Welcome back to the BRC Podcast, my name is Aaron Ventura and today I want to answer a question we received. And that question is: Does 1 Corinthians 7 teach that singleness is better than being married? What does Paul mean when he says, “For I wish that all men were even as I myself?” So I’m going to read the first 9 verses of 1 Cor. 7, and in future episodes I’ll walk through the rest of this chapter dealing with some of the other questions divorce and remarriage, etc.
1 Corinthians 7:1-9 (NKJV)
Now concerning the things of which you wrote to me: It is good for a man not to touch a woman. 2 Nevertheless, because of sexual immorality, let each man have his own wife, and let each woman have her own husband. 3 Let the husband render to his wife the affection due her, and likewise also the wife to her husband. 4 The wife does not have authority over her own body, but the husband does. And likewise the husband does not have authority over his own body, but the wife does. 5 Do not deprive one another except with consent for a time, that you may give yourselves to fasting and prayer; and come together again so that Satan does not tempt you because of your lack of self-control. 6 But I say this as a concession, not as a commandment. 7 For I wish that all men were even as I myself. But each one has his own gift from God, one in this manner and another in that. 8 But I say to the unmarried and to the widows: It is good for them if they remain even as I am; 9 but if they cannot exercise self-control, let them marry. For it is better to marry than to burn with passion.
Alright, this is a section of Scripture that because of many bad interpretations has led to many wrong conclusions and even harmful practices throughout church history. You see this in the early church with various monastic groups. And it persists still today in the Roman Catholic Church which has a policy of clerical celibacy. So some would argue for this position from this chapter of the Bible. And so I want to do some work here to clarify what Paul is actually teaching. We’ll just go verse by verse through this section and then answer our original question about whether it’s better to be single than married.
Now concerning the things of which you wrote to me:
It is good for a man not to touch a woman.
- There is debate here about whether Paul is quoting the Corinthians, whether this is a question, or if Paul is making a declaratory statement holding out a Christian ideal that “it is good for a man not to touch a woman.”
- And in case you aren’t aware, touching is a euphemism here for sex. So is it good for a man not to have sex with a woman?
- Is that Paul’s own statement, or is he quoting something that the Corinthians are asking about?
- I think the view that takes this is as a quotation fits best with the rest of the passage and the rest of Scripture, primarily because Genesis 2 says that it is not good for the man to be alone and in the next verses here in 1 Cor. 7, Paul is going to direct husbands and wives to make sure they have frequent marital relations and not deprive one another.
- Some would take this as Paul saying sex and abstinence are equally good, but that is simply not what the rest of the Bible teaches. Adam needed Eve in order to be fruitful and multiply and subdue the earth, and there can be no children without intercourse. Proverbs 5:19 says, “Let your wife’s breasts satisfy you at all times and always be enraptured with her love.” So unless you make a bunch of qualifications to what “good” means here, (as people who I respect like John Calvin does), I think it makes more sense to take this as Paul quoting the Corinthians and then giving a response to their incorrect understanding of biblical marriage and sexuality.
2 Nevertheless, because of sexual immorality, let each man have his own wife, and let each woman have her own husband. 3 Let the husband render to his wife the affection due her, and likewise also the wife to her husband.
- So I would translate “nevertheless” here (dia de in Greek) would read something more like “But on the contrary…”
- So some people in Corinth are teaching that men and women should not have sex for whatever reason. Perhaps this is a similar group of false teachers that Paul warns about it 1 Tim. 4, where he says, “in latter times some will depart from the faith, giving heed to deceiving spirits and doctrines of demons, 2 speaking lies in hypocrisy, having their own conscience seared with a hot iron, 3 forbidding to marry, and commanding to abstain from foods which God created to be received with thanksgiving by those who believe and know the truth.”
- So forbidding or prohibiting marriage is a demonic doctrine Paul says. And so he is going to spend the rest of this chapter in 1 Corinthians 7 explaining the true doctrine of what God’s law says for marriage, sex, divorce, remarriage, etc.
