I heard about a group of children who were asked their views on marriage, and one of the questions they were asked was this, “Is it better to be single or married?” Let me share with you a couple of their responses to that question. Lynette, age 9, said, “It’s better for girls to be single but not for boys. Boys need somebody to clean up after them.” And Kenny, age 7, said, “It gives me a headache to think about that stuff. I’m just a kid. I don’t need that kind of trouble.”
Well, this morning, we want to find out the correct answer to that question — “Is it better to be single or married?” And the apostle Paul is going to answer that question for us.
We’ve been working our way through Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians, and this morning we find ourselves in chapter 7. Now, if you’re keeping track, you’ll notice that I skipped the last half of chapter 6 where Paul deals with the subject of sexual immorality, but I covered that material not too long before I began this series on I Corinthians and didn’t feel the need to go over it again right now. So, we’ll just move on into chapter 7.
And this chapter marks a transition in this letter. Remember that the apostle Paul wrote to the Corinthian church for two reasons. First of all, Paul heard about some problems in the church. He heard that there were divisions that caused everyone to choose sides. He heard about some arguments and disagreements that were leading to court cases. He heard about some sexual immorality that wasn’t being addressed by the church. So, Paul spends the first six chapters trying to straighten out all these problems that he’s heard about.
But, the second reason Paul wrote was to answer a series of questions that the Christians in Corinth had sent him. And so, beginning in chapter 7, Paul begins to answer those questions. In verse 1, he says, “Now concerning the matters about which you wrote…”
And the Christians at Corinth had a lot of questions. They had questions about celibacy, singleness, marriage, divorce, remarriage. And Paul is going to answer all of those questions in chapter 7.
They also had questions about personal liberty, what they can and cannot do, what they’re free to do or not free to do. In particular, can we eat hamburger that’s been offered as a sacrifice to an idol down the street? Can we have a nice double cheeseburger from that pagan temple? They serve the best cheeseburgers in town, but it’s a pagan temple.
Is that lawful for a Christian or not? So, they had questions about personal liberty, especially as it related to that topic. And Paul addresses those questions in chapters 8, 9, 10, and part of 11.
Then they had questions about worship service and spiritual gifts within the body of Christ. Paul addresses that topic in chapters 11, 12, 13, and 14.
And then, finally, they had a question, a doctrinal question, in regard to the day when Jesus comes back and they’re resurrected from the dead. And specifically, they wanted to know, “What exactly is our body going to be like when that happens?” And Paul answers that question in chapter 15.
And then, chapter 16 is sort of an epilogue, where Paul brings his letter to a close.
So, in the first six chapters, Paul deals with the problems in Corinth that he had heard about. And then, from chapter 7 to the end of the letter, Paul deals all the questions they had about all those things that I just mentioned.
At the end of chapter 6, Paul closes out his first section with a phrase that I think is the guiding principle that Paul is going to use to answer all of these questions.
Chapter 6, verse 19, “Do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you, whom you have from God? You are not your own, for you were bought with a price. So glorify God in your body.” (I Corinthians 6:19-20)
Last week, we talked about what it means to glorify God in our bodies. And now, in chapter 7, Paul is going to tell you how to glorify God in your physical body in terms of the marriage relationship.
Relationships are really the essence of life. If you boil life down to those things of greatest importance, you end up with relationships. Strip away all the things that you own, all the degrees you’ve worked for, all the beauty you strive after. When you get right down to the very basic things of life, it’s your relationship with God (which can be either good or bad), and it’s your relationship with other people (which can also be either good or bad).
And so, Paul tells us how to have good relationships with people so that we might glorify God with our bodies. Relationships, by their very nature, have the capacity for either immense satisfaction or deep agony, and everything in between. Relationships between men and women in marriage solve a lot of the problems we have in life. But they also create some problems we didn’t have before. And Paul is going to address some of those in this chapter.
As we get into chapter 7, keep in mind what the city of Corinth was like. As I told you in the very first lesson, it was one of the most immoral cities in the Roman Empire. Sex was on everybody’s minds. It was pretty much expected that a guy would sleep around before he got married. If he was discreet, he could continue to sleep around after he got married. There’s really not much that goes on today that would have been a big surprise to the people back then.
