1 Corinthians 7:1-9 – Singleness & Marriage

Translation and Sermon by Nate Wilson for Christ the Redeemer Church, Manhattan, KS, 11 Jan. 2008


1. Now concerning things which y’all wrote:


It is good for a man not to attach himself to a woman,


2. but, on account of the immoralities

            let each man have his own wife,

            and let each woman have her own husband.

            3. Let the husband deliver the obligation to the wife,

            and likewise also the wife to the husband.

                        4. The wife does not have authority over her own body,

                                    but rather the husband does.

                        And likewise the also the husband does not have authority over his own body,

                                    but rather the wife does.

            5.  Do not continue to deprive each other

                        except whenever

                                    it is by common consent

                                    for an appointed time

                                    in order that you might have leisure for prayer,

                                    then you continue again in unity

                                                in order that Satan might not be tempting you

                                                            through your being uncontrolled.

                        6. Now I say this by way of permission, not by way of command.


7. Yet I wish all men to be as also I am,

            but each has his own gift from God,

                        this on the one hand and this on the other.

8. But I say to the unmarried and to the widows:

            it would be good for them if they were to remain as I also am,

            9. but if they are not controlling themselves, let them get married,

                        for it is better to marry than to be burned.

Introduction – Asking the Expert

A month or so ago, I joined a group of elders in doing a qualification interview with our mission church’s first elder candidate. After the interview, we decided that Chip Zachary was qualified to be a candidate for eldership for Christ the Redeemer Church. The next step in this process is usually to hold an election where the members of the congregation vote on whether or not they want this candidate to become an official elder for the church. However, we faced a bit of confusion on this point. Could our mission church elect an elder if we did not meet the qualifications of a full-fledged church yet? We decided to ask the experts in the PCA Book Of Church Order.


On Dec. 3, I wrote an email to Roy Taylor, the stated clerk of the PCA, and asked, “…can we go ahead and install this ruling elder in our mission church, or should we wait indefinitely on ordaining and installing him until our mission church has met our presbytery’s criteria for organizing as a particular church? (The only criteria we lack for particularization is that we don’t have a minimum of 2 qualified elder candidates.) … As I’ve puzzled over this, it seems to me that we can’t have ruling elders without a particular church... Do you concur, or am I missing something?”



On Dec. 12, Bob Fiol, the assistant stated clerk of the PCA, wrote back with the concurrence of Dr. Taylor to say, “Under BCO 12-1 one TE and one RE comprise a session. Under BCO 8-6 the Presbytery may grant to an evangelist additional powers to ordain and install elders before particularization. Therefore in answer to your question about installing the one RE before particularization, from what you have told us I would say, “yes”.


Sometimes things get confusing and you just need to get advice. That’s what the folks in Corinth did with the apostle Paul. They had several questions regarding marriage and other things, so they asked for Paul’s expert opinion.

The Question and its context (“Can we get married or should we stay single?”)

In I Cor. 7, Paul opens with the statement, “Now concerning things that you wrote, it is good for a man not to touch/attach himself to a woman.” I’m siding with Strong’s lexicon concerning the verb “attach himself to” because this verb is in the Greek middle voice which indicates some reflexiveness “attach himself” rather than simple active action like “touch” which is found in the in the King James translations and the NASB. I think the NIV and ESV unnecessarily narrow down the meaning of this word. However, from the context, it appears that the Corinthians had asked Paul whether Christians should get married or stay single.


In the Greek culture during the time the New Testament was written, there were a lot of wrong-headed ideas about marriage because the pagan Greeks had built their culture without the benefit of God’s word and they didn’t know what was right and what was wrong. As our culture becomes more and more ignorant of Christianity and the Bible, we see the same problem around us.

