The Union of Marriage

1 Corinthians

Setting – Paul continues to give instruction concerning the false spirituality that had been introduced into the Corinthian church by some false teachers who posed as apostles, claiming a superiority to Paul (2 Corinthians 11:12-15). Paul always was zealous for his appointment as an apostle and the authority in revelation and teaching that went along with that calling (Galatians 1:11, 12). This was not a matter of arrogance or unwarranted usurpation of power, but of faithful execution of his responsibility of apostleship. The constant pressure of false teaching and teachers laid a great burden on Paul which he sought to carry with joy and faithfulness. He went to extremes in order to diminish his posture of personal importance in order that he might emphasize the authority granted him by Christ (2 Corinthians 10:8; 11:5, 6; 12:11-13). He must necessarily, therefore, give correction to another false teaching being promulgated by the spiritual shysters that had infiltrated the ranks of the Corinthian church.


I. The error is stated in this sentence: “It is good for a man not to touch a woman.” (Verse 1) Given the total context of Paul’s subsequent argument, this person was advising married couples to learn to forego sexual relations in marriage. Though Paul gives some contextual encouragement for remaining in an unmarried state in subsequent verses, his general response to this is to look at the intent of creation and the results of the fall to give his answer. The person providing the point of reflection seems to have vaulted beyond both of these realities in his assertion. The implication is, “If you have truly been called to the spiritual life of a Christian, then you will be beyond the need for intimacy with a woman. Your sense of spiritual truth will have transcended the borders of the physical life. Since the body is merely a prison, and virtually a mirage, true spiritual advancement is found in ignoring its present cries for attention.”


II. Marriage is the designed outlet for sexual desire. (Verses 2 – 7) Paul brings us right back down to present reality—“Nevertheless, because of sexual immorality.”

A. First he looks at the reality of our fallenness. Paul recognizes that one of the most pervasive and aggressive aspects of the fall is the perversion of sexuality.

  1. In Romans 1, (24-27) he showed the progression from unbridled lust all the way into the aggressive practice of homosexual relations. The rejection of the knowledge of God leads to God’s granting us our will in the working of a debased mind. Unrighteousness as a general term manifests itself first of all in “sexual immorality” and then follows a dizzying and distressing collage of internal and external displays of complete disregard for divine law (28-32).
  2. Paul begins his answer, therefore, with the phrase, “But, because of immoralities.” The word is the plural indicating of all kind of immoralities (porneias), and includes the decline of humanity into grotesque sexual perversion. Augustine rightly identified the perversion of sexuality as the most prominent moral evidence of the fall and of our internal disaffection for God. This he called concupiscence.
  3. The simple answer to immorality and its inevitable aggressive increase of dissatisfaction with all natural order is bound up in plain obedience to the revealed word of God in the purpose of there being two genders—“each man is to have his own wife, and each woman is to have her own husband.”

B. Next, he points to our duties as created beings according to God’s purpose. Paul goes back to creation and the account of Eve being brought to Adam.

  1. From the account as reported in Genesis 1:26-28, God looked upon the “image of God” as being reflected in each person individually (cf James 3:9), but more richly and productively in the union of male and female.
  • The filling of the earth with God’s image bearers was dependent on the sexual relations of the man and the woman. They were created for each other with the expectation that they would fulfill each other and obey the mandate of dominion through sexual intimacy.
  • Though we have no record of their intercourse until after the fall (Genesis 4:1), we would expect that sexual intimacy was involved from the beginning in light of God’s stated purpose for their companionship as male and female. They were to be fruitful and multiply and God had given them intrinsic knowledge of the way in which propagation was to occur.
  • In light, however, of Adam’s place as covenant head of the race concerning sin and death (Romans 5:12; 1 Corinthians 15:21, 22), we may assume that he was covenant head in his innocence for righteousness and life. God did not give the fruitfulness for children, therefore, until the test of Adam’s obedience was completed. When Adam failed the test and the moral direction of humanity was set, God gave fruitfulness to Eve and the implications of sin immediately begin to be manifest (Genesis 4:2-8).
  • The reality of gender and the rightness of seeking to maintain that distinct element of the image of God is seen in the emphatic words, “Male and female he created them.”
  1. In the second chapter (Genesis 2:18-25), Moses gave more details of the order and circumstance of the creation of woman.
  • Adam had seen by his naming of the animals that none was fit for companionship; he could have neither social nor physical intercourse with any of them: “There was not found a helper fit for him.”
  • Out of Adam himself, the lone image bearer of God at the time, God formed a woman and brought her to the man.
  • The words of Adam show that this was immensely pleasing to Adam and that he saw her as the co-image bearer of the Creator.
  • The conclusion drawn from this action: “Therefore, a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and they shall become one flesh.” This reaffirms that sexual intimacy was the expectation from the beginning.
  1. Assuming the original intent of male and female, Paul draws a series of conclusions and gives his judgments accordingly.
  • Engagement according to the legitimate desire of one’s partner in marriage is a “duty,” that is, it is something that is an intrinsic good to be sought. One should have no scruples against it or engage with reluctance. It is among the first moral commands given by God to the first man and the first woman, a command to which one should consent with a conviction of its excellence as a gift of God.
  • Any idea that depriving one’s husband or wife of sexual satisfaction is a form of spiritual discipline is simply wrong. The wife’s body belongs to the man and the man’s body belongs to the wife. Pursuit of sexual pleasure in marriage is the perfect manifestation of this good gift of God, and indeed, the only legitimate expression of it. Both husband and wife may be the aggressor for this act of pleasurable union; neither should find resistance or reluctance in the spouse. “The wife does not have authority over her own body, but the husband does; the husband does not have authority over his own body, but the wife does.” Of course, any kind of violence or inconsiderateness of sickness or other debilities that occur in a fallen world must be dealt with in compassion and patience. Paul gives a straightforward command, however, to those who think that sexual deprivation in marriage is a kind of exalted spirituality: “Stop depriving one another.”
  • Paul grants one concession on this general order. On occasions when both agree that prolonged and intense time must be devoted to prayer, they may consent to forego their sexual activity. This is only by mutual consent, however, and only for a designated period. They must come together again, or the purpose of prayer will be made null by the opportunity that Satan has for inciting lust.
  • One more caveat Paul issued “in view of the present distress” (26); marriage carries heavy responsibilities and increases the danger when times are hostile. Paul would have them, “even as I myself am,” free of deep responsibility in worldly care which is necessarily, and rightly, increased in marriage (32-35). For most, however, the gift of celibacy is not present.


