"Now as a concession, not a command, I say this. I wish that all were as I myself am. But each has his own gift from God, one of one kind and one of another. To the unmarried and the widows I say that it is good for them to remain single as I am. But if they cannot exercise self-control, they should marry. For it is better to marry than to burn with passion" (ESV, 1 Corinthians 7:6-9).
The greatest human relationship I’ve ever experienced is with my wife, Christina. Just this morning I found myself praising God for her. He designed us for one another. Our connection is nothing like any other relationship I’ve ever known.
That said, marriage is no panacea. Hardships abound. Marriage has been one of the primary factors in my sanctification. It has shaped me. We've molded each other. It has challenged us.
But, for us, marriage has been incredible.
I know this isn’t the case for every marriage. Much of the pain and heartache of life is caused by brokenness in our relationships with others. Marriages are no exception. I’m sure you can recall trying to comfort someone hurt deeply by their spouse. At least you can imagine it. I’ve seen it a thousand times.
Marriage can be hard. It’s not that marriage causes pain. Sin is the culprit. Marriage is the vehicle.
It is important, however, to acknowledge the goodness of marriage. God invented it. God oversees it. God ordains it. He tells mankind to be fruitful and multiply, which happens because of marriage. God is decidedly pro-marriage. He delights over it. He loves and created romance. This position is the necessary backdrop for what I will write next.
First, let’s turn our attention to the words of Paul to the church in Corinth. That city was a difficult place for a Christian to live, the Las Vegas of their time (sorry, Vegas). It had that reputation, and it was well deserved. It made living for Christ difficult. Additionally, it seems a pressing trial existed for the believers in Corinth. Paul called it "the present distress" (1 Corinthians 7:26). They were battling.
In their struggles, the Corinthians had written Paul a letter. They had questions. Paul responded. First, he wrote six chapters of his own subject matter. Then, Paul began to reply to the Corinthian questions. “Now concerning the matters about which you wrote” is the way he begins (1 Corinthians 7:1). He will now address their questions.
In a nod to Solomon's "there is nothing new under the sun," the first question Paul responded to was about sex, temptation, and marriage. Perhaps some in Corinth wondered if all sexual activity was prohibited by God. Paul clarified to them that marriage is the place for sexual fulfillment between a man and woman. He encouraged it. The sexual relationship is a way for the couple to serve one another, Paul clarified.
Then he said this: “Now as a concession, not a command, I say this. I wish all were as I myself am” (1 Corinthians 7:6-7). Paul was single. His point was clear. We aren't commanded to marry.
No one has to marry — It is not a sign of personal holiness.
I repeat: “Not a command.” Marriage is not a command for the believer. We can choose the life Paul chose — celibate and dedicated to God. This might be a season. This might be a lifetime. But it can be powerful.
This is an important point to consider. It helps us understand that marriage does not indicate a certain level of holiness.
Think about it. Paul was as sanctified as they come. He attained that level of consecration without marriage. In his single state he had grown beautifully into a greater Christ-likeness.
I say this because we often think of marriage as an attainment. In other words, "If I grow, if I really mature, then God will consider me fit for marriage." To be fair, there is great wisdom in the idea of preparing yourself for marriage. The guy working fifteen hours a week at PetSmart probably needs more seasoning. So preparation for marriage is good, but we must know holiness is possible without marriage.
As we think on this point, we must allow it to permeate both the married and unmarried brain. Since marriage is no proof of holiness, we must not consider the unmarried immature, unable to grow. It is false to think that way.
This is a difficult change in perspective, likely because of the common experience. I know God uses marriage to purify me, to produce holiness in me. When single I thought I was mature. Marriage exposed weaknesses. Then children came, and I discovered even more weaknesses. Each stage of life has helped uncover unholiness in me. I’ve had to grow. This is likely the most common flow of life.
However, this isn’t the result or pattern for everyone. Many married people have not allowed their marriages to grow them, for instance. Additionally, those who do singleness like Paul are growing just fine without it.
No one has to marry — It is not a sign of God's favor.
