1 Corinthians 7 – Was Paul married?

Was Paul against marriage in general?

It doesn’t seem so. This chapter seems to be answering a question about missionary service and marriage. Should missionaries be married? It seems as if Paul is counseling missionaries if they are unmarried, to remain unmarried until they finish their mission because “the time is short” (1 Corinthians 7:29). And if missionaries have a spouse, they are to serve “as though they had none” (1 Corinthians 7:29)

Robert J. Matthews 1926-2009

Robert J. Matthews 1926-2009

Robert J. Mathews said: “The Joseph Smith Translation makes many clarifications and corrections to the records about Paul, but two of the most useful deal with Paul’s teachings about marriage (1 Cor. 7) and about how the gospel of Jesus Christ changed his life (Rom. 7:14-25). The popular myth that Paul was opposed to marriage is corrected by the Joseph Smith Translation so that his dictum that there is an advantage to remaining unmarried is limited to those on temporary mission assignments. This practice was advocated by Paul for efficiency in the temporary ministry, and is similar to the practice of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints today in calling young men and women, unmarried, to serve missions, and refrain from marriage while in the mission field. Paul’s teachings against marriage were not for all Church members, any more than the policy for young missionaries to remain unmarried today is a permanent rejection of marriage. The Joseph Smith Translation restores the proper context.”  (Robert J. Matthews, Behold the Messiah [Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1994], 341.)

1 Corinthians 7:8 – It is good for them to abide even as I

Spencer W. Kimball 1895-1985

Spencer W. Kimball 1895-1985

“What, then, of those who contend that Paul was unmarried and taught others to be likewise?…Elder Spencer W. Kimball has commented on this passage as follows: ‘Taking such statements in conjunction with others [Paul] made it is clear that he is not talking about celibacy, but is urging the normal and controlled sex living in marriage and total continence outside marriage. (There is no real evidence that Paul was never married, as some students claim, and there are in fact indications to the contrary.)’ (Miracle of Forgiveness, p. 64.)” (Institute Manual, The Life and Teachings of Jesus & his Apostles, 2nd ed., p. 288-289)

JST 1 Corinthians 7:38 So then he that giveth himself in marriage doeth well; but he that giveth himself not in marriage doeth better

“The JST restores the needful insight that Paul was addressing himself to members of the Church who had been called as missionaries, those for whom the postponement of marriage would be most appropriate. Of this contribution from the JST, Robert J. Matthews has written: ‘Paul’s counsel is similar to that given in the Church today, as established in the mission field and as obeyed by the young elders and sisters. Many have had the experience of listening to a mission president counsel the elders and sisters to remain at arm’s length while on the mission assignment and then preach marriage to the people of the mission. (As Paul does in 1 Cor. 11:11; Heb. 13:4.) If all we knew was the instruction given to the missionaries, we would have an incomplete sampling of the teachings of the Church, and consequently an incorrect notion. In like manner, 1 Corinthians 7 is not a true picture of Paul’s whole concept of marriage, but is directed to a temporary situation in the lives of those called into the ministry. There is no contradiction, simply a change in situation.’ (“A Plainer Translation,” p. 358.)” (Robert L. Millet, “Joseph Smith and the New Testament,” Ensign, Dec. 1986, 34)

I get the impression from reading 1 Corinthians 7:7–9 that Paul was not married and was against marriage in general. How can his views be reconciled with the revealed truths of eternal marriage?

This article is an excerpt from the February 1976 Ensign which can be accessed here.

C. Wilfred Griggs

C. Wilfred Griggs

C. Wilfred Griggs, assistant professor of ancient scripture, Brigham Young University Many people believe that Paul was antagonistic toward marriage because of the passage, “For I would that all men were even as I myself. But every man hath his proper gift of God, one after this manner, and another after that.

“I say therefore to the unmarried and widows, It is good for them if they abide even as I.

“But if they cannot contain, let them marry: for it is better to marry than to burn.” (1 Cor. 7:7–9.)

But this belief does not account for all the other statements that Paul made concerning marriage. Paul’s teachings, as recorded in letters that were sent to churches and saints in various stages of spiritual progression, reflect the character and experience of a man who understands family relationships and can speak with authority on the subject.

apostle-paulIn the first place, Paul himself was likely to have been married because of his Judaic background. 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. (See Acts 22:3.) Again, in his defense before the Pharisees and Sadducees, Paul claims that he is a Pharisee, the son of a Pharisee. (See Acts 23:6.) To the Galatians, Paul had written that he was more zealous in fulfilling the requirements of his religion than others of his time. (See 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. 1

Further evidence that Paul was married is found in the likelihood that Paul was a member of the Sanhedrin. One of the qualifications for becoming a member of that body was that a man must be married and the father of children, 2 which was thought to make him more merciful in dispensing justice in the courts. Paul (Saul) was one of the official witnesses of the stoning of Stephen (see Acts 7:58), an action ordered by the Sanhedrin. He also gave his vote with the Sanhedrin against the Christians prior to his conversion. (See Acts 26:10.) 3 Further evidence of Paul’s position is found in Acts 9:1–2 where Paul went before the high priest and requested letters authorizing his “official” persecution in bringing Christians to trial and imprisonment. In view of these evidences, most non-Mormon scholars do not argue that Paul had never been married, but that he was either divorced or was a widower by the time he wrote to the Corinthian church.