III. Advice to the unmarried. (verses 8, 9). Here Paul expands just briefly on his realization of the demands of this life in the married relationship.

A. Those who presently are unmarried or widowed Paul advised to remain in their single condition. As the rest of the chapter indicates he does not establish this as an absolute or as a morally superior status. It is a more flexible and less burdensome status as far as worldly needs are concerned and provides, therefore more opportunity for service to the gospel and less susceptibility to worldly difficulties.

B. With the reality of gender and of the presence of natural desire, however, all the arguments from above would apply to Paul’s statement, “If they cannot exercise self-control, let them marry. For it is better to marry than to burn with passion” (9). Even as he sets forth the difficulties of living in a married state in the present condition of crisis, social instability, and persecution, Paul gives permission for marriage both to the unmarried (36-38) and to widows (39).


IV. The intended permanence of marriage (Verses 10,11)

A. He now gives a word concerning the principle of marriage as affirmed by the Lord Jesus himself as he sought to correct the direction of certain traditions that had arisen about marriage through a misunderstanding of the context of divorce law. Malachi 2:13-16 brings condemnation on the Jews for their violations of the covenant of marriage, the reflection of the image of God that is present in marriage, the necessity of rearing godly offspring, and dealing treacherously with “the wife of his youth.” Jesus confronted this problem in Matthew 5:31, 32, affirming that anyone that divorces except for the cause of sexual immorality stigmatizes his wife as an adulteress, and one who marries a divorced person commits adultery. Matthew 19:3-10 reaffirms the original intent of marriage at creation and points to hardness of heart (obviously a result of the fall) as that which brought about the permission of divorce. He then repeats his teaching given in Matthew 5: 31, 32.

B. Paul affirmed, therefore, that if a situation arose that cause a separation, the woman must remain single or be reconciled to her husband. He also states plainly, “A husband is not to divorce his wife.”


V. The Marriage of those who have become believers to those who remain unbelievers. (verse 12-16).

A. The instruction to the widow in verse 39 granting her right to marry but only “in the Lord” holds true generally for Christians who desire to marry. Old Testament precedent shows the absoluteness with which marriage should be regarded along with the great difficulties attending it in a fallen world.

  1. We see Nehemiah’s reaction to those of Judah who had married pagans and whose children, therefore, were not reared in a full understanding of the covenant. He “contended with them and cursed them, struck some of them and pulled out their hair, and made them swear by God, saying ‘You shall not give your daughters as wives to their sons, or take their daughters for your sons for yourselves’” (Nehemiah 13:25). He wanted to make sure that the compromise of that generation did not perpetuate itself into the next generation.
  2. Nehemiah pointed to Solomon as prime example of the consequences of violation of this principle of marriage (Nehemiah 13:26, 27).
  3. When Ezra discovered the returning exiles had taken pagan wives and had children by them, he entered into a period of fasting, mourning, repenting, and lamentation through prayer (Ezra 9). When the people resolved to put away their pagan spouses and even their children conceived in this relationship, Ezra appointed a committee to look into each case to discern all who had done so and to make a vow “to put away all these wives and those who have been born to them” (Ezra 10:3).
  4. This violation of the law meant that the “holy seed was mixed with the peoples of those lands” (Ezra 9:2).

