I have a Christian friend who’s rendition of 1 Cor 7:36 roughly comes to “if a man is sleeping with his committed girlfriend/fiancé, they are of age, and need to, let him do the things he wants to with her (have sex), it isn’t sinful: let them be considered married.” Does that interpretation have any merit?
Thanks for the note. Glad you’re interacting with your friend on this, but I do think he’s very wrong about Paul in 1 Cor 7.
First problem in using 1 Corinthians 7:36 to justify anything, especially a very contentious idea (essentially he’s saying premarital sex equals marriage) is that this verse is notoriously difficult for Christians to understand/translate/interpret for just the 2000 years. It might not be expected of the average Christian to know this about this particular verse, but taking up just 4 or 5 different translations will show that the language here is far from clear. So making a bold statement about Christian sexual practise based on this one verse is ill advised out of the gate. The broad scope of possible meanings is shown in this sampling of translations:
- NIV: If anyone thinks he is acting improperly toward the virgin he is engaged to, and if she is getting along in years and he feels he ought to marry, he should do as he wants. He is not sinning. They should get married.
- KJV: But if any man think that he behaveth himself uncomely toward his virgin, if she pass the flower of her age, and need so require, let him do what he will, he sinneth not: let them marry.
- ASV: But if any man thinketh that he behaveth himself unseemly toward his virgin (daughter), if she be past the flower of her age, and if need so requireth, let him do what he will; he sinneth not; let them marry.
- Darby: But if anyone think that he behaves unseemly to his virginity, if he be beyond the flower of his age, and so it must be, let him do what he will, he does not sin: let them marry.
- God’s Word: No father would want to do the wrong thing when his virgin daughter is old enough to get married. If she wants to get married, he isn’t sinning by letting her get married.
- NLT: But if a man thinks that he’s treating his fiancée improperly and will inevitably give in to his passion, let him marry her as he wishes. It is not a sin.
The key to understanding this is understanding three Greek phrases, translated “his virgin” and “past the bloom/flower” along with “needs require”. As you could see from the above translations, “his virgin” could have THREE possible meanings.
- It could refer to a man’s daughter.
- It could refer to a man’s fiancé or
- It could refer to man’s own virginity. (Side note: when translations say “she” is “past bloom”, the gender is inferred from “virgin”, there is no gender assigned in the Greek. So it could be “his” virginity.)
Let’s look at the strength of each these interpretations: Darby sees this verse as a natural follow up to Paul’s whole conversation in chapter 7 about virginity where he promotes celibacy. This verse then, would be the “application portion” of that whole argument. So, if a man finds he is violating his own virginity (IE. experiencing the ‘burning with passion” Paul mentions 7:9) and he’s getting along in years, the man is free to marry.
This is probably weakest of the three because the possessive of virgin is almost never attached to one’s own virginity but to a person, usually (but not always) a woman whom you, in some sense, possess.
So the second idea is that “his virgin” is his fiancé. This is how most modern translations see it and your friend would agree. This is probably stronger than the first view, weaker than the last view. But even in this view, your Christian buddy has inserted two ideas that aren’t in the text and have never been inferred by any translators or commentators that I’ve read, ever. His assumptions are
- that behaving improperly means “having sex with” and
- that “let them marry” means “let them be considered married.”
Three things militate against this view. One is the question of why Paul would call premarital sex “behaving improperly” and then turn around and tell those engaging in it, “let them do as they please.” This is very perplexing.
Two, is that the “behaving improperly” is connected to the “past bloom” in some way. The way early Christians did engagement” was through arranged marriages. Moderns assume that cohabitation was an option back then, but it was almost unheard of. Why? Because a man sleeping with a woman was always sleeping with someone else’s property. So no one willy nilly “shacked up” – a father wouldn’t allow it. It wasn’t just dishonorable, it was economically disastrous – unless he was paying for those services through prostitution. Yes, it was not unheard of (see John 4) but very rare, usually with widows (which precludes ‘virgins’ obviously).
So most men would be engaged to a woman, selected by their parents, sometimes for years ahead of matrimony. This implies that the “past bloom” comment is connected to not treating her marriage rights correctly, rather than “having sex” with her. The man in question is delaying marriage (because of Paul’s encouragement of celibacy) but he finds that his fiancé is getting older and “needs require” he do something. Again, why? Because she (or he) is not fit or suited for single life.
Therefore it needs to be said by Paul to such a man – you can go ahead and take her freely as your wife. Get married, it’s not a sin. The verb tense in Greek will not allow, “let them be considered married”. The context makes this obvious. He’s considering what a man WILL do, not renaming what someone has already done.
Third, your Friend has not understood other Scripture. There is no state of cohabitation that Paul ever endorsed as lawful sex. Widows were perhaps cohabitating with renegade elders in Ephesus (see 1 Timothy) and there he doesn’t say, “let them be considered married” if they want to make it right. He considers them fornicators, and calls them to repent, “settle down and get married” (1 Tim 5:14). The only other cohabitating we know of was the one that came under discipline when a man simply took his father’s wife (I Cor 5). If the marriage arrangement was so slippery to Paul that we could wave our wands over any two fornicators at will and say, voila, “married!”, then why not say that about the man who took his father’s wife and avoid the scandal? (We incorrectly assume that the scandal was that the father was still alive, in all likelihood he was not.)
After all is said and done, there’s a strong case to be made that this isn’t even about a man and his fiancé. It’s might be about a parent and “his virgin” which would be a daughter still under a father’s authority. There’s much to commend this view, since it takes historical context and all the language here into account. If a reference to a parent, the “behaving improperly” makes clear sense attached to “past bloom”. This would mean a Christian father has heard Paul extoll the benefits of celibacy, but the father knows this isn’t “proper” for his daughter. And seeing that she is moving past marrying age, this requires him to make a decision. And Paul then grants such a parent the freedom to do as he sees fit: Give her in marriage, let her be married to her affianced, despite the benefits of the single life.
Most early commentators saw this as the obvious meaning (Paul had talked to singles, marrieds and divorced, it makes sense that he apply his message to one final group: Parents!) As one example, this is John Calvin on this passage:
But if any one thinketh that it were unseemly for his virgin. He now directs his discourse to parents, who had children under their authority. For having heard the praises of celibacy, and having heard also of the inconveniences of matrimony, they might be in doubt, whether it were at all a kind thing to involve their children in so many miseries, lest it should seem as if they were to blame for the troubles that might befall them. For the greater their attachment to their children, so much the more anxiously do they exercise fear and caution on their account.  Paul, then, with the view of relieving them from this difficulty, teaches that it is their duty to consult their advantage, exactly as one would do for himself when at his own disposal.  Now he still keeps up the distinction, which he has made use of all along, so as to commend celibacy, but, at the same time, to leave marriage as a matter of choice; and not simply a matter of choice, but a needful remedy for incontinency, which ought not to be denied to anyone. In the first part of the statement he speaks as to the giving of daughters in marriage, and he declares that those do not sin in giving away their daughters in marriage, who are of opinion that an unmarried life is not suitable for them.
In all likelihood then, this isn’t even about engaged couples at all, but about fathers and daughters and reflects the authority in 1st century culture that father’s had over “their virgin daughters” until marriage and the responsibility they took in seeing them well wed in that culture – in conjunction with Paul’s encouragement of singleness. In any event “do has he please” cannot be referring to two unwed people continuing to sleep together and have it ‘considered’ marriage. This is a pretty blatant example of reading into the text what you want it to say, instead of letting it speak for itself.