When I was reading in 1 Corinthians 7, I noticed that Paul said a rather peculiar thing. He said “To the rest I say this (I, not the Lord)…” (verse 12). What does this mean? If the words that followed this were “not [from] the Lord” then wouldn’t that mean that it was not inspired?
Thank you for your question. This gives me the opportunity to address a few things that have been on my heart lately.
The quick and easy answer to your question is “Absolutely not!” Paul states clearly in other places, including the same letter in which this phrase is found, that the words he is writing are inspired by God. Later in the same book, he states very clearly: “If anyone thinks they are a prophet or otherwise gifted by the Spirit, let them acknowledge that what I am writing to you is the Lord’s command.1” Paul also told his disciple, Timothy that “All Scripture is God-breathed…2” This would include Paul’s words. Even Peter alludes to Paul’s writings and refers to them as God inspired scripture3.
So why did Paul use the phrase “I, not the Lord?” Simply because he was explaining something that had not already been covered by “the Lord” (Jesus) while He was on earth. In this section of scripture Paul provides us with a beautiful example of how important it was for the Apostles to preserve and not to alter the words of Jesus.
In 1 Corinthians 7, Paul’s words can be classified into three different categories: (1) Paul’s opinion, (2) Paul’s command, and (3) Jesus’ command. Let’s take a minute to look at each of these separately:
Paul’s Opinion (v. 1-9, 25-38, 40)
Since Paul is “a servant of Christ Jesus, called to be an apostle and set apart for the gospel of God,”4 his opinion is to be taken very seriously. He says in 1 Corinthians 7:25 that he “gives [his] judgment as one who by the Lord’s mercy is trustworthy.” This means that his opinion is not necessarily obligatory, but rather a very good idea. It would not be a stretch to say that one would be foolish not to take the advice of such a wise man.
That being said, it is important to understand that much of what Paul said that falls under the “Paul’s opinion” category, is based on “the present crisis,”5 or from our point of view “the past crisis.” That crisis was the persecution of Christians. By this time James (son of Zebedee) and Stephen had already been martyred for the faith, soon to be followed by Paul, Peter, and James (the brother of Jesus). Because of this Paul felt it would be better for those who were single when they became Christians to stay single if they are able to. This way, if a brother is martyred, he won’t leave behind a mourning widow or orphan.6.
Paul’s Command (v. 12-24, 39)
As an Apostle, Paul was vested with Apostolic authority. This meant that his commands were obligatory for the church, and therefore obligatory for us today. When Paul addresses the married men and women in the Corinthian church saying “’I, not the Lord’ issue the following command…” his command is to be followed. It is under this heading that Paul addresses the question of what a disciple should do with a non-believing spouse. He says very clearly that divorce is not an option for the disciple. He goes on to say that the unbelieving spouse may be convinced to become a disciple as a result of the example set by his/her spouse.
Jesus’ Command (v. 10-11)
The real reason Paul says “I, not the Lord” is to distinguish from when he previously said “Not I, but the Lord.” When the Corinthian church wrote to Paul and asked him a question that Jesus had already directly addressed, he simply repeated for them what Jesus had already said. By doing this he shows how precious he regarded the words of Jesus because he refused to merge his commands with Jesus’ commands.
The relevant command of Jesus to which Paul refers to is found in Matthew 19:9 when Jesus says, “I tell you that anyone who divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, and marries another woman commits adultery.” Such a command carries with it the implication that “divorce” for anything other than sexual immorality is simply not recognized by God. In the case where Person A divorces Person B and marries Person C simply because Person A doesn’t love Person B any more, according to Jesus, the relationship between Person A and Person C is simply an extramarital affair; something condemned by God in the Seventh Commandment7. This of course applies to people who profess themselves to be Christians. Paul says in his command that this rule does not apply in the case of an unbelievingspouse insisting on divorcing his/her believing spouse8.
So to make a long story short (too late): When Paul said “I, not the Lord” and “Not I, but the Lord” he is simply distinguishing between a command that originated with him and a command that originated with Jesus, both of which are obligatory.