This study will answer the question of whether most believers can and should remain celibate (single) and whether it is always the better, superior choice over marriage. We will base our examination on Matthew 19:9-12 and 1 Corinthians 7.
9 I tell you that anyone who divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, and marries another woman commits adultery.”10 The disciples said to him, “If this is the situation between a husband and wife, it is better not to marry.”11 Jesus replied, “Not everyone can accept this word, but only those to whom it has been given. 12 For there are eunuchs who were born that way, and there are eunuchs who have been made eunuchs by others—and there are those who choose to live like eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of heaven. The one who can accept this should accept it.”
In the passage above, Jesus had just finished correcting the Pharisees over divorce and remarriage. Divorce for no good reason was a prohibited sinful activity because it led to adultery if the person in question remarried. This was the sad state of affairs, especially for the Pharisees who “ditched” many of their wives over displeasure for often ridiculously cruel and dumb reasons whenever they felt like it (they abused the allowance Moses permitted, which they broke). This abuse was extreme (it left the women of those days extremely vulnerable on their own) and couldn’t be tolerated, explaining why our Lord addressed it so strongly (the main reason Jesus spoke these words). And although Jewish society is quite a bit different than ours today, this continues to be a common problem in many parts of the world.
The disciples reasoned that since one had to tolerate a possibly troublesome wife by keeping the marriage relationship, it would be better not to marry. But Jesus corrected their misguided thinking by reminding them not everyone could remain single for the rest of their lives because God enables different people for different purposes. The phrase “to whom it has been given” refers to God granting this ability to remain celibate to specific individuals. But if one lacks the ability (just as some people aren’t naturally gifted at basketball, while others are), then that is a sign that God has marriage in mind for that person. It is not God’s will for all to remain as they are for life because God wants some people to get married for reasons we will see later on. Most people (whether believers or unbelievers) are not capable of staying single for life without falling into serious sexual sin, stemming from a preoccupation with wanting to be in a relationship with a member of the opposite sex.
1 Corinthians 7:1-7
Now for the matters you wrote about: “It is good for a man not to have sexual relations with a woman.” 2 But since sexual immorality is occurring, each man should have sexual relations with his own wife, and each woman with her own husband. 3 The husband should fulfill his marital duty to his wife, and likewise the wife to her husband. 4 The wife does not have authority over her own body but yields it to her husband. In the same way, the husband does not have authority over his own body but yields it to his wife. 5 Do not deprive each other except perhaps by mutual consent and for a time, so that you may devote yourselves to prayer. Then come together again so that Satan will not tempt you because of your lack of self-control. 6 I say this as a concession, not as a command. 7 I wish that all of you were as I am. But each of you has your own gift from God; one has this gift, another has that.
1 Corinthians 7:1-7 continues the topic Paul began in 1 Corinthians 6:12-20 on the believer’s need to flee sexual immorality. Some Bible versions translate verse one as “It is better for a man not to marry” instead of the Greek phrase “Not to touch a woman.” The text has sexual intercourse in mind because some of the Corinthians started to wonder (the phrase is in quotes for a reason) whether it was good to have sex at all, whether within or outside of marriage. Sex outside of marriage constituted sexual immorality and was, for that reason, forbidden (flee sexual immorality!). Therefore, it was better for those who couldn’t handle the single life (especially in the sexually immoral society of Corinth) to marry and engage in sexual intercourse with their spouse. The two problems that existed involved those who wished to mimic Paul in trying to remain celibate by discouraging marriage for those who needed it (leading to adultery and sexual immorality) and the issue of discouraging sex within marriage. This practice, too, led to sexual sin.
We must understand the nature of the society in which the Corinthians lived. Corinth was known for so much immoral pagan activity that it was more difficult for believers to cope in that place at that time because of all the surrounding temptations and influences. It was probably harder to abstain from sexual sin than it would have been in, say, Ephesus or Thessalonica. True, there was no excuse for sinful behavior within the church. But it was more understandable for this assembly of believers who lived in a society saturated in sexual immorality. The Corinthians were the most immature congregation Paul had to address (we have two long letters to them for a reason) because they were known for misapplying the truth or just downright disobeying it (explaining why Paul had to call them out on so many points throughout both of his letters).
