Summer 2008

God’s Word or Paul’s Personal Opinion?

1 Corinthians 7:12 in Context

By Kenneth Berding

In 1 Corinthians 7:10, Paul writes: “But to the married I give instructions, not I, but the Lord, that the wife should not leave her husband.” But only two verses later in verse 12 he writes: “But to the rest I say, not the Lord, that if any brother has a wife who is an unbeliever, and she consents to live with him, he must not divorce her” (emphasis added).

What is going on here? Does Paul issue the Lord’s command in the first instance, but only offer a personal opinion in the second? Do we have to obey the first instruction but not the second since Paul says that the second comes from him rather than from the Lord?

New Testament scholars on the whole are in agreement that the distinction Paul is making here is not between his own personal opinion and God’s authoritative instruction; rather, he is contrasting the source of authority for each instruction. Both statements are fully authoritative, but the source of authority differs in each instance.

In the early second century, Polycarp of Smyrna, one of Christianity’s most famous martyrs, lists three sources of authority for early Christians. He writes, “So, then, let us serve him with fear and all reverence, just as he himself [Jesus] has commanded, as did the apostles, who preached the gospel to us, and the prophets, who announced in advance the coming of our Lord” (Pol. Phil. 6.3).

The three sources of authority for the earliest Christians were: (1) the teachings of Jesus passed on orally by the apostles; (2) the instructions of the apostles (cf. Acts 2:42); and (3) the words of the prophets, that is, the Old Testament Scriptures. These three streams of authority were different from each other stream, but each of the three was binding on early Christians.

So in 1 Corinthians 7, Paul distinguishes between source-of-authority No. 1 and source-of-authority No. 2. When Paul writes in 1 Corinthians 7:10, “not I, but the Lord,” he is appealing to the specific teaching Jesus gave about divorce when he was on earth.

Did Jesus give instructions during his earthly ministry that a wife should not leave her husband? Yes, the early disciples orally passed on Jesus’ prohibition of divorce until it was written down in the Gospels a decade or so after Paul wrote 1 Corinthians (cf. Mark 10:11-12; Matthew 19:6, 9).

So when Paul passes on the particular instruction found in 1 Corinthians 7:10, he wants to draw attention to the fact that this teaching is not new; it was given by the Lord himself some 20 years earlier. Paul’s appeal in this verse, then, is to source-of-authority No. 1, the specific teaching of Jesus in his earthly ministry as passed down orally by the early disciples and written down in this verse by Paul.

But did Jesus give instructions during his earthly ministry about what to do in the case of a believer who is already married to an unbelieving spouse? No, there is no evidence in any of the Gospels that Jesus ever had reason to teach about such a situation during his earthly ministry.

So Paul gives authoritative instructions as God’s appointed apostle about what to do in this particular situation. In this case, his appeal is to source-of-authority No. 2, the authority of the apostles (of which he is one). His instruction is still a “trustworthy” word of the Lord, even if Jesus didn’t teach about it during his earthly ministry (1 Corinthians 7:25), because, as Paul says about himself, “I also have the Spirit of God” (1 Corinthians 7:40). Paul is a divinely appointed apostle who has authority to give such directions to the churches (1 Corinthians 7:17).

So despite the common assumption that Paul is just giving his personal opinion in 1 Corinthians 7:12, there are good reasons — as a glance at almost any good commentary on this passage will show — that we should not take this instruction, or indeed, any of the teachings of the apostles, as somehow lacking in authority. 1 Corinthians 7:12 is not just Paul’s personal opinion; it is the authoritative instruction of an apostle of the Lord.

Share

Comments

  • Marcia Montenegro June 8, 2011 at 1:15 PM

    Dear Prof. Berding: I used a quote from your article in a discussion/debate in a Christian Apologetics group on Facebook re 1 Cor. 7:10 in order to buttress my view that this is not Paul's opinion, but carries the authority of scripture.

    I was asked to back up your statement that "New Testament scholars on the whole are in agreement that the distinction Paul is making here is not between his own personal opinion and God’s authoritative instruction." Can you cite some of the NT scholars you refer to here? I would greatly appreciate it! Thank you!

  • Ben Yu June 25, 2016 at 9:55 AM

    How, if at all, can this reasoning be applied to 1 Cor 7:6 and 2 Cor 8:8, when Paul specifies that what he is saying/speaking is by concession or at least "not of command"? Not discounting the importance of Paul's concessions nor opinions, but should these statements be interpreted and/or applied differently than statements by Jesus' authority?

