2020-8-23 On Singleness

On Singleness
1 Corinthians 7:25-40
August 23, 2020

Prayer for Illumination:

Lord God, let the words of your servant’s mouth and the meditations of our hearts be acceptable in your sight, O Lord, our Rock and our Redeemer. May I say only what you would have me to say. May your Holy Spirit enable us to hear your word and may He apply it to our hearts so that we walk in your ways. In Christ, our Lord.

Now concerning the betrothed, I have no command from the Lord, but I give my judgment as one who by the Lord’s mercy is trustworthy. 26 I think that in view of the present distress it is good for a person to remain as he is. 27 Are you bound to a wife? Do not seek to be free. Are you free from a wife? Do not seek a wife. 28 But if you do marry, you have not sinned, and if a betrothed woman marries, she has not sinned. Yet those who marry will have worldly troubles, and I would spare you that. 29 This is what I mean, brothers: the appointed time has grown very short. From now on, let those who have wives live as though they had none, 30 and those who mourn as though they were not mourning, and those who rejoice as though they were not rejoicing, and those who buy as though they had no goods, 31 and those who deal with the world as though they had no dealings with it. For the present form of this world is passing away.

32 I want you to be free from anxieties. The unmarried man is anxious about the things of the Lord, how to please the Lord. 33 But the married man is anxious about worldly things, how to please his wife, 34 and his interests are divided. And the unmarried or betrothed woman is anxious about the things of the Lord, how to be holy in body and spirit. But the married woman is anxious about worldly things, how to please her husband. 35 I say this for your own benefit, not to lay any restraint upon you, but to promote good order and to secure your undivided devotion to the Lord.

36 If anyone thinks that he is not behaving properly toward his betrothed, if his passions are strong, and it has to be, let him do as he wishes: let them marry—it is no sin. 37 But whoever is firmly established in his heart, being under no necessity but having his desire under control, and has determined this in his heart, to keep her as his betrothed, he will do well. 38 So then he who marries his betrothed does well, and he who refrains from marriage will do even better.

39 A wife is bound to her husband as long as he lives. But if her husband dies, she is free to be married to whom she wishes, only in the Lord. 40 Yet in my judgment she is happier if she remains as she is. And I think that I too have the Spirit of God.[1]

This is the Word of God for the people of God. Thanks be to God.

One of the things that has changed in our culture is marriage. I’m not talking about how our culture has redefined marriage. I’m talking about how marriage rates have fallen, especially among younger generations. A Pew Research poll found that between 1995 and 2019 marriage rates fell from 58% to 53% between people of marriageable age. In that same time, cohabitation rates have risen from 3% to 7%.[2] Another trend is that people are marrying later in life. I’m 32 and preparing to marry in a few months. That’s not uncommon. Millennials, people born between 1981 and 1996, are waiting until their 30s to marry. We’re staying single longer.

Does the Bible have anything to say about singleness? Or does it just say things about marriage? Here in this passage, the Apostle Paul addresses this question. In answering this question, he tells us that there is considerable freedom to be single and that there is considerable freedom in being single.

Freedom to be Single

Paul says that there is freedom to be single. He says:

Now concerning the betrothed, I have no command from the Lord, but I give my judgment as one who by the Lord’s mercy is trustworthy. 26 I think that in view of the present distress it is good for a person to remain as he is. 27 Are you bound to a wife? Do not seek to be free. Are you free from a wife? Do not seek a wife. 28 But if you do marry, you have not sinned, and if a betrothed woman marries, she has not sinned.

Then he continues in verse 36:

If anyone thinks that he is not behaving properly toward his betrothed, if his passions are strong, and it has to be, let him do as he wishes: let them marry—it is no sin. 37 But whoever is firmly established in his heart, being under no necessity but having his desire under control, and has determined this in his heart, to keep her as his betrothed, he will do well. 38 So then he who marries his betrothed does well, and he who refrains from marriage will do even better.

A wife is bound to her husband as long as he lives. But if her husband dies, she is free to be married to whom she wishes, only in the Lord. 40 Yet in my judgment she is happier if she remains as she is. And I think that I too have the Spirit of God.

Paul says that he has no command from the Lord concerning betrothal. What he means is that there is no command from Jesus – either in Scripture or revealed to him – about whether or not people must marry. In fact, he says there is freedom to be single.

