8. Marriage and mutuality

by Rev. Tommy Williams, Senior Pastor

Photo by Ben Rosett

Photo by Ben Rosett

Much of the first letter to the Corinthian church is Paul’s response to letters written to him (see I Corinthians 7). Most of this chapter is concerning the place of human sexuality in the Christian life. While contemporary debates in The United Methodist Church are about who can marry whom, the debate for the early Christians is about whether marriage at all is a good thing for Christian people. 

Paul himself refrains from married life and shares “I wish that all were as I myself am,” that is, single. Here the implication being that single life is more conducive to the person’s undivided attention to a life of prayer and Christian service (verses 32-35). One can see how centuries later both the celibate priesthood for men and celibate religious orders for women emerged with the Roman Catholic Church and within the Eastern Orthodox tradition (verses 36-40). 

Paul is clear to say that those who are married should stay married and are to be mutually complementary to each other and in their married life—in intimacy, in prayer, and in the life of faith. This chapter was, especially for its day, very egalitarian in its balanced interest in the rights and needs of women and men in marriage. Of course there are marriages, then and now, which exist wherein one person is carrying more than they should in that marriage, and the other carrying less. In the language of family systems theory, one person is consistently over-functioning and the other is consistently under-functioning. On balance Paul counsels toward a complementary life of marriage. Again, this is a dramatic move for Paul because women especially, were treated with fewer rights in marriage. In short Paul was saying, if you are going to be married, men and women—be faithful and remember: “It is to peace that God has called you” (I Cor. 7:15). 

Now, what does this have to do with Paul’s overall concern in the letter with conflict in the church? Some ideas come to mind. When there is conflict in households and marriages, this will certainly spill over into the life of the church. When there is a lack of self-control (verses 5, 9) this impacts the life of the church adversely and most importantly impacts the sincerity of their Christian witness to the broader culture. 

Throughout this letter and especially in this chapter, Paul wants to remove any impediments that exist to the unity of the church and its witness. Work on marriages so they are peaceful. Be free from anxieties so that you can live a free life of devotion to the Lord. Now, we all know there is no life free from stress, but the backdrop of this chapter is helpful for the church: fulfill sacred commitments, be a person of prayer, understand the Christian life as a life of mutuality. These practices move us—and the church—from anxiety to freedom as God’s people.