Marriage and celibacy. For the longest time, it was simply assumed that any good Christian would just get married. Sure, there were those few people that may have remained unmarried their whole life, but it was almost as if there was something incomplete about them. However, in recent years, due to the rise of concerns about sexuality and also the increasing rate in which Millenials are getting married at dramatically lower rates than generations past, a lot of discussions, both formal and informal, have been brought up around the New Testament teachings about celibacy.
One of the key passages on this occurs in 1 Corinthians 7.25-35 where Paul commends celibacy as an option given what he refers to as “the impending crisis” or the “present necessity” (τὴν ἐνεστῶσαν ἀνάγκην). How one interprets this has significant impacts as to how to understand Paul’s instructions about celibacy. Is Paul’s instructions for celibacy highly situation specific that doesn’t really apply to this time? Or, is Paul expressing a deeper, persistent value about God’s Kingdom?
The meaning of the participle ἐνεστῶσαν is highly relevant here. According to BDAG, ἐνίστημι has three meanings: 1) arrive, 2) happen now, 3) imminent. Popular eschatological imaginations about the early church as waiting and expecting the coming of Jesus Christ as any moment might give #3 a preference in the minds of some. This preference would only be exacerbated by popular (but atrocious) pre-millenial rapture teaching that is looking for the end of the world as we know it on the horizon. Beyond the dubious theological assumptions behind this, the problem is that it just doesn’t make sense in the rest of Paul’s discourse. In vs. 31, Paul says that “the way of life (τὸ σχῆμα) of this world is passing away.”1 Whatever Paul is talking about, it is already occurring. There is not some feared crisis waiting on the horizon; there is instead a struggle going on in the present time.
John Barclay proposes a different understanding for τὴν ἐνεστῶσαν ἀνάγκην in his chapter in Paul and the Apocalyptic Imagination. Barclay suggests:
“The present constraint” (ἡ ἐνεστῶσα ἀνάγκη) refers, I suggest, to a feature of “the present evil age” (ὁ αἰὼν ὁ ἐνεστώς, Gal. 1:4), the “constraint” being the inevitable mortality and decay of all things in “this age.” Life in “this world” is lived under the hegemony of “powers” and “authorities,” of which death is the final and most potent (1 Cor. 15:24–26). This power currently holds sway over all humans, and even over the bodies of believers, which are limited and vulnerable because of their weakness and corruptibility (1 Cor. 15:42–44; cf. Phil. 3:21).2
This interpretation takes a different approach to the eschatological and apocalyptic ideas in 1 Corinthians. Rather than viewing Paul’s language through the lens of an imminent crisis waiting on the horizon, instead Barclay engages in what I refer to as metaphysical apocalypticism: that apocalyptic discourses are literary tools used to influence perception of the circumstances and the world through certain metaphysical construal of the world. In interpreting “the present constraint” as pertaining to the abstract conceptions of mortality and decay, Barclay regards Paul’s apocalyptic discourse as fundamentally metaphysical in function. Even if it does not look like traditional metaphysics that we are accustomed to, by making the significance of the apocalyptic language pertaining to overarching ideas about morality (which Paul primarily brings up in relationship to the cross and resurrection of Christ in 1 Corinthians but not so much elsewhere), it treats Paul’s discourse as a coded message about general and abstract realities that we used to categorize life and experience.
What indications are there in 1 Corinthians 7.25-35 that death is the primary concern undergirding Paul’s instructions? The two closest indications are in the language of mourning in 1 Corinthians 7.30 and the usage of the language of σάρξ in 7.28. However, neither of these are demonstrably being used to refer to mortality. Instead, Paul’s instructions about marriage are more general than a concern about mortality. For instance, Paul is concerned about divided interests between a man pleasing his wife and serving the Lord. This is not the language of mortality, but rather Paul is suggesting that in the current circumstances, the pleasures of marriage life may be particularly difficult to keep up simultaneous with one’s services to Jesus. Paul’s discourse doesn’t seem to be particular relevant to Barclay’s interpretations of τὴν ἐνεστῶσαν ἀνάγκην as pertaining to concern about mortality.
It is at this point that it bears mentioning. The primary purpose of apocalyptic literature was not as a vehicle of a specific set of abstract ideas and frames of references encoded in the symbolism to make sense of the present world. That may be how we can comprehend how apocalyptic literature conveys meanings from our analytic perspectives, but that doesn’t mean these functions actually determine the specific communicative meanings and purposes that communicators like Paul may have had in using themes and language drawn from apocalyptic literature. In other words, analysis of apocalyptic literature can explain HOW the various symbols, motifs, and words convey specific meanings, but it does not explain WHAT they were used for. In recent attempts to understand the significance of “apocalyptic” in Paul and within the New Testament, there has been a tendency for analytical and exegetical methods to bleed over into our construal of the meaning. The result is that we can get rather interpretations of Paul that regard him as a propogater of ideas and schemas.
