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Doug Van Meter - 8 October 2023

It’s (Not) Complicated (1 Corinthians 7:39–40)

Having spent several weeks studying 1 Corinthians 7 it is clear that the subject matter is very important, but it might also seem to be very complicated. Well, while at first glance (and even after several glances!), the issue appears complicated, Paul removes all complications as he concludes his instructions in vv. 39–40. Let’s listen to Paul’s: 1. inspired instructions (v. 39) and 2. inspired intentions (v. 40)

Scripture References: 1 Corinthians 7:39-40

From Series: "1 Corinthians Exposition"

An exposition of 1 Corinthians by Doug Van Meter.

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Leon Morris aptly summarises the theme of this fairly long chapter, which addresses marriage and singleness: “In marriage, as in all else, the Christian must be mindful that he acts as a member of Christ’s body.” Paul makes this point as he brings his instruction to a close with the words “only in the Lord” (v. 39). Whatever else Paul is teaching in this chapter, and however confusing parts of it may seem, there is nothing complicated about his final instruction: If you marry, then be sure that having a Christ-centred marriage is your priority.

These four words—“only in the Lord”—are key to everything Paul has written about living the Christian life, whether as single or married. It is all about the Lord. The Christian life is all about living under the lordship of Jesus Christ, empowered by the message of the cross of Jesus Christ.

Therefore, when faced with questions relating to whether or not to marry, whether or not to stay married, or whether or not to remarry after being widowed or divorced, the Christian will fundamentally consider a gospel response. That is, “What does the message of the cross say to my situation of living without a spouse?” How will marriage serve the promotion of that message? How does the message of the cross—a crucified and risen Saviour—inform me to behave in my current circumstances, one in which my spouse treats me in a hostile way, disrespecting my Saviour? How, in other words, do I walk “worthy of the gospel” within the body of Christ as a married member? As a single member? Oh, it is so complicated! Well, not really. Paul simplifies things in these final two verses.

In this final message, we will draw some straightforward conclusions from what many conclude is a complicated chapter. We will do so by listening to Paul’s inspired instructions, as well as his inspired intentions. We will begin with the latter first.

Paul’s Inspired Intention

We read of Paul’s inspired intention in v. 40: “Yet in my judgement she is happier if she remains as she is. And I think that I too have the Spirit of God.”

Apparently, members of the Corinthian church were perplexed, if not conflicted, about marriage and singleness. Some, it would seem, claimed particular spiritual insight into the matter, suggesting that it was so much better to serve the Lord as a single person that, if you were married, you should end it and then really begin to live your Christian life—especially if your spouse is an unbeliever. Interestingly, though Paul clearly preferred the single life (vv. 6–7), due to some unexplained “present distress” (v. 26), nevertheless he avoided binding consciences. He refused to place a “noose” over the freedom they had in Christ to choose one way of the other (v. 35). This is a major theme behind this chapter (v. 23).

As a bondservant of Jesus Christ, the Christian is free to choose. Therefore, Christian, if you want to marry, marry. Christian, if you want to remain single, remain single. Are you circumcised? No problem. Are you not circumcised? Not an issue. Christian, if you are bondservant, it does not affect your identity any more than being “free” somehow enhances your standing before the Lord. What does matter is that you remain faithful to the Lord where the Lord has planted you. And if your circumstances change, your commitment to Jesus Christ must not change. Don’t allow your circumstances to derail your loyalty to your groom, the Lord Jesus Christ. All that you do as a Christian—whether married or single—you do as one who is “in the Lord” (v. 39). He is our Master and therefore we need to beware of “selling ourselves” to allowing our consciences to become enslaved to men (v. 23). Though Paul would be thrilled for legal emancipation of Christians who were bondservants (like Onesimus), nevertheless his greater burden was their spiritual and moral emancipation. He wanted Christians to exercise a clear and unforced conscience before the Lord (v. 39) in every area, including the area of marriage and singleness.

