Guidelines for Single Christians
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. (7:8–9)
These verses answer the question, “Should those who were married and divorced before becoming Christians remarry?” No doubt that was a key question in the Corinthian church. Formerly married people came to salvation in Christ and asked if they now had the right to marry someone else. Paul’s response here is uniquely fitted to those who want to know their options.
The unmarried and widows are the two categories of single people mentioned here, but there is a third category of single people (“virgins”) indicated in verse 25. Understanding the distinctions in regard to these three groups is essential. “Virgins” (parthenoi) clearly refers to single people who have never been married. Widows (chērais) are single people who formerly were married but were severed from that relationship by the death of the spouse. That leaves the matter of the unmarried. Who are they?
The term unmarried (agamos, from “wedding, or marriage,” with the negative prefix a) is used only four times in the New Testament, and all four are in this chapter. We need go nowhere else for understanding of this key term. Verse 32 uses it in a way that gives little hint as to its specific meaning; it simply refers to a person who is not married. Verse 34 uses it more definitively: “the woman who is unmarried, and the virgin.” We assume Paul has two distinct groups in mind: whoever the unmarried are, they are not virgins. Verse 8 speaks to “the unmarried and to widows,” so we can conclude that the unmarried are not widows. The clearest insight comes in the use of the term in verses 10 and 11: “the wife should not leave [divorce] her husband (but if she does leave, let her remain unmarried.…).” The term unmarried indicates those who were previously married, but are not widows; people who are now single, but are not virgins. The unmarried woman, therefore, is a divorced woman.
Paul is speaking to people who were divorced before coming to Christ. They wanted to know if they had the right to marry. His word to them is that it is good for them who are now free of marriage to remain even as I. By that statement Paul affirms that he was formerly married. Because marriage seems to have been required for membership in the Sanhedrin, to which Paul may once have belonged, because he had been so devoutly committed to Pharisaic tradition (Gal. 1:14), and because he refers to one who could have been his wife’s mother (Rom. 16:13), we may assume that he was once married. His statement here to the previously married confirms that—even as I. Likely he was a widower. He does not identify with the virgins but with the unmarried and widows, that is, with the formerly married.
The point is that those who are single when converted to Christ should know that it is good for them to stay that way. There is no need to rush into marriage. Many well-meaning Christians are not content to let people remain single. The urge to play cupid and matchmaker can be strong, but mature believers must resist it. Marriage is not necessary or superior to singleness, and it limits some potential for service to Christ (vv. 32–34).
One of the most beautiful stories associated with Jesus’ birth and infancy is that of Anna. When Mary and Joseph brought the baby Jesus to the Temple to present Him to the Lord and to offer a sacrifice, the prophetess Anna recognized Jesus as the Messiah. Much as Simeon had done a short while before, “she came up and began giving thanks to God, and continued to speak of Him to all those who were looking for the redemption of Jerusalem.” Her husband had lived only seven years after their marriage, and she had since remained a widow At the age of 84 she was still faithfully serving the Lord in His Temple, “serving night and day with fastings and prayers” (Luke 2:21–38). She did not look on her lot as inferior and certainly not as meaningless. She had the gift of singleness and used it joyfully in the Lord’s work.
Later in the chapter Paul advised believers to remain as they were. Staying single was not wrong, and becoming married or staying married were not wrong. But “in view of the present distress” the Corinthian believers were experiencing, it seemed much better to stay as they were (7:25–28).
If, however, a single believer did not have self-control, that person should seek to marry. If a Christian is single but does not have the gift of singleness and is being strongly tempted sexually, he or she should pursue marriage. Let them marry in the Greek is in the aorist imperative, indicating a strong command. “Get married,” Paul says, for it is better to marry than to burn. The term means “to be inflamed,” and is best understood as referring to strong passion (cf. Rom. 1:27). A person cannot live a happy life, much less serve the Lord, if he is continually burning with sexual desire—even if the desire never results in actual immorality. And in a society such as Corinth’s, or ours, in which immorality is so prevalent and accepted, it is especially difficult not to succumb to temptation.
I believe that once a Christian couple decides to get married they should do it fairly soon. In a day of lowered standards, free expression, and constant suggestiveness, it is extremely difficult to stay sexually pure. The practical problems of an early marriage are not nearly as serious as the danger of immorality.