  1. Many people married, but did not consumate the marriage with a physical joining together; instead they did that kind of physical activity with temple prostitutes and child slaves.
    1. Such marriages are called Platonic marriages after the Greek philosopher Plato.
    2. This idea that somehow the physical union of man and wife is bad and should therefore be rejected in marriage appears in a lot of old movies where the parent’s bedroom has two single beds. Why didn’t they sleep together? What’s wrong with that? They’re man and wife for crying out loud!
    3. Nowadays that doesn’t seem to be common; what is more common is a failure to cut off all sexual activity with all parties (even yourself) and share this intimacy only with your spouse.
    4. Most Americans today habitually practice adultery because they do not know that God made them and commanded them not to commit adultery. They do not have God’s word to guide them into the joy of an exclusive relationship with their wife/husband.
  2. On the other hand, many couples do not even bother to get married.
    1. They are so broken up by bad relationships with members of the opposite sex (or of the same sex) that they may wonder if they are too messed up to get married.
    2. In today’s American culture where a third of the marriages end in divorce, people have become skeptical about whether marriages can last. Maybe it’s not worth the trouble to get married?
    3. It didn’t take too many centuries after the New Testament was written for the Roman Catholic church to decide that church leaders should never be married, leaving the impression among Christians that marriage is somehow second-rate.
    4. If you do not know the truth from God’s word that there is forgiveness and grace through Jesus and if you do not know the truth from God’s word that our maleness and femaleness are a reflection of the image of our creator, that it is good, and that God commends marriage, you could all too easily go astray with those who avoid marriage altogether.


Paul’s answer to the Corinthians is a little unexpected. He says, “Yes some of you should get married, and yes, some of you should stay single!”

ANSWER #1 “Yes you can Marry – and enjoy it!”

First off, we must notice what Paul did NOT say.


Marriage is commended by God


Now Paul lays down 5 principles for how to enjoy marriage

1.      v.2 – “on account of the immoralities” - Get married if immorality is a problem.

(a)    In Corinth, there were lots of defraudingly-dressed prostitutes walking around advertising the use of their bodies. Nowadays, it seems that many women’s fashions are purposefully adopted from the prostitution industry. What only prostitutes wore a decade ago is commonly-worn today.

(b)   In Corinth, there were lots of pagans practicing all kinds of immorality. What’s a God-fearing person supposed to do in a culture where shopping and entertainment are purposefully designed to excite your senses and passions?

(c)    One course of action is to get married. This allows you to channel your expressions of passion in a legitimate direction – toward your spouse, as God likes it to be.

(d)   This is an application of the commands in the last chapter to “flee immorality… and honor God with your body.”

(e)    v.9 also picks this idea back up, when Paul tells unmarried and widowed people to marry if they cannot maintain a level of self-control that would be necessary to remain pure as a single person.

(f)    However, if this is the only reason you want to get married, you are not ready to get married. Marriage requires just as much self-control and self-denial as singleness does.

(g)   Can you imagine a wedding ceremony being introduced like this? “Bretheren, we are gathered here together because Bill and Sally cannot exercise self-control. Because of immorality and because it is better to marry than to burn, I now pronounce them man and wife.”

(h)   But we must take seriously Paul’s advice that “it is better to marry than to burn/be burned”.

(i)     There is some disagreement whether this verb is in the Greek middle voice (burn within oneself) or in the passive voice (be burned).

(ii)   Contemporary English translations lean toward the middle voice by adding the words “with passion” (which are not in the Greek text) to the end of verse 9.

(iii) I’m more inclined to think that this is a passive voice which implies being consumed in sexual sin and burning in hell.

(iv) The classic commentators Jameison Fausset and Brown bring out the fact that both senses are really true: “the secret flame of lust… lays waste the whole inner man… The dew of God’s grace is needed to stifle the flame which otherwise would thrust men at last into hellfire.”

(i)     “persons must not neglect the remedy which they have in their power as appointed to them from the Lord for weakness of the flesh…” Calvin

2.      A basic principle to be inferred about marriage in v.2 is that it is between one man & one woman.

(a)    “Each man should have his own wife, an each wife should have her own man.”

