To Marry or Not to Marry
Topic: Pauline Epistles Passage: 1 Corinthians 7:1–7:9
Having taken a break from our series in 1 Corinthians for the Easter season, we return there this morning and pick up where we left off. Therefore, I invite you to join me as we begin looking at chapter 7 together. It is here where we enter into the Apostle Paul’s extended discussion of the marital relationship.
In introducing this chapter in that way, I must also add a disclaimer. While this is one of the most significant passages in Scripture related to Christian marriage, this one chapter alone does not contain everything that the Bible teaches on the subject. We must keep in mind that Paul is not spelling out a complete “theology of marriage” here. To get a more complete picture, we must take into consideration what the rest of Scripture has to say.
Therefore, let me lay down three presuppositions to keep in mind as we make our way through this chapter over the next three Sunday mornings
- First, Paul does not answer every question about marriage here, not does he address every issue relevant to the marital union.
- Second, the writer is not so much dealing with “rules and regulations” regarding marriage, as much as he is with overriding principles.
- And third, despite the interpretation of some, Paul is advocating neither marriage or singleness as the preferred state.
So, with those premises before us, I ask that you follow along as I read the first nine verses of 1 Corinthians 7:
1 Now concerning the matters about which you wrote: “It is good for a man not to have sexual relations with a woman.” 2 But because of the temptation to sexual immorality, each man should have his own wife and each woman her own husband. 3 The husband should give to his wife her conjugal rights, and likewise the wife to her husband. 4 For the wife does not have authority over her own body, but the husband does. Likewise the husband does not have authority over his own body, but the wife does. 5 Do not deprive one another, except perhaps by agreement for a limited time, that you may devote yourselves to prayer; but then come together again, so that Satan may not tempt you because of your lack of self-control.
6 Now as a concession, not a command, I say this. 7 I wish that all were as I myself am. But each has his own gift from God, one of one kind and one of another.
8 To the unmarried and the widows I say that it is good for them to remain single as I am. 9 But if they cannot exercise self-control, they should marry. For it is better to marry than to burn with passion.
The entirety of 1 Corinthians 7 is devoted to marriage. You may recall from a prior message that the believers in Corinth had written a letter of their own to Paul. In that letter, they had put forth a series of questions asking for clarity regarding some of the apostle’s earlier instruction, from a time that he had been with them or by means of a previous correspondence. We can assume this to have been the case in light of his opening words in chapter 7: “Now concerning the matters about which you wrote to me.”
We find that same “Now concerning...” (“περι δε”) phrase five more times throughout this letter (cf. 7:25, 8:1, 12:1, 16:1, and 16:25), and on each occasion it introduces a new topic of discussion. The first such topic is marriage and Paul begins addressing it here.
The popularity of marriage is at an all-time low in our present culture. According to recent statistics released by the Pew Research Center, the percentage of married Americans has dropped from 72 percent to 51 percent over the last fifty years. During that same period, the number of cohabitating couples has risen from a half million to 7.5 million today. In fact, “living together” has become an acceptable alternative for many. Perhaps that is due, at least in part, to the divorce rates which continue to astound us. One half of all marriages end up in divorce court. Why marry when the odds are so high that the marriage will fail? Of those marriages that do remain intact, many are “dysfunctional.” Because of these and other reasons, we need a fresh perspective if marriage.
It has often been said, “When all else fails, read the instructions.” We sometimes forget that the Bible is that Book of instructions. Paul, the writer of the passage before us, was no prude. He recognized that a normal desire for sexual intimacy is what awakens within people the desire to be married in the first place. In introducing this chapter he reminds us that one of the purposes of marriage is the prevention of “sexual immorality” (“πορνεια”).
Therefore, what we are immediately able to see is that Paul is continuing the discussion which he began back in chapter 5. It was there we were made aware of a case of “sexual immorality” within the church at Corinth that was negatively affecting that assembly’s testimony for Christ. Rather than passing judgment on the matter, the members of the church were boasting about their tolerance toward the sinning member. In response, Paul called for church discipline to be applied in order that the man might repent and be restored to the church. In this way the reputation of both Christ and the church would be preserved.
