May 18 - For Better For Worse?

May 18th, 2014
1 Corinthians 7

When we begin to look at 1 Corinthians 7, we should realize that Paul is responding to a question that came from the delegation from the Corinthian church, which reached him at Ephesus 3 years after he had began the church.

The primary concern seems to have been about being singleness and celibacy. And Paul’s overall response is, it is preferable not to get married, which for him meant not to have sex. This was his advice for those who have never been married, for those who are contemplating marriage, for those engaged, for those divorced and for those who are widowed. Stay single if you can and serve God whole-heartedly without being distracted by spouse and children.

However, and here’s the big caveat, Paul said that singleness and celibacy is only an option if the person is able to have his or her sexual urges under control. If not, Paul writes, you’re better off getting married and having sex … and he, the man who never married … tells the Corinthians that the married should have sex as often as either of the partner wants to – which to me seems a bit of a pipe-dream.

But in and amongst all of that, Paul also deals with divorce and remarriage – and some of us wish he hadn’t. The reality is that 50% of marriages, Christian or otherwise, fail even though the vast majority of couples really mean it when they say, “Until death do us part.” Gold diggers may intentionally marry to get divorced and a big settlement, but most do not.

Just as an aside, there are a host of studies that have sought to analyze what couples who had happy marriages had in common and they came up with things like:

They smiled in most of their childhood pictures.
The wife is thinner and better looking than the husband.
They don’t watch romantic comedies.
They don’t drink alcohol.
The husband helps out around the house.
And most importantly,
They focus on the positive and find some good in every situation.

So let me begin with quickly giving you the cultural and theological background to Paul’s thinking.

First we have to realize that in the OT,

1. Wives are the property of their husbands

You are not to desire your neighbour’s house, wife, male or female slave, ox or donkey, or anything else that belongs to him. Exodus 20:17

In Jewish law, while a husband could divorce a wife, a wife could not divorce her husband. In the NT, the apostle Paul went beyond the OT when he makes the point that …

2. Wives are legally bound to their husbands until the husband’s death

A married woman is bound to her husband by law as long as he is alive. If her husband dies, she is released from the law of marriage. Romans 7:2

By the way, if you do not understand the reality of this thinking, you may not understand why a wife is called upon to submit to and obey her husband in EVERYTHING, as if he were the Lord himself (Eph 5:22-24) and call him “master” as Sarah did Abraham (1 Pet 3:6. In the same way the Christian slave is told to obey his master in everything (Tit 2:9) as if he were Jesus (Eph 6:5).

We may lessen the implications of this teaching by pointing out that husbands are called upon to love their wives … and there is this somewhat weird verse about mutual submission in Eph. 5:22, but the reality is that I can’t remember when I used the word “obey” in a marriage ceremony.

A wife is bound to her husband as long as he lives. But if her husband dies, she is free to remarry whoever she wishes as long as he’s a believer. 1 Corinthians 7:39

We also have to take into consideration that Paul was aware of Jesus teaching on this subject:

1. A man who marries a divorced woman commits adultery – which would be because the divorced woman is still bound to her first husband. Matthew 5:32; Luke 16:18

2. A divorce woman who remarries commits adultery – the same reason – she is still bound to her first husband.
Matthew 5:32; Mark 10:11

3. A husband who divorces his wife and remarries commits adultery against his first wife – the thinking must have been that the first wife is still bound to the man, although it is unclear how this can be in a society where polygamy was possible.
Matthew 19:9; Mark 10:11; Luke 16:18

Keeping these things in mind, what does Paul write to the church at Corinth?

1. Christian husbands are not to divorce their Christian wives

The husband should not divorce his wife.
1 Corinthians 7:11

Are you bound to a wife? Do not seek to be free.
1 Corinthians 7:27

2. Christian wives are not to leave their Christian husbands

The wife should not separate from her husband.
1 Corinthians 7:10

Under the Jewish law, only a husband was able to divorce his wife. The woman had no such recourse. I’m not sure if Paul was reflecting this reality even though he was writing for a Greco-Roman context.

3. A Christian wife who is separated from her Christian husband is to remain single or be reconciled to him

If the wife does separate, she should remain unmarried or else be reconciled to her husband. 1 Corinthians 7:10

Both Jesus and Paul seemed to have what I call exception clauses to the rules they set down for divorce and remarriage

1. Unfaithfulness?

Jesus seems to indicate that the marriage bond is broken when there is sexual immorality on the part of the wife.
Matthew 5:32; 19:9

2. Abandonment?

Paul seems to indicate that the marriage bond is broken when an unbelieving spouse abandons the believer.
1 Corinthians 7:13-16

Because of these potential exception clauses, the question for many Christians whose marriage is in trouble or has failed is whether or not there could be further exceptions to the teaching of Jesus and Paul.

