“It is good for a man not to marry…”
1Corinthians 7:1b NLT
A Note from Pastor Paul Boutan
Every February 14th, restaurants far and wide are packed with love birds celebrating the national date night known as “Valentine’s Day.” However, those who are “single” know the holiday on February 14th by another name, “Independence Day.” The day after Valentine’s, (February 15) is now nationally known as S.A.D. “Singles Awareness Day.” In the Christian community marriage and family often get emphasized to such a degree that many singles feel left out, if not even stigmatized. Bible teacher Mark Lee makes a balanced point when he says, “Society, holds that ‘normal’ people are married. So, if you’re not married, you’re not normal. We forget that ALL people are single for a time. Even the church forgets that all happily married people were once happily single people.” To those who are unmarried, let me say that you are very normal. In fact, more than just normal it is good that you are single, at least for now. However, having said that, I should clarify that the verse from 1Cornithians 7 that I quoted above, was a question not a statement. Let me show you the whole verse in its context.
“Now for the matters you wrote about: It is good for a man not to marry. But since there is so much immorality, each man should have his own wife, and each woman her own husband.”
1Corinthians 7:1-2 NLT
So, in context, the Apostle Paul was answering their question. The Christians who lived in the Greek city of Corinth evidently wrote him a letter asking a series of questions. They were somehow under the impression that as “new” believers in Jesus, it was better for them if they stayed single rather than get married. How in the world did they come to that conclusion? Well, marriage in that culture was under attack. First of all, the divorce rate in Rome was even higher than ours today which is amazing when you consider that 5 out of every 9 marriages in America end in divorce. One historian says that the “average ancient citizen of the Roman Empire was married and divorced twenty times.” Therefore, because the institution of marriage had become the punchline to a bad joke, many in that culture were avoiding marriage. These new Christians in Corinth seemed to think that staying single would protect them from the pain of divorce.
However, there was cultural pressure in that day to get married, just like there is in our day. This is especially true in the ancient Jewish community. For example, in the Jewish oral law known as the Talmud it says that “If one is not married, they are not right with God.” Additionally, the ancient Rabbis had a list of 7-People who would not inherit the Kingdom of God, number one on that list, was a man who had no wife. Even today, the same pressure exists. We might say to someone in our small Bible study group who is still single “Why aren’t you married yet? What’s taking you so long? Don’t you want to get married?” Often in the church, a well-meaning Christian couple will invite an unsuspecting single over for dinner. Their single friend shows up only to discover they're being “set-up.” The dinner party was a blind date, and both of their dinner guests feel blindsided.
So, these newly born-again believers living in Corinth found themselves pressured from two sides. One the one hand, there was the pressure to get married and have a family. On the other hand, many of them started to believe it was more spiritual to avoid marriage and remain single. So, the Apostle Paul gives a two-part answer to their question. He says:
“Now to the unmarried and the widows I say; It is good for them to stay unmarried, as I am. But if they cannot control themselves, they should marry, for it is better to marry than to burn with passion.”
1Corinthians 7:8 NLT
Part One of Paul’s Answer
“It is good for them to stay unmarried, as I am”(1Cor 7:8). It is typically believed that Paul was either a divorcee or a widower. Most scholars agree that Paul was likely married at one time. He was a member of the ruling Jewish body called the Sanhedrin. One of the requirements to be a member of the Sanhedrin was that you had to be married. There are two opinions as to how Paul became single. One group would argue that Paul’s wife must have passed away, and that he never remarried. The other group would say that when Paul became a Christian, his Orthodox Jewish wife divorced him. The Rabbis of the Orthodox community were pressuring their Jewish followers to divorce their spouse if they became a follower of Jesus. If you did not divorce your husband or wife after they became Christians, then the entire Jewish community would disown you. Whether Paul was married and divorced, or if his wife died, we do not know, but do know that when he wrote this letter to the Corinthians, he was single. Why would Apostle Paul say that it’s “good to remain unmarried”? Well, because first of all, there’s nothing inherently wrong with being single. Contrary to the belief of some, singleness is not a curse. Being single allows you to grow in the Lord and it allows you to do more for the Lord.