- So is it good for a man not to touch a woman? Well, yes if you are not married to them you shouldn’t have sex with them. And because of sexual immorality and our fleshly temptations to sin, each man should have his own wife and each wife her own husband, and they should give each the other the affection due to them.
- That is to say, sex within the bonds of marriage is actually a duty that we owe to our spouse, and it’s the primary means by which God helps us avoid adultery, fornication, lust, etc.
- And within this marriage relationship, it is very good for the man to touch the woman. As it says in Hebrew 13:4, “Marriage is honorable among all, and the bed undefiled, but fornicators and adulterers God will judge.”
- Remember also this whole chapter of 1 Corinthians 7 comes right after Paul’s command to “flee sexual immorality” in chapter 6, because your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit.
- So how do you keep that temple pure? Sex within the bonds of marriage, and chastity outside of it.
4 The wife does not have authority over her own body, but the husband does. And likewise the husband does not have authority over his own body, but the wife does.
- Here you have the one place where the woman actually has authority over the man, that is in the marriage bed. Neither husband nor wife have authority over their own body, but it belongs to the other. They are one flesh, and thus have given themselves wholly to their spouse.
- In That Hideous Strength, C.S. Lewis talks about obedience and submission as erotic necessities, and I suspect that he would support that idea from here in 1 Cor. 7. The wife is to submit herself to her husband who is the head, and yet in the marriage bed she has authority over his body, and he has authority over hers. Paul continues in verse 5…
5 Do not deprive one another except with consent for a time, that you may give yourselves to fasting and prayer; and come together again so that Satan does not tempt you because of your lack of self-control.
- Here Paul tells married couples that they should have frequent marital relations and only abstain when they are both in agreement that they need to fast and pray. And when that is over, you should come together again so that Satan does not tempt you.
- This is a crucial command to obey if you want a healthy marriage. There are many sexless marriages in the world and for all kinds of bad reasons. Unless you are providentially hindered by sickness, or distance, or some malady, you need to work hard at finding the time and energy for love-making, because without it, the man and woman are vulnerable to temptation. And this is going to take work. Satan wants to attack our marriages through our sex life and so we have to be vigilant to fight against this. One of the ways we do this is by frequent relations and only ever abstaining for fasting and prayer.
6 But I say this as a concession, not as a commandment. 7 For I wish that all men were even as I myself. But each one has his own gift from God, one in this manner and another in that.
- Here we have a few different questions that arise:
- First, what is the “this” that he is referring to as a concession and not a commandment?
- Some take the “concession” as referring to everything we just read in verses 2-5 but I don’t think that’s correct because Paul appears to be reasoning from the Creation order and the Mosaic laws for marriage and there are certainly commands included in there.
- Some take it as just referring to the “do not deprive one another but come together again” part in verse 5, and I think that is the most likely option. This would mean that abstinence from marital relations for fasting and prayer is something that couples are permitted/allowed to do, but not commanded to do, which is true.
- There are a few occasions in the OT where married couples are required to abstain from sex. For example when men are engaged in holy warfare (like Uriah refusing to sleep with his wife Bathsheba while battle was going on).
- Also in Exodus 19:15, Moses sanctifies the people to meet God at Sinai and says to them, “be ready for the third day, do not come near your wives.”
- Also, Leviticus 18:19 says, “you shall not approach a woman to uncover her nakedness as long as she is in her customary impurity.”
- So there are prohibitions against intercourse for various reasons in the OT and it is possible that some 1st century Christians were wondering whether these laws still applied to them now that God’s holiness dwelt within them as temples for the Holy Spirit.
- And as a side note, one of the reasons why I don’t think it is sinful for a husband and wife to have intercourse during the wife’s period is because the woman’s blood no longer defiles her or the man because both have been cleansed by the blood of Christ.
