I have to say in preface to this section that what follows is how I understand this passage in all intellectual and expositional honesty. I as a married man can make no pretension to being able to live up to the high standard which Paul seems to be suggesting. As with much in this book, I offer the following exposition more to stimulate Bible-minded and prayerful meditation, rather than as a prescriptive statement of how a believer must live.
The power of Paul's teaching about singleness is backed up by his personal situation. As a member of the Council who condemned Stephen, he would have had to be married. An unmarried Orthodox Jew would have been a contradiction in terms at that time. And yet he is evidently single in his Christian ministry. It seems fairly certain that his wife either died or left him at the time of his conversion, probably taking the children with her. If this is so, it gives extra poignancy to his comment that he had suffered the loss of all things for the sake of his conversion (Phil. 3:8). The chances are that he thought and wrote that with a difficult glance back to that Jerusalem girl, the toddlers he'd never seen again, the life and infinite possibilities of what might have been... And it gives another angle on his description of his converts as his children.
The Corinthians had written letters to Paul asking about questions such as singleness. His reply, in 1 Corinthians 7, is as relevant to us as any of his letters to any other ecclesia. It's true that he says that his advice is prompted by " the present distress" and the fact that " the time is short" , reference to the 'last days' in the run up to AD70. We have shown above that our last days are the real, major fulfilment of the " distress" prophesied in Lk. 21, and that for those living just prior to the second coming, " the time is short" .
" It is good for a man not to touch a woman. Nevertheless, to avoid fornication, let every man have his own wife, and let every woman have her own husband. Let the husband render unto the wife due benevolence [in sexual matters]: and likewise also the wife...the wife hath not power of her own body...defraud ye not one the other [sexually], except it be with consent, that ye may give yourselves to fasting and prayer: and come together again [sexually] that Satan tempt you not for your [abstinence]. But I speak this by permission, not of commandment" (1 Corinthians 7:1-6).
The second verse tends to be taken out of context, as if Paul is saying 'To stop you using the temple prostitutes, you really should get married, because our sexual urges are just so strong'. But that would be at variance with Paul's repeated emphasis that it is " better" to be single, and that single believers should try not to marry (1 Corinthians 7: 7,8,27-29, 32-35, 38-40). The context of those first six verses seems to be a question concerning whether it was good for a believing couple to permanently stop sexual relationships, especially if only one of them wanted to do so. Paul seems to be saying: 'Ideally, yes. But the chances are you won't keep it up, one of you will succumb to fornication. So every baptized husband should have (sexually) his wife. Neither of them should refuse sex to their partner, on whatever ground, spiritual or otherwise. However, in such cases why not agree to abstinence for limited periods?'. " I speak this by permission, not of commandment" must be linked with 1 Corinthians 7 v.12: " Now to the rest speak I, not the Lord (Jesus)" . The implication is that verses 1-6 were not a repetition of Christ's teaching, neither were vv. 12 ff. But therefore we should read verses 7-11 as being 'the Lord Jesus speaking', i.e. Paul is repeating the spirit of Christ's teaching. The content of v. 7-11 concerns being single and not divorcing; it is significant that Paul says that what he said about marriage was him speaking " by permission" , but what he says about singleness is from the Lord Jesus Himself. Once this is grasped, it becomes irrelevant to suggest that Paul is only telling some in Corinth to remain single at one point in time. He is repeating the Lord's timeless message:
" For I would that all men were even as I myself. But every man hath his proper gift of God, one after this manner and another after that. I say therefore to the unmarried and widows, it is good that they abide even as I. But if they cannot contain, let them marry: for it is better to marry than to burn [in lust]" (1 Corinthians 7 v. 7-9).
