Pro-Marriage…but Above All, Pro-Jesus (and perhaps anti-self)
“I can’t help but feel a little offended by Paul.”
This phrase might be one you would expect to hear from one who has for the first time come across some of Paul’s passages for the first time. Perhaps from one reading his emotional introduction to Galatians. Or perhaps from another who has a hard time with passages that clearly outline how every person’s violation of the law makes him a needy candidate for grace and the gospel along with everyone else.
But this statement (which I heard this weekend) is from a long time, mature believer. And the passages isn’t about soteriology. It’s about marriage.
1 Cor 7:1-40 has a LOT to say about how one should, as a follower of Christ, live in their current appointments/ states of life. Marital status is obviously a major one. And many have been confused by Paul’s words, as the OT before him seems to look very favorably upon marriage and the one flesh union of man and woman (Gen 2), and Paul himself seems to even elevate marriage in Eph 5. What then is this chapter supposed to mean, a chapter filled with recommendations for people to remain single if they are single, a description of marriage that seems to suggest it is only a concession for satisfying the lustful desires of the flesh, and which even tells people that “those who have wives should be as though they had none” (1 Cor 7:29).
It is this verse in particular that rubbed my friend like a pebble in the shoe. What can this verse mean in the context of the rest of the Bible?
First, we must start in the context of 1 Cor 7. This chapter clearly begins a section of the epistle where Paul is responding to questions, problems, or teachings originating from Corinth (7:1). Thus, we must not read chapter 7 as Paul’s magnum opus on marriage. What are some of these questions or teachings? Doing our best working backwards from Paul’s reply, it seems that there was likely a teaching circulating that taught that sexual relations were to be prohibited, if not even outlawed, against Christians. If this is the context of teachings circulating in the Corinthian church (perhaps a reactionary teaching in response to the promiscuous and licentious culture around them), then Paul’s position is one which advocates marriage- in fact, he champions the practice of intercourse in marriage (3-5). Furthermore, he abhors divorce (12-16), and one might even read vv. 7 to mean that Paul’s wish connotates that most people are married (where as Paul wishes they were more like him).
Secondly, when we come to all of Paul’s affirmation and recommendation of divorce in chapter 7, we must realize that it is offered NOT in any way to suggest that it is a holier, or higher calling. Rather, celibacy and singleness is a calling with great pragmatic benefits for the ministry, and that practically one must be sensitive to make all decisions in life with an eschatological focus in mind (28-32).
And it is this last point that adds particular clarity to the difficult of verse 29 and the command to act as if one is unmarried. Quick thoughts:
1) Paul has already rejected any notion of divorce and advocated that each person remain in the state that he is in. Acting as if unmarried must not mean to deny one’s covenant vows and relationship.
2) Considering the other examples in these verses, Paul is clearly not advocating the abolition of all Christians shopping in the market place, cease all mourning, never again rejoice, and isolate oneself from the world. In fact, his teachings elsewhere say quite the opposite.
3) The reason for this statement is clearly stated at the beginning and the end of this paragraph: “the time has shortened…for the form of this world is passing away.”
Time, and the world as we know it is compressed. It is a scarce resource. It is running out. Paul views each day in relation not to the day before or after it, but in relation to the culmination of the return of Christ. Knowing that this is coming, one can accurately say that there isn’t room for any wasting of time, whether it’s too much time spent doing a wasteful, or a good and edifying thing. All of Paul’s advice regarding marriage to those who are able to still chose to remain single or to marry are to do so in light of their ministry, and to chose the options that both 1) allows them to best pursue sexual purity and 2) allows them to minister in making more disciples.
So, is Paul anti-marriage, or does he hate your spouse. NO! Quite the contrary- he is quite the supporter.
But, his practical recommendations do seem to poke at some of our cultural habits and sensitivities. And I believe this is not because many of those who are single eventually marry. I believe it is because those who are looking for marriage look at it as an entitlement, or view it with a perspective to take and to gain what they wish from it, rather than primarily answering the personal decision about marriage passed upon its use in helping one’s life of ministry. We are all living sacrifices (Rom 12:1-2). And what Paul suggests is a proposal I think we try to wipe out a priori; that singleness might actually be a more productive and beneficial choice. And, underlying this current is another idea: that it is actually very possible for the single person to maintain a life of ministry and purity… without a spouse as a sexual outlet. It is this perspective, when tossed into a sex crazed and self-serving American culture and mindset… that truly makes Paul’s advice challenging, convicting, and foreign to us… and truly contrasts to our own expectations of ourselves.