There should be no intercourse outside of marriage with another man or woman. Some of the Corinthians saw sex as they viewed eating food (1 Corinthians 6:13). Food is natural and necessary because we eat it whenever we get hungry. Likewise, they thought sex (since it is something our bodies naturally crave) was something to be satisfied regardless of the who and where of the occasion. But Paul mentioned that such a gross misunderstanding resulted in immoral behavior.
Chapter seven then addresses a sub-category point within the main topic itself. No sex should occur outside of marriage. The Corinthians took this the wrong way by assuming that refraining from sex even within marriage was the better choice and also because Paul was a single man who could remain so. Therefore, some or many of the believers thought that staying away from sex was the best choice. Paul gave them his personal opinion based on a concession. However, his view was still from God and, therefore, trustworthy. His instructions were undisputedly better than any other approach (such as the Corinthians chose). Nevertheless, it would not be sinful for them to continue to play things out the way they did (abstaining from sex within marriage), but it could and would cause more problems, explaining why Paul advised them to do otherwise.
Now, it is true that there are times when it is more advisable for a married couple to refrain because they both need time for prayer and other spiritual activities related to their relationship with Christ (so that you may devote yourselves to prayer). But depriving one’s spouse of sexual pleasure and gratification defeats one of the bigger purposes of marriage. Most people throughout history (including the majority of believers from Adam to today) have not had the empowerment or ability to remain celibate for life. Paul told them that unless they had the gift of enablement given to them by Christ, they should eventually get married and fulfill their marital duties to their partner. That is to say, it is unfair (within a marriage) to deprive one’s wife or husband of sex because that can lead them into mental sexual sin or physical adultery with another person outside the marriage. Romans 14:13-23 tells us not to put a stumbling block in our brother’s way. The Corinthians, who wanted to abstain from sexual intercourse, attempted to do something many of them were not capable of doing because they lacked the “gift” from God (the following verses explain this in more detail). If it was “better to marry then to burn with passion,” why try to duplicate the conditions of the celibate life when one wasn’t capable? Why should no one have sex with their partner when God intended for married men and women to enjoy it together?
Before we proceed, it would be wise to point out that “celibacy” is not a gift like the spiritual gifts all believers receive at salvation (Romans 12:6-8, 1 Peter 4:10-11, Ephesians 4:11-16, 1 Corinthians 12:4-11) for the service of the church deployed through the ministries God calls them to. Instead, it is an enablement given by God to the individual to remain unmarried for life. We could think of how God has gifted some athletes, for example, with extraordinary abilities to excel at their sport. Not everyone can do what they can, explaining why Paul states in verse seven, “I wish that all of you were as I am. But each of you has your own gift from God; one has this gift, another has that.” Some believers have a greater ability to stay focused and “get on with their lives” without constantly being overly preoccupied with a marriage relationship and the sexual activity it entails.
One last thing I would like to point out is that the empowerment to remain alone is not something that most believers have or can attain through prayer. Of course, God could grant the ability to all who asked for it. But the real question is, “Would He do so.” If something is not in His will for a person’s life, then it is best to be realistic about oneself and not pretend to be something they aren’t. If the Lord wants someone married, they would be better off getting married but only in the Lord’s good time (we will address that later). If, however, He wants them to remain single, either for a time or for life, then it is best to heed the Spirit’s still, small voice by following His lead. If all believers could or should stay celibate, why would Paul say, “I wish that all of you were as I am?” Paul wished something he knew wasn’t realistic and possible based on his preference because he himself was celibate. So instead of saying they couldn’t remain as him because of stubbornness and poor choices, He clarified that it was because not everyone was called to it (they hadn’t been given the enablement from God because not everyone can accept celibacy Matthew 19:9-12).
