I’ve seen a lot of folks get hung up on Paul’s choice of words in 1 Corinthians 7:25. In the context of giving instructions regarding marriage and singleness, he says, “Now concerning virgins, I have no command of the Lord, but I give my opinion as one who by the Lord’s mercy is trustworthy” (NRSV).
People like to extrapolate from this remark that we can consider most (or all) of Paul’s epistles as just one guy’s advice and not really an inspired revelation from God. But here are three reasons why that’s wrong:
Not Just Any Opinion, but Apostolic Opinion
In verse 10 of the same chapter Paul references Jesus’ teaching on marriage and divorce (Matt 19:1-12; Mark 10:2-12; Luke 16:18). So when he gets to verse 25 and says “I have no command of the Lord,” he’s making clear that he doesn’t have an explicit statement from Jesus’s earthly ministry to quote on the matter.
That doesn’t mean that Paul’s instructions aren’t authoritative for the church, however, since his writings are apostolic messages given under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. We can look at 2 Peter 3:15-16 for early testimony to Paul’s letters being considered Scripture, while acknowledging that they were written “according to the wisdom given” to Paul and containing some things “hard to understand.”
We can also look just a bit further in 1 Corinthians 7 where, in verse 40, Paul points out that he has the Spirit of God — enforcing the spiritual authority of his words. We aren’t dealing with just anyone’s opinion here, but rather the opinion of one who was uniquely set apart as an apostle over Christ’s church.
Paul’s Rhetoric of Modesty
Another vital point to keep in mind is that Paul is intentionally more modest than he needs to be throughout his Corinthian epistles. This is because he’s trying not to flex his power on a church already struggling with pride and a tendency to idolize status.
We see this issue come up in the first couple of chapters in 1 Corinthians, where Paul talks about how the believers in Corinth are becoming divided over which leaders they like best and over who seems to have the flashiest spiritual gifts. We see it even more in 2 Corinthians, where Paul is having to defend his apostleship against arrogant and boastful false teachers.
The last thing Paul wants is to model arrogance to folks tempted to be arrogant. So the apostle intentionally layers an extra air of modesty in these letters so that he doesn’t play into the Corinthians’ power game. He wants to acknowledge their ability to hear from the Lord for themselves, but nonetheless knows that they were in desperate need of correction on a great many issues.
As a good leader, Paul corrects them with gentleness and respect when he can — though he certainly wasn’t afraid to get stern when the situation escalated (see 2 Cor 11:16-21; 13:1-10)!
A Nuanced Topic
Another reason, though, for Paul’s modesty in chapter 7 is that he knows he is addressing a sensitive topic where matters of personal conviction and circumstances are involved.
Whether a person can or should marry is an intensely personal matter, and particularly in first-century Corinth there seemed to have been some cultural pressure affecting Paul’s advice that people remain single if possible (see 1 Cor 7:26 — the meaning of “the present crisis” or “the impending crisis” is hotly debated and I won’t delve into that here, but I think it’s best to view it as a localized situation causing difficulty in Corinth).
There was already a strong bent in Corinth toward celibacy and asceticism, and to a degree Paul was inclined to support that. But he also wanted to take pains to stress the importance of marriage and the dangers of neglecting marital intimacy for those who were married, while making clear that celibacy was good if one was called to it. All of these factors lead Paul to carefully nuance the discussion here with a great deal of rhetorical humility.
The Spirit and the Spokesman
Keep in mind that elsewhere in his writings Paul speaks without reservation as an authority on behalf of the risen Jesus. A good example is Galatians 1, where he actually pronounces God’s curse on people who distort the gospel he taught!
So, going back to the first point above, Paul’s humility in 1 Corinthians 7 doesn’t negate the fact that we are dealing with an inspired, apostolic opinion — and, therefore, a biblical opinion. To ignore Paul is to ignore the Spirit’s word to the church.
It’s easy to forget that when God inspired his spokespeople, he didn’t supersede their human reasoning or neglect the cultural rhetoric of their day. Setting aside for now all the technical debates about the nature of divine inspiration, I think most Christians with a high view of Scripture would still agree that God used the very personalities, deliberative capacities, and cultural/rhetorical trends of the Bible’s human authors as part of how he communicated.
Paul may have been modest about his “opinion,” but the church has (rightly) received it as God’s word to us, and its preservation in the canon is witness to this fact.
As a little side-note in parting, it’s worth pointing out what NT scholar Leon Morris draws attention to (with reference to the writing of James Moffatt):
“Moffatt points out that Paul’s careful discrimination between a saying of the Lord and his own injunction tells strongly against those who maintain that the early church was in the habit of producing the sayings it needed and then ascribing them to Christ: ‘It is historically of high importance that he did not feel at liberty to create a saying of Jesus, even when, as here, it would have been highly convenient in order to settle a disputed point of Christian behavior.'” — Leon Morris, 1 Corinthians, TNTC (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1985), 106.
Categories: New Testament