1. Permanent withholding of sex (1 Cor. 7:3-5)?
2. Physical, sexual, emotional, verbal abuse?
3. Unhappy, bored, jaded?
Doesn’t God want me to be happy?
Is God concerned more for my holiness or my happiness?

Perhaps the question that many NT scholars ask along these same lines is whether or not it is …

…possible to think in more egalitarian terms (women should be thought of on equal terms with their husbands) and can we think of other significant violations of the marriage covenant as valid reasons for divorce and remarriage?

However you answer this question, one of the things that seems very clear is that God’s intent for humans was and continues to be permanent marriages. And the reality, for a variety of reasons, that 50% of Christians who get married get divorced. And most of those get remarried.

I’ve heard enough sermons that simply add insult to injury when it comes to those who have undergone the agony of a divorce. That is not my purpose here this morning. By the grace of God, my marriage with Kathy has lasted for 30 years, but let me tell you, that probably has more to do with our thick skins than our spiritual acumen. And it does not make us better people than those whose marriage did not last.

So what I really want this sermon to be about is to give you just one reason out of many why divorce is so prevalent in our society and culture, and one bit of advice when choosing a marriage partner. If either of those will help your marriage last, God be praised.

So here is just one of the many reasons why divorce is so common in our culture and society. This is not something I came up with, but what I have borrowed and adapted from others [French philosopher Yann Dall’Aglio].

One speaker I heard spoke in terms of the radical change from the traditional values to the values of modernity, which grew out of the reformation and was embraced by both secular and religious people during the renaissance and has come down to us in the present.

As one of its basic tenets, modernity rejected the traditional view where ethics, norms of behavior, and the like, were based on authority. For example, Martin Luther challenged the authority of the Pope and the Roman Catholic Church. Another major authority was the community that a person lived in. In a rural setting, society itself had a certain set of morals and traditions and rules that helped people find their place in life. People lived by and large with people who looked like them, thought like them, and behaved like them.

In fact, the way that you functioned within that close-knit society, the role you played as child, as adolescent, as parent, as spouse, as worker, as an elder, provided you with a sense of value. You derived your value and identity as you functioned in the role assigned to you in the community. Very few people had “Lebensangst, anxiety attacks, stress.”

With modernity, on the other hand, people were freed to set their own values. The human individual, or his or her mind, was elevated as the ultimate judge, as God if you will, even though it may not have been worded in this way.

And so modernity destroyed the traditional bearings of society. And it destroyed the certainty and security that came with living in the traditional era. People now lived in the free market of values, which allowed them to value or devalue others and themselves outside of the traditional community and community rules. And in post-modernity we are called to negotiate or renegotiate our values every day.

But the human need to be valued and desired in order to find a mate and spouse remains. We want to find that one special person we can annoy for the rest of our lives.

And the great question that haunts us is, “How can I become desirable? How can I remain desirable? How can I become more desirable?” How many people are going to value me? Like me? Think highly of me? Love me? Desire me?

In fact, in our society love can be defined as, “The desire to be desired.”

Much of consumerism is the collection of symbols of desirability. We can think of it in terms of desirability capital. What we purchase is meant to communicate our worth to others. You could even say, that consumerism is nothing more than a sacrifice to the god or goddess of love.

For example, if you buy a brand new pair of jeans and them cut holes into them above the knees, it doesn’t have anything to do with materialism but everything to do with being more desirable.

People walks down the street aloof or suave or leger or confident, apparently indifferent, walk a certain way, dress a certain way, cut their hair a certain way, all the time calculating that all eyes are on them. They want to appear “perfect” to someone group so they can be accepted, valued, loved. Most human beings posture all the time. In the uncertainty of our society it is now a part of the human condition.

Exercise, as soon as it goes beyond better health, can be considered the increase of physical desirability capital.

So where does it leave us when it comes to love, to “the desire of being desired”? Those with a lot of desirability capital or who want a lot of desirability capital, can become very narcissistic. And those without a lot of desirability capital can be left lonely and frustrated.

Worse, couples will split up if they feel that their spouse puts into question their value or desirability. As soon as the other person underperforms in their job to make us feel valued or desirable, we will feel like jettisoning them.

Is it even possible to get away from this constant search for value? Can we think of ourselves as servants? Can we think of ourselves as no more worth than anyone else? Can we find our inherent value in God’s love so we are not always struggling to find our worth in the eyes of others? I’m not sure it is possible, but isn’t that what Jesus called us to?

