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Paul on marriage in 1 Corinthians 7
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- Question: Why does the Church teach that marriage is essential for full exaltation, when Paul says in 1 Corinthians 7:1 that it is good for a man not to marry?
- Question: Why did Paul say that it was not good for a man to touch a woman?
- Question: Was the Apostle Paul Married?
- Question: What was Paul's teaching on marriage?
- Question: Why would Paul advise people not to be married?
- Question: What part of Paul's advice regarding marriage actually represents Paul's opinion?
- Question: Should church officers be celibate?
Question: Why does the Church teach that marriage is essential for full exaltation, when Paul says in 1 Corinthians 7:1 that it is good for a man not to marry?
The evidence of Paul’s writings leads to the conclusion that he not only tolerated marriage among the saints, but encouraged and exhorted them to marry and bear children
Paul indicated that marriage is an essential part of the gospel framework, and asserted that one of the signs of apostasy in the last days would be teachings against marriage. (See 1 Timothy 4:1–3.) Certainly Jesus was foremost in importance to Paul, just as he should be in the hearts of men today, and on occasion Paul had to remind men called to the ministry to be fully dedicated to the Lord’s work. Nevertheless, Paul understood and taught that in the presence of the Lord, the man will not be without the woman, neither the woman without the man.
There are several things that should be understood if one is to correctly interpret this chapter in Paul's letter to the Corinthians.
- The statement, "it is good for a man not to touch a woman" was probably not Paul's.
- Paul may well have been married himself, but traveling in the ministry without his wife.
- Paul taught the importance of marriage in many places.
- The reason for Paul's advice to the unmarried was for an unusual and a temporary situation.
- Paul is careful to point out that this advice to remain single for the time being is not God's commandment, but was only his personal (though very wise) opinion.
- Paul is clear that marriage, not celibacy, is a requirement for church leadership.
Question: Why did Paul say that it was not good for a man to touch a woman?
Paul begins verse 1 by quoting a statement that the Corinthians made in their letter to him. His response is to correct the false idea which they have expressed by pointing out the importance of each man having his own wife
The King James Version of 1 Corinthians 7:1-2 reads:
Now concerning the things whereof ye wrote unto me: It is good for a man not to touch a woman. Nevertheless, to avoid fornication, let every man have his own wife, and let every woman have her own husband. [1 Corinthians 7:1-2 KJV]
The King James version of this passage is not clear as to who is saying "It is good for a man not to touch a woman." The original Greek for this verse is likewise unclear. However, the translators of the New Jerusalem Bible felt that this must have been a quote from Paul, so they render it, more clearly, as
Now for the questions about which you wrote. Yes, it is a good thing for a man not to touch a woman; yet to avoid immorality every man should have his own wife and every woman her own husband. [1 Cor 7:1-2, NJB]
which indicates that the words advising not to touch a woman are Paul's words in answer to some unspecified question. On the other hand, the English Standard Bible translates the original manuscript as
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. [1 Cor 7:1-2, ESB]
which puts the statement into quotation marks and into the mouths of the Corinthians as part of their previous letter to him. And so Paul’s answer, that “each man should have his own wife and each woman her own husband” represents just the opposite advice from the New Jerusalem Bible. Which translation is correct? Well, Joseph Smith would have sided with the ESB translators, because the Joseph Smith Version has
Now concerning the things whereof ye wrote unto me, saying: It is good for a man not to touch a woman. Nevertheless, to avoid fornication, let every man have his own wife, and let every woman have her own husband. [1 Cor 7:1-2, JSV, emphasis added]
This is not a radical idea. The Cor 7:1 footnote from the New English Translation (NET) Bible reads:
Many recent interpreters believe that here again (as in 6:12-13) Paul cites a slogan the Corinthians apparently used to justify their actions. If this is so, Paul agrees with the slogan in part, but corrects it in the following verses to show how the Corinthians misused the idea to justify abstinence within marriage (cf. 8:1, 4; 10:23). See also G. D. Fee, “1 Corinthians 7:1 in the NIV,” JETS 23 (1980): 307-14.
These translators, along with Joseph Smith, feel that Paul begins verse 1 by quoting a statement that the Corinthians made in their letter to him. His response is to correct the false idea which they (and some modern critics of our doctrine) have expressed by pointing out the importance of each man having his own wife and vice-versa.
Question: Was the Apostle Paul married?
Paul may have been widowed or divorced at the time of his writing to the Corinthians, but we can be sure that he was married at one time
Paul's Judaic background would have required it. In his defense before the Jewish crowd outside the Roman barracks of the Antonian tower, Paul states that he was taught according to the perfect manner of the law of the fathers and was zealous in living that law (Acts 22:3). Again, in his defense before the Pharisees and Sadducees, Paul claims that he is a Pharisee, the son of a Pharisee (Acts 23:6). To the Galatians, Paul wrote that he was more zealous in fulfilling the requirements of his religion than others of his time (Gal 1:14). The emphasis that the Jews put on marriage as part of their law and tradition would certainly have been used against Paul in view of such statements if he had not been married,  especially if, as many scholars have suggested, Paul was a member of the Sanhedrin, one of the qualifications for which was that a man must be married and the father of children.
