At church we often hear sermons about how to be a godly wife or husband, but not about how to be a godly single person. Many times we seem to esteem marriage only and unconsciously think that if you are not married you must have some issues, hate men or be gay. Churches frequently advertise themselves as family churches – but what if you have no family? Often in churches single people feel left out or neglected. We forget that there were lots of single people in the Bible, with the most famous being Jesus. Singleness is not treated as strange in the bible and it is even in some cases preferred, like in 1 Corinthians 7.
1 Corinthians 7 raises two challenging questions.
What is better, marriage or singleness?
In Genesis 2 God said, “It’s not good for the man to be alone”. God created a wife for Adam for them to be faithful companions. Genesis 2:24 says, “For this reason and man will leave his father and mother and hold fast to his wife and become one flesh”. Marriage is God’s good general purpose for people. Marriage, not singleness, is the ideal in Genesis 2 and the rest of the Bible honours and upholds marriage. But here Paul esteems singleness. Why? Please continue reading.
Is this passage just Paul’s fallible opinion?
Paul writes in v10, “To the married I give this charge (not I, but the Lord)”. Paul is referring back to a specific command and teaching of Jesus concerning marriage and divorce. In v12 Paul writes, “To the rest I say (I, not the Lord)”. “I, not the Lord” means that Paul is moving to an issue not directly addressed in Jesus’ teaching. But yet Paul’s writings, opinions and implications of the gospel in his letters have the authority of an apostle of Christ and are part of God-breathed scripture. That’s why Paul writes in v40, “And I think that I too have the Spirit of God.”
We learn a couple of principles in this chapter :
1. Singleness is a gift from God
v7 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.
What does Paul mean when he says, “I wish that all were as I myself am”? Paul wants us to be, like he is, free in Christ; content to serve Christ in any situation or circumstance. A big emphasis in this chapter is to “remain as you are”. In other words, you don’t need to change your situation just because you are now a Christian. Paul’s own situation is singleness which he views as a gift from God. Others will have different situations; we need to view our situation as a gift.
Do you view singleness as a gift from God? Or are you angry with and resentful towards God resentful? If you are single, your singleness is not a mistake or an accident or a punishment, but a divine gift. Of course, this applies to marriage also – it’s a gift, not a punishment!
2. Marry rather than burn
v8 To the unmarried and the widows I say that it is good for them to remain single as I am.
Paul’s personal preference is singleness, but he knows that this is not everyone’s preference or gift, so he will go on to say:
v28 But if you do marry, you have not sinned,
V36 let him do as he wishes: let them marry—it is no sin.
v38 So then he who marries his betrothed does well
Some of the “super-spiritual” Christians in the Corinthian church were saying that marriage is sin. Paul says, “No, marriage is good, you’re definitely not sinning!”
v9 But if they cannot exercise self-control, they should marry. For it is better to marry than to burn with passion.
The original manuscript does not have the words “with passion” at the end of v9. I, and others, think a better way to translate v9 is: “But if they cannot exercise self-control, they should marry. For it is better to marry than to burn with shame.”
Paul is not offering marriage as the single person’s remedy for sexual desires and temptation. The remedy for desires and temptation is always self-control. What happens when you are tempted as a married person to view pornography or to have sex with someone other than your spouse? As a married person you need to exercise self-control. You start exercising self-control when you’re single. In fact, if you can’t exercise self-control when you’re single you probably won’t be able to do it when you’re married.
Some guys, who are addicted to pornography, think that at the wedding ceremony, the fairy godmother of sexual purity is going to sprinkle golden sexual-purity dust on their heads and they will magically not be tempted with pornography. It doesn’t work like that. The solution to temptation is self-control, not marriage. If you’re going out with your girl/ boyfriend and you’re tempted to get intimate, you need self-control.
In v9, Paul has in mind couples not struggling with temptation or self-control, but couples who have failed to exercise self-control and fallen into sin. They are being sexually intimate as unmarried people and as a result burning with shame. Paul says, “Get married, honour God, do what’s right, don’t burn with shame.” Of course this presumes that all other factors in their relationship are in order i.e. they are biblically permitted biblically to marry and, as v39 says, they are marrying “in the Lord” (both Christians).
So if you are single and dating, when should you get married?
v36 If anyone thinks that he is not behaving properly toward his betrothed if his passions are strong, and it has to be, let him do as he wishes: let them marry—it is no sin.
