Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Paul’s “Opinion” in 1 Corinthians 7:12

By Roy Ciampa, PhD
Associate Professor of New Testament
I have heard it several times before. I just heard it again in a recent Sunday School class I observed. Someone was teaching on the inspiration of Scripture and they suggested, on the basis of 1 Corinthians 7:10, 12 that “Paul differentiates between things said with God’s authority and things said with his.” The verses in question read as follows (according to the ESV):
  • 1 Corinthians 7:10: “To the married I give this charge (not I, but the Lord): the wife should not separate from her husband….“
  • 1 Corinthians 7:12: “To the rest I say (I, not the Lord) that if any brother has a wife who is an unbeliever, and she consents to live with him, he should not divorce her.”
While it is true that Paul clarifies what he can say on the authority of Jesus’ own words and what he says on his own authority, the impression is given, I think, that Paul’s teaching in verse 10 carries divine authority while his teaching in verse 12 is a matter of personal opinion and does not carry divine, but merely human authority. This reflects serious confusion and it perpetuates a theologically misleading and even spiritually dangerous misunderstanding.
In those verses Paul is referring to the fact that in one case (in verse 10) he is drawing on something that Christ himself said about divorce during his ministry with his disciples. Christ’s teaching on divorce was already known in the churches and came to be recorded in all three Synoptic Gospels (Matthew 5:32; 19:9; Mark 10:2-12; Luke 16:18). Explicit reference to Christ’s teaching during his time with his disciples is extremely rare in Paul’s letters, but this is a very widely recognized case of just that. Paul is NOT suggesting that what Christ taught has divine authority and what he teaches does not carry such authority. If that is what he meant we would have to conclude that virtually everything Paul wrote except 1 Corinthians 7:10 would have to be placed under the category of mere human opinion rather than divine authority. Rather than being a case where Paul differentiates between things said with God’s authority and things said with human authority, it is a case where Paul differentiates between things said by Jesus himself during his earthly ministry and things that are spoken with divine authority expressed through apostles (and prophets), the latter being what we find throughout most of Scripture.
To get an idea of the authority that Paul himself thought applied to his teaching we should consider, among other texts, 1 Corinthians 14:37-38 (ESV, emphasis added): “If anyone thinks that he is a prophet, or spiritual, he should acknowledge that the things I am writing to you are a command of the Lord. If anyone does not recognize this, he is not recognized.”
This is not his comment about something Jesus himself taught during his earthly ministry. He is commenting on what he has been sharing as his own (authoritative) view, which is to be recognized as “the command of God”! He makes it clear that what could have been mistaken as one man’s opinion and argument should be understood to carry the divine authority of prophetic speech.
Once the contrast Paul is actually making in 1 Corinthians 7:10, 12 is understood, it becomes clear that he is not distinguishing between levels of authority, but sources of authority. As already suggested above, to imply that verse 10 carries divine authority but that verse 12 does not would lead us to the conclusion that about the only thing Paul ever said with divine authority is what he said in 7:10. I hope that anyone who thinks they are a prophet or spiritually gifted (cf. 1 Corinthians 14:37) will see that that is not a wise road to walk down.

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