Deciding about marriage obviously is more difficult for the person who has strong sexual desires but who has no immediate prospect for a husband or wife. It is never God’s will for Christians to marry unbelievers (2 Cor. 6:14), but neither is it right just to marry the first believer who will say yes. Though we may want very much to be married, we should be careful. Strong feelings of any sort tend to dull judgment and make one vulnerable and careless.
There are several things that Christians in this dilemma ought to do. First, they should not simply seek to be married, but should seek a person they can love, trust, and respect, letting marriage come as a response to that commitment of love. People who simply want to get married for the sake of getting married run a great risk of marrying the wrong person. Second, it is fine to be on the lookout for the “right person,” but the best way to find the right person is to be the right person. If believers are right with God and it is His will for them to be married, He will send the right person—and never too late.
Third, until the right person is found, our energy should be redirected in ways that will be the most helpful in keeping our minds off the temptation. Two of the best ways are spiritual service and physical activity. We should avoid listening to, looking at, or being around anything that strengthens the temptation. We should program our minds to focus only on that which is good and helpful. We should take special care to follow Paul’s instruction in Philippians: “Whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is of good repute, if there is any excellence and if anything worthy of praise, let your mind dwell on these things” (4:8).
Fourth, we should realize that, until God gives us the right person, He will provide strength to resist temptation. “God is faithful, who will not allow you to be tempted beyond what you are able, but with the temptation will provide the way of escape also, that you may be able to endure it” (1 Cor. 10:13).
Finally, we should give thanks to the Lord for our situation and be content in it. Salvation brings the dawning of a new day, in which marriage “in the Lord” (v. 39) is an option.
9. But if they cannot contain. While he advises to abstain from marriage, he always speaks conditionally—if it can be done, if there is ability; but where the infirmity of the flesh does not allow of that liberty, he expressly enjoins marriage as a thing that is not in the least doubtful. For this is said by way of commandment, that no one may look upon it as mere advice. Nor is it merely fornicators that he restrains, but those also who are defiled in the sight of God by inward lust; and assuredly he that cannot contain tempts God, if he neglects the remedy of marriage. This matter requires—not advice, but strict prohibition.
For it is better. There is not strictly a comparison here, inasmuch as lawful marriage is honourable in all things, (Heb. 13:4,) but, on the other hand, to burn is a thing that is exceedingly wrong. The Apostle, however, has made use of a customary form of expression, though not strictly accurate, as we commonly say: “It is better to renounce this world, that we may, along with Christ, enjoy the inheritance of the heavenly kingdom, than to perish miserably in carnal delights.” I mention this, because Jerome constructs upon this passage a childish sophism—that marriage is good, inasmuch as it is not so great an evil as to burn. I would say, if it were a matter of sport, that he foolishly amuses himself, but in a matter so weighty and serious, it is an impious scoff, unworthy of a man of judgment. Let it then be understood, that marriage is a good and salutary remedy, because to burn is a most base abomination in the sight of God. We must, however, define what is meant by burning; for many are stung with fleshly desires, who, nevertheless, do not require forthwith to have recourse to marriage. And to retain Paul’s metaphor, it is one thing to burn and another to feel heat. Hence what Paul here calls burning, is not a mere slight feeling, but a boiling with lust, so that you cannot resist. As, however, some flatter themselves in vain, by imagining that they are entirely free from blame, if they do not yield assent to impure desire, observe that there are three successive steps of temptation. For in some cases the assaults of impure desire have so much power that the will is overcome: that is the worst kind of burning, when the heart is inflamed with lust. In some instances, while we are stung with the darts of the flesh, it is in such a manner that we make a stout resistance, and do not allow ourselves to be divested of the true love of chastity, but on the contrary, abhor all base and filthy affections.
