In examining those things which some claim are contradictions in Scripture, we have stuck mostly with seeming contradictions between the gospels. This is because in the gospels, we have cases of the same story or similar stories repeated from multiple authors, so discrepancies between the stories seem obvious. In examining these discrepancies, we have found answers to many of them. However, the gospels are not the only source for seeming contradictions in the New Testament. Some differences seem plain in other parts, such as in the books of Paul. Let us examine some of these, and see what we can discover about contradictions between things that Paul wrote. First of all, we will consider “The Marriage of Widows.”

In I Corinthians 7:8, Paul declares, “But I say to the unmarried and to the widows: It is good for them if they remain even as I am.” We know that Paul was unmarried, whether that means he was single or a widower, so the clear implication here is that the unmarried and widows should remain single. However, this is in stark contrast to what we read in I Timothy 5:11-14.

11. But refuse the younger widows; for when they have begun to grow wanton against Christ, they desire to marry, 12. having condemnation because they have cast off their first faith. 13. And besides they learn to be idle, wandering about from house to house, and not only idle but also gossips and busybodies, saying things which they ought not. 14. Therefore I desire that the younger widows marry, bear children, manage the house, give no opportunity to the adversary to speak reproachfully.

Paul’s advice here seems to be the opposite of what he gave in I Corinthians 7. There, he told unmarried people and widows to remain unmarried, as he was. Here, he urges younger widows, which is defined in verse 9 as under 60 years of age, to marry. Since Paul himself was probably in his fifties when he wrote I Corinthians, his advice there is clearly different than his advice in I Timothy. Does God wish widows to marry or to remain unmarried? This seems like an obvious contradiction.

In order to understand this contradiction, we need to examine both passages, and understand what each is talking about in context. First we will consider the chapter of I Corinthians 7. There, we read in verse 1.

1. Now concerning the things of which you wrote to me:
It is good for a man not to touch a woman.

I remember when I was in college that there was a charismatic group on campus that used this verse to teach that, when laying hands on people for healing, imparting the Holy Spirit, or whatever else they might lay hands on people for, that they would only have men lay hands on men and women lay hands on women. They justified this using this verse, saying that a man should not touch a woman. This is sadly typical of too many today, who are full of enthusiasm but low on actual Biblical knowledge or careful study. Though this is the only case in the New Testament where the word haptomai is used this way, but it still seems clear from the context that the word “touch” here means much more than just reaching out a hand and touching someone, but actually is a euphemism for sexual relations. Verse 2 puts this interpretation beyond any serious question.

2. Nevertheless, because of sexual immorality, let each man have his own wife, and let each woman have her own husband.

So far from just dealing with widows not getting married, this chapter is advocating that it is good for any man not to get married or have sexual relationships at all. However, before we get carried away with this like excitable Christians low on knowledge, we should consider a few important facts that are apparent from the context.

First of all, we should note that Paul prefaces this section with, “Now concerning the things of which you wrote to me.” This tells us that there was actually a letter written from the Corinthians to Paul, asking him certain questions. This letter, along with an oral report that came to Paul of some of the problems that were going on in Corinth, seems to be what motivated the writing of this book of I Corinthians. So Paul in chapter 7 is answering a question the Corinthians asked him. We, however, do not have the Corinthians’ letter to Paul. All we have is Paul’s reply. Therefore, we do not know exactly what the question was that they asked him, and can only speculate what it was about. It is a little difficult to understand the answer to a question if you do not know what the question was in the first place. This is the unfortunate position we are in here. Therefore, we should use care before assuming we know what Paul is talking about in this chapter, for we must remember that he is answering a question that his original readers were familiar with, having asked it, but we are not.

So Paul proclaims that it is good for a man and a woman not to have sexual relations. However, sexual immorality is worse. Therefore, he would rather have each man have his own wife and each woman have her own husband than to see them indulging in immorality. He further elaborates on this in the following verses.