Adam alone was " not good" . Adam and Eve together are described as " very good" (Gen. 1:31). Paul seems to have this in mind when he says three times that " it is good" to be single (1 Corinthians 7:1,8,26). But what's the point of this paradox? Perhaps Paul's point is: 'In the old, natural creation, it wasn't good that a man should be alone. But now, in the new creation, it's good that a man does try to live a single life, because as Adam married Eve, so we are now married to Christ'. Or it may be that attention is being drawn to the fact that God's provision of Eve was the first of God's countless concessions to human need. It was God's intention, ideally, that Adam be single, therefore he was potentially " good" in his single state. But he couldn't handle it, therefore God made him a partner. And therefore Paul says that to live the single life is " good" . But in the same way as God made a concession to Adam, so He does to believers now; " but if they cannot contain, let them marry" . Whether we agree this makes marriage a concession to human need or not, the fact is that surely single believers should at least consider the single life. Likewise Paul's invitation to follow his example of being single in order to devote himself to his Lord must be taken as seriously as his other invitations to follow his example (e.g. 1 Cor. 10:33; 11:1). He knew that he was (in the words of Robert Roberts) " a Christ-appointed model" ; the record of his life is framed to give the picture of the ideal believer.
The triple description of the single life as " good" (1 Corinthians 7:1,8,26) uses a Greek word which means 'beautiful'. Yet many a lonely, longing sister might not see anything 'beautiful' about her singleness; neither would she go along with 1 Corinthians 7:34, which says that the unmarried woman has the advantage that she can single-mindedly give herself to the things of the Lord Jesus. It may seem to her that she would serve the Lord much better if she were married. And probably so. This raises the fundamental point that by " the unmarried" Paul doesn't mean 'the single ones in the ecclesia'. He is referring to those who had consciously decided to be single, and to channel their emotional energies into the Lord Jesus. Likewise " the widows" doesn't mean 'all those sisters in the ecclesias who have lost husbands'. It surely means those widows who had devoted themselves to the Lord Jesus rather than seeking another partner, after the pattern of widows devoting themselves to the temple (cp. Lk. 2:37). The fact he recommends some younger widows to remarry (1 Tim. 5:14) is proof enough that " widows" doesn't mean 'all widows'. It may be that single and widowed brethren and sisters made open statements of their decision to devote themselves to the Lord Jesus. 1 Tim. 5:9 suggests there was a specific " number" of widows in the Ephesus ecclesia who were financially supported by the ecclesia. This, then, is the beginning of the answer to the dilemma we are in: to devote ourselves to the Lord Jesus, and so become " unmarried" in the sense Paul uses the idea in 1 Corinthians 7.
This particular sub-section I find very difficult to both understand and write about. Paul seems to be setting a standard which for me personally seems too high. But again, in all honesty, one has no right to interpret Scripture according to one's own level of comfortable spirituality. I openly admit that I find the standard Paul sets almost discouraging. I would rather understand it in another way, but in all honesty I cannot. So I resign myself to salvation by grace, and doing the best I can in response to that grace.
" But every man hath his proper (Gk. idios, his very personal) gift of God..." is often used as the get-out by many eager to justify marriage. They read it as if it means 'Well, if this is what you want, OK, but if you're cut out for the single life, well OK'. But again, this would be at variance with Paul's statement that " it is good" for all single believers to remain as himself, and that they should only marry if they can’t contain. Remember that Paul repeatedly urges that the single life " is better" . This would be irrelevant if somehow we are each predestined to be either single or married. There is an element of choice implied throughout 1 Corinthians 7. This cannot be reconciled with the idea that God has given singleness to some people, as a kind of gift of spiritual strength regardless of their own effort.
But what does it mean, to have our own personal gift from God which affects whether we are married or single? It must be connected with v.17, which is in the context of remaining in the marital position we were in at conversion: " As God hath distributed to every man, as the Lord hath called every one, so let him walk" . The gifts are distributed at our calling. The ideas are again linked in Rom. 11:29: " The gifts and calling of God are without repentance" . This idea of us each being given a gift at the time of our conversion goes back to the parable of Lk. 19:13, where each of us, Christ's servants, are given a gift to work with. The goods of the Father are divided between the sons, for them to use as they think best (Lk. 15:12). " The Kingdom of heaven is as a man travelling into a far country, who called his own servants, and delivered unto them his goods" (Mt. 25:14). Note how the calling of the servants and the giving them the gifts / goods are connected (1). The idea of called servants is alluded to in 1 Corinthians 7:22. We have each been given " gifts" at our conversion. Our 'calling' is related to our situation at the time of our conversion. There is a parallel between God distributing gifts to each of us, and Him calling us (1 Corinthians 7:17). This is to be expected from the allusion back to the parables; the gifts are given to each of us at our conversion or 'calling'.
