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TitlePaul: Anti-Woman? Anti-Sex? Ascetic?
Tags Paul The Apostle First Epistle To The Corinthians Celibacy Gnosticism
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Total Pages29
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Dr Gregory J. LAUGHERY

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Paul: Anti-Marriage? Anti-Sex? Ascetic?
By Dr. Gregory J. Laughery

© Gregory J. Laughery
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1. The Scope of the Study

This study will focus on an examination of the apostle Paul's attitude to sex,

marriage, and celibacy in 1 Corinthians 7.1 Are we to view Paul as ascetic? Is Paul

against marriage ( or sexual relations within it ) per se? Does this chapter affirm that

the celibate life is morally or spiritually superior to the married life? Does Paul

actually argue that it is evil for a man to have sex with a woman or for that matter

to even touch one? Many interpreters from the patristic era to the modern would

respond in the affirmative regarding such questions. In their opinion, Paul was ascetic,

held the celibate life to be a higher, more spiritual form of existence than the

married, and thought sex was evil. The only reason to get married, if at all, was to

avoid sexual immoralities.

Tertullian, the Father of Latin theology,2 writing around the year 200, sees

Paul implying that it was evil for a man to have contact with a woman.3 Ambrose

1 There is considerable debate concerning whether or not this chapter ( among others), belongs

to what we have come to know as 1 Corinthians. We agree with those scholars who maintain

the integrity of the letter. The high degree of subjectivity manifesting itself in the variety of

reconstruction's offered for the present form of the letter are indeed a telling mark against the

multi- letter hypotheses. C. K. Barrett, The First Epistle to the Corinthians, (BNTC; London,

1968), 11-17, concludes, 'As long, however, as it seems that the epistle as it stands makes

reasonably good sense, historically and theologically, the balance of probability will remain

with the view that we have it substantially as it left the author's hands.'

2 T. Lane, The Lion Book of Christian Thought, (Herts, 1984) 17-20.

3 Tertullian, On Monogamy 3. In response to 1 Cor. 7:1b, 'It follows that it is evil to have

contact with a woman; for nothing is contrary to good except evil.'

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Paul: Anti-Marriage? Anti-Sex? Ascetic?
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© Gregory J. Laughery
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Paul now constructs his main arguments in 6:12-20 on 'the body' in verses 13,

15 - 20. In verse 13b he states: 'the body is not meant for sexual immorality, but for

the Lord.. .'38 Following the theological statement in verse 14 ( 'by his power God

raised the Lord, and he will raise us also' ), there are two rhetorical questions in

verses 15 - 16 which build on it. The first question affirms that their bodies are

members of Christ, and as such are not to be united to a prostitute. The second

question speaks to their apparent lack of understanding regarding the body and sexual

intercourse. To be united with a prostitute is to be one with her in body: 'The two

will become one flesh.' These two unions cannot co-exist. For Paul, one cannot be

united to Christ and to a prostitute.

Paul uses the present imperative in verse 18 to make his point: 'Flee sexual

immorality.' In verse 19, with yet another rhetorical question, he argues that their

bodies are the temple of the Holy Spirit and that their actions are incompatible with

those who are not their own. The whole argument concludes, affirming this, with yet

another imperative in verse 20: 'You were bought at a price. Therefore honor God in

your body.'

depends not only on the notion of corporate solidarity with Christ, but also on the concept of

eschatological destiny.' (Italics his.)

38 B. S. Rosner, Paul, Scripture and Ethics, (Leiden, 1994), 136-145. Rosner views Paul as

calling for, or affirming, the 'spiritual marriage' of the believer and Christ as a deterrent to

sexual immorality. The important thing is that God is understood as the believer's husband.

This does not seem an adequate perspective. Rather, Paul attempts, at this juncture, to point

out the significance of the body in relationship to both the present and future. He aims to

theologically affirm, on the basis of the cross and resurrection (not spiritual marriage), that the

believer's body belongs to God. The spiritual significance of the physical body itself is at

stake. The body is neither evil nor irrelevant.

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It is important, before going on to examine the structure of our chapter, to

elucidate the previous section's linguistic and thematic connections directly related to

chapter 7. First, we have 'sexual immoralities' in verse 2. Second, there are two

references, in verse 4, to 'one's own body' confirming the ongoing importance of the

body in Paul's present discussion. Third, the mention of, 'your lack of self control' in

verse 5, is likely to be referring to those going to prostitutes in 6:12-20. Fourth, in

verse 23, we again have, 'you were bought at a price.' Fifth, in verses 29ff, there is

an explicit discussion of eschatology, this time in reference to how to live in the

present age.39 This final connection, in our opinion, again affirms that whether Paul

has been dealing with incest, seeking justice from outsiders, or going to prostitutes,

the general problem in the Corinthian community is an over-realized eschatology.