As a result, some of the Christians in Corinth started to develop a negative view of sex. It appears that there were two views of sex that were common: (1) we need to avoid sex because we’re better than that, or (2) indulge all you want because life is short. The first view was the view of ascetism; the second was the view of hedonism. Paul is going to make it clear, though, that neither of those views is the proper Christian view of sex.
So, in chapter 7 verse 1, “Now concerning the matters about which you wrote: ‘It is good for a man not to have sexual relations with a woman.’” (I Corinthians 7:1). The King James Version says, “It is good for a man not to touch a woman.” I’ve known some men who thought it was wrong to even shake hands with a woman because Paul said don’t touch them. But it’s obvious from the context here that Paul is talking about sex.
Basically, Paul is saying it’s good to be single. It’s good to refrain from sexual relations altogether, as Paul will later say that he has done. So, he says, in essence, “Look, celibacy, singleness, it’s good. But it’s not the only thing that’s good.”
Because God said in Genesis chapter 2, it wasn’t good for Adam to be alone. So, because of that, God established the relationship of marriage, and he looked at Adam and Eve together, and he said, “That’s very good.”
But Paul takes the flip side here and he says, even though God did say that, it is also good, if you choose to do so, to remain single. It’s not bad. It’s not evil. You’re not wrong if you stay single. It may not be the norm, but it’s not evil.
Don’t forget, Jesus was single! Jesus shows us the beauty of the single life. He had deep, meaningful intimacy within his friendships. Jesus lived a life of purpose and glorified his Father as a single person. Singleness isn’t a second-class state.
And I think it’s important for us to recognize that. Because sometimes, especially in Christian circles, if you don’t get married right away, people begin to think, “What’s wrong with you?”
What’s the problem? Do you have bad breath? Do you not shower and use deodorant? Nobody wants to hang out with you. What is the deal?” And we sometimes treat being single like it’s a curse. And it can be, but it can also be a blessing. And so, Paul says, it’s good. If you want to be single, that lifestyle is a good lifestyle.
Now, keep in mind that Paul was Jewish. And being Jewish, he came from a background that held marriage in very high regard. In fact, the Jews tended to look down on anyone who chose to remain single..
The Jewish rabbis had a saying that there are seven Jews who will not go to heaven. And they had a list. And number one on that list is a man who doesn’t have a wife. And number two on the list was a wife, a woman who doesn’t have any children. So, the rabbis laid a pretty heavy guilt trip on people by saying, “If you don’t get married, you’re not even gonna go to heaven.”
So, to separate himself from that traditional way of thinking, it’s important for Paul to begin by saying that there is nothing wrong with singleness, nothing wrong with living a celibate lifestyle. “It is good for a man not to have sexual relations with a woman.” It’s good.
But now Paul is going to say, it’s good, but it’s also hard. There’s nothing wrong with it, but it’s hard for most people to actually live that way. And here’s what he says, “It is good for a man not to have sexual relations with a woman. But because of the temptation to sexual immorality, each man should have his own wife and each woman her own husband.” (I Corinthians 7:1-2)
It’s good to be single, but it’s also hard. And because it’s hard, because you face sexual, physical temptations, it’s better to get married. Now, somebody is going to hear that and go, well, that’s a horrible reason to get married. And you’re right. It is, but Paul is not laying the foundation of marriage here in this verse.
He’s simply stating what’s normal for most people. The norm is, it’s not good for man to be alone. The norm is that a man and a woman get married, something ordained by God from the beginning. That’s normal. And the reason it’s normal is because very few people have the ability to remain single successfully.
Because what Paul is saying is that singleness is good, but only singleness with celibacy is good, not singleness sleeping around with other people. That’s called fornication and it’s a sin. So, singleness with celibacy is good. “But because of the temptation to sexual immorality, each man should have his own wife and each woman her own husband.”
Now, both of these are gifts from God, as we will see in this chapter. It is a gift from God if you can remain single and celibate throughout your lifetime and resist any temptation, that’s a gift from God. I don’t have that gift. I knew I didn’t have that gift a long time ago. And when I married Sueanne, that was the answer to the dilemma that I was alone. It is not good that Alan should be alone.