" Every man hath his proper gift of God, one after this manner, and another after that" is in the context of answering questions about whether a believing couple should abstain from sexual relations and effectively live the single life. Paul is saying 'If at your conversion / calling you were single, then you should continue to be single. But if you were married, you should continue a normal married life, including sexual relations. God knows what He is doing. If He had intended you to be single, He would have called you as single'. And the context of 7:17,19 is similar; the question was concerning whether someone who was called to the Truth married to an unbeliever should leave them. The answer was 'No, if it's possible to live reasonably with them'. The reason was because: " As God hath distributed to every man, as the Lord hath called every one, so let him walk...let every man abide in the same calling wherein he was called" . In other words: 'If you were called in this position, well this is what the Lord gave you, marriage to an unbeliever was the gift, the talent, he gave you to work with; so better stay with the unbeliever and try to convert him. Then you will have some more talents to show to your Lord when he returns'. Our marital status at the time of conversion is being spoken of as our calling, as what we were given, one of the talents given to us, in the language of the parable. This thought alone should make whatever situation we are in seem less of a burden; it's part of the gifts, the talents, we were given at baptism. It's for us to work with it. And the same applies, Paul reasons, if you were called to the Truth as a slave. Don't fret about it, it's one of those precious talents of the parable; although naturally in that context, " if thou mayest be made free, use it" (7:21)- note the allusion to using the talents in the parable.
The idea of abiding in the same calling in which we were called is a major theme in 1 Corinthians 7 (vv. 7, 17-20, 24,27). Paul ordained this to be accepted in all ecclesias (1 Corinthians 7:17). Yet if we are honest, this is something we have completely overlooked as a community. Don't forget that Paul isn't saying 'If you're called single, well you shouldn't get married'. He's saying 'If you're called single, then it seems God intends you to give your life to the Lord, dedicate yourself to Him. Singleness is one of the talents you've been given; so use it as God intended. But I’m not insisting on this'.
We have made the point that Paul's teaching concerning singleness here is repeating that of the Lord. But where did Christ specifically speak about singleness? Surely it was when He spoke about men making themselves eunuchs for the Kingdom's sake (Mt. 19:12). The surrounding verses concerning divorce are alluded to by Paul in 1 Corinthians 7:10,11. The disciples' comment " It is not good (for single people) to marry" is picked up by Paul when he says it is " good" to be single unto the Lord. The Lord's response to " It is not good to marry" was to say that yes they were right, His single converts were intended to be eunuchs for the sake of the Gospel they had believed, but the world couldn't understand what He was saying. " All men cannot receive this saying, saving they to whom it is given" shouldn't be read as meaning that not all believers can accept singleness, only those who God has strengthened. It should be connected with Mt. 13:11: " It is given unto you to know the mysteries of the Kingdom of heaven, but to them (the world) it is not given" . The believers have been given the Gospel of the Kingdom (Jn. 17:8,14), the grace (gift) of God had been given to the Corinthians in the form of the Gospel, " the testimony of Christ" (1 Cor. 1:4,6). So " they to whom it is given" are all the believers; the world can't understand Christ's teaching here, but they (us) to whom it is given, will receive it. " He that is able to receive it, let him receive it" hardly sounds like Christ saying that if His followers wanted to be serious about what He was saying, they were welcome, but if not, not to worry. It is parallel to " he that hath ears to hear, let him hear" (e.g. Mt. 11:15; 13:9,43). This is hardly giving His followers the option to take Him seriously or not. Those who heard were His disciples (Mk. 4:24); those who didn't hear were the outside world. " There be eunuchs, which have made themselves eunuchs for the Kingdom of heaven's sake" doesn't sound like Christ was referring to OT examples; " there be eunuchs..." . He was commenting on the statement that because of the likelihood that marriage wouldn't work, it was better not to marry. He is effectively saying: the world can't understand this, but you can: those who have heard the Gospel of the Kingdom and respond to it will be willing to make themselves eunuchs, i.e. not to marry. Paul is alluding to this, although he makes a concession, in saying that although this is the " commandment of the Lord" Jesus, he had permission to allow single converts to marry.
This is more radical for us, probably, than it was for the first century church. As we have said, people married young, often for reasons other than love, and there were very few single marriageable people. Once a man or woman was an adult, they got married; hence the lack of words to differentiate a man from a husband; every man was married. The majority of converts in the early church were adults, rather than children of believers. The majority of our early brethren were therefore married.
