“Love Does Not Act Improperly”

One of my fondest memories of college is talking to my good friend (and the RA of the adjacent hallway), Preston, about Scripture, theology, and church history. (His name has been changed because someday this will be his name in a novel i write.)

In one particularly memorable conversation, we discussed William Wilberforce (the great abolitionist in 18th century England). I remember learning that Wilberforce was married less than two months after meeting the woman who was to become his wife.

I also remember saying, “That’s the way to do it right there!”

About a year ago, i read a biography on William Wilberforce, and i found the following quote:

[I]t was that next day, Holy Saturday, that Wilberforce met his future wife for the very first time. They dined in a party, and before all of the courses had been served Wilberforce had fallen headlong for her, and eight days later they were engaged, and a month after that married–and within ten years had six children, four boys and two girls. But we may be getting ahead of ourselves.

In his diary that night, after this inaugural meeting, Wilberforce writes the phrase “Pleased with Miss Spooner.” And then, perhaps thinking that a bit of an understatement, he underlines it: Pleased with Miss Spooner.”

Eric Metaxas, Amazing Grace: William Wilberforce and the Heroic Campaign to End Slavery (New York, NY: HarperCollins Publishers, 2007), 175.

And i stand by my earlier statement, “That’s the way to do it right there!”

The Apostle Paul says:

I say to the unmarried and to widows: It is good for them if they remain as I am.  But if they do not have self-control, they should marry, for it is better to marry than to burn with desire.

1 Corinthians 7:8-9 (HCSB)

Wilberforce was 37, and he lived more than two centuries ago, but the point stands: There’s no good reason to put off marriage when you found the person with whom your soul sings.

This is especially true when a couple mutually desires to honor God in their relationship. Short engagements are not primarily an excuse “to have sex as soon as possible,” but rather a way to remove the possibility of falling into sexual sin. Sin kills, and it ruins relationships. When two people are passionately in love with one another, the temptation to sin is strong. Short engagements help to foster righteousness and love in a relationship.

Paul writes the following in 1 Corinthians 13:5,

[Love] does not act improperly.

The word translated “act improperly” (“rude” in other translations), only occurs one other place in the New Testament–in 1 Corinthians 7:36.

But if any man thinks he is acting improperly toward his virgin, if she is past marriageable age, and so it must be, he can do what he wants. He is not sinning; they can get married.

There is a lot of confusion about 1 Corinthians 7:36-38. This is because the Greek word behind “man” is literally “anyone.” Because the subject is an indefinite pronoun, it leads to some question as to the precise referent for the word “virgin.”

Virgin = [referring either to] a man’s fiancée, or his daughter, or his Levirate wife, or a celibate companion.

Holman Christian Standard Bible footnote on “virgin” in 1 Corinthians 7:36.

Most commentaries and Bible translations opt for one of the first two.

https://biblehub.com/1_corinthians/7-36.htm
highlight = phrase under discussion
blue star = support the “wanting to get married” view
red star = support the “daughter” view

As we can see from the image above, only one translation understands it in the context of a daughter being kept from marriage (New American Standard Bible). The whole webpage contains twenty-eight translations, and only six of them opt for the daughter interpretation.

This is especially telling when we look more closely at the Greek word translated “acting improperly” in 1 Corinthians 13:5 and 1 Corinthians 7:36. Those are the only two times it occurs in the New Testament, but helpfully the early church used a Greek translation of the Old Testament. And the phrase is used four times in Ezekiel to help translate the phrase “stark naked” (HCSB) or “naked and bare” (NASB).

  • Ezekiel 16:7 (HCSB)
    I made you thrive like plants of the field. You grew up and matured and became very beautiful. Your breasts were formed and your hair grew, but you were stark naked.
  • Ezekiel 16:22 (HCSB)
    In all your detestable practices and acts of prostitution, you did not remember the days of your youth when you were stark naked and lying in your blood.
  • Ezekiel 16:39 (HCSB)
    I will hand you over to them, and they will level your mounds and tear down your elevated places. They will strip off your clothes, take your beautiful jewelry, and leave you stark naked.
  • Ezekiel 23:29 (HCSB)
    They will treat you with hatred, take all you have worked for, and leave you stark naked, so that the shame of your debauchery will be exposed, both your indecency and promiscuity.

עֵרֹם וְעֶרְיָה

ʿērōm wĕʿeryâ
Literally: “naked and bare”
(though it could also be understood “very naked”)

γυμνὴ καί ἀσχημονοῦσα

gymnē kai aschēmonousa
Literally: “naked and acting improperly”

The primary Jewish understanding of the Greek word translated “act improperly” involves sexuality and nudity. To further prove this, the Greek word translated “acting improperly,” comes from the same root word as the word “unpresentable parts” in 1 Corinthians 12:23.

And those parts of the body that we think to be less honorable, we clothe these with greater honor, and our unpresentable parts have a better presentation.  But our presentable parts have no need ⌊of clothing⌋.

1 Corinthians 12:23-24a (HCSB)

When verse 24 continues by saying, “presentable parts have no need of clothing,” it implies that uncovering the “unpresentable parts” would result in nakedness. It follows that “acting improperly” involves nudity and sexuality. Therefore, with that understanding, it sheds much light on who the actual subject is in 1 Corinthians 7:36.

But if any man thinks he is acting improperly toward his virgin, if she is past marriageable age, and so it must be, he can do what he wants. He is not sinning; they can get married.

In 1 Corinthians 7:36, Paul is actually further commenting on 1 Corinthians 7:8-9.

I say to the unmarried and to widows: It is good for them if they remain as I am.  But if they do not have self-control, they should marry, for it is better to marry than to burn with desire.

1 Corinthians 7:8-9 (HCSB)

An early church leader, who lived in the late 300s, wrote the following:

Paul always wants the best out of Christians. If someone really wants to get married, then it is better to marry publicly according to the permission given than to behave badly and be ashamed in private.

Ambrosiaster, quoted in Gerald L. Bray, Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture – New Testament VII: 1-2 Corinthians, (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Academic, 2006), WORDsearch CROSS e-book, 72.

This is why i believe in short engagements. It isn’t so that sex can be had sooner. It’s so that i don’t mistreat my fiancée, proving a lack of love (since “love does not act improperly”), and sin against God. Jesus said:

You have heard that it was said, Do not commit adultery.  But I tell you, everyone who looks at a woman to lust for her has already committed adultery with her in his heart.  If your right eye causes you to sin, gouge it out and throw it away. For it is better that you lose one of the parts of your body than for your whole body to be thrown into hell.  And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away. For it is better that you lose one of the parts of your body than for your whole body to go into hell!

Matthew 5:27-30 (HCSB)

Sin is committed even when desiring to sin, regardless of how physically self-controlled a couple is. Jesus said that even heart adultery is a serious, soul-destroying sin. Why fight that battle any longer than necessary?

When it comes to temptation to sin with a fiancée, the solution–according to Jesus–is to cut off your hand or gouge out your eye by getting married sooner rather than later. This is what the Apostle Paul teaches in 1 Corinthians 7:8-9, 36.

William Wilberforce was married five or so weeks after meeting his bride, and i stand by what i said at the beginning: “That’s the way to do it right there!”

As for my fiancée and me, we are going to fight sin together by getting married exactly a year (52 weeks to the day) after we first started communicating regularly–less than six months after our engagement.

In this with you (but primarily with my fiancée).

Soli Deo Gloria
Sola Scriptura
Solus Christus
Sola Gratia

Thanks for reading.

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