So, being single is a gift from God, and marriage is also a gift from God. But Paul is going to make it very clear that if you’re single, then you need to act like you’re single. And if you’re married, then you need to act like you’re married.
Because it gets to be a very real problem if you’re single, but you’re acting like you’re married. You’re single, but you’re having sex. And it’s also a problem if you’re married, but you’re acting like you’re single. You’re married, but you’re not having sex.
And Paul addresses that issue in verse 3, “The husband should give to his wife her conjugal rights, and likewise the wife to her husband.” (I Corinthians 7:3).
The physical, intimate relationship within a marriage is a privilege. It’s a joy. It’s a pleasure. But it’s also a responsibility. Those of us who are married are in this relationship to please one another. Paul says in verse 4, “For the wife does not have authority over her own body, but the husband does.” (I Corinthians 7:4)
Don’t you imagine all the secular feminists really love this verse? “The wife does not have authority over her own body.” That’s not what we hear everybody around us saying. They’re always saying, “My body, my choice.” Paul said, “No, it’s your body, his choice.” And you say, “Well, that’s sexist.” Keep reading. “Likewise the husband does not have authority over his own body, but the wife does.” (I Corinthians 7:4)
It appears that, in the Corinthian church, there were certain people who were putting forth this idea that spirituality is defined by what you’re willing to give up, what you’re willing to do without. So, they came up with this idea that those who were really spiritual, would do without sexual activity, even within the confines of a marriage. They believed that that made them holy. That refraining from sex within the marriage was somehow holier than if you just enjoyed the marriage relationship.
But Paul tells us that not only does refraining from sex within the marriage relationship not make you holy, it’s actually wrong. Because it’s setting both you and your spouse up for temptation.
In fact, it’s possible that the very reason some of these Corinthian believers were visiting the temple prostitutes that Paul mentioned in chapter 6 is because they were married to partners who had bought into this idea of refusing to have sex. So, in order to satisfy themselves, they were involving themselves in immoral behavior.
And so, Paul gives us three parameters for any withholding of sexual intimacy with our spouse. And here’s what they are. In verse 5, “Do not deprive one another, except perhaps by agreement for a limited time, that you may devote yourselves to prayer.” (I Corinthians 7:5)
Those are the three parameters. First of all, it has to be “by agreement”. There needs to be a mutual consent. Let’s sit down and talk about this. Second, it has to be for “a limited time”. Let’s agree beforehand on the timeframe, when it’s going to begin, when it’s going to end. And number three, the reason I withhold sex from you is not because I’m mad at you. The reason is because we’re going to focus all of our time and attention on prayer.
If there is going to be no sex in the marriage, this is something that the husband and wife have to agree to do for spiritual reasons. It’s for a limited time and then, after that, they come back together. And here’s why — verse 5. “so that Satan may not tempt you because of your lack of self-control.”
Here’s what married couples need to understand. You are not your own. You husbands don’t own you. You gave your life to her at the altar. Wives, you gave your life to him at the altar. Your body belongs to your spouse. And you are there to serve your spouse. I’m there to serve Sueanne, to be sensitive to her needs, and vice versa.
C.S. Lewis talked about this in his book, “The Four Loves”. He said lust is going after the body. Love is going after the person. Paul says to go after the person. Love them. Serve them.
The best way to be happy in your marriage isn’t to try to make yourself happy. It’s to try to make your spouse happy. But what Paul talks about here in this passage is extremely rare, and something that the world desperately needs.
David Brooks is a New York Times columnist. He wrote a column several years ago where he said that there are three lenses through which to view marriage.
The first lens is a psychological lens. There is where we look at the psychological traits of our partner, and make sure we pick the right one. We want someone who’s kind and generous and doesn’t fly off the handle. This is the view that’s found in books on marriage.
The second lens is a romantic lens. This is where we marry someone with whom we’re passionately in love. Someone who makes your heart skip a beat whenever you’re around them. This is the view that’s found in the movies.