We may not recognize it but in the first century world that was a radical statement. Marriage was expected. It was considered a pillar of a healthy society. And for women it was considered to be even more important. For women it was economic safety and security. Women, typically, didn’t work outside the home. Their work was to manage the household and raise the children. There was also this belief that unless a woman married, she was a social failure. That was the cultural understanding regarding singleness.

But Paul gives us the biblical understanding of singleness. He says, “Are you free from a wife? Do not seek a wife… he who refrains from marriage will do even better”. He’s making crystal clear that believers are free to be single. There is no command that everyone must marry.

What does this mean for us in the 21st century? It means the very same thing that it meant when Paul wrote this letter in the mid 1st century. We are free to be single. There is no command that all must marry.

This is important for us because within the Church we have tended to look down upon singleness. We have tended to view those who are single as somehow less than those of us who have married. It’s something that I’ve experienced personally and I know many other single Christians have experienced it at some point in their lives.

Single Christians often hear, “When are you going to settle down and marry?” or “You’re still single?” Within those questions is an implicit view that being single is not as good and not as God-honoring as marriage. That’s hard to hear if you’re single. It’s hard to be made to feel as though you are incomplete until you marry.

While that is hard for Christians who do not struggle with same-sex attraction, for those who do struggle with same-sex attraction it sounds like a death sentence. We rightfully say that sex is reserved for a one man – one woman marriage. And we encourage them to remain celibate if they cannot marry someone of the opposite sex. But then when we imply that singleness is somehow less than marriage, we do great harm to those brothers and sisters.

There is a freedom to be single. We have no command that people must marry. Let us remember that. Let us remember that singleness is not inferior to marriage. It is simply difficult just as red is different than blue.

Let us remember that an unmarried person is a picture of the Church now, a picture of the Church before Christ’s return, while marriage is a picture of the relationship of the Church with Christ in the new heavens and the new earth. A single person is now chaste and waiting, just as the Church is not pursuing other idols and waiting for the return of Christ. A married couple has become one and the two are united one to another, just as the Church will be completely and fully united to Christ when he returns.

Many of us are married. So how does this apply to us? We have children and grandchildren. Let us remember that Scripture allows them the freedom to be single. We shouldn’t force them to marry. Nor should we look down on them as somehow less than others because they are single. Encourage them to remain chaste while they are single.

For those of us who are single, you are free to remain single. Paul does give one condition for remaining single. In verse 37 he says, “But whoever is firmly established in his heart, being under no necessity but having his desire under control, and has determined this in his heart, to keep her as his betrothed, he will do well”. If you can control your urges and desires, if you are can control your desire for physical intimacy, then you are free to remain single.

While we are free to be single, we are also free to marry. Paul says, “But if you do marry, you have not sinned, and if a betrothed woman marries she has not sinned”. Just as people are free to remain single, they are free to marry. Most people will marry. And that is good. That is wonderful. You are free to marry.

Marriage, while affected by the Fall, is something that God ordained. In Genesis 2, we’re told that “a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and they shall become one flesh” (Gen. 2:24). God ordained and instituted marriage with his covenant with creation.[3] So marriage isn’t something wrong or sinful. It is a God ordained institution that reflects his relationship to humanity and his design for procreation. You are free to marry.

If you are currently single and you desire to marry, you should marry. It is not more God honoring to remain single while you burn with desire. That often ends poorly. Paul says in verse 36 that if someone’s passions are strong, that person should marry. If that is you, then marry. You do not sin in marrying. Believers are free to be single or free to marry in the Lord.

Freedom in being Single

Paul continues. He says:

I want you to be free from anxieties. The unmarried man is anxious about the things of the Lord, how to please the Lord. 33 But the married man is anxious about worldly things, how to please his wife, 34 and his interests are divided. And the unmarried or betrothed woman is anxious about the things of the Lord, how to be holy in body and spirit. But the married woman is anxious about worldly things, how to please her husband. 35 I say this for your own benefit, not to lay any restraint upon you, but to promote good order and to secure your undivided devotion to the Lord.

Paul tells us that there is considerable freedom in being single. Before we dive into these verses, we need to understand verse 26 which frames these words. There he speaks of a present distress. Commentators are divided over what he means. Some commentators have thought that Paul is referring to a famine that occurred around the time Paul wrote this letter.[4] Around 49/50 AD under the reign of Emperor Claudius there was a severe grain shortage. Many people starved. Some commentators think that this is the distress Paul is referring to; that because of the current famine, they should refrain from marriage since men might not be able to provide food. Other’s think that the distress Paul is referring to the dysfunction within the Corinthian church.[5]

More than likely the distress is living as Christians in a fallen world.[6] When Adam and Eve took the fruit from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil, the entire created order was thrown in sin. And that affects everything. It affects work. It affects our minds and wills. And it affects our relationship.