Paul loved this congregation and therefore cared for their well-being. He addressed this important issue of marriage and singleness with the best of intentions. Paul wanted these believers to flourish as they lived the cross-centred, cruciform life. Because of the present distress, he therefore counselled that perhaps not marrying at that time would be better for them. He knew that difficulties could tempt them away from wholehearted devotion to Christ and from confidence in the message of the cross and therefore he desired to protect them from this. Paul was behaving like a loving spiritual father (4:15). And as he closes this chapter, he especially addresses those who had been widowed. As they contemplated whether or not to marry, Paul offered Christ-centred pastoral counsel (which is sometimes not the same thing as merely biblical counsel).

The word “happier” is usually translated as “blessed,” as in the Sermon on the Mount. Paul wanted these believers to be blessed. He wanted his spiritual children to be happy in the Lord, which is what motivated this counsel (see vv. 32, 35). Being filled with the Holy Spirit, being inspired as an apostle of Christ, Paul’s intentions were holy and happy and helpful! There is nothing complicated about that.

This entire chapter highlights the lordship of Jesus Christ and the freedom of the Christian to make decisions under his lordship. This is a big deal to Paul, and it should be for the Christian. And all of this helps us to better understand Paul’s statement, “And I think that I too have the Spirit of God.”

This is perhaps a pointed statement concerning those in the church who claimed special insight when it came to matters of marriage and singleness. As we will progressively see in future studies, spiritual arrogance was a problem in this church, and one manifestation was the claim to supposed spiritual insight, even that which trumped that of an apostle. Celebrity Christianity was, sadly, alive and well (see 1 Corinthians 3–4). Apparently, some of these loud members were pontificating about things with assumed spiritual authority with the result that they were either binding consciences or confusing what is clear in Scripture. Paul therefore reminds them (perhaps tongue in cheek) that he too “has the Spirit of God” and so perhaps they should listen to him!


As members of a local church, it can be assumed that each of us has the Spirit of God (for apart from the Spirit, we would not be saved [Romans 8:9]). Therefore, each of us will give an account to the Lord of decisions made and deeds done (Romans 14:12). And we need to remember this as we are faced with life-directing decisions. Before the Lord, we must seek to decide under his watchful and loving eye.

Of course, being a part of the church, we should seek counsel from those whom we respect as biblically wise. In making life-impacting decisions, we should seek counsel from those who clearly live under the shadow of the cross. We can trust them to speak truth—in love—and where they point us to a clear text that guides us with a black-and-white answer, then we need to submit to that scriptural truth. But not all counsel is going to be black-and-white, such as much of the content of 1 Corinthians 7.

For example, when Paul said that, if you are married, you are not to divorce your spouse, this is a black-and-white matter. Unless there has been infidelity or abandonment, the matter is clear. There is no confusion. It is not complicated. However, when it comes to remarrying after the dissolution of the marriage—either through death or biblically sanctioned divorce—then it is not a simple matter of searching the Scriptures for a “yes” or “no” but, as Paul has laboured to point out, it becomes a matter of good and better (not necessarily “good and best”). And this is where we as a congregation need to be careful. Let me explain.

There are many situations in life where each of us is confronted with decisions falling under the category of “good or better.” Ultimately, we need to make the call. In doing so, we should seek godly, biblically careful counsel. But, at the end of the day, decisions must be made and we need to respect the freedom, before the Lord, of the individual to make, then to live with the consequences of, that decision.

Let me illustrate.

You will remember how Paul was at pains to help the Christians at Corinth to bloom where they were planted. He counselled them to “remain [where; in the condition/circumstance] in which he was called” (v. 20). But now one was faced with the opportunity to change their “condition.” What should they do? Well, it depends. If they were circumcised or not circumcised, a bondservant or not a bondservant, in a “normal” marriage, they remain so. To change one’s “condition” is not advisable and, in some cases, it would be sinful. But if someone who was single was now confronted with an opportunity for marriage, the decision was completely theirs. They should consider counsel from others, but no one had the right to sit in judgement in their decision.

