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Don't Get Married

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One of the most ignored and misunderstood chapters in the New Testament, and perhaps the whole Bible, is 1 Corinthians 7. In this chapter Paul makes the argument that unmarried people should stay unmarried, because they will be better suited to serve the Lord without having a “physical” mate to worry about.

 “But I say to the unmarried and to widows that it is good for them if they remain even as I. But if they do not have self-control let them marry; for it is better to marry than to burn with passion…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; but one who is married is concerned about the things of the world, how he may please his wife and his interests are divided. The woman who is unmarried, and the virgin, is concerned about the things of the Lord, that she may be holy in both body and spirit; but one who is married is concerned about the things of the world, how she may please her husband” (1 Cor 7: 8–9; 32–34).

As simple as the Apostle Paul’s words are here, there has been no end of speculation and re-wording of his plain and intended meaning. Many are quick to point out that Paul is giving his opinion here (7:6, 25, 40) and not a direct commandment from the Lord. However, is not ALL of scripture inspired? Are only parts of the Bible “God-breathed?”

Charles Hodge believes that Paul is giving permission to get married, although that is not preferred. “Marriage, in other words, is permitted, not commanded….The Apostle did not take sides with the extreme Jewish party, who regarded marriage as obligatory.”[1] Hodge also points out that in Ephesians 5, Paul “represents marriage as a most ennobling spiritual union.”[2] Also, Paul states in 1 Timothy 3:2–4 that elders in the church must be married to only one wife and rule their own house well. Is Paul arguing against Paul here?

The key to understanding this difficult passage is context. In 1 Corinthians 7:1, Paul gives the hermeneutic for the rest of the chapter. “Now, concerning the things whereof you wrote unto me: It is good for a man not to touch a woman.” It is imperative that we read the following verses of the chapter in light of this introduction. Paul is not claiming normative doctrine for the entire church for all of time. He is responding to specific questions that the Corinthians asked him. He writes in Chapter 5, that “it is commonly reported that there is fornication among you.” There appears to be a sort of sexual perversion happening in Corinth that is rampant in the church and this is not the first time Paul wrote to them concerning it (1 Cor. 5:9). With this in mind, Paul’s statements in verse 9 make sense—it is certainly better to be married and having lawful sexual relations, than to be an unmarried fornicator. “Nevertheless, to avoid fornication, let every man have his own wife, and let every woman have her own husband” (v.2).

The next several verses warn about getting married simply to avoid fornication, because marriage is a big responsibility. Paul wishes that they could exercise self-control instead. In verses 10–16, Paul gives the Lord’s commands to those who are or soon will be married. Here he is in complete agreement with Peter’s writings in 1 Peter 3:1–7. But when we get to verse 25, Paul seems to reverse himself and argue against hasty, fornication-avoiding marriage. Why? Because of the “present distress.” Here we need to remember the verse-1 hermeneutic of Paul writing to a specific church, in a specific area of the world, at a specific time, answering specific questions that they had. What “present distress” would cause Paul to counsel against marriage? Simon Kistemaker believes that it could be a famine. If this is the case, he states:

Paul’s advice to an unmarried person is appropriate, for such a person can endure the hardship of a famine much better than parents who daily have to provide for their children. If we consider the “present crisis” in the light of Paul’s discussion on the celebration of the Lord’s Supper, we see a possible indicator of a famine. In at least two passages, Paul mentions that some Corinthians are hungry when they come to the Lord’s table (11:21, 34).[3]

While this is a possibility, I really don’t think it fits. Joseph never counseled the Egyptians to stop having children or not to get married because of the seven lean years. He made preparations. Jesus admonishes his hearers (and us) in the Sermon on the Mount not to worry about food or drink (Matt. 6: 25–26). I believe that the only logical event that could cause Paul to give such counsel was the impending destruction of Jerusalem (Matt. 24; Mark 13; Luke 21) and the shaking of “not the earth only, but also heaven” (Heb. 12: 26–27). Paul tells the Corinthians that “the time is short” (1 Cor. 7:29) and that the “fashion of this world is passing away” (v. 31). Jesus said in the Olivet Discourse that “this generation shall not pass until all these things be fulfilled” (Matt. 24:34). One of “these things” is “great tribulation, such as was not since the beginning of the world to this time, no, nor ever shall be” (Matt. 24:21). Jesus gives the time frame—“this generation”—but not the exact day: “but of that day and hour knoweth no man” (24:36). This looming catastrophe that was about to befall Jerusalem and the entire Old Covenant order is what causes Paul to counsel the Corinthians to remain unencumbered by families and spouses, if at all possible. Kistemaker’s famine idea is certainly plausible because Jesus also states that “there shall be famines, and pestilences, and earthquakes, in various places” (Matt. 24:7b), but this only part of the story. The first-century church was about to witness the “great tribulation” and having nothing in this world to give them pause was valuable counsel, hence Paul’s words in 1 Corinthians 7.

Endnotes:

[1] Charles Hodge, 1 and 2 Corinthians (Carlisle, PA: Banner of Truth, 1959), 111.
[2] Hodge, 1 and 2 Corinthians, 112.
[3] Simon Kistemaker, 1 Corinthians (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 1993), 238–239.

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