Text: 1 Cor. 7:25-40
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. I suppose therefore that this is good because of the present distress—that it is good for a man to remain as he is: Are you bound to a wife? Do not seek to be loosed. Are you loosed from a wife? Do not seek a wife. 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…
There are a lot of different ways that people categorize “personality types.” In the classical world, there were four basic types: the outgoing, the combative, the quiet intellectual, and the peaceful. Modern psychology has the Myers-Briggs test, which has 16 different personality types. Douglas Wilson even once said that you could pair personalities with characters from Winnie the Pooh, with people being Tigger, Eeyore, Piglet, or Pooh.
One basic division that you come across in the world of personality types is between those people who prefer hard and fixed rules and those who like to leave loose ends, gray areas, and wiggle room. Sometimes these two kinds of people are great complements to each other, filling in the weak spots, and sometimes they drive each other crazy! What’s interesting about this, however, is that the Bible sides with both, depending on the issue. It definitely has hard and fixed rules: God exists, there is only one God, the Bible is the word of God, don’t be proud, etc. But there are also places where the Bible doesn’t lay down hard and fixed rules. In fact, there are places where the Bible says that hard and fixed rules are inappropriate and that every person has to make a sanctified “judgment call.” That’s a big part of Paul’s message when he says that we are “no longer under law.” It also comes out when he talks about calling, as we see in our text this morning.
This section of 1 Corinthians 7 continues the ongoing discussion that we’ve been having about marriage, singleness, divorce, and widowhood. Paul has given his basic principles about sexuality. He has explained that we should all identify our calling and “remain in it.” Now he’s handling a real-life pastoral scenario where couples are engaged to be married but are questioning whether they should break it off and pursue singleness instead. Paul is asked to give his answer as to which choice would be better. And while he does have his opinions, Paul’s conclusion is that each of us will have to make our own decisions. This shows us that we need to be ok with not having the same rule for everyone. This is an important part of sanctification, being ok with non-absolute authority. We need to see the goodness of this kind of freedom, the freedom of judgment calls. And we need to stop worrying and trust God.
Who Are The Virgins?
As we begin, you might be wondering just who these “virgins” are. Paul has already covered singleness in general, as well as marriage and divorce. Now he turns to “the virgins.” He writes, “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” (1 Cor. 7:25). The traditional view is that this is about betrothed daughters, and that Paul is speaking to their fathers, fathers who might consider breaking off the engagement and allowing the daughters to become something like nuns. Verses 37 and 38 seem to support this, with the language of “keeping” and “giving” the virgin away in marriage. Modern commentators have largely moved away from this view, however. Verse 36 seems to indicate the possibility of impropriety between “the man” and “his virgin.” That sounds more like Paul is talking to a man and his fiancé. Verse 39 also seems to be explaining the length of the relationship: the husband and wife must remain together until death. This makes it seem like the two people Paul are addressing are future husband-and-wife groups, and so it’s probably best to interpret this passage as advice to engaged couples. They have decided to get married but are now considering that they should instead remain single so as to serve the Lord.
Paul’s answer is very cautious. He says that the couple can marry, and he even understands the reasons that they might, but he also gives an argument for them not marrying. This is another difficult passage for modern readers, and it is a passage where our own feelings are probably challenged by Paul. Here is his summary judgment:
I suppose therefore that this is good because of the present distress—that it is good for a man to remain as he is: Are you bound to a wife? Do not seek to be loosed. Are you loosed from a wife? Do not seek a wife. 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.(vs. 26-28)
To this he also adds: “So then he who gives her in marriage does well, but he who does not give her in marriage does better” (vs. 38).
Paul is clear that this is not a law. He says he “has no commandment from the Lord” (vs. 25). He says that he “suppose[s],” and he roots his judgment on “the present distress” (vs. 26). Paul quickly says that if you do get married, then you haven’t “sinned” (vs. 28), and later he says that he does not want to “put a leash on” his audience (vs. 35). This is very clearly an example of the Apostle giving good advice but not laying down a requirement on all Christians for all times. Still, he gives his measured opinion. Singleness is his preference, but it is only for those who are called to it.
