Graham Heslop
Graham Heslop Graham has an insatiable appetite for books, occasionally dips into theology, and moonlights as a lecturer in New Testament Greek at George Whitefield College, Cape Town. He also serves on the staff team at Union Chapel Presbyterian Church and as the written content editor for TGC Africa. Graham is married to Lynsay-Anne and they have one son, Teddy.

1 Corinthians 7: Is It Better To Marry?

1 Corinthians 7: Is It Better To Marry?

At some point for young adults, usually between your late teens and early twenties, 1 Corinthians 7:9 goes from being a verse shared in jest to one quoted with sincerity—even severity. “If they cannot exercise self-control, they should marry. For it is better to marry than to be aflame with passion.” The NIV says, “It’s better to marry than to burn with passion.” Older translations leave off the qualifying ‘with passion,’ which cuts a far more ominous warning: “It is better to marry than to burn” (KJV). This echoes an earlier warning where Paul says that because of the temptation to sexual immorality, everyone should marry (7:2). Of course, these Pauline statements must be permitted their full apostolic authority. But I worry that they are horribly misappropriated and even abused by many Christians today.

For starters, in 1 Corinthians 7 Paul commends singleness or celibacy. On the other hand, he appears to make a concession for marriage. He also paints a picture of marriage that differs from the romanticised and ultimately fictional portrayals found in Hollywood and airport literature—Francine Rivers, I’m looking at you. For example, Paul says marrieds will experience “worldly troubles” (7:28) and anxiety (7:32). A spouse makes sitting loosely to the present and passing world difficult (7:29-31). For they divide your interests (7:34). Finally, a husband or wife must give thought and time to pleasing their spouse (7:33). While this undoubtedly includes sexual pleasure (see 7:3-5), Paul also means spouses are generally demanding. Therefore, even though Paul presents marriage as a means to sexual purity, he writes, “He who refrains from marriage will do even better” (7:38).

Before you accuse me of hating the marriage institution, established by God, let me affirm with the apostle, “He who marries…does well” (7:38). That being said, his teaching on singleness stands. Paul does not present singleness as Plan B. Celibacy should not be the last bitter pill one begrudgingly swallows—sad and alone. If anything, the proviso that marriage will serve Christian holiness, in both 7:2 and 7:9, could be understood to suggest that marriage is actually Plan B for believers (similarly 7:36). Again, the language appears to present marriage as a concession but singleness as desirable and ideal.

Remarkably, in 7:36 Paul actually reassures Christians that marriage is not a sin (similarly 7:28). Yet this qualification from Paul will be met with much bemusement in the modern church. ‘Of course marriage isn’t a sin Paul, it’s the highest possible calling or office a Christian can obtain.’ This mindset, though not explicit, is evident in the fact that the church teaches teens about dating, young adults about marriage, and no one about singleness—except of course for those who are same-sex attracted or past their ‘sell-by date.’ Contrast with Paul in 1 Corinthians 7, singleness - not marriage - is much more likely to be considered a sin among Christians today.

It is my humble opinion that we have so radically idealised marriage in the church culture that we despise some of the things Paul says about it in 1 Corinthians 7. Many others probably hate him for calling singleness a “gift from God” (7:7)—if you didn’t know he said that, you can curse him now. Because the gift of celibacy looks more like another pair of lame socks rather than the new PS5 we reject it. But we can’t outright refuse the biblical text. So we jump from the uncomfortable description of singleness as a “gift” (7:7) and plant our feet on 7:9. “It is,” after all, “better to marry than to be aflame with passion.” Never mind that between those verses Paul writes, “It is good for them to remain single” (7:8). Supposedly we value marriage because we prize holiness. But for many I fear that our claim to be concerned with holiness is nothing more than thinly veiled worship of marriage.

To prove this point we might conduct a quick thought experiment. Picture two people in their early thirties. The first is married and the second single. Who is happier? Who is more fulfilled? Who would you rather be? Of course, if they were in their twenties we might answer differently because we’ve thoughtlessly bought into cultural mantra that says ‘find yourself.’ But faced with the decision between being married in your early thirties or still single, all of us would choose marriage. I worry that this is because we associate singleness beyond a certain age with loneliness and cat ladies—or men playing video games in their underpants. On the other hand, marriage is the ideal. We erroneously think that fulfilment and happiness will be found there. Our estimations are far from Paul’s.

Since it goes without saying, let me reiterate: the New Testament celebrates singleness. Paul calls it a good gift in 1 Corinthians 7. But, in reality, every Christian is holding out for their ‘other half.’ We all believe there is a person among the pews who will complete us. We are searching for the one in whom our souls delight—forgetting that this is ultimately supposed to be God.

Perhaps we’d see less young Christians burning with passion and jumping into marriages if they were encouraged to passionately pursue God and holiness. God calls Christians to live chaste, sexually pure lives—both in singleness and marriage. Thus marriage isn’t the solution to burning with lustful passion and uncontrolled sexual urges. A greater desire for God and personal holiness is. We will consider this point in my next post.

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