1 Corinthians 7:32-38
I want you to be free from anxieties. The unmarried man is anxious about the affairs of the Lord, how to please the Lord, but the married man is anxious about the affairs of the world, how to please his wife, and his interests are divided. And the unmarried woman and the virgin are anxious about the affairs of the Lord, so that they may be holy in body and spirit, but the married woman is anxious about the affairs of the world, how to please her husband. I say this for your own benefit, not to put any restraint upon you but to promote good order and unhindered devotion to the Lord. If anyone thinks that he is behaving indecently toward his fiancée, if his passions are strong and so it has to be, let him marry as he wishes; it is no sin. Let them marry. But if someone stands firm in his resolve, being under no necessity but having his own desire under control, and has determined in his own mind to keep her as his fiancée, he will do well. So then, he who marries his fiancée[i] does well, and he who refrains from marriage will do better.
Working through 1 Corinthians 13 for the last few weeks, now I come to “love does not dishonor”. Well the only other time Paul’s word for “dishonor” in 1 Cor 13 is used is in 1 Cor 7 when Paul is giving instruction about marriage and it is about time I think about love in relation to marriage. The difficulty is twofold, the idea of marriage in the ancient world and our ideas are different, and Paul explicitly says that these are his words and not God’s. I bring up the second point because it is easy to notice in v 25 and some might try to argue that since this “isn’t God’s command” it should be treated differently. But I do agree with Paul that there is wisdom in his words and we can glean that wisdom for our own setting.
We must acknowledge that Paul thought Jesus was going to return within his lifetime and so some of Paul’s marriage advice is built on that conviction. He also believed that while marriage was good, remaining single was a far better option for Christians. In the midst of his advice he makes that statement that I am focused on today, “If anyone thinks that he is behaving indecently toward [lit] his virgin.” I use the literal translation virgin because there was some debate in the early church whether this comment referred to a woman’s fiancé as in modern English translations or to a young girl’s father, who would have arranged her marriage. The fact that either of these roles is potentially in view is important to me, because that idea of “behaving indecently toward” or “dishonor” takes on an added dimension. When I have read this passage in the past I have frequently overlooked this concept because the ideas of “honor” and “dishonor” are not explicitly a priority within our culture. I never thought about how Paul was saying to either a young man or a father, “you might agree with me that singleness is best and that does not give you a right to not marry this woman if it will cause her shame and disgrace.”
Again our culture is so far removed from Paul’s on these issues it can be easy for us to miss the force of what he is saying. Honor in this circumstance is to be well thought of in society as a whole, and it was a cultural virtue in Paul’s time. His words on marriage are to show love to this woman by making sure she is not culturally stigmatized. Imagine if this was among our standards for marriage let alone any other relationship in our lives. Now this is where it becomes difficult for me because I see that Paul’s words that “love does not dishonor” are very true and that even though culturally we are not explicit about honor and shame, we do implicitly make these connections. And I think this implicit shame culture makes our job even more difficult. What I mean is that I have been in churches all my life and in various communities throughout Ohio and in these communities this advice of Paul’s was taken seriously but it is rarely acknowledged. Each group we participate with has social cues and there is an expectation that we will honor them, we are expected to hold to a level of respect for the priorities of the group and not allow the group to be dishonored. It is easy for me to think about some of the conservative religious groups with very identifiable markers like no smoking, or drinking or dancing, but every group has a code of honor and shame. But because we do not have these codes as explicit commands they become harder to identify and as such they make Paul’s words more difficult for us.
But Paul’s words should speak to us in at least one way, that is we should recognize the essentials of our church community and try to live those out in the community. Here is what I think of when I think of love does not dishonor in relation to the church. What are the character traits which are easily recognizable as Christian- joy, peaceful, patient, kind, gentle, good, self-controlled, my commitment to not dishonor the church I love needs to include a commitment to make these my public face. Not that I can willfully act differently in private, but to show these characteristics as often as possible. My cultural honor can also include a desire for justice, and a commitment to helping the poor and needy. These are areas that reflect Jesus into the world and honoring the church means doing right by its founder. Honor also has the connotation that we should be well respected in the community at large. I recognize that our priorities and definitions will sometimes run afoul of leaders in the world but we still should try to be well respected for as much as possible. A corporate CEO might disrespect me for not being committed to the self-centered greed so abundant in that world, but should at least be able to say that I am honest and act with honor. The goal is to show respect to the Church we love by giving people no reason to think less of it.
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