(b)   This rules out polygamy, polyandry, and homosexuality.

3.      In v.3, Paul alludes to the OT law and briefly covers what is important for a happy marriage:

(a)    v.3 contains another command – literally “deliver the obligation” / “fulfill his [marital] duty” - NAS & NIV/ “render due benevolence” – KJV (I think NKJV and ESV are a little too narrow in their translations to say it is only “affection” or “conjugal rights” that a husband and wife are to render to each other.)

(b)   What then is the “obligatory duty” of husbands and wives toward each other? One has to go back to OT law to know. Moses wrote up a lot of basic things about God’s will that we can benefit from today. Exodus 21:10 outlines the basic responsibilities a husband had toward his wife: “food, clothing, and love.” The absence of these things constitutes a violation of the marriage covenant.

(i)     FOOD: Husbands, are you making sure that your wife has enough food to get along? Are you helping her eat good food? Wives, are you seeing to it that your husband eats well?

(ii)   CLOTHING: Husbands, are you providing adequate shelter and clothing for your wife? Do you show interest in what she wears and encourage her beauty and femininity? Wives, are you watching out for your husband’s clothing so that he doesn’t embarrass himself by wearing dirty, wrinkled, or tattered clothes? Guys can be oblivious to these things.

(iii) LOVE: Are you available to spontaneously spend time with your spouse or do they have to get an appointment on your calendar like everybody else with whom you share no intimacy? Do you have time that is regularly scheduled when your spouse can depend on being with you? Do you show affection to your wife/husband consistently when you’re around each other? Are you giving away your love to someone besides your spouse (or future spouse – for those of you who are not married) through fornication, prostitution, coveting, lust, trashy novels, or pornography? Are you holding back your spouse from their desire to have a child?

(c)    David Instone-Brewer published an article in the October 2007 issue of Christianity Today entitled “What God Has Joined,” in which he noted that the formal wedding vows to “love, honor, and cherish” are a modern parallel to the three obligations of marriage in Exodus. Are you making good on your vow? This is key to a happy marriage.

4.      In v. 4, Paul goes on to explain another key philosophical underpinning of marriage, and that is that a married man or woman has given the authority over their body to their spouse.

(a)    We’ve already seen the theological principle in chapter 6 that Jesus bought us - body and soul - when He died on the cross in our place, so our body doesn’t belong to us anymore, it belongs to God to do with as He pleases.

(b)   Here in chapter 7, this principle is extended further to tell us that if we are married, our spouse also has authority over our physical body, so we have to submit our bodies to be used according to what our spouse wants (as long, of course, as this does not go against what God wants – and that is an important caveat).

(c)    Don’t act autonomously – you don’t have the authority to get a vasectomy or get your tubes tied if your spouse objects. Contrary to what the world tells you, it is NOT your body.

(d)   Exercise your authority over your spouse’s body – let them know what you want.

(i)     Has to be balanced with submission & consideration, but speak up when it’s important

(ii)   ILLUSTRATION: A couple of months ago, my wife was getting irritated at how late I stayed up on Saturday nights working on my sermons. At one point she asked me if she really had authority over my body. I said, Yes. “Then I want to exercise that authority and demand that you get your body in bed by midnight tonight!” Yes Ma’am!

(e)    Take responsibility with your spouse’s body. Husbands, take the time learn about gynecology and obstetrics. Take an interest in your spouse’s physical body and help when they get sick; don’t leave them to fend for themselves.

(i)     I will never forget the phrase that an old black bishop delivered at the Promise Keepers rally I went to in Denver a decade ago: “Invest in your wife’s body.” There is a gold nugget of good wisdom.

