Is I Corinthians 7:9 a command or a recommendation?


I've always wondered about I Corinthians 7:9.  I'm unsure of how to take it: as a command or a recommendation? I read that "let them marry" is a better translation than "they should marry," but I'm not sure how strongly it's intended to come across, or even the difference in implication between "let them marry" and "they should marry."


"Now concerning the things of which you wrote to me: It is good for a man not to touch a woman. Nevertheless, because of sexual immorality, let each man have his own wife, and let each woman have her own husband. Let the husband render to his wife the affection due her, and likewise also the wife to her husband. The wife does not have authority over her own body, but the husband does. And likewise the husband does not have authority over his own body, but the wife does. Do not deprive one another except with consent for a time, that you may give yourselves to fasting and prayer; and come together again so that Satan does not tempt you because of your lack of self-control. But I say this as a concession, not as a commandment. For I wish that all men were even as I myself. But each one has his own gift from God, one in this manner and another in that. But I say to the unmarried and to the widows: It is good for them if they remain even as I am; but if they cannot exercise self-control, let them marry. For it is better to marry than to burn with passion" (1 Corinthians 7:1-9).

In this passage, Paul is dealing with questions sent to him from Corinth. We don't know what the questions were; we only have the answer. We can only guess at the possible questions based on what Paul discussed in answering them.

There are several things coming together that made for some difficult choices:

  • Persecution was increasing and would soon become very severe. "I suppose therefore that this is good because of the present distress -- that it is good for a man to remain as he is: Are you bound to a wife? Do not seek to be loosed. Are you loosed from a wife? Do not seek a wife. But even if you do marry, you have not sinned; and if a virgin marries, she has not sinned. Nevertheless such will have trouble in the flesh, but I would spare you. But this I say, brethren, the time is short, so that from now on even those who have wives should be as though they had none, those who weep as though they did not weep, those who rejoice as though they did not rejoice, those who buy as though they did not possess, and those who use this world as not misusing it. For the form of this world is passing away. But I want you to be without care. He who is unmarried cares for the things of the Lord -- how he may please the Lord. But he who is married cares about the things of the world -- how he may please his wife. There is a difference between a wife and a virgin. The unmarried woman cares about the things of the Lord, that she may be holy both in body and in spirit. But she who is married cares about the things of the world -- how she may please her husband. And this I say for your own profit, not that I may put a leash on you, but for what is proper, and that you may serve the Lord without distraction." (I Corinthians 7:26-35). What Paul is saying is that if you just look at the problem of persecution, being single is a better choice when your life is at risk.
  • Sexual temptation can be very strong for many people. Sin is not a option for Christians. "What shall we say then? Shall we continue in sin that grace may abound? Certainly not! How shall we who died to sin live any longer in it?" (Romans 6:1-2). Fornication and other sexual sins are never a choice for a Christian. "Do you not know that the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived. Neither fornicators, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor homosexuals, nor sodomites, nor thieves, nor covetous, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor extortioners will inherit the kingdom of God" (I Corinthians 6:9-10). Sex is only to take place in marriage; it is one of the purposes of marriage. Therefore, if you only look at the problem of sexual sin, marriage would be the better choice.
  • Marriage is optional. There is no requirement that a person must marry. But with the choice of remaining single comes giving up some desirable things: a lifelong companion, sex, and children. That means a single person is choosing to deal with more sexual temptation than a married person would deal with. Even in the church, some duties can only be taken up by married men (I Timothy 3:2, 11; Titus 1:6). The choice to remain single means choosing not to be an elder or a deacon in the church. But with marriage comes the taking on of additional responsibilities; decisions have to be made in terms of what is best for the family and not the individual.

Paul is trying to give us balance in making difficult choices. There is no command that you must marry. But there are certain circumstances where marriage is the better choice and others where remaining single or delaying marriage is the better choice. Neither choice is sinful regardless of the circumstances.

Paul boils the conflicting issues down to one issue that each person must ask themselves: how strong is your desire for sex and your ability to control yourself? "But I say to the unmarried and to the widows: It is good for them if they remain even as I am; but if they cannot exercise self-control, let them marry. For it is better to marry than to burn with passion" (I Corinthians 7:8-9). The use of "good" and "better" means they are not absolute commands in either choice, but that life will be easier if one route is taken over the other. A person with strong self-control may decide to get married anyway, even though that will lead to greater hardship in the upcoming persecution. A person wanting to focus on God may choose to remain single, even though that could lead to severe temptation to sin.

However, in all of this, never forget that sin is never an option. Paul is not saying that while it is better to marry, it is acceptable to dabble in sexual sins because you don't want the responsibilities of a family while facing persecution. Paul is stating that if you feel you aren't able to control yourself in the face of sexual temptation, then you need to get married. "If they cannot exercise self-control, let them marry" is a conditional command. "Let them marry" comes from the Greek word gamesatosan, which is in the imperative aorist form of the action verb "marry." An imperative is a command and aorist is something indefinite in regards to when it happens. So he is commanding that people who struggle with sexual temptation need to marry, but it isn't a demand that they marry immediately.