This is a hard chapter to know how best to understand and apply what Paul says. Yet, because it is talking about marriage, it is one that a lot of Christians end up in with some frequency. I am afraid I have neither the space nor knowledge necessary to unravel all of the knots. My only goal today is to lay done two boundary lines that might help us know where a good interpretation should land. Unfortunately, these also produce more questions.
1. Paul makes no bones about it, a lot of what he has to say in this chapter is only his opinion, as wise as that may be (7:6, 12, 25, 40). Paul himself says that much here is not binding on the reader:
I’m not saying this as a command, but as a concession. (7:6)
Maybe it helps to remember that verse 1 indicates this was a response from Paul about a question they had asked. Could it be that we have uninspired opinions like these in the Bible? Well, that is a Pandora’s Box if we agree, isn’t it? It gets right down to the roots of what we mean when we say the Bible is truth. Maybe we should view it like this? I take seriously what certain church leaders say when I am seeking advice from them. I don’t assume it is unquestionable and inspired truth, but I also feel like I better have a good reason not to take seriously their wisdom.
2. The teachings in this chapter appear to be based on a premise that did not turn out to be the case: this present world is coming to an end very soon.
Just at the moment we are in the middle of a very difficult time. . . . The present situation won’t last long. . . . The pattern of this world, you see, is passing away. (7:26, 29, 31)
Many scholars believe this indicates that Paul had a view that Jesus would be returning in the near future. Hence, people should “remain before God in the state in which they were called” (7:24; c.f., 17, 26, 40) because soon our present relationships would be over. Of course, it has been 2000 years since Paul said that. That is not exactly “very soon.” One can say, “But Jesus could come any minute, so we should live like Jesus’ return is right around the corner.” Maybe that is what Paul meant. The problem with that logic is that, then, we all should do what this chapter says: remain in the situation we are present in — married, unmarried, widowed, enslaved, etc. Christians don’t do that.
So, what do we do with a chapter like this? I guess I prefer to look for big concepts that I also find elsewhere in the Bible and hang on to those. Such as: Marriage is a blessing. God has provided a partner for each of us so that a physical and sexual life can be lived with purity and blessing. At the same time, family is not the most important thing in life if you are a Christian; practically, marriage and a family does pull a person away from preaching the gospel and ministering to churches, as Paul says here (7:34).
If you are interested in reading more about how to interpret the Bible, check out this series of posts on my other blog. These posts won’t answer all of our questions but they will show that understanding and applying the Bible to our lives today is not always as easy as we have thought.