1 Corinthians 7:8-11
8 Now to the unmarried and the widows I say: It is good for them to stay unmarried, as I do. 9 But if they cannot control themselves, they should marry, for it is better to marry than to burn with passion. 10 To the married I give this command (not I, but the Lord): A wife must not separate from her husband. 11 But if she does, she must remain unmarried or else be reconciled to her husband. And a husband must not divorce his wife.
Verses eight to eleven applies to all single individuals, but especially the divorced (the unmarried) and the widows who had engaged in sexual activity previously. The exhortation given in this context is for those with the “gift” to stay single for life and those without the ability to do so to wait and hold off until the Lord’s good time. In other words, why marry if you don’t have to? But why stay single for life if you can’t because it isn’t in God’s will? The one exception to this Paul gives involves either the man or woman who initiate a divorce. That matter was of their own choosing so that they can’t complain as they “burn with passion” over not having someone to help satisfy their sexual desires. If they don’t want to “burn” for the rest of their lives, then they always have the choice of reconciliation.
As with all of Paul’s advice on the matter (regarding verses eight and nine), he didn’t mean most should remain single till death. The apostle wanted to prevent the “non-gifted” from rushing into marriage by forcing the issue because that could lead to problems. How many young people do we see today jumping headlong into relationships they aren’t ready for? How many individuals do we see who end up with someone God never intended for them (they made a bad pick with someone they don’t mesh with)? This point alone explains why so many Christian marriages end in divorce or have a plethora of problems. It is always best to grow spiritually first by learning to be content with the Lord. If our spiritual priorities aren’t straight, what makes any believer think they are ready for marriage? It is better to hold off until the Lord sees fit to bring someone into their life Isaiah 40:31 (and His timing is always perfect, Ecclesiastes 3:1, Psalm 27:14).
Verse nine gives us the sign that one does not have the empowerment from God to be celibate. It is not sinful to have “sexual desire” (passion) because all human beings naturally have hormones and sex drives. However, we need to realize that sexual desire refers to more than just bodily hormones; it involves the “desire” to be with another person in a marriage relationship. Neither of those traits is sinful in and of themselves but can become so if they are harnessed into lust (mental or physical adultery). That is the meaning of the phrase “if they cannot control themselves.” An overly preoccupation but non-sinful desire for companionship and sex inevitably results in struggling with sin more than someone who thinks about the matter less. Therefore, it would be better for said person (assuming they are spiritually ready for it because they waited on the Lord’s timing) to marry than to hinder their spiritual production through constant mental and spiritual strain and distraction.
Neither marriage nor celibacy are superior to the other. Paul wanted to balance things out in 1 Corinthians chapter seven by giving the advantages and disadvantages of both states (they both have their pros and cons). The apostle had to push back against two extremes. In our particular verses, some of the Corinthians began to think that because Paul was single, such a scenario must make said person morally and spiritually superior. Nothing could be further from the truth! Paul counseled marriage because most are better off with someone else for the reasons given above. However, some could remain single for life and should, thus, strive for that state. We can rest assured that wherever God leads us is for our best. So if He has marriage in mind for someone, it is to set them up for maximum spiritual reward. There are and have been great believers in both camps. The believer’s eternal reward is not limited by their circumstances. Instead, it all depends on how well each person handles the assignment given to them by the Lord. Once again, I must reference the example of the poor widow’s mite (Luke 21:1-4).
And He looked up and saw the rich putting their gifts into the treasury, 2 and He saw also a certain poor widow putting in two mites. 3 So He said, “Truly I say to you that this poor widow has put in more than all; 4 for all these out of their abundance have put in offerings for God, but she out of her poverty put in all the livelihood that she had.”
