As we come to First Corinthians chapter 7, there are three important – indeed, fundamental – things that relate to Paul’s inspired instructions about marriage. First is that the context of his words is specific to the time and circumstances of the Corinthian Christians. Christianity was beginning to be persecuted with the force of law, so less “leverage” could be applied against an unmarried Christian than against one who was married. Those trying to force a Christian to renounce their faith (vv. 1 and 26 allude to this situation) might very well inflict suffering a beloved husband or wife as a way of “motivating” the Christian.
The second thing to note is that Corinthian Christians lived in a rampantly and openly immoral environment. They were exposed to intense sexual temptation every day. In recognizing this fact, Paul notes in verse two that marital fidelity is meant to be a curb and a protection against those temptations (note also vv. 3-5).
The third component of this context is something often described as “the Pauline privilege.” This matter arises in verses 12-16, and relates to the fact that some of the Corinthian brethren – perhaps many of them – were involved in religiously “mixed” marriages (one spouse a believer, the other a heathen). In this situation, Paul writes that a Christian who is forced by their spouse to “choose between God and me” is not obligated to sacrifice faithfulness to God in order to keep the marriage together (vs. 15). Note, however, that this statement does not appear in a context where either divorce or remarriage are under consideration. If we read Paul’s words as saying “you are free to remarry if your spouse deserts you,” we become guilty of reading into these verses something which is not there. His statement in verse 12 (“to the rest speak I, not the Lord…”) simply acknowledges that Jesus did not speak directly to this exact situation (a disciple being forced to choose between God and a spouse) in His teaching while on earth.
Another significant point from chapter 7 comes from verse 39 – Paul’s instruction concerning the marriage of a Christian widow (or by implication, a widower). Many people read the expression here (“only in the Lord”) as absolutely forbidding a widowed Christian to marry a non-Christian. Certainly the course of wisdom for ANY marriage is for a Christian to marry a fellow-Christian – with the aim of helping one another go to heaven. The doctrine that “Christian widows can only marry fellowChristians” is incorrect, however, because the same exact words are used – in exactly the same way – in Ephesians 6:1, regarding the obedience of children to their parents.
IF “in the Lord” means “only a Christian” in 1 Corinthians 7:39, then they must also mean “only a Christian” (parent) in Ephesians 6:1. How many Christians would agree that children must only obey Christian parents? These words (“in the Lord”) express the idea of “in accordance with the Lord’s will” in both situations. What Paul teaches us in 1 Corinthians 7:39 is that widowed Christians may only remarry according to the same standard as anyone else (i.e., they are not to marry into a polygamous or polyandrous relationship, nor into a homosexual “marriage,” nor may they marry a put-away fornicator). This verse does NOT say “Christian widows may only marry fellow-Christians.”
In chapter 9, Paul offers the image of the Christian as an athletic competitor in verses 24-27, and there are three very important points to note in these verses. First, the Christian’s “race” is run against the devil – not against fellow-Christians, verse 24. This means we don’t “lose time” by stopping to help fallen brethren get up again (cf. Galatians 6:1-2)! Second, to win the prize, we must “compete” within the “rules” (vv. 25-26), by obeying the commands of our Lord (cf. 2 Timothy 2:5). Third, if we fail to maintain our self-control, we can be “disqualified” (KJV “a castaway,” ASV “rejected”) from the race, which means we lose the prize (vs. 27)!