First, being single allows you to grow in the Lord. In the first two chapters of Genesis, we read that God made man in His image, and we should take note that God made him alone, single. It wasn’t until later that God made Eve and brought her to him as his wife. If marriage was the ideal, then why not make Adam and Eve together at the same time? I suggest, because as important as the marriage relationship is, it was not THE most important relationship. The truth is that Adam’s relationship with God took priority over his relationship with his wife. If your personal relationship with God is always your top priority, whether you get married or remain single, your life will always be full. Jesus said,“I have come to give you life abundantly.”Singles who are reading this, let me say to you the very best thing you can do for the person who will one day be your spouse, is to make sure you have a deep relationship with God first. The deeper your walk with God is now, the more you will have to offer one day to the person you will marry.
Second, being single allows you to do more for the Lord. Really, that’s the crux of Paul’s message to the Corinthians. Because he does not have a wife and family who rightfully need his time and attention, he was able to travel the ancient world preaching the gospel and planting churches. The point is to enjoy the gift that God has given to you. If that gift is marriage, then enjoy it. Invest your time and energy into it to make it as wonderful as it can be. Likewise, if that gift is “singleness.” Enjoy that. Like Paul, use your time and energy to do as much for the Kingdom of God as you can. One of the greatest minds that Twentieth Century Christianity has ever known was an English theologian named John Stott. In his lifetime Stott wrote hundreds of books including the best seller Basic Christianity, he published articles and papers that have influenced thousands of pastors, teachers, and Christians alike. He pastored churches, taught at universities, founded Langham Partnership International and served as President of the London Institute for Contemporary Christianity. Oh, I forgot to mention he was single. He took full advantage of being single. Before Amy and I met, as a single adult, I worked a full-time job, volunteered at the church about 30 or more hours a week and attended three or four Bible studies a week. Often, my single friends and I would go to Boulder or Downtown Denver and feed the homeless and share the gospel with strangers on the street. There’s a lot more to living a single life as a Christian than just sitting around at home on Friday night while your unbelieving friends hit the clubs. You can live a full and fulfilling life for Christ.
Part Two of Paul’s Answer
“But if they cannot control themselves, they should marry, for it is better to marry than to burn with passion.”(1Cor 7:9). We have all probably heard the way this verse is typically applied. We often tell a young couple who are having a hard time keeping their hands off each other, that it’s better for them to hurry up and get married even if it’s too soon, then it is for them fall into moral failure and have sex before marriage. Rather than debate if there’s any wisdom in that line of reasoning, let me just say, that’s not how the Apostle Paul was applying it. Let me set the context, earlier in 1Corinthians 7:2 Paul said, “But because there is so much sexual immorality, each man should have his own wife, and each woman should have her own husband.” These new Christians in Corinth were living in the ancient version of Las Vegas or Sin City as we call it. The Temple of Aphrodite housed well over 1,000 temple prostitutes who would walk the streets of Corinth selling their wares. Sex was literally worshipped in that culture. Being a godly Christian single in that city was incredibly difficult. Many today can probably relate with their struggle.
