I spend too much time on Facebook following a conservative United Methodist page. I often post articles which I know will elicit strong responses, and I have to laugh at some of the mental gymnastics some of these people (many clergy) go through to justify their “Bible-believing” positions. A recent exchange serves as a good example of why we can’t always apply a literal interpretation of the Bible to today’s world, and why discernment is critical when you try to use the Bible to support a position.
A typical argument had arisen related to LGBT marriage equality, and the usual claims were being made about sexuality and orientation, and the Bible’s “specificity” about how wrong being gay is. There was some discussion about Paul going off on a slight tangent, and one of the saner members of the page posed the following:
Perhaps you can explain to us how this Scripture from 1 Cor 7 serves churches in posterity – namely, our church today?
“27 Are you pledged to a woman? Do not seek to be released. Are you free from such a commitment? Do not look for a wife. 28 but if you do marry, you have not sinned; and if a virgin marries, she has not sinned. But those who marry will face many troubles in this life, and I want to spare you this.
29 What I mean, brothers and sisters, is that the time is short. From now on, those who have wives should live as if they do not;”
One of the more active commenters and supposedly an ordained pastor, replied this way:
In verse 29, could time is short be referring to one’s own life? And what he means by all this is simply that we shouldn’t distract ourselves with marriage as it is a distraction from serving the Lord? But if one does marry, it’s not a sin?
This is in line with his other teachings and makes more sense than your end of the world theory…. just thinking about it as I read it again…..
As for how it serves out church then and today? It produces more faithful disciples – who won’t be distracted by fleshly distractions…. again, seems a very reasonable conclusion to me…
So in his desperate attempts to maintain fidelity of his literal beliefs, he basically says, all Paul is saying is getting married distracts you from being the best possible Christian, but I promise you I can find plenty of places where this very same guy has made comments in other threads about 1 man/1 woman marriage being God’s design for humanity. If it’s God’s design, would it not be heresy for Paul to say it is not the best state?
I join the discussion here, and point out that Paul believed the second coming would be in his lifetime, and so, in that context, telling people not already engaged, not to worry about getting married…that time was short, made sense. While asking people to remain celibate for their entire life was going a bit far, and most of us would feel the same way. The commentator above responds as follows (reproduced exactly as typed by the commentator):
I disagree. I think he’s saying don’t look to get married, but if it happens, hey, it’s no sin. With goes along with his other advice: if you can;t control yourself better to get married than sin.
I just don’t see this being clear evidence he is speaking of the end times. I mean, we are still told we don’t know the day or hour of Jesus return. If you don’t expect it even a little bit, well, I’d question that vs. what Paul means.
Frankly, for many, a lifelong call to celibacy is not an issue. I know many (into their 50s, etc.) who have done it and have no regrets. Their glad they have no distractions to serving God. But I know others who would be better off married.
I don;t feel this leans toward telling someone that lifelong celibacy is the only viable option. Quite the opposite: he goes out of his way to say getting married is not a sin – or no big deal – just not the preferred way. No denigration. Truth – less distractions (like a spouse, family) means more devotion to God and serving.
The original poster notes that he believes Paul does believe Jesus’ return is imminent from verse 31, which says, “For this world in its present form is passing away.” Then I point out:
OK, but in that case, Paul is making the case, and it is very clear, that celibacy is the preferable state for Christians to live out their lives. The PREFERRED state. So, why all the emphasis on marriage and male/female complimentary within the Christian Church, if the preferred state for a person’s entire life is celibacy? That means that the Church is misinterpreting, or deliberately ignoring verses it doesn’t like, or Paul is a little off his rocker. Yes, he says if you get married it’s not a sin, but that’s not a loophole large enough to drive the vast majority of humanity through given his statements about what is preferred. You do realize what “preferred” means, right?