But was Paul still married at the time of his writing to the Corinthians? The only evidence against it occurs in this same chapter of 1 Corinthinans, where Paul says
I say therefore to the unmarried and widows, It is good for them if they abide even as I. 1 Corinthians 7:8
Since Paul is advising the unmarried to continue in this state, even as he, it certainly seems to imply that he was unmarried at the time of his writing. On the other hand, Paul says later in this same letter
Have we not power to lead about a sister, a wife, as well as other apostles, and as the brethren of the Lord, and Cephas? 1 Corinthians 9:5.
How would he have the power to lead about a wife on his travels, like the other apostles did, if he was not married or if his wife had died? So this seems to indicate that Paul was married, but that he simply did not take his wife with him in his ministry. If this is the case, then this might be the sense in which he is advising the Corinthian saints to "abide even as" he. Indeed, this is exactly the counsel he gives the married saints in 1 Corinthians 7:29.
But this I say, brethren, the time is short: it remaineth, that both they that have wives be as though they had none
So, based on Corinthians alone, it is hard to say whether Paul was widowed or was still married at the time he wrote his epistle. Fortunately, we have other, non-biblical, writers who had access to knowledge that has now clearly been lost about Paul's marital state during the time of his ministry. Eusebius, the fourth-century Catholic Historian, states confidently that Paul’s yokefellow, whom he addresses in Philippians 4:3 with these words,
And I intreat thee also, true yokefellow, help those women who laboured with me in the gospel, with Clement also, and with other my fellow-labourers. (Philippians 4:2–3)
is in fact his wife. The Greek syzyge, the word translated “yokefellow,” is often used to refer to a spouse. Eusebius' conclusion is itself based on a statement from Clement of Alexandria, who was writing sometime prior to 231 A.D. when the traditions about Paul were still very recent.
Finally, and perhaps most importantly, we should note that Ignatius, writing in the latter half of first century, states
I pray that, being found worthy of God, I may be found ... at the feet of Abraham, and Isaac, and Jacob; as of Joseph, and Isaiah, and the rest of the prophets; as of Peter, and Paul, and the rest of the apostles, that were married men.
Question: What was Paul's teaching on marriage?
Paul teaches "neither is the man without the woman, neither the woman without the man, in the Lord"
In this very same epistle to the Corinthians, Paul exhorts the saints to follow his example, especially in the ordinances of the church (1 Corinthians 11:1–2), and he specifically teaches that the husband is to honor the Lord as his head and the wife is to honor the husband as her head. Most importantly, he gives this statement, which sounds very much like an eternal principle:
neither is the man without the woman, neither the woman without the man, in the Lord. [1 Corinthians 11:11]
It is evident from the frequency of Paul’s counsel on marriage and family that he placed great importance on the subject. Paul exhorts the women in the Ephesian branch of the church to submit themselves to their own husbands (literally, become subject or obedient to), as they would to the Lord, comparing the husband and the family to Christ and the Church. (Ephesians 5:.) But he also charges the husbands to love their wives (Ephesians 5:25) as their Savior loved the church, so that they might sanctify and perfect their families through love. Paraphrasing one of the great commandments—to love one’s neighbor as oneself—Paul says, “So ought men to love their wives as their own bodies. He that loveth his wife loveth himself.” (Ephesians 5:28.) A husband is not to rule as a tyrant over his wife but is to preside in love. (See Ephesians 5:33.)
Question: Why would Paul advise people not to be married?
Paul is not condemning marriage in this chapter, but is replying to a problem regarding missionaries who desire to become married
Paul says that he wishes (see 1 Corinthians 7:7) that all men were as he was. If Paul was either a widower or a married man traveling in the ministry without his wife, why would he want others to follow his example?
One reason for Paul's advice in these matters is found in verse 29 [1 Corinthians 7:29], where he states,
this I say, brethren, the time is short: it remaineth, that both they that have wives be as though they had none.
So the reason for his counsel about marriage is that the time is short. Paul also says in 1 Corinthians 7:26
I suppose therefore that this is good for the present distress, I say, that it is good for a man so to be.
Paul does not say what the present distress is, but whatever the problem was, he is clear that his advice is in regard to a situation that was temporary. When the present crisis was over, we would expect Paul’s advice to go back to the commandment explained in verse 2 – that every man should have his own wife and every woman her own husband.
