“The Marital Compass”
1 Corinthians 7:1-16
May 21, 2006
The guiding principles of every marriage issue are purity and commitment.
I. If married (1 Cor. 7:1-5)
II. If single (1 Cor 7:6-9)
III. If struggling (1 Cor 7:10-16)
MessageBack when I was in Boy Scouts I learned a bit about orienteering - navigating on land by map and compass. Invented by the Chinese, the compass takes advantage of the earths magnetic field, so that it always points toward magnetic north. The compass came to the West not long before the great European sea explorations began, and in many ways made them possible. Not much later chart makers began to include beautiful depictions of the compass on maps. They called this picture a compass rose because of the ornate way in which it was drawn, though that was really for visual clarity on a rolling ship at night by the light of a flickering lamp. A contemporary compass rose appears as two rings, one smaller and set inside the other. The outside ring denotes true direction, the inside ring denotes magnetic direction, since the earths magnetic pole is somewhat offset from the geographic north pole. To navigate, one needs both the compass and the map.
This is true, of course, not only in cartography but in life - in pursuing the daily decisions of life, one needs a map and a compass. In general we recognize that the guide for life is Gods word. Psalm 119:105 Your word is a lamp to my feet and a light for my path. In another sense God himself, in the person of the Holy Spirit is our compass. Isaiah promises that whether you turn to the right or to the left, your ears will hear a voice behind you, saying, This is the way; walk in it. In a third sense our conscience is our guide. Paul says of the Gentiles tht the requirements of the law are written on their hearts, their consciences also bearing witness, and their thoughts now accusing, now even defending them.
But as we approach specific and important areas of our lives, like marriage and sexual issues, there are times when we need a compass rose on the chart to give details on the direction we should take in the shoals and reefs of life. And when the Apostle Paul answers questions that troubled the Corinthian church in this area, he seems to be using two key principles as the poles of his argument, so if you orient yourself between these two poles youll find correct answers to even difficult questions. As used by Paul, the guiding principles of every marriage issue are purity and commitment.
I. If married (1 Cor. 7:1-5)
Lets look at 1 Cor. 7:1-5, where Paul begins to address marriage questions: Now for the matters you wrote about: It is good for a man not to marry. 2But since there is so much immorality, each man should have his own wife, and each woman her own husband. 3The husband should fulfill his marital duty to his wife, and likewise the wife to her husband. 4The wife's body does not belong to her alone but also to her husband. In the same way, the husband's body does not belong to him alone but also to his wife. 5Do not deprive each other except by mutual consent and for a time, so that you may devote yourselves to prayer. Then come together again so that Satan will not tempt you because of your lack of self-control.
Paul turns to several issues mentioned in a letter from the Corinthians. He may be quoting their letter when he says It is good for a man not to marry. It seems that some of the Corinthians had so over-reacted to the immorality they came out of that theyd decided that even in marriage sexual intimacy was wrong: the phrase literally says its good for a man not to touch a woman. And Paul needs to explain that this is not Gods plan for everyone, though it is Gods plan for some.
He focuses first on intimacy in marriage. Verse 2: But since there is so much immorality, each man should have his own wife, and each woman her own husband. Even in our culture there are so many immoralities - the word is plural - that most people will find it hard to sustain lifelong purity apart from marriage. Notice that the guide here, the pole of the compass, is the principle of purity. Paul is saying do what expresses purity, do what avoids immorality, and the thing that best achieves that is the marriage relationship of one man and one woman. By implication hes ruling out polygamy. By implication hes ruling out same sex relationships. And he is explicitly ruling out any double standard: the husband is to be fully committed to his wife, and to her alone. The wife is to be fully committed to her husband, and to him alone. Thats purity: the sexual relationship expressed between the husband and the wife is absolutely pure and innocent in the sight of God with no tinge of sin.
Paul amplifies this in 3 and 4: The husband should fulfill his marital duty to his wife, and likewise the wife to her husband. 4The wife's body does not belong to her alone but also to her husband. In the same way, the husband's body does not belong to him alone but also to his wife. To fulfill ones marital duty could be translated to give again ones debt. The physical relationship between husband and wife is an ongoing debt of intimacy paid to fulfill the other persons needs. Living in a temptation filled world creates a longing both in the husband and the wife, and the longing can only and must only be fulfilled by the intimacy they share.
