“Not many Western Christians give adequate consideration to the possibility of remaining unmarried for the sake of wholehearted devotion to the Lord’s work. More need to do so.” – Craig Blomberg
As we are continuing in our Dysfunctional Church sermon series, there will be sections of scripture that we’ll have to skip over in our weekend services because it would take several years to do a sermon series on the whole book. Occasionally, I’ll try to fill in some of the gaps with a blog. This blog will cover 1 Corinthians 7:25-35 and the issue of singleness. I would advise reading this blog with your Bible open because there won’t be space to cite these verses.
If I totaled the amount of time I’ve been in a relationship, I could say that I’ve been single for thirty-two of the thirty-three years I’ve been alive. There have been times when loneliness has crushed me and my desire for and valuing of being in a relationship was scandalous idolatry. Within the past couple of years (after years of pleading with God), I think that God’s grace has removed that idol from my heart. That doesn’t mean that I think finding myself in a healthy marriage one day is out of the picture, but through studying this particular section of scripture, the Lord has opened my mind and heart to thinking about other options. I hope that if you are single, the Lord will begin to work the same way in your life.
Where the Western church gets dysfunctional in this is when it treats singles as second-class citizens. The single Christian can be left feeling that certain levels of the Christian life can’t be unlocked, a certain maturity can’t come, until they get married. This is not only foreign to scripture, but it leads people to feel incomplete and to avoid the type of consideration of choosing singleness that Paul advises in 1 Corinthians. So let’s look at the text.
. . . But First (1 Cor. 7:9)
Paul talks here to the unmarried and widows: “But if they do not have self-control, they should marry, since it is better to marry than to burn with desire.” This should go with everything Paul is about to say. Marriage is good and is something that should be pursued if the Christian cannot control their sexual desires. Paul often prioritizes the fight against sexual immorality in the pursuit of sanctification (1 Thess. 4:3-4), and so, consider this: someone who lacks self-control actually pursues greater devotion to the Lord through getting married.
If you are someone who is currently unable to control your desires but don’t have a prospect for marriage, know this: God is sovereign. What this means for you is that his giving you or not giving you something is for your good. 2 Pet. 1:3 says that God’s divine power has given us everything we need for a life of godliness. And so, a sovereign God who chooses not to give you marriage yet has given you Holy Spirit power to learn to live a life of self-control. He has also given you a church family that will come along side you, pray for you, and keep you busy. This battle may take years, but it is what you are called to in this time. If the Lord gives you victory, maybe he’ll then give you the strength to pursue singleness.
The Married Will Have Trouble in This Life (1 Cor. 7:25-28)
Paul starts off here saying he has no command from the Lord. It’s necessary to point out that this probably means he had heard of no tradition where Jesus specifically gave a command to those who are unmarried (whether to stay single or get married). This does not mean that what he says is not from God. In fact, he says that his opinion is a faithful one as God’s mercy has granted him great wisdom. So what does Paul understand godly wisdom to say about this issue? That it is better because of the present time that the single remain unmarried because the married will have trouble in this life. Marriage is still good and not sinful, but Paul is adamant: if we give careful consideration to WHEN we are, we’ll be careful to choose what allows us to run our race as hard as we can (Phil. 3:12-15).
The Wilderness Mindset (1 Cor. 7:29-31)
Paul points to the idea of the time that we live in—that is, the post-resurrection/pre-kingdom time. Later in 1 Corinthians 10, Paul will use the analogy of the exodus in terms of placing us where we are spiritually as Christians. Through Christ, we have been brought out of slavery in the Egypt of sin and death, we have walked through the Red Sea in our baptism, and now we live in the wilderness of the world awaiting the Promised Land of God’s kingdom with God tabernacling in us through his Holy Spirit. And while God took care of the Israelites, fed them with manna and quail, and lived among them, he continually led them around the wilderness so that they wouldn’t get comfortable. He didn’t want them to put down roots in the sand of the wilderness and grow content with it. He was leading them into a rich, beautiful land where they would have all that they needed, but in the wilderness, he was instructing them in both obedience and dependence on him (Deut. 8). Christians live in a temporary “wilderness” time.
So when Paul goes on to say that, considering the time that we’re in, those who have wives should live as though they do not, he is not advising that married Christians should neglect their spouses but that they should understand that their marriage is not eternal (it ends at death), and its purpose in this life in the wilderness is as a tool to lead us to obedience to God and dependence on God. Paul did not want any believer’s heart and mind to be attached to this world but on the kingdom to come.
And while I must stress that marriage is a good, beautiful, and God-glorifying thing, it is among the things that are passing away (except for the eternal and ultimate marriage of the Church and Christ). It also comes with the possibility of adding earthly cares and concerns to this life. It is no wonder that Paul encouraged the pursuit of singleness. Paul was worried that Christians might start to forget they are in the wilderness. And I fear, especially in our day, we have done just that.
Be Without Worldly Concerns (1 Cor. 7:32-35)
The obvious objection to what Paul says here is that not every Christian who is single is devoted to the Lord. No, but he is specifically talking about those who have chosen singleness for devotion. There are just certain worldly cares and concerns that come with marriage. Anyone who is married can tell you that. It is nearly impossible to be 24/7 available to your brothers and sisters in Christ when you must provide for your family. To provide for the needs of your family is good and right, but it limits the missions trips you can go on, the churches you can help plant, the people you can disciple and visit, your time in Scripture and prayer, etc.
John Piper once said, commenting on Hebrews 12:1, that even good things are a hindrance if they don’t help you run the race of your relationship with God, kingdom advancement, and the pursuit of holiness in yourself and in the church. If you are single, are you considering doing whatever it takes in order to run the race in full?
I think that Craig Blomberg is right and that more Christians need to consider choosing singleness. But the tenor of the New Testament is that this is not a choice that many will choose. It requires a special gift of grace from the Spirit, and in this, those who choose singleness for the sake of devotion to God should be held in high honor in the church. But if we aren’t even considering it, are we really aware of WHEN we are? If we aren’t praying for the ability through the Spirit to remain unmarried, do we understand that these are the last days in the wilderness? Worldly marriage is fading away, but Christ and his kingdom are forever.
-Alex Nolette (Equip Coordinator/Community Groups)