The subject surfaced again in chapter 6, where Paul had to remind them to “flee from sexual immorality” (cf. 1 Corinthians 6:18) by reminding the Christians there that their “body is a temple of the Holy Spirit” (cf. 1 Corinthians 6:19), and was not to be lived for “selfish pleasure.” So, as we enter chapter 7, the apostle is continuing to teach on the topic of “sexual holiness.” And he does so here within the context of the marital relationship.
Before unpacking these first nine verses, allow me to take a moment to identify six reasons why there is to be...
The abstention of sexual expression until marriage.
- The first reason is for partnership. From the beginning when our Lord ordained the marital relationship, He said “It is not good that the man should be alone; I will make him a helper fit for him” (Genesis 2:18). Commenting on this phrase from the original Hebrew, Victor Hamilton has written that it “suggests that what creates for Adam will correspond to him. Thus the new creation (woman) will be neither a superior nor an inferior, but an equal. The creation of this helper will form one-half of a polarity, and will be to man as the south pole is to the north pole.” None of us have to stretch our imaginations very far to comprehend that illustration. In marriage, the man and his wife are joined together in a “one flesh” (cf. Genesis 2:24) union that extends beyond the physical uniting of two bodies.
- A second reason that sexual expression is restricted to marriage is for procreation. In Genesis 1:28, the Lord instructed the first man and woman to “be fruitful and fill the earth.” From the beginning, God has meant for people not merely to reproduce “after their kind” but to raise children stemming from a committed relationship.
- A third reason is for protection. Specifically, the man is charged with the responsibility of caring for and guarding the well-being of his wife and family. The reference in Scripture to the wife being “the weaker vessel” (cf. 1 Peter 3:7) is not an insult or “put down,” as some today have assumed it to mean. Rather it is a reminder that husbands are to provide care and show honor for the “helper” the Lord has provided. And, in their own way, the wife is “protect” her husband as well. (We don’t have time to look at Proverbs 31, but read it and you will see what I mean).
- Fourth, God intended for the sexual relationship to bring pleasure to both the husband and wife. When Genesis 4:1 says that “Adam knew his wife,” the writer is employing a euphemism to describe sexual intimacy. An even more graphic example from Scripture is the Song of Solomon which depicts the “lovemaking” between a married couple as being well-pleasing to the Lord (cf. Song of Solomon 5:1c) when acted out in a God-honoring manner.
- A fifth reason for restricting sexual expression to the marital relationship is for the public good. By that I mean to imply that when God established the parameters for a society, he ordered marriage to be monogamous. After creating woman and presenting her to man, God decreed, “Therefore a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and they shall become one flesh” (Genesis 2:24). Although we find examples of polygamy throughout the Old Testament, our Lord’s original intention was for one-man, one-woman relationships from which children would be produced. Healthy families were to be the building blocks of a healthy society. Wherever distortions of God’s ideal occur, society suffers. The evidence in that regard is overwhelming.
- And then finally, but perhaps most importantly, sexual expression in marriage allows for participation in the Gospel. Perhaps that strikes you as strange. But I believe this is—at least in part—what Ephesians 5(:21-33) is referring to when the Lord exhibits marriage as a visual aid in depicting the relationship Jesus Christ has with His Bride, the Church. In that passage, husbands are charged with loving their wives as Christ Himself loved and gave Himself up for those whom He loves. In a unique way, Christian marriages can and should “preach the Gospel” to a disbelieving world.
In summary and by way of application, these six purposes for marital intimacy provide a pattern for husbands and wives devoted to honoring the Lord. Having sex outside of the marital commitment cannot fulfill these divinely-intended purposes. It is when deviations from this pattern occur that we misrepresent the Gospel, as well as God’s prescription for marriages that are meant to honor Him.
Whenever we approach a difficult passage of Scripture, especially one that seems somewhat remote or removed from our experience, we should try our best to get a handle on the original context which the writer is addressing. Then we need to bring that over to our own time and circumstances and ask how we are meant to apply it. Keeping what we have said in mind, let’s now begin looking at Paul’s counsel on marriage to a church who would have been hearing this apostolic instruction for the first time.
