“To marry, or not to marry?” That is the question Paul addresses in the text before us. But as important as that question is, there is something of greater importance: one’s devotion to the Lord. Those who have been born again have been betrothed to the Lord Jesus Christ and await the day in which our marriage to him will be fully consummated and celebrated at the marriage supper of the Lamb. In the meanwhile, we are to pursue “undivided devotion to the Lord” (v. 37). Whether married, widowed, divorced, or single, every church member needs to sit in Paul’s counselling session about marriage. If we pay heed to what he says, then our church will be increasingly united in undivided devotion to the Lord Jesus Christ, who has bought us—redeemed us—by his precious blood: the ultimate bride price.
As we have seen, some in the Corinthian church were confused about matters of marriage and sexuality. Paul pastorally responds by giving counsel that is either rooted in previous teaching of the Lord Jesus Christ (v. 10) or, under the new covenant, is apostolic and authoritative (v. 12). Therefore, Paul’s counsel concerning these matters is to be regarded as wise, biblical counsel for the benefit of the church to the glory of God. In this text, Paul primarily counsels those who have never been married, though he also briefly addresses a couple other marital categories.
Paul is pastorally concerned about single people who are contemplating marriage.
Having just counselled “each person” to “lead the life that the Lord has assigned to him” (v. 17)—and repeating this two more times (vv. 20, 24)—Paul again urges this same approach (v. 26). That is, in his view, those who should stay as they are. And though Paul was confident in his counsel, nevertheless he was also careful to not overstep individual liberty concerning whether or not to marry. After all, he had just counselled that Christians are not to be enslaved to the opinions of others (v. 23). He commendably walks a fine and wise line between counsel and commandment, a line that, sadly, some have tripped over throughout church history, to the detriment of both individuals and the health of the church.
For example, there is an unbiblical idea that singleness is the most virtuous and hence the most “Christian” approach to life. This misunderstanding has led to enforced life-long celibacy in certain segments of the professing church. Or consider the equally unbiblical concept of “spiritual marriage,” in which a man and woman marry and yet vow celibacy in the marriage.
Rather than such aberrations, Paul provides counsel that upholds both the goodness of marriage and the goodness of being single. He also provides good counsel to fathers concerning giving their daughters in marriage. All of this counsel, whether married or not, is important for each of us in the congregation to hear.
We can divide Paul’s counsel into several headings.
- Listen to Pastoral Concerns (v. 25)
- Consider Your Present Circumstances (vv. 26–31)
- Remember Your Primary Calling (vv. 32–35)
- Seek Your Parent’s Consent (vv. 36–38)
Listen to Pastoral Concerns
As he wrote earlier (vv. 6,12), Paul is not counselling with chapter-and-verse; rather, since he writes under inspiration of the Holy Spirit (v. 40), what he counsels is to be taken as authoritative and sufficient counsel. After all, this is the word of God and, therefore, it is profitable for the Christian (2 Timothy 3:16–17). However, though it is inspired counsel, this does not mean that Paul is comparing what is wrong with what is right. Rather, he is comparing what is good with what is better. This is very important to keep in mind as we listen to his counsel. As one commentary puts it, “Paul is not addressing an issue with one right answer. The matter calls for the decision and consent of those advised, and the distinction is not between right and wrong but between ‘right’ and ‘better’” (Ciampa and Rosner). Clearly, “Paul the pastor thinks aloud” but also “leaves them free to make responsible decisions about advantages and disadvantages for the kingdom of God, for others, and for themselves” (Thiselton).
Now, let’s listen to the direction that Paul pastorally provides.
We see, in these opening words, and then exemplified in the passage, the heart of Pastor Paul, who was deeply concerned about the well-being of this flock. He was aware of their concern to do what is right with reference to marriage, and to each other. Some were obviously wrestling with the important matter of whether or not to marry. Some, it seems, were betrothed (engaged) and, now that they had become Christians, were wondering whether they should shelve their plans in order to more devotedly serve the Lord.
