… according to 1 Corinthians 7
32 I want you to be free from anxieties. The unmarried man is anxious about the things of the Lord, how to please the Lord. 33 But the married man is anxious about worldly things, how to please his wife, 34 and his interests are divided. And the unmarried or betrothed woman is anxious about the things of the Lord, how to be holy in body and spirit. But the married woman is anxious about worldly things, how to please her husband. 35 I say this for your own benefit, not to lay any restraint upon you, but to promote good order and to secure your undivided devotion to the Lord.
(1 Corinthians 7:25-35 ESV)
Most Christians probably tend to think that the default situation of people when they grow up is to be married. Most Christians view marriage as being an institution of great value that is to be protected and promoted. But not much is said in the Christian church generally about the value of singleness.
The Apostle Paul teaches in 1 Cor 7 that celibacy is good for those who have that gift. He says in 1 Cor 7:1 that celibacy is actually good: “it is good for a man not to touch a woman.” The word touch here is a euphemism for sexual relations. Abstaining from sexual relations in order to live as a celibate person is good if God has given you that gift.
In fact, in 1 Cor 7:25–35, Paul argues that virgins (i.e., young unmarried people) should not get married unless they really have to. The preferred option is actually to stay celibate, unless of course the virgin in question does not have that gift. The default situation for Christians who are unmarried is to stay in their current state (see 1 Cor 7:17, 24), which is the state of singleness. If a person, having considered the gift that God has given to him or her, wants to get married, then there is no shame in getting married. It is not a sin to marry someone who is of the opposite sex who is eligible for marriage (1 Cor 7:28). In fact, if a person does not have the gift of celibacy, then that person should get married, “for it is better to marry than to burn [with passion]” (1 Cor 7:9).
But it is interesting how marriage is not the preferred option as far as Paul is concerned. Even though most people grow up to have an active sex drive, Paul provides three reasons as to why celibacy is the default and preferred option.
The first reason is mentioned in 1 Cor 7:26.
Paul says that in the light of “the present suffering … it is good for a man to stay as he is.” It is not obvious what the expression the present suffering refers to, but it is presumably related to what Paul says in 1 Cor 7:29 about the time being short. Paul also speaks in 1 Cor 7:28 about trouble or difficulty that married people have in this world (literally: in relation to the flesh). Life in a fallen world means that marriage is not easy at the best of times. There is the pain of conflict in the relationship between husband and wife. No matter how united a married couple may be, there will be times when they hurt each other. There is also the pain of childbirth that the majority of women who are married experience. There is also the suffering that comes with worrying about and caring for one’s spouse and children. And in a changeable world, with disasters, droughts, famines, and wars, a parent’s ordinary cares and concerns can easily be multiplied. These are the normal difficulties of married life.
In addition, if the expression the present suffering is to be linked with the shortness of the time, Paul’s concern here also includes the increased possibility of suffering and persecution as a result of the current age in which Christians live, which is the final stage in the history of the world prior to the eternal state. The first coming of Christ has ushered in the end of the age and the birth pains associated with this (see Matt 24:7–8). Being married and having a family in such circumstances has the potential to bring a married person extra pain and suffering.
The second reason why marriage is not the preferred option is because, as Paul states in 1 Cor 7:29, “the time is short.”
In other words, the day of judgment is coming. If the time was short back when Paul was writing to the Corinthians, it must be shorter now. According to Paul, the reality of the impending end of the current stage of world history should influence our attitude to marriage and life in general. In relation to marriage, Paul says that if a man has a wife, he should virtually live as if he did not have one (1 Cor 7:29), “for the form of this world is passing away” (1 Cor 7:31). This means that even if a person is married, one day soon that person’s relationship with his or her spouse will change, the presumption being that marriage no longer applies in the world to come. So the closer that the end of the world is, and the more that a person is aware of that, the less relevant marriage effectively will be. And it may be for some of God’s people that the knowledge of the shortness of the remaining time will be sufficient to keep them happily celibate.
The third reason for not getting married has to do with how devoted a person can be to serving God. Paul wants Christians to be free to serve God to the maximum of their ability. When you are single, you have a greater degree of freedom in how you can serve God. But once married, things change. A married person has to think about the things of this world in addition to the things of God (1 Cor 7:33–34). Instead of simply considering what you can do for God today, once married, you have to consider what your spouse and family need. If you are married, you need to spend a lot of time interacting with and understanding your husband or wife; and when you have children, you spend a lot of time and energy in providing for the family. So being married can affect how we serve God. On the whole, being married means that a person does not have the freedom to serve God in a full-on sense in the way that a single person can.
So, according to Paul, celibacy is the preferred state for a Christian.
At the same time, however, it is true that not everyone has the gift of celibacy. That is why Paul says in 1 Cor 7:35 that his teaching on celibacy as being the preferred option is for our benefit and not designed to be burdensome. What Paul desires is that every Christian should be serving God according to his or her gifts. The ideal is celibacy, which allows the person in question to be devoted to the Lord without distraction; but if you do not have the gift of celibacy, and you try to follow a celibate lifestyle as the preferred option, you will not succeed. In fact, trying to live as a celibate person while having sexual desires is a recipe for distraction and potential failure in one’s service of God.
In the end, therefore, it comes down to each person’s gifting in relation to marriage and celibacy; but while acknowledging this, the value and benefits of singleness should also be taught by the Christian church alongside the value and benefits of marriage.
Steven Coxhead has served as a visiting lecturer in Hebrew and the Old Testament at the Sydney Missionary and Bible College since 2002. He also teaches Johannine Theology and the Old Testament at the Wesley Institute in Sydney. In addition he has worked as a part-time lecturer at the Presbyterian Theological Centre in Sydney from 2002–2010, teaching the Old Testament, Romans, John’s Gospel, Biblical Hebrew, and New Testament Greek. He has had experience teaching Old Testament, New Testament, and Systematic Theology in South-East Asia.