The time for marrying is when sex becomes an issue, but before it becomes a problem. If you are not ready for marriage to one another, you are definitely not ready for sex with one other. If you are not ready for marriage, you’re not ready for dating because what would you be your reason for dating? An implication must be that you don’t date guys or girls who you wouldn’t or shouldn’t marry.
God’s design is for sexual intimacy is marriage. The world says, “Try before you buy. Check if you’re sexually compatible”. God says, “If he’s a male and she’s a female, you are sexually compatible. That’s how I designed it.” It’s very difficult to get to know someone when you’re sexually involved with them. Most guys want the sex, without the responsibility of marriage. Ladies watch out, if he can’t practise self-control now, he probably won’t practise self-control in other areas when he’s married. If you can’t remain sexually pure, you need to grow up, get a job and get married.
v37 But whoever is firmly established in his heart, being under no necessity but having his desire under control, and has determined this in his heart, to keep her as his betrothed (not to get married), he will do well. 38 So then he who marries his betrothed does well, and he who refrains from marriage will do even better.
There are no hard and fast rules. For engaged Christians back then in Corinth singleness and marriage should both be viewed as good gifts from God.
3. Do not seek a husband or wife but trust God
v25 Now concerning the betrothed I have no command from the Lord, but I give my judgment as one who by the Lord’s mercy is trustworthy. 26 I think that in view of the present distress it is good for a person to remain as he is. 27 Are you bound to a wife? Do not seek to be free. Are you free from a wife? Do not seek a wife. 28 But if you do marry, you have not sinned, and if a betrothed woman marries, she has not sinned. Yet those who marry will have worldly troubles, and I would spare you that.
Paul writes that because of the “present distress” (v26) each one should remain as he is. v31 gives us a clue as to what the present distress is. v31 says, “for the present form of this world is passing away.” The present distress is the distress that all believers face because of the coming of Christ into the world and the nearness of the world to come.
Some of us in South Africa have a very relatively easy life. To us, normal life is a happy childhood, a dream wedding, a successful career and a stress-free retirement. But life is normally not like that especially for Christians. Just think of Syria, South Sudan, Egypt, the Central African Republic, or the 1st century Roman Empire when the emperors fed Christians to lions. The Bible tells us that Christians will frequently suffer hardship. For many Christians, to remain Christian is to invite death. Our semi “luxurious” lives are not the norm in the bible or in history. Paul says that in the light of the gospel, the sufferings of this world and the inevitable persecution, (v27) “Do not seek a wife”. You will have enough challenges just being single! What should you seek? Jesus said that we should seek first the kingdom of God and all our needs will be given to us.
4. God calls us all to a radically new perspective
29 This is what I mean, brothers: the appointed time has grown very short. From now on, let those who have wives live as though they had none, 30 and those who mourn as though they were not mourning, and those who rejoice as though they were not rejoicing, and those who buy as though they had no goods, 31 and those who deal with the world as though they had no dealings with it. For the present form of this world is passing away.
Paul says that the Christian must be ruled by eternity, the cause of Christ and the world to come. The things of this world must not govern, dominate or control us. We are not to be engrossed and obsessed with the things of this world. Of course you must love your wife or husband and take care of your family; but your wife and family and car and holiday and job and DSTV must not become your God who you give your worship and adoration to. Hold loosely to the things of this world for the present form of this world is passing away (v31)
Martin Luther penned the great hymn, A Mighty Fortress is our God. One of the verses says:
And though they take our life,
Goods, honour, children, wife,
Yet is their profit small;
These things shall vanish all:
The City of God remaineth.
5. Singleness has many benefits
32 I want you to be free from anxieties. The unmarried man is anxious about the things of the Lord, how to please the Lord. 33 But the married man is anxious about worldly things, how to please his wife, 34 and his interests are divided. And the unmarried or betrothed woman is anxious about the things of the Lord, how to be holy in body and spirit. But the married woman is anxious about worldly things, how to please her husband. 35 I say this for your own benefit, not to lay any restraint upon you, but to promote good order and to secure your undivided devotion to the Lord.
Paul says that he does not want to lay any restraint on anyone (v35). You can choose to marry or not. But remember that marriage is not the solution to all your problems; in fact it may give you many more. Being single, says Paul, is not for watching more TV, but for devoting more time and talents to serving the Lord undividedly (v35). Single people can often can risk more for God and singleness can be an excellent opportunity for gospel ministry.
May I suggest three implications?
We need to honour single people in our churches.
We need to invite single people into our homes. For marrieds, loneliness is not normally an issue, but life can be lonely at times for single people.
Need pray to for single people in our churches, not just the marrieds.
My previous post about being married is here.