Better to Be Single

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

Jesus and the Little Children

And they were bringing unto him little children, that he should touch them: and the disciples rebuked them.
But when Jesus saw it, he was moved with indignation, and said unto them, “Suffer the little children to come unto me; forbid them not: for to such belongeth the kingdom of God. Verily I say unto you, Whosoever shall not receive the kingdom of God as a little child, he shall in no wise enter therein.”
And he took them in his arms, and blessed them, laying his hands upon them (Mark 10:13-16).

One of the aspects of Jesus that is most commonly known involves His concern for children. For generations people have drawn or painted various representations of Jesus with little children. For us today it only seems natural that Jesus would show such concern for little children.

Yet, as the response of the disciples indicates, His concern was not considered natural automatically in the first century. It is easy for us today to look back on the disciples and think them to be hard-hearted or perhaps even inconsiderate or uncaring for children. But that is unfair. It is not as if the disciples do not like little children– the disciples want to make sure that the Lord is not inconvenienced or bothered so that, at least in their estimation, He can continue to focus on the adults who really need Him, His power, and His message. The children, after all, will probably not remember Jesus too well, and certainly not as well as the adults would and should. Jesus and the disciples were at work in “grownup” matters, and therefore why should the Lord be hindered by a bunch of little children?

Jesus responds to them sharply. Yes, He has great concern for the “lost sheep” of Israel (cf. Matthew 10:6), and focuses much of His energy on pointing them toward God’s Kingdom. Nevertheless, the little children are very important!

Our society has become very child-focused and child-oriented in the past century; it is easy for us to work diligently to make sure that we do not overlook children. Jesus’ care for the children should surely demonstrate to us that care for children is extremely important in the sight of God. Jesus’ care for the children underscores a more fundamental point: God cares for all the “little people” of the world, both in terms of age and social standing. Whereas many may overlook small children, the dispossessed, the widow, and the like, God cares for all of them and desires for us to care for them also (cf. James 1:27). Everyone is important to God!

Jesus’ concern is not just for the little children; He also takes advantage of the opportunity to teach the adults a very important lesson. Jesus was well aware that the disciples had been disputing among themselves who would be the greatest in the Kingdom (cf. Mark 9:33-37), and even in that instance pointed out how God receives children and those who receive children. In Mark 10, a more fundamental point is made: those who enter God’s Kingdom enter it like a child. The Kingdom belongs to children!

One can only imagine the response of the disciples. They had good reason to be ashamed– the very ones whom they were willing to overlook were the ones most precious before God. They were trying to forbid those to whom the Kingdom belonged so that Jesus could more freely proclaim that Kingdom among others!

Jesus’ point is quite humbling, and such is the intent. The illustration puts to lie the belief that children are born inherently sinful– how can the Kingdom of God belong to unregenerate brats? If the way we enter the Kingdom is by becoming as children, and if children are inherently sinful, did Jesus bear the cross in vain? By no means; children are pure and innocent before their Maker, and only as they grow up do they learn to sin (cf. Romans 5:5-18).

So what is it about little children that makes them ideal citizens of God’s Kingdom? It is their unfailing trust in their parents. They look up to their parents and think the world of their parents, no matter how worthy or unworthy that belief may be. They naturally depend on their parents to take care of their needs in life and trust that their parents have their best interest at heart and seek the best for them.

And so it ought to be with believers and their heavenly Father. Those who are part of God’s Kingdom have unfailing trust in God the Father (cf. Hebrews 11:6). They look up to and think the world of their heavenly Father, and He is worthy of that honor (cf. Psalm 150). They learn to depend on their heavenly Father to take care of their needs in life and know that He has their best interest at heart, seeking what is good for them, since He was willing to give up His Son for their salvation (cf. Matthew 6:21-34, Romans 8:31-39).

It is easy for little children to have that trust in their earthly parents and their heavenly Father; they do not really know any better. Such trust is a profound challenge for “grownups,” however, because they have lost that innocence and are always tempted to trust in themselves and what they can perceive. It is always easier to walk by sight than by faith, but citizens of the Kingdom are willing to trust in God no matter how terrible things may seem (cf. 2 Corinthians 5:7)!

Jesus loves the little children. Let us praise God that He is concerned for the lowly and easily overlooked, and let us develop that childlike trust in Him!

Ethan R. Longhenry

Real Giving

And he looked up, and saw the rich men that were casting their gifts into the treasury. And he saw a certain poor widow casting in thither two mites.
And he said, “Of a truth I say unto you, This poor widow cast in more than they all: for all these did of their superfluity cast in unto the gifts; but she of her want did cast in all the living that she had” (Luke 21:1-4).

It is easy for us humans to be enraptured by numbers; it is less easy to get excited about proportions. We tend to put much more value on the numbers than on the proportions.

The treasury box was placed in the Temple so that Jews could leave their financial gifts to provide for the sacrifices, incense, and other such things for the Temple.

Most observers on that spring day in 30 CE would have appreciated all of the gifts of the rich. They were, no doubt, putting in plenty of shekels or denarii to keep the incense burning and the animals on the altar. A widow bringing a couple of lepta would be completely forgotten in the process. After all, what can approximately 23 cents (a rough approximation, in modern money, of the value of two lepta) buy?

According to a worldly perspective, Jesus’ comment is truly laughable. This widow, with her 23 cents, put in more than all of the rich people with their hundreds of dollars? In what universe is 23 cents worth more than hundreds of dollars? If the ministers of the Temple depended on 23 cents as the greatest of contributions, how would they be able to keep up the incense and sacrifices?

But Jesus is not speaking about numbers. His concern is far greater– He focuses on the proportion and the faith.

Jesus would not deny that, in numerical terms, the rich men were putting in more money. But the rich people would go back to their homes with plenty of resources. They would have a nice bed and a good meal and plenty else. They did not really miss the money that they put in the offering box. It was above and beyond their real need. It was not, in any meaningful definition of the word, a sacrifice for them.

The widow has an entirely different story. Those two mites are all that she has. She does not really have a home to which to return. She does not have good food to eat. There is nothing else. The two mites are all that she has. And she proves willing to give them in faith to God for incense and sacrifices. She, truly, has sacrificed!

Today we would entirely understand if someone who was in such deep poverty as this widow were to use his or her meager resources for themselves. But this widow was willing to really trust in God. She was willing to put everything she had on the line and trusted that God would provide for her needs. She truly put God first and foremost in her life in a way that very few of us would ever completely understand!

The odds are that most of us fall somewhere in between the rich people and the poor widow– we do not have a ton of money that we can give without suffering some kind of loss, but we are not on our last dollar, either. We should not conclude from this story that we must give every last penny to Jesus– instead, we are to gain from the story that while we humans may be more enamored with numbers than proportion, God is far more concerned with proportion than number. For some, $20 is giving sacrificially. For others, $20 is a lot like the rich people and their gifts– not something that will be missed. But 20% for most anyone would be a significant loss, let alone 30, 40, or even 60%!

As believers we must give to God and those in need as God has bountifully given to us and with a cheerful heart (cf. 1 Corinthians 16:1-3, 2 Corinthians 9:6-11). When we give, let us consider the example of the poor widow and Jesus’ important lesson: we cannot fool God with numbers. He knows the heart, and He knows the proportion. As God has suffered the loss of so much for us, let us also be willing to sacrifice for God!

Ethan R. Longhenry