The right understanding of 1 Corinthians 7:1 can be approached by a comparison of translations. The NIV 1984 translates 1 Corinthians 7:1 “Now for the matters you wrote about: It is good for a man not to marry.” “Not to marry” is the interpretive translation of what the NASB translates literally, “it is good for a man not to touch a woman.” Since “touch a woman” is an idiom, an interpretive translation is helpful here. The NIV 1984, however, misinterpreted the idiom.
The idiom in question is fairly common in the ancient literature, occurring in Plato, Aristotle, Plutarch, Josephus, and Marcus Aurelius. The idiom also occurs elsewhere in Scripture. For instance in Genesis 20:6 God speaks to the Philistine king, Abimelech, in a dream: “I know that you have done this in the integrity of your heart, and it was I who kept you from sinning against me. Therefore I did not let you touch her.” “Touch” here refers to sexual relations, as the context makes clear. A less clear occurrence is found in Ruth 2:9. Proverbs 6:29 provides another clear example: “So is he who goes in to his neighbor’s wife; none who touches her will go unpunished.” “Touches” is here paralleled with “going in to” a wife, a clear reference to sexual relations (Fee, “1 Corinthians 7:1,” 308). Thus translation of the NIV 2011 improves on its predecessor by translating, “It is good for a man not to have sexual relations with a woman.”
The second question that arises is whether verse 1 is Paul’s viewpoint or that of the Corinthians. In the ESV, (H)CSB, NRSV, and NIV 2011 the latter part of the verse is in quotation marks which indicate that Paul is quoting the Corinthians. The idea that this was a quotation stretches back as far as the church father Origen (Thiselton, 499; cf. Theodoret, 182). This seems likely due to the way that Paul immediately qualifies the statement in the following verses. Those who don’t view the latter part of verse 7 as a quotation, must take it as a statement of a thing good Paul thought good only in certain circumstances. Thus he immediately qualifies the statement (Calvin, Corinthians, 222-23).
In any case, Paul is responding to the questions of the Corinthians regarding the acceptability of celibacy. He counters the statement “It is good for a man not to have sexual relations with a woman” with the statement, “But because of the temptation to sexual immorality, each man should have his own wife and each woman her own husband.” Despite the sound in English, Paul is not commanding everyone to get married. Those who attempt this interpretation invariably must soften the idea to a “general rule” that most people ought to get married (Morris, 102). But if Paul had wanted to encourage everyone (or even most people) to get married, he probably would have said, “each man should take [from λαμβάνω] his own wife” (also, to have told wives to take a husband does not fit the cultural situation) (Fee, Commentary, 278). The idiom Paul uses, “have [from ἔχω] his own husband or wife,” often indicates sexual intercourse. The LXX uses this idiom to translate the Hebrew word for “lain with” [שׁכב] in passages where sexual intercourse is clearly in view (Deut. 28:30; Isa. 13:16). Paul uses it in 1 Corinthians 5:1, “It is actually reported that there is sexual immorality among you…for a man has [from ἔχω] his father’s wife” (Fee, “1 Corinthians 7:1,” 310-11; Garland, 255-56; Theodoret, 182). Thus we could translate this verse, “each [husband] should have sexual relations with his own wife, and each woman with her own husband” (NIV 2011). Verses 3-5, then, are a further expansion of the teaching of verse 2.
Paul’s point is this: “It is good for a man not to have sexual relations” is not true for married people. Verse 1 does not endorse celibacy as better than marriage. Verse 2 does not command everyone to get married. Instead, in response to the question of celibacy, Paul’s first response is that married people ought not be celibate.
In verse 6 Paul says, “Now as a concession, not a command I say this.” What is the “this” that Paul is conceding and not commanding? With our understanding of the first 5 verses, Paul can’t be referring back to verse 2 and saying that he concedes marriage is acceptable, but that it is not commanded (cf. Hodge, 110-11). This is a popular view, but Paul actually uses imperatives in verse 2 and throughout the first five verses. In any event, Paul isn’t talking about getting married in verse 2. He’s telling husbands and wives not to deprive one another. Others think the “this” points forward to Paul’s wish that all were single as he is (Garland, 275), but this involves adopting a less likely textual variant (the “for” reflected in the KJV, NKJV) (Metzger, 489; Fee, Commentary, 272 n.19). More likely, Paul is referring back to the one concession he does make to the Corinthians about it being good for a man to not have sexual relations with a woman: verse 5, “except perhaps by agreement for a limited time, that you may devote yourselves to prayer” (Fee, Commentary, 283-94; Barrett, 157).