Some people are (spiritually, mentally, and physically) better off married and are no less for that decision. Marriage is better for those called to it, while celibacy is better for those led to remain in that state. If God calls someone to marriage, that can help them be more productive in other ways (since it is better to marry than to burn- a command and not a view based on Paul’s opinion). There are other advantages as well. However, marriage has its disadvantages, and Paul brings those examples up later in verses twenty-nine to thirty-five. Marriage does not fully alleviate the struggle with lust, nor is it as wonderful as it has been made out to be. Many in both secular and Christian societies have made it appear as “a bed of roses” (as some sarcastically like to call it) when it is instead a difficult state of affairs filled with trials, troubles, and difficulties. Both it and the celibate state carry their own fair share of tribulations. Likewise, the man or woman given the ability to remain alone is not invulnerable to lust. They, too, can struggle with it (they have their times when they burn because all humans have sex hormones) and have the same responsibility to overcome it just like everyone else.
In verses ten and eleven, Paul continues to address the false belief that celibacy was better for most (even though he just mentioned that not all could or should remain as he) through the command he gave (not I, but the Lord). Some of the Corinthians reasoned that if they wanted to be in the same state as Paul, they needed to divorce their wives. It should be obvious enough that divorcing one’s spouse for no good reason is a sin, so, of course, Paul debunked that notion, too. Many within the church thought they had to make drastic life changes to be accepted and used by God, but Paul wanted them to know that such significant action wasn’t needed. In all likelihood, the non-sinful moves were often just as unnecessary as the sinful ones. God could use them (and any believer of any period) right where they were, regardless of the time or place.
1 Corinthians 7:12-16
12 To the rest I say this (I, not the Lord): If any brother has a wife who is not a believer and she is willing to live with him, he must not divorce her. 13 And if a woman has a husband who is not a believer and he is willing to live with her, she must not divorce him. 14 For the unbelieving husband has been sanctified through his wife, and the unbelieving wife has been sanctified through her believing husband. Otherwise your children would be unclean, but as it is, they are holy.15 But if the unbeliever leaves, let it be so. The brother or the sister is not bound in such circumstances; God has called us to live in peace. 16 How do you know, wife, whether you will save your husband? Or, how do you know, husband, whether you will save your wife?
Despite everything Paul said above, other things still needed to be sorted out. The context begs the following question: “Ok, so if we shouldn’t divorce, what happens if we were married to an unbeliever before we got saved? Is that not a reasonable ground for an official breakup?” Once again, Paul answered no because what God has brought together, no man should separate (Matthew 19:6). This complaint was still not a good enough reason for divorce. However, once the relationship has been broken, there is little the one left behind can do to stop it, especially if the departee has made up their mind. There is a chance the relationship could be saved later, resulting in reconciliation, but that is entirely up in the air with no guarantees (how do you know whether you will save your spouse?). The believer is not bound to save the relationship and should let the unbeliever leave if that is what they really want. There is also the problem that they may not wish to receive the gospel since there is no telling whether they will be open to it. The unbeliever may firmly turn their back on the marriage and God so that trying to force the issue becomes inadvisable.
However, the problem with seeing no grounds for remarriage in this passage is that most Christians aren’t capable of living their whole lives single without falling into serious sexual sin through preoccupation with being with a member of the opposite sex. It is safe to say that God does not enable most people to be celibate (even if there is no excuse for sexual sin). I will say, while we are on that note, any believer can overcome lust. However, it will be more spiritually and mentally difficult for those without the “gift” of celibacy. Those without the calling will have to face more inconvenient distractions so that marriage becomes way more practical. Assuming a divorce took place and the unbeliever remarried someone else, the believer is free to remarry and probably eventually should (assuming they can’t stay alone()) for reasons above and below.
A man or woman formally abandoned by their previous partner is now left back in the same situation they were in before they got married (burning with passion and struggling with self-control). As with the case of a widow or widower, they shouldn’t rush to remarry by forcing the issue since it is best to focus on spiritual growth by waiting on the Lord’s timing to better discern His will (said individuals should stay as they are). But I believe that if they need to be married (better to do that than burn), the Lord will provide the right person at the right time. Why should they stumble and struggle to live the best they can for the Lord because of someone else’s actions?