However, the purposes of apocalyptic literature, while potentially diverse, often centered around ongoing sociopolitical circumstances and the dream for God to do something new. In other words, apocalyptic is usually better understood as evoking a sense of a narrative drama between God and the political rulers of the day in which God acts to defeat, topple, or in some cases like in Daniel, “convert” empires (or other agents of widespread evil) so that God’s purposes for His people can become realized. If we are to understand apocalyptic along the lens of abstract ideas, it is best to see it in terms of societal tension and conflict where God gets the upper hand. We see this motif of conflict and tension back in 1 Corinthians 1.20, where Paul boasts evoke the image of God getting the upper hand on the reputedly wise.
This leads me to my proposal about the meaning of τὴν ἐνεστῶσαν ἀνάγκην. Paul uses the phrase to refer to the ongoing tensions and difficulties that have emerged as the result of the Gospel of Jesus Christ setting those people who are called intension with wider Greco-Roman society. Wider society, ideologically regulated by human wisdom in the form of the Stoics and political orators and even the occasionally influential Jewish scribe, finds the word of the cross offensive. However, as the wisdom of God in Christ emerges as He continues in his victory and triumph over human wisdom, the tensions between God’s wisdom and human wisdom present a stark challenge to face for believers. This tension rooted in the conflict of two wisdoms are responsible for the divisions the church in Corinth is facing.
In the midst of this conflict of ‘wisdoms,’ there would be dramatic changes to the way of life (v. 31) that would people would engage in. The way people are usually accustomed to taking care of the needs of themselves and their family are going to be radically altered and disturbed. The present tensions are going to eventually culminate in something on the horizon that is shortly at hand (v. 29), so it would be better for people to not have their own lives and interests rooted in taking care of families as the changes that are occurring will totally unsettle married and family life.
This interpretation sits between the two others options already presented. It is best understood according to the idea of trajectory: the trajectory for Christians believers in Corinth is such that they are already in the midst of the struggle that occurs when God makes war with oppressive human wisdom and power, but that it is going to culminate into something more in the future. Paul can see the course that is set before him and he is trying to tell his fellow believers that marriage life is quite a challenge amidst all the unsettling God is doing in the world. While it isn’t a sin to still marry, it is going to be harder to be involved in what God is doing through the Gospel of Jesus Christ if it becomes increasingly more difficult to take care of one’s family.
That the τὴν ἐνεστῶσαν ἀνάγκην is more a matter of circumstances is implied by Paul’s instructions in 36-38. By encouraging people to remain unmarried but keep their fiancee (literally: virgin/παρθένος), Paul is not envisioning a permanent, enduring state of affairs. A time may come where the stress and trials of life would make marriage easier. However, for the time being, there are struggles that are being faced. It is not unlike God’s instructions for the prophet Jeremiah in Jeremiah 16, which may be somewhere in the back of Paul’s mind as some who himself sees himself a bit like Jeremiah,3 although the emotional tone and description of the problems in Jeremiah 16 and 1 Corinthians 7 are very different. In fact, if one wants to get a bit into personal psychological analysis, which is a highly tenuous thing to do with ancient texts, Paul’s own identification with Jeremiah may be the source for Paul’s concern about the marriage in the context of the ongoing struggle and its building tension.
In other words, Paul’s commending of celibacy are words that may be very relevant whenever the Gospel of Jesus Christ is challenging oppressive sociopolitical societies and cultures. Believers will often be thrown into a crisis from the trials that they will face, leading to the possibility of division of one’s attention and concern.
However, it should also be noted that celibacy is not presented as an option simply because there is an ongoing struggle. Paul commends it because by remaining unmarried, one can give undivided attention to the Lord. The ongoing struggle only makes that route a much easier route to consider if one can handle it.
To that end, Paul’s instructions on marriage and celibacy are often at risk of being overly spiritualized or being presented as a fixed paradigm to make sense of marriage in all circumstances, when in fact Paul is much more pragmatic about his instructions given the circumstances the Gospel of Christ has created. Jesus’ words on about marriage in Matthew 19 are much more broad sweeping about the goodness and value of life-long celibacy. Meanwhile, Paul is more so commending this way of life as being even more advantageous in light of the upcoming difficulties, but primarily in a circumstantial manner. In Paul’s mind, it is best to forego any plans for marriage for the present moment if one has control of themselves. We might could imagine Paul’s instruction being understood along the lines of “now is not the right time to make such a big life decision, so wait on it for a time when the dust settles and then you can see more clearly the life set before you.”
- On translated τὸ σχῆμα as way of life rather than “present form” or “present shape,” I offered up two reasons. Firstly, Paul is addressing specific behaviors as it pertains to marriage. Secondly, when Paul uses the phrase “of this age” (τοῦ αἰῶνος τούτου), similar to “of this world” (τοῦ κόσμου τούτου), Paul uses it in reference to address matters of wisdom. Hellenistic philosophy’s concern about wisdom was primarily situated within ethics, and so it is likely that Paul’s discussion about the present circumstances specifically revolves are conduct as related to wisdom. That the form of Paul’s reasoning about marriage showed some similarities with Stoic ethical reasoning only reinforces this.
- John M.G. Barclay, “Apocalyptic Allegiance and Disinvestment in the World” in Paul and the Apocalyptic Imagination. (Minneapolis, Fortress Press, 2016), EPUB Edition, “The Present Constraint.”
- Compare Galatians 1.15 with Jeremiah 1.5.