Now, concerning virgins, I have no command from the Lord, but I give my opinion as one who by the Lord’s mercy is trustworthy. – 1 Corinthians 7:25 (NRSV)
The apostle Paul, who expects Jesus to return in glory any minute, is teaching believers how they should behave while they wait. Here he’s especially concerned with matters of sex and marriage.
On most things, he says, he’s received clear divine commands they should follow. But on this one thing – whether it’s better for unmarried people (he presumes they’re virgins) to remain unmarried – he’s got zip from God. Paul does, however, have an opinion that he’s willing to give and hopes they’ll trust, but it’s not gospel. He could be wrong.
He could be wrong?
New Testament scholar, Krister Stendahl, once quipped that Paul may have been the last preacher in Christendom gutsy enough to admit that. But he shouldn’t be. After all, some situations are really new. The church hasn’t faced them before. Scripture doesn’t give us decisive norms for every ethical question that comes up as times change. And for us Protestants, no pope does either.
In completely new contexts, Christian communities have to discern. Which means we have to study, ponder, pray, and deliberate with each other, probing each other’s ideas, beliefs, interpretations, and experiences with open hearts – “Here’s my opinion, but I could be wrong” – and see where the Spirit leads us.
“Concerning virgins,” Paul says, “I have no command.” It’s a little verse that gives us a big permission to think for ourselves, discerning God’s way the best we can, praying for grace when we’re right, and grace when we’re wrong. Because we could be.
Holy Spirit, when there’s no word from the Lord, guide our humble discernment until we find a faithful way.
Mary Luti is a long time seminary educator and pastor, author of Teresa of Avila’s Way and numerous articles, and founding member of The Daughters of Abraham, a national network of interfaith women’s book groups.