on how Christians are to approach the extreme difficulties of marriage. Is divorce permissible? How should someone who comes to know Christ respond when his or her spouse is decidedly Pagan? These verses deal with negative and difficult cases, but the underlying teaching revolves around the beautiful commitment at the heart of marriage. The Bible has extremely strict things to say about divorce because it has an exceedingly high view of marriage. The marriage commitment is an objective reality that should not be altered. Paul makes that clear in verses 10 and 11. “10 To the married I give this charge (not I, but the Lord): the wife should not separate from her husband 11 (but if she does, she should remain unmarried or else be reconciled to her husband), and the husband should not divorce his wife.” Marriage is not to be interrupted by separation or terminated by divorce. The marriage commitment works itself out subjectively in steadfast love that is not determined or altered by emotions or changes in oneself or one’s spouse. In a culture where marriage can be extremely difficult and where divorce appears to be an easy way out and is so readily available, we have to willingly confront the ugly things of marriage.


This section of the letter can be difficult because, despite the deep longings, many are not married. Paul will deal more directly with that issue and answer some of our questions. But this passage does address those who are single, and Paul mentions a few things. To Paul, singleness is an ideal. “6 Now as a concession, not a command, I say this. I wish that all were as I myself am. But each has his own gift from God, one of one kind and one of another.” Paul sees his singleness as a gift from God, part of his calling. Those who are currently single are currently called to be single. At the same time, Paul understands that singleness can affect anyone negatively at the deepest level – whether relational, emotional, or sexual. Unmet needs can be tormenting. That is part of the ugliness of marriage. Sin has so twisted us that for many unmarried people it seems impossible to live without being married. On the other hand, sin has so twisted marriage that – for many married people – it seems impossible to live with marriage.

Division is one of the uglies of marriage. Many couples simply live separate lives. It’s possible to be objectively one but to live subjectively as two separate people with no shared vision of life. The marriage functions under asceticism with emotional and physical withholding. Couples allow passion to disintegrate. Often, asceticism in marriage gives rise to hedonism outside of marriage – adultery and pornography or two culturally acceptable ways to indulge hedonism. But the source of marital division is always self-service. The modern approach to marriage is self-serving and not selfless other-serving.

Modern western culture is not much different from Corinthian culture in Paul’s day. Marriage is supposed to be about “us,” but in our modern culture it has become all about “me.” In order to serve me, I create idols of what I think a perfect soulmate should be, one that will properly and completely serve me. This is what Tim Keller calls the “new idealism.” First, it idealizes physical attractiveness and sexual chemistry. Second, it idealizes compatibility – which we define as a willingness to take me as I am and not change me. Those are ridiculous and unbiblical expectations. A deeply devoted loyal relationship requires a surrendering of one’s independence, an abandonment of autonomy.

The modern self-oriented view of marriage it is thought to be liberating. The irony is, however, is that it’s complete slavery to idolatry and idealism. The idea that there is a perfect person out there who will fulfill my every need is completely enslaving. We enslave the other person to an unrealistic set of expectations, and we enslave ourselves to constant disappointment. Some writers refer to this as apocalyptic romanticism. We all desire a perfectly compatible spouse who is well adjusted and not emotionally needy, who is full of emotional wealth and physical attractiveness. Guess what? That spouse only existed once in human history in the Garden of Eden. Since Adam’s fall, we are all sinners bringing truckloads of emotional baggage to the party. In fact, we will always and only marry the wrong person! We may desire the divine ideal in our partners, but that person does not and cannot have the goods to deliver.

When marriages begin with a self-serving purpose, then when a spouse can’t meet certain expectations, that self-serving posture gets amped up. The self-serving approach twists and distorts all aspects of marital life (as you see in verses 3-5). When those who are one act like they are two, and when those who are called to serve one another are more interested in serving themselves, marriage breaks down into ugliness. The values of autonomy and self-serving always lead to a breakdown at some level. So how is it possible to cultivate the beauty and not kill the beauty?


The beauty of marriage begins to overcome the ugliness when marriage ceases to be the most important relationship in one’s life. Beauty begins to breakdown if marriage continues to be the center of your life. There’s nowhere to go because your partner has become the object of apocalyptic romanticism. So, everything begins to fall apart. Marriages require outside resources as fuel to soar. If money is at the center of your life and you lose money, that’s an example of apocalyptic materialism. If marriage is at the center of your life and you expect it to produce all your security and happiness, that is apocalyptic romanticism. Paul is saying that marriage is meant to be a type of the archetypal marriage. The Archetype of marriage is Jesus’ relationship with his bride, the Church.

Marriage was never designed as the source of ultimate satisfaction. Expecting marriage to satisfy your longing or to bring you happiness will smother the other person, causing them resentment and detachment. It will bring you resentment toward others for their inability to satisfy your desires and demands. And all of this is a result of asking marriage to do what it was never designed to do. Marriage is not meant to be turned in on itself – it’s ultimately not about the two individuals. It is designed to be a type of the archetypal marriage. Human marriage is secondary because there is an ultimate marriage that will outlast it eternally.

