She Makes Him Holy: Participation, SOMA & Authority in 1 Cor. 7:2-16

This post largely consists of a paper I wrote here at Fuller, though with minor modifications. I submit it here because I think the overall ideas are interesting.

Because of Paul’s participation language in Galatians 3, Romans 16, and the first six chapters of 1 Corinthians, it not surprising that he continues this trend in 1 Cor. 7:1-16, especially as it relates to reciprocity and σώμα. For example, Paul says that because of “sexual immoralities” (πορνείας) each husband should have his “own” (ἴδιον) wife. The additional inclusion of the phrase “and each woman her own husband” (v.2) suggests that Paul is issuing an imperative that both genders should have[1] their own spouse.[2] The speaking of each spouse having ownership of the other forms the basis of the mutuality in v.3, where Paul asserts “The husband should give to his wife her conjugal rights, and likewise the wife to her husband.” The use of “likewise” (ὁμοίως) indicates that the wife is expected to fulfill these duties in the same manner as her husband, creating a foundation for reciprocity. Together, they participate mutually in sexual intimacy. Paul’s statement is broad and he perhaps is attempting to balance the hierarchy of the ancient model of marriage where a man could exercise sexual dominion over his wife.[3]

Furthermore, Paul’s remarkable statement in v.4 is a further explanation of mutuality:  “For the wife does not have authority over her own body, but the husband does; likewise the husband does not have authority over his own body, but the wife does.” The reason Paul may be speaking to the husband first in v.3 and 4 may be rhetorical: in confidently asserting what the husband would affirm about his hierarchical relationship with his wife, Paul then absolutely undermines the husband’s expectation when he offers to the wife the same virtue and authority.[4] In short, the husband would be expecting to hear such affirming language in their patriarchal culture, and the shock of Paul’s rhetorical reversal and parallelism[5] would not have been lost on Paul’s shocked first-century readers. Paul’s reciprocal use of “exercise authority” (ἐξουσιάζει)[6] in reference to the other’s body is revolutionary: one’s own body (ἰδίου σώματος) denotes one’s whole and complete person.[7] The totality of a human being is subject to the other, grounded in mutual submission with the other. This means that sex is not merely about sex: sex is about the concern for the mind, heart, and welfare of one’s spouse as well as sexual gratification and pleasure.[8] Verses 3 and 4 are significant because there is no functional difference at play; the body of one is subject in mutual participation with the other. Paul’s phrase in v.5, “do not deprive one another except perhaps by agreement for a set time” also affirms mutuality as each spouse is commanded not to withhold from the other except by “agreement” (συμφώνου). The glorifying of another person’s body is of the upmost importance to Paul, for he writes previously, “the body is meant not for fornication but for the Lord, and the Lord for the body” (6:14). We are to glorify God with our σώματι—that is—all that we are as human beings (6:20). Husband and wife are one σώμα (Gen. 2:24). Thus, there is to be no gendered preeminence in marriage if both spouses are subjected to one another’s σώμα in Christ.[9] Paul’s mutual theology of marital participation continues in v.6-11.


Inspired by how husband and wife relate mutually, Paul goes on to state v.2-5 as a concession, and asserts his own preference for singleness (v.7-9). However, mutuality continues to thrive, as reconciliation between estranged married partners is preferred (v.10-11) and it is possible that wives and husbands shared the same legal freedom. Perkins suggests “Paul’s ‘not be separated’ reflects the Jewish law that limited divorce to husbands (Deut. 24:1), though first-century Jewish women seem to have enjoyed the same freedom to divorce as their gentile counterparts.”[10] Paul affirms the wife’s right to divorce (ἀφιέτω, using the same imperative verb for husbands) in v.13, though he urges both husbands and wives not to utilize that right.[11] The mutual interdependence of male and female is indeed unambiguous, and here “Paul empowers the woman in the relationship as she is called to exercise her will in the matter. In contrast, there is no greater responsibility or burden directed to the man.”[12]