Paul begins by stating a general principle regarding sexual intimacy in marriage, and proceeds to develop counsel for those who are married in verses 1 through 7. And then moving into verses 8 and 9 he shares apostolic advice with those who are unmarried. In both sections, the writer makes the point that spiritual concerns must take priority over physical desires, and not vice versa.
We’ll begin with...
The apostolic counsel to the married (verses 1-7)
We have already described the immoral conditions that existed in Corinth before and even after the Gospel arrived in that city. Those who had responded to Paul’s preaching had been brought to faith out of lifestyles that would have made our sin-loving contemporary culture, blush with embarrassment.
Among the Corinthians, sexual behaviors—even within marriage—extended from hedonism to asceticism. Hedonists said, “Have sex with anyone you want any time you want.” And the response of the ascetics was “Don’t have sex with anyone, including your mate.” There appear to have been those, even within the Corinthian church, who held to one or the other of those extreme positions. This was one of the matters that Paul was asked to render an opinion. What is the Christian position with regard to sexual relations within marriage?
The quote in the second half of verse 1 appears to have been lifted from the letter the Corinthian believers had sent to Paul. In other words, it seems as if some were putting forth an ascetic argument that “It is good for as man not to have sexual relations with a woman.” Were we living in that time and in that setting, we might at least understand the logic behind that position, even if we would not have agreed with it. Apparently, some of those who had come to Christ had been led to believe that sex—even between husband and wife—was something that could and should be denied for a higher spiritual good.
But Paul’s response, beginning in verse 2, laid that notion to rest. “Because of the temptation to sexual immorality, each man should have his own wife and each woman her own husband.” The apostle will go on to explain that sexual relations with marriage are normal, proper, and good. But before he gets there we need to observe something else.
The clarity with which Paul expresses himself argues quite convincingly against two of the prevailing distortions of marriage in his day...homosexuality and polygamy. He writes, “Each man should have his own wife and each woman her own husband.” Long before it was called “gay,” sexual relationships between men and men, as well as between men and boys, were known to have occurred, especially among nobles. Both here and elsewhere—namely Romans 1(:26-27), Paul’s opposition to such practices was clear and straightforward.
And so was his outspokenness toward polygamy. But for centuries the Greeks had justified such behaviors, citing the respected philosopher Demosthenes, who had so famously written centuries earlier, “We have mistresses for pleasure, concubines to care for our bodies’ daily needs, and wives to bear us legitimate children and to be faithful guardians of our household.”
Therefore, Paul’s word of counsel was countercultural, just as it is in our day. Notice again what he writes in verses 3 and 4: “The husband should give to his wife her conjugal rights, and likewise the wife to her husband. For the wife does not have authority over her own body, but the husband does. Likewise the husband does not have authority over his own body, but the wife does.”
Marriage is the giving of oneself to the other, according to Paul. The rights of marriage are equal and reciprocal. Interestingly, the phrase “conjugal rights” (“οφειλη”) is a word that means “debt” or “duty.” Thus, Paul’s teaching emphasizes that one is not to “demand sex” of his or her partner, but rather to fulfill one’s obligation to “extend love” to the other. It is the difference between giving what is “owed” rather than on insisting one receives what is “owed” to them. To put it yet another way, the sexual relationship between a husband and a wife should be a tool to build with, not a weapon to fight with.
In his commentary on 1 Corinthians, Stephen Um captures Paul’s perspective well, saying,
Here’s the beauty: when an individual is pursuing his spouse’s happiness and holiness, the spouse is going to get her happiness, and that husband’s happiness will increase. Also the holiness of God will be evident because that individual is trying to sanctify his spouse through his character and the memory of the profound mystery of what Christ has done. But when individuals pursue their own happiness, they will get neither their own happiness not their spouse’s happiness, and certainly not the holiness of God.
That is a great quote. Pressing a bit harder on this matter in verses 5 and 6, Paul adds, “Do not deprive one another, except perhaps by agreement for a limited time, that you may devote yourselves to prayer; but then come together again so that Satan may not tempt you because of your lack of self-control.”