But let’s take another example: the situation many are facing in South Africa—to stay or not to stay.

For many, there is no option. Many are like the bondservant who had no choice in the matter, for they do not have the financial means to emigrate. But for those who do, they should pay attention to the counsel of wise Christians before they make their decision. At the end of the day, the decision is theirs and therefore the congregation should beware of binding the conscience of those who are confronted with the decision.

The point I am making is that there is freedom before the Lord, and we need to respect that. But don’t miss an equally important point: our counselling intentions need to be godly. We should desire the happiness of our fellow church members. This means we will speak both truthfully and carefully.

We can apply this to many other situations in the church, such as the freedom to choose how to educate your children. There is no freedom concerning the instruction (Ephesians 6:4) but there is plenty of freedom as to how to obey this commandment. Seek and receive counsel and then choose. If asked for counsel, give it and allow the individual to make the decision.

The takeaway from this is that the church should be filled with those who “have the Spirit of God” and who are therefore able to counsel and instruct one another (Romans 15:14). But in doing so, let us be sure that we respect the freedom of conscience of the Christian before the Lord. However, as Paul says in v. 39, some counsel is not up for debate.

Paul’s Inspired Instructions

Paul offers unalterable instruction in v. 39: “A wife is bound to her husband as long as he lives. But if her husband dies, she is free to be married to whom she wishes, only in the Lord.”

Paul seems to repeat here what he said in vv. 10–11. However, he has in view here those who have been widowed. He makes a general statement without any caveats. He is not addressing exceptions, for both Jesus and he have already done so (vv. 12–15; Matthew 5:32; 19:7–9). As Ciampa and Rosner helpfully point out, “To read this as a prohibition against all divorce and remarriage is to ignore its context. Paul states the general and ideal.”

When Paul wrote to the Romans (perhaps later than 1 Corinthians), he stated the same truth in this way: “For a married woman is bound by law to her husband while he lives, but if her husband dies she is released from the law of marriage” (Romans 7:2).

Again, this is the biblical expectation of marriage: for better and for worse; in sickness and in health; for richer and for poorer. A man and a woman pledge their covenantal commitment until death parts them from each other and therefore from their covenant. In the words of Jesus, “God made them male and female. Therefore a man shall leave his father and mother and hold fast to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh. What God therefore God has joined together, let not man separate” (Mark 10:6–9). Only death can end that God-given bond. And it is death that Paul has on his mind as he closes.

Here, Paul counsels those having been widowed who are faced with a choice as to whether to marry. Paul says that the decision is theirs to make with a clear conscience before the Lord. They are free to marry or not to marry. And though Paul clearly thinks that, due to the present distress—as well as inherent distractions attached to marriage—they are better off not marrying. Nevertheless, Paul still respects their right to decide. And yet, in making their decision, he adds a non-negotiable, because inspired, requirement and restriction: If they marry, they must do so “only in the Lord.” If a widow marries, she is only permitted to marry a Christian. This short statement is loaded with meaning and with relevance for all Paul has said. It is loaded with meaning and relevance therefore for you and me.

As I have sought to show in our studies over these weeks, this chapter is written under the shadow of the cross. This chapter is not a general manual for any marriage, but specifically for Christians and the matter of marriage. Whatever situation the Christian finds him- or herself in, when it comes to matrimony, the Lord is to be front and centre. If one does not marry, they are to be undivided in their devotion to the Lord. And if they marry, they are to be undivided in their devotion to the Lord. Therefore, when confronted with the decision to marry, be extremely careful about whom you marry. Please. For God’s sake, for the church’s sake, and, of course, for your sake, marry only “in the Lord.” But it is equally important to emphasise that, if you are married “in the Lord”— that is, if you are both Christian—then make sure your marriage reflects that you are “in the Lord.” What does all of this look like? Let’s unpack it.