Paul addresses the “betrothed,” a translation of a word referring to an unmarried daughter—a “maiden,” to use an old term. It is exegetically important to note that in other translations (KJV, NASB) translate this word as “virgin.” This, in my view, is the way it should be translated, for “betrothed” raises more confusion than is necessary. That is, the word “betrothed” suggests a woman who is engaged, but the actual word does not necessarily call for such an understanding.
Interestingly the biblical assumption is that a woman who has never been married is a virgin. Sadly, in our day the word “virgin” is used pejoratively, even as a mockery. But God still honours as virtuous single people who guard their virginity. He still expects fathers to guard the virginity of their daughters.
It is possible that an ascetic element had crept into the church and a hyper-spiritual view of singleness was establishing itself. Paul writes in defence of singleness, but he does so in such a way as to allay any idolatrous views either of singleness or marriage. This passage is a beautiful example of a wise, caring, and careful shepherd of God’s flock.
In my reading to prepare for these sermons over the past few months, I have been saddened by what is often a lack of wise and tender pastoral handling of the issue of singleness and marriage. Well-known and highly-esteemed conservative evangelical pastors and theologians have sometimes made the most insensitive and unsubstantiated statements about those who are single. One wrote that to be married is to be fully human, implying that, unless someone is married, they cannot reach their full potential. That is nonsense. Adam was fully human without Eve, though incomplete for the function of filling the earth with progeny. More to the point, the Lord Jesus Christ was the fullest of humanity—and he lived and died single. Though this theologian may not have meant what was communicated, he should have been more careful. As some of my school teachers used to advise, “Think man! Think!”
Another pastor wrote that to remain single when one could marry is to live irresponsibly. Ditto my response earlier.
Finally, another popular pastor wrote that, if single people do not marry, the church is going to be burdened in the future with caring for them.
Mind you, these are well-educated men. However, it seems that they have ignored Paul’s clear teaching in this chapter. When it comes to this subject, we would do well to respectfully push back on such unreliable counsel and choose rather to listen carefully to Paul whose counsel is trustworthy and reliable. Though, as mentioned, Paul makes allowance for different choices, such choices should be made in the light of his biblically communicated wisdom. Paul’s heart is with and for this congregation’s welfare. They would be wise to weigh his words.
When making decisions concerning whether or not to marry, soak yourself in the word of God, seeking counsel from those who submit to apostolic authority. This means being cautious of culturally conditioned concepts and cliches.
Consider Your Present Circumstances
(1 Corinthians 7:26–31)
The point is that Paul wants his readers to think carefully before giving up singleness. Both marriage and singleness are gifts from God (v. 7). Both are good. But, in some cases, as Paul will argue, being single is better than being married. He provides one such caveat when he mentions “the present distress.”
There are a host of suggestions as to what the “distress” Paul writes of refers to. The three most notable interpretations are the following:
First, some suggest it was a contemporary condition the Corinthians and that part of the world were presently experiencing, namely a major famine (see Acts 11:27–28). This is certainly a possibility and, since we need to read the Bible from the standpoint of the original recipients, we would be wise to look for a contemporary condition. The dating of the famine might be problematic, but this cannot be outrightly dismissed.
Related to this was the possibility that the Corinthians were facing the pressure of persecution. You will recall that, when the church was founded (Acts 18), there was so much tension that Paul required a word from the Lord to encourage him to continue his ministry (18:10), and the ruler of the synagogue who was converted lost his position.
A second view, and doubtless the most popular, is that Paul was speaking of the eschatological viewpoint of the Christian. That is, “the present distress” refers to the entire time period between the first and final advents of Jesus. Those who favour this view say that Paul’s counsel is that, since the Lord’s return is imminent—since, in Paul’s words, “the appointed time has grown very short” (v. 29)—remaining single was the wisest choice. Why spend your energies on marriage when the most important marriage—the marriage supper of the Lamb—was soon to take place. After all, is it not clear that “the present form of the world is passing away” (v. 31)?
