Today, we are going back to our study of 1 Corinthians. It’s been a long layoff since around Christmas at which time I went to more of a topical style of preaching. But we’re back. Our text is 1 Corinthians 7, the entire chapter, that’s the first part of the sermon. And Eph 5:15-21, the second part. That’s a big chunk of verses so we’ll just jump around and read the verses as needed.
Before deciding to preach through 1 Cor, I was a bit hesitant because there are some difficult passages. Chapter 7 is no exception. The topics that we will cover today include: singleness and marriage. Not your typical Sunday sermon topic.
Let me quickly recap the situation at Corinth since it has been a while when we last studied this book. Paul preached the gospel to the Corinthians and they were saved. They had a clear understanding of the gospel and their salvations were confirmed. They were not just Sunday attendees. They were the real deal. But when Paul left, the other preachers began to lead the congregation away from the gospel and toward spiritual gifts.
Due to this shift in teaching, over time, this church adopted a dualistic view, separating the material world from the spiritual world. The spiritual world was elevated and the material was lowered, to the point that what you did with your body no longer mattered. This is anti-Christian thinking. Christians believe that the physical and the spiritual are parts of one whole. You can’t separate them. But when you are dualistic, as the Corinthians were, you can only go in one of 2 directions. Either you throw off all restraints and you live a life of indulgence and licentiousness. We saw this kind of principle at work in chapter 6 and Paul has to reel them in and tell them, actually, the Lord is for the body, what you do in your bodies matters to God so stop committing sexual immorality. The other direction is to go the way of the ascetic. This is where you punish the body and you beat it into submission. Both are incongruous with Christianity.
Now that we set the stage, let’s tackle singleness. 50 years ago, singleness was almost seen as a defect. What’s wrong with that person? He or she must be too picky. Or there must be some glaring character flaw that causes people to step away once they get to know that person. Nowadays, we see people choosing celibacy to further their career and climb up corporate America. Nevertheless, even today, the majority of people still get married so we assume that marriage is the final destination for any well-adjusted person. Isn’t that right?
Paul would disagree sharply.
1 Cor 7
7 I wish that all men were as I am. But each man has his own gift from God; one has this gift, another has that.
Paul was single and he wishes that all men were like himself. Just like marriage is a gift or calling from God, in the same way, singleness is also a calling from God.
You get the feeling, though, that Paul doesn’t look at this as a 50-50 proposition. He seems to put more weight and value on being single. He says he wishes all men were as I am. In other words, from Paul’s vantage point as a single man, being single is better than being married.
Five quick observations. v1-5, we’ll come back to this later, but for now, Paul is speaking about sex within a marriage context and then in v6, Paul says, this advice to get married was given to them as a concession, not a command. But if Paul is honest with them, he actually prefers that the Corinthians be single like him.
This is the same Paul who penned Ephesians 5 which extols the grand vision of marriage, that physical marriage mirrors or portrays something about Christ’s love for the church. Marriage on earth points to our spiritual Marriage Supper of the Lamb when the church, the bride of Christ, is wed to Jesus Christ. So marriage is fantastic in its spiritual implications. Yet here, Paul is saying, I think singleness is better than marriage. What’s going on here? Is Paul contradicting himself?
It just goes to show, each person sees life through his calling. If you are called to be a missionary, you will see life through the lens of missions. You will see the lost people of the world and your heart will break. And you will say, how can they hear the Word of God without a preacher? Here am I, send me.
On the flip side, if you feel called to local missions in a church context, you will see through that lens. You will see redeemed sinners who are gathered and who are trying to love God and love one another. And there will be a pull toward staying together and working out issues and struggling to maintain unity and pursuing sanctification for the long haul.
Both are callings. It just goes to show–we see life through the lens of our calling. For Paul, he’d argue–if you are called to be single, then you are on a better path.
