First Corinthians 7--Being Married in Times of Distress, Part 2
Apr 26, 2017
After telling the Corinthian church that “the present distress” had made it advisable not to be married, he suggests another advantage to being single. 1 Corinthians 7:32-34 says,
32 But I want you to be free from concern. One who is unmarried is concerned about the things of the Lord, how he may please the Lord; 33 but one who is married is concerned about the things of the world, how he may please his wife, 34 and his interests are divided. And the woman who is unmarried, and the virgin, is concerned about the things of the Lord, that she may be holy both in body and spirit; but one who is married is concerned about the things of the world, how she may please her husband.
From a legal perspective, marriage carries certain obligations, as we have already shown. But beyond this, love itself rightfully makes one concerned about “how he may please his wife.” Such a mindset is not only natural, it is how things ought to be. Nonetheless, “his interests are divided” between his wife and the Lord. So Paul points out an advantage that single people have over those who are married.
This advantage, however, might be compared to being an inmate in prison. The prison may help an inmate focus upon “the things of the Lord,” but overall, it is not an ideal option. Under better circumstances, it would be better to be concerned about the things of the Lord as a free man than as a slave or prisoner. Hence, we should not forget the overall context in which Paul was speaking.
Holiness and Righteousness
Giving God undivided attention is “that she may be holy both in body and spirit.” This statement is sure to be misunderstood unless we know that being “holy” is not about being righteous, but about being set apart for divine service. Many have taken vows of celibacy, thinking that this was the way to obtain “holiness,” which they confuse with righteousness.
This misunderstanding caused many in the fourth century to leave society and to live in the deserts of Egypt and Syria in order to avoid worldly contamination, to pray, and to contemplate God. By doing this, many of them sought personal holiness. But in the end, their devotion took them away from the very people who most needed to see their example of a Spirit-filled life.
When God sanctified the Levites under Moses, they were set aside for divine service, having been given tithes and offerings to support them, so that they could devote their full attention to full-time ministry. Ministers who must work to support themselves are unable to devote their full energy and devotion to the work of the ministry. Their interests are divided. Hence, there is a great advantage for them to be able to stop devoting their time and energy to worldly business and to be supported in full-time ministry.
Yet this does not mean that everyone ought to quit their jobs in order to devote themselves fully to the work of ministry. All believers have a ministry, but if they all quit their jobs, who would be left to support them? From the example of the Levites and priests, we see that all Israelites were supposed to devote themselves to the Lord, but not all were specifically set aside to minister on a full-time basis.
So it is also with marriage. Paul did not expect everyone to become single in order to devote themselves fully to the Lord with undivided attention. Righteousness is a matter of following the leading of the Spirit and being obedient to His voice and His commands, regardless of whether one is married or not.
Paul continues in 1 Corinthians 7:35, saying,
35 And this I say for your own benefit; not to put a restraint upon you, but to promote what is seemly, and to secure undisturbed devotion to the Lord.
So once again, Paul makes it clear that he was not discouraging marriage, but rather, he was showing how being single could be used to a person’s advantage. If Paul had lived in happier times, it is doubtful if he would have recommended being single. But he fully expected to see Jesus’ prophecies in Matthew 24 and Luke 17 fulfilled shortly.
Paul then says in 1 Corinthians 7:36,
36 But if any man thinks that he is acting unbecomingly toward his virgin daughter, if she should be of full age, and if it must be so, let him do what he wishes, he does not sin; let her marry. 37 But he who stands firm in his heart, being under no constraint, but has authority over his own will, and has decided this in his own heart, to keep his own virgin daughter, he will do well. 38 So then both he who gives his own virgin daughter in marriage does well, and he who does not give her in marriage will do better.
To paraphrase this, Paul says that if a father believes that it is unjust to prevent his daughter from marrying, he should “let her marry.” Marriage is not a sin. On the other hand, if he sees “distress” coming, he may decide not to give his daughter in marriage and “will do better.” Even so, he is “under no constraint, but has authority over his own will.”
In every society and in every age, men’s authority was restricted legally by government decrees. But the government in Paul’s day did not place restrictions on a father’s will (that is, his legal right) to determine the marital status of his own daughter. Hence, he was free to decide either way, and the divine law as well did not command him one way or the other either.
The laws of each nation are different. Some are more restrictive than others, but all of them leave some measure of responsibility to individuals. God’s law does the same, for it leaves many matters to the conscience. Where the law does not constrain their actions, God expects people to be led by the Spirit. Hence, there are times when some course of action may not be addressed by any command of law, and yet it could be a sin according to God’s specific leading.
Finally, Paul summarizes this topic of marriage in 1 Corinthians 7:39, 40,
39 A wife is bound as long as her husband lives; but if her husband is dead, she is free to be married to whom she wishes, only in the Lord. 40 But in my opinion she is happier if she remains as she is; and I think that I also have the Spirit of God.
Paul’s point was to say that if a woman is married, she should consider herself bound (by law) to her husband. In other words, the present distress should not be used to justify separation or divorce. The laws of marriage must be respected, and conscience should not be used to overrule the law. The Spirit of God does not lead people to violate His own law. But if her husband is dead, and she is a widow, she is free either to remarry or to remain single. The law of God does not attempt to restrict one’s freedom in such matters.
This law of marriage contracts is expanded in Romans 7:1-3,
1 Or do you not know, brethren (for I am speaking to those who know the law), that the law has jurisdiction over a person as long as he lives? 2 For the married woman is bound by law to her husband while he is living; but if her husband dies, she is released from the law concerning her husband. 3 So then if, while her husband is living, she is joined to another man, she shall be called an adulteress; but if her husband dies, she is free from the law, so that she is not an adulteress, though she is joined to another man.
In both Romans 7 and in 1 Corinthians 7, Paul shows that marriage is a legal contract that is regulated by God’s law. The law respects men’s right to enter into such contracts, but once a contract (or promise) has been made, they are bound by their word. Marriage is supposed to be a life-long contract, ending only with the death of one spouse.
Some have used this, however, as a way of contradicting the law’s provision for divorce in Deuteronomy 24:1-4. Doing this, however, only pits one law against another in an attempt to make Scripture contradict itself. Such arguments are destructive. In these passages, Paul was not commenting on the laws of divorce.
Law and Conscience
In Romans 7:1 we read that Paul was “speaking to those who know the law.” He had not yet taught in Rome, but he knew that the saints in Rome had already learned the law. No doubt Paul taught the law also to the Corinthian church, as well as to the other churches that he established. Having the basic knowledge of the law was a good start, but the law did not answer every question, for as I said earlier, the law left much to the conscience.
Where the law is silent, the conscience must be utilized. Conscience, as part of our being, was created by God, but it is shaped by man, his beliefs, culture, and environment. For this reason, conscience is man-made until the Holy Spirit begins to shape it according to the will of God. This occurs through the knowledge of the underlying principles in the word of God and by personal experience as we are led by the Spirit.
Paul’s epistles focus mostly upon these “gray areas” where the law is silent. When the law forbids murder and adultery, no one has the right to appeal to conscience, because even if a culture glorifies murder of “an enemy,” this does not make it right in the eyes of God. One’s conscience does not have veto power over the law of God.
Paul’s letters grapple with matters of conscience, rather than of law. This is seen throughout the seventh chapter of First Corinthians in matters of celibacy and marriage. In the next chapter, Paul will deal with a different matter of conscience—whether or not a person should eat food that has been sacrificed (or dedicated) to idols.
This is part 33 of a series titled "Studies in First Corinthians." To view all parts, click the link below.