To this particular mindset, Paul was effectively saying, “There are indeed some people like myself who God has called to be single. If that’s God’s call on your life, wonderful make the most of your time and use it to further the Kingdom of God. However, not everyone has this call, in fact most do not. If you’re not called by God to a life of singleness then it’s better for you to find a Godly likeminded believer to marry, than it is to constantly subject yourself to all this sexual temptation in the city of Corinth. If you’re not called to be single, and force yourself into a life of singleness, you’re setting yourself up for failure.” At this point, you may be wondering, “Wait a minute, did you say some people are called to lifelong singleness?” Yes, it’s true that while the majority of men and women on the earth were designed by God to be married, there are a few that for His purposes, God has called to singleness. Jesus in Matthew 9:12 in the New Century Version said, “There are different reasons why men cannot marry. Some men were born without the ability to become fathers. Others were made that way later in life by other people. And some men have given up marriage because of the kingdom of heaven.” Without going into all the nuance of that verse, in short Jesus was simply saying that some people do not have a desire to get married. There are a select few out there who really have no desire to have children or a family one day. Likewise, they have no interest in being in a relationship nor do they have sexual desires. There is nothing wrong with them, it is simply that God designed them for a life of singleness where they can devote their time and energy into serving the Lord.
However, problems arise when those who are designed for marriage force themselves into a life of singleness in an attempt to become more spiritual. Russian born author Leo Tolstoy (War and Peace) was one such person. Tolstoy identified as a follower of Christ but practiced a form of Christianity that could be called ascetic morality. A life devoted to giving up the pleasures of the flesh to gain spirituality. He gave up many of the things he loved including; hunting, fishing, drinking, smoking and eating meat. On more than one occasion he took a vow of chastity and forced his wife to sleep in a separate bedroom. However, he was unable to keep this vow very long as his wife Sonya’s sixteen pregnancies bore witness to.
Are You Called To Singleness or To Marriage?
The vast majority of human beings were created by God to get married and have families. After God brought Eve to Adam, Genesis 2:24 says “Therefore a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and they shall become one flesh.” In a sense, it’s saying Adam and Eve were the prototypes, just as God designed them to be together, the same applies to the descendants of Adam and Eve. In the early 1990’s Elizabeth Elliot was speaking at a Christian Singles Conference on the subject of being called to singleness. During a time of question and answer, a somewhat panicked young lady in her twenties approached the microphone. You could hear the distress in her voice when she asked, “Mrs. Elliot, how do I know if I have been called to singleness or not?” Elizabeth Elliot responded by asking, “Are you single right now?” The young woman replied, “Yes, I’m single right now.” Elliot then said, “Well, then for right now you’re called to be single.”
As I stated earlier, being single is not a curse. If it was God’s ideal for you to be married, He would’ve made you that way from the beginning. Singleness is designed by God, just as Adam was created as a single man. It is in this period of your life that you can grow in the Lord. As you make the most of your time to grow deeper in Him and His Word, He molds you and makes you into the man or woman He’s called you to be. During these years of being single you can do more for the Lord.
By the way, do not be surprised if it’s while you’re growing and serving the Lord, that’s how you meet the person God has for you to marry. When I met Amy, I was serving as a youth pastor, and leading various ministries. After a few years of serving the Lord this way, one day Amy started volunteering as one of my adult helpers in the youth ministry. It was through serving the Lord together and talking with each other about God’s Word and God’s will, that I realized that she was my “suitable companion to help me” just as Eve was for Adam (GEN 2:24 Good News Translation). In fact, one evening Amy and I were at dinner talking about a particular passage, and suddenly it hit me that I thought, “I can see myself doing this with her, talking with Amy about God and His Word and His work for the rest of my life.” That’s when I knew she was the one. But it was by making the most of my time and energy for the Lord, while I was single, that I was led to the one who will be my lifelong helper to continue serving the Lord.
So, singles my encouragement to you not only for Valentine’s Day, but every day is for you to love the Lord with all your heart, mind, soul, and strength. Give your whole heart into the pursuit of knowing the Lord and serving Him. Make the most of every moment to bring glory to God for we are encouraged in 1Corinthians 10:31b, “…whatever you do, do all to the glory of God.” In fact, this encouragement really applies to all who are reading this both single and married alike. Those of us who are married should keep in mind that many of us will likely be single again one day, through widowhood, change of life or some unforeseen circumstance. Therefore, whatever our condition, whatever our status, let’s do all for the glory of God.