When Jesus’ followers were arguing among themselves which one of them was the greatest, Jesus told them, “whoever is the least among you is the one who is great” (Luke 9:48).
"If anyone would be first, he must be last of all and servant of all." (Mark 9:45)

Can we redefine love? Is it even possible to get away from the definition of love that is part of modernity?

Immediately following the section on marriage, the author of 1 Peter writes something that I think is great when it comes to marriages:

Be united in your thoughts, be sympathetic and filled with love, have a tender heart and a humble mind.
1 Peter 3:8

Love can be redefined, at least in part, as tenderness and sympathy. Tenderness and sympathy accept the other person’s weaknesses. There is happiness in tenderness and sympathy.

But love can also be defined as humility. Humility can laugh at itself. I sometimes purposefully become the butt of a joke in our family. I feign being upset at it, which just heightens the fun.

And that kind of love, I believe, brings unity, brings closeness, brings wholeness into a relationship

So let me end with a bit of advice about finding a spouse. Again, this is an adaption of something I heard from others [Alexandra Redcay].

Let me begin by drawing you a picture. A woman who is independent, who loves her career, who likes to spend time hanging out with her friends meets a guy who is a bit controlling, he desires his wife to be a homebody who cooks, cleans and raises the kids, and he is somewhat dismissive of women – doesn’t see them as equals. But he is cute, and charming. He rides a motorcycle. And she falls for him.

Her friends tell her that this is likely not a good match. But she ignores them. She becomes defensive and aggressive:

“I’m finally happy and you can’t stand it. You don’t know him the way I do. He’s different when we’re along.”

She may see some red flags on her own. But she tells herself that all relationships take work, which is true, but in a misguided way. And she tells herself that he will change over time, which likely isn’t true.

Never try to teach a pig to sing. It wastes your time and annoys the pig. Variously attributed

That’s not to say that all men are pigs, or all women, for that matter. It simply means that the attempt to change someone will likely be frustrating and cause nothing but friction.

So she gets married and she has to live within the mold that makes her husband happy. She tells herself it’s the Christian thing to do. She sacrifices who she is. She feels dominated and underappreciated. 10 years go by and she wakes up one day and realizes that she dislikes herself and resents her husband.

She finally figures out that her family and friends were right and she was wrong, and she hates it. Then she despairs.

The same story can be true of the guy who is drawn and falls in love with a domineering, unhappy, self-centered woman. His family gives him the heads up, but he thinks, they can’t see what I see. They don’t know how much we have in common.

So here’s my advice. Let your friends and family meet anyone you like. Do it before you fall in love – which will override and short circuit the logical part of your brain.

And listen to them. They will tell you whether or not that person is good for you. We all need the “mean” friend who cares for us but is so direct and honest. Don’t pay attention to the one person who says, “whatever makes you happy.” Listen to the mean friend.

And when your friends and family tell you to run, run. What is it with the person who asks for advice and then refuses to listen to every single one of them? What is the person afraid of?

And then there are the singles. Men complain they are overlooked by women because they are nice guys, safe guys. And woman, who are continually drawn to and chose the liar, the player, the one who is emotionally unavailable, complain that there are no good guys left.

Who knows why some of us chose people who aren’t good for us?
Maybe part of it is what has been modelled to us in our own families.
Maybe part of it is that some women are drawn to danger – to unsafe men. Like a moth to the light. And they are not attracted to the nice guy because he’s boring: “I just don’t feel about him in that way.”
Maybe part of it is simple physical attraction or lack thereof. Some guys are most attracted to women they have to chase down, who are already dating, or seem not to be interested.

Human beings just do not seem wise enough to see infatuation for what it is and not be guided by it. Helen Fisher and Lucy Brown did a famous study in which they showed that falling in love is like a drug that overrides logical thought. It prevents us from not assessing the other person rationally, in particular on the basis of whether or not they are good for us.

Maybe that is why often people feel that they can’t find happiness where they are at.

The foolish person seeks happiness in the distance. The wise grows it under his/her feet. James Oppenheim

Before you fall in love ask yourself, “are we good for one another?” Do we both believe and live for God? Are we both committed to supporting and serving each other? Are we both emotionally healthy? Are we safe?


So I’m not sure what exactly spoke to you today. Maybe it is that you should help out your wife more around the house or stop nagging your husband to watch romantic comedies with you.

Maybe it is a renewed appreciation of God’s desire for healthy and lasting relationships.

Maybe it is the yearning to stop defining yourself by your desirability and stop the kind of consumerism that you’re caught in.

Maybe it is changing the definition of love from “desiring to be desired”, to one that has to do more with servanthood, tenderness, sympathy and humility.

Maybe it is that you need to listen to the advice of those who love you.

Whatever it is, my hope and prayer is that you won’t ignore it.