Exploring the biblical theology of Christian egalitarianism

In 1 Corinthians chapter 7, Paul deals with the subjects of sex, marriage, divorce, and singleness, and he reveals his mutualist (or egalitarian) views. There is no hint here of the male authority, leadership, or privilege that many Christians assume is part of God’s design in marriage.

Here are some of Paul’s statements taken from the NIV. (I’ve highlighted some words in bold.)

Each man should have his own wife.
Each woman should have her own husband. (1 Cor. 7:2)

The husband should fulfil his [marital] duty to his wife.
Likewise the wife to her husband. (1 Cor. 7:3)

The wife’s body does not belong to her alone, but also to her husband.
The husband’s body does not belong to him alone, but also to his wife. (1 Cor. 7:4)[1]

Neither should deprive the other except by mutual consent and for a time. . . (1 Cor. 7:5)[2]

The wife must not separate from her husband, but if she does, she should remain unmarried or be reconciled to her husband.
The husband must not divorce his wife. (1 Cor. 7:10-11)

If a brother has an unbelieving wife and she is willing to live with him, he must not divorce her
If a woman has an unbelieving husband and he is willing to live with her, she must not send him away. (1 Cor. 7:12-13)

The unbelieving husband has been sanctified through his wife [3]
and the unbelieving wife has been sanctified through her believing husband . . . (1 Cor. 7:14)

If the unbeliever leaves, let him do so.  A believing man or woman is not bound in such circumstances.  (1 Cor. 7:15)[4]

How do you know, wife, whether you will save your husband?
How do you know, husband, whether you will save your wife? (1 Cor. 7:16)

An unmarried man is concerned about the Lord’s affairs…
An unmarried woman is concerned about the Lord’s affairs… (1 Cor. 7:32-34)

A married man is concerned about the things of the world: how he may please his wife
A married woman is concerned about the things of the world; how she may please her husband (1 Cor. 7:33)

Philip B. Payne makes this comment about 1 Corinthians chapter 7.

The strikingly egalitarian understanding of the dynamics of marital relations expressed in Paul’s symmetry throughout this passage is without parallel in the literature of the ancient world. It is all the more impressive because it is focused on the marriage relationship, a relationship that traditionalists regard as intrinsically hierarchical based on the “created order.” Against a cultural backdrop where men were viewed as possessing their wives, Paul states in 7:2, “let each woman have her own husband.” Against a cultural backdrop where women were viewed as owing sexual duty to their husbands, Paul states in 7:3, “Let the husband fulfill his marital duty to his wife.” It is hard to imagine how revolutionary it was for Paul to write in 7:4, “the husband does not have authority over his own body, but his wife does.”
Philip B. Payne, Man and Woman, One in Christ: An Exegetical and Theological Study of Paul’s Letters (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2009), 106-107.

Some food for thought here!


Footnotes

[1] The CSB does a good job of translating 1 Corinthians 7:4:
“A wife does not have the right (exousia) over her own body, but her husband does. In the same way, a husband does not have the right (exousia) over his own body, but his wife does. ”
I have written about the context and meaning of this verse here.

[2] The idea that the husband is the final arbiter in difficult decisions has no biblical basis whatsoever. The only biblical precedent I can find for decision-making in marriage is here in 1 Corinthians 7:5 where it speaks about husbands and wives making a mutual decision.

[3] “For the unbelieving husband has been sanctified through his wife” (1 Cor. 7:14a). How do Christians who believe that husbands have some sort of spiritual authority over their wives, or some kind of sanctifying role (cf. Eph. 5:26-27) explain 1 Corinthians 7:14a? I have more on the sanctifying role of believing spouses here.

[4] Not being “bound” means, in effect, that the believer is free and released from his or her wedding vows (cf. 1 Cor. 7:39). More on Paul’s words on divorce in 1 Corinthians 7 here.

© Margaret Mowczko 2010

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Explore more

1 Corinthians 7:4, in a Nutshell
Paul’s Words on Divorce and Leaving an Abusive Marriage
Leading Together in the Home
Kephalē and “Male Headship” in Paul’s Letters
Paul’s Main Point in Ephesians 5:22-33
A Suitable Helper
All my articles on divorce are here.

4 thoughts on “Mutuality in Marriage: 1 Corinthians 7

  1. Pure scripture, no opinion, simplicity at its best. How can this be so misunderstood?

  2. I think this passage speaks for itself. But I guess if someone reads the Bible with a masculinist bias, a bias taught and reinforced in many churches, these passages about mutuality are explained away or ignored.

  3. A woman insists vs 6 here, the concession, clearly refers to verse 7 about not marrying and not the preceding verse(s) about mutuality and denial of sex by partners. The “But” which begins vs 6 in the King James and Paul propensity for run-on sentences makes me think it applies to the former or perhaps to either or both. Can you provide insight? Thank you!

    1. Hi Barbara, I had another look at the passage (in Greek). I can’t see, in terms of both grammar and logic, that the concession is verse 7. Paul presents singleness and celibacy as the ideal. The concession or allowance is that people have sex.

      The Greek conjunction de at the beginning of verse 6 is extremely common. Many Greek thoughts, sentences, and paragraphs begin with de. The word occurs 31 times in 1 Corinthians 7. It often means “and” but can also have a soft adversative sense. That is, it can mean “but” with a soft sense. Sometimes it’s translated as “now” or left untranslated.

      The KJV definitely gives the impression that verse 6, beginning with “but,” contrasts with the previous verse, and that temporary, rather than permanent, abstinence (verse 5) is the concession.

      5 Defraud ye not one the other, except it be with consent for a [limited period of] time, …
      6 But (de) I speak this by permission [or, concession], and not of commandment.
      7 For (de) I would that all men [people] were even as I myself [single and celibate]. But every man [person] hath his proper gift of God, one after this manner, and another after that.
      8 (de: untranslated in this verse) I say therefore to the unmarried and widows, it is good for them if they abide even as I.
      9 But (de) if they cannot contain [exercise self-control: egkrateuomai]: let them marry: for it is better to marry than to burn.

      1 Corinthians 7:9 and Paul’s used of “if” is another hint that the ideal is singleness and celibacy and that the concession is marriage and sex. The verb egkrateuomai and especially the related noun egkrateia were often used in the context of not having sex and permanent celibacy in early church documents. I have a few articles that look at celibacy in the early church: https://margmowczko.com/tag/celibacy/

      I hope this all makes sense. It was a bit tricky to explain.

      I explain the context of 1 Corinthians 7:4ff here:
      https://margmowczko.com/1-corinthians-74-in-a-nutshell/

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