Finally, verse fourteen does not mean an unbelieving spouse is saved just because they are married to a believing partner. However, they will share in many of the blessings of being in the relationship and have the good influence of a godly mate.
1 Corinthians 7:17-24
17 Nevertheless, each person should live as a believer in whatever situation the Lord has assigned to them, just as God has called them. This is the rule I lay down in all the churches. 18 Was a man already circumcised when he was called? He should not become uncircumcised. Was a man uncircumcised when he was called? He should not be circumcised. 19 Circumcision is nothing and uncircumcision is nothing. Keeping God’s commands is what counts. 20 Each person should remain in the situation they were in when God called them.21 Were you a slave when you were called? Don’t let it trouble you—although if you can gain your freedom, do so. 22 For the one who was a slave when called to faith in the Lord is the Lord’s freed person; similarly, the one who was free when called is Christ’s slave. 23 You were bought at a price; do not become slaves of human beings. 24 Brothers and sisters, each person, as responsible to God, should remain in the situation they were in when God called them.
These verses resume the theme that the Corinthians (all believers in general) don’t need to make drastic, uncalled-for social life changes to be acceptable and valuable to God (even if some need to and will occur later in life). The Lord can use us right where we are, regardless of time or circumstances! If he leads us one way, we shouldn’t attempt to go another. Likewise, believers should remain as they were when they came to Christ because God doesn’t need anything else from them other than faith and obedience (verse twenty-four ends with the theme begun by verse seventeen). Change may occur later in life, but such forced adjustments aren’t needed to receive God’s blessings. The believer must learn to be content with their current circumstances and let God work everything out.
Undoubtedly, some things will not and should never be done at all. Regarding marriage, those who lack the enablement from God should remain single until the time comes when they are ready to be married, but those who have the ability should remain celibate for life. That is how this passage relates to our present subject.
On the other hand, circumcision was something one could forgo for life because it was unnecessary lacking any spiritual benefit. Paul wasn’t saying some changes couldn’t and wouldn’t occur but that they should not be forced. Others, such as circumcision, were better off avoided for good. It was a Jewish practice under the Old Covenant that signified one’s allegiance to God (a sign of the believer’s faith and obedience to Christ under the Mosaic Law). It had no power to save (John 6:63, Galatians 5:2, Colossians 2:11) and meant nothing because the Christian life is all about faith and obedience (keeping God’s commands). The New Covenant Jesus ushered in did away with the old so that the practices and rituals of the past were now obsolete.
The Corinthians took unnecessary extreme measures to please God but were not actually pleasing Him in practice due to all the issues they had that Paul had to address. It was no good to put on an outward show of holiness and piety but lack the true inward change required to please Christ (James 2:14-22). Repentance is a change of mind or attitude that results in a change of action, lifestyle, or behavior. The point is that the things the Corinthians thought would bring them closer to God turned out to be displeasing to Him because they were counterproductive to spiritual growth. Not only did some of these “baby believers” try to mimic Paul’s celibate lifestyle, but they also attempted to replicate (resurrect) some past Jewish rituals because Paul was Jewish! Paul himself knew that not only was circumcision not required for spiritual growth, but it was a discontinued practice! The apostle wrote these words to correct their misunderstandings.
Paul then uses the example of enslaved people in verses twenty-one to twenty-three and counsels that, if possible, they should attempt to gain their freedom if they could. If not, it was better for them to submit to their masters and obey. If slavery didn’t interfere with spiritual duties and if freedom wasn’t possible short or long-term, then the slave should remain in the service of their master(s). Generally speaking, freedom wasn’t necessary for the individual to please God because they could do that right where they were. On the other hand, Paul contrasted physical, secular freedom to the spiritual liberation from sin that all believers enjoy from the point of salvation (Galatians 5:1). Neither slavery nor freedom from human masters matters compared to the believer’s true calling and identity in Christ. That’s the point in keeping with the theme of these eight verses. Both the believing master and slave are enslaved to Christ and should serve Him right where they are.
