By Jenny Fulton
As we read and study this chapter, we need to remember that Paul is talking to a group of people who are living in a very immoral culture that isn’t friendly or welcoming towards Christians. There are many trials for those who commit their lives to Christ. We also need to recognize that although Paul had the Holy Spirit and that his letters, since they appear in Scripture, are “inspired by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, for training in righteousness” (2 Timothy 3:16), Paul makes a very interesting distinction in this passage between when he’s speaking God’s words and when he’s giving his personal opinion or perspective based on his understanding of God’s words.
Verses 1-6. This is the first of the “Now concerning” or “Now for the matters you wrote about” passages. Paul is directly addressing a set of questions the Corinthians wrote and asked him about. Following as it does upon the previous sections that discuss matters of sexual immorality, Paul begins by answering questions about marriage and singleness in light of their sexually moral aspects. This doesn’t mean that decisions on whether or not to get married should be based solely upon maintaining sexual purity or that marriage is only based on that facet. Instead, it is one component of the decision and one (good and important) part of marriage.
In these verses, Paul says:
- It is good not to have sex (v. 1).
- Contrary to what secular culture promotes, sex is not the end-all, be-all of life. You can live a good life without it.
- It is better to have sex within the context of marriage than to do so outside of it (v. 2).
- A husband and wife should offer sex to one another (v. 3).
- The bodies of a married couple belong to one another (v. 4).
- Note: this doesn’t give one spouse permission to abuse the other or to take what isn’t offered. Instead, mutual love and respect are commanded in this area just as they are in other aspects of marriage (Ephesians 5:22-31).
- Temptation for sexual immorality is severely lessened when a husband and wife aren’t depriving one another of it within their marriage (v. 5).
- Paul’s statement that they can withhold by agreement for a time for the purpose of prayer is said as a concession, not a command (v. 5-6).
Verses 7-9. Though Paul was single at the time he wrote this letter, there’s good reason to believe he was once married and then widowed. As an esteemed Pharisee, marriage would have been expected. In verse 8, Paul uniquely identifies with the widows in his personal desire that they, like him, won’t remarry and will instead devote their lives entirely to the mission of preaching the gospel. Paul had clearly been given the gift of singleness, which in this passage seems to indicate he had no strong desire for sex. In addition, he had been specially commissioned by God to share the gospel among the Gentiles. Paul was single-minded in his devotion to the Lord and the mission that had been set before him. However, he also realized not everyone was gifted as he was or had the same desires and acknowledged it was also fine and good if people didn’t want to remain single. If a man and a woman desire to get married, then they should get married.
Verses 10-11. God’s desires and instructions are that men and women shouldn’t get divorced. In other passages of scripture, God does, because of sin and the hardness of people’s hearts, permit divorce in such cases as infidelity (Matthew 19:7-9).
Verses 12 -16. Paul then offers his understanding and application of God’s desires and instructions (from verses 10-11) to the circumstances of a Christian being married to a non-Christian.
In summary, he says:
- If the non-Christian spouse wants to remain with the Christian spouse, then the Christian spouse shouldn’t get a divorce.
- If the non-Christian spouse want to leave, the Christian spouse should let them.
- The Christian spouse, by their faith, is able to cover the rest of their family in holiness and sanctification.
- This passage makes me think of Rahab and the way her family was saved because of her faith when they remained in the house with her during the siege of Jericho.
- As long the non-Christian spouse remains with the Christian spouse, there is hope that the non-Christian spouse will also come to believe.
Verses 17-24. Some variation of the phrase, “live as you were called,” shows up in verses 17, 20, and 24. What does this mean? Does it mean a person shouldn’t seek to change their circumstances or state in life? I don’t believe so. Instead, I think Paul is saying that a person’s outward status in life doesn’t determine or impact their spiritual status before God. A single person isn’t automatically more spiritual and doesn’t have greater status before God than a married person, and vise versa. A freeman isn’t any better or higher than a slave in the kingdom of God. A believer who is circumcised isn’t better or holier than a believer who isn’t circumcised. Changing our outward circumstances won’t change our spiritual status. Therefore, while it’s fine to make those outward changes, as Paul especially encourages slaves to do if they have the opportunity, we shouldn’t make those changes with the hope or expectation they will give us greater spiritual standing with God.
