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What Did Paul Really Teach about Marriage?

KnoWhy #685 | April 18, 2024

“Let every man have his own wife, and let every woman have her own husband.”

1 Corinthians 7:2

The Know

One of Paul’s most misunderstood and misquoted teachings relates to marriage. His most extensive discourse on this subject is found in the First Epistle to the Corinthians, as he responded to their belief that “it is good for a man not to touch a woman” (1 Corinthians 7:1).1 Addressing multiple groups, Paul defended marriage as a covenantal relationship.

First, Paul addressed those who were married. Directly answering their concern, Paul declared, “To avoid fornication, let every man have his own wife, and let every woman have her own husband” (1 Corinthians 7:2). In other words, marital intimacy is approved and helps avoid sin. Although this is not clear in the King James Version, according to a more recent rendition of the text Paul reinforced this idea as follows: “Let the husband grant conjugal rights to his wife, and likewise the wife conjugal rights to her husband. A wife does not hold exclusive rights over her own body—her husband also has rights; neither does a husband hold exclusive rights over his own body—his wife also has rights. Do not deprive each other of intimate relations” (1 Corinthians 7:3–5 BYU New Rendition).

Paul grants only one concession to this rule—namely, if both the husband and wife decide to temporarily stop sexual relations so they may spend the time in prayer (1 Corinthians 7:5–6 BYU New Rendition). Even though Paul “would not normally agree that sexual relations should be suspended even for extended periods of prayer,” as noted in 1 Corinthians 7:5, “given these members’ disposition, he was willing to meet them halfway.”2

Furthermore, Paul counseled those who were married to avoid divorce, stating that marriage was a commandment from the Lord (see 1 Corinthians 7:10). He even extended this counsel to marriages in which one partner was not a member. Paul counseled them to avoid divorce in the hopes that the member spouse might bring the gospel into their home, sanctifying their spouse and children (see 1 Corinthians 7:14; see also 1 Peter 3:1–2). Paul believed that husbands and wives with testimonies of Christ could be instrumental in the conversion and eventual salvation of disbelieving spouses.3 As noted by Richard D. Draper and Michael D. Rhodes, while the wider Greco-Roman world would divorce “at every whim,” the Lord viewed marriage as a sacred covenant that should be exited only in very few circumstances.4

Next, Paul addressed “the widowers and widows.”5 To this group, Paul stated his opinion that “it is good for them to remain even as I am” (1 Corinthians 7:8), possibly referring to remaining unmarried following the death of a spouse.6 In general, Paul offered his opinion that widows and widowers should not remarry unless they could not control their passions (see 1 Corinthians 7:9). Though this could be seen as a negative view of marriage, Paul’s point, according to Rhodes and Draper, “was that those whose sexual passions kept them from total devotion to the gospel should marry or they would lose their souls.”7

Part of Paul’s hesitance to promote remarriage might be explained by his later comments to those who had never been married. Paul spoke of an “impending crisis” that led him to believe that “it is best for a person to remain as he is” for the coming season (1 Corinthians 7:26 BYU New Rendition). That is, those engaged should see their marriage through while those not courting anyone should be cautious in choosing to pursue a relationship at that time. Thus, his advice at that moment appears to be based on some immediate situation that the Corinthian church was facing.

Paul apparently wanted to spare the Corinthian Saints additional pain caused by this looming yet undefined time of trouble (see 1 Corinthians 7:27–28). This echoes the Lord’s instruction to not marry that was given to the prophet Jeremiah in light of the impending Babylonian invasion (see Jeremiah 16:2–4). While we are not sure what the crisis in Paul’s day was, it is possible that it dealt with developing steps toward heresy and apostasy and the need to prepare spiritually against persecution and conflict.8

The last group Paul addressed was those currently serving in the ministry. While this context is largely absent from the Greek manuscripts, verse 35 does clarify that Paul’s words were intended “to promote good order and undistracted service to the Lord” (BYU New Rendition). Furthermore, the Joseph Smith Translation of the Bible clarifies that the counsel given in 1 Corinthians 7:29–35 is limited in scope to those who were currently serving as missionaries. Ultimately, Paul admonished these individuals that because “the time is short,” they needed to focus on their ministry first and foremost (1 Corinthians 7:29).

However, Paul knew that this advice could not be applied to everyone who had been called to the ministry, so he offered further advice in verses 36–38. Specifically, Paul told them that should they already be engaged, valid reasons existed why these missionaries should marry in lieu of (or in addition to) their missionary service. Still, it was preferable to first fulfil one’s mission. Because of this, Paul wrote, “So one who marries his fiancée does well, but one who does not get married does better,” having first finished their temporary call from the Lord (1 Corinthians 7:38 BYU New Rendition).

