Text: 1 Corinthians 7:1-9
Now concerning the things of which you wrote to me: It is good for a man not to touch a woman. Nevertheless, because of sexual immorality, let each man have his own wife, and let each woman have her own husband. Let the husband render to his wife the affection due her, and likewise also the wife to her husband. 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. 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. But I say this as a concession, not as a commandment. 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.
But I say to the unmarried and to the widows: It is good for them if they remain even as I am; but if they cannot exercise self-control, let them marry. For it is better to marry than to burn with passion.
Have you ever walked into the middle of a conversation and tried figure out exactly what the people are really talking about. It’s hard, but not because their current sentences or arguments are especially complicated. It’s because you don’t know the problem they are responding to. There’s a lot of information that everyone is focused on but you haven’t gotten to see. Sometimes you can more or less figure it out, but even then you don’t understand all the jokes or why certain things are so important. Imagine turning on the nightly news without having kept up with any of the presidential politics of the past few years. What in the world is going on? Why are all of these politicians so worried about some sleazy New York real estate mogul and casino owner? What’s he even talking about? And what is going on with that hair?
Something very much like this is going on in 1st Corinthians 7. Paul is involved in a two-way conversation with the Corinthian church on several controversial issues, but we only have his side of the correspondence. It certainly seems like a few of these sentences should be in quotation marks, but the original Greek does not include them for us. That’s what makes 1st Corinthians 7 so difficult to understand. Paul’s sentences are rather plain, but they seem to be inconsistent in places, and some of his clearest statements, if taken in isolation, would contradict other parts of the Bible. How can it be that “it is good for a man not to touch a woman” if it is also true that “it is not good for the man to be alone” (Gen. 2:18) and that marriage should be “held in honor… and the marriage bed undefiled” (Heb. 13:4)?
This morning we are going to begin something of a miniseries on Paul’s teaching about marriage and singleness. We will try to explain what is going on in 1 Corinthians, first by looking at the “problem” in Corinth, and then by relating it to the larger situation of the early church. After this, we will compare it with the rest of the Bible’s teaching to find an appropriate application for Christians today. We will spend several weeks on chapter 7, and we will spend two weeks on these first 9 verses. For today we will be discussing singleness. Is there such a thing as “the gift of singleness”? If so, what does this mean for Christian marriage? We will see that there is a calling to singleness among Christians, but this is a particular calling that can only apply to some Christians. That a calling to singleness exists does not mean that marriage is for the less-mature or weaker Christians. At the same time, however, we should also admit that those who truly are called to singleness are called to a good thing all their own. Neither married nor singles should be looked down upon, but both should be called to serve the Lord and glorify them in their lives.
What’s Going On Here?
The first thing we have to be careful about is realizing that we are looking into an ongoing conversation. 1 Cor. 7:1 says, “Now concerning the things of which you wrote to me.” This means that 1 Cor. is itself a reply to some prior letter from the Corinthians. Commentators disagree over what exactly this prior letter was all about, but it seems that the Corinthians were likely asking questions about Paul’s teaching or even arguing with something that they had heard from him, either from his real-life preaching or from his other writings. This means that everything Paul says in chapter 7 is intended to address that ongoing conversation. He is not giving a timeless explanation of marriage principles, and some of what we find here might actually be slogans used by the Corinthians.
For instance, the line that says, “It is good for a man not to touch a woman” could have first come from the Corinthians themselves. The Corinthians appear to have been dealing with two different kinds of problems. As we’ve seen in early chapters, there were some who were sleeping around with folks they were not married to. But it also appears that some are championing celibacy, even counseling married people to become celibate and even leave their spouses because of their faith. It is the Corinthians who are asking Paul whether marriage is ok, and he is having to answer them.
Paul’s answer is that it is “good” or “allowable” for a man to not have a physical relationship with a woman. We need to be careful here. This does not mean that it is therefore “not good” if a man does have such a relationship. Paul immediately goes on to explain the ways that marriage is permissible and even helpful. But he’s answering the Corinthians’ question in the way that it came to him.
There’s also the fact that Paul is writing in a particular time in history. The Christian Church is under a certain amount of persecution already in Paul’s day, and it’s going to get worse. In fact, Paul mentions this in verse 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.” There are certain situations which make singleness a better condition than marriage, situations when you might have to flee the city and run to the hills (see Matthew 24:19), and that seems to be what’s going on at the time of Paul’s writing. Still, even with this consideration, he does not command singleness to anyone. He allows it and says that it’s good for those to whom it is given.
Singleness Is Good
Now, for those of you who have heard this topic addressed before, you know that this is the point in the sermon where the pastor usually explains that marriage is actually really good and that singleness shouldn’t be a requirement for Christians. And yes, I am going to say that, more or less, but I don’t want us to just run away from the text. If it’s true that “All Scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, thoroughly equipped for every good work” (2 Timothy 3:16-17), then we need to pay close attention to every bit of it, and we need to make sure we are letting it teach us. As you’ve heard it said from other pastors, we should resolve to have no problem passages in our Bibles. Whatever a text of Scripture says, it must be good and true, and we must try our best to understand it and bring ourselves into conformity with it. As Paul puts it in 2 Cor. 10:5, we must “bring every thought into captivity to the obedience of Christ.”
