But Singles May Have the Advantage
A Study of 1 Corinthians 7
Sometimes we have a person who comes to the Lord from a totally pagan background. They don’t know the first thing about being a Christian, and it’s all very new and strange to them. The Christian lifestyle is foreign to them and represents a cultural shock. It’s sort of refreshing to see someone who comes to Christ from a non-Christian environment, but there are challenges along the way. That’s what Paul learned when he planted a church in the city of Corinth. Paul himself had come to faith in Christ from a Jewish background, so he knew all about the context of a Creator-God who was holy and yet just, who wanted us to live in conformity to His character, who had provided a Passover lamb for our salvation. Becoming a Christian was a shock to Paul, but at least his background in Judaism was a good preparation for it. It provided context. But in the city of Corinth, people were coming to Christ from sheer paganism. They had been highly immoral, and they thought immorality was the norm. They were confused about the whole concept of sexual purity and Christian marriage. So they wrote and asked Paul to explain the difference between being a Christian and a pagan, as it related to being single or married. The result is Paul’s answer, which we call 1 Corinthians 7. This is a very long chapter—too long for me to do anything more than to read it with a few annotations. Its purpose is to encourage us to rejoice and love for the Lord, whatever our marital state. As I read and re-read this passage, it seems to me the apostle Paul was simply giving the Corinthians a series of bullet points.
1. Being single is good; being married is good. It all depends on how God leads you (Verse 1-2)
Verse 1: Now for the matters you wrote about. It is good for a man not to have sexual relations with a woman.
In other words, it is good to be single. That is a desirable state. It’s pleasing to the Lord. It’s advantageous. The word “good” is a word that conveys the character of God and the things that are pleasing to Him. It is good for a man to be single. But he quickly goes on to say that being married is good too.
Verse 2: But since sexual immorality is occurring, each man should have sexual relations with his own wife, and each woman with her own husband.
While there are advantages to being single, there is one thing about being married that is undeniable. It provides a biblical outlet for intimacy. So marriage is good too.
2. If you are married you should stay sexually active. If you are single, you should not (Verses 3-5).
The husband should fulfill his marital duty to his wife, and likewise the wife to her husband. The wife does not have authority over her own body but yields it to her husband. In the same way, the husband does not have authority over his own body but yields it to his wife. Do not deprive each other except perhaps by mutual consent and for a time, so that you may devote yourselves to prayer. Then come together again so that Satan will not tempt you because of your lack of self-control.
The purpose he gives for getting married is because “sexual immorality is occurring” (verse 2). Here Paul is reiterating God’s one rule about sex—it’s to be practiced within the context of a marital relationship of one man and one woman.
3. In either case—married or unmarried—consider your status as a gift from God (Verse 6–7).
Verse 6: I say this as a concession, not as a command. I wish that all of you were as I am. But each of you has your own gift from God; one has this gift, another has that.
The apostle Paul prefers the single life for himself, and he enjoys being single so much that he wishes everyone could share in that blessing. But some have one blessing (being married) and others have another blessing (being single). If you’re in God’s will, that’s good.
4. Stay single if you can but get married if you must (Verse 8-9)
Verse 8: Now to the unmarried and the widows I say: It is good for them to stay unmarried, as I do. But if they cannot control themselves, they should marry, for it is better to marry than to burn with passion.
5. If you are married, work hard to stay happily married, even if your spouse is not a Christian (Verses 10-14)
To the married I give this command (not I, but the Lord): A wife must not separate from her husband. But if she does, she must remain unmarried or else be reconciled to her husband. And a husband must not divorce his wife.
Verse 12: To the rest I say this (I, not the Lord): If any brother has a wife who is not a believer and she is willing to live with him, he must not divorce her. And if a woman has a husband who is not a believer and he is willing to live with her, she must not divorce him. For the unbelieving husband has been sanctified through his wife, and the unbelieving wife has been sanctified through her believing husband. Otherwise your children would be unclean, but as it is, they are holy.