The phrase “in the Lord” doubtless is a reference to being a Christian. Paul liked to speak of Christians as being “in Christ” or “in him,” terms he used some 143 times in his epistles, and therefore he most certainly has the same idea when he says “in the Lord.” He is giving inspired instruction that, if a widow (or, by extension, any single person) marries, they must only marry those whose identity is in Christ. How important! How vital! How essential! How non-negotiable!! And yet, sadly, how often this inspired instruction is ignored and treated with cool indifference.

When Paul uses the word “Lord” in this epistle, it predominately refers to the second person of the Godhead. Paul’s concern was that, if a Christian marries, they should marry someone who not only professes to be a Christian but who thinks, and behaves, and orders their life as someone whose identity is found in knowing and following the Lord Jesus Christ. Paul was not advising merely some religious “Christianised” ceremony where vows are exchanged, meaningful as that is. Rather, his concern was that the marriage be grounded in the Lord Jesus Christ.

When it came to marriage, Paul’s concern was not primarily for someone to find their “soul-mate” (whatever that is!) but rather that the marriage would be Christlike, each helping the other to be undivided in devotion to the Lord. Paul was more concerned about each spouse declaring and demonstrating their undying love for the Lord (Ephesians 6:24) more than their undying love for one another. In fact, apart from the former, the latter is nigh impossible.

There are several things I want to say here.

First, there are things worse than not having a spouse—like having the wrong one. I am defining “wrong one” by Paul’s requirement to marry in the Lord. As indicated in an earlier study, when helping your children as they contemplate marriage, look for someone who does more than merely tick a religious box. Look for your child’s spouse to be devoted to Jesus Christ. You should expect the spouse to demonstrate love for Jesus Christ, love for the gospel of Jesus Christ, love for the church of Jesus Christ. Because you love the Lord, and because you love your child, you want the best for them; you want them to be in a marriage that “walks worthy of the gospel” and that experiences the abundant life that is in Jesus Christ. This is the greatest wedding gift you could ever give your child. It is priceless. And it really is not complicated.

But though not complicated, finding this kind of spouse might take time. So be it. Marriage “in the Lord” is too important to compromise. It is a non-negotiable that must not be compromised because of various pressures.

It is to be lamented that, sometimes, a search for someone of the same culture takes priority over someone with a Christ-besotted character, conviction, and compulsion. It is too be lamented that financial security often weighs too heavily in a search for a spouse. After all, what does it profit a marriage to gain the world but lose the soul? Sadly, too many have.

Keep in mind that Paul issued this inspired proviso because convenience can complicate what is an otherwise simple command, particularly in the culture of Paul’s day.

It is quite possible that some widows in Corinth may have felt the pressure by fellow church members to marry, including church members who were also family members. Perhaps less than noble motives included alleviating their own financial responsibilities (1 Timothy 5:3–8). Therefore, this stipulation by Paul would have provided a measure of scriptural protection for them. If someone tried to “fix them up” with a potential spouse they would have the inspired metric as a guard: “only in the Lord.”

I have pastored long enough to have witnessed professing couples wed with all the expected excitement and the public declaration of devotion to Jesus Christ only to watch it fall away, sometimes even shortly after the honeymoon. The fallout is both sad and devastating. When “only in the Lord” is treated with neglectful indifference or with sentimental ignorance, a spouse may find himself or herself trying to live the Christian life on their own. Or worse, they may abandon it altogether. Not to mention the tragedy of watching children not being raised “in the Lord.” Be careful.

Second, pay heed to those whom the Lord has placed in your life for guidance. Though living in a broken world means there are few guarantees, nevertheless the Bible provides comfort that, in a multitude of counsellors, there is safety (Proverbs 11:14; 24:6). And it is fair to assume that the emphasis in such passages is upon godly counsellors.

Listen to those who love you, to those who love the Lord, to those who love the gospel, and to those who love the church.

Parents, you should be striving to be such counsellors to your children. This requires learning truth (read!) but it also requires living truth (do!). You need to live in such a way that your children will take you seriously.