And if you get the impression Im talking on the heart level rather than just the physical level, I am - because the physical things in the marriage are a barometer of heart fulfillment. And yet the fulfillment comes as we give up our rights. Paul says a wife no longer has the right to rule even her own body, and neither does the husband - there is an absolute mutuality in these verses - but that the rule of their bodies is now shared. Physical intimacy is a classroom wherein we learn to care more about the needs and wants of our spouse than about our own. I often tell couples theyre to become the worlds foremost expert in their spouse; marriage is a university where you earn a PhD in your spouse. The caring and communication skills that are need to really meet another persons physical intimacy needs are the same that make a healthy marriage work. The two cant be separated; selflessness in the bedroom is part and parcel of selflessness in the kitchen and on the calendar and in child raising and with your checkbook. The tools that make marriage work in all these areas are listening and caring and communication and selflessness.
Paul himself doesnt see physical intimacy as dominating everything, as some Corinthians might have thought it should. Its an important part of married life, but there may be occasions where partners set it aside in favor of intimacy together before God in prayer. Verse 5: Do not deprive each other except by mutual consent and for a time, so that you may devote yourselves to prayer. Then come together again so that Satan will not tempt you because of your lack of self-control. The only reason Paul mentions for abstinence by a married couple is devoting yourself to prayer - literally schooling yourselves to pray. The simple truth is that for busy married couples, which would include pretty much every couple here, you may at times have to choose between using your few private moments for physical intimacy or for spiritual intimacy before God. The two arent mutually exclusive, but at times one will have to take precedence over the other, at times you will need to sense the burden of some situation on your spouses heart and help them pray through it.
Notice how Paul hedges this in: he doesnt want people using spirituality as an excuse for denouncing and avoiding the one-fleshness of a physical relationship. So he says this abstinence must be first, by mutual agreement - not one person imposing it on the other; second, for a season, which means under an unusual circumstance rather than for a set period of time; third, with the intention of prayer; and fourth, with the deliberate intention of resuming the physical relationship once the prayer work is achieved. Otherwise, he says, you leave yourselves open to the temptations your marriage is supposed to address. Satan would love to see you stumble because by this he would not only damage your marriage but hinder your prayers.
II. If single (1 Cor 7:6-9)
So in marriage the twin compass points of purity and commitment should guide our actions and attitudes. We should enthusiastically pursue physical intimacy in marriage because thats where its pure. Make that expression of purity a priority. And at the same time your compass needle will be pointing toward commitment; toward selflessness that gives again to your marriage partner. But what if youre not married? Does Paul say anything to you? Sure: he wasnt married when he wrote this and saw it as a good. Verses 6 to 8: I say this as a concession, not as a command. 7I wish that all men were as I am. But each man has his own gift from God; one has this gift, another has that.8Now to the unmarried and the widows I say: It is good for them to stay unmarried, as I am. 9But if they cannot control themselves, they should marry, for it is better to marry than to burn with passion.
Pauls I say this refers back to what hes said about purity and commitment in marriage. Marriage isnt the only way to maintain purity, and Paul isnt commanding that everyone be married for the sake of sexual purity. He knows there are some like him, whom God has called to singleness, to sexual purity through abstinence, either for a season or for a whole lifetime. I dont know if youve thought about it, but its likely Paul had been married. It was almost required, of religious Jewish males, and Paul was, by his own testimony, a Pharisee of the Pharisees.
It seems unlikely he neglected this requirement. Yet hes clearly unmarried at the time of this letter; either his wife died or he was divorced. We cant know for sure, but its interesting that in this section hell say that if an unbeliever isnt willing to live with a believer, they should be allowed to leave. Is it possible Pauls wife, a daughter of the Pharisees, was unable to accept her husbands conversion, and left him?
