MARRIAGE: THE LESSER OF TWO EVILS?
On Sunday, July 22nd, I finished our study of 1 Corinthians chapter 7. During the three weeks we studied Paul’s instruction on marriage from this challenging chapter I got a fair amount of comments and questions. As a pastor, I can never say everything about a text in one sermon that I would like share. Believe it or not, I leave a lot of information on my desk knowing I only have about forty-five minutes to explain a passage to our church family. With every sermon preached there are questions that remain unanswered and information left unarticulated.
One of the comments mentioned after the final message on singleness was that Paul seems to have a negative view of marriage and only makes an allowance for those who are sexually weak to marry as the lesser of two evils. In other words, marriage isn’t good, but it’s better than immorality. If we only take a superficial look at 1 Corinthians 7, it’s easy to see how one could arrive at this conclusion. We are wise, however, to examine Paul’s teaching more carefully. As we study the biblical teachings on marriage from a broader perspective, we will discover that the apostle Paul, who is writing under the inspiration of God, is not merely making a concession for marriage because people are prone to fornication. Beginning in Genesis chapter 2, we see that God created marriage for one-flesh companionship. The writer of Hebrews said, “Let marriage be held in honor among all, and let the marriage bed be undefiled, for God will judge the sexually immoral and adulterous” (Hebrews 13:4). It’s clear that the Bible presents marriage as an honorable institution, and not simply the lesser of two evils.
Paul is obviously one of the major writers of the New Testament. So, let’s make three observations concerning Paul’s instruction in the seventh chapter of 1 Corinthians:
1. The Apostle – For Paul, life was all about proclaiming the gospel. As Paul wrote in Romans 1:15, “So I am eager to preach the gospel to you also who are in Rome.” It’s seems very likely that Paul had been previously married, but the Bible does not give any information concerning why he no longer had a wife. I am of the opinion that Paul’s wife had died. Assuming Paul was a widower, he would have seen his singleness as an opportunity to invest his life completely to preaching the gospel without divided loyalties. It’s easy to see why Paul would write, “The unmarried man is anxious about the things of the Lord, how to please the Lord” (1 Corinthians 7:32). For Paul, the advantages of singleness allowed him to be fully devoted to the proclamation of the gospel. Since Paul did not have the distraction of a wife, he was able to dedicate one-hundred percent of his energy to the ministry.
2. The Corinthians – Because the Corinthians had no biblical background on God’s view of marriage, even the church had greatly distorted marriage and sexuality. The people of Corinth grew up worshipping idols and had practiced many forms of sexual sin. Paul’s teaching may seem harsh and overly direct, but we must remember that the historical situation behind the first book of Corinthians was a difficult and complex one. As Paul addresses the wrong ideas of sexuality in the church, such as the people’s perspective that “It is good for a man not to have sexual relations with a woman” (1 Corinthians 7:1), the apostle had to speak with a sense of urgency and bluntness. The church in Corinth was filled with immaturity and immorality, making it necessary for Paul to firmly correct their misconduct. Their immediate social context also included suffering that made being married more difficult. Paul was concerned that the church in Corinth had corrupted marriage through their sinful choices; therefore, their perspectives needed to be corrected. The apostle also understood that married people would face more hardship because of the distress they were experiencing (1 Corinthians 7:26 “I think that in view of the present distress it is good for a person to remain as he is”). In light of the situation in Corinth, Paul taught that remaining single was the better option. But Paul quickly added that marrying was not sinful.
3. The Scriptures – In Ephesians chapter five, Paul uses the institution of marriage to picture Christ’s relationship with the church. In verses 28-31 Paul writes, “In the same way husbands should love their wives as their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself. For no one ever hated his own flesh, but nourishes and cherishes it, just as Christ does the church, because we are members of His body. ‘Therefore a man shall leave his father and mother and hold fast to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.’” In this section, Paul refers of God’s design for marriage in a very positive way. The apostle speaks of the roles within the marital relationship, and uses Genesis 2:24 to underscore God’s original plan for marriage. The one-flesh relationship of marriage was created by God to be enjoyed by a husband and wife committed to one another until one spouse dies. Sex and marriage were created by God for the benefit of both men and women. Marriage is for lifelong companionship that included emotional, spiritual, and sexual intimacy. God did not create marriage just for people who can’t contain their sex drive. While Paul unapologetically promotes singleness as a gift from God in 1 Corinthians 7, he is not undermining God’s gift of marriage in any way.
Remember, as an apostle, Paul was writing under the inspiration of God and not merely sharing his personal ideas. God would not create marriage in Genesis only to undermine His creation in 1 Corinthians 7. We must also keep in mind that Paul was writing to a particular audience when he wrote to the Corinthian believers. While we can understand their historical situation to some degree, we certainly don’t have personal experience with the situation in Corinth. Because we are more than two-thousand years removed from Corinth, we must acknowledge that there are aspects of their culture we do not fully comprehend.
Our conclusion is really a simple one. God created marriage as a way to honor Him in a lifelong covenant of companionship. God has also gifted some people to remain single for the purpose of proclaiming the gospel. One group is not more spiritual than the other. As Paul wrote in 1 Corinthians 7:20, “Each one should remain in the condition in which he was called.” If you are married, remain committed to your spouse and enjoy your marriage. If you are single, be content in your singleness and recognize the advantages of being free from a spouse. Regardless of your marital status, keep your primary focus on Christ!