Lori Alexander recently addressed whether the Apostle Paul devalues marriage. But the way she addressed it is profoundly strange to anyone familiar with the history of the New Testament.
Lori starts by quoting from the Old Testament and explaining that marriage was God’s original plan for women (as evidenced by the creation of Eve). Then she goes on:
The Apostle Paul comes along and tells the unmarried and widows that “it is good for them if they abide even as I am [single]” (1 Corinthians 7:8), but he does make it clear that he speaks this by “permission and not of commandment” (1 Corinthians 7:6). Then he adds, “…for it is better to marry than to burn” (1 Corinthians 7:9).
In 1 Corinthians 7:34, he wrote, “The unmarried woman careth for the things of the Lord, that she may be holy both in body and in spirit: but she that is married careth for the things of the world, how she may please her husband.”
Has God’s original design for marriage and childbearing been wiped out due to the Fall? No. Paul wrote in 1 Timothy 5:10 that older widows are to be known for bringing up children. He commands young widows to “marry, bear children, guide the house…” (1 Timothy 5:14). He also tells us that women will be saved in childbearing “if they continue in faith and charity and holiness with sobriety” (1 Timothy 2:15). He commands the older women to teach the young women to be lovers of their husbands and children (Titus 2:3-5).
I’m going to return to I Corinthians 7 in a moment, because Paul is actually even more down on marriage than Lori’s brief quotes suggest. But the real issue here is bigger—outside of conservative evangelical circles, no scholar believes that Paul wrote I Timothy. Or II Timothy, or Titus. That’s partly because these books are very very different from Paul’s other writings, as you can see even in Lori’s brief quotes.
For a variety of reasons, scholars believe I and II Timothy and Paul were written in the early 100s AD, by an anonymous church leader who was upset by the substantial role women played in the church at that time. In attempt to change this and to relegate women to the realm of domesticity, this man wrote letters urging women to stay in their place, at home, forging Paul’s name on these letters to give them credibility.
I mean good gracious, let’s look more fully at the sections Lori quotes from I Corinthians 7, a book which is widely accepted to have been written by Paul. Here are verses 29 through 35:
What I mean, brothers and sisters, is that the time is short. From now on those who have wives should live as if they do not; those who mourn, as if they did not; those who are happy, as if they were not; those who buy something, as if it were not theirs to keep; those who use the things of the world, as if not engrossed in them. For this world in its present form is passing away.
I would like you to be free from concern. An unmarried man is concerned about the Lord’s affairs—how he can please the Lord. But a married man is concerned about the affairs of this world—how he can please his wife—and his interests are divided. An unmarried woman or virgin is concerned about the Lord’s affairs: Her aim is to be devoted to the Lord in both body and spirit. But a married woman is concerned about the affairs of this world—how she can please her husband. I am saying this for your own good, not to restrict you, but that you may live in a right way in undivided devotion to the Lord.
This is a fairly clear statement that Christians should not marry, if at all possible. Paul tells both men and women (Lori ignores the men part) that if they marry their desires will be divided, and that it is better for them to be devoted to God without division—i.e., to not marry. Living in undivided devotion to God means not marrying. Yes, Paul says that those who are already married should stay married—but it’s very clear that he sees that as second best. In fact, he says that direction in verses 36-38:
If anyone is worried that he might not be acting honorably toward the virgin he is engaged to, and if his passions are too strong and he feels he ought to marry, he should do as he wants. He is not sinning. They should get married. But the man who has settled the matter in his own mind, who is under no compulsion but has control over his own will, and who has made up his mind not to marry the virgin—this man also does the right thing. So then, he who marries the virgin does right, but he who does not marry her does better.
By the way, I just checked another version of the above—because I was fairly sure the word “virgin” also means unmarried woman, and thus isn’t a reference to the state of one’s hymen—and I learned that some translators have translated this passage as being about whether a man should allow his virgin daughter to marry. Which is weird. Apparently, the term for “maiden” is there, but also a possessive term—the passage is talking about an unmarried virgin that a man possesses. Hence some translating it virgin he is engaged to and others translating it virgin daughter. It seems those are the two ways one might “possess” a virgin.
Either way, it’s clear that Paul thinks being married is second-best for both men and women, and that the ideal state is to be single and wholeheartedly devoted to serving God. To show that Paul does not mean what he flat-out states in I Corinthians 7, Lori quotes from I Timothy, a book most scholars don’t think Paul wrote in part because it contains things that directly contradict his teachings in other letters.
Scholars don’t believe Paul wrote the pastorals (I and II Timothy and Titus) in part because the gender roles and approach to marriage laid out in those letters so fully and profoundly contradict the gender roles and approach to marriage laid out in other letters bearing his name, but also for other reasons.
The pastorals are the only (supposedly) Pauline epistles where we see positions like bishops—and notably, the pastorals require the bishops be married and have children. But in his earlier writings, he talks of Christ’s return as immanent. He says that those who are married should live as though they are not. The entire tone of the pastorals does not fit the time when Paul was writing—it fits a period in church history after his death, a time when church leaders started creating structures and settling in for a longer wait for Christ’s return.
It’s key to remember that the earliest Christians thought Jesus would return at any moment—you can see that in Paul’s statement in I Corinthians 7 that “the time is short,” and that those that have wives should live as though they do not. You see it in lots of other places too.
As far as I can tell, the only logical argument for those who insist that Paul did in fact write the pastorals would be that, as time went on and Jesus did not return, Paul changed his mind on some things and started giving different advice to suit a different time (i.e. at time when they were not awaiting Christ’s return at any moment). But note that that is not what Lori is saying. Instead, she appears to be claiming that I Corinthians and I Timothy are consistent and fit together without problem. This is clearly untrue.
In one letter with Paul’s name on it, the author urges Christians not to marry, in order to be undivided followers of Jesus; in another book with Paul’s name on it, the author urges female Christians to marry and to stay at home and attend to their husbands. Rather than asking interesting questions like, were these two letters perhaps actually written by two completely different people, or, did the same person write both of these letters but change his mind over time, Lori flattens all of that and claims de facto, and without a real attempt to be convincing or explain the differences, that the two don’t contradict each other.
Here is Lori’s only attempt to harmonize these passages:
The Apostle Paul does not negate God’s original design for men and women but he knows that since the Fall, we live far from an ideal world so he gives principles to live by, yet he still champions marriage and childbearing. He knows that most men burn and should marry. He knows that women are more protected and provided for when cared for by a husband.
Lori is making things up and claiming Paul believed them. This is absolutely not something Paul says. Not even the pastorals say anything about women being more protected and provided for.
Lori then adds this:
The leaders in the churches (elders and deacons) are to be the “husband of one wife” and have their “children in subjection with all gravity” (1 Timothy 2:4). The Apostle still clearly held to the importance of marriage and having children.
Note that Lori never even tries to address the fact that what Paul says in I Corinthians is completely different from what the author of I Timothy (whoever he may be) says. She doesn’t even seem to realize that that is something that should bear addressing.
Evangelical leaders do their congregations a disservice by teaching them what the Bible says but not teaching them about the Bible. I am not sure that Debi even knows that scholars question Paul’s authorship of the pastoral epistles. And frankly, that is a disservice to her—even if she rejects a different authorship, she should at least know that this is something that is up for debate. Her ignorance of this also means that her claims look absurd and half-baked to anyone who knows mainstream scholarship on the Bible.
Did Paul value marriage and childbearing? The answer to that depends entirely on which letter with Paul’s name on it you look at—and that in and of itself should tell you something about the New Testament.
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