Because of the Present Distress
Staying Unmarried (I Corinthians 7:25-35)
In regards to those who have never married, the Lord has not given commands, which must be followed. Instead, Paul is going to give advice to be considered but does not have to be followed. This does not mean the advice isn’t inspired, it is still ultimately coming from God, but he is giving parameters for consideration instead of hard-fast rules.
Paul makes it clear that the current situation colors his response. Therefore, the advice should not be seen as a permanent suggestion, but one that depends on the potential difficulties in the world. While Paul has religious persecution primarily in mind, other times of distress in a person’s life would also make Paul’s advice worth heeding, such as times of financial problems, or family responsibilities.
In a time of distress or persecution it is best to remain in your current marital situation. The use of the word “good” indicates a preferable state, but not one that must be followed. God is allowing Christians a choice in the matter even though one option has more advantages than the other. A married person should not leave his marriage just because of persecution. Nor should an unmarried person seek to get married because of the persecution. Yet, to make it clear, Paul states that if a person does decide to get married, it is not sinful to do so.
There are several reasons why Paul is recommending putting off marriage. First, marriage is not a solution to all troubles. It brings its own set of problems into a person’s life. There are responsibilities and cares in a married person’s life that a single person does not have. Adding stress in an already stressful situation won’t make life better, even though in calmer times the benefits of marriage far outweigh its stresses.
Paul’s second reason is that the time remaining is short. There is debate whether Paul is referring to the calm they currently have before the persecutions, or that once the persecutions begin time will appear to be very short. The word translated as “shortened” is a Greek word that refers to the furling of a sail so that less is exposed to the wind. Either view is sensible, though I believe the former is more likely the correct meaning. Because of the limited time, difficult decisions must be made. Those decisions need to be made independent of family, moods, or possessions. Paul is not advocating neglect of a spouse, but this need to make hard decisions despite being married is a challenge Paul wishes to spare people from having to face. Paul is urging people not to get wrapped up in life so that opportunities to do what is right are missed because of the limited time.
1. Name some situations in a person’s life when it would be best to hold off marrying.
2. What kind of situations might make a person think it would be better to leave a marriage?
3. What kind of added responsibilities or cares does a married person have which are not present in a single person’s life?
The core problem is one of focus. A single person is able to focus serving the Lord. A married person will have concerns about pleasing his spouse. In normal times this would not be a problem, but in times of distress there may not be adequate time to give both the consideration that each deserves. Paul would prefer to spare people from having being distracted and feeling that earthly obligations is pulling them from the more important matter of serving the Lord. He is certainly not trying to restrain people from marrying or fulfilling their obligations. He is just pointing out the difficulties that may arise by being pulled in multiple directions at the same time.
A Parent’s Obligation to an Unmarried Child (I Corinthians 7:36-38)
In the days in which Paul is writing, it was common for parents to arrange marriages. Fathers especially had the right to decide if or when a daughter might marry. Distressing times could likely put a father’s desire and a daughter’s desire at odds with one another.
If a father has a daughter who really should marry because she is passing the usual age of marriage or because he doesn’t really have a choice, then the father isn’t sinning if he allows his daughter to marry. An engagement might have already been arranged and the marriage should take place in order for the father and the daughter to keep their word. The daughter might strongly desire marriage and delaying a marriage might put her in a situation where she is too greatly tempted to sin sexually. Even though the father might not think it is the best choice at the moment, it isn’t wrong to allow a marriage to take place.
But if there is no urgency or need for a marriage to take place, and the father has a choice and is firmly convinced that it would be best for his daughter to wait, then he is doing well in holding off a marriage until a better time.
There is no requirement regarding when a marriage takes place. A father who decides it is best to allow a marriage is causing no harm and does well by his daughter. But a father who decides to delay any marriage while severe times are taking place is picking a better option.
A Widow’s Decision (I Corinthians 7:39-40)
If a woman’s husband dies she is free to marry another (Romans 7:2-3). In another letter Paul urged younger widows to remarry (I Timothy 5:11-15). But Paul also had stated that in times of distress that it is better to remain as you are, yet the death of a spouse forces an involuntary change. Should a widow remarry to remain in her past state or stay unmarried until calmer times?
Paul reiterates what he has said before, marriage is an allowable option and a person does not sin by getting married. This is reasonable because outright forbidding of marriage is a sin (I Timothy 4:1-3). But Paul, and God through Paul, suggests that it would be better to wait until calmer times if a person is able to so.
The phrase “only in the Lord” has caused some debate about exactly what Paul was stating. As a prepositional phrase, “in the Lord” can modify the subject, object, or verb in a sentence. Depending on which part of the sentence it is applied to, you can come to different conclusions. If it applies to the subject (she, the widow), then only Christian widows can remarry. If it applies to the object (to whom), then a widow can only remarry a Christian. But if it applies to the verb (to be married), the a widow can only remarry if she and he have the right to another marriage and that marriage won’t hinder her from serving the Lord.
To understand this better, let’s look at another use of the phrase “in the Lord.” “Children, obey your parents in the Lord, for this is right” (Ephesians 6:1). If “in the Lord” modifies the subject, then only Christian children have to obey their parents. If it modifies the object, then children need only obey their parents if they are Christians. If it modifies the verb, the children are to obey their parents when what they are told to do is in accordance to the Lord’s will. Only the modification of the verb makes sense and is supported by the parallel instruction in Colossians 3:20.
Another case is Colossians 3:18, “Wives, submit to your own husbands, as is fitting in the Lord.” The phrase states that the submission is in the context of things of which the Lord would approve. Paul is not saying only Christian wives are to submit or that wives should only submit to Christian husbands.
What makes the best sense is that Paul is stating that widows can remarry, but he is not giving blanket approval to any marriage. The marriage must be in accordance with the Lord’s will. The one she is marrying must have the right to be married (Matthew 19:9) and the marriage must not hinder her service to God (Matthew 6:33). This also matches Paul’s concern in I Timothy 5:11-12 over the possibility that younger widows, in their eagerness to remarry, may cast off their faith. It cannot be that widow is restricted to only marrying a Christian since Paul previously stated that a marriage to an unbeliever is not wrong (I Corinthians 7:14). Certainly marriage to a Christian will more likely lead to better circumstances in which to serve the Lord, but Paul, here, is not demanding it.
The phrase “and I think that I also have the Spirit of God” is not an expression of doubt on Paul’s part. In the Greek, the word translated as “think” is doko, which means to think or suppose something with certainty about something that appears to be true. Paul is saying this is his opinion and that he is certain that the Holy Spirit supports the idea.