B. Given the reality of pagan Corinth in its rampant immorality and the recent founding of this church by sovereign, discriminating grace (Acts 18:10; 1 Corinthians 1:26-31; 6:9-11), some, perhaps many, couples were in a mixed marriage—believer married to unbeliever. Their condition when they were called became a major point of their present discipleship (Verses 17-24).

  1. A believing man with an unbelieving wife is not to divorce her if she consents to live with him.
  • Consent would involve a cordial toleration of his faith, even though she did not share it.
  • Naturally, this would involve living in a peaceful relationship (verse 15) without compromise of Christian worship or any prohibition of the involvement of children in the life of the congregation.
  • It also would mean that the believing spouse should not harass the unbelieving one but live in the union with godliness, patience, the humble mind of Christ, and deep trust in the wise providence of God.
  • The believer must do everything within the guidelines of Christian truth and personal holiness to maintain the integrity of both marriage and faithfulness to Christ.
  1. Even so, a believing woman with an unbelieving husband who consents to live with her must not seek to send him away. The same principles would apply. See Peter’s expanded discussion of this particularly in relation to believing wives in 1 Peter 3:1-6.
  2. The new covenant, pointing to a principle of internal holiness based on an efficacious call of the Spirit of God to faith in Christ has established a new “people of God” (1 Peter 2:9, 10).
  • This means that the principle of a “holy seed” considered ethnically or nationally no longer applies. All the ceremonies and civil laws that maintained the national identity till Christ came have been fulfilled.
  • The particular concerns of Ezra from the standpoint of maintaining a Messiah nation would not apply to the new covenant.
  • The fundamental principle, however, of pursuing marriage “only in the Lord” must be a conviction of every young person, every unmarried person, who is a Christian.
  1. The faith of the believer sanctifies the unbeliever.
  • This does not mean proxy salvation or automatic inclusion in the covenant of grace from family connection.
  • It means that because marriage is a creation ordinance, and the new covenant has brought to an end the peculiar ceremonies and national discriminatory law of Israel as defining the people of God, the original creation ordinance must be honored and the “mixed” couple received as having a legitimate marriage according to the original intent of God.
  • The presence of a believing spouse makes the unbeliever receive the prayers and the Christian proclamation of the truth (verse 14). The unbeliever may enter into the congregation to hear preaching and even receive ministries of compassion, but not engage in the ordinances reflecting the status of redemption and of unity with the body of Christ (Baptism and the Lord’s Supper).
  • If an unbelieving spouse were to be rejected on the basis of his/her status as an unbeliever, then so must all the children of the congregation (“otherwise your children are unclean, but now they are holy”). All the children of all the families, however, are received as legitimately connected to the families and under the protection and nurture of the new covenant community. Even though they are by nature children of wrath and not yet among the people of God through regeneration, they are not to be rejected from the church or their families nor from any positive gospel influences.
  • Ezra’s requirement of the exiles who had married pagans is not to be the practice of the church. The children are to be instructed in the gospel and in the fear of God (Ephesians 6:1-4; Colossians 3:20).
  • This verse has been used to justify infant baptism by the use of the word “holy,” supposedly covenant children of covenant parents. They are not, however, yet members of the new covenant people for only the new birth establishes that membership. If infants were to be baptized on this basis, then so would unbelieving spouses.

C. If the unbeliever leaves (verses 15, 16), then the believing spouse should consent to it and not seek to maintain a relationship that would only result in continuing conflict.

  1. “God has called us to peace.” Since God has removed the enmity between Himself and sinners by the blood of the cross, and given his Spirit to change our hearts (Colossians 1:21f and 2:11-15), we live as people reconciled to God, no longer at enmity with him, and embracing the hope of eternal life.
  2. A person who not only is unreconciled to God but unreconciled to our reconciliation and desires to depart on that account should be allowed to go, but with no projection of hatred or enmity toward him.
  3. To maintain a contentious relationship that is the direct result of the spouse’s antagonism to the faith of the gospel, would serve no purpose, but would result in escalating misery, creating an atmosphere the opposite of our reconciled state to God.
  4. The believing spouse, in consenting to such a separation, is not guilty of dissolution of a marriage on insufficient grounds. She, or he, is not “under bondage in such cases.”
  5. The spouse may feel, “If I can just bear with this long enough, perhaps he/she will be saved. I must insist on keeping this marriage together.” Paul says, that is an issue one cannot predict; if it happens eventually even after the separation, then, supposedly, the marriage could be restored.


Tom has most recently served as the Professor of Historical Theology at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. He previously taught at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School where he was Professor of Church History and Chair of the Department of Church History. Prior to that, he taught at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary and Mid-America Baptist Theological Seminary. Along with numerous journal articles and scholarly papers, Dr. Nettles is the author and editor of fifteen books. Among his books are By His Grace and For His Glory; Baptists and the Bible, James Petigru Boyce: A Southern Baptist Statesman, and Living by Revealed Truth: The Life and Pastoral Theology of Charles H. Spurgeon.
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