[This is Part II of a Multi-Part Article]
When speaking of singleness and marriage in 1 Corinthians 7, Paul seems to be saying that both are gifts from God. No indication in the text has been given to this point that would suggest that marriage is superior to singleness. Yet, Maken asserts that singleness is only allowed for those who meet two criteria. First, they must have the gift of celibacy. That is, they have been relieved of all sexual desire as a gift from the Lord. Second, they must have a full time gospel call upon their lives. Again, these things sound plausible, but do not seem to be necessitated by the text.
It seems odd that a Christian would not have some sexual desire toward the opposite sex. That desire need not be sinful as we have spoken of proper desire already. At the same time, what better way to glorify God than to put down the desires of the flesh for the sake of devoting oneself to full time gospel ministry or gospel ministry beyond one's vocation in a situation where a family is not a hindrance? We are told to die to self daily, take up our cross, and follow Christ (Lk. 9:23).
Additionally, Maken posits that seeking Christ is an excuse not to marry. We must seek marriage first, and, she would add, that in itself is seeking Christ. While we agree that there is a pietism that goes beyond Scripture, and while we agree that Christianity is often more practical than some would make it out to be, we cannot agree with her premise. Our Lord Himself said "seek ye first the Kingdom of God and His righteousness and all these things will be added unto you (Matt. 6:33)"
So then, when deciding of marriage, Christians must seek the Kingdom of God first. At the same time, they must exercise their choice practically. In v. 8, Paul says, "but I say to the unmarried and to widows that it is good for them if they remain even as I." Two points may be brought out here.
First, Paul refers to the "unmarried and to widows." In light of his further word in regard to virgins in v. 25f, it seems that by use of the term "unmarried," he is referring to those who were married at one time and are not now married. He uses the same word in v. 11 when referring to a woman who has divorced her husband. No word in the Greek corresponds to the English word divorce in a direct sense. The words used for this concept have to do with being sent away, being loosed, or being unmarried. Thus, Paul here refers to those who have been divorced and to those who have been widowed.
Second, his point in regard to the divorced and widowed is that "it is good for them if they remain even as [Paul]." That is, it is good for them to remain unmarried. Paul simply means they may remain single for the sake of the gospel (v.7). At the same time, as he does not condemn marriage, he does not condemn remarriage in every case (vv. 9; 11; 15).
In plain terms, if you have a biblical divorce combined with the gift of self-control, why not remain unmarried for the sake of the gospel? If you are left a widow and have the gift of self-control, why not remain unmarried for the sake of the gospel?
However, in sharp contrast, Paul makes a different application in v. 9. If you have a biblical divorce combined with the gift of proper-desire, you had better get married for the glory of God. He says such so that your proper-desire will not become improper desire: sinful lust. Further, he says such so that a sinful lust will not become a sinful action: sexual activity. The same dynamic applies to widows, especially those who are younger. If you are left a widow and have the gift of proper-desire, you had better get married for the glory of God for the same reasons noted.
Paul makes his point in regard to the divorced and to the widowed: "but if they do not have self-control, let them marry; for it is better to marry than to burn." If they do not have the gift of self-control in the area of sexual desire, Paul says they should get married. "Let them marry" is a command. His rationale is that it is better to marry than to burn with sexual desire. That desire must be channeled and fulfilled properly in the context of marriage. If one is not able to gain control over that desire, the sin of lust is sure to follow.
We will point out that some commentators have taken the phrase "better to marry than to burn" to refer to burning in Hell. In light of the context, that suggestion so far misses the mark that we deem it unworthy of further comment.
Paul does not give license for anyone to engage in sexual activity outside of marriage. He does not give license for anyone to lust. He is simply being realistically practical in regard to the way God has created and gifted each one of us. It is natural to be attracted to someone of the opposite sex. God has put that dynamic within the human constitution. Man may pervert that desire through inordinate lust, homosexual desire, or other forms of perversion. Yet, a desire to be with someone upon whom one has set his/her love is quite natural and deemed good in God's sight. Let us think biblically in these matters deriving a practical application of the theological dynamics laid before us in Scripture.
