By Rev Fr. Peter Hassan Kamai
Introduction: St. Paul without doubt remains one of the greatest Theologians of all times. No writing has shaped Christianity and continues to influence it to this day as the Letters of Paul which has never been superseded. We can say without any fear of contradiction that the letters of Paul laid the foundation for Christian Theology.
There were certain factors that influenced his thought and theology; chief among these were his Jewish and Hellenistic or Greek background. It is easy to see how these factors come to bear in almost all of his letters as he tries to articulate the message of the Good news of Christ whom he encountered on the road to Damascusâ€.
In this write up, I intend to make an exegetical and theological study of some verses in the Seventh Chapter of the letter of St. Paul to the Corinthians with a view to ascertaining their correct interpretation.
Scholars have therefore come up with varying interpretations of these verses some of which boarder not only on the preposterous, but are also fraught with inherent contradictions capable of leading the unsuspecting mind astray.
Given that the writings of Paul are noted for their timelessness, I personally find this teaching of Paul on Marriage and Human sexuality not only timely when Celibacy, as a way of life is viewed by some with suspicion if not disdain, and most of our marriages are fraught with infidelity and are destined to hit the rocks even before they begin.
In this Chapter, Paul offers the Corinthians and by extension all Christians, two options when it comes to the matters of Christian Marriage and Sexuality.
The ideal choice, which is total sexual abstinence or better still celibacy, but for those who donâ€™t have the gift and would not be able to assume the obligations of Celibacy, there is also a realistic perspective, which is sexual continence, chastity or fidelity in marriage. Divorce for Paul is completely out of the question, and he admonishes the Christians in Corinth to consider it as something unbecoming of their Christian calling and dignity.
The Corinth of Paulâ€™s Time
In the first century AD, Corinth became one of the most important cities in the Roman Empire. The city became populated with people from all the regions of the empire, and this inevitably saw the flowering of different cults and religions with the attendant ramifications. Like most seaports throughout history, Corinth took on an international reputation and like most maritime cities; it also acquired a certain corruption and degeneration in morals.
The Greek words for Whoremongers, Prostitution and Fornication were coined employing the name of the city of Corinth.
This is precisely because of the reputation for sexual license and moral depravity the city came to be associated with. We agree with Raymond Brown who suggests that we should think of Corinth, â€œas having all the problems of a rough, relatively new boomtown adjacent to two seaportsâ€.
For these and other reasons, Paul used Corinth as the base for his missionary work. However, it is generally agreed that the Christians in Corinth distinguished themselves as a very inquisitive congregation, posing many questions on matters of the Faith, they have received .
Chastity in Marriage, Celibacy and Divorce.
The Church in Corinth has written Paul a letter in which a number of specific problems about marriage and sexuality in general were raised. He therefore takes his time to answer these questions one after the otherâ€™. This chapter (7) therefore represents a profound exposition on the whole issue of Christian Marriage as well as Human Sexuality by Paul.
However, delving into the issue of Marriage, Paul also takes his time to talk about the â€œcelibate, or unmarried stateâ€ which from all indications is his preferred option, â€œI wish that all were as I amâ€ (7:6). Part of Paulâ€™s reason for preferring the celibate or unmarried state is borne out the conviction that the time is shortâ€. Paul still goes further to expound on the place of Divorce in Christian Marriage.
To those already married, he repeats the Lordâ€™s ruling against divorce and remarriage; it is totally unacceptable (7:10-11), but he goes on to add a ruling of his own that permits separation when one of the partners is not a Christian and will not live in peace with the believers (7:12-16).
In espousing on the concept of Christian marriage therefore, Paul proposes two options for the Christians in Corinth. There is to begin with the ideal choice, which is Sexual Abstinence or Celibacy, â€œit is good for a man not to touch a womanâ€ 7:1.
This is the principal thesis that under girds the entire chapter. However, because Paul was very much aware that Celibacy is a gift, and not all in the Church in Corinth have been given this gift, he therefore gives a concession by proposing an alternative, which is sexual continence, chastity or fidelity in marriage, â€œBut to avoid immorality, every man should have his own wife and every woman her own husbandâ€ 7:2.
In sum, we can therefore say that for Paul when it comes to Christian Marriage, sexual continence is good but sexual abstinence is better. Some people mistake the celibacy of the catholic priesthood and think that priests are misogynists, women haters; nothing could be further from the truth.
Others immediately conclude when they see priests in the company of girls and women; â€œoh, this people that say they donâ€™t marry are in the company of girls and womenâ€. They will never complain that they are with men friends. Every relationship with a woman even for pastoral or spiritual reason arouses suspicion.
Conclusion: The affirmation â€˜it is good for a man not to touch a womanâ€™ by St. Paul is more than a metaphor. It is not a question of saying what you mean and not meaning what you say as some Scholars would want us to believe. Paul is, in no uncertain terms, proposing celibacy as way of life out of a deep faith and a lived experience. For him the celibate way of life is a better option.
The Christians of today must learn to take this affirmation by Paul at its face value without however disparaging or looking down on the vocation to marriage.
However, those who realize that they do not have the gift of celibacy and freely embrace the married state must learn to be chaste and faithful to each other. Chastity is not the same thing as abstinence. Chastity is the virtue that frees all our sexual thoughts, desires and behaviors from self-seeking and orders them towards the truth of authentic love.
Therefore, if spouses are truly to love one another, the virtue of chastity is not an option – it is an absolute requirement. This means that all sexual expression must be an honest expression of the marriage commitment. Any type of behavior that would contradict the free, total, faithful, and potentially fruitful self-giving to which the spouses commit at the altar would be an affront to the very meaning of sex. In other words, it would be a violation of chastity.
The teaching of Paul on Christian Marriage and Sexuality should have a special resonance in our world today. If we learn to take Paulâ€™s teaching on marriage and sexuality seriously, I believe Married couples would find that joy and peace, which can only come from living by the values of the Gospel. What is more the AIDS Pandemic that is ravaging our Continent would be drastically reduced.
*Fr. Peter Hassan Kamai is a Lecture in Biblical Theology at St. Augustineâ€™s Seminary, Jos Plateau state.