Related to this, second observation – Christian life is not a rule book. Legalists might be frustrated when they read this chapter. Where is the rule? Tell me what to do. Should I stay single? Should I get married? Should I get divorced? Answer: it depends. It’s case by case. God’s calling is very individualized. We need to ask God for wisdom and His direction constantly. Christianity is about a relationship, not rules. Jesus will guide you and we must learn to follow Him.
Third, regarding our calling, our circumstances play a role. Read v26-31.
1 Cor 7
26 Because of the present crisis, I think that it is good for you to remain as you are. 27 Are you married? Do not seek a divorce. Are you unmarried? Do not look for a wife. 28 But if you do marry, you have not sinned; and if a virgin marries, she has not sinned. But those who marry will face many troubles in this life, and I want to spare you this. 29 What I mean, brothers, is that the time is short. From now on those who have wives should live as if they had none; 30 those who mourn, as if they did not; those who are happy, as if they were not; those who buy something, as if it were not theirs to keep; 31 those who use the things of the world, as if not engrossed in them. For this world in its present form is passing away.
Why does Paul come out so strongly in his recommendation to be single? Because they were undergoing a crisis? It doesn’t explain the specific nature of the crisis they were undergoing, but historically, we know that the early church suffered under great persecution at the hands of the Roman Empire. When you are in danger for your life, does it make sense for a single person to plan out their wedding? Like picking out dresses and talking about where to go for their honeymoon? Or does it make sense for a married person to seek a divorce when their lives are in jeopardy? No, Paul would argue, it is best to remain as you are.
Time is short. 60-70-80 years is short compared to eternity. If you are undergoing crisis and you could be killed any day for your faith, you know without a doubt that time is short.
I attended a funeral yesterday. The father of one of my friends from college passed away and I got a chance to meet up with some people from my past with whom I had some disagreements regarding church and Christian life. And we parted some years ago on, not the best of terms. But at a funeral, you know, none of that matters. All the issues seem really insignificant in light of death. You just want to say sorry and reconcile and see one another at the end. That’s what I walked away with.
The circumstances Paul was in played a role in shaping his calling. He was undergoing some type of crisis and he lived in a way knowing that time was short. Singleness was part of it.
This brings me to the fourth observation – there is a practical difference between a single person and a married person. Read v32-35.
1 Cor 7
32 I would like you to be free from concern. An unmarried man is concerned about the Lord’s affairs—how he can please the Lord. 33 But a married man is concerned about the affairs of this world—how he can please his wife— 34 and his interests are divided. An unmarried woman or virgin is concerned about the Lord’s affairs: Her aim is to be devoted to the Lord in both body and spirit. But a married woman is concerned about the affairs of this world—how she can please her husband. 35 I am saying this for your own good, not to restrict you, but that you may live in a right way in undivided devotion to the Lord.
Here is the practical difference. It comes down to time and availability. A single person simply has more time and more availability to serve God and others. It’s pretty obvious if you think about it. I don’t think Paul could have planted as many churches as he did if he had a wife and kids. Paul was a world traveler. If he had a family, they would have either gone with him everywhere, which would have been tough on the family. Or Paul would have never been home, which is tough in a different sense.
When I was a single guy, I came home from work and my entire evening was free. I had a lot of energy. I had money in the bank, much more than I needed as a single guy. So what did I do? I used my time and resources on people. I had no curfew. If a brother was in trouble, I could be with him all night and just crash on his couch. All of that changes when you get married. I had to begin considering another human being instead of doing whatever I wanted. I was no longer on my own. I couldn’t stay out all night. How I used my time, my money, my schedule, all of that had to be negotiated now.
Paul’s point is this. Whether married or single, our devotion to God is the key. You can be devoted to God wholeheartedly as a single or as a married person. But Paul acknowledges that it will be more challenging for those who are married. As a married person who used to be single, I believe what Paul says is true. If you are married, practically speaking, your interests are divided. Being with your spouse means you are not with someone else who may have needs. Because we are not spirits. We are physical beings and we can only be at one place at one time. So as a single, I agree with Paul. Potentially, you can have a larger impact for God’s kingdom when you are not bound in any way.