The third major issue to consider is focus. Our focus has to do with God's assignment and calling for our lives. We are commanded to rest in God's providence for us. All persons, married or single must rest in God’s assignment and calling for their lives. Paul spells out this truth in 1 Cor. 7:17.
Paul's concern is that the Corinthians rest in the position in which they have found themselves at the time of their calling. He says, "Only, as the Lord has assigned to each one, as God has called each, in this manner let him walk. And thus I direct in all the churches."
Let us think about this directive. The directive to which he refers is that Christians should walk in the gift that God has given them. He does relate this directive to the point of salvation. Why does he do such a thing? He does so because the questions coming to him were coming from converts, mostly from Judaism, who did not know what to do practically upon their conversion to Christ in light of Old Covenant law among other things. Should a new Christian divorce a spouse who was as yet unconverted? Should a new Christian who had become a slave to Christ runaway from his earthly master? Should a new convert who was not planning on getting married then get married? These were the types of questions Paul was dealing with. So, Paul implies that neither singleness nor marriage is the real issue. Remain where you are. Keep walking in the gift God has given you. Christ is the real issue for the Christian. The Christian may worship Christ whether single or married. He need not marry nor divorce to remain loyal to Christ.
Let us note here that Paul says he gives this directive to all the churches. That would mean that we are not dealing with a specific context relegated to the Corinthian church or the first century. Here we have an apostolic directive that relates to all churches of all times. What Paul has to say about the present distress concerning the Corinthian church does not commence until v. 26. Nor do his comments there negate what he has said here or relegate what he has said here to the Corinthian church only. Paul gives this directive to all the churches.
Let's explore this directive a bit further. Many factions had developed in the Corinthian church including those who said that one had to be married in order to be spiritual; those who said that one had to be single in order to be spiritual; those who said one had to be circumcised; those who said one had to be uncircumcised; and others. Paul's primary point is that social standing means nothing. The external dynamics and pressures that men place upon themselves and others means nothing. Only Christ has importance.
Of course, Paul does not mean that one may continue in sin. If an individual is a murderer, for example, he must cease from that activity, particularly as a Christian. Paul is laboring to say that in a spiritual sense, neither marriage nor singleness is anything. Both are acceptable. Neither wealth nor poverty is anything. Both are acceptable. We may be content with who we are when we are called in Christ. The Lord is the One who has ordained our positions and our giftedness.
A point should be made here in regard to the word "called." This word refers to the effectual call of God in salvation. He is the One who has called us out of darkness and into His marvelous light. Paul here refers to the regenerating power of the Holy Spirit that is wrought by grace. The sinner has nothing to do with the effectual call. It is wrought by God. In that call, the Lord gives the gifts of repentance and faith to the sinner. With the new nature the individual now has by virtue of the work of the Spirit, and the gifts he has been given, he now has the desire and ability to repent and believe. He does so and is thereby justified.
Now, God has not only called us to salvation, but to a particular station in life. We should walk in accord with that station. That is not to say that one may not improve his situation as opportunity arises (v. 21), but, it is to say that a change of station does not have spiritual value in itself and persons should not feel pressured by men to make such changes. If the Lord calls one to make such changes, that is well. If men call persons to make such changes, we are encouraged to remain in the state in which we find ourselves.
The spiritual dynamic here, that of not pressuring others or succumbing to the pressure of others, is not a suggestion. It is a command that Paul has laid down in all of the churches.
[Part III Tomorrow]
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About Paul Dean
Dr. Paul Dean is a pastor, cultural commentator, and author. He serves as a Regional Mentor with the International Association of Biblical Counselors, speaks at several conferences throughout the year, and provides training for ministers and churches on a regular basis. Paul resides in the Upstate of South Carolina with his wife and three children.
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