We live in a world of ambiguity. At times, we rail against that, longing for clear-cut, definitive commands which take away any necessity for individual thought. On other occasions, we chafe at commands, wrestling with individual situations which don’t seem to fit the rule book. The tension between principles and laws make up much of our legal wrangles, as we seek both certainty and flexibility, justice and ‘right.’
1 Cor 7 is a chapter which deals with both commands and advice. It provides clear-cut commands on marriage, emphasising the sacredness and permanence of this institution (1 Cor 7:10-11, 39). It emphasises the importance of sex within marriage, stressing mutual responsibility and obligation which go far beyond the mood of the moment (1 Cor 7:3-8). It commands fidelity within marriage (1 Cor 7:2, 19) and denounces promiscuity (1 Cor 7:9), recognising the stresses and commitment which marriage brings (1 Cor 7:29-35). It also gives clear instructions to the unmarried and to the widowed (1 Cor 7:8-9) and celebrates singleness in a way that is generally alien to human thinking! (1 Cor 7:17-38).
Yet for all the clarity within this chapter, there is also ambiguity. Paul, at times, writes with complete certainty: ‘I give this command (not I, but the Lord.)’ (1 Cor 7:10), echoing Jesus’s own words on marriage (see Mark 10:2-12, also Matt 19:1-12). On other occasions, he makes it clear that he is offering his advice: ‘I, not the Lord’ (1 Cor 12, 25), though he is confident of his unity with the Spirit of God (1 Cor 7:40).
How do we deal with such ambiguity? How do we reconcile the blunt certainty of commands with the ambiguous flexibility of choice? How do we decide if we have the gift of singleness or marriage, for example? Where does our free will sit with God’s sovereignty?
Paul knows that knowledge is not the be-all and end-all of the Christian life (see 1 Cor 8:1) He knows the dangers of legalism better than most (see 2 Cor 3:6) and that there is a fine line between freedom and legalism. There is, indeed, a place for individual wrestling with God (see Gen 32), a place, as we grow, for chewing on meat, not just sipping milk. We seek to submit to God’s authority, having our thinking transformed so that we do not conform to the world’s patterns (Rom 12:1-2), but that does not mean we can always live in a black and white world. Ambiguity, it seems, is here to stay, forcing us to exercise our spiritual muscles by staying alert (Deut 4:9, The Message). Jesus reminded His disciples to keep watch: ‘Stay alert, be in prayer, so you don’t enter the danger zone without even knowing it. Don’t be naive. Part of you is eager, ready for anything in God; but another part is as lazy as an old dog sleeping by the fire.”’ (Mark 14:38, The Message) Working our way through ambiguity is part of our maturity in Christ, never easy, but always necessary.