So that he that gives in marriage does well, and he that does not give in marriage does better (1 Corinthians 7:38 LITV).
This is not the expected narrative, either in the world or in the church.
The church in Corinth was experiencing a whole host of difficulties, mostly self-inflicted, and had sought the wisdom and encouragement of the Apostle Paul. One subject regarding which they sought further understanding involved whether to marry or not, if it were good for a man not to touch a woman (1 Corinthians 7:1). In 1 Corinthians 7:1-2, 6-9, 17-40, Paul provides his counsel on this subject, and his message is consistent throughout: marriage is not sinful, it is better to marry than to burn with desire, but if one can exhibit self-control and not marry, they do better. Those who are married have divided interests, seeking to please both the Lord and their spouse, whereas those who are single can fully devote themselves to the Lord (1 Corinthians 7:32-35). Paul wishes that all could be as he is, single, but recognizes that different people have different gifts (1 Corinthians 7:7-8). On account of the “present distress”, Paul counsels the betrothed and widows to remain as they were called; to remain single if they can, but if they have to marry, they have not sinned, or, as he says so efficiently in 1 Corinthians 7:38: those who marry do well, but those who do not marry do better (1 Corinthians 7:1-2, 6-9, 17-40).
The interpretation and application of Paul’s counsel has been complicated by disputes regarding the “present distress” of 1 Corinthians 7:26 and who is giving whom in 1 Corinthians 7:36-38. Many have interpreted the “present distress” of 1 Corinthians 7:26 in narrow contextual terms and thus consider all of Paul’s counsel in 1 Corinthians 7:1-2, 6-9, 17-40 as limited to its context and not as applicable to people afterward. Yet the text provides no indication of any major persecution event being experienced by the Christians of Corinth at this time; granted, with all of the worldliness in the Corinthian church, there would not be much worth persecuting. More importantly, in 1 Corinthians 7:29-31, Paul describes this “distress” more fully, and he is not speaking of a contextually limited persecution that would pass away so that conditions could return to “normal”; instead, he counsels the Corinthians in very apocalyptic terms since the “fashion of this world is passing away” (1 Corinthians 7:31). At the time it would not be surprising for people to interpret Paul as meaning that Jesus would return quite soon, the present age would end, and therefore marriage and childbearing would prove irrelevant; after more than 1,950 years, it is evident that such immediacy did not come to pass, but the conditions remain the same as when Paul wrote this: the fashion of this world is passing away, and we must not be of this world while we live in it. Therefore, the “present distress” is as applicable and relevant to the twenty-first century as it was to the first century; Paul’s counsel remains valid.
Another complication involves 1 Corinthians 7:36-38 and the “man and his virgin”. In the ancient Roman world, a father would be the one deciding whom his daughter would marry; therefore, the RV, ASV, NASB, and a few other versions interpret and translate 1 Corinthians 7:36-38 as if it speaks of a father deciding what to do with his virgin daughter. While such an interpretation might make some sense of the use of ekgamizo, “to give in marriage,” in this passage, it does not sit well with “if any man thinketh that he behaveth himself unseemly toward his virgin” in 1 Corinthians 7:36, since it would demand that the father is not behaving appropriately toward his daughter, which would be a problem demanding far more censure than is expressed in the text. Therefore, it is better to understand the text in terms of a man and his betrothed. In the first century, parents would make the connection between a man and woman and they would be betrothed, like Joseph and Mary in Matthew 1:18-25. Betrothal had the commitment level of marriage yet without the behavior of marriage; to dissolve it would require divorce, but the betrothed were expected to not consummate the relationship until the official wedding ceremony. Therefore, whereas two young Christians would have had little choice in a betrothal, they did have control over whether they would either actually get married, or, once married, whether they would consummate the relationship. In 1 Corinthians 7:36-38, Paul advises young betrothed Christians that if they can exercise self-control and devote themselves fully to the Lord, they do better to remain betrothed but not married. If they cannot exercise that self-control, they can marry, and have not sinned. But it is better to stay unmarried than it is to marry.
There are vast differences between conditions in the first century Mediterranean world and the twenty first Western world, and singleness and marriage are high among them. In the first century, young people would have been married off quite young, the decision would have been made by their parents, and if they remained continent for the Lord’s sake, it was by mutual decision of a man and his betrothed virgin. Only widows were in a position to choose a mate; that is why Paul counsels them to marry “in the Lord” if they have to marry, but they also would do well to remain unmarried (1 Corinthians 7:39-40). In the twenty-first century Western world, marriages are not arranged, and they are taking place in the late twenties; culture and society expect sexual experimentation to have taken place beforehand, yet in Christ young people are expected to remain sexually chaste and pure before marriage, often between 10 to 20 years after sexual maturity (1 Corinthians 7:2). Many single Christians would like to be married but have yet to find a spouse. A situation akin to what Paul speaks of in 1 Corinthians 7:36-38, a “betrothed” Christian man and woman who have mutually agreed to remain unmarried so as to serve the Lord fully, would be unthinkable.
Yet perhaps the greatest shift in the past two thousand years involves the treatment of singleness and marriage. Paul honors singleness and full devotion to the Lord and makes concession for marriage; too many in Christianity today honor marriage and make concession for singleness. Too many single Christians are marginalized and made to feel incomplete and insufficient because they are not married; as opposed to being honored as full inheritors of the grace of life and for making, at least for the time being, the better choice, they feel constantly pressured to find someone to marry and thus conform to the norm of marriage. We are not used to hearing that marriage is less than ideal, a concession, and a choice demonstrating a lack of self-control (1 Corinthians 7:6-9).
We should not be too terribly surprised to see that honoring singleness goes against the grain, because it always has. In Israel the worst possible curse was childlessness, for if your genealogical line ended, your property would go to another and you would be extinguished within Israel. To this day people seek some level of immortality through the passing along of their DNA in their offspring. Our hyper-sexualized culture these days cannot truly fathom a person voluntarily renouncing all the pleasures of sexual behavior in order to more fully dedicate themselves to the Lord Jesus. The choice to be a eunuch for the sake of the Kingdom of Heaven is always counter-cultural and often controversial, yet it truly expresses a very deep faith in the God of resurrection. As usual, Jesus is the model: He did not marry while on earth and therefore had no offspring. He was cursed for our sakes, indeed, but by taking on that curse, He freed us from the curse of sin and death (Galatians 3:10-14). Jesus did not need offspring in order to continue to inherit the promises of God; through His life and death He obtained the resurrection of life, and lives forever (Romans 6:5-11).
For generations the single, the childless, and the widow were considered unfortunate or even cursed. Yet such is not the case in the Kingdom of God. In the Kingdom those who are single, childless, or widowed are family in the household of God (1 Corinthians 12:12-28, 1 Timothy 3:15); they have no need of offspring to continue their lineage, for they will endure forever in the resurrection (1 Corinthians 15:20-58). Those who are single can fully devote themselves to the purposes of Jesus, the Risen Lord, and set their hope fully on Him and His Kingdom; they are blessed, and all believers ought to honor them as blessed. Let us affirm the apostolic Gospel no matter how counter-cultural, even when it goes against settled norms among Christians and churches; let us affirm that while marrying is good, staying single to fully serve the Risen Lord is better, and honor and dignify those who remain single in the Lord!
Ethan R. Longhenry