A person’s outward status in life doesn’t determine or impact their spiritual status before God. #BibleStudy #1Corinthians @AuthorFultonTweet
Verse 25-28. Paul makes an observation and offers his perspective that “in view of the present distress” (the trials and temptations of the day) “it is good for a man to remain as he is.” In other words, life is already troublesome enough and adding another life change will just make it more difficult. However, even though it may make things more challenging and complicated, it isn’t a sin to marry during hard times. It is, however, easier to navigate troublesome times if you only have one person to take care of (yourself) than if you have a family to care for. This last part is more of an observation than a command or value statement. Again, Paul isn’t saying that one state (singleness or marriage) is holier and more godly than another. He’s simply saying here that it’s easier to navigate tribulations when you don’t have a family to worry about.
Verses 29-31: Following the previous verses concerning the trials and temptations of the day, Paul urges the Corinthians to lift their minds to God’s eternal kingdom and not hold too tightly or become too fixated on the passing things of this world. I’m pretty sure he isn’t telling married men (and women) to act as though they aren’t married, but instead is encouraging them not to make the married state the totality of their focus in this world.
Verses 32-35: Single men and women have an opportunity to serve the Lord and prioritize ministry outside with home with fewer distractions coming from within the home. For married men and women, especially those with children, their spouse, children, and home are their first and primary ministries; long periods of time to study, meditate upon God and scripture, and serve outside the home are harder to come by. Both marriage and singleness are good and godly states to be in but offer different types of primary ministry.
Verses 36-38: There are solid arguments for two ways of interpreting these verses. One version says this passage is talking about fathers who are concerned with whether it is better and more holy to give their daughters in marriage or to keep them single and in the service of God. Another version says that Paul is addressing men who are engaged and are concerned with whether they should break off the engagement to serve God more fully as single men or to fulfill the engagement and get married. Regardless of who exactly Paul is addressing, his main point remains the same to what it has been throughout the rest of this chapter: both marriage and singleness are good and godly states. Neither is spiritually superior to the other.
Verses 39-40: A married woman is bound to her husband and the responsibilities of married life for as long as her husband lives. After he dies, she is free to either seek remarriage or remain single.
Although Paul clearly prefers his single state and the flexibility it gives him to spread the gospel, and even though he highly recommends the same to others, Paul also knows and acknowledges that not everyone has his desires and preferences. In each scenario he reiterates the truth that neither singleness nor marriage is a sin and neither is a better or more holy status before God. Whichever state is obtained (whether through choice or circumstance), the believer is encouraged to live in purity and devotion to God.
Neither singleness nor marriage is a sin and neither is a better or more holy status before God. In both states, the believer is encouraged to live in purity and devotion to God. BibleStudy #1Corinthians @AuthorFultonTweet
United or Divided?
In light of the overall theme of 1 Corinthians and Paul’s call to unity,
Things That Divide Us
- Engaging in sexual immorality
- Honoring one outward status in life as being spiritually superior to another
Things that Unite Us
- Maintaining sexual purity and morality
- Honoring both singleness and marriage as being good and godly in the sight of God
- Viewing people from different jobs and economic status as being equally valuable in the sight of God
- Encouraging one another in our married or single states
- As much as depends on us, to maintain unity within our marriages
What Do You Think?
- What stands out to you from this passage?
- Have you or anyone you know ever struggled with the question of whether to remain single for God or to get married?
- Have you ever seen instances in which one status seems to be valued above the other in Christian circles?
- How can married and single people in the Christian community better encourage one another?
Women, Join In!
For the last few months, the book of 1 Corinthians has weighed heavy upon my heart. In May, I joined a women’s online fellowship site, Bloom.com, and decided to lead a Bible study on this book. These musings are a summary of my findings and the relevance/application I see surrounding us today. If you’re a woman and would like to participate in the study, head on over to www.Bloom.com and join the 1 Corinthians Bible Study group where you’ll find study guides to follow and discussion threads to participate in.
In this Series
Chapter 7: To be Married or Single
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