3. Let the husband render to his wife the affection due her, and likewise also the wife to her husband. 4. The wife does not have authority over her own body, but the husband does. And likewise the husband does not have authority over his own body, but the wife does. 5. Do not deprive one another except with consent for a time, that you may give yourselves to fasting and prayer; and come together again so that Satan does not tempt you because of your lack of self-control.

It would be good for married people to pay heed to Paul’s advice here, for all too often when married couples start neglecting this aspect of their relationship, temptation does come in. When one falls into adultery or worse, this is a spectacular sin that is obvious to all, but sometimes what is not so obvious is that behind the scenes that person’s partner was not following this command, and therefore gave an opening for Satan’s temptation. This is not always the case, of course, but it is a good thing to notice.

Paul goes on in the following verses to lead up to his statement in verse 8.

6. But I say this as a concession, not as a commandment. 7. For I wish that all men were even as I myself. But each one has his own gift from God, one in this manner and another in that.
8. But I say to the unmarried and to the widows: It is good for them if they remain even as I am; 9. but if they cannot exercise self-control, let them marry. For it is better to marry than to burn with passion.

Paul here admits that this is a concession, not a commandment. What he would prefer is that all would remain as himself. Yet God might gift a man in a different way. Then, he gives his advice to the unmarried and widows. They too Paul wishes would remain unmarried as he was, but if they cannot control their sexual desires, then they should get married, for this would be better than burning with uncontrolled passion.

The Lord through Paul gives commands to the married in verses 10-16. Then, He discusses remaining in the calling in which you were called in verses 17-24. He returns to this subject then in verse 25.

25. Now concerning virgins: I have no commandment from the Lord; yet I give judgment as one whom the Lord in His mercy has made trustworthy.

There are two important facts we need to keep in mind about this. First of all, the word “virgins” is speaking of male virgins. This seems strange to us in English, for we do not tend to use our word this way, but this is the truth. Secondly, we need to remember that most of their marriages were arranged long before either partner was ready to actually consummate the union. The virgins Paul is speaking to are more likely engaged or betrothed than unattached.

26. I suppose therefore that this is good because of the present distress—that it is good for a man to remain as he is: 27. Are you bound to a wife? Do not seek to be loosed. Are you loosed from a wife? Do not seek a wife.

This is not talking about divorce, but about being betrothed, or having broken that betrothal. This is not talking about one who is married getting divorced. If one is a divorced virgin, then there was something seriously wrong in his marriage in the first place!

Here, a new consideration is introduced, and it starts to inform us, I believe, about the context of the Corinthians’ question to Paul, and what might have prompted their asking it. He says what he is suggesting regarding being bound or betrothed is because of the present distress. What distress might that have been?

28. But even if you do marry, you have not sinned; and if a virgin marries, she has not sinned. Nevertheless such will have trouble in the flesh, but I would spare you.

He says that if a male virgin marries, he has not sinned, and if a female virgin marries, she has not sinned. But, he says, they will have trouble in the flesh. What trouble is this, that he was so eager to spare them from?

29. But this I say, brethren, the time is short, so that from now on even those who have wives should be as though they had none, 30. those who weep as though they did not weep, those who rejoice as though they did not rejoice, those who buy as though they did not possess, 31. and those who use this world as not misusing it. For the form of this world is passing away.

The statement of verse 29 is very strange. It obviously does not mean that married couples should stop having sex, since he spoke against that very idea in verses 3-5. The key phrases seem to be in verse 29, “the time is short,” and at the end of verse 31, that “the form of this world is passing away.” These words indicate that the things Paul is setting forth here are based on the fact that a great change is about to take place. This change will alter the very form of the world, and will be so sweeping and so far-reaching that many temporary instructions are being given regarding marriage here in light of it. What could this change be?