Accepting Limited Judgments
Before moving to Paul’s reasoning in this passage, I would like for us to consider what it means for him to give us his own personal opinion on this question. It’s really a pretty astounding thing to come across, when you consider what we are dealing with. Here is an Apostle, writing under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, and he tells us that he’s giving us his personal preference based on wisdom rather than law. He tells us that what he’s saying is not an absolute. This is in our Bibles. We have an example of a divinely-inspired “judgment call.” What can we learn from this?
First, we are reminded that Christianity is not a legalistic religion. Paul does not lay down a universal law that all people should remain single. He also does not lay down a universal law that all people should get married. He offers his wisdom, which he says is “trustworthy” (vs. 25), but he allows us to make our own decisions.
Having said this, it’s also important to note that Paul doesn’t merely tell us that there is no rule and then stop. He doesn’t remain neutral and decline to say anything at all. No, he gives us his trustworthy opinion. This means that he believes that it is appropriate to give advice or “make judgment calls,” even if that advice is not absolute. He still weighs in, even if folks are not required to follow that advice. This is still inspired, of course. But it a case of Paul being inspired to leave a question open to different answers—and he tells us as much. But he still does have an opinion on what he thinks is best, and he feels free to share that opinion with us.
This is also an aspect of Christianity not being legalistic. You see, there are two sides to legalism. The first is the most familiar. That’s the side with all of the rules, judgmental attitudes, and the desire to control others. But the other side is always there too. The other side of legalism is a rejection of anything that isn’t law, what we sometimes call antinomianism. Antinomianism really is still legalism because it says that unless there is a specific set of “Thou shall nots” for a certain activity, then the person is automatically free to do whatever he wants.
We see this form of legalism when immature Christians claim the freedom to do a certain kind of thing simply because “There’s no verse that says I can’t!” They think that informed opinion of their elders, concerns of the broader community, or even planning for the future are all unnecessary issues or things that they can easily ignore. There’s either a rule or there isn’t, and that’s that. It’s all absolutes, and it’s only absolutes. There’s no room for the authority of wisdom. There’s no room for judgment calls that have any influence. If there’s no law, then they don’t have to listen at all.
But the Bible uses secondary levels of authority all of the time. It says that children should obey their parents. This doesn’t require the parents to have an infallible parenting manual. Parents might make mistakes, and children are still expected to obey, except for extreme cases of abuse or where parents might be commanding the children to sin. The Bible also gives authority to civil magistrates, and it does not give any kind of comprehensive law-book for them to follow. It gives principles of wisdom and morality, but it does not give specific commands on mundane issues like speed limits, building codes, or water services. Something similar is true for the Bible’s teaching on pastors. It says that they “look after your souls” and “must give an account” (Hebrews 13: 17). But the New Testament does not actually give us a Book of Church Order. Robert’s Rules is pretty good, but it’s not infallible.
Paul uses this kind of wisdom in several places. In Romans 14, he says, “One person esteems one day above another; another esteems every day alike. Let each be fully convinced in his own mind” (Rom. 14:5). 1 Cor. 10:23 says, “All things are lawful for me, but not all things are helpful; all things are lawful for me, but not all things edify.” We need to learn from this. Sometimes an issue is settled by an absolute law. Other times the matter is left open to us, to use in a helpful way for the edification of ourselves and others. And in those cases authority figures can give their opinion, this opinion can and should matter to us, but it isn’t a law. That’s ok. That’s precisely what wisdom is. It takes maturity to accept this. It takes maturity to honor this.
You Shouldn’t “Care”
So, if Paul is leaving this question open for us to answer ourselves, we need to identify the principle that he is using to decide which choice is better. Is it better to stay single than to marry? If so, then why wouldn’t we all want to stay single then? How can we make this decision for ourselves? How do we know how to decide?
Another traditional reading of this passage says that Paul doesn’t want us to be limited by the cares of the world. The explanation is that those who marry will have obligations to their wives and families, and this will limit their commitment to the kingdom. They won’t be “free” to do all that they can do for Christ. Those who marry “will have trouble in the flesh,” and Paul says that he would rather “spare” them of that (1 Cor. 7:28).