(ii)    “The husband is but one half of his body” wrote John Calvin

5.      “Stop depriving one another”

(a)    ILLUSTRATION: Two kayaks in a stream. There are water currents and rocks all around you. It’s impossible to go down the rapids in exactly the same place. The currents will naturally act differently on different crafts and you’ll end up miles apart – perhaps on different forks of the river – if you do not make constant adjustments with your paddling so as to maneuver your boats close to each other. It is the same with marriage.

(b)   Intimacy takes hard work relationally. When your wife or husband has done something that irritates you, it is so easy to stop paddling, as it were, and let your boats drift apart. When you’re mad at your spouse, naturally, the last thing you want to do is draw closer to them, so you withhold intimacy from them in order to keep that distance. God’s word says that this kind of attitude is wicked. Never withhold love from your husband or wife as a weapon against them! Your body is not your own to use to punish them.

(c)    You have a personal enemy named Satan who prowls about like a roaring lion seeking someone to devour. He is smart enough to know your weak spots and evil enough to exploit your weak spots. He knows that if you withhold intimacy from your husband, he can be tempted mightily to sexual sin. How many marriages would be saved if Christians just obeyed this one verse of Scripture?

(d)   There is an exception, however, in v.5, and that is when four conditions are met:

(i)     common consent” the Greek word here is pronounced like our English word “symphony.” Both husband and wife must be agreed together to take a time apart.

(ii)   “for an appointed time” The Greek word here is “kairos” – not meaning time in the abstract or indefinite sense, but rather time that is specified and limited for special use.

(iii) “in order that you might have leisure for prayer” This is the reason.

·         Many medieval manuscripts of the NT add “fasting” to prayer - thus it is in the KJV, but fasting isn’t in the oldest manuscripts. Not a big deal, since this is speaking of a form of fasting anyway.

·         Note that no other reason is given as a possibility. God does not say that we can avoid closeness for any old reason, be it overtime work, extra social events, or to avoid having a child.

·         In the Mosaic law, sleeping with a wife disqualified a man from entering the temple until the next evening, (Lev. 15:18, Exodus 19:15, Joel 2:16, Zech 7:3) so the only reason to avoid sleeping with your wife was to prepare to be with God.

·         In his commentary, John Calvin took the time to elaborate circumstances under which it may be wise to take special time apart for prayer, and he included situations where God had brought some kind of calamity upon your country and you need to spend extended time in prayers of repentance and crying for mercy or when you have a particularly difficult or important matter to pray about. For him, as a Christian teacher and church leader, he considered the ordination of new ministers to be one of these important occasions.

·         The point is that the reasons for avoiding closeness in marriage should be very few and should be oriented toward building our relationship with God.
REVIEW: Common consent, For an appointed time, For the purpose of prayer, &

(iv) then you continue again in unity

·         It’s very important that you come together again.

·         One of my heroes, Raymond Lull, was a Spanish pop singer from the 13th Century who became a pioneering missionary to North Africa. Although I admire him for his commitment to Christ and his groundbreaking efforts, the fact that he divorced his wife in order to become a monk stands condemned by this verse in I Cor (as well as other scriptures). I hope to tell more of his story next month!

·         Our devotion to Christ must never break apart our marriage relationship.

·         So there are the circumstances in which we can take leave of our marital duty: 1) we must mutually agree, 2) It must be for a limited time, 3) It must be for the purpose of prayer, and 4) We must come back together again afterwards.

(v)   v.6 – This is not a command, however.

·         Paul is not saying that you have to come apart in order to pray; he’s saying that you can if you want.

·         It’s a “permitted” thing, a “concession,” an “indulgence,” something that can become “common knowledge.”

·         It is a way to let Jews continue their historical practice without getting in the way of Gentiles who did not have to observe the cleanliness laws.

·         This is how I understand v.6, but there are Bible scholars I respect who say that the concession refers not just to the prayer times but to the entire idea of getting married. In I Tim 4:3, Paul mentions heretics who forbade people to get married.  But Paul holds the line of orthodoxy here: you have permission to get married, although you are not commanded to marry. This is true, but the immediate context seems to be about special times of devotion to prayer.


