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.
The community in Corinth was only in process of develop ing its distinctively Christian character. The networks of relationships to which its members belonged crisscrossed the still ill-formed boundaries between church and society. The strains and stresses (eschatological tension) between the new loyalty to Christ and the still continuing loyalties to (unbelieving) spouse or master were evidently quite severe and stressful. In such circum stances Paul could not simply dictate a theology of marriage unrelated to actual situations. On the contrary, it was essential that he should direct his counsel to the real and pressing difficulties put to him by the Corinthians.
Against this background, we can begin to see more clearly how careful and sensitive is the advice Paul gives. He stresses again that relationship in and to the Lord is primary. He refers to what authoritative Jesus traditionhe has (7.10-11). He looks to the Spirit for guidance (7.40). He takes for granted the importance of "obeying the commandments of God" (7.19). He draws on the best of Stoic tradition insofar as it accords with traditional Jewish wisdom. He takes account of the realities of the Corinthian situation, caught as they were "between the ages" and between two worlds. In consequence, in seeking to answer the Corinthians' questions, he does not hesitate to express his own personal views, that being unmarried had enabled him to be so devoted to the affairs of the Lord. But he makes it clear that these are "opinions" los and do not have the force of "commands." He leans over backwards to indicate that other options are just as acceptable to the Lord. And when we look at the counsel he actually gives, it becomes clear that his primary concern is with priorities and the realism with which they should be pursued, not to promote a particular attitude to marriage or marriage relations, or to promote a policy of asceticism.