But let us take a closer look at 1 Corinthians 7 to see if the evidence supports this last conjecture. At the outset, Paul refers to a letter the Corinthians wrote to him: “Now concerning the things whereof ye wrote unto me: It is good for a man not to touch a woman.” Although the King James Version does not make it clear who makes the statement, “it is good for a man not to touch a woman,” the Greek text and the Inspired Version both make this a statement of the Corinthians. We do not know the context of this statement, because we do not have the Corinthian epistle to Paul. The only context we can supply is Paul’s answer and, fortunately, that does give us some clue as to their problem. Paul wishes (see 1 Cor. 7:7) that all men were as he was. But what is that? Could it be that he wishes all men were divorced or that all had lost their companions in death, or does he simply wish that men would be so dedicated to the work of the Lord that they be as though single?

Evidence of the latter possibility can be found later in the chapter. In verses 10 and 11, [1 Cor. 7:10–11] Paul does not tell the married saints to become separated, but if they are separated, he suggests either that they remain that way rather than marry someone else or that they become reconciled. Paul even enjoins against separation in part-member families if the husband and wife are compatible (1 Cor. 7:12–14), because the member may someday be able to help save his spouse (see 1 Cor. 7:16). Some scholars conjecture that Paul was divorced as a result of a “mixed” marriage, but the Corinthians would have thrown this advice right back to him if such had been the case.

One reason Paul wrote to the Corinthians concerning these matters is found in verse 29 [1 Cor. 7:29], where he states, “this I say, brethren, the time is short: it remaineth, that … they that have wives be as though they had none.” He further states (1 Cor. 7:32) that the unmarried saints (and those who are as though unmarried) care for the things of the Lord, but too often a married person puts other things before the work of the Lord (1 Cor. 7:33). Paul is simply reminding those who have been called to God’s work to put that calling first, even before earthly matters.

In the Inspired Version, Joseph Smith made an important addition to 1 Corinthians 7:29 [1 Cor. 7:29] that supports this interpretation: “But I speak unto you who are called unto the ministry. 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.” Contrary to generally accepted interpretations, Paul is not condemning marriage in this chapter but is evidently 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) they should be concerned with the work of the Lord and not with family or personal matters.

Concerning the importance of marriage for a member of the church and the relationships of family members toward each other and the Lord, Paul exhorts the saints to be followers of himself, especially in the ordinances of the church. (See 1 Cor. 11:1–2.) He teaches that the husband is to honor the Lord as his head and the wife is to honor the husband as her head, and that “neither is the man without the woman, neither the woman without the man, in the Lord.” (1 Cor. 11:11.)

What sense would these statements make if they came from an unmarried man? In view of all that Paul has said on marriage in 1 Corinthians, it is quite unlikely that the Corinthians would accept his epistle and his arguments if he had been divorced or separated from a wife. The message of 2 Corinthians 7, [2 Cor. 7] however, is that the first epistle was accepted and many Saints repented.

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. (See Eph. 5.) But he also charges the husbands to love their wives (see Eph. 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.” (Eph. 5:28.) A husband is not to rule as a tyrant over his wife but is to preside in love. (See Eph. 5:33.)

Paul’s letter to Philippi deserves special consideration in pursuing this subject. Philippi was the first European city in which Paul preached and was one of the most righteous branches of the church at that time of which we have record: “Wherefore, my beloved, as ye have always obeyed, not as in my presence only, but now much more in my absence. …” (Philip. 2:12.) During Paul’s missionary travels and while in prison at Rome, the Philippian church was the only one to remain in constant communication with him by courier, sending gifts and necessities to their beloved apostle. (See Philip. 4:15–18.) In his letter to this faithful group, Paul addresses some of the sisters: “I beseech Euodias, and beseech Syntyche, that they be of the same mind in the Lord.

“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.” (Philip. 4:2–3; italics added.) Gnésie syzuge, the words translated “true yokefellow,” are here taken as feminine, and Hebrew characters is a noun that means “wife.” Ancient commentators believed that Paul was addressing his wife (e.g., Clement of Alex., Strom. 3:53:1, and Origen, Comm. in Ep. ad. Rom. 1:1), and this is the most sensible translation of the Greek in this context. If he were married at the time, one would expect Paul to leave his wife with a faithful group of saints, where she would least suffer from want and lack of support during his absence. Both her presence in Philippi and the love of the members there for Paul would account for the constant communication with the apostle, and, if this interpretation is true, it is natural that Paul would ask his wife to assist some of the women who had done so much on his behalf.

Finally, in Paul’s last epistles, which were written to Timothy and Titus, he places further emphasis on the desirability of marriage. In listing the qualities necessary for a bishop, Paul includes being married (see 1 Tim. 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 Tim. 3:5; cp. 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 Tim. 3:10–13.)

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. He 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 Tim. 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.

Notes

  1. 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.
  2. Sanhedrin 36:2.
  3. Conybeare and Howson, Life and Epistles of St. Paul, pp. 59, 64. The Greek of Acts 26:10 is technical terminology, and literally means: “I cast my vote against them,” meaning that Paul voted for condemnation of the saints. Such language has reference to a formal court, and Paul would have to be a member of the Sanhedrin before he could cast his vote in a judicial proceeding.
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