The word “deprive” (“αποστερεω”) means “to rob” or “to withhold what is owed.” It is sometimes translated “defraud” (cf. 1 Corinthians 6:7 and 8). There would seem to have been those in Corinth who—as strange as it sounds—were attempting to practice celibacy within the marital relationship. It appears to have been the unilateral decision of one partner, and not one of mutual agreement. We might imagine how such a practice could easily have led to immorality on the part of the other mate.
Paul demanded that they “stop” abstaining from sexual intimacy unless three conditions were met. In the first place, abstention had to be by mutual consent. Secondly, the couple was to agree beforehand on a time-frame, that is how long they would abstain before coming back together. And third, such refraining was to be for the purpose of devoting themselves to prayer in an unusual manner and for a specific purpose. In other words, it was be a “fast” of sort, and was not to be of long duration lest one or both of them be tempted to engage in sexually immoral behavior.
Arriving at verses 6 and 7, a question is raised with regard to the otherwise unrevealed personal life of Paul the Apostle. It is frequently asked if Paul was ever married. It has been suggested that he may have been a widower. Still others have proposed that any wife he may have had would have left him when he became a follower of Jesus. The truth is, we simply do not know if Paul had been married or not. What we can say with confidence is that he was unmarried when he wrote these words: “Now as a concession, not a command, I say this. I wish that all were as I myself am. But each has his own gift from God, one of one kind and one of another.”
It is important to recognize that Paul is commending but not commanding singleness and celibacy in these verses. Although he extols the benefits of the single-state, benefits he will expand upon later in this chapter, he is merely making it clear that it is his preference. At the same time, he adds that not everyone has received the same “gifting” (“χαρισμα”) “from God” that he had received. How interesting that he implies that both marriage and singleness are God-granted gifts.
Gordon Fee, in his excellent commentary on 1 Corinthians, has attempted to explain what Paul must have meant by referring to the “gift” of singleness given to him by God. Fee writes:
In light of the argument to this point...it is much more likely that he is actually referring to his actual gift of celibacy, which would be celibacy in its true sense—not referring to singleness as such (after all, many who are “celibate” in this sense wish they were otherwise), but to that singular gift of freedom from the desire or need of sexual fulfillment that made it possible for him to live without marriage in the first place...he recognized that his celibacy is a charisma (“gracious gift’), not a requirement.
Having inferred that celibacy is a legitimate “gift” from God, and that Paul had been granted it, Fee then imagines Paul saying, “Even though I could wish that all were as I am, the fact is that each one has his/her own gift, one gift of one kind, another gift of another kind.” To which Fee then has deduced, “In this context it is difficult to avoid the conclusion that sexual life in marriage is the ‘gift of another kind.’”
Although marriage is the “typical” state for most adults, it is not for everyone. We find Paul saying as much in the verses that follow. Marriage should not be the primary goal of any person...knowing God, loving Him, and serving Him should. If in the Providence of God, He leads you to marry, well and good. But, if in His sovereign will, He chooses to allow you to remain single, then recognize that there are advantages to serving Him in ways that a married person cannot.
Several years ago I read a piece in Christianity Today written by a single woman named Terri Williams. It was entitled “The Forgotten Alternative in First Corinthians 7.” In that article she seeks to encourage Christians who have been so gifted to embrace their celibacy. Allow me to quote her at length, because I find her remarks as relevant today as when I first read them. Perhaps they speak to someone this morning.
Celibacy should not be confused with monasticism, with which it has often been associated. Celibacy in no way implies withdrawal from people or a life of seclusion. In fact, one of the positive attractions of celibacy is that because single persons have fewer continuing responsibilities, they are freer to give those around them who need their love and help. Instead of a life of limited contacts, celibacy can offer a life of increased involvement with people who need time, attention, and love—people in emotional or physical distress or people who suffer from partial social ostracism such as the handicapped, the elderly, and the mentally disabled. I do not believe the First Corinthians 7 is a call to seclusion. Rather, it seems to be a call to intensified involvement...Paul says that the celibate life is desirable because it promotes undistracted devotion to God, bypassing the natural tendency toward a division of interests inherent in marriage...Just as marriage is not to be a Christian’s goal, neither is celibacy; either can be a help or a hindrance in achieving the real goal. But celibacy is a real alternative.