Hence all must be admonished, but especially the young, that whenever they are assailed by their fleshly inclinations, they should place the fear of God in opposition to a temptation of this sort, cut off all inlets to unchaste thoughts, entreat the Lord to give them strength to resist, and set themselves with all their might to extinguish the flames of lust. If they succeed in this struggle, let them render thanks unto the Lord, for where shall we find the man who does not experience some molestation from his flesh? but if we bridle its violence, before it has acquired the mastery, it is well. For we do not burn, though we should feel a disagreeable heat—not that there is nothing wrong in that feeling of heat, but acknowledging before the Lord, with humility and sighing, our weakness, we are meanwhile, nevertheless, of good courage. To sum up all, so long as we come off victorious in the conflict, through the Lord’s grace, and Satan’s darts do not make their way within, but are valiantly repelled by us, let us not become weary of the conflict.
There is an intermediate kind of temptation—when a man does not indeed admit impure desire with the full assent of his mind, but at the same time is inflamed with a blind impetuosity, and is harassed in such a manner that he cannot with peace of conscience call upon God. A temptation, then, of such a kind as hinders one from calling upon God in purity, and disturbs peace of conscience, is burning, such as cannot be extinguished except by marriage. We now see, that in deliberating as to this, one must not merely consider whether he can preserve his body free from pollution: the mind also must be looked to, as we shall see in a little.
9 Here again Paul implies that one of the main purposes of marriage is so that one can find sexual fulfillment in a God-glorifying context. We should take careful note of the condition used here. Paul uses ei plus the indicative, which suggests that he is expressing a reality that is taking place (i.e., “if, as indeed some are doing, they are not exercising control …”). In other words, Paul knows there are those who are not married but are still having sexual relations, probably with prostitutes (see comments at 6:12–20). Rather than live this lifestyle of porneia, Paul says, marriage is preferable by far.
What does Paul mean here by pyroō (GK 4792, “burn with passion”; lit., “burn”)? The verb itself can denote various types of burning: the “flaming” darts of Satan (Eph 6:16), the destruction of the heavens “by fire” (2 Pe 3:12), the “glowing” feet of Jesus in John’s vision (Rev 1:15), or the inner burning passion of Paul (2 Co 11:29). Of these options the best choice seems to be the last one, i.e., a reference to one’s inner emotions and passions (so NIV). Marriage offers an appropriate outlet for passionate sexual urges.
9 For many later Christians what Paul says next has been the troubling sentence. The apostle is seen to be arguing in the preceding sentence for all singles to stay that way, then as making allowance for marriage for those who cannot remain continent, for it is better to be married than to be consumed with sexual passion. But it is doubtful whether Paul’s point is quite so stark. In the first place, Paul does not say (as the NIV and others have it), “if they cannot control themselves,” as if it were simply a matter of self-control. Rather, he says, “if they do not practice, or are not practicing, continence (or exercising self-control).” That is, the issue for Paul is not the sexual drive as such, but the sinful practice of some of the brothers for whom marriage, rather than sin, is to be the proper order of things. The implication is that some of these people are doing the same as some of the married in the opening paragraph: practicing “sexual immorality,” that is, probably also going to the prostitutes. The antidote for such sin is to get married96 instead.
With an explanatory “for” Paul appends a reason: “It is better to marry (or to be married) than to burn.” This final word is the difficult one. The usage is clearly metaphorical, but it could refer either to burning with desire or burning in judgment (cf. 3:15). Since both of these can be supported from Jewish sources, that evidence is not decisive.100 The question must finally be decided contextually—and by Paul’s usage in the next letter (2 Cor. 11:29), which is almost certainly a metaphor for inner passion, which accounts for this addition in the NIV. Even though the larger context, including his earlier warning (6:9–10), could be argued to support the judgment metaphor, such an idea is missing altogether from the immediate context. It seems more likely, therefore, that Paul intended that those who are committing sexual sins should rather marry than be consumed by the passions of their sins—although it is also possible that Paul was himself intentionally ambiguous, so that the clipped nature of the clause was intended to catch his initial readers a bit off guard in the same way it has his later ones(!).
In this case, what needs final emphasis is that Paul is not so much offering marriage as the remedy for sexual desire for “enflamed youth,” which has been the most common way of viewing the text; rather, marriage is to be understood as the proper alternative for those who are already consumed by that desire and are sinning.
A text like this one is difficult for moderns. But if our interpretation is correct, then its advice is twofold. On the one hand, consistent with the general view in Jewish and Christian antiquity, Paul urges the formerly married to remain in their present single state. He will encourage that again later (vv. 39–40). But he also clearly recognizes that that represents what he thinks is “good”; it may not be elevated to the position of a commandment (i.e., being “right” or “wrong”). On the other hand, it is a strong word against the formerly married who are not living in continence, that in fact it is sin. For them, marriage is the proper alternative to their being consumed by such sin.