The commentator goes on to argue first that “both are preferred.” Obviously lacking understanding of the meaning of “preferred.” Later he notes the Bible says in Thessalonians that no one knows the time of Jesus’ return. That is true, but it wasn’t yet part of Cannon, and in Corinthians, the book under discussion, Paul is making it clear, as he did in other places, that he believes the second coming is imminent.
So what does this have to do with biblical interpretation? I hope I’ve hinted at it as we’ve gone along. One has to read the Bible for what it is, a cannon written by men, in a certain time, and in the case of Paul especially, to particular groups. Remember, Paul was writing his letters to specific churches to address specific issues at those churches.
So let’s look at these few verses, and do some interpretation.
Let’s take them literally at first, and see where that leaves us. “27 Are you pledged to a woman? Do not seek to be released. Are you free from such a commitment? Do not look for a wife. 28 But if you do marry, you have not sinned; and if a virgin marries, she has not sinned. But those who marry will face many troubles in this life, and I want to spare you this.”
OK, Paul is saying, if you are already engaged to marry, you need to go ahead and do that…you made a pledge, so keep it. However, if you haven’t, do not look for a wife, because if you do, you’ll face many troubles in life, and Paul wants to spare us from that. Clearly, a preference for celibacy is stated here. Take a look at the Shaker’s to see how taking Paul’s advice would end for the Christian Church.
And then, even though it’s OK to get married if you’re engaged, and OK to stay married if you already are, in Verse 29, Paul says, “What I mean, brothers and sisters, is that the time is short. From now on those who have wives should live as if they do not;” So, I guess men are supposed to ignore their wives from now on.
However, let’s apply some reasonable discernment, and see how it might change our understanding of these verses. (And remember, I’m not a theologian nor a biblical scholar. I’m sure people more educated on the subject can arrive at a more complete understanding, but my point is that it’s not that hard, even for a lay person, to apply a little logic and context to best understand the Bible.)
The first thing we have to understand is, as I noted earlier, that Paul is writing specifically to the Church in Corinth. This seems like a fairly important message, but he was not inclined to repeat it in writing to the other churches. (And remember, at that time, there was no “New Testament,” so Paul could not have expected the other churches would be reading all of his letters.) I can only assume that there was some particular circumstance within the Church at Corinth that caused Paul to deliver this message. What that circumstance was, we will never know. It is one of many mysteries about Paul’s epistles that will remain unexplained in our time on earth.
So this is a specific message, meant for a specific audience, to address a specific circumstance to which we don’t have insight. So, any interpretation or conclusions we arrive at about the meaning of his writing is already impaired.
The next point is that Paul clearly did believe that the second coming was imminent. Many of his writings make that claim, and talk about time being short. So, Paul was comparable to some of our modern day “judgement day predictors.” Paul was older by the time these letters were being written, so that would be a short time, and given that belief, as I note, it might be reasonable to ask people not to spend their time courting, marrying, and starting a life together, since it was all about to end.
Here, I think he’s being fair, and saying don’t go to the trouble, rather spend all your available time praying and working for the Lord. Concentrate on that, not other-worldly matters.
Then there’s verse 29, where he commands Christian men to ignore their wives, to live as though they are not married…no sex for you, even with your wife. The context of this, outside the previous understanding is hard to make any sense out of. I mean really, unless time is very short, and you need to spend the time in preparation for the second coming OK, but how well do you think that would work out applied literally today.
The truth is, even Christians who claim the Bible to be “literal” and “inerrant,” don’t really believe that. They proof-text individual verses without the context of their writing to make the Bible say certain things they want it to say, and simply ignore verses like these, which create an untenable living situation. In all my years, I’ve never heard a minister use these verses as the basis for a sermon, but they pull out and use that, “the time is short” line to up the fear level in believers.
This is why one has to approach any ancient text, holy or otherwise, with at least a minimum understanding and appreciation for the context of the writing. Things like the time, the place, the author, the audience, and the motivation all matter to how we best understand any writing. If we’re not interested in those things, then we’re not really interested in an accurate understanding.