Now concerning the matters about which you wrote: ‘It is well for a man not to touch a woman.’ But because of cases of sexual immorality, each man should have his own wife and each woman her own husband. The husband should give to his wife her conjugal rights, and likewise the wife to her husband. For the wife does not have authority over her own body, but the husband does; likewise the husband does not have authority over his own body, but the wife does. Do not deprive one another except perhaps by agreement for a set time, to devote yourselves to prayer, and then come together again, so that Satan may not tempt you because of your lack of self-control. This I say by way of concession, not of command. I wish that all were as I myself am. But each has a particular gift from God, one having one kind and another a different kind.
What a difference quotation marks make to the way we understand Paul’s letters. The troublesome church at Corinth seems to express the full breadth of sexual behaviour from exploitative relationships right through to a hint of misogyny in suggesting that somehow being close to a woman will undermine male purity. In his response Paul, the single man, offers a picture of Christian marriage which is based on equality and intimacy within the context of a shared reliance on God. The “likewise” clause transforms the power balance from subjugation to mutuality. Perhaps as he wrote his letter he had in mind the marriage of his friends Prisca/Priscilla and Aquila, tentmakers like himself with whom he lodged in his early days in Corinth (Acts 18. 1-3). Later they sailed together to Ephesus, where the couple settled and hosted a church in their house (1 Corinthians 16.19). They provided companionship to Paul, and are frequently mentioned together.
In its release of statistics in September 2019, the Office of National Statistics (England and Wales) reported that the number of people aged 16 years and over who are single and have never married has continued to increase, making up 35.0% of the population in 2018. When completing a module of an interfaith course on the family recently I was struck that a single person living on their own counts as a household but is not defined as a family, however many extended family members they may have and be contacting regularly. Our lives do not fit into neat categories, even less than they did in Paul’s time, and yet the challenge is still to develop relationships of trust which create safe and hospitable space for other people.
Prayer Loving God thank you for honest friendships. Thank you for households of all shapes and sizes, with open doors and open hearts. Thank you when relationships show us hints of your grace. May the hope of getting it right carry us through when we mess up. Amen
The Rev’d Fiona Thomas is the United Reformed Church’s Secretary for Education & Learning, and a member of Christ Church, Bellingham.
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