The Firm Foundation recently contained an editorial by Reuel Lemmons on "Traditionalism," in which he charged that we have a traditional interpretation of many passages of Scripture. Among that number he cites I Corinthians 7:39. He says that "mature Bible students recognize that the meanings traditionally given them could not possibly be the meaning of the passage." He does not say what that traditional interpretation is. If only one guess were permitted as to what he condemns as tradition, it would be that the passage teaches that a widow who is a Christian can marry only a Christian. This would be in keeping with his entire article, for it seeks a relaxation of past applications and changes to fit the needs of changing people. He says, "A different type of people live today than in the first century. They face different problems, and must come up with different solutions." Hence a good guess would be that he wants the above passage to signify something else easier than for a widow to marry only a Christian.
Traditional or not, it appears to be the consensus of understanding of scholars and commentaries that the statement requires a widow to marry a Christian. Of the commentaries before me, two do not say what is intended, though one of them seems to imply that "in the Lord" means a Christian. All the others so understand the phrase. McKnight. says, "only he must be a Christian. .. So the phrase signifies, 2 Cor. xii. 2. 'I know a man in Christ, I know a Christian man." Clarke says, "She must not only marry a Christian. . ." Johnson; "She must marry in the Lord; that is, a Christian." McGarvey-Pendleton; "to a Christian." Schaff; "only to a believer. This is a fundamental principle in the Christian life, having its ground in the necessity of entire sympathy in spiritual things, if the Christian life in the married is to be realized at all. So much was this in view, that some of the instructions given to the married presuppose and derive their emphasis from this." Bengel says, "So that here also Christ is all. Christians and unbelievers dwelt among one another. Therefore he bids Christians marry Christians." Conybeare and Howson say, "one of the brethren."
This is quite an array of "mature" voices for someone to reject by saying the passage does not mean that. Of course, if they are wrong, what they say must be rejected. But would it not be wise to weigh their testimony before asking for a change?
The alternative idea, which some affirm to be the teaching of the passage, is that she is limited to the other conditions for marriage which the Lord has given. That makes the statement slightly superfluous, at the most. All would agree to that without its being said again here. They say that this meaning, according to the will of the Lord, is that which is known to be the meaning of the phrase in Ephesians 6:1. Here it is said, "Children, obey your parents in the Lord; for this is right." One of the troubles with that comparison and conclusion is that they have not proved that the latter passage means only according to the will of the Lord. And that it is so recognized by all is a false assumption. One of the commentaries referred to a moment ago which did not comment on the phrase in I Cor. 7:39, says of the phrase in Eph. 6: 1: "The children being with their parents in the Lord, are to be influenced by religious duty as well as by natural affection." (Vincent). One other statement should suffice on this point. Schaff remarks, "The sphere or element of this obedience is 'in the Lord.' The phrase, which qualifies the verb, is regarded by some as limiting the obedience to Christian commands, but the whole context implies that both parents and children are 'in Christ.' The relation to Christ rests on the relation to the believing parents."
The widow's marrying only a Christian is in harmony with the entire seventh chapter as context. She has the power to choose her mate, whereas the virgin may not have that power, the decision being made by parent or guardian (verses 36-38). If she marries a Christian she can more acceptably give her attention to the things of the Lord than if marrying an unbeliever (verses 32-35). She would thus not have the problem of the unbeliever being uncontent to dwell with her and of her being bound to dwell with a man who is contrary to all her efforts at righteousness (verses 10-16). She would thus be living with one who by mutual consent can maintain periods of absolute privacy and devotion to the Lord (verse 5). How a man can teach the seventh chapter of I Corinthians and not come to the conclusion that the widow should choose a Christian as her mate, is beyond this writer's comprehension, even if the direct statement had not been made.
The same phrase, "in the Lord," is found in verse 22 of the chapter, where there is every indication that it is a modifier of place and not of manner: "For he that was called in the Lord being a bondservant is the Lord's freedman." In the same letter it is so couched in other terms that it cannot mean, according to or of the Lord, but must be a modifier of place: ". . . always abounding in the work of the Lord, forasmuch as ye know that your labor is not vain in the Lord." (I Cor. 15:58). The only reason for interpreting "in the Lord" in I Cor. 7:39 otherwise is to justify the marriage of a widow to someone who is not a Christian.
Even if the phrase can be proved to mean something other than location in the Lord as it is used in other passages, there is yet the need to prove that it does not mean, marry only a Christian, in this passage. This writer has never seen the proof. He has seen attempt at comparison with other passages which might not necessarily mean Christians; but many of those cases are not proved beyond a doubt, and this one is not proved at all. Until and unless that is done the widow can know that she is acceptable to God when she marries a Christian according to all scriptural conditions of marriage.
We need to be very careful lest we find ourselves changing our Bibles to fit the circumstances, in many other things as well as in this matter. When we begin such change, of course, we will not openly declare that we are rewriting the Bible. It might be that we will say that we must recognize and discard "traditional interpretations of Scripture" which "mature Bible students" have recognized cannot be "the meaning of the passage." And then we may progress (?) to the view that "A different type of people live today than in the first century." More widows may want to marry unbelievers, divorcees, and men of the world in general, so we will reason (?); "They face different problems, and must come up with different solutions." And that is the growth process of modernism!
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