18 March 2017

1 Corinthians 7:25-31

“The present form of the world is passing away” (v. 31)

Psalm: Psalm 121


Paul anticipated that the end times with the return of the Lord and judgement were close at hand. In view of this, he tried to create a reflective space for the Corinthians to work out a responsible ethical stance for marriage. It is interesting because it was not prescriptive, but nevertheless tried to give the Corinthians a steer.

A virgin was likely to mean an unmarried but engaged young woman. Paul had no direct teaching from Jesus (the Lord) on this subject, so gave his opinion, deeming his seasoned Christian judgement to be trustworthy.

His advice was essentially pragmatic and designed to prevent unnecessary disruption to community relationships. If you were already married, stay that way. If you were not married continue in that state. If you really wanted to marry, go ahead, that was not a sin. Remember, however, that marriage can bring complicating responsibilities.

But in the context and understanding that everything was passing quickly away, hold to attachments relatively lightly. Commitments in this life were shortly to pass away.

Paul's framework for individual discernment was the well-being of the whole Corinthian community. In other words, how did individual choices safeguard the well-being of everyone, at the same time give the individual room for manoeuvre and discernment for personal happiness?

Paul stated his preferences, but was not prescriptive.

The passage can help us to think about the basis for our own ethical living, when there is no clear right and wrong. For example

  • How far is it an individual choice to marry, or not to marry (but maybe live with a partner); to divorce or not divorce?
  • How in our individual choices do we also make space for considering how those choices are affecting the well-being of the whole community?

Perhaps for us, this is particularly problematic when finding an ethical, responsible attitude to saving money or giving away wealth.

In balancing individual and collective choices perhaps we need always to hold the two in tension to guard ourselves against hypocrisy. For example, saying one thing collectively and doing another individually. And also, being aware that the collective can coerce the individual. (Note that this was one thing that Paul was not doing.)

To Ponder

  • What principles guide you in the making of your own personal ethical choices?
  • In making our ethical choices we may be quite judgemental on ourselves or fear others disapproval. In what ways does Paul's advice encourage us to be compassionate and not too purist? Is this helpful or the slippery slope?

Bible notes author

The Revd Jenny Ellis

Jenny is a Methodist minister and this year has permission to study, as well as work alongside a rural chapel to help it find a new physical presence and sense of mission in its village. She is leading a number of quiet and study days.