But today things are quite different. The majority of our converts are called single. We have shown earlier that single people have a huge drive latent within them, which simply has to find expression. I believe the interpretation offered above is correct. It is God's intention that those converted single make a special commitment to devote themselves to the Lord. Therefore it was potentially possible that a huge amount could have been achieved, both in Biblical research and preaching, by the many single converts produced by the many converts from Christian families. But it seems we've missed our way here. We failed to read Mt. 19 and 1 Corinthians 7 correctly. And we pushed our single converts into family life without trying to fan their flame into yet wider and greater heights of devotion. And perhaps now the Lord is pushing us, through the increasing failure (relatively) of Christian family life, to re-think all this. If only a handful of single converts could seriously accept all this, the energy that would be unleashed into our preaching would be phenomenal. We would turn the world upside down by our preaching, as the early church did (on the admission of their bitter enemies). We would push back the frontiers of our Bible research. How many more things have we been blind to down the years, which are just waiting for some serious student to discover, uninhibited by family ties, able to give him (or her)self without distraction to deep study?
The context in 1 Corinthians 7 v.7-9 is of discussing the question of whether married believers should abstain from sexual relations. Paul is saying 'No, because you should remain in the position you were in when you were called'. He then seems to add a parenthesis in v. 8,9: " I say therefore (i.e. I will therefore later be telling) the unmarried and widows" that it is better to remain single, because of this same reason- they too should stay in the marital position they were in when they were called. This explains why when Paul starts to talk about virgins, he writes as if he is addressing the case of single converts for the first time.
" Now concerning virgins [i.e. single converts]...I suppose therefore that this is good for the present distress...it is good for a man so to be...art thou loosed from a wife? Seek not a wife. But and if thou marry, thou hast not sinned; and if a virgin marry, she hath not sinned. Nevertheless, such shall have trouble in the flesh: but I spare you" (1 Corinthians 7 v.25-28)
" Such shall have trouble in the flesh" is proof enough that if single converts get married, married life won't be a bed of roses. They were called single because that was how ideally they can serve God. It was His plan that they should take the special step of devotion to the Lord. If we go against God's plan because we seek an easier way, He allows this; but we will have trouble in the flesh. This is a principle true not only of marriage. It may be that Paul's " thorn in the flesh" (2 Cor. 12:7) was a " trouble in the flesh" as a result of realizing what God wanted through special revelations, but failing to fully do it.
" But this I say, brethren, the time is short: it remaineth, therefore, that both they that have wives be as though they have none [alluding to Abraham and Isaac in time of persecution]; and they that weep [i.e. lamenting their singleness], as though they wept not; and they that rejoice [at finding a partner] as though they rejoiced not; and they that buy [paying the dowry], as though they possessed not; and they that use this world / age / present time [this is what making use of the concession for single believers to marry in the last days is] as not abusing it [the concession re. marriage]...I would have you without carefulness [alluding to the Lord's commands not to take 'care' about the things of this life; 'I want you to be obedient to the spirit of the sermon on the mount']. He that is unmarried careth for the things that belong to the Lord, how he may please the Lord [not every single brother does this; this proves again that the " unmarried" refer to those who have consciously chosen to devote themselves to the Lord]...there is a difference also between a wife and a virgin [" difference" is the same word translated " distributed" in v.17; at the time of their calling, God gives the gift/ talent of being married to some of His daughters, and the gift of singleness to others]...she that is married careth for the things of the world, how she may please her husband [this sounds as if Paul had in mind those whose 'distribution' at conversion had been to be married to an unbeliever in the world]. And this I speak for your profit; not that I may cast a snare upon you, but for that which is comely [Gk. 'beautiful'- the beauty of a life devoted to the Lord], and that ye may attend upon the Lord without distraction" (1 Corinthians 7 v. 29-35).