Another important point to consider is this: marriage does not indicate a certain level of favor. Paul was completely loved by God, favored. Paul saw himself as beloved, chosen, foreknown by God. He ran in the love of Christ. He said, “The love of Christ compels me.” Paul meant that.
A person’s marital status is not the sign of God’s blessing and favor on their lives. During the years I was single, God's blessing was on my life. Then, at the right time, God blessed me with Christina. However, I would still be under His favor if He hadn't.
Paul was favored. Jesus, obviously, was favored. Marriage was not the sign of God’s favor on their lives.
So, holiness and grace are not necessarily connected to marriage. Holiness can be produced through marriage. Grace can be shown with marriage. But neither are necessary ingredients God must use. His will for Paul was different. That’s why Paul wrote: “this is not a command.”
Singleness has been embraced by our heroes
I spent a previous post developing the idea that some of our greatest heroes in the faith were single. I won’t develop it again here, but this is true. Paul was a single man. Paul states it here. “Single as I am” (1 Corinthians 7:8).
Now, some believe Paul was previously married. It appears Paul may have been a voting member of the Jewish Sanhedrin. Members of the Sanhedrin were married. The speculation is that Paul's wife died or departed. I don't know. The Bible is silent, so I will be also. It’s in my file of unanswered questions for heaven.
This much is clear, though: Paul was single during his apostolic Christian life. He says as much to the Corinthians. Reading of his adventures in Acts and his letters makes it obvious. This man was unencumbered. He went wherever Jesus told him to. Aggressively, he pursued God’s call on his life.
Paul did have a right to marriage, though. In this same letter, Paul would write, “Do we have no right to take along a believing wife, as do the other apostles” (1 Corinthians 9:5)? He was referring to himself and Barnabas. Instead of acting out on that right, Paul embraced a life of singleness. In a sense, he chose it. In another sense, it chose him.
Singleness can be a gift.
“I wish that all were as I myself am. But each has his own gift from God, one of one kind and one of another” (1 Corinthians 7:7.
Paul knew God had given him a gift — grace — to be single. He felt it. He could tell. Partly because he could “exercise self-control” (1 Corinthians 7:9). Again, Paul called it a gift.
This is the same word used to describe the gifts of the Holy Spirit. The idea then, is simple. Amongst other things, the Spirit gifts some to teach, lead, or show acts of mercy. He also gifts some to a life of singleness. Even if we reject the idea of singleness as one of the spiritual gifts, we can at least see Paul felt it a gift in his life. This was a gift he hoped others would experience.
Paul had seen, of course, the benefits of his singleness over time. Perhaps this is why he declared it a gift. He did things a married man would struggle to do. His mobility was extreme. The financial burden of his ministry was low. The peril he encountered is sobering. In all of this, he saw the blessing of his singleness. To him, it was one of the gifts Jesus gave him.
Singleness can be a season.
The modern struggle over this is simple. We wonder if this gift is ours. Has God given us the same gift He gave Paul? Paul gives us a major clue. “If they cannot exercise self-control, they should marry. For it is better to marry than to burn with passion” (1 Corinthians 7:9).
Now, obviously, believers must receive God’s sex ethic. We believe sexual fulfillment only comes within marital commitment. We believe anything outside of that is sinful, which means it is harmful. It takes, rather than gives. Sex outside of the marriage covenant is ultimately damaging. We agree with God.
Therefore, a strong desire for physical intimacy with the opposite gender is an indicator marriage might be for you. Permanent singleness might not be for you. "They should marry," Paul wrote.
Still, Paul did not have to marry. He could exercise self-control. He could abstain. He saw this as a gift.
Do you have this gift? Or is this only a season in your life? One question I have asked is this: do you have a strong desire to marry? This isn't the foolproof way to determine if singleness is for us or not, but it is a helpful question. Perhaps a desire to marry is from the Lord.
Either way, we will all be single at some point in our lives. If we are blessed to have received the gospel during those single years, we have an opportunity. Love the Lord in those single years. Honor him as Paul did. Even if not a permanent gift, use it as a gift from God, an opportunity God has given you for His glory.