This explanation is the traditional one, but the problem is that it does effectively create a 1st and 2nd class of Christianity. Those who are strong enough, who have enough will-power, can remain single and thus give themselves “fully” to Christ’s work, whereas those who do not have enough self-control will be compromised by their divided commitments. While there might be situations where marriage and family do become obstacles in this way, if this were simply the way it always is, then Paul would be contradicting his earlier teaching that everyone has their personal callings from God and should accept them as such. He would also be contradicting himself when he says that neither calling “matters” (1 Cor. 7:19). If singleness were simply “better” for all Christians, then marriage would necessarily be a sort of compromise to a sinful condition. This would create divisions of worthiness in the church and contradict the whole theme of 1st Corinthians! That is not what Paul is saying here.
Verses 32-35 are the place where this traditional reading goes for support, especially when Paul says, “He who is unmarried cares for the things of the Lord—how he may please the Lord. But he who is married cares about the things of the world—how he may please his wife.” However, this is a case of the translation misleading us. Let’s look more closely to see what Paul is really saying.
The word for “care” in these verses is the Greek word merimna, which actually means something like anxiety. It is the same word that is used in 1 Peter 5:7 when Peter says to cast your “care” upon God. And notice, Paul, in this passage, says that doesn’t want anyone to “care.” “I want you to be without care” (1 Cor. 7:32) this wouldn’t work if Paul were contrasted good cares with bad cares. He’s opposed to all cares.
What Paul is saying is that he doesn’t want anyone to become anxious over the question of whether to marry or stay single. Then he goes on to list the kinds of “cares” that people can have, noting that those who remain single for the Lord can have uniquely religious anxiety and then how those who are married have new anxiety related to their families.
Listen to these verses when we translate them accordingly:
But I want you to be without worry. He who is unmarried worries about the things of the Lord—how he may please the Lord. And he who is married worries about the things of the world—how he may please his wife. There is a difference between a wife and a virgin. The unmarried woman worries about the things of the Lord, that she may be holy both in body and in spirit. But she who is married worries about the things of the world—how she may please her husband. And this I say for your own profit, not that I may put a leash on you, but for what is proper, and that you may serve the Lord without anxiety. (vs. 32-35)
When we understand these verses this way, we see that both callings can produce anxiety. Neither calling is necessarily “free from care.” Single people can fall into a kind of spiritual worry, where they spend so much time thinking about rigorous piety that they are actually distracted from serving the Lord properly. And married people can find a lot to worry about as they have children and seek to find ways to take care of them. Neither state is really “better” in the ultimate sense. They both depend upon the situation and the individual’s own sensibilities which then clue them in to their calling.
Paul’s real argument here is against worrying as such, and while being single might help you stop worrying in some situations, especially when a “current distress” on the horizon, being married might actually take away anxiety for some people. That’s the principle. Don’t worry. If getting married will help you stop worrying, then get married. If remaining single will help you stop worrying, then stay single. Either way, trust the calling God has given you and serve Him in it.
It’s hard to stop worrying. In fact, worrying is why we want a bunch of rules. Rules can be like safety blankets. They reassure us that there’s a system in place and that as long as we stick to the rules, then we’ll be ok. Freedom is intimidating. It’s overwhelming.
But the Christian faith is all about finding our peace in Christ and nowhere else. We need to put away all the cares that enslave us. Jesus says that we shouldn’t even worry about what we’re going to wear or eat! (Matt. 6:25-24) The only way we can get over the anxiety that is produced by our marriages, our families, and our own insecurities, is to give all that worry to Jesus. Confess to Him. Ask Him to take away the idols of your anxious heart as He reassures you of His grace.
The gospel is the only way to get over yourself. It’s the only way to stop worrying. And what you’ll find is that when you put your whole trust in Christ, when you really believe that God is going to work everything out, then you receive a calm that allows you to go into very difficult and stressful situations and make the decisions on your own. You don’t check out of this world. You become unmovable in it. You are freed up to do the hard work of making difficult decisions with many possible answers, and you can do this without worrying if you are breaking any of the rules. You get to trust yourself because you have first trusted Christ.
Let us pray.