Church member, be that kind of church member. Learn truth, soak yourself in Scripture, be before the Lord in prayer, pursue a life of undivided devotion to the Lord, and you will be in a helpful position and disposition to help others who desire to marry to do so “in the Lord.”

Christian, guard your heart as you contemplate marriage. Remember the main thing. Remember that, if God wants you to marry, he wants your marriage to honour the Lord Jesus Christ. He wants your marriage to be one that is devoted to the glory of Christ. This brings us to another point of application.

Third, if you don’t marry in the Lord then this is a problem for all of us. Without belabouring the point, we need to appreciate that, whether single or married, each church member has the responsibility to help each church member to live like they are in the Lord. Each of us has a vital interest in helping marriages to be and to behave as if they are in the Lord. We need to help one another. Before the mess happens.

But also after the mess happens. Hold one another accountable. Lovingly confront. Invest your time in helping the wounded. Come alongside and help injured spouses to run the race. If you are single, you share in this responsibility. Not being married does not disqualify you from speaking into the lives of those who are. In fact, your objectivity is of great assistance.

Fourth, you need to stay married in the Lord. Marrying in the Lord is not optional, it is requisite. But our relationship with the Lord must be nurtured or it will atrophy.

Once the “honeymoon” is over, the responsibility for holiness is not. If two are better than one (Ecclesiastes 4:9–12), then our marriages should help our devotion to the Lord. Though marriage may “distract” from some “service” to the Lord, nevertheless they should never detour us from devotion to the Lord.

Finally, if you did not marry in the Lord, you can still serve the Lord. Underlying much of Paul’s counsel is the understanding that some, if not many, in that congregation were in a less than ideal marriage. Some were married to unbelievers and some of those were harsh, if not cruel. Nevertheless, they could live devoted to the Lord in bad situations. Let your church help you as you seek to live informed by the message of the cross.


Really, it’s not that complicated. Marriage is God’s good gift, which finds its ultimate fulfilment in the relationship between Jesus Christ, and his bride, the church. Paul makes this clear in Ephesians 5:22–32.

Jesus’ commitment to his bride is such that he will never leave or forsake her. Even though, so often, he could find some fault or failure in her—in us. Even though we play the spiritual harlot at times, like Hosea of old, with deeper commitment, Jesus takes us back. In fact, he brings us back. And, yes, even though we defy his lordship in our marriage, Jesus forgives and restores.

You see, Jesus came to secure his bride. He gave his life for his bride. And he took back his life for his bride. Now he lives to purify his bride. We have a long way to go. We fail our groom time and again, and yet he loves and forgives us. He will not allow anything or anyone to separate us from him. What God has joined together, no one can separate. Jesus says to anyone or anything that seeks to break our relationship with him, “Don’t mess with my bride.”

What a glorious meditation! God has joined Christ and his church. Forever. That is good news. That is gospel. Will you be joined to him? Repent of your sin, trust the Lord Jesus Christ as your Saviour, take him as your groom—today.

Perhaps you are single, and you will never be married. I would no more pity you than I would pity Jesus who was single. He had the most fulfilling life—without a wife. Well, not quite so, he had a wife whose name is Church.

Some of the best Christians I know, perhaps the most insightful Christians when it comes to the church, are those who have never been married. They are very fulfilled and live a life to be exemplified. Even, in a godly way, envied.

Perhaps you have been divorced. There is hope for what may seem like a hole in your life. This hope is Jesus. Look to him as your groom and you will find in him, your all in all.

In closing, I hope that these studies have helped you individually, and that they will help us corporately. We have looked at various truths in this chapter. Some apply to some while some apply to others. But what applies to every member of BBC is that we are to be faithful “in the Lord” and hence to the Lord in whatever circumstance the Lord has placed us. For wherever we are, we are always “in the Lord.” And though eternally profound, nevertheless, it’s really not complicated.