Saturday, 11 December 2004 17:29

Paul's First Letter to the Corinthians (20)

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Paul's First Letter to the Corinthians (20)

1 Corinthians 7:25-40

Broadcast: July 5, 1998; Message Number 1479

Celibacy or Marriage?

In I Corinthians 7:25-40 the apostle Paul reminds the Corinthians of the brevity of life and the seriousness of the times in which they are living. He points out that the distractions of marriage and other concerns may interfere with their sense of calling. Those who choose to wed should not become so preoccupied with their families that they can no longer effectively serve Christ. The same is true with other normal human activities such as jobs, careers, business transactions, and shopping. All are legitimate endeavours, but none have much significance for eternity. Christians, therefore, should be less involved in the affairs of this world than unbelievers.

Not that we should not be concerned at all about these things. We do have certain responsibilities in this world, such as providing for our daily needs. But our spiritual calling must come first. Sometimes the comfort of home and the joys of marriage may tempt us to spend more time in enjoying these than we ought, and if so, Paul says, these are to be denied temporarily, laid aside for a time, so that our work might not suffer. Sometimes sorrow comes into our hearts and we are tempted to take time out for a while, but Paul says this should not be. Sometimes exciting and joyful times come our way and these may tempt us to turn aside to seek more of the same, but if they interfere with the call of God, these also must be laid on the altar of Christian service.

Nothing must stand in the way of what God has called us to do. That is what Paul is saying in this section. The opportunities for service which God has given us must be seized right now; the time is passing, life is short, the end can come suddenly and unexpectedly. Therefore, let first things come first. If you are single and have the gift of continence don't waste precious time seeking to tie the marriage knot. You can serve the Lord just as well or better by staying single. Yes, even better, because you are able to devote all your time to the Lord's cause.

"I want you to be free from anxieties," Paul says in verse 32. The unmarried man is anxious about the affairs of the Lord and how to please Him, but the married man is anxious about worldly affairs, how to please his wife, etc., and consequently his interests are divided. The unmarried woman or girl is anxious about the affairs of the Lord, how to be holy in body and spirit; but the married woman is anxious about worldly affairs, how to please her husband."

Paul does not mean that it is wrong for married people to want to please each other. He is simply indicating that they will find much more of their life taken up with their need for fulfilling each other. Marriage is a perfectly proper relationship, God-approved and blessed, but the time of the married couple to give themselves to church and kingdom work is limited by the pressures and problems of married life. Who of us that are married will deny this? Paul says, there is a special privilege single persons have in which they can find an even higher fulfilment in their work before the Lord. They can give themselves entirely to the Lord in whatever they do, as no married person can. They can give to their work for God an intensity of concentration that no married person is able to give.

What the world owes to the dedication of single men and women before God is impossible for us to assess. Take Paul himself. His own marvellous ministry would never have been possible had he been married. I'm thinking of men like Henry Martyn, missionary to India; and David Brainerd, that young missionary in New England, praying in the woods and dedicating himself to reaching the Indians of America. Robert Murray M'Cheyne in Scotland is another example; as is Florence Nightingale who was such a blessing to the sick and wounded. These men and women have given themselves with an intensity of concentration impossible to those who are married. These all confirm the fact that single life need not be lonely, boring and unrewarding, if it is committed fully and unreservedly to Jesus Christ.

It may seem from everything said thus far that the apostle strongly favours the single life over marriage, but I don't think this conclusion is warranted. True, if we only had this chapter, one could make a case for saying that Paul leans to the view that celibacy is preferable for Christians. But if we take all his statements on this subject together--think for example of Ephesians 5--we get a more balanced view. Even here in I Corinthians 7 he is careful not to give the impression that marriage is wrong. In verses 36 to 38 he points out that those who prefer to marry are perfectly at liberty to do so.

Admittedly, these verses are difficult to exegete and there are various interpretations to choose from. There are those who think Paul is speaking about fathers who don't quite know whether to give their daughters in marriage or to keep them at home as virgins. It is true that in those days fathers normally arranged the marriage of their children and in some cultures it is still done this way. Verse 38 seems to support this interpretation, for there the phrase "giving in marriage" is used. But against this interpretation is the word "virgin" in verse 37. It is hard to see why Paul would use the word virgin if he meant daughter, and for a father to speak of his virgin when he meant his daughter. That would be an odd way of speaking. Besides, the word for marry in verse 38, while it could mean "giving in marriage" as the King James Version renders it, is hardly ever used that way in Greek and usually means simply to marry. This is how the New International Version translates it and I believe correctly so.

