I believe 1st Corinthians 7 is one of the most misunderstood parts of the New Testament. I find it ironic that authors have approached this text and come to radically different conclusions on how to apply it to the Christian life.
The “marriage mandate” folks (those who believe we are obligated to marry) essentially dismiss Paul’s encouragement to stay single as only relevant to the specific crisis in Corinth.
The “gift of singleness” camp seems to think God has assigned the state of singleness or marriage in the same way He has assigned spiritual gifts.
I can even remember reading a tract/pamphlet (based on this chapter) arguing we should stay single unless we sense a specific call from God to marry. I was in college at the time, and I didn’t find it very encouraging.
I believe some of these approaches to the text just don’t cut it. I suggest we keep a few things in mind:
1. Scripture interprets Scripture. We have to interpret 1st Corinthians 7 in light of the Bible as a whole. This means, for example, that we should remember the Bible’s overall message about marriage/family in mind when reading this chapter. In other words, 1st Corinthians 7 isn’t the only part of the Bible that speaks of singleness and marriage.
2. Context is crucial. We should not take Scriptures out of context for or own agenda. We must first look at what comes before and after certain passages, who the writer and audience are, etc. About 99% of cults would disappear if people would just read the context of the verses their false prophets use to propagate heresies. Understanding the historical/geographical setting of a particular Scripture is also extremely helpful.
3. Look for timeless principles. Some of our current practices just don’t have an exact parallel in the Bible. Our modern-day practice of dating comes to mind—they didn’t date (or court) like we do now back in ancient times. But we can take the Bible’s principles (sexual purity, honest, etc.) and apply them to this modern practice.
Having said all this, I’ll share a few of my humble thoughts on this passage.
The Corinthian Context:
Sexual immorality was rampant in ancient Corinth. Pagan religions had temples specifically built to house prostitutes. It was perfectly acceptable for Roman men (even married men) to go visit said prostitutes. Apparently some of the early Christians were struggling to live pure lives in this X-rated environment (see 1 Corinthians 6). Sound familiar?
Greek philosophy offered little guidance. Some philosophers taught that life should be spent pursuing pleasure (Hedonism). Others believed pleasure should be avoided altogether, and some pagan religions encouraged all converts (married or single) to be celibate. I imagine the men weren’t too excited when their wives came home and told them they had just joined the “no sex” cult.
The Roman concept of marriage was equally confusing. Roman society had different types of marriages, from common-law arrangements to more legitimate covenants. Disposable marriages were commonplace: ancient records reveal some Roman citizens married/divorced over twenty times.
You can see why the Corinthian Christians were so confused. It seems Paul was responding to the questions from these ancient believers. We don’t know exactly what they asked because we don’t have their letters. But maybe the questions looked something like this:
“Should a husband and wife abstain from sexual intimacy?”
“I was divorced before I became a Christian. Should I get married again?”
“I am a believer now, but my spouse isn’t. Should I leave him/her?”
“I am a widow/widower. Is it OK to get married again?”
Now I’ll share a few of the principles I see in this chapter. These are not exhaustive, but maybe you will find them helpful.
1. God designed sex to be expressed only within marriage. Paul encouraged married couples to freely enjoy sexual intimacy. He even warned them against depriving each other, lest they become more susceptible to temptations of non-marital sex (vs. 1-5).
2. God intended marriage to be a life-long covenant. Believers with non-Christian spouses were commanded to honor their marriage covenant if the non-believer was willing to stay married. Those who had separated were urged to be reconciled with their spouses (vs. 10-16).
At this point I won’t get into whether or not there are biblical grounds for divorce. I’d rather stick with God’s intent for marriage–believers should go into marriage with the intention of being in a covenant for life.
3. Christians should only marry other Christians. Paul tells widows they are free to get married again, but only to a believer (vs. 39).
4. Married life and single life each have their own respective privileges and challenges. Singles have to deal with loneliness and sexual frustration (vs. 9). Those who are married must put the needs of their spouses ahead of ministry (vs. 32-35). The “crisis” mentioned in vs. 26 was one reason Paul encouraged the Corinthians to remain single. We should keep this context in mind, but it doesn’t change the general principle: the responsibilities of marriage should be taken seriously, and singleness does have some advantages when it comes to ministry.
5. THE C WORD
There’s one word I find lacking in many discussions of singleness and marriage: CHOICE.
This passage is all about biblical choices. Read through it carefully and see how Paul leaves the choice up to the reader:
*The decision of whether or not to marry:
“But if a man thinks that he’s treating his fiancée improperly and will inevitably give in to his passion, let him marry her as he wishes. It is not a sin. But if he has decided firmly not to marry and there is no urgency and he can control his passion, he does well not to marry (vs. 36-37).”
*The decision of who to marry:
“She is free to marry anyone she wishes . . .” (vs. 39).
Paul simply laid out the biblical options and encouraged the Corinthians to make their own decisions. He didn’t tell them to sit back, pray, and ask God to write their love stories for them. He didn’t tell them to expect God to choose their spouses for them (see God’s Will and “The One”).
Here’s what I find ironic: a chapter written to help clarify our choices has often been presented in a way that has just the opposite effect. Singles hear misguided sermons and feel guilty for wanting to be married. Others worry they’ve been given the “gift of singleness” (which doesn’t usually feel like a gift). We should instead read this passage and see the freedom God has given us to make choices–as long as we stay within biblical boundaries.
I don’t claim to be the authoritative voice on this controversial chapter of the Bible. But I hope this post has shed light on it for you or helped you look at it in a balanced way.
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