What does 1 Corinthians 7 actually say about singleness?

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Previously I wrote about what 1 Corinthians 7 has to say about marriage and sexual abstinence.  The chapter is a key passage for our understanding of relational and sexual ethics in the light of the Gospel touching on marriage, sex, singleness and divorce.  It’s often cited but I’m not sure that it is always fully engaged with.  So, I thought it was worth spending a bit of time going back to the chapter to see what it actually says about these things. Today we turn to the question of singleness.

It’s worth remembering that the current consensus is that the  statement “It is good for a man not to have sexual relations with a woman” is most likely a quote from the Corinthians’ own letter to Paul which he is responding to.  Additionally, v 1-6 show that they were primarily thinking about abstinence within marriage, which Paul gives a strong “no” to. Paul then goes on to talk about those who were not yet married in verse 7-9. In these verses, he briefly introduces the issue of singleness before moving on to talk about marriage between a believer and a non-believer, desertion and divorce and wider implications about contentment with your current circumstances, with implications also for slavery (v10-23).

Paul states his wish that all could be in the same position he is (v7). Verse 8, makes it clear that at that time he is unmarried.  However he recognises that we are not all given the same gift from God.  Everyone is different.  So, he says that it is a good thing not to marry and even for widows not to seek to re-marry.  Note, he doesn’t say that singleness is a concession, that it’s okay. He calls it good (v8). However, whilst singleness is good, he says that for some, it is better for them to marry.  There are those whose strong passion and desire would make it nigh on impossible for them to exercise self control (v9).

Is Paul saying that if we have a general issue with controlling our sexual urges and desires that we should get married? Is marriage the solution to lust and pornography? Well, first of all, it is worth noting that verse 9 seems to be the concession rather than the rule in this little section. The expectation seems to be that he would prefer people to follow his advice. Secondly, we need to move a little further forward in the chapter to where Paul expands on what he means in verses 25 -28.

Paul writes against the backdrop of crisis. He refers to an imminent or present period of distress.  It seems that he has a specific historical and geographical situation affecting Corinth.  Because of this he addresses those who are betrothed to be married.  His advice is that everyone should be content with their current circumstances, as per verses 17-23. They should live in line with their current calling.  However, if they are “bound” then they should not be “loosed.”  In other words, they should not seek to be freed from obligations and commitments they have.  This would most obviously apply to those already married, they should not seek divorce. However, remember that betrothal was a serious commitment and so, I would understand Paul to be saying that those who are engaged have already got obligations to one another.  Therefore, he agrees with the Corinthians that singleness is a good thing in the circumstances but that contra the direction their views on celibacy have taken them, it is not a sin for those who are betrothed to follow through and get married. However, if you are not under obligation yet, then you should not be seeking after it (v25-28)

Later on, he goes on to explain his reasoning for these commands.  He believes there are advantages to the single life. These relate both to the immediate crisis and to wider eschatology.  They are all to live with a sense of urgency, that time is short, that the Gospel is our priority and that will shape our lives.  Whilst it will not shape them in the legalistic approach to celibacy that the Corinthians have fallen into, it is will shape their overall life attitudes and priorities.  The point, I would suggest (and perhaps I will come back to this in detail) in verses 32-35 is that none of us should allow the anxieties of this world that can infect our relationships to take over.

Paul then goes on to repeat that it isn’t a sin for any of them who are engaged to get married.  This is particularly important for those who are concerned to treat their fiancé properly.  The implication is that some of them are being drawn into increasingly physical relationships before the marriages they struggle to control their legitimate desire for their future wife (v36). However, what Paul is not telling them to do is to break off their engagements, even if they are able to exercise patience and restraint.  Rather, his advice is that, if they are able to, then they would do well to delay marriage for a period of time until the present crisis has passed (v37-38).

There is one little postscript to note.  Right at the end of the chapter, Paul addresses widows.  He says that marriage is a lifelong commitment but if your spouse has died then you are free from obligations. You are not bound to them.  Therefore a widow or widower is free to remarry.  However, his personal view is that a widow or widower may find it beneficial not to remarry (v39).

I think from this that we can highlight a few things that Paul is definitely not saying.  First of all, he is not arguing that marriage itself is not good. He isn’t promoting Christian celibacy. He is not anti sex.  This would not fit with the wider picture of what Paul teaches, even in this chapter.  Nor, despite some recent confusion in certain quarters is he saying that some have a specific supernatural gift of celibacy, that they are free from sexual desire.  He is saying that God gives each of us our circumstances.  For some, he will give the opportunity to be married which will come with its blessings and challenges, for others he will give singleness. This might be for their whole life or for a significant period of it.  This too is a gift with opportunities and challenges.

There will be certain circumstances where it is wise for those not yet married to delay getting married or seeking a bride.  An obvious example would be for Ukrainian believers right now. However, to seek and get married is not a sin in those situations. There is a wisdom choice to make depending on individual circumstances too.  Christians who don’t marry are also not in sin and nor to be seen negatively as somehow working against God’s purposes. They have received a good gift and made a wise choice to willingly accept it. 

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