This interpretation views Paul as saying, “Do not idolise marriage for it is only a momentary marriage (as Piper puts it) and therefore you should be focusing on that day when the heavenly Groom returns for his bride, the church.” Though I can appreciate certain aspects of this interpretation, I believe it stretches the language too far into the future—into our future. Let me explain as I offer a third interpretation, which I believe is most faithful to the words Paul has written.
Doubtless, when Paul wrote of “the present distress,” he had in view a “present” distress! When he wrote that “the appointed time has grown very short,” he meant “short.” The words “grown very short” mean “time has been drawn together into a brief compass,” and the word “time” means a season or an epoch of time. In short, Paul was writing about something that was happening then, and though applicable to us now, he was not writing about our now.
The “appointed time” was the “time” between the ascension of the Lord Jesus Christ and his coming in judgement upon Jerusalem in AD 70. Paul was referring to the last days, as described by the Lord Jesus Christ in the Olivet Discourse (Matthew 24; Mark 13; Luke 21).
Jesus told his disciples that, during this “appointed time,” there would be much upheaval and many pressures (Luke 21:23—“distress”). Paul believed the words of Jesus and therefore provides this pastoral caution. He counsels delay in marriage because of the sociological uncertainties of the “time.” This interpretation best fits both the vocabulary and the biblical timeline.
Paul’s counsel to his original audience was that, in his view, marriage should be delayed due to significant pressures they would face. With the potential of famine, economic disaster, and perhaps persecution, he advised that remaining single would be a wise decision, though he makes clear that pursuing marriage was not sin.
Consider Paul’s exhortation. He is not saying that a married man in these distressing times should ignore his wife! Neither is he advising a stoic approach to life without mourning, rejoicing, or any regard for life in the world. He is saying that they should not get too attached to life as it is because there is going to be a new normal. “The concerns of married life, like life itself, become much more distressing in times of social crisis.” He is saying that life as they have always known it is going to be upended and therefore remaining single would be better than marriage in the present.
I think that Mare captures this passage well when he writes, “Paul admonishes them not to be overwhelmed by the social and material problems of the world but to live as for the Lord. By ‘those who have wives should live as if they had none’ (v. 29) he means, ‘Live for the Lord in your marriage.’”
There have been times throughout church history when being married would put a wife, and subsequent children, in great danger and so not marrying was a better choice. The principle still applies, though the time frame does not.
But there is another principle that also transcends the times: Don’t idolise marriage.
Too often, Christians think that, apart from marriage, one cannot be fulfilled. Paul argues directly against that here. He indicates that marriage is not the be-all-and-end-all of life’s pursuit. Rather, he points to an eschatological mindset, which gets our eyes off of the world and onto the Lord. Schreiner puts it well:
Paul’s point is that marriage is temporary; thus believers should not live as if their ultimate joy and satisfaction are derived from their marital relationship …. Paul emphasizes … the ephemeral nature of life in this world; thus it would be unwise to locate one’s ultimate joy or significance in that which is temporary.
So, if marriage is a good choice for you, go for it. But keep this good gift in perspective. As David Gibson wisely observes, “In the created world, you can only truly enjoy what you do not worship.” Therefore, don’t ruin what God means for your good.
Remember Your Primary Calling
(1 Corinthians 7:32–35)
Again we get a sense of Paul’s pastoral concern. With a judgement of charity, he assumes that his single readers are keen to serve and worship and love the Lord. Not doubting their commitment to wholehearted devotion, he assures them that his preference for their singleness is to reduce any sense of anxiety over a potentially divided devotion—a heart that is full of care over a spouse.
Paul, of course, is not criticising what amounts to a biblical responsibility. In fact, elsewhere he instructs husbands and wives to be devoted to their spouse (Ephesians 5). Yet his point in this passage is that, if a person is single, they should not assume this is a second-class kind of life. On the contrary, they are in the enviable position of having “undivided attention to the Lord” (v. 35). “Therefore,” Paul counsels, “be thoughtful before you hastily or wrongheadedly give up this privilege.” To serve the Lord without the distractions arising from “dealing with this world” is a wonderful gift. After all, it is what every Christian is going to do for all of eternity. It is therefore in this sense that the life of the person who is single most exemplifies the eschatological reality of marriage to the Lord Jesus Christ. Therefore be careful and be thoughtful before hastily giving up your singleness. Count the cost.