As I set forth in my commentary on the book of Acts, the entire Acts period took place under the uncertainty presented early in the first chapter, for there when the disciples asked the Lord Jesus, “Lord, will you at this time restore the kingdom to Israel?” the Lord answered, “It is not for you to know the times or seasons which the Father has put in His own authority.” Therefore, those who lived during the Acts period realized that the restoration of the kingdom to Israel and the fulfillment of the kingdom of God itself might have been the next event after the Acts period closed out. This would have resulted in the form of this world changing indeed! By the time Paul was writing I Corinthians, the Acts period was well advanced, and the time was short before the crisis point will be reached. At that time, the kingdom might have come, and when it did, the form of this world would have been changed indeed. It would be much better for the Corinthians to enter into marriage after this change, once the kingdom of God had begun upon earth. Under the auspices of that great government, it would be a much better atmosphere for marriage than in this current, fallen world.

Now some years following the writing of I Corinthians, the crisis point did come, when Paul was standing before the Jewish leaders in Rome in Acts chapter 28. At that time, Paul proclaimed to them in Acts 28:28, “the salvation-bringing message of God is authorized to the nations, and it will get through to them!” (Translation mine.) This important statement marked a second great turning point in the New Testament, as I set forth in my message on “Two Great Turning Points in the New Testament.” At this time, the question of the disciples was answered. The Lord was not going to restore the kingdom to Israel at that time. Instead, He was bringing in a new dispensation, wherein all nations would be treated equally, and God would deal with the world exclusively in grace, as is set forth in Ephesians 3, a book written soon after the change took place. This resulted in the world changing form, but the new form was one where Israel was now on an equal basis with all other nations, and all had equal access to God dependent upon His grace. This dispensation promised to be a long one, and no unusual, temporary injunctions would apply looking forward to the end of it.

Thus we come to the book of I Timothy and chapter 5. The crisis point has passed now, and the new dispensation has begun. God is writing to Timothy through Paul to instruct him as to how he should lead a community of believers in Christ, mostly made up of Jews, now that the new dispensation has begun. Thus we come to I Timothy 5:3.

3. Honor widows who are really widows. 4. But if any widow has children or grandchildren, let them first learn to show piety at home and to repay their parents; for this is good and acceptable before God.

Widows were well-known at the time for being the poorest and most helpless of people, for a woman without a man to take care of her had little to no options for making a living. Therefore, when Paul says “honor widows who are really widows,” what he means is “honor widows who are really destitute.” If they have others who can care for them, like children or grandchildren, these should care for them.

5. Now she who is really a widow, and left alone, trusts in God and continues in supplications and prayers night and day. 6. But she who lives in pleasure is dead while she lives. 7. And these things command, that they may be blameless. 8. But if anyone does not provide for his own, and especially for those of his household, he has denied the faith and is worse than an unbeliever.

What the Ephesians Timothy was dealing with were looking for, apparently, were widows who would be willing to dedicate themselves to God and God alone, serving and waiting upon Him continually through supplications and prayers. These should be supported in this, if possible, by Godly relatives. A widow who used such support to live in pleasure, however, condemned herself greatly.

9. Do not let a widow under sixty years old be taken into the number, and not unless she has been the wife of one man, 10. well reported for good works: if she has brought up children, if she has lodged strangers, if she has washed the saints’ feet, if she has relieved the afflicted, if she has diligently followed every good work.

This starts to reveal to us what Paul is talking about, for just as in I Corinthians, he is talking about something that he and Timothy are both very aware of, but which we have to piece together out of what he says in this book. It seems that the leaders and the wealthy among the believing community were taking upon themselves the support of widows who had no other means of supporting themselves. The problem seems to be that they were taking upon themselves the support of too many widows, and some women or their families were scamming them. So first of all, Paul wants them to only take widows who have no one else who could support them, and secondly he wants them to take widows who are known to be of unimpeachable character.

11. But refuse the younger widows; for when they have begun to grow wanton against Christ, they desire to marry, 12. having condemnation because they have cast off their first faith.

