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1 Corinthians 7:36–38

“He who marries his betrothed does well, and he who refrains from marriage will do even better” (v. 38).

Spouses, Paul has noted, have concerns that single people do not (1 Cor. 7:32–35). Married life puts limits on personal choices that singleness does not, for married people—if they are to follow God’s directives for marriage—must take into account the concerns of their spouses. After all, a husband cannot properly love his wife and a wife cannot properly submit to her own husband without paying attention to the other spouse (see Eph. 5:22–33). This fact of additional concerns is not inherently negative; rather, it is the reality of married life as opposed to the reality of singleness. Christians must consider these things when they make marriage decisions.

Because the divided attention that married people have—they must attend to the concerns of both Christ and their spouses—is not inherently wrong, there is no reason to think getting married is sinful or less noble than remaining single. Paul tells us as much in today’s passage, where he encourages betrothed Christians to get married “if anyone thinks that he is not behaving properly toward his betrothed, if his passions are strong, and it has to be” (1 Cor. 7:36). The Apostle speaks here of the betrothed man who does not have the gift of celibacy, the one whose desire for his wife-to-be is so strong that he finds that he will be unable to devote himself to the Lord without marrying her and serving God alongside her. Until the marriage takes place, however, the option to remain single remains. The man could choose “to keep [the woman] as his betrothed”—that is, to not go on to the next step of marriage (v. 37). Such a choice is well made, the Apostle tells us, as long as it is made freely and without external compulsion. Paul, then, esteems singleness and celibacy as long as they are not imposed on believers from without but arise from within. The church, therefore, has no right to impose a vow of celibacy on candidates for vocational ministry or anyone else.

Throughout his discussion of betrothal, Paul speaks of what is good and what is better in light of the unique circumstances of the Corinthians and the personal giftings of the betrothed. Neither singleness or married life was sinful provided it was chosen for the right reasons. But for a time in Corinth, Paul considered singleness the better choice. Yet, as Charles Hodge comments, “There was no moral obligation upon them to remain single; no superior holiness in celibacy. [Paul] was only saying what in his judgment would be most to their advantage under existing circumstances.”

Coram Deo Living before the face of God

What Paul says in today’s passage about the choice that the betrothed man makes obviously applies to the betrothed woman as well. There are some cases where lifelong singleness might be a preferential option, but it is not a law for all Christians. Neither is marriage a law for all believers. We must take care not to speak of either state as mandated for all believers or treat either singles or married people as more holy than the other.

For Further Study
  • Deuteronomy 24:5
  • Proverbs 18:22
  • Luke 1:5–25, 80
  • 1 Corinthians 9:5

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