It’s common sense. Everyone has issues. Everyone has problems. That’s the result of sin; our own sin and the sins committed against us. And that’s just one person. If we add another person to mix, issues and problems compound because they’re just as sinful as you; sin has affected that person just as much as it has affected you.

The same is true of anxieties. Paul says here in verse 32, “I want you to be free from anxieties.”Before Jules and I got serious, I was free from anxieties. But now that we’re engaged, I’m anxious for her when she travels late at night. And I know she is anxious for me in similar circumstances.

Paul continues, “The unmarried man is anxious about the things of the Lord, how to please the Lord. 33 But the married man is anxious about worldly things, how to please his wife, 34 and his interests are divided. And the unmarried or betrothed woman is anxious about the things of the Lord, how to be holy in body and spirit. But the married woman is anxious about worldly things, how to please her husband. 35 I say this for your own benefit, not to lay any restraint upon you, but to promote good order and to secure your undivided devotion to the Lord.”

Paul is saying that there is a freedom in singleness. Someone who is unmarried is freed up to be anxious about the things of God. You have more time. Here’s an example, if someone is unmarried and a friend calls late at night and says, “I need a place to stay for a few nights” you can easily respond by saying, “Come on over. Stay as long as you need”. But if you’re married, you need to first talk with your spouse about it. You are anxious about worldly things, like how to please your spouse.

Now, at times married couples hide behind marriage as a way to avoid loving their neighbor. They might say, “I’d love to but got plans with the family” as an excuse. I know people do it. Sitcoms regularly show married couples using this as an excuse to avoid helping others. Just because you’re married that doesn’t give you a pass on loving your neighbor. That command still stands for married couples too. But it is more complicated as they have to take into account their spouse.

But the single person is freed up in this regard. He or she has more free time, more free space in his or her life to devote to caring for the things of the Lord. Paul isn’t raising singleness above marriage. He’s simply pointing out that basic fact. There is a freedom to serve the Lord in singleness that isn’t quite there in married life.

One of my professors in seminary never married. Dr. Keazirian was my Greek professor and he was renowned for his understanding of the language. He didn’t talk much about being single. Every so often the seminary would have lunchtime forums. During my final year there was a forum on singleness in ministry. Dr. Keazirian was on the panel along with a few other professors and a student.

While many of the students attending the forum were hoping Dr. Keazirian would talk about Paul’s statement in verse 7, where he said, “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.” Many think Paul is talking about a spiritual gifting toward singleness. Many of the students wanted Dr. Keazirian to talk about that verse and the gift of singleness.

Instead, he spoke mostly about the freedom he has in being single. He shared that as a result of him never having married, he has been able to be more involved in local church where he has served as an elder for 20 years. He shared that he has had freedom in being single and that freedom allowed him live sparsely and give his money to missionaries. He shared that by being single he had freedom to stay late at the seminary tutoring students who struggled.

So often we fail to realize that those who are single have a freedom to serve the Lord in ways that married people are unable to. We often think of being single as a liability in serving the Lord. But Paul clearly views it as a freedom that allows people to focus more fully on God.

There is a freedom to be single. We have no command that we must marry. But we are also free to marry. There is a freedom in being single that married couples do not have. A freedom to focus more on the things of God.

[1] The Holy Bible: English Standard Version. (2016). (1 Co 7:25–40). Wheaton, IL: Crossway Bibles.

[2] https://www.pewsocialtrends.org/2019/11/06/the-landscape-of-marriage-and-cohabitation-in-the-u-s/

[3] See O. Palmer Robertson, The Christ of the Covenants, (New Jersey; P&R Publishing, 1980), 74-79.

[4] Anthony Thiselton, The First Epistle to the Corinthians: A Commentary on the Greek Text (Michigan; Eerdmans, 2000), 573.

[5] Kim Riddlebarger, First Corinthians (Georgia; Tolle Lege Press, 2013), 188-189.

[6] F. W. Grosheide, The New International Commentary on the New Testament: The First Epistle to the Corinthians (Michigan; Eerdmans, 1953), 175.