In his letter to the Corinthians, Paul is working hard to teach the church that their union with Christ means that they no longer have to grasp for power. Their “spirituality” in Christ does not raise or lower their status- they are both slaves and free. The amazing teaching that they (and we) are receiving about union with Christ is also meant to end any and all sorts of oppression. This includes the oppression of women. Therefore, in 1 Corinthians 7 we get some of the most radical truths in scripture, not just theological statements, but the practical and social out working of these truths in redeeming the equality of men and women.
First, let’s go back to Paul’s letter to the Galatians and hear what he says there:
Galatians 3:28. There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.
Equality is a foundational gospel truth for Paul. This is not the elimination of the genders, as will become evident in 1 Corinthians, but the equalizing of the genders in value, status, salvation, and union with Christ. In Christ Jesus, neither gender is greater than the other, despite what history or your culture has told you.
Let’s look at how this New Covenant reality, the equality of men and women in Christ, continues to be clarified in Paul’s teaching in 1 Corinthians 7.
7:2-4. But because of the temptation to sexual immorality, each man should have his own wife and each woman her own husband. 3 The husband should give to his wife her conjugal rights, and likewise the wife to her husband. 4 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.
In Roman marriage the man was dominant. He controlled the relationship. Marriage was not for romance or love, but for status and the gaining of property. Men “bought a wife” (a common phrase of the time). So for Paul to say that a wife’s body belongs to the husband, and that the husband’s body equally belongs to the wife would be shocking. This teaching flows from Paul’s union with Christ theology, but it also serves to prevent the oppression of women within marriage. A wife is not property. She is an equal partner to be honored, including sexually.
7:7-8. I wish that all were as I myself am. But each has his own gift from God, one of one kind and one of another. 8 To the unmarried and the widows I say that it is good for them to remain single, as I am.
Here Paul upholds singleness even for women (again shocking). This would have freed women from a patriarchal structure that considered women as property to be retained by fathers or brothers. But in Christ, a woman is free to pursue her own work in the Lord. She doesn’t need to be married or controlled by men to be used by God.
Also by telling women that they do not have to get married Paul is claiming another radical truth for his day- women are not simply the remedy for male lust. They are not just a sexual outlet. In fact, women have sexual desires too (7:3), but in Christ, both men and women can learn to control their sexual passions.
7:10-11. To the married I give this charge (not I, but the Lord): the wife should not separate from her husband 11 (but if she does, she should remain unmarried or else be reconciled to her husband), and the husband should not divorce his wife.
Paul also seeks to restrict divorce. Just like Jesus, he limits the reasons for divorce and in so doing he protects women from a system that could leave them abandoned with no social status. But at the same time, because they are in Christ, if an unbelieving spouse wants to leave you’ll be alright. Your status is in Christ and the church will take care of you.
“To live is Christ” unites men and women in Christ. The church is the new united humanity, no more divisions- racial, social, or gender. Both marriage and singleness reflect this new truth of the equality of the sexes. Women are free to marry for love (7:9), not to give a man social status or a sexual outlet. Women are also free to remain single and in so doing dedicate their service to the Lord (7:34).
And what about for men?
Men must see their Christian sisters as just that- sisters. There is no room in “to live is Christ” for oppression, harassment, or sexual assault. Men are called to live out their union with Christ by maintaining unity with our sisters in Christ, by respecting, cherishing, and mutually seeking their spiritual transformation into Christ. Men must stand with women against abuse and respond with compassion and righteousness. Whether married or single, we must see our sisters in Christ as co-equal image bearers who, together with men, complete the new humanity that Christ died to unite through the church.
Do you see women and men as equal in Christ? How can union with Christ allow you to see the opposite sex with more respect and dignity? If Paul were writing today what do you think he would say to Christian women? If you are a man, have you considered how you relate to women? Do you see them first as your sisters in Christ?