Attending upon (Gk. 'being a servant at table of'') the Lord Jesus brings to mind Martha. Caring for the things that belong to the Lord Jesus (1 Corinthians 7 v. 32) alludes to Mary. And " without distraction" uses a word which occurs elsewhere only in Lk. 10:40, concerning how Martha was " cumbered" with her serving. The point of all this is to show that the married believer will tend towards the Martha position, which was a position rebuked by the Lord, in favour of that of Mary. Paul is putting before single believers the real possibility of serving the Lord practically, like Martha, but with the undistracted devotion of Mary. The fact some sisters are called to this single life indicates that because they have the physical anatomy necessary to produce children doesn't necessarily mean that this is therefore God's intention for them. All too often one hears it said that we are built to have sex and procreate, and therefore God must therefore intend marriage. But not so in every case, says the Spirit in Paul!
There is a repeated theme throughout this discourse that the life of devoted singleness to the Lord is " happier" , " better" , more 'profitable' and 'beautiful' than the married life, and that Paul's enthusiasm for this is not a snare; trying to live this kind of life isn't a trap that will strangle you. These descriptions will not be found true by anyone who half-heartedly thinks 'Well, I'll keep single and be quite enthusiastic about the Truth, but as and when a likely candidate comes along, well...'- not that I would (indeed, I couldn’t!) despise any who think like this. But what Paul is speaking about is a single convert who accepts their singleness is a talent to be worked with, not handed back to the Lord in exchange for another one (i.e. marriage). Having made this recognition, they no longer care for the things of the world, and devote themselves to pleasing Christ. There is, Paul is saying, a freedom in this level of commitment. We have seen that Paul's teaching concerning singleness is alluding to Christ's comment that those who were in a position to marry would be willing to make themselves eunuchs for the sake of the Kingdom. The idea of self-castration, obviously intended to be taken figuratively by the Lord, was that once the decision was taken, there was no desire to go back. There wasn't a problem with expressing sexual urges. Paul describes it as " standing steadfast in (the) heart, having no necessity, but having power over his own will, and hath so decreed in his heart" (1 Corinthians 7:37). The Greek for " decreed" is normally translated to judge, to divide between, as if the two options (marriage and deliberate singleness) have been weighed up, and a choice consciously made. Again, those who live the single life in the hope that one day they'll marry will not experience the blessings of the " unmarried" state which Paul speaks of. Sadly, many go through much agony because of being in this interim state between singleness and marriage. If one makes a judgment one way or the other, at least some of the agony is taken away; although if we were called single, and have followed the argument so far, the choice ought to be clear.
We've seen above that there has to be expression of sexual energy. Paul seems to be saying that this can be dissipated in the consciously chosen life of devotion to the Lord. We are pushing out into unsailed waters here. The option of being a eunuch for the Kingdom offers, according to Paul, a beauty, a personal profit, a great happiness, a lack of anxious care about the things of this life. And no-one can deny this unless they have tried it! Paul is our great example in all this, one who finished his course with joy, who could say with confidence that he had counted all as dung so that he might win Christ his Lord.
But there were those who 'became eunuchs', who took this decision in their hearts, who still found that they needed support from the opposite sex. 1 Corinthians 7:36-38 are hard to interpret, but my suggestion is that they refer to some brethren who had become " eunuchs" but had what we might call girlfriends within the ecclesia, although they did not have intercourse with them:
" If any man think that he behaveth himself uncomely [lit. not beautifully, s.w. v.35 concerning the comely beauty of the devoted single life; it the beauty of the devoted single life is marred by your relationship with your girlfriend..] toward his virgin, if she pass the flower of her age and so require, let him do what he will...let them marry [if he feels bad about the fact that he has kept her waiting so long that now she is too old to get married to anyone else, remembering that women normally got married very young, then the brother should marry her]. Nevertheless he that standeth steadfast in his heart, having no necessity, but hath power over his own will, and hath so decreed in his heart that he will keep his virgin [the Greek suggests keeping a person in a state, rather than the brother keeping his own virginity], doeth well. So then he that giveth her in marriage doeth well; but he that giveth her not in marriage doeth better" .