In any event, Paul is single, and hes convinced sexual purity and commitment to the Lord can be expressed in singleness by those who have special grace from God for this type of life, or those whose situations require that grace. Paul says to the unmarried and to widows It is good for them to stay unmarried, as I am. Later in the chapter Paul will take up the advantages of remaining unmarried for ministry freedom. His own itinerant lifestyle, long absences and frequent persecution would have made marriage a difficult commitment. Hell say An unmarried man is concerned about the Lord's affairshow he can please the Lord. 33But a married man is concerned about the affairs of this worldhow he can please his wife 34and his interests are divided. Paul clearly felt such a division of interests was a liability, so for those God gave grace for singleness, that was preferable. A single persons commitment can be to the Lord alone; a married persons has to also be to their spouse.
But Paul recognizes that celibacy is not the answer for everybody, possibly not for very many. Verse 9: But if they cannot control themselves, they should marry, for it is better to marry than to burn with passion. Again, Pauls compass points to purity - in every situation do the thing that promotes purity - either abstinence outside the marriage relationship or faithfulness within it. The person who needs to express his or her desires for intimacy and has Gods opportunity to do so ought to marry: its better to marry than to burn. One scholar calls it a consuming inward desire so strong scarcely anything else either matters or can be coolly considered. Or it might mean what we joked about when I lived with three other bachelors: that its better to get married to someone who can cook than to keep burning things.
Let me speak for a moment to some of you who are single. I recognize that these verses can create tension for you because you might say I havent been given the gift of singleness, but here I am single, with no clear way to change that status. Its true that God may not intend you to be single forever; marriage may ultimately be the better answer for you; Im the worlds greatest fan of marriage. But that is no excuse, right now, to take your eyes off purity, or to take your focus off commitment to the Lord. God gives strength for each situation; if youve been given the possibly temporary status of singleness it is my conviction you will also be given the grace of purity and special opportunities to serve the Lord. The worst thing I think you can do is to waste this opportunity being heart sick for what you cant now have, or to drift defiantly into sin. Purity and commitment - those are the poles that ought to guide you as you either live out your single life or discover that God really does have a marriage partner out there for you.
III. If struggling (1 Cor 7:10-16)
So weve seen that the north pole for sexual questions, whether in marriage or in singleness is purity. And the south pole is commitment. In the third section this becomes even more obvious as Paul deals with struggling marriages. 1 Cor. 7:10-16 To the married I give this command (not I, but the Lord): A wife must not separate from her husband. 11But if she does, she must remain unmarried or else be reconciled to her husband. And a husband must not divorce his wife.12To the rest I say this (I, not the Lord): If any brother has a wife who is not a believer and she is willing to live with him, he must not divorce her. 13And if a woman has a husband who is not a believer and he is willing to live with her, she must not divorce him. 14For the unbelieving husband has been sanctified through his wife, and the unbelieving wife has been sanctified through her believing husband. Otherwise your children would be unclean, but as it is, they are holy. 15But if the unbeliever leaves, let him do so. A believing man or woman is not bound in such circumstances; God has called us to live in peace. 16How do you know, wife, whether you will save your husband? Or, how do you know, husband, whether you will save your wife?
Paul addresses married people again, those with difficult marriages. He gives a command, which he says is from the Lord, not from himself. Later in verse 12 hell reverse that and give a command from himself not the Lord. What does he mean by those two statements? Does he regard his own words as un-authoritative, and only what he has received from God as having authority? I dont think so - all of his letters would be different if he felt that way. No, it appears that when Paul is aware of the actual words of Jesus, he wants to make that known; when hes writing in his own words, but still authoritatively, he wants that to be known as well. The command he gives is close to a known teaching of Jesus: Mark 10:9 "Therefore what God has joined together, let man not separate." Paul clearly knows the same command, but in different words: A wife must not separate from her husband, and a husband must not divorce his wife. In that culture, as in Texas, to separate and to divorce were virtually the same thing, though often the husband had to do the legal procedure.