I dealt with this passage a few months ago in a sermon I called “Be The One Percent.” When Paul was aboard the sinking ship in the book of Acts, there were three Christians among almost 300 people; yet the Lord saved the whole ship for the sake of the three. We may be the only Christian in any group, but God has a way of influencing that group through us. The Bible says the kingdom of God is like leaven. We may only make up a small proportion of our home or town or nation, but a small minority of godly people, committed to Jesus Christ and to the authority of Scripture, can forestall judgment and siphon grace into a society in a way that far exceeds their proportional presence. You may be the only Christian in your family, but your presence there can have an evangelistic and a sanctifying impact on everyone else. So if your spouse is a non-Christian, remained married to him or her if you can.
6. If that unbelieving spouse leaves, you’re free to marry someone else, but make sure you marry a Christian (Verse 15-16)
Verse 15: But if the unbeliever leaves, let it be so. The brother or the sister is not bound in such circumstances; God has called us to live in peace. And later (in verse 40) Paul will say that when and if you get married, that person must belong to the Lord.
7. Whatever your situation, don’t be discontent with how God has led you but seek to take advantage of it for the Lord (Verse 17-24)
Verse 17: Nevertheless, each person should live as a believer in whatever situation the Lord has assigned to them, just as God has called them. This is the rule I lay down in all the churches. Was a man already circumcised when he was called? He should not become uncircumcised. Was a man uncircumcised when he was called? He should not be circumcised. Circumcision is nothing and circumcision is nothing. Keeping God’s commands is what counts.
In other words, whether you are a Jew or a Gentile, whether you are married or single—don’t obsess over that. Don’t worry too much about that. Don’t be content with how God has let you but seek to take advantage of your circumstances, whatever they are, for the Lord. Keep His commands and live with Him with all your heart.
Verse 20: Each person should remain in the situation they were in when God called them.
…until, of course, God leads otherwise.
Verse 21: Where you a slave when you were called? Don’t let it trouble you….
Look at those five words: “Don’t let it trouble you….” You may be in a set of circumstances now that you don’t like. Perhaps there’s nothing you can do about it. Well, don’t let it trouble you. Trust God with it, but if you can improve things, that, of course, go ahead a do it. Don’t let it trouble you—although if you can gain your freedom, do so.
Verse 22: For the one who was a slave when called to faith in the Lord is the Lord’s freed person; similarly, the one who was free when called is Christ’s save. You were bought at a price; do not become slaves of human beings. Brothers and sisters, each person, as responsible to God, should remain in the situation they were in when God called them.
So, again, repeating the point, whatever your situation, don’t be discontent with how god has let you but seek to take advantage of your condition in life to serve the Lord.
8. It’s often easier to be single, but the important thing is not your marital or emotional or economic status, but your spiritual status (Verse 25-31)
Verse 25: Now about virgins [that is, single people]: I have no command from the Lord, but I give a judgment as one who by the Lord’s mercy is trustworthy. Because of the present crisis (the coming wave of persecution that is sweeping over the world), I think that it is good for a man to remain as he is. Are you pledged to a woman (engaged)? Do not seek to be released. Are you free from such a commitment? Do not look for a wife. But if you do marry, you have not sinned; and if a virgin marries, she has not sinned. But those who marry will face many troubles in this life, and I want to spare you this.
When soldiers break into your home in the middle of the night to haul you off to the torture chamber for your faith in Jesus Christ, it might be easier if you don’t have a wife and children to worry about.
What I mean, brothers and sisters, is that the time is short. From now on those who have wives should live as if they do not….
Now, you don’t want to take this verse out of context! The apostle Paul is saying that if soldiers break into your house to haul you way because of your faith in Christ, you can’t deny your faith. You’ll have to trust your wife and children to the Lord and let the soldiers take you away. The Lord comes first.
…those who mourn, as if they did not….
That is, you’ll be tempted to be said and mourn, but you need to keep your eyes on Jesus and rejoice that you’re called on to suffer for Him.
…those who are happy, as if they were not…
You may forfeit the happiness of home and family for the sake of the Gospel.
…those who buy something, as if it were not there to keep; …those who use the things of the world, as if not engrossed in them.
You may lose your possessions. This might be the Bible’s best verse about making purchases and accumulating “stuff” in life. We may gather some of this world’s possessions, but don’t become obsessed or engrossed in them. Don’t fall in love with them. In an age of persecution, all these things can be taken from you in an instant. Whether you are single or married, or rich or poor, remember that Christ comes first.
For this world in its present form is passing away. This passage reminds us of what the apostle John said in 1 John 2:15-17, about not loving the world or anything that is in the world, because the world is passing away, and all that is in it.