What then is the right interpretation? We cannot be absolutely sure, but it is possible that Paul is addressing a situation that existed in the early church and which gradually disappeared. I am referring to the so-called spiritual marriage whereby people got married but opted for a non-physical relationship. Apparently in Corinth, too, there were believers who had actually gone through the marriage ceremony, but they had decided not to consummate the marriage and to live celibate so they could devote themselves entirely to the spiritual life. Human nature being what it is, there were those who later had second thoughts. After a while, they discovered that what they had planned to do placed too great a strain upon them. It is to this kind of situation that Paul may be alluding when he says (and let me paraphrase him for a moment): Look, if you can keep your vow, fine, you do well. If you are strong enough to abstain from sexual relations and you both agree, go ahead. But if you cannot abstain, then don't feel guilty; renounce your vow of celibacy and enter into normal relations with your virgin wife. To us this whole practice seems abnormal and so it was, of course. In time the Church ruled such so-called spiritual marriages unlawful. While this was still going on in places like Corinth, the apostle tries to create some order in what could easily turn into unhealthy situations.

It is also possible that Paul has in mind couples who were engaged to be married but who because of intimidation by the pro-celibacy faction in Corinth were afraid to marry. Others felt the pressure of the Jewish segment which emphasized that once you are engaged you can't back out and you have to marry. In that case Paul's advice is: don't listen to either side. If you want to get married, do so; it is no sin. But if you want to devote yourself to the Lord, you are free to break off your engagement. Do what your conscience tells you.

What is the lesson for us? Situations like the one in Corinth are not likely to face us today. Still, there is an important principle here that we can all benefit from, whether we are married or single. It is this principle: that our religion or our spiritual life should not become unnatural. Mandatory celibacy for priests and nuns finds no support in Scripture. The underlying assumption is that religion has to suppress and overcome natural feelings and desires, especially those dealing with the sexual dimension of our life. Clearly this is wrong, for these feelings and desires are given to us by God. Certainly, through sin they can be and often are abused and perverted. But they can also be used the right and positive way.

We should never be ashamed of the body God has given us with all its desires and longings, hopes and aspirations. The message of the Bible, including what Paul says here in I Corinthians 7, is that far from eliminating or suppressing these feelings and longings, we may use them in a constructive way to glorify God through them and enrich ourselves and those we love. Paul makes it very clear that there is no moral wrong in marrying, Yet, there is to be no sexual license on the part of those who remain single. How this advice differs from what our secular counsellors advocate today!

Single people are to keep their passions under control; if they cannot, they should marry. But if God has given you the ability to remain single, thank Him for this gift and use it for the glory of God and the upbuilding of His Church and kingdom. This is not always easy. Not everyone who is single is so by choice or has that gift. There are many single persons who have great difficulty accepting their lot in life. Even if there is no rebellion or resentment in their heart, there is still sadness and a sense of disappointment that never quite goes away. There is a deep and powerful longing for a husband, a wife, and children that cannot be suppressed.

Such longings and desires need not be suppressed either. They are perfectly normal and no one needs to be ashamed of them. There is, however, a wrong and a right way to deal with these longings. The wrong way is to mope and fret or--and this is even worse--to "solve" the problem by trying to find love in ways that Scripture forbids. The right way is to bring your hurts and disappointments to the Lord. This may sound trite, but it is the only way for a restless soul to find rest and peace.

Going to Jesus with this and all your other problems means going to One who really understands single persons and their needs. Was He not Himself single? True, He went through life unmarried because of His very unique calling as Mediator between God and man. This must have been difficult for Him. After all, He became like us in all things, sin excepted. He was not allowed to experience marriage, for it was His calling to be the Saviour of His Church and to become the Brother of all His people, not just the companion of one.

In light of Christ's experience as a single Man, therefore, those who are single can by His grace come to regard singleness as a divine calling, just as married people can see marriage as their calling. Only those who understand this in faith will be saved from useless self-pity that so often threatens lonely people whether they be single persons who never married or widows and widowers who miss the companionship of their spouse.

Paul has a word for them too. In verses 39 to 40 he urges those who have become widows and by implication widowers as well, that they should not remarry. If they have the gift, that is. In his inspired opinion they will be better off remaining single. Yet, if they insist on remarriage they do not sin, provided they marry in the Lord. Whether it concerns young people contemplating marriage for the first time, or older persons thinking of marrying again, Scripture insists that believers should marry only believers. Only then can a marriage be fruitful, not only for this life, but also and especially for the life to come.

Additional Info

  • Audio: 110520148
  • Speaker: Rev. C. Pronk
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