If anyone thinks that he is not behaving properly towards his fiancée, if his passions are strong, and so it has to be, let him marry as he wishes; it is no sin. Let them marry. But if someone stands firm in his resolve, being under no necessity but having his own desire under control, and has determined in his own mind to keep her as his fiancée, he will do well. So then, he who marries his fiancée does well; and he who refrains from marriage will do better.
A wife is bound as long as her husband lives. But if the husband dies, she is free to marry anyone she wishes, only in the Lord. But in my judgement she is more blessed if she remains as she is. And I think that I too have the Spirit of God.
Eric C. Smith is an old Divinity School chum, now a Pauline scholar, based in Denver. He warns us that “The Bible is troublesome, to say the least, when viewed as a handbook for modern living.”
Indeed this text has been the source of debate in meaning for centuries. Much of the scrutiny involves the meaning of “fiancée”. The Greek word is parthenos (unmarried daughter), which has taken differing meanings in English interpretations, including “virgin” and “betrothed”, which is a different word in the New Testament (mnesteuo), specifically dealing with the Gospel accounts of Mary and Joseph’s relationship.
This all has a bearing on how the text is read and understood. It also makes it difficult for us to use this text as some sort of moral guideline for life.
I would like to argue that Eugene Peterson’s The Message translation possesses a version worth meditating on. What sticks out in that translation is not an ethical query about marriage, but the mutual importance of singleness and marriage in the church. Peterson reveals not a dogmatist, but a pastor: “Marriage is spiritually and morally right and not inferior to singleness in any way, although… because of the times we live in, I do have pastoral reasons for encouraging singleness”.(verse 38)
In the ancient world it was a matter of economics, and singleness/childlessness was considered as much a curse as being widowed. If your genealogical line ended, your property would go to another and you would not be remembered. Paul’s acceptance of single people represents his commitment to Christ’s Kingdom centred on love and equity.
Paul’s words about wives staying married to their husbands as long as he lives and the freedom to marry whomever they wish thereafter (v.39) represents a progressiveness in Paul that our interpretations have not appreciated. If there is anything to take away from this apostolic advice, it is how surprisingly counter-cultural the Early Church and her leaders were. May we be of the same spirit for our time.
God, Your way of love is not always our greatest hope, but it is the only value that works. It changes minds, revolutionises relationships, sets individuals free to be and become. May we have courage for broadening minds and hearts for this new Kin-dom You are building. Amen.
The Rev’d William Young, Minister Essenside URC Glasgow and Morison Memorial URC Clydebank