1 Corinthians 7:25-31
25 Now about virgins: I have no command from the Lord, but I give a judgment as one who by the Lord’s mercy is trustworthy. 26 Because of the present crisis, I think that it is good for a man to remain as he is. 27 Are you pledged to a woman? Do not seek to be released. Are you free from such a commitment? Do not look for a wife. 28 But if you do marry, you have not sinned; and if a virgin marries, she has not sinned. But those who marry will face many troubles in this life, and I want to spare you this.29 What I mean, brothers and sisters, is that the time is short. From now on those who have wives should live as if they do not; 30 those who mourn, as if they did not; those who are happy, as if they were not; those who buy something, as if it were not theirs to keep; 31 those who use the things of the world, as if not engrossed in them. For this world in its present form is passing away.
The Greek word for virgin is Parthenos παρθένος and can refer to either a man or woman who has never had sex. Paul has singles and those about to consummate after the finalized marriage in mind here. Although not a command, his advice is a divinely inspired opinion from the Lord that is trustworthy. The present crisis in verse twenty-six refers to the final 2,000 years of church history before Christ’s second advent, known as the “last hour” in 1 John 2:18 (even then the apostles stressed that time was short). These verses hold to the subject of our passage above that all believers need to trust in the Lord and allow Him to use them just as they are where they are.
Regarding the words, “Do not look for a wife” and “time is short,” single believers should stay as they are instead of rushing into marriage by forcing the issue. The idea is that they need to wait on the Lord’s timing instead of doing some inadvisable thing at the wrong time (possibly during a challenging time of tribulation or persecution), leading to problems within the marriage. Undoubtedly, there are also probably more people out there who have the enablement than realized, so Paul didn’t want those with the “gift” to marry if they were/are capable of staying celibate. He didn’t want everyone plunging headlong into marriage (more people assuming it was/is God’s will for them than was and is the case). The only way to discern the Lord’s will is to wait and see through spiritual growth. But so many spiritually immature believers today and in times past “don’t want to wait,” and that is what Paul is pushing back against here. If a believer is not spiritually ready for marriage, what makes them think taking matters into their own hands is the best course of action? Paul did not command the Corinthians to refrain even if they weren’t ready. But he was trying to spare them the pain and agony of a troubled marriage that could potentially lead to failure in the end.
Those pledged (betrothed) in marriage in verse twenty-seven were also to stay in their position because they were basically all but married at that point. It was not necessary to change the status of their relationship after they had gone through all the commitments to get where they are now. They could please the Lord right where they were and in marriage. The marriage customs of ancient societies differed from those we have today, so the situation involving the “betrothed” in our context is quite different than the engagements we see in most countries (some still hold to these ancient practices, however). One had to undergo more steps to finalize the marriage.
Paul’s words on the time being short refer to the final 2,000 years before Christ’s second advent return. He didn’t mean that all believers for that whole period who lacked the enablement to remain celibate should forgo marriage for the rest of their lives for all 2,000 years (that would be ridiculous in light of what we have already seen him say on the matter). Again, if you can stay single, why wouldn’t you want to be more productive in the life God has for you? His words only apply to those with the “gift” and only to those without it in the sense that they should wait on the Lord’s timing before “making their move.”
Now came the other extreme Paul had to push back against. Some of his readers undoubtedly took his words to mean that since it is better to marry than burn, all should strive for marriage because it is the superior state. But neither the married nor celibate are morally and spiritually inferior to the other because the Lord calls everyone to different things for their spiritual benefit and to maximize their eternal reward. Both states have advantages and disadvantages. Paul lists the cons for marriage because that was the other extreme the Corinthians had exchanged in place of the other they initially took (celibacy was superior). The celibate life (even for those who can live it) has its fair share of problems, but so does marriage (even for those called to it)! Marriage is better for those who can’t remain single, while “single bliss” is the better choice for those who can.