Seek Your Parent’s Consent
(1 Corinthians 7:36–38)
First, the phrasing lends itself to the authority of a father who would have the right to say yes or no to a betrothal.
Second, the words “passions are strong” are better translated “if she is past the prime of her life” (“if she pass the flower of her age” [KJV]) and the phrase has nothing to do with a fiancé exercising sexual self-control, which, by the way, Paul has already addressed (v. 9).
Third, the same can be said of the words “having his desire under control,” which can be better understood as “hath power over his own will” (KJV).
Fourth, it would seem rather strange to counsel a man to “keep his betrothed” if he chose not to marry her. Is Paul really suggesting perpetual engagement? That would be both tempting and even tortuous, in a sense. In fact, it could actually be the equivalent of emotional enslavement.
Finally, the verbs “marries” and “marriage” are only found elsewhere in the New Testament in Matthew 24:38; Mark 12:23; Luke 20:34–35 where, in each case, they are translated “given in marriage.”
For these reasons I believe Paul is counselling parents, particularly fathers, concerning the marriage of their daughters.
Perhaps hyper-spiritual church members were teaching that fathers should not give their daughters in marriage because to do so would cut them off from a more spiritually virtuous life. But more to the point of the context, a conscientious father might, after reading this chapter, feel that for his betrothed daughter to go through with a marriage would put her in a vulnerable position in “the present distress.” Therefore the concerned father needed some counsel concerning the correct decision.
Paul writes that the father has freedom to make that call. If he gives his daughter in marriage, “it is no sin” (v. 36). On the other hand, unless the father feels compelled—perhaps by a formal contract, etc.—to give his daughter in marriage, Paul counsels that this might be the best decision. His counsel concerns making a distinction between good and better (v. 38), not between good and bad.
So what can we learn from this?
Fathers are given a great responsibility concerning the marriage of their daughters (see Deuteronomy 22:13–21). Fathers, don’t be absent or oblivious. Your daughter is your God-given stewardship. Be careful with this precious gift. Guide her. Guard her. Give her only to what/who is best. The father giving his daughter in marriage is not an inflexible responsibility. That is, if she is of a particular age and living on her own, this will be handled differently than if she is younger and in your home. Further, a petulant, foolish, controlling, ungodly father should not have the ultimate say in whether or not his daughter marries, or even whom she marries. Many ungodly fathers persecute believing children by wielding ungodly authoritarianism. Finally, the assumption in this passage is the same assumption informing the rest of the chapter: The message of the cross is at the centre.
Paul’s deepest concern is not whether someone marries or whether they live their lives as a single person. His greatest concern is that those who are bought with a price live lives of freedom from the tyrannical opinions of others and rather live under the loving and secure lordship of Jesus Christ. His concern is that whether single or not those belonging to Jesus Christ will live without being anxious about their marital status. He desires their greatest concern to be having an “undivided devotion to the Lord” (v. 35).
You see, Paul was persuaded that the only “relationship status” that matters is a saving relationship with God through his Son, the Lord Jesus Christ. Any other relationship is in comparison a merely nice to have, not a must have. No other relationship was established by the precious blood of the Lord Jesus Christ and no other relationship was secured by the resurrection of God’s only begotten Son and no other relationship will last forever, secured by the continual intercession of Jesus Christ, the Bridegroom, who will cleave to his bride forever.
That, my friends, is the kind of marriage counselling we all need.
Will you take the counsel? That is, will you submit to the Lord Jesus Christ as your Saviour? Having done so, will you listen and seek undivided devotion to him? Do so today, rejoicing in the fact that even death will not part you from the Groom who loves you with an everlasting love.