Who were the legalists? 1 Corinthians 7 and ascetism

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In response to my little series of articles on 1 Corinthians 7 and sexual ethics, I’ve been asked about why I suggest that the Corinthians may have been attempting to take an ascetic route of self denial and abstention which Paul might have had to correct.  Surely, the problem in Corinth was the opposite. The church were in grave danger of being overtaken by the Roman idolatrous culture of excess. 

It has been suggested that the Corinthian men were happy to indulge sexually, just not with their own wives, perhaps in order to avoid having children. In that case, the original phrase should be translated as “It is better for a husband not to have sexual relationships with their wife.” However, I think there would need to be clearer grammatical evidence that the the “woman” in mind was “his woman”.

Therefore, it seems difficult to me to read 1 Corinthians 7 without seeing some reference to an attempt to propose ascetism as a solution to the problem of hedonistic indulgence and licentiousness in Corinth. The question then is who it is that first raises this possibility, Paul, the Corinthians themselves or another outside third party?

Now, it is important to say up front, that I don’t think that this actually affects our interpretation and application of the passage too much. There are a couple of options open to us but in effect they still lead to the same application. 

My reason for picking up on ascetism is first that it was a known cultural/philosophical response from different strands of Greco-Roman thought that would have been just as concerned about the excesses of Corinth.  Secondly, this was thinking that we know from Colossians 2:21-23.

So, there are a couple of possibilities open to us.  First, it is possible that Paul himself is the originator of the phrase “it is better for a man not to have sexual relations with a woman” or literally “…not to touch a woman.”  If so, then he is quick to develop and clarify this to avoid any misunderstanding. The initial phrase may sound ascetic but that is not Paul’s approach.

Secondly, it is possible that the idea has come from the Corinthians themselves. In which case this would suggest that there were some within the church who were pushing for ascetism.  How would that be possible when Paul’s criticism was that they were over indulgent and libertine?  Well, we can sometimes make the mistake of assuming that the situation in Corinth and the churches, including along the leaders was pretty uniform.  However, whilst the congregation may have been generally subject to indulgence and some leaders happy to tolerate that, this does not mean that all would. We know that there were factions in the church and we know that in church life today there are differences of opinion. So, it is possible that some of the leaders at least were proposing this approach and asking Paul to settle any dispute there might have been between them. In fact, the presence of a difference of opinion might help to explain why a church that was happy to pursue its own independent path might ask Paul for his opinion.  Indeed, given that Paul is picking up reports of trouble at Corinth, it may well be that his correspondents were those who were uncomfortable with the situation.

Thirdly, it is possible that the idea has been introduced from outside.  The literal language “a man should not touch a woman” is very similar to the “do not touch, do not taste, do not handle” language of Colossians 2:21-23. In that case, it is possible that the Corinthians had also received advise from Corinth and were checking out what Paul thought of it.

Fourthly, it is possible that Paul was the originator of the phrase but this wasn’t its first use.  The Corinthians may have quoted it back at him for clarification. Indeed, it is possible that they had taken his previous teaching and pushed it to an extreme, creating a motto, not in order to obey him but by in effect creating such an extreme and potentially ridiculous caricature of his teaching that they had an excuse for dismissing it.  “Don’t be ridiculous Paul.  Are you really saying “Don’t touch a woman?” “Are you telling us that we can’t even have sex with our wives now? Imagine where that would lead.” In such a case, then Paul’s response would be to say that of course this wasn’t what he was teaching and to drill home again his true point.

Whatever the original situation -and we cannot be sure on this, the point remains that ascetic legalism is not a Gospel solution for licentious hedonism.    

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