7:9 / Nevertheless, Paul continues and tells this particular group that they should marry in certain circumstances. Paul reasons from the charismatically formed assumption that the capacity to remain unmarried is a spiritual gift. The translation of this line in the niv and other similar translations, But if they cannot control themselves, they should marry, is easily misunderstood. Paul is not saying, “If you are not practicing self-control, get married.” In Paul’s well-known list of the fruit of the Spirit at Galatians 5:23 one finds the noun “self-control,” so although Paul uses the verbal form of “self-control” (translated as “control themselves,” meaning “to practice self-control”), he is referring to a Spirit-empowered directing of one’s self. If an unmarried person in Corinth does not have the Spirit-given ability to be chaste, then Paul says that person should marry. Paul is not so much saying “Fight the urge” as he is advising “Recognize the gift or its absence.” Such honesty according to Paul is better than trying to accomplish something (refraining from marriage and sexual relations in that context) that God has not given one the gift to do.
Ver. 9.—If they cannot contain; rather, if they have not continency. Let them marry. In 1 Tim. 5:14 he lays down and justifies the same rule with reference to young widows. It is better to marry than to burn. The original tenses give greater force and beauty to this obvious rule of Christian common sense and morality. The “marry” is in the aorist—“to marry once for all,” and live in holy married union; the “burn” is in the present—“to be on fire with concupiscence.” Marriage once for all is better than continuous lust; the former is permitted, the latter sinful.
9. But if they do not exercise self-control, let them marry, for it is better to marry than to burn with sexual desire.
- Passion. “If they do not exercise self-control, let them marry.” Paul fully understands human nature and gives sensible advice. Already he has spoken of incontinence (v. 5); now once more he states that some people do not exercise restraint, presumably because of their lack of self-control. To them, Paul offers the solution which God has instituted for this situation: “Let them marry!” There is no reproach, no word of disapproval for incontinence, no mention of sin. To preclude the possibility that they might fall into sin because they lack continence, Paul advises wedlock for the unmarried. Let them enter the state of matrimony and thus lead honorable and pure lives.
“For it is better to marry than to burn with sexual desire.” The Greek has only the verb pyrousthai (to burn), but the context demands the addition of the words with sexual desire. Translators know that the verb by itself is incomplete and calls for an explanation. Talmudic rabbis together with scholars from the third century to the present have interpreted this verb to refer to burning in hell. They perceive it as God’s righteous judgment on the sinner who continues to violate sexual mores. But Paul alludes to burning with sexual desire. The common understanding of the verb to burn in this context is related to incontinence.
In his discussion of this sensitive subject, Paul is frank but at the same time discreet. His expressions are often incomplete so that the reader has to fill in the obvious meaning. For example, he instructed husbands and wives not to deprive each other (v. 5), but left the completion of the sentence for the reader. By saying that it is better to marry than to burn, he again invites the reader to complete the sentence. In the present verse, he teaches that incontinence has its solution within the bounds of marriage and urges the unmarried who lack self-control to seek marriage partners (v. 9). For him, marriage is the context in which husbands and wives find satisfaction for their sexual desires.
With the comparative word better Paul is placing marriage over against burning. Paul writes that one should enter marriage as a one-time act to avoid a state of continual desire. But his advice fails to cover every situation. G. G. Findlay astutely observes, “Better to marry than to burn; but if marriage is impossible, better infinitely to burn than to sin.”
7:9. Nevertheless, Paul also recognized that reality is usually not ideal. So, he conceded a hierarchy of preferences, with celibacy being the most desirable for the unmarried Corinthians. But “the unmarried and the widows” (7:8) were to marry if they could not control themselves sexually. Marriage was not as advantageous as celibacy, but it was better than burning with passion. Literally, Paul did not say, “If they are not able to control themselves,” but “If they do not control themselves,” that is, “If they lose control and fall into sexual immorality.” Paul did not suggest that marriage would eliminate lustful thoughts, but that it could help believers abstain from sexual immorality.
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