If you are struggling as a single person—and I am aware that those struggles can be painfully real—I encourage you to “replay” these words, giving careful thought to how the Lord want to best represent the Gospel through you. Be patient to wait on Him, pray and seek out Godly and trustworthy individuals. Even in singleness, you do not have to be alone.
As we come to the last two verses of this first section of 1 Corinthians 7, Paul transitions smoothly from his counsel to the married, so that what we now find is...
The apostolic counsel to the “unmarried” (verses 8-9)
It is believed by many New Testament scholars that Paul is addressing a specific group of “unmarrieds” in verses 8 and 9, namely those whose spouses had died. The reason is that the word that is translated “unmarried” (“αγαμοs”) in verse 8 was frequently used in reference to “widowers,” or men who had lost their wives. Employed, as it is here, in juxtaposition with “widows,” that interpretation appears to be valid. For one thing, if Paul had meant to include all “unmarried” people in this paragraph, what would have been the need to add the word “widows”? Perhaps we should conclude here that Paul is addressing only those whose spouses had predeceased them.
His counsel is that “it is good for (such persons, that is, those who had been widowed) to remain single.” But please observe that he says, “it is good” (“καλοs”) not “it is better” (“κπειττον”), which we later find in verse 9. In other words, there is no shame or fault in not remarrying, just as there is none in finding another spouse. By adding “as I am,” Paul is leaning toward a personal preference here. As he will expound shortly, there are clear advantages in terms of serving the Lord by remaining in a single state.
But he does make an allowance in verse 9 for those who “cannot exercise self-control”...in other words, those whose desire for intimacy could potentially lead them into “sexual immorality.” In those cases, Paul says that “they should marry. For it is better (‘κρειττον’) to marry than to burn with passion.”
You should know that those last two words of verse 9 do not appear in the original text, although they may well be implied. While some have understood the abrupt ending—that is, “to burn”—to be a warning against incurring eternal judgment (cf. 1 Corinthians 6:9-10), it seems more likely that the intended meaning is that those who were inclined to find fulfillment in sexually immoral ways should seek marriage rather than be consumed by the passion of their own sensual desires.
If this, then, be the case—as I believe it is—Paul is not so much offering marriage as a remedy for the sexual desire of “younger unmarrieds,” but as the proper alternative for those who had been married and whose spouses had died, but who remained consumed by sexual passion. Paul will address the single state in a more specific way later in this chapter, but for now we risk misrepresenting the apostle’s instruction if we attempt to force these two verses into situations where they were never intended.
There is a great deal more instruction related to marriage to be uncovered in the rest of this chapter. If you haven’t yet seen yourself, I believe that you will over the next couple of Sundays. Perhaps it is still too early to draw the net too tightly in terms of application for every situation and circumstance, but I believe we can make a few observations and draw some general conclusions about both marriage and singleness.
Having taught college students for twenty-five years and served as pastor here for the past ten, I have at times been asked for my opinion regarding whether someone should consider marriage or not. Without trying to appear humble, my opinion counts for very little. What does matter is what the Bible says. So let me leave you with several principles, drawn from Scripture, with respect to both questions.
With regard to the unmarried state, it is better to remain single...
- ...than to marry someone who is not a Christian.
- ...than to marry someone who will not encourage your growth and maturity in Christ.
- ...than to marry without being willing to give completely of yourself.
- ...than to marry for the wrong reason or with the wrong motive.
With regard to the married state, it is better to marry...
- ...if you are unable to find fulfillment without a mate.
- ...if you are led by God’s choice for your life, and not just by your feelings.
- ...if you are willing to spend the rest of your days with an imperfect mate, giving rather than receiving.
- ...if you are committed to making your marriage an illustration of Christ’s love for His Bride, the Church.
Doubtless these comments could—and probably should—be expanded upon. But hopefully they will provide for us a starting place. Regardless of whether we are presently or previously married or have never been married, and either desire or have no desire to marry, we must continually bear in mind this additional admonition from Paul, recorded later in this same letter:
“‘All things are lawful,’ but not all things are helpful. ‘All things are lawful,’ but not all things build up. Let no one seek his own good, but the good of his neighbor...So whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God” (1 Corinthians 10:23-24 and 31).