  • Red September 3, 2016 at 1:04 PM

    I take the opposite view, holding that Paul's words are not gospel, but rather are Google advice on par with Billy Graham or other Godly persons. Note that Paul was not a disciple, he was not taught by our Master face to face for years, he is not listed as 1 of the 12 anywhere in the New Testament, Paul seceded authority to James regarding Paul's evangelism to the Gentiles, and most critically important, Paul did not claim that his words were gospel, and in fact, much of his writing was not even intended for us to read but was for specific people that he named by name.

  • JJMeylar November 11, 2016 at 10:27 PM

    Gotta go with Red, here. It's definitely opinion. While it's good to take his advice on things, most of his words are clearly opinion. He's neither a prophet nor one of the 12, so it's doubtful that his word is directly from God.

  • Phillip Mutchell March 30, 2017 at 1:54 AM

    Unless you deny Acts as being scripture then surely Paul is the chosen apostle to the Gentiles. Jesus came to the Jews, and specifically stated that all things written concerning him (and therefore Israel) would be concluded in that generation. So we can understand that most of Jesus' instruction to his new community then make perfect sense to those who like the first generation of Israel, were leaving their spiritual Egypt to enter their heavenly Canaan. Paul was essential to add balance to commands which without him are simply insane, would we not all be wandering the earth like Cain, having, like Jesus' contemporaries who believed him, sold land and possessions KNOWING that Israel's inheritance laws were doomed with all her laws to the judgement of God for 'that which is waxing old is ready to disappear'. Which happened AD 70 to the glory of God and confirmation that Jesus was a true prophet, to deny this is to make him a false prophet. If you have some psychological problem and a felt need to interpret reality as so bad that God's obliged to destroy his creation, then obviously reason shall fail to penetrate. However, if you have known that joy and peace which Christ promised through his words then you would delight that the self same spirit which spoke in Jesus surely spoke in Paul, and just as surely as the 11 apostles' words were able to loose and bind on earth, so are Paul's words able to do the same, praise then the God who has given such power to men.

  • Marcus June 9, 2017 at 7:30 PM

    I concur with Phillip Mutchell. Was it not the Lord who blinded Saul on the road to Damascus before he was filled with the Holy Spirit and became Paul? Surely he was hand picked by our Lord Jesus Christ and was a true disciple!

  • TREVOR November 14, 2017 at 7:39 AM

    I believe that Paul was inspired of the Holy Spirit . He had the authority from Christ to speak . He clearly stated when something was the teaching of Christ or Prophets or of the Apostles ,he being an Apostle himself . One of the qualifications of the Apostle is to have been appointed by Jesus or to have seen Jesus . Paul qualified on both . In the Book of Acts on the road to Damascus he was appointed and seen Jesus . Jesus identified Himself to Paul . Paul spoke under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit . We must also understand that audience relevance is important . Each church had their specific problems and Paul dealt with them differently . That does not mean Paul had different rules for different churches . It was just that each had their unique situations .

  • Gus March 16, 2018 at 8:13 AM

    So this literally means that Paul gives his opinion and when preachers and pastors say that ALL OF NT was god inspired, this is the proof that its a false statement. Christian apologetics love twisting and adding new things to the christian bible to legitimize it.

  • Patrick Fleming November 27, 2018 at 1:53 AM

    I'm getting tired of biblical "scholars" who expect believers to think that God Inspired Paul to say (paraphrasing) "these aren't Gods words, they are mine"... this makes no sense people. Logic, come on brothers and sisters. Seminary degrees don't equate to accurate interpretations. God wanted His word to be simple and read and understood by all who read it.

    Bible Study Basics : Living By The Book ( given to me by seminary friends at Masters Seminary & Talbot)
    Observation, Interpretation, Application.
    What does it say, what does that mean, how can I apply.
    Paul said "I say..., Not the Lord"...
    Observation: What does it say? That the words written are Pauls, not God.
    What does that mean? His words are his own, not Gods. We are making this too complicated.
    Application: this is what Paul thinks, it's not a command, its to be heard simply as his own voice. I can take it for what it's worth, but to equate it to the words of Jesus... to me I can't help but feel that's dangerous.

  • Michael Davis December 6, 2018 at 4:14 PM

    But ALL scripture is "God breathed", so this would fall under the same authority ultimately from God, correct?

  • Charlie December 12, 2018 at 8:00 AM

    I have struggled with this for a few years now. Paul has 13 books in the New Testament (48%). What is included in those are good advice, just as the words in the book of James and Peter. Then, introduce the Gospels that record the words of Jesus. Teachings from the books attributed to Paul then become a major issue percentage wise.

    So in the Gospels Jesus teaches us to love God and your neighbor as the greatest commandment.
    What teachings that come later from his Apostles are like a pastor preaching from the pulpit. Paul is merely telling people what Jesus was preaching and putting it the context of daily living but in his (Paul) words.

