We've been working through 1 Corinthians 7 in our Wednesday night Bible readings, and it's gotten an interesting response. There's been some consternation about the tone of the chapter, especially in light of other passages of Scripture on marriage. 1 Corinthians 7 seems almost reluctant in its description of marriage. It's a valid question, and not one to be ignored. I've spent some time on this chapter too, because I've had the same questions. I've studied, read, and discussed (thanks, Caleb and Ed!); and I thought it would be worthwhile to discuss the chapter here.
1 Corinthians 7 makes the startling statement that it's better for a Christian not to marry.
25 But concerning virgins, I have no commandment of the Lord; but I give my opinion, as having received mercy of the Lord to be faithful. 26 I think then that this is good, on account of the present necessity, that it is good for a man to remain so as he is. 27 Art thou bound to a wife? seek not to be loosed; art thou free from a wife? do not seek a wife. 28 But if thou shouldest also marry, thou hast not sinned; and if the virgin marry, they have not sinned: but such shall have tribulation in the flesh; but I spare you. (1 Corinthians 7:25–28, DBY)
36 But if any one think that he behaves unseemly to his virginity, if he be beyond the flower of his age, and so it must be, let him do what he will, he does not sin: let them marry. 37 But he who stands firm in his heart, having no need, but has authority over his own will, and has judged this in his heart to keep his own virginity, he does well. 38 So that he that marries himself does well; and he that does not marry does better. (1 Corinthians 7:36–38, DBY)How does this line up with the rest of Scripture?
Scripture introduces marriage in the second chapter: Genesis 2:18–25 describes the history of the first marriage. It begins with the statement:
And Jehovah Elohim said, It is not good that Man should be alone; I will make him a helpmate, his like (Genesis 2:18, JND)This is a familiar passage, many--- maybe most--- church weddings include this verse. So there is a question: if it's not good for a man to be alone, why does 1 Corinthians 7 say it's better for a man not to marry?
Before we try and answer that question, let's consider further what Scripture says about marriage. When the Sadducees tried to trap the Lord Jesus, they asked Him a trick question about marriage (Matthew 22:23–33). The Lord Jesus responded with this statement:
29 And Jesus answering said to them, Ye err, not knowing the scriptures nor the power of God. 30 For in the resurrection they neither marry nor are given in marriage, but are as angels of God in heaven. (Matthew 22:29–30, DBY)Notice what the Lord Jesus says about marriage: it's something for this life, there is no marriage in the resurrection. That's not to say the Lord Jesus devalued marriage: indeed, His teaching on divorce and remarriage (Matthew 19:3–12) was based on an appeal to Genesis 2:
Moses, in view of your hardheartedness, allowed you to put away your wives; but from the beginning it was not thus. (Matthew 19:8, DBY)But we notice that in the same passage where the Lord Jesus appeals to Genesis 2 for His doctrine of marriage, He specifically teaches that there is such a thing as foregoing marriage for the Kingdom of God (v. 19:12). So there is certainly a connection between what the Lord Jesus taught concerning marriage and 1 Corinthians 7.
Probably the most complete teaching on the doctrine of marriage is Ephesians 5:22–33. Marriage is a picture of Christ and the church. Indeed, it's not quite true that there is no marriage in the resurrection (and notice that's not exactly what the Lord Jesus actually said): there is one Marriage in the resurrection: the marriage of the Lamb with His Bride (Revelation 21:9 ff). So there will be one Marriage in the resurrection. But only the one. And honestly, I think Genesis 2 is referring to the Lord Jesus as the Son of Man: it is not good for that Man to be alone, and God has taken steps and done terrible things so that He won't be.
But 1 Corinthians 7 isn't a discussion of the doctrine of marriage. It's a discussion of the practice of marriage. Marriage is absolutely an honourable estate (Hebrews 13:4). It was given to remind us of Christ's love for us (Ephesians 5:22–33). 1 Corinthians 7 isn't teaching that marriage is dishonourable, it's not saying marriage isn't good and excellent. It's saying that we, who don't belong to ourselves (1 Corinthians 6:19–20, 7:17, 7:23–24), don't have the right simply to marry. We must consider what the Master wants, and how best to serve Him (1 Corinthians 7:35).