Notice that the emphasis is on the brother; the decision to marry or not was totally his. God speaks from the perspective of the day- the woman had no say. The man is commended, it seems, if he suppressed his own 'soft' feelings for the sister concerned, and decided to keep on with his devotion to the Lord. " Having no necessity" uses the same word as in 1 Corinthians 7:26 concerning the present " distress" of the last days (Lk. 21:23). There seems to be a word play here: 'You may feel a necessity to marry, but in the necessity of the last days it's almost a necessity not to marry'. It seems that the brethren in question had had long term relationships with these sisters but without intercourse, and, predictably, pressures were arising- not least from the brother feeling that he had rather 'used' the sister concerned. It may be that the same scenario is implied in 1 Corinthians 7:9: " If they cannot contain, let them marry: for it is better to marry than to burn" . This suggests that the people concerned had partners in mind, and they were trying to be eunuchs for the Kingdom whilst also having a close relationship with the opposite sex. Paul doesn't condemn this out of hand, but says that it's better to remain pledged to the single life, and only change if your feelings towards your 'friend' get so out of hand it will lead you into sin.
It may be that Timothy was another brother who remained single for the sake of the Gospel, but found it hard to carry it through. Paul exhorts him to flee the (sexual) lusts of youth (2 Tim. 2:22), even in middle age; and in the same context he warns him to endure hardship so that he will please Christ (2 Tim. 2:4). The only other time this idea of pleasing Christ occurs is in 1 Corinthians 7:32, where the eunuch for the sake of the Kingdom is said to concentrate on pleasing Christ. The Soncino Commentary on Ex. 33:11 likewise suggests that Joshua being described as a " young man" devoted to the service of the tabernacle implies in Hebrew that he was an unmarried man, devoted to the things of the Kingdom. However, it would seem that later he married. We will see that Hezekiah was another in this category.
There is evidence that " the single life was highly honoured and respected in the early church, sometimes even going beyond the teaching of Paul" (2). Yet for us, marriage is given more respect than singleness. The single believer is seen as somehow incomplete; there is a sense that the married home owner in a stable job is somehow spiritually strong too. Of course, there are many unstable single believers; but let's not judge the status of singleness by them. The experience of the next generation may well shatter the perception that marriage is obviously the best way for any single believer, whether or not the Biblical exposition above is accepted. I am suggesting that the Lord and Paul are asking a very high level of commitment from us. It's so high that it seems strange to us. The reason, I suggest, is that 21st Century Christianity and first century Christianity are very different- in terms of commitment, not doctrine. Consider the sort of thing that was accepted as common-place in the early church, and yet which today would be frowned upon as spiritual fanaticism:
- Converts joyfully selling all their lands and property, pooling the money, and dividing it among the poorer members. Yet we can scarcely raise the money to pay for poorer brethren to attend a Bible School.
- Husbands and wives regularly abstaining from sex so they could the more intensely pray and fast for a period of several days. Surveys of Christian prayer habits reveal that on average we spend around 10 minutes / day praying. And scarcely any fast.
- Elders who spent so much time in prayer that they had to ask others to do some practical work for them so they could continue to give the same amount of time to prayer (Acts 6:2-4).
- Young brethren, " the messenger of the churches" , who spent their lives full time running errands in dangerous situations throughout the known world.
- Over zealous brethren (in Thessalonica) who packed up their jobs because they were so sure the second coming was imminent.
- The expectation that the Gospel of Mark (at least) was to be memorized by all converts. Most Christians can scarcely quote more than 50 Bible verses- after generations of Bible study in our community.
- The assumption that all believers would make converts (1 Cor. 3:10-15).
- Widows were expected to remain single; if they remarried, this was acceptable (1 Cor. 7:39,40), but Paul describes it as 'waxing wanton against Christ' (1 Tim. 5:11) because it was a stepping down from the higher standard, which he defines as remaining single (1 Corinthians 7:40). This seems a harsh attitude to us. But this is what the Spirit taught.
- Believers were regularly persecuted, tortured, imprisoned and forced to migrate long distances unless they made what some today would consider only a tokenistic denial of their faith.
We have somehow hived off the first century church in our mind, as if to say to ourselves: 'Well, that was them, but we're in a totally different spiritual environment'. The same mind-set occurs when we consider the zeal of earlier believers. There is no doubt that the more we read the New Testament, the more we will see that the level of commitment required was high indeed. The fact many failed to rise up to it doesn't affect this. That single converts were expected to remain single would not therefore have appeared so strange, once the spiritual context of the New Testament church is perceived.
(1) The first century church saw the manifestation of this in terms of the Spirit gifts being given (cp. 1 Cor. 12:11; Eph. 4:16; 1 Pet. 4:10); but there is a non-miraculous application too, now that the gifts have been withdrawn.