So let’s be honest with the text. Paul does say that some Christians are called to singleness, and he says that this is a good and desirable calling. “It is good for a man not to touch a woman,” but Paul also says, “I wish that all men were even as I myself” and “to the unmarried and to the widows: It is good for them if they remain even as I am” (vs. 7-8). This is then contrasted with getting married, and so the only interpretation that works is that Paul is currently single and that he believes this singleness is a good thing which gives Christians unique opportunities. Paul is not the first person to say this in the New Testament. In Matthew 19, Jesus says that some people have made themselves “eunuchs for the kingdom of heaven’s sake” (Matt. 19:12). He doesn’t mean that they have physically harmed their body. He means that they have decided to remain celibate. It was a fact of the 1st century that some early Christians chose to remain single, and the Bible expressly allows for this and compliments it.
Now, we have to be quick to point out that this calling to singleness is a calling to celibacy. There is never any possibility that a Christian can remain single but also engage in sexual behavior. That is called fornication, and Paul condemns it routinely. This is a basic rule but one that my generation needs to hear. I’ve heard many people my age say that they are not ready to get married because they are afraid they might not be able to keep their commitment. “I don’t believe in divorce,” they say, and so they avoid ever settling down. But, even while they say this, many of them go on to have long-term romantic relationships with others. What they don’t understand is that they haven’t merely “avoided divorce,” but have instead trained themselves for continued infidelity. They are serial monogamists, meaning that they have long-term committed relationships for a time, and then they break them. This becomes their pattern, their normal, and while they technically haven’t gotten a divorce, they have committed fornication and trained themselves to view all commitments as temporary. They’ve arrived at the same moral place as divorce but changed the name.
No, for the Christian, the choices are celibacy or marriage. That’s it. If a Christian takes on the calling of celibacy, he or she will be freed up to many good things for the sake of the kingdom. But he or she will also be taking on a burden. They will be giving up something good and committing themselves to life-long abstinence. That’s what the gift of singleness is all about. It exists. It is good. But it isn’t for everyone, and it isn’t for most people. It is an extraordinary calling in the sense of being extra-ordinary, and anyone who has this gift needs to understand it Biblically.
On the other hand, married Christians must not look down upon single Christians, and we should not assume, as is too often done, that if an adult Christian has not married that there must be something wrong with them. Celibate Christians are good, and married Christians are good. Both kinds of Christians have their calling from God, and both are called to love and respect one another, working towards the shared goal of the kingdom of God.
Better To Marry Than To Burn
The most important question that people have about the gift of singleness is “How do you know if you have it?” Paul’s answer can be found in verse 9: “but if they cannot exercise self-control, let them marry. For it is better to marry than to burn with passion.” This verse sounds rather harsh in English, since we expect everyone to be able to “exercise self-control.” In the Greek, however, it does not have to carry the same connotation. It can simply mean “continence” or “abstinence.” So what Paul is saying is that if you cannot envision yourself going without sexual activity, then you do not have the gift of singleness. He does not mean that if you do not have this gift that you are necessarily weak in the faith or unable to “control yourself.” He’s just telling you to be honest with your condition. Most people answer the question “how do you know if you have the gift of singleness” when they realize that they do not have it, and for most of us that happens rather early in life.
The expression “better to marry than to burn” probably does mean “better than to burn with passion.” Some commentators have interpreted it to mean “better than to burn in Hell,” which is possible, but the immediate context is all about a person’s desires and abilities. Paul is saying that you should get married instead of going around in lust. Of course, if one does not have the gift of singleness and is then led into fornication, then he might be in danger of hellfire. His personal burning with passion could lead to an eternal burning judgment, and so that’s all the more reason to be honest with ourselves. If you seriously struggle with lust, then you should get married. God is not calling you to celibacy.
We will talk more about this in future weeks, but we should notice that the Bible is remarkably honest and remarkably practical here. Passions are real things and incredibly strong. Most of us have romantic passion towards members of the opposite sex, and we shouldn’t try to deny that or fight it. It’s part of who we are, and the human race could not continue to exist if it were not the case. Marriage is a gift, and it is a gift that God gave to the human race before sin ever entered the picture. It is good. Use it. Now that sin is in the picture, however, we really need marriage. It’s a resource and a refuge. So again, use it.
So, the rule for singleness is this. If you do not have strong passions which tempt you and if you do not have a desire for marriage, then you may remain single and you may use your singleness to advance the kingdom of God in holiness. But if you do have strong passions which tempt you, if your romantic desires continually insert themselves into your life, then you should not fool around. Get married.
As complicated as it is, this conversation is one piece of Paul’s larger argument that we should find our identity in Christ and therefore work together, even with those who differ form us, in the shared goal of the kingdom of God. How you use your body certainly matters, as we have been saying for the past few weeks, and there is freedom among Christians to make certain decisions. Still, once you have done all of that, you must ask yourself how your decisions can best edify other Christians and glorify God in the world.
If you have the gift of singleness, then be sure you don’t let it go to waste. Use your gift to spread the gospel, serve the church, love others, and to glorify God. You probably have more disposable income than married people. You can definitely stay out later, get dressed quicker, and travel around town easier than married people can. Use those opportunities. Don’t use them for just yourself. Don’t waste your time playing. Use the abilities you have to do great things for Jesus, starting with loving your church and your neighbors. In fact, do all of this even if your current situation of singleness is temporary. Use the opportunities that singleness affords you to do those things which married persons cannot do. Don’t do this as a way to assuage your guilt either. Do it out of your love for God and your desire to show others the grace He has poured into your life.
All of these difficult questions should drive us back to God. We should be asking what pleases Him and how we can best submit ourselves to Him. These shouldn’t be opportunities to boast in our abilities, and they shouldn’t be opportunities to come up with creative explanations, justifications, or evasions of the text. Instead, they should be opportunities to worship God with our bodies and to be faithful to His calling. Go out and love God and delight in Him, whether you do that through your singleness or through your marriages. Act in faith and God will guide your steps.
Let us pray.