All of Paul’s previous language of participation and mutuality now culminates in v.12-16. In this text Paul offers his own advice to the believing party in a mixed marriage by stating in v.12-13: “If any believer has a wife who is an unbeliever, and she consents to live with him, he should not divorce her. And if any woman has a husband who is an unbeliever, and he consents to live with her, she should not divorce him.” The parallelism is explicit and not controversial: one ought not divorce the unbelieving other spouse, should he or she continue to live with them. What Paul says next in v.14 is extraordinary, controversial and deserves significant attention: “For the unbelieving husband is made holy [ἡγίασται] through [ἐν] his wife, and the unbelieving wife is made holy [ἡγίασται] through [ἐν] her husband. Otherwise, your children would be unclean, but as it is, they are holy [ἅγια].” Various translations of v.14 translate ἐν as “through” or “by.” This use of is ἐν confirmed by Stanley E. Porter who believes the preposition includes “[a] label a relationship by which (normally) a thing (and occasionally a person) brings about or enters into an action with respect to something else.”[13] The phrase “ἐν τῇ γυναικὶ” is defined by Rogers Jr. and Rogers III as “in the wife; that is, through the close tie with her.”[14] The unbelieving partner is—perhaps unwittingly—participating in the life of the believing partner, whether husband or wife. The implication of this is that mutual submission is enjoined within Paul’s own theological framework, as husband and wife together in Christ “yield” the “exercising of authority” to one another. This illustrates the powerful agency of the wife in affecting her unbelieving husband through relational commitment. In essence, the wife makes her husband “ἡγίασται,” and visa versa. Husband and wife are free to exercise authority and influence over the unbelieving other, which completely diminishes claims that “women are to honor and men are to embrace the special responsibility that God has given men in the spiritual leadership in the home and in the believing community.”[15] Not only is this language contextually unwarranted, it is theologically nonsensical when considering Paul’s language here. The agency assumed on the part of Paul regarding wives and husbands equalizes the other’s ability to make the other “holy,” thus illustrating mutuality and equality in the Christian marriage relationship.

The meaning of ἡγίασται is debated in v14. There is a fascinating chain in 1 Cor. 6:11, where a string of aorist verbs (ἀπελούσασθε, ἡγιάσθητε, ἐδικαιώθητε) describing former sinners are concluded with the phrase “in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ” (ἐν τῷ ὀνόματι τοῦ κυρίου Ἰησοῦ Χριστοῦ). This close use of ἡγιάσθητε may be vital for our understanding of ἡγίασται in v.14. Stanley Porter observes that ἡγίασται (“is sanctified”) likely suggests “the ethical side of ‘sanctification’ is probably to the fore, in which Paul is saying that the marital relationship in which these mixed partners are involved, perhaps even by its ongoing maintenance, is made morally pure by the believing partner being in it.”[16] The husband and the wife exercise agency over the other and this would include spiritual authority as well. Both have an equal mandate to ἡγίασται the other, and gender does not reduce the ability of the women to make her husband holy.[17] Included in this agency is the family unit, as even children are now “holy” because of the believing member. Paul uses the possessive plural pronoun (ὑμῶν) to indicate that both husband and wife are in view regarding the holiness of their children (τέκνα, a neuter that could show Paul’s mindfulness towards sons and daughters), further illustrating mutuality.

V.15 showcases Paul’s inclusion of both genders in the case of the unbelieving spouse not responding and in turn separating from the believing spouse: if this happens, “the brother (ἀδελφὸς) or the sister (ἀδελφὴ) is not bound.” The significance of v.15 is that the deserted partner is not bound. This assumes that women could also divorce the believing husband, thus confirming equal legal rights mentioned above and may illustrate Paul’s sensitivity to the plight of both genders in the case of abandonment. It empowers the abandoned spouse by asserting that they are not bound (οὐ δεδούλωται). Paul is saying that one is not a slave because of their abandonment. Margaret MacDonald insightfully points out, “1 Cor. 7.12-16 offers insight both into the initiative of women, and into the suffering they probably endured.”[18]

V.16 begins with a vocative γύναι, addressing the wife before the husband. This follows Paul’s standard of often addressing the so-called “subordinate party first,”[19] which seems to run counter to the various Haustafeln in the ancient world. Paul says to the wife “you might save (σώσεις) your husband.” BDAG 982-983 suggests that σῴζω in this verse refers to “persons who are mediators of divine salvation.” This runs counter to the belief that only a husband is the spiritual authority or influence in a marriage. The syntax of v.16 is symmetrical in applying this to husbands and wives: both can σώσεις the other and Garland contends that the idiom τί οἶδας ought to be taken positively, not fatalistically.[20] Paul is speaking positively about the effect the believing spouse may have upon the unbelieving other. The future active indicative verb σώσεις occurs three times in the Pauline corpus: twice here and once in 1Timothy 4:16, where it refers to those who “will be saved” (σώσεις).

