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.

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  • 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.

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