Paul makes that specific point in Ephesians 5:28b-32:

He who loves his wife loves himself. 29 For no one ever hated his own flesh, but nourishes and cherishes it, just as Christ does the church, 30 because we are members of his body. 31 “Therefore a man shall leave his father and mother and hold fast to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.” 32 This mystery is profound, and I am saying that it refers to Christ and the church. 33 However, let each one of you love his wife as himself, and let the wife see that she respects her husband. [8]

Christian marriages fulfill their purpose when they display the profound mystery of Christ’s love for his bride. So how does the beauty of marriage break through and overshadow the ugliness? There must be a constant rediscovery of gospel memory and a constant striving for gospel sanity that rehearses and practices the gospel in our hearts. If you are not bathing in the refreshing springs of God’s grace, then you cannot extend grace to anyone else – much less your spouse.

God did not set his love upon you because you were lovely. In fact, you were broken and defined by nothing but your sins, and you fundamentally hated God. His commitment to you came when you were at your ugliest. Like the story of Hosea and Gomer, the love of God pursues an adulterous spouse to the very end. He attached no requirements to his commitment. There was no behavioral regimen that had to be maintained in order for him to commit himself to his Church. God has committed himself in covenant to an adulterous, utterly unfaithful spouse – and that spouse is the Church!

Only God’s radical, steadfast, unshakable, eternal grace extended to us can overcome the ugliness of marriage and infuse it with the only true source of beauty. His radical grace is the ingredient we need to be radically gracious to our spouse. When a person in the marriage is content to see it breakdown and disintegrate, the other one can remain steadfastly committed because of God’s steadfast commitment to the church. That’s why Paul commands and verses 12 and 13 that those who come to Christ while already married should stay married.

How does Jesus display his covenant or commitment to the church? He seals it by completely giving himself away. He is not self-serving but selfless. He places the needs of his spouse above his own. He is completely other-focused. He keeps no record of wrongs. In fact, he sacrifices his own life and sheds his blood to erase the record of wrongs. He doesn’t hang on to that list of wrongs.

He doesn’t even hang on to his record of rights but gives them over to the church so that she is spotless, clothed in robes of his righteousness. Receiving Christ’s death-defeating, selfless service helps us to no longer keep track of wrongs. We can now stop standing in judgment over our spouse because Christ absorbed the judgment they deserved. And they can selflessly serve their spouses because Jesus, the ultimate husband, selflessly serves his bride the Church.

The Old Testament actually describes the great rift between God and his people as a divorce. Israel sins we’re so great that God finally sent his adulterous wife away with the decree of divorce (Jeremiah 3:8). Israel was exiled in Assyria because of her adultery. Judah was exiled in Babylon for her adultery. But Jesus was exiled on the cross because of our adultery. He experienced ultimate divorce from the father in order to secure our ultimate oneness with him. Because Christ experienced divorce on the cross, we never have to fear being divorced from the love of God. Jesus’ marital vows to his bride are eternally unbreakable because they are sealed with his blood. His vow to us is not “till death us do part”; it is “my death ensures that we will never be apart.” that is the foundation for oneness in the divided marriage. It is the foundation for oneness between husband and wife.

Where do we get to resources to tolerate fickleness, anger, and an unforgiving heart? It comes from our gospel memory and gospel sanity that remind us of the profound mystery of what it took for the perfectly-right husband who came and chose a perfectly wrong spouse. And once this profound mystery is understood, anyone can look across and see that perfectly-wrong person who is her husband, that perfectly-wrong person who is his wife, and able to resolve in his or her heart, saying, “This marriage is not about one individual. It’s not about me. It’s about us.” It’s about meeting her needs. It’s about meeting his needs. It’s not about my individual needs at all.

When we pursue our own happiness, we will achieve neither our own happiness nor our spouse’s happiness, and certainly not the holiness of God. We will simply be slaves to the idols of marriage we have created. And behind those idols are the demons desperate to destroy what God created to testify to the love of Christ. We will become stuck in self-service and curve more and more inward upon ourselves – creating our own hell on earth. You will wonder over and over again why there is so much more ugliness than beauty. And it will be simply because you are stuck in self-service.

Consider the profound mystery Jesus has done for his people. With this immense resource and the resurrection power of the Holy Spirit dwelling in you, it is completely possible to pursue nothing but the needs of our spouses. And because of the emotional well of the profound mystery of Christ, there is no need to complain. The only way for someone who is stuck with the wrong person in his or her marriage (and that is exactly what we all are), is to trust that the perfectly right person has come for the utterly wrong person – for all of us.[9]


[1] The Holy Bible: English Standard Version (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Bibles, 2016), 1 Co 7:1–16.

[2] Fee, 266–267.

[3] Tim Keller. Facebook post. 4/14/21. https://www.facebook.com/TimKellerNYC

[4] Id.

[5] Id.

[6] Id.

[7] The Holy Bible: English Standard Version (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Bibles, 2016), Mk 10:6–9.

[8] The Holy Bible: English Standard Version (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Bibles, 2016), Eph 5:28–33.

[9] Previous 4 paragraphs: Um, 131-133. Kindle Edition.