Contextually, the soteriological affirmation for wives to “sanctify” their husbands is Paul’s affirmation of wives’ participation in bringing their unbelieving husbands to Christ. It seems clear that a husband and wife in a mixed marriage would influence the other to be “in Christ,” and that there would be no discrimination between genders as to who spiritually affects the other. Christ models for wives the sense by which they draw others into Christ and that there is no spiritual superiority within marriage: mixed or otherwise. In Christian marriage, spiritual influence and authority are not gendered, but mutually complementary and exceedingly beneficial for those who pursue mutual submission in Christ. I know it has worked wonders for myself, and I cannot imagine being a husband who did not submit to my wife.


[1] ἐχέτω (active imperative verb) is applied to both husbands and wives in v.2.

[2] Marion L. Soards, 1 Corinthians (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 2011), 141. He writes, “this particular teaching [in v.2] about sexual relationships in marriage focuses on the rights of each partner in the marriage.”

[3] This is especially true if the ancient wife were married in her mid teens. C.f. Polaski, A Feminist Introduction to Paul, 34-35.

[4] Richard B. Hays, First Corinthians (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox, 1997), writes: “Here Paul articulates a view of marriage that stands as a challenge to views ancient and modern alike. The marriage partner are neither placed in a hierarchical relation with one over the other nor set apart as autonomous units each doing what he or she pleases.” 116.

[5] There is an articular parallelism in v.4: the affirmations of the one who has authority are exactly parallel in Greek.

[6] BDAG 353-354: “to have the right of control, to have the right/power.” This “right/power in 1 Cor. 7:4 is negated (οὐκ) by Paul as something integral to the spouse.

[7] BDAG 982: “body of a human being or animal.”

[8] To limit this text only to matters of sex is to minimize the complexities of God-ordained human intimate interactions. Sex cannot, stated candidly, be limited only to the bedroom. Sexual intimacy is about personality, character, and agency: all of which require something more than merely sexual intercourse. To limit this text in such a was is to fundamentally misunderstanding God’s gift of sex to us.

[9] Philip Payne notes the various other gendered parallelisms throughout 1 Cor. 7:1-40. Man and Woman, One in Christ (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2009), 105-108.

[10] Pheme Perkins, First Corinthians (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 2012), 109.

[11] Hays, 1 Corinthians, pointed this out. 120.

[12] Ronald W. Pierce, “First Corinthians 7: Paul’s Neglected Treatise on Gender,” Priscilla Papers 23.3, 2009, 10.

[13] Stanley E. Porter, Idioms of the Greek New Testament, 2nd Ed (Sheffield, UK; Sheffield Academic Press, 1994), 98-99. He notes that ἐν includes the concepts of “instrument, agent, cause, means, or manner.”

[14] Cleon L. Rogers JR and Cleon L. Rogers III, The New Linguistic and Exegetical Key to the Greek New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1998), 362.

[15] Bruce A. Ware, “Male and Female Complementarity and the Image of God” in Biblical Foundations for Manhood and Womanhood, ed. Wayne Grudem (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2002), 90.

[16] Stanley E. Porter, “Holiness, Sanctification” in The Dictionary of Paul and His Letters, ed. Gerald Hawthorne and Ralph Martin (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 1993), 401.

[17] Some could point to Eph. 5:25-29 as an example of a husband having some sort of spiritual leadership or authority. However, Paul counterbalances that notion here and does not prioritize either gender in the salvific process. The marriage relationship in Eph. 5:21-33 is counterbalanced by v.21 and the rest of the epistle's emphasis on ecclesiastical and somatic unity.

[18] Margaret MacDonald, “Virgins, Widows, and Wives: The Women of 1 Corinthians 7,” in A Feminist Companion to Paul (ed. Amy-Jill Levine and Marianne Blickenstaff; Cleveland: T&T Clark, 2004), 153.

[19] In the New Testament household codes, the “subordinate” wives were addressed first; Eph. 5:21-33; Col. 3:18-19. Whether by Paul or by a Pauline school, this appears to be consistent within the Pauline corpus.

[20] David Garland, 1 Corinthians (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 2003), 294.