Verse twenty-nine certainly doesn’t mean we neglect our spouse to please God. The apostle meant that one’s mate should not receive undue emphasis over spiritual matters because the Christian life is all about pleasing Jesus Christ, not another human being. It is good to please others (especially our marriage partner) by loving them as we should, but not to the point of idolizing them by putting them in first place. This principle applies not only to husbands and wives but to all other areas and aspects of life, such as the examples given down to verse thirty-one. We must love God before all these things by focusing our minds on things above and storing our treasures in Heaven. The believer only has so much time (time is short) for growth, progress, and production and should do their best to redeem it (Ephesians 5:15-17). The question is, “Where is our heart?” If a person loves God as they should, they will love their spouse as they should without overstepping it.
15 Love not the world, neither the things that are in the world. If any man love the world, the love of the Father is not in him.16 For all that is in the world, the lust of the flesh, and the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life, is not of the Father, but is of the world.17 And the world passeth away, and the lust thereof: but he that doeth the will of God abideth for ever.
19 “Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moths and vermin destroy, and where thieves break in and steal. 20 But store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where moths and vermin do not destroy, and where thieves do not break in and steal. 21 For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.
15 Be very careful, then, how you live—not as unwise but as wise, 16 making the most of every opportunity, because the days are evil. 17 Therefore do not be foolish, but understand what the Lord’s will is.
1 Corinthians 7:32-35
32 I would like you to be free from concern. An unmarried man is concerned about the Lord’s affairs—how he can please the Lord. 33 But a married man is concerned about the affairs of this world—how he can please his wife— 34 and his interests are divided. An unmarried woman or virgin is concerned about the Lord’s affairs: Her aim is to be devoted to the Lord in both body and spirit. But a married woman is concerned about the affairs of this world—how she can please her husband. 35 I am saying this for your own good, not to restrict you, but that you may live in a right way in undivided devotion to the Lord.
Again, Paul gave some of the advantages of the single life just as he had already given those for the married state. We must remember that his aim was to address both extremes some of the Corinthians may have taken. Some thought celibacy was for all the superior state. Paul showed them how that was false. So, they took their reasoning to the opposite extreme. Marriage is better, while celibacy is inferior. The apostle also had to correct this and wanted to show those with the enablement from Christ why it would be better for them to stay as they are for good. The married must face many troubles and distractions that the celibate do not, such as investing a lot of mental, spiritual, and physical time and energy into their spouse and children (assuming they have them). There are also financial concerns that involve “making ends meet” to support one’s family. The single person doesn’t have to negotiate these difficulties because all that time the married person spends trying to please their spouse is time they (the celibate individual) can focus on prayer, Bible study, and ministry.
The point is that those who can be celibate should remain in that state, while those who can’t should marry at the appropriate time. Needless to say, Paul did not give any of these words as a command but as a trustworthy and divinely inspired opinion. Anyone could marry because Paul did not want to restrict those who could have fared better alone. It would not be a sin to marry at the wrong time. All believers are free to marry whenever they wish. Likewise, it isn’t sinful for those with the “gift” of celibacy to get “hitched” because they are free to do so. But both groups have better options, so why not take them if they are objectively better?
1 Corinthians 7:36-40
36 If anyone is worried that he might not be acting honorably toward the virgin he is engaged to, and if his passions are too strong and he feels he ought to marry, he should do as he wants. He is not sinning. They should get married. 37 But the man who has settled the matter in his own mind, who is under no compulsion but has control over his own will, and who has made up his mind not to marry the virgin—this man also does the right thing. 38 So then, he who marries the virgin does right, but he who does not marry her does better. 39 A woman is bound to her husband as long as he lives. But if her husband dies, she is free to marry anyone she wishes, but he must belong to the Lord. 40 In my judgment, she is happier if she stays as she is—and I think that I too have the Spirit of God.