The Why

In studying Paul’s epistles, it becomes clear that Paul had a high regard for marriage.9 In a later letter, Paul even described marriage as a “mystery” (Ephesians 5:31–32). This word—carried over into English from the Greek word mysterion—was originally understood to “describe the sacred rites associated with some kinds of temple worship.”10 As such, throughout all of Paul’s writings, marriage is to be seen as a sacred covenant connected with a temple ordinance.

To avoid misunderstanding or misconstruing Paul’s counsel regarding marriage in 1 Corinthians 7, these passages must be placed in their proper context. Both missionary service and marriage were held in great esteem by Paul and were needed in their own time, with nuanced recommendations given for different circumstances.

Ultimately, according to Paul, “neither is the man without the woman, neither the woman without the man, in the Lord” (1 Corinthians 11:11). Latter-day revelation clarifies that only when a man and woman are sealed in a temple by proper priesthood authority can they receive the fullest blessings from their Heavenly Father. President Russell M. Nelson taught, “This life is the time to prepare for salvation and exaltation. In God’s eternal plan, salvation is an individual matter; exaltation is a family matter.”11

Further Reading

Richard D. Draper and Michael D. Rhodes, The First Epistle to the Corinthians (Provo, UT: BYU Studies, 2017), 333–403.

Kent R. Brooks, “Paul’s Inspired Teachings on Marriage,” in Go Ye into All the World: Messages of the New Testament Apostles (Salt Lake City, UT: Deseret Book, 2002), 75–97.

  • 1. While the King James Version may be interpreted as either (1) Paul quoting the Corinthians’ letter or (2) Paul making this statement himself, the context clearly indicates that he is responding to this concern and is quoting from the Corinthians’ letter. This is maintained by modern scholarship as well as the Joseph Smith Translation, and many modern translations such as the New Revised Standard Version place this phrase in quotation marks to signify that Paul is quoting a letter. See, for instance, Richard D. Draper and Michael D. Rhodes, The First Epistle to the Corinthians (Provo, UT: BYU Studies, 2017), 334–335.
  • 2. Draper and Rhodes, First Epistle to the Corinthians, 337.
  • 3. See 1 Corinthians 7:16. While Draper and Rhodes, First Epistle to the Corinthians, 356, note that the Greek language is ambiguous here and Paul’s statement could be taken optimistically or pessimistically, context seems to indicate Paul was being optimistic (hence his urging to stay with the unbelieving spouse).
  • 4. Draper and Rhodes, First Epistle to the Corinthians, 357. For their wider discussion on marriage and divorce in biblical times, see pp. 361–371.
  • 5. Although the term widowers is translated as “unmarried” in the King James Version (as the Greek could be understood either way), Paul addressed those who were never married later in this chapter. Thus, the translation as “widowers” is likely more accurate to Paul’s original intent. See Draper and Rhodes, First Epistle to the Corinthians, 338–339.
  • 6. This statement, along with other passages of Paul’s epistles and the context of Paul as a faithful Pharisee before his conversion, has led many scholars and early Christians to conclude that Paul was, at one point, married and perhaps was now a widower. For a detailed discussion on Paul’s marital status, see Draper and Rhodes, First Epistle to the Corinthians, 345–349; Richard Lloyd Anderson, Understanding Paul, rev. ed. (Salt Lake City, UT: Deseret Book, 2007), 23. It is also possible that (assuming Paul had been a widower) he would later remarry, as one statement in Philippians has been understood by many early Christians to refer to Paul’s wife, sometimes thought to be Lydia. See Thomas A. Wayment and John Gee, “Did Paul Address His Wife in Philippi?,” Studies in the Bible and Antiquity 4 (2012): 80–91.
  • 7. Draper and Rhodes, First Epistle to the Corinthians, 340.
  • 8. See Draper and Rhodes, First Epistle to the Corinthians, 383–384.
  • 9. See, for example, 1 Corinthians 11:7; Colossians 3:18; 1 Timothy 2:15. When Paul speaks of the wife “submitting to” her husband, the Greek word is hypotassetai, which means “to stand behind or support, as in battle formation, with respect, reverence and love,” even as Christ has pure love for and stands behind the Church (Ephesians 5:22–25, 33). See further John W. Welch and John F. Hall, “Teachings of Peter and Paul about Marriage,” chart 15-15 in Charting the New Testament (Provo, UT: Foundation for Ancient Research and Mormon Studies, 2002).
  • 10. Draper and Rhodes, First Epistle to the Corinthians, 367.
  • 11. Russell M. Nelson, “Salvation and Exaltation,” April 2008 general conference.
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