Actually, Joseph Smith suggested what the term "the present distress" referred to when he amended 1 Cor 7:29 in the Joseph Smith Version to read
For this I say, brethren, the time that remaineth is but short, that ye shall be sent forth unto the ministry. Even they who have wives, shall be as though they had none; for ye are called and chosen to do the Lord’s work.
If Joseph Smith's understanding is correct, then, contrary to the common interpretation, Paul is not condemning marriage in this chapter, but is replying to a problem regarding missionaries who desire to become married. His advice is that while they are on their missions (and he declared that the time for missionary work is short), and in view of the present distress (likely the need for committed missionaries), they should be concerned with the work of the Lord and not with family or personal matters. He then gives the reason for this admonition. He explains in 1 Corinthians 7:32 that the unmarried saints (and those who are as though unmarried) care for the things of the Lord, while a married man puts other things before the work of the Lord (1 Corinthians 7:33). Paul is simply reminding those who have been called to God’s work to put that calling first, even before earthly matters.
Question: What part of Paul's advice regarding marriage actually represents Paul's opinion?
In verse 12, he explains that, in his advice to the unmarried, it is he who is speaking and not the Lord
As Paul counsels those who are married, he says
(10) And unto the married I command, yet not I, but the Lord, Let not the wife depart from her husband: (11) But and if she depart, let her remain unmarried, or be reconciled to her husband: and let not the husband put away his wife. (12) But to the rest speak I, not the Lord... (1 Corinthians 7:10-12)
Note how he begins by saying that he is commanding, and how he then stops himself and makes it clear that his advice to the married is actually God's commandment – those who are married should stay together. Then, in verse 12, he explains that, in his advice to the unmarried, it is he who is speaking and not the Lord.
Of course, verse 12 goes on with further advice:
(12) ... If any brother hath a wife that believeth not, and she be pleased to dwell with him, let him not put her away.
so that his opening statement in verse 12, "But to the rest speak I, not the Lord," seems to be introducing a new subject. However, we need to remember that there were no verses and no punctuation in what Paul wrote. Certainly, "But to the rest speak I, not the Lord" makes more sense as a closing of the previous subject than as an introduction to the next, since the rest of verse 12 is not actually addressed to "the rest" (i.e., to those not married) at all, but is again advising those who are married. At any rate, Paul makes clear in a later verse that his advice to the unmarried to remain single is not the Lord's commandment, but is his own wise advice.
(25) Now concerning virgins I have no commandment of the Lord: yet I give my judgment, as one that hath obtained mercy of the Lord to be faithful. (26) I suppose therefore that this is good for the present distress, I say, that it is good for a man so to be. (1 Corinthians 7:25-26)
Question: Should church officers be celibate?
In Paul’s last epistles, which were written to Timothy and Titus, he places emphasis on the need for marriage
In listing the qualities necessary for a bishop, Paul includes being married (see 1 Timothy 3:2) and being a good leader over his house: “For if a man know not how to rule his own house, how shall he take care of the church of God?” (1 Timothy 3:5; cf. Titus 1:5–9). Even those called “deacons” in that day (the Greek literally means “one who serves” or a “helper”) were to be married and have orderly households. (See 1 Timothy 3:10–13.)
To see citations to the critical sources for these claims, click here
- C. Wilfred Griggs, "I Have a Question," Ensign (February 1976), 34.
- Mishnah, Aboth 5:21, trans. H. Danby, p. 458. “At five years old (one is fit) for the scripture, at ten years for the Mishnah, at thirteen for (the fulfilling of) the commandments, at fifteen for the Talmud, at eighteen for the bride-chamber, at twenty for pursuing (a calling), at thirty for authority, at forty for discernment, at fifty for counsel, at sixty to be an elder, at seventy for grey hairs, at eighty for special strength. …” See also David Smith, Life and Letters of St. Paul, p. 30f.
- Richard Lloyd Anderson, Understanding Paul (Deseret Book, 1983) pp. 23-25.
- Sanhedrin 36:2.
- Eusebius Pamphilius, Ecclesiasical History Book III, Chap 30, in Nicene and post-Nicene Fathers Series 2, Volume 1 (NPNF2-01: Church History, Life of Constantine, Oration in Praise of Constantine), Philip Schaff, ed., (Christian Literature Publishing Co., 1886) p. 162.
- Stromata, Book III, Chap 6, in Ante-Nicene Fathers, Volume 2 (ANF02. Fathers of the Second Century: Hermas, Tatian, Athenagoras, Theophilus, and Clement of Alexandria), Philip Schaff, ed., (Christian Literature Publishing Co., 1886) p. 390.
- Philadelphians, Chap 4, in Ante-Nicene Fathers, Volume 1 (ANF01. The Apostolic Fathers with Justin Martyr and Irenaeus), Philip Schaff, ed., (Christian Literature Publishing Co., 1886) p. 81.