Was Paul Against Sex?
The verse 'It is well for a man not to touch a woman' may be Paul quoting from the Corinthians' letter to him.
BY: James D.G. Dunn
Peter Brown observes that 1 Corinthians 7 is "the one chapter that determine all Christian thought on marriage and celibacy for well ov millennium." It is unfortunate, then, that so much of the discussion of the passage, present as well as past, has been dominated by the assumption that Paul's own sexual ethic was basically ascetic in character and that he promoted the idea of marriage and sexual relationships as a second best.
This dominant view obviously builds on two undeniable features of the passage. One is Paul's own clearly stated preference for the unmarried state: "I wish that all were as I am" (7.6); "those who marry will have affliction in regard to the flesh, and I would spare you that" (7.28); "he who marries his virgin does well, and he who does not marry her does better" (7.38); "in my opinion she [a widow] is happier if she remains as she is [and does not marry again]" (7.40). The other is Paul's sense that the present age will not be long drawn out: "the time is short" (7.29);95 "the form of this world is passing away" (7.31).96 In the interim, "those who have wives should be as though they had none" (7.29). It is also clear from the thrust of 7.25-35 that the two concerns hang together. A large part of the reason for Paul's preference for the unmarried state is his conviction that the time is so short.
The whole of that section stands under the opening statement, "I think that on account of the present distress (ananke) it is well for a person to continue as he is" (7.26).
However, at the same time, too little weight has been given to two other factors. One is that Paul was evidently responding to a series of questions posed by the Corinthians themselves - as indicated by the letter's first use of peri de ("now, concerning. . .") in 7.1 and its repetition in 7.25. This probably indicates that the Corinthians' letter put a series of questions to Paul, first with regard to the married (7.1-24) and second with regard to the virgins9s and unmarried (7.25-38) The importance of this point is that it compels us to recognize that the scope of Paul's discussion was determined by the issues put to him 99 In other words, h; did not set out to provide a theology of marriage. No doubt this was anoth~ element of scriptural teaching which he simply took for granted (cf. 1 Cor. 6.16)'` That presumably is why he makes no reference to what was generally regar as the primary purpose of marriage - to procreate - although his allusion t children in v. 14 presumably indicates that he also took that as understood.