Both of these views are common, and both of them are important. But Brooks mentions a third lens that most people don’t think much about and that’s the moral lens. This is where we recognize that marriage serves a higher purpose.
In a good marriage, you realize that that you’re not as easy to live with as you might have thought. You begin to recognize that your own selfishness is a problem. And so, marriage gives you the opportunity to cultivate a more selfless love. Every day, you have a chance to do something for your spouse. You have a chance to serve them. In this lens, marriage isn’t about two individuals trying to satisfy their own needs; it’s a partnership of mutual self-giving for the purpose of moral growth.
And part of that mutual self-giving involves sex. Some couples want to make sex a weapon, something they threaten their spouse with. “You said that, so you’re not going to see me in bed for a week or two.” In God’s eyes, sex is never a weapon to fight with. It’s something you give to build the relationship.
In verse 6, “Now as a concession, not a command, I say this. I wish that all were as I myself am. But each has his own gift from God, one of one kind and one of another.” (I Corinthians 7:6-7).
This whole decision of being married or being single is going to depend on the gift and calling that God has given to you. Paul says, “I wish you were all like me, but you don’t have to be like me to please God.”
Which brings up an issue that people wonder about. And that is, was the apostle Paul married? Was he ever married? And people are in disagreement over this. Some say, yes he was married, because they believe he was part of the Jewish Sanhedrin.
In the book of Acts, it appears that Paul cast an official vote like a Sanhedrin member would, one of the 70 ruling elders. And if Paul was a member of the Sanhedrin, then he would have had to have been married. That was one of the requirements. To be on the Jewish Sanhedrin, you had to have a wife.
But we’re not sure that Paul was a member of the Sanhedrin. And even if he was married at one time, it’s possible that either his wife died and he was no longer married, or that his wife wanted nothing to do with Christianity and left him. But Paul’s wife is never mentioned in scripture. So, we can’t get dogmatic and say that Paul was once married, because there’s no record that he was.
What we do know is that when he wrote I Corinthians, Paul was, at this point in time, single. And he makes the statement, I wish that all were as I myself am.” That is, single and celibate. But then he adds these words, “But each has his own gift from God.”
Both singleness and marriage are gifts from God.
So, to sum up what Paul says here in this passage, (1) Singleness is good if you remain celibate. (2) Being single is good, but it can also be tempting, so marriage may be the better option for you. (3) A single lifestyle is wrong if you’re married. And (4) Both singleness and marriage are gifts from God and should be treated as such.
I want to close by reading again the first seven verses in this chapter from a translation called The Message. This is a translation that was done by Eugene Peterson. I don’t always like it. It’s certainly not an accurate translation by any means. It’s a paraphrase. But sometimes I think Peterson does a good job of capturing the spirit of the text. And in this particular passage, I think he does just that.
Verse 1, “Now, getting down to the question you asked in your letter to me, first, is it a good thing to have sexual relations? Certainly, but only within a certain context. It is good for a man to have a wife and for a woman to have a husband. Sexual drives are strong, but marriage is strong enough to contain them and provide for a balanced and fulfilling sexual life in a world of sexual disorder.
“The marriage bed must be a place of mutuality, the husband seeking to satisfy his wife, the wife seeking to satisfy her husband. Marriage is not a place to stand up for your rights. Marriage is a decision to serve the other, whether in bed or out. Abstaining from sex is permissible only for a period of time if you both agree to it, and if it’s for the purposes of prayer and fasting, but only for such times.
Then come back together again. Satan has an ingenious way of tempting us when we least expect it. I’m not, understand, commanding these periods of abstinence, only providing my best counsel if you should choose them.
Sometimes I wish everyone were single like me, a simpler life in many ways. But celibacy is not for everyone any more than marriage is. God gives the gift of the single life to some, the gift of the married life to others.”
I think that sums up beautifully the spirit of what Paul was saying. If you’ve chosen to be single, praise God! Use your singleness to serve God with all your heart, soul, body, and mind. And if you’ve chosen to be married, praise God! Use your marriage to serve and to serve your spouse with all your heart, soul, body, and mind. Because, “Marriage is not a place to stand up for your rights. Marriage is a decision to serve the other, whether in bed or out.”