Interpretation

Free from Anxieties; A Discussion on Sex

Free from Anxieties; A Discussion on Sex

There is an interesting passage in First Corinthians 7 where Paul leads into a discussion about the anxiousness of married and single life. Paul, acting in a pastoral capacity, guides the church in Corinth through a situation that has developed around sex. The situation Paul is addressing in this chapter is asceticism. In this case, some Christians in Corinth have decided, to remain pure and holy, they will abstain from sex. They have adopted a negative view of sexuality and copulation. While Paul considers singleness, and therefore celibacy, as an opportunity to serve the Lord, ascetism distorts both married and single life. Below is a portion of the text from the chapter.

“I want you to be free from anxieties. The unmarried man is anxious about the things of the Lord, how to please the Lord. But the married man is anxious about worldly things, how to please his wife, and his interests are divided. And the unmarried or betrothed woman is anxious about the things of the Lord, how to be holy in body and spirit. But the married woman is anxious about worldly things, how to please her husband. I say this for your own benefit, not to lay any restraint upon you, but to promote good order and to secure your undivided devotion to the Lord.”

If anyone thinks that he is not behaving properly toward his betrothed, if his passions are strong, and it has to be, let him do as he wishes: let them marry—it is no sin.”

(1 Cor. 7:32-36)

This section nears the end of the chapter. The subject of asceticism remains in the background as Paul addresses a connected issue, the anxiousness that comes by living in this present age as it relates to marriage and singleness. Paul wants people to be free from anxiety, but what does this mean? The Greek, “μεριμνᾷ” (translated “anxious”), occurs four times in this section; it modifies the state of unmarried men, married men, unmarried or betrothed women, and married women, in that order. Paul’s desire favors an altered state, an ontological change, where Christians live out their faith without anxiety.  This is a result of transformation rather than a simple change of mind. This becomes clearer as Paul intimates the difference between himself and those choosing an ascetic lifestyle.

Understanding the relationship between μεριμνᾷ (anxious) and ἀμερίμνους (free from anxieties) is important. Translations will express the antonymic relationship of the words differently. The NIV employs “free from concern” and “concern,” whereas the NKJV uses “without care” and “care.” Translations with a preference for dynamic readability, such as the NLT, lose the antonymic relationship in favor of explaining the text. Unfortunately, the such readings explain away the grammatical consistency as well.

There are three interpretations, of this text. Gorden Fee highlights them, in his commentary The First Epistle to the Corinthians.[1] The first and most common view interprets μεριμνᾷ as a positive for the unmarried, and as a negative for the married. In other words, it is good to be anxious about the things of the Lord, but bad to be anxious about pleasing your spouse. However, these sentences are nearly identical. It is unlikely that Paul meant to change the emphasis of “anxious.”

“I want you to be free from anxieties. The unmarried man is anxious (positive) about the things of the Lord, how to please the Lord.  But the married man is anxious (negative) about worldly things, how to please his wife, and his interests are divided.”

In addition, just a few words earlier, Paul states that he wants the church in Corinth to be free from anxieties. After this in v.35-36 Paul says that he is writing this to promote good order and he gives permission for those who are betrothed to get married. It is reasonable to ask, as Fee does, how permission to marry, alleviates anxiety for the married person, if it is the burden of being married that causes the anxiety? Instead it might encourage more people to live an ascetic lifestyle which is not what Paul intends.

Instead of alternating μεριμνᾷ as a positive and a negative, the second interpretation uses “anxious” negatively throughout the text. So, in this case, anxiousness about the things of the Lord and the anxiousness about worldly things are both negative. Neither marriage or singleness will earn you salvation. This has the advantage of applying Paul’s words in v.32a “I want you to be free from anxieties,” to all four uses of μεριμνᾷ. One sign that “anxious” may be negative can be seen in the difference between the “unmarried man” and the “unmarried or betrothed woman.” The unmarried man is anxious about the things of the Lord, how to please the Lord. Due to the amount of almost identical language in this paragraph, one would expect that the unmarried or betrothed woman would also be anxious about how to please the Lord. Paul, however, writes that she is anxious about “how to be holy in body and spirit.” The issues of purity and holiness are the underlying reasons people are led to asceticism. They seek to please the Lord out of anxiousness. The married person may be anxious about their spouse but the unmarried person, in their asceticism, makes singleness an anxious experience. While Paul finds singleness beneficial, those who are worried may not possess the gift of singleness. Jesus himself seems to imply that celibacy is not for everyone in Matthew 19:11. Neither the married person, who is divided, nor the unmarried person should worry about their choice. What is important is following the Lord in either situation.

The third interpretation uses the verb μεριμνᾷ in a positive sense, translating it as “concern.”[2] In this case the unmarried man is concerned about the Lord’s affairs, and the married man is concerned about the affairs of the world. Instead of contrasting them, or treating them as pejoratives, the third view treats them both as the way things are in life. Neither married life or unmarried life is the better choice, except that married people most also show concern for their spouse. Paul wants the church in Corinth to be free from the concern because of the new life they have in Jesus while realizing that they still live in the world. This expresses the “now but not yet” eschatology that Paul describes in verse 31. This current form of the world is passing but it is not yet passed. Whether you are married or single, devote yourself to the Lord.

Considering the different interpretations, I find the second view more likely, because of its logical and consistent view of the words, μεριμνᾷ (anxious) and ἀμερίμνους (free from anxieties). It denounces the ascetic belief of the church in Corinth by undermining the basis of its belief which comes from an unhealthy and anxious approach to sexuality, holiness, and salvation. Placing our hope firming on the eschatological future where we dwell eternally in the presence of God, we need not be anxious about married life, or singleness. If a person finds that they are gifted with singleness, they do well to follow the Lord’s leading. If a person finds themselves full of love and passion for someone, they should accept the gift of marriage. Celibacy should be viewed as a Spirit led decision, instead of something motivated by the anxious worry to serve God.

[1] Gordon D. Fee, The First Epistle to the Corinthians (The New International Commentary On the New Testament) (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1987), 342-49.

[2] Ibid, 344.

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