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.
To the rest I say—I and not the Lord—that if any believer has a wife who is an unbeliever, and she consents to live with him, he should not divorce her. And if any woman has a husband who is an unbeliever, and he consents to live with her, she should not divorce him. For the unbelieving husband is made holy through his wife, and the unbelieving wife is made holy through her husband. Otherwise, your children would be unclean, but as it is, they are holy. But if the unbelieving partner separates, let it be so; in such a case the brother or sister is not bound. It is to peace that God has called you.
Wife, for all you know, you might save your husband. Husband, for all you know, you might save your wife.
However that may be, let each of you lead the life that the Lord has assigned, to which God called you. This is my rule in all the churches. Was anyone at the time of his call already circumcised? Let him not seek to remove the marks of circumcision. Was anyone at the time of his call uncircumcised? Let him not seek circumcision. Circumcision is nothing, and uncircumcision is nothing; but obeying the commandments of God is everything. Let each of you remain in the condition in which you were called.
Were you a slave when called? Do not be concerned about it. Even if you can gain your freedom, make use of your present condition now more than ever. For whoever was called in the Lord as a slave is a freed person belonging to the Lord, just as whoever was free when called is a slave of Christ. You were bought with a price; do not become slaves of human masters. In whatever condition you were called, brothers and sisters, there remain with God. - 1 Corinthians 7:10-24
I would normally start a letter with pleasantries like "How are you? Hope all is well with you." I've read your letters and notice you have a formula for greeting those to whom you write, but it's as alien to me as mine would be to you so we'll dispense with that for now, if you don't mind.
The passage above causes me a lot of angst, Paul. There is a lot in it that I question, particularly since it seems to "clobber" some people while propping others up. If you're married, stay married -- unless. Huh. The criteria seems to be whether one spouse or the other is a believer. If the woman is an unbeliever, then she has only the choice of remaining married or leaving-- to go where, with what and in what state? If she goes she either must return to her family and probably end up a slave to them because she cost them the dowry and now she is dependent on them, or she must go on the streets and shame everybody, including herself and her family. If she stays in the marriage, she is subject to the husband, whether he is kind to her or not. If he chooses to use her as a punching bag or demean her in any possible way, she's supposed to just take it as a good submissive wife should. Of course, if she is the believer, she has basically the same choice, especially if the man chooses to stay and even if he is abusive, cruel or negligent. The long and short of it is that she has choices -- none of which are always and particularly favorable to her. Maybe you don't talk about that kind of male behavior here, but many good "Christian" men have taken your words and used them to justify anything they choose to do. That isn't your fault, of course, because you said what you meant at the time and for the people of Corinth whom you were addressing. Still, your words are in the Bible and are often the basis of how spouses treat each other and try to live according to what they believe the Bible says.
You place a lot of emphasis on celibacy. I don't have too much disagreement with you except that by using yourself and your chosen celibacy as the ideal, you've set it up so that some can set up rules of celibacy for others that they do not follow themselves. Not to pick on the lady, but Brittney Spears was married for about 24 hours before seeking a divorce. I don't know her motives, but it seemed she had an itch that needed scratching and that marriage was the way to scratch. It didn't take long for her to find out that she'd made a mistake. Condemnation? Not a lot, except that people judged the 24 hours as a bit of a short time for a person to be married before moving on. Contrast that with GLBT couples who have been in committed relationships for 20, 30, 40 or more years. They have been monogamous, worked out who does which chore, gone to work, done the grocery shopping, paid taxes, took out the garbage, disagreed with their partners and made up, and cared for those partners when illness or hard times struck. According to your principles, they are to be celibate because they are not married -- but in most places they can't GET married. They aren't called to celibacy but society expects them to be celibate because they aren't "normal" in the sense heterosexuals consider themselves to be. Paul, you had a choice -- but you've helped to limit the choices of others who do not share your calling. Again, you wrote to your time and congregation, but the ripples from the rock you threw in the river are still lapping at the shoreline and heading out to sea, and some of those ripples are the size of tidal waves, drowning those who just want a fair shake.
We consider slavery to be abominable, yet you tell slaves to be content in their calling. There may be comfort in knowing in their innermost hearts that they are free because Jesus bought them, their bodies are still enslaved and the work ain't gettin' any lighter. The adolescent girls in the brothels of the world, the pre-teen boys forced into combat and unbelievably horrible and barbaric acts or face a tormented and tortured death themselves, the untouchable adults who have to do the dirtiest and most demeaning jobs in society, the haggard woman standing on the street corner with aching feet and an intense worry about what her kids would do if she got into the wrong car -- these are today's slaves just as surely as there are those whose bodies are considered the property of others. Paul, do you really mean that they are to look to a better life in heaven and just endure this one because Jesus died on the cross and opened the gates of heaven for them at some future point in time? Is that really what you meant? Is that really comfort?
You say a lot about love in a lot of place in your letters. I am sorry, but I don't really see a lot of love in this passage. If you were here I might be tempted to try to dialog with you and see what you meant and what you might consider a bit differently if you lived in this time and culture, but since you aren't available for such a conversation I have to read, study the words of others explaining what you meant, and try to discern where the truth lies. As of right now, here is where I stand, as Brother Martin would have said. I can do no other.
Thank you for listening.
Originally published at Speaking to the Soul on Episcopal Café Saturday, March 10, 2012.