To the unmarried and the widows I say that it is well for them to remain unmarried as I am. But if they are not practising self-control, they should marry. For it is better to marry than to be aflame with passion.
To the married I give this command—not I but the Lord—that the wife should not separate from her husband (but if she does separate, let her remain unmarried or else be reconciled to her husband), and that the husband should not divorce his wife.
How to balance the pastoral and the prophetic or the personal and the political? In the song “Red and Black” from the musical Les Misérables the student revolutionary Enjolras chides his lovesick friend Marius and points to a higher call: “Who cares about your lonely soul? We strive toward a larger goal. Our little lives don’t count at all!” Paul was living in what he believed to be the end times, when Christ would come again and all of existence would be transformed. Yet here was the church in Corinth getting distracted by how to live from day to day. Focused on the imperative to spread the good news, he wanted them to keep their eyes on the prize of life with Jesus, so whatever marital state they found themselves in, they should stay as they were, as far as possible. There seem to be few grey areas or shades of ambiguity in Paul’s advice, with little recognition that marriage could turn into a cold and heartless place trapping two people by circumstances. And yet his letters to the churches are full of references to individuals who were clearly of deep importance to him personally – he wanted them to flourish. The church down the ages and across the world bears too many memories of women who have been advised by religious leaders to stay in abusive marriages, based on a selective reading of Paul’s letters. The hard won personal freedoms that we have today would be astounding to Paul, just as the social and economic expectations of a mixed community at the crossroads of the Roman empire are impenetrable to us. What perhaps is similar is the challenge to find compassion and humanity in the midst of striving for deep change.
Prayer God who is the teacher of humility, remind me to pause when I would pass judgement on the lives of others. Give me willingness to listen, wisdom in my words if asked for advice, and love in pursuit of a higher cause. Amen
The Rev’d Fiona Thomas is the United Reformed Church’s Secretary for Education & Learning, and a member of Christ Church, Bellingham