- So just as we are now permitted to eat foods that were once considered unclean, Christ has come and fulfilled those ceremonial laws and as Paul says in 1 Tim 4, those foods are made holy/sanctified by the word of God and prayer. And as we read earlier, Hebrew 13:4 explicitly states this. The marriage bed is undefiled. That is ceremonial category where Christ’s blood has no made us clean.
- So I take this “concession and not as a command” as referring to married couples choosing to abstain for fasting and prayer if they so desire, but they are not required to.
- The next question is What does Paul mean by saying, “I wish that all men were even as I myself?”
- I take this as referring to Paul’s gift of self-control and continence. So back in verse 5, a married couple is tempted by Satan because of their incontinence (or self-indulgence). But Paul has that gift and wishes everyone else had it, but he recognizes this is a special gift (charisma) from God.
- In verses 8-9 we get more information about what he means.
8 But I say to the unmarried and to the widows: It is good for them if they remain even as I am; 9 but if they cannot exercise self-control, let them marry. For it is better to marry than to burn with passion.
- So notice again here, Paul connects his current state, “remain even as I am” with the exercise of self-control over his sexual appetite. So the gift that Paul has is not singleness or even celibacy persay, but self-control that allows Paul to be celibate and fully devoted to his apostolic mission
- So there is no “gift of celibacy” in this sense, continence is the gift and celibacy is the status that the man or woman should embrace only if they have that gift. If you don’t have this gift, you should still remain chaste, but that celibate life will feel more like an affliction rather than a blessing. And if that’s you, Paul says, you should try to get married.
- Another important point here is that Paul is not talking to single people in general. This is specifically addressed to “the unmarried and the widows.”
- And the word “unmarried” here refers specifically to men whose wives had died, or what we call today “widowers.” In Greek the word here is agamois which is a masculine plural noun and it stands in contrast to the female widows (keyrais).
- Later in this chapter Paul uses the term “unmarried” to refer to a woman who was previously married but divorced. And later in verse 34 he again distinguishes between an unmarried woman and a virgin.
- So when you see that word “unmarried” here it refers to someone who was previously married but for whatever reason, be it death of a spouse or divorce, that person is no longer married.
- What we typically think of as “young singles” Paul calls virgins. A virgin is someone who has never married, whereas an unmarried man or woman is someone who has been married in the past.
- So verses 8-9 are addressed to this specific group of previously married widows and widowers, which really destroys the argument that Paul is saying, “I wish everyone was a single bachelor missionary like me.”
- Instead he is saying, “It is good for those who have lost their spouse to remain even as I am if they have the gift of self-control.”
- This is Paul implicitly saying that he too was once married and is including himself in this group of agamois. A widower who is now unmarried.
- Paul gives additional instructions for widows in 1 Timothy 5, and there he further distinguishes between widows based on their age. Old widows above that age of 60 can be admitted into the ranks for care by the church. But he says this about younger widows, “Therefore I desire that the younger widows marry, bear children, manage the house, give no opportunity to the adversary to speak reproachfully. 15 For some have already turned aside after Satan.”
- Instead he is saying, “It is good for those who have lost their spouse to remain even as I am if they have the gift of self-control.”
- So putting this all together…If you are a young widow, Paul says in 1 Tim. 5, you should get married. If you are an older widow, and you don’t have the gift of continence, Paul says here in 1 Cor. 7:9, then you also should get married because it’s better to marry than to burn.
- But if you are a widow or widower AND you have the gift of continence, then it is good to remain in that state just as Paul chose to do.
- So there is no “gift of singleness” or even “gift of celibacy” in this passage (celibacy is a lifestyle choice, whereas continence is a gift from God that not everyone has).
So to answer our original questions, is it better to be married or unmarried, well it really depends on your situation. If you are a widow it will depend on your age and gifting. If you are a virgin or divorced, Paul will give instructions to you later on. And that’s what we’ll look at in a future episode as we walk thru this chapter.