Thirdly, Paul wants them to exclude younger widows. It seems that part of being taken into this number of widows who were supported by the leaders is that they would swear they were going to remain as widows and not remarry. The chances of a younger widow pledging this in the early emotional stages of losing her husband, and then regretting it later, were far too high. She might at first melodramatically insist there would never be another man for her, but after a while when the emotions subsided she was likely to meet Mr. Right Number Two, and then she would break her oath she had made before God. Therefore, Paul advises them not to accept younger widows at all.

13. And besides they learn to be idle, wandering about from house to house, and not only idle but also gossips and busybodies, saying things which they ought not.

Besides breaking their oaths to remain unmarried, younger widows thus relieved of the duties of caring for themselves learn to be idle gossips and busybodies, Paul reveals.

14. Therefore I desire that the younger widows marry, bear children, manage the house, give no opportunity to the adversary to speak reproachfully.

Paul gives his conclusion: younger widows should remarry, bear children, manage a house, and therefore give no opportunity to an adversary to reproach the believers.

15. For some have already turned aside after Satan.

The result of not following these principles is that some of these unmarried widows have turned aside after Satan! This contrasts strongly with I Corinthians 7:32-33.

32. But I want you to be without care. He who is unmarried cares for the things of the Lord—how he may please the Lord. 33. But he who is married cares about the things of the world—how he may please his wife.

Many have used these verses to suggest that Paul’s point is that an unmarried person is able to better serve the Lord than a married one, since he will not be distracted. However, these things are spoken “in view of the present distress,” because “the time is short,” and because “the form of this world is passing away.” These things were true at that time. However, when Paul later wrote I Timothy, there was no present distress, the time was not short, and the form of this world was not passing away. Instead, this passage is written considering the long-term backdrop of the nearly two thousand years of this present dispensation. It is I Timothy 5, therefore, that is more consistent with truth today, and not I Corinthians 7.

This said, it is acknowledged that part of the issue in I Corinthians 7 may have been a prophecy of an approaching persecution of the believers in Corinth. The book of II Corinthians would seem to suggest that such a thing took place. During a persecution, one would be able to stand for the Lord more confidently and with fewer distractions if one did not have a wife and children to worry about leaving behind. However, this does not explain the form of this world passing away, for no persecution was going to accomplish that! A coming persecution might have been part of the backdrop, but the reason Paul gives in I Corinthians 7 for his statements points to the upcoming dispensational change.

The fact that I Corinthians 7 is talking about temporary injunctions not meant to be long-term rules is made clear by verse 36.

36. But if any man thinks he is behaving improperly toward his virgin, if she is past the flower of youth, and thus it must be, let him do what he wishes. He does not sin; let them marry.

This is talking about a man who is betrothed to a virgin. He is not marrying her because of the things Paul is talking about here, but he notices she is past marriageable age, and is concerned that he is not treating her properly by keeping her unmarried and not finalizing their union. If this is the case, he should go ahead and marry her, and not continue to wait. This makes no sense if Paul is talking about permanent rather than temporary injunctions. Of course an unmarried person is going to get older and older if she is never going to be married at all. She will eventually reach old age and die unmarried, if that is the case! So clearly Paul is talking about something that is only going to last a little while, so that one could get married once the “present distress” was over.

So while the commands of I Corinthians do contradict the commands of I Timothy, this is explained by dividing this part of the New Testament correctly, and therefore understanding that I Corinthians 7 was written before the second great turning point in the New Testament that took place at Acts 28:28, whereas I Timothy 5 was written after that. I Corinthians 7 was a temporary injunction in view of a unique crisis taking place at that time. I Timothy 5, though, deals with a longer-term view, and is more consistent with what is otherwise the general teaching of the Bible from the beginning regarding marriage, which is that it is always the default and expected thing to do. Therefore it is a better understanding of theology that is needed, and an acknowledgement of right division and a dispensational understanding, that helps us to realize the truth of this contradiction in Scripture.