  • T Man May 13, 2019 at 11:58 AM

    This is very Simple.. Paul clearly makes a distinction when its his opinion he uses I... it makes no sense that a man inspired by God's Spirit will say I and not The Lord... why would he distance his statement from God and yet He is the source ?...'

  • anonymous November 2, 2019 at 10:28 PM

    I find it interesting than all of the “opinions” here are written by men. As a woman I would like the opportunity to interject. I have read the Bible multiple times and every time I come to the teachings of Paul makes me cringe. His opinions have become doctrine and so many factions of Christianity.We have an entire religion where women will not cut their hair because Paul said a woman’s hair is her glory. I love God, I love Jesus, I love the Holy Spirit, Paul makes me sick every time I read him

  • Struggler January 17, 2020 at 12:31 PM

    I struggle continuously with the epistles of Paul. Certainly women were an important part of the ministry of Jesus Christ, probably even Paul's. Their place in the church, told not to speak, to query their husbands for answers... none of that makes sense to me given the life of Jesus Christ.

    Can we not grant Paul his personal context? He was a Pharisee scholar. Is it totally unreasonable that when he realized churches were having difficulties, that he gave them instructions more in the vein of his lifelong learnings?

    When Jesus was asked directly about the commandments, he was brief in response. The rules that Paul makes about slave behavior and women don't seem in line with the words of the Christ.

  • Penny January 28, 2020 at 6:33 PM

    @Struggler
    Don't forget that back then women were not allowed to be educated, so if they were illiterate why would they teach? If their husbands were allowed to be educated then it would make sense to ask them. Don't forget historical context.

    No criticism to your comment, just something I researched years ago that helped me understand because I was so annoyed with Paul.

  • Ubani Godswill Mbiiwe January 30, 2020 at 12:57 PM

    Thanks for the opportunity given me. Am glad for i have learnt alot from you all. But, for PAUL the apostle, he was inspired by the holy spirit. Therefore, when he says, I, and not God, i think he want to make a personal contribution or clearifying certain issues.

  • Vee Louise February 23, 2020 at 2:55 AM

    You know who said Saul's story was true... SAUL!

  • Betty March 1, 2020 at 11:19 AM

    I have an unrelated question. I thought I had read a statement that stated that Paul believed that women over 69 should not get married.
    It is not in the Bible. Are you aware of any commentary about Paul that states this?

    Thank you,
    Betty

  • julien rooney March 24, 2020 at 6:35 PM

    All scripture was God-breathed. And God interjected himself into Paul's life. Amen

  • Duane April 19, 2020 at 8:34 AM

    In regards to Paul, he primary ministry was to the Gentiles (nations) and as such he still dealt with Jews---in Romans he mentions how the Gentiles "are a law to themselves" not being given the Ten Commandments at Sinai. That all men have an understanding of the Commandments through nature (naturally) in their hearts, i. e. Do 't steal, commit adultery, kill, lie...no one likes it when others do these things to them, so they shouldn't wan to do them to others...naturally. Paul spoke of the Commandments as Jesus did, from the spirit of the law. Sin in the flesh wars against the spirit, they are contrary one to the other...if a man is angry with his brother without a cause, he is a murderer in his heart to begin with (already). If man looks on a woman to lust after her, he is an adulterer to begin with...because his heart is evil. New heart from God is born of Spirit, and delights in the Commandments---now as for some of Paul's personal commands? He was an EXTREMELY LEARNED man...he had duel citizenships and was actually a Roman citizen...so, as regards things like hair length he used the customs of Rome and Greece in his letters. Caesars began keeping extremely short hair to show they were men, and didn't play the part of a woman, and there was a custom from pagan religions about this topic, where women shorn their hair off to show they were the more masculine in a sexual ritual...hope that gives the gist of that. But, the bottom line is, when in Rome, do as the Romans do---or in Jerusalem do as the Jews do...as in circumcising Timothy. Paul did all this that he may reach some, as many as possible, and did what he could to relate to them. LASTLY, this is to HELLEN...read your Bible go to bible le software and look up prophet...you will find that the ONLY prophet in the Bible to SAY he was a prophet the LORD had slain.

  • Gordon April 30, 2020 at 4:42 PM

    We must always remember the context and social mores that prevail in different times and variant societies when reading Scripture. True, it is God's Word , but that accepted , it should not hold us to randsome in that we should not use our intelligence to make adjustments to interpret and sometimes challenge hard sayings which often seem to lie at variance to our traditions. Paul's letters exemplify this scenario more than any substantial weight of Biblical work. If the reader takes note of this it will go a long way to explain Paul's "apparent mysogenistic" attitude to woman and his seemingly casual acceptance and even support of slavery. One cannot help but wonder how Paul would contend with our modern challenges like pornograghy for example. I am keen to hear what any of my Christian brethren have to say. May God Bless you anyway.

