It was fairly early in my pastoral ministry career that I decided I really did not like counselling people through difficult situations, especially regarding marriage issues. Looking around, I’ve always seen others who were better at this task and who enjoyed doing it as a gift from God to be exercised in His service. What I have done of it, I feel I have given sound biblical advice. Yet, so often, it has also seemed to me that many people had already made up their mind about what they wanted to do and were going to do; they were really hoping to merely get a pastoral stamp of approval in order to feel good about their intentions.
The following is an exaggeration for sure, but I have sometimes quipped that a majority of people I know are unhappy in marriage and wish they were single, whereas a majority of single people are sad that they have not found a matrimonial partner. Reading in this portion of 1 Corinthians, I suspect Paul might just about make the same wisecrack!
Paul was a single guy, and he truly believed this was the best status in order to most effectively serve God. Yet throughout his discussions, he repeats that those who marry have the freedom to do so and that they should honor that relationship with the highest degree of fidelity.
Relative to Paul’s opinion of promoting singleness, he now supports this position with three reasons …
- Persecution and stress from the surrounding world. He says …
7:25 – 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.
The “present crisis” that Paul is writing of here has some reference to the realities of difficulties and opposition that the Corinthians were either facing at that time or that the Apostle knew would surely come their way. The Greek term used here is one that Paul writes on several other occasions in contexts of persecution. It is easy to imagine how facing hostility from those who oppose Christ and the gospel would be complicated by marriage and family, as a person has so much more to worry about and care for than merely oneself.
- The pending return of Christ and the temporal nature of this world. Paul writes …
7:29 – 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.
Paul is not saying to avoid responsibility. He is putting priorities in order, noting that the things of this world (like marriage and the satisfaction of the flesh and material pleasures) are passing away rather quickly. This is consistent with so many admonitions of Paul throughout his writings. He constantly urges his readers to live in light of the brevity of life, always prioritizing rather the great significance of knowing God and working toward realities that are eternal.
- The distraction and encumbrances of marriage and family. Paul writes …
7:32 – 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.
Marriage is work, no doubt about it. It takes time and commitment. There are many blessings, but those come as the fruit of time investments. By illustration: Let’s say that it is announced one Sunday in a men’s class at church that the men’s ministry is going to take a full Saturday to put a new roof on a widow’s home. The question calls for a commitment as to how many can make it. What is the first thing that goes through the married man’s mind? Yes, he (rightly) needs to think about what his wife and family will be doing that day, if there are other plans already, and how does it fit within the rest of a busy week ahead, etc., etc. Though the single man in the class may not be free of obligations and conflicts, they are likely to be fewer.
The following paragraph is just about the most convoluted couple of sentences in all of Scripture. Whatever version you follow will have many footnotes and marginal references. Commentators are all over the place on interpreting meanings of several words, whether the subject is a bridegroom (as this NIV translates) or the father of a bride. And that’s just the beginning. It was probably not unclear to the Corinthians who were asking questions, or to Paul who was answering. Let’s move past it without me getting into hundreds of words of explanations and conjectures on Greek words.
7:36 – 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.
Paul again repeats an opinion on wives/widows. Stay married, but if a husband dies there is freedom to remarry. Paul once more renders his personal opinion that singleness leads to greater happiness and opportunity for fruitful service.
7:39 – 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.
Come back tomorrow, when we can talk about something easier, like, oh, say … food sacrificed to idols!