Paul says dont do it. Christians are to remain married. He doesnt even mention the exception Jesus gave in the case of immorality. He may have known this exception, but in that culture where immorality was so common, he may not have wanted to offer a blanket exemption, since even Jesus doesnt require divorce for immorality. To the contrary, Paul says that if a separation has occurred - the Greek should probably be translated if she has done this - the wife should not re-marry and should seek to be reconciled to her husband. That would apply the other direction as well. Now the pole of commitment is guiding the process. Paul says to believers: you of all people should live out your commitments. So lets say your marriage is in difficulties. There are undoubtedly such marriages in this room, with relational difficulties or financial difficulties or sexual difficulties. Some of you may be on the verge of quitting. Let me say seriously: get help, get prayer, get counsel, get hope, but dont get a divorce; seek God daily for the strength to stay committed.
But, youll say Im not even sure my spouse is a believer. Paul has counsel for you as well. Verse 12: If any brother has a wife who is not a believer and she is willing to live with him, he must not divorce her. 13And if a woman has a husband who is not a believer and he is willing to live with her, she must not divorce him. Notice again the absolute symmetry between men and women: what applies to the believing wife applies equally to the believing husband. The guiding principle is commitment: if the unbeliever is willing to continue the marriage, the believer must stay; the believer is not going to be the one to break the marriage commitment he or she made by vow. If the unbeliever agrees to work on the marriage, the believer must do so. In Corinth many of the newly-converted Christians were probably married to unbelievers. Its still common today, either because a believer chose to marry a non-believer, or because they became a Christian after they were married.
Paul then gives a slightly difficult reason for staying: For the unbelieving husband has been sanctified through his wife, and the unbelieving wife has been sanctified through her believing husband. Otherwise your children would be unclean, but as it is, they are holy. This cant mean that being married to a believer automatically saves an unbeleiver; that would negate the whole purpose of the paragraph. The best understanding of this sanctification seems to be that some Corinthians thought it was sinful and defiling to share a marriage bed with an unbeliever. But Paul disagrees - that marriage is just as holy in Gods sight as the marriage of believers, and the children are just as legitimate. Further, the spouse and the children almost certainly become caught up in Gods plan to work in the believers life for his good and for Gods glory, and that can mean salvation for the unbeliever.
But if the unbeliever is really unwilling to continue the marriage, Paul prescribes freedom. Verse 15:But if the unbeliever leaves, let him do so. A believing man or woman is not bound in such circumstances; God has called us to live in peace. There can come a point where this unequally yoked marriage becomes too much for the one who has rejected Christ, and rejected the wifes appeal, and rejected the counsel and pleading of the church. In this case Paul makes it clear that the believing man or woman is not bound; they no longer need to wait for the unbeliever to return or to actively seek reconciliation. In fact, it appears they are free even to re-marry. And the principle at work is peace: if after every reasonable attempt at compromise and reconciliation and counsel has failed, if the marriage shows every sign of being a constant struggle and a constant battle and a constant grasping to keep the unbeliever on board, then letting him go, letting her go, may be only way to peace.
But again, this is not the preferred outcome. Paul emphasizes that staying together is often the best thing that can happen to the unbeliever. It may be hard on both partners, but Paul says, verse 16 How do you know, wife, whether you will save your husband? Or, how do you know, husband, whether you will save your wife?
Hes not, of course, talking about the husband or wife doing the work of salvation - that is only done by Christ and through faith in him. But he is talking about the husband or the wife being the instrument of salvation - by their acts and words revealing the Good News about Jesus to their spouse. This is what Peter wrote about; 1 Peter 3:1 In the same way, you wives, be submissive to your own husbands so that even if any of them are disobedient to the word, they may be won without a word by the behavior of their wives. Again the principle is commitment; by your commitment to the marriage, believing spouse, you can be Gods instrument of salvation.
So what have we seen? In words as strong as those of Jesus, as strong as the teaching of the Old Testament, Paul exhorts believers to commitment in their marriages; even if there is struggle, you must not divorce. And even if one spouse is an unbeliever, commitment is the path to blessing. The two compass points of purity and commitment should guide your thinking in any marriage situation. I thought it was funny that even the comics - Better Half - agreed with me this week that marriage needs a compass. But the compass points to Gods heart. Id like to close by asking Doug Rask to come and give a testimony to the power of commitment.