  • Micheal May 7, 2020 at 6:06 AM

    I love you all and the word of God does it speak differently to anyone of us it speaks the same language if we're just willing to Humble ourselves in hearing what so clearly spoken of in God's word in regards to his apostle Paul.. first off Paul's conversion on the road to Damascus is it just his testimony don't you remember the fear that instantly came over ananias when the resurrected Lord told him to go and meet on the road Saul of Tarsus and to bring him back to his home. Not to fear Him for he will be his chosen vessel sent to the Gentiles. So you do realize even though have you denied pause setting aside into his own apostleship ananias doesn't deny it. Next we find Peter the very same man that Christ himself said I will build my church upon you this same Peter in his own words has to say about his fellow apostle in Christ ( and yes Peter very clearly unlike some of you recognizes finally given apostleship of spell brother in Christ Paul. In 2nd Peter chapter 3 verses 15 and 16 now mind you Peters is speaking only to his fellow believing Jews; and account. The long-suffering of Our Lord is salvation even as our beloved brother Paul also according to the wisdom given unto him has written unto you. As also in all his Epistles speaking in them of these things in which are are some things hard to be understood, which they that are unlearned and unstable rest, as they do also the other scriptures unto their own destruction. Again if Peter is Stayton hear his recognition of pause Christ resurrected given apostleship then who are you me or anybody else to deny it. Whether we understand it in regards to him sing his opinion or using the words of Christ or that women should be silent in church or should have long hair again Peter said himself as also in all his Epistles speaking in them of these things in which are some things hard to be understood. Don't deny Paul has his apostleship it took me having God open my eyes to see that without Paul you sent turn my people the Gentiles I'm not a Jew if you're not a Jew then believe that 100% that Paul was sent to you as well to be your teacher as much as you were sent to me. Nowhere in the last four books of the Old Testament and yes I'm one of those who believes the Old Testament and at the cross so the majority of Matthew majority Mark Luke and John I consider to be the Old Testament there is no Plan of Salvation for me or you the Gentile Nation that was given to Paul. I believe in Matthew Christ told Peter and the other 11 not to go month the cities of the Gentiles or the Samaritans have free Jews for those that don't know nowhere did he ever change his mind in regards to this commandment instead he picked out a very special teacher for us Gentiles by the name of Paul..

  • Micheal May 7, 2020 at 6:23 AM

    I apologize for some of the words that were auto corrected but I'm pretty sure if you take a second you can make them all fit into something that makes sense just don't deny Paul his apostleship never denied Christ when he was told he would be the instrument sent to bring Salvation to us. In the same way that God knew before Adam brought sin into this world he knew that he is Christ would have to one day lay down his life in order to save the world from send. Just as in the same way he knew he would have to send someone not of his 12 to the Gentiles cuz he knew they wouldn't go. Look how much it took to get Peter to go to I believe Cornelius house and what happened when he got there he witnessed Gentiles being saved and welcomed into the same salvation under the same God they worship. Watch his how to get saved and filled with the Holy Spirit and then Peter did what any of the other eleven Jewish apostles would have done and that's after witnessing the the exact same process of salvation for you and I automatically tried to bring save Gentile under the very same law of Christ saved everyone from it. No he didn't say you need to circumcise or wash your hands or obey the Sabbath but you did say you need to be baptized there was no point for that because as we all seen salvation came to his whole house before the thought of baptism hit anybody's mind so it was baptism if we're already saved other than a public confession of salvation. God knew he would have to set Paul aside someone who was both Jew and Greek tell you what I don't think any Gentile would ever get saved being saved by becoming like a Jew no Gentile was going to accept the very same customs of the very same people that they thought was it extremely strange and that was the plan of salvation by faith and belief and nothing more it only works that were required we're done by Jesus At The Rock we all need to be thankful for Christ sending our teacher Paul to us because if he wouldn't have not one of us would have salvation...

  • Carlson May 10, 2020 at 10:11 AM

    I will want to see Paul as human who would at one use his knowledge as a perperson. I think we should see it as the bible says, pauls word not God because paul could never take the place place of God cuz he is limited

Post a comment

Comments are now closed.

Issue Highlights

Back to Summer 2008 Home

Biola University
13800 Biola Ave. La Mirada, CA 90639
1-562-903-6000
© Biola University, Inc. All Rights Reserved.