So what about Genesis 2? Is it now good for a man to be alone? Let's consider that in light of Acts 2. Something completely unprecedented has occurred: the Spirit of God has descended from Heaven to earth to take up residence in believers. This is the main point of 1 Corinthians 6:
19 Do ye not know that your body is the temple of the Holy Spirit which is in you, which ye have of God; and ye are not your own? 20 for ye have been bought with a price: glorify now then God in your body. (1 Corinthians 6:19–20, DBY)
In light of the indwelling Spirit of God, is a Christian ever alone?
Genesis 2 definitely makes a true statement: it's not good for us to be alone. But the provision God has made in the New Testament isn't a spouse: the provision is the Holy Spirit of God who takes up a dwelling in the body of the believer. So we're not alone.
Christians live between two resurrections. The Lord Jesus has begun our resurrection with His own. It's the clear teaching of the epistles that we have been raised with Christ (Romans 8:10–14; Ephesians 2:1–10). At the same time, our bodies aren't resurrected yet. The Lord Jesus is coming back to resurrect our bodies, and make them like His (Romans 8:22–23, Philippians 3:21). But we now live between those resurrections: we're resurrected on the inside, and will eventually be on the outside. Therein is the source of almost all our problems: we live, as it were, with a foot in each world.
Marriage is part of the first creation: it's part of the creation that fell when Adam sinned. Our bodies belong to that same creation. Our souls and spirits belong to the new creation, the creation we'll spend eternity in. In that creation there's only one marriage, and we will neither marry nor be given in marriage.
So how do we live now? This is the question 1 Corinthians 7 answers. We've been called to live for Another: He has died for us, and we belong to Him. He hasn't called us to live for this world: but He has called us to live in it. We have every right to marry, marriage is honourable and excellent. But we haven't every right to choose for ourselves what our lives will look like. We are His. So 1 Corinthians 7 tells us the principle of the Christian life:
as the Lord has divided to each, as God has called each, so let him walk; and thus I ordain in all the assemblies (1 Corinthians 7:17, DBY)We live the way God has called us, we walk according to His calling. We don't get to choose the path, we get to follow Him.
So what's the practical application? The Scripture gives us three specifics we need to consider:
- When we are married, we have obligations to our spouses, and we must pay attention to this world; thus we can't serve God with singleness of heart (1 Corinthians 7:32–35).
- Marriage is a remedy for sin: that sounds old-fashioned, but it's true. Marriage is where God has ordained that some needs are met. Scripture teaches that if we don't find ourselves walking "seemly", then we should marry (1 Corinthians 7:36–38). We're not all called to singleness.
- The one who marries does well, the one who doesn't does better (1 Corinthians 7:38). If we can live morally and uprightly as a single person, then we can serve the Lord better. If we can't, then it's better for us to marry. Marriage comes with a cost, and it's not because the Apostle wants us to suffer that he encourages singleness: it's because he wants us to avoid the costs of marriage (1 Corinthians 7:26, 32, 40).
So 1 Corinthians 7 teaches us not that marriage is bad, but that it's not the calling God has given everyone. In fact, the higher calling (if we can say that) is to remain single so that we can better serve the Lord (1 Corinthians 7:38).
What this passage doesn't teach is that we can make the decision that makes us happier. Remember this chapter follows immediately on the statement at the end of 1 Corinthians 6 that we aren't our own, we've been bought with a price. So 1 Corinthians 7 doesn't tell us that we can decide to marry (or not) based on what would make us happier. The question isn't happiness, the question is calling.
So we don't have the right to choose not to marry in order to further a career, or to give us more time for fishing and skiing and hunting. That's not what the passage teaches. And it certainly doesn't teach choosing not to marry, but then having a series of "relationships". It's not advocating for a Seinfeld-style serial monogamy. It's certainly not teaching we should look to satisfy sexual urges outside of marriage: that's the exact opposite of vv. 1–2, 36–38. If you have those sorts of needs, then you should marry. What it's teaching is that it's a higher calling to live in singleness and thus free up your time and energy for a single-minded devotedness to the Lord that a married person can't have.