The ”anyone” in verse thirty-six refers to the man (“if any man is worried” is a good translation), while the “virgin” refers to an unmarried woman matched up with someone seen to be a good fit for her. There are two views for the passage above. One sees these verses as referring to the betrothed man deciding whether to follow through and marry the virgin. At the same time, the other position holds that our passage involves the father giving or withholding his daughter in marriage. I interpret these verses as referring to the man betrothed to the woman. However, to stay true to the subject of our study and for the sake of time and space, I will not discuss the arguments for either side (neither affects everything we’ve said thus far). Both are defensible with support from the original language. On the other hand, the man betrothed to the woman view has both the Greek and the context in its favor as opposed to just the language as is the case with the alternative position.
Paul’s words in verses thirty-two to thirty-five prompted concern from a handful of his readers. Suppose a recently saved man had the enablement from God to be celibate but was assigned an arranged marriage (as was often the custom in Jewish and ancient societies in general so that this situation doesn’t apply to all believers today). Was it too late to break things up before marriage if the bridegroom didn’t want to go through with it?
On the same token, what if the man thought he was in a bit of a funk due to unavoidable circumstances, such as feeling it would be unfair to the woman for him to break up with her (he feels he isn’t treating her right by either delaying or breaking up entirely which would be to dishonor her?). What if she is more advanced in years and almost at the point where she can no longer bear children? If the bridegroom felt it better to marry for those reasons, he was free to do so because said choice was not sinful. But again, why choose marriage over celibacy when you can stay single for life to serve the Lord better? That is why the man who does not marry the virgin does better (assuming he can be celibate). He is under no obligation to marry (especially if the woman isn’t a good fit for him spiritually).
Verses thirty-six to thirty-eight may seem to run counter to what Paul said earlier about every person remaining in the situation they were in when God called them (drastic life changes weren’t necessary to be pleasing and valuable to God), but not in this instance. The situation we have here is an exception. Believers with the enablement to live celibate will be more productive if they stay so for life, while those without the ability will be more productive if they marry at the right time. We have already given reasons for both earlier. So some changes will be necessary. But timing is essential! Needless to say, God can still use any person regardless of their status and position in life. So even if a man chooses marriage when he could have been single, the Lord can still use him in wonderful ways to produce a bountiful crop in eternity.
The other application of this passage refers to the man (who lacks the enablement to remain single for life) putting off the marriage until a better time, until he and the woman were more mentally and spiritually prepared for it. Then again, it may be better to refrain altogether if she isn’t a good fit (what if she isn’t the right one for him because she is an unbeliever or a marginal Christian?). The one who waits (does not marry) without forcing the matter does better than the one who makes their move hastily.
We have to be flexible with this passage because Paul did not mean all believers could or should be celibate, nor did he refer to only those with the empowerment to refrain from marriage. He had both groups in mind so that each person should put on the correct shoe that fits them. Also, none of his words is a command but his personal opinion. He would have used up so much more time and space had he addressed both groups separately. Therefore, it is the job of the reader to see, demonstrate, and envision how this would apply to ALL people. For some, the issue of an arranged marriage isn’t applicable, while for others, it is (some countries and cultures still practice it). But what about the modern equivalent of an engagement in the United States? The meaning of the passage still applies. Prior secular commitments don’t have to be kept if better and more important spiritual applications can be made for God’s kingdom. The correct answer is one the individual(s) must determine between them and the Lord because only they have the power to make the best application.
Finally, Paul ends his entire discourse in verses thirty-nine and forty by inferring that divorce should not occur between a man and a woman unless there is a good enough reason (sexual immorality as one example). Both husband and wife are bound to each other as one flesh (Matthew 19:1-6). So, what happens if the person you married dies? The question is, what then? Earlier in verse eight, Paul clarified that widows should remain single if they could, but if they couldn’t, it would be better for them to marry as long as the person they chose was a believer (2 Corinthians 6:14-16). Likewise, Paul believed that a widow or widower who can stay celibate will be happier if they remain single. However, if said individuals lack the gift, they should marry but stay single as long as they can before attempting remarriage. So Paul’s trustworthy statement applies to both groups in the described ways. His last comment on having the Spirit of God demonstrate that his words were divinely inspired, as opposed to some false claims others may have made to the contrary.