4. The Structure of 1 Corinthians 7

There are numerous opinions concerning the structure of the chapter.40 We

have chosen to do a brief rhetorical analysis in order to establish the progression of

Paul's argumentation and to demonstrate that he is not an anti-sex, anti-marriage,


In this study, the term 'rhetoric' is not being used to identify a genre, but

rather is understood as a critical tool to help us discover how Paul uses the art of

39 For another analysis affirming the connection of 6:12 to what follows see A.

Rakotoharintsifa, La Convivialité des forts et des faibles à Corinthe, (Diplôme de spécialisation

en Nouveau Testament, Lausanne, 1992), 34; P. E.-B. Allo, St Paul Première Epître Aux

Corinthiens, (EBib; Paris, 1934), 153. Allo disagrees with those who see an incoherence

between 6:12-20 and chapter 7.

40 For a diversity of opinions on the structure of the chapter. Barrett, First Epistle, 29; Allo,

Saint Paul, 153; Robertson and Plummer, 1 Cor, 130; Senft, St Paul, 87; Conzelmann, 1 Cor,

114 and Héring, Saint Paul 50.

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Paul: Anti-Marriage? Anti-Sex? Ascetic?
By Dr. Gregory J. Laughery

© Gregory J. Laughery
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is addressing those who are already married,69 therefore, his intent cannot be to offer

marriage as a solution to a problem of this nature.

The significance of this chapter for Pauline theology is to be found in what

we have termed the 'bi-directional transition' of 7:17-24. The centrality of these verses

for Paul's argument must not be minimized. In this section we discover the heart of

Pauline theology, which is really no different from that in the rest of the epistle (1:4-

9, 18-31). The theological basis from which he operates is the radical redeeming

activity of the God who calls people to salvation in Christ. It is on this basis that

Paul attempts to persuade the Corinthians that either celibacy or marriage is

acceptable.70 He relativizes both, in terms of circumcision - non-circumcision (7:18-19),

and slave - free (7:20-22). In establishing that it is God who had called them and

bought them at a price (7:23), Paul can now theologically argue that any socio-sexual

status that the Corinthians may have thought to be more spiritual than another or

incumbent upon members of the community is extraneous. In the eyes of God such

status is strictly a non-essential.

69 See our discussion of this perspective above.

70 Menoud, 'Problèmes' 22 offers a helpful insight. 'Le salut ne dépend pas de la condition

civile du croyant, vu que le mariage n'est pas un péché et le célibat ne fait pas entrer dans

une communion au Christ plus étroite que ne le fait la vie conjugale. Les célibataires et les

gens mariés sont à égalité en face du salut. L'important n'est pas l'état de célibataire ou

d'homme marié, mais la condition dans laquelle on vit cet état.' (Italics his.) Salvation does not

depend on the civil condition of the believer. Marriage is not a sin and celibacy does not give entry into

a deeper communion with Christ. The celibate and the married are equal in salvation. What’s important

is not the state of the celibate or the married, but the condition in which one is to live this state. (My


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Paul's view of marriage and sex is striking for two reasons: First, into a

milieu where the woman was often seen as the possession of the man Paul not only

denounces such a mentality, but he revolutionizes his society's comprehension of the

role of the husband and wife. It is not merely the wife's body that belongs to her

husband, but the husband's body also belongs to his wife (7:3-4). Second, in a society

where women were envisioned to be wife, Mother, the producer of children, and 'la

maitresse de la maison' Paul radically reconstitutes the position of a woman under the

grace of God. She is free to remain single.

Paul's attempts to persuade his audience are not centered in a rhetoric of

asceticism that demands one must be celibate at all costs. His rhetoric throughout the

chapter is one of equality, attempting to convince the Corinthians that they are free to

remain as they are. This rhetoric has not only been structurally related to persons, but

also to the theme of marriage and celibacy. For Paul, the two are equal. His

personal- pastoral preference is for the latter, but his rhetoric is always balanced and

never prejudicial concerning the former.

Paul's concerns in addressing and responding to the Corinthian community are

primarily theological, not ascetic. God's redeeming activity in Christ functions as the

dynamic equalizer and is central to his position. He has given his opinion as one

who is by the Lord's mercy trustworthy, and as one who has the Spirit of God (7:25,


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