9. When you’re unmarried, you can devote yourself exclusively to the Lord, and that’s a wonderful thing. When you’re married, you need to work hard to please bot the Lord and your spouse. But that’s good too (Verses 32-35)
I would like you to be free from concern. An unmarried man is concerned about the Lord’s affairs—how he can please the Lord. But a married man is concerned about the affairs of this world—how he can please his wife—and his interests are divided. An unmarried woman or virgin is concerned about the Lord’s affairs: Her aim is to be devoted to the Lord is both body and spirit. But a married woman is concerned about the affairs of this world—how she can please her husband. I am saying this for your own good, not to restrict you, but that you may live in a right way in undivided devotion to the Lord.
10. Whether You Marry or Remain Unmarried—It is the Right Thing if God Has Led You (Verses 36-40).
If anyone is worried that he might not be acting honorably toward the virgin he is engaged to, and if his passions are too strong and he feels he ought to marry, he should do as he wants. He is not sinning. They should get married. But the man who has settled the matter in his own mind, who is under no compulsion but has control over his own will, and who has made up his mind not to marry the virgin—this man also does the right thing. So then, he who marries the virgin does right, but he who does not marry does better.
You can tell the Apostle Paul was happy to go about his work in an unmarried state. He was totally free to serve the Lord without the burden of caring for a family. We get the idea it’s a toss-up, whether we are married or unmarried; but the advantage might be to singles. Paul goes on to say that if your spouse dies, you are free to remarry; but first, you ought to think long and hard about the advantages of being unmarried
Verses 39-40: A woman is bound to her husband as long as he lives. But if her husband dies, she is free to marry anyone she wishes, but he must belong to the Lord. In my judgment, she is happier if she stays as she is—and I think that I too have the Spirit of God.
Conclusion: The other day, I finished the biography of a British missionary to Uganda. Her name was Florence Allshorn, and she served several years in Africa before returning to England to establish a series of rehabilitation and refreshment centers for returning and burned-out missionaries. She was unmarried, and her biographer summed up her attitude toward it in this way, which I think corresponds exactly to what the apostle Paul says in 1 Corinthians 7. In her view, marriage, like all the other conditions in life, was a circumstance, and the thing that mattered, as she always insisted, was what you did with your circumstances. If you were married, you had one set of joys, opportunities and problems and, if you were unmarried, you had another set. Florence believed that life could be lived fully in either set of circumstances.
Just before she died, she gave a final address and this is what she said: “I don’t think it makes any difference whether you are married or unmarried. Whether you are married or unmarried is a circumstance within the Christian life. If you are married, you have a special task; if you are unmarried, you have something else to do…. I had no parents since the age of three. I never had any money, never had any future, I tried to be an artist and couldn’t, I never had husband or children, yet I am as happy as anybody I know. I am really fulfilled. So I do not think it matters” [J. H. Oldham Florence Allshorn (NY: Harper and Brothers, ud), 118-119].
That was essentially the conclusion of the apostle Paul. The Corinthian culture was very immoral, and the new Corinthian Christians were having a hard time figuring out the biblical concepts of marriage and abstinence and morality. They were confused about what it meant to live a pure live as a husband, as a wife, or as an unmarried person. The whole concept of Christian marriage was new to them. So the apostle Paul wrote chapter 7, in which he said:
- Being single is good. Being married is good. It all depends on how God leads you.
- If you are married, you should be sexually active. If you are single, you should not be.
- In either case—married or unmarried—consider your status as a gift from God.
- Stay single if you can, but get married if you must.
- If you are married, work hard to stay happily married, even if your spouse is not a Christian.
- If that unbelieving spouse leaves, you’re free to marry someone else, but make sure you marry a Christian.
- Whatever your situation, don’t be discontent with how God has led you but seek to take advantage of it for the Lord.
- It’s often easier to be single, but the important thing is not your marital or emotional or economic status, but your spiritual status.
- When you’re unmarried, you can devote yourself exclusively to the Lord, and that’s a wonderful thing. When you’re married, you need to work hard to please both the Lord and the person to whom you are married. And that’s good too.
So which is better? To be married or unmarried? It’s a toss-up, but there are some great advantages of being unmarried.
The Apostle Paul