For the Love of God, Volume 1/September 2
From Gospel Translations
1 Samuel 26; 1 Corinthians 7; Ezekiel 5; Psalms 42—43
IN THE COURSE OF HIS treatment of “virgins” (1 Cor. 7:25-38—the word refers to the sexually inexperienced, whether male of female), Paul writes, “Because of the present crisis, I think that it is good for you to remain as you are” (7:26). Thus it is good for the celibate to remain celibate, for the married not to seek a divorce, and so forth. This does not mean, Paul adds, that if a virgin marries, she is sinning. But he does insist that “the time is short” (7:29). What does this mean?
(1) Some have argued that in common with everyone else in the early church, Paul believed that Jesus was going to return very soon, certainly within their lifetime. With so limited a horizon, Paul says that on the whole it is better for those who are celibate to remain unmarried. This reading of the passage means, of course, that Paul and the rest of the early church were just plain wrong: Jesus did not come back that quickly. But there are so many passages in the New Testament that envisage the possibility of long delay that we cannot go along with the notion that early Christians suffered under this particular delusion.
(2) Some have argued that “the present crisis” (7:26) refers to some specially troubling period of persecution. If the authorities are out to get Christians, especially their leaders, it might be an advantage to be celibate: you are more mobile, can hide more easily, and the authorities cannot exert pressure on you by leaning on your family. But this interpretation has two insuperable problems. (a) It may fit the celibates, but it doesn’t fit all the other people to whom Paul makes application: e.g., those who mourn should live as if they did not mourn, those who are happy as if they were not, those who buy something as if it were not theirs to keep (7:29-30). (b) Above all, there is no good evidence that the Corinthians were being threatened with persecution. The entire tone of this letter suggests they were finding life a bit of a lark.
(3) The word rendered “crisis” simply means “necessity” or “compulsion.” What Paul is referring to is neither the return of Christ nor persecution, but the present “necessity,” the present “compulsion,” of living with the End in view. Unlike pagans and secularists, we cannot make our chief joy turn on marriage, prosperity, or any other temporal thing. They all fall under the formula “as if not”: live “as if not engrossed in them. For this world in its present form is passing away” (7:31, emphasis added). There are responsible ways for Christians to enjoy these things, or mourn, or be happy—but never as if these things are ultimate.