SUMMARY: So we see that it’s good to marry, that marriage is to be between one man and one woman, that it is important to meet the obligations of food clothing and love to have a happy marriage and that our bodies are not our own. But what about singles?

ANSWER #2 “Yes, you can stay single and benefit from it!”

1.      Good: First off, singleness can be a very good thing. Paul says several times in this chapter that singleness is GOOD. There is nothing bad about being single. A single person is not half of a person; you are emotionally and relationally whole. Don’t look at singleness as a negative thing; it is good; God’s word says so! Believe it!

2.      Gift: Secondly, our marital status is a GIFT. That’s what v.7 says. God gives gifts to us, and we need to honor both the gift of marriage and the gift of celibacy.

a.       Neither gift is for everyone (Matt. 19:11), and no one can survive in either status without a lot of God’s grace. It is a gift.

b.      One way of telling whether you have the gift of celibacy is to notice how successful you are at staying pure amidst immorality in the world. If not, then seek God’s provision of marriage.

c.       Calvin wrote that to rashly make a vow of celibacy without having the gift of virginity would be like “an unlearned and illiterate man passing himself off as a teacher.”

d.      Paul had the gift of celibacy, and while he encouraged unmarried people to try it, he did not try to force everybody to be like him. He recognized that different people have different gifts and he didn’t look down on anybody for getting married.

3.      Consider the times: Some times are just not good for marriage.

a.       EXAMPLE: For Josh, it just wouldn’t have been a good idea to get married to a newly-made friend just before going on a long military deployment.

b.      Paul mentions later on in v.26 that the historical setting of the Corinthians was not the best for getting married – they would be persecuted, and, as Jesus said in Mark 13:17ff, those are difficult circumstances under which to care for a wife and raise children.

4.      Your status can change.

a.       Isaac remained unmarried and presumably chaste until he was 30 years old, and then suddenly his calling changed to that of a husband. One of my co-workers in Denver did it at age 40. It was a difficult transition for a confirmed bachelor, but he’s hanging in there.

b.      Paul was presumably married if he was a voting member of the Jewish Sanhedrin (Acts. 26:10), but he is obviously not married as he writes this, so perhaps his wife died young. My pastor in Denver lost his wife to cancer at age 39. Paul seems quite content with his single status; he is not seeking to get married again. My pastor friend from Denver remarried after a couple of years.

c.       We need to be willing to rejoice and follow Jesus even if there are difficult changes in life.

5.      Exhortations from Steve Ratliffe:

a.       Singles can find great satisfaction in spiritual devotion to Christ and in developing significant relationships with other people. Don’t let singleness become an excuse to be withdrawn relationally. Pursue God and other people in deep relationships.

b.      Don’t limit your circle of friends to those who are just like you. This goes for both singles and married people. It is important for the community of the church to value both single and married people and include people who are different from you in your fellowship. This keeps people from getting isolated.

6.      Walk in purity. Calvin’s commentary on combatting temptation: “Hence all must be admonished, but especially the young, that whenever they are assailed by their fleshly inclinations, they should place the fear of God in opposition to a temptation of this sort, cut off all inlets to unchaste thoughts, entreat the Lord to give them strength to resist, and set themselves with all their might to extinguish the flames of lust. If they succeed in this struggle, let them render thanks unto the Lord, for where shall we find the man who does not experience some molestation from his flesh? but if we bridle its violence, before it has acquired the mastery, it is well. For we do not burn, though we should feel a disagreeable heat — not that there is nothing wrong in that feeling of heat, but acknowledging before the Lord, with humility and sighing, our weakness, we are meanwhile, nevertheless, of good courage. To sum up all, so long as we come off victorious in the conflict, through the Lord’s grace, and Satan’s darts do not make their way within, but are valiantly repelled by us, let us not become weary of the conflict.”