July 7, 2013
Pastor Joe Wittwer
A Glorious Mess
Sex, Singleness and Marriage
1 Corinthians 7
Introduction and Offering:
Have you noticed that I don’t pound you for money? We are pretty low key about the offering here. I think some people may interpret that to mean that we don’t need the money—if we’re not begging, we must be doing ok. So, I’m not begging, but I do want you to know that our offerings have been down significantly in May and June. We’re below budget by quite a bit. It’s just two months, and it’s summer, but it’s enough of a drop that we’re watching it closely—and I wanted to let you know. We’re even seeing it in the espresso bar, which runs entirely on the donations you give for your drink. For the first time ever, the espresso bar is in the red. If you get an espresso drink, please donate! And we need your tithe and offering. Thanks for giving.
Welcome to a Glorious Mess. For the summer, we are working our way through 1 Corinthians. The apostle Paul wrote this letter to correct some problems in the church in the Greek city of Corinth. They were Big Problems: people were dividing into groups based on their favorite teachers; a man was sleeping with his step mom and the church was doing nothing about it; some members of the church were suing each other in the public courts, and others were visiting prostitutes. This is church is a mess—but it’s a Glorious Mess because God was at work in it! Today we come to chapter 7—the whole chapter is about marriage and singleness and sex.
This is a long chapter—40 verses—and Paul covers a lot of territory. I read several commentaries—one of them devoted almost 100 pages to this chapter! And I’m going to cover it in 40 minutes! Paul answers their questions about some situations that may seem strange to you—it’s a very different context than ours. So I’m going to do my best to cover the big ideas and make some applications to our own context. I’ll probably raise more questions than I answer. My hope is that you’ll take the Scriptures seriously, and seek to understand and apply what it says.
I hope you’ll jot down what you learn, and we’ll talk about it at the end.
The Big Idea: Being single and being married are both good. The important thing is living as a Christian in whatever state you are.
Paul will start with advice to the already married, then explain his guiding principle, and then give advice to the engaged. Along the way he says some very important things about both being single and being married.
1. Advice to the already married: remain as you are. 1-16
1 Corinthians 7 (NIV)
1 Now for the matters you wrote about: “It is good for a man not to have sexual relations with a woman.”
The Corinthian Christians had written Paul a letter asking him about a number of issues. For the rest of this letter, Paul will tackle those questions. The first one is about sex and marriage. Paul quotes what they wrote: “It is good for a man not to have sexual relations with a woman.”
Last week I explained to you that Greek thought tended to dualism: the body is evil, the spirit is good. The body is the temporary prison of the spirit; one day, the body will die and be thrown aside and the spirit set free. This led to two opposite conclusions: extreme asceticism or extreme indulgence. Extreme asceticism is the denial of all physical desires. Since the body is evil, it must be reined it; all bodily desires should be denied: hunger, thirst, sleep, sex, comfort—all denied. But others came to the opposite conclusion: extreme indulgence. If the body is evil and will be tossed aside, then it really doesn’t matter what you do with it. So party on!
There were people in the Corinthian church who tended to indulgence—like those who were visiting prostitutes. “It doesn’t matter what you do with your body.” Yes it does. Your body belongs to Christ, so honor God with your body.
But there were also people in the Corinthian church who tended to asceticism, and that seems to be what lies behind this quote: “It is good for a man not to have sexual relations with a woman.” They were telling married couples to stop having sex—bad idea! And they were telling singles not to marry. Let’s read on and see what Paul says.
2 But since sexual immorality is occurring, each man should have sexual relations with his own wife, and each woman with her own husband. 3 The husband should fulfill his marital duty to his wife, and likewise the wife to her husband. 4 The wife does not have authority over her own body but yields it to her husband. In the same way, the husband does not have authority over his own body but yields it to his wife. 5 Do not deprive each other except perhaps by mutual consent and for a time, so that you may devote yourselves to prayer. Then come together again so that Satan will not tempt you because of your lack of self-control. 6 I say this as a concession, not as a command. 7 I wish that all of you were as I am. But each of you has your own gift from God; one has this gift, another has that.
The ascetics were saying, “No more sex, even for married couples.” Paul says, “No way!” The husband should fulfill his marital duty to his wife, and the wife to her husband. I regularly tell Laina, “Here I am, reporting for duty!” I love doing my duty! Paul adds in verse 4 that neither husband nor wife has authority over their own body but yields it to their spouse. In other words, when either partner wants to make love, the answer is “Yes!” This is not to be misunderstood that either spouse can boss the other around: “you are having sex with me whether you want to or not.” Instead, Paul is saying that we have a mutual and equal commitment to meet each other’s needs. The emphasis is not on me ordering Laina to do what I want, but on me being committed to do what she needs—and vice versa.
By the way, this mutuality was radical stuff in Paul’s day. In the fourth century BC, Greek statesman Demosthenes wrote, “Mistresses we keep for the sake of pleasure, concubines for the daily care of the body, but wives to bear us legitimate children.” Men enjoyed sex; women endured it, especially in marriage where sex was for procreation rather than pleasure. But the gospel is radically egalitarian: both husband and wife, in a Christian marriage, are committed to the sexual pleasure and fulfillment of the other. Both partners are equally obligated to serve and to yield. This mutuality runs through this entire chapter: what Paul applies to one, he applies to the other. This was very radical in a patriarchal society where women had few rights. Paul treats men and women as equal partners.
So fulfill your marital duty to each other. Sexual abstinence in marriage should only be practiced with three qualifications: by mutual consent, for a short time, and for the purpose of prayer. Then, come together again so you won’t be tempted sexually outside the marriage. This instruction on temporary mutual abstinence is a concession, not a command.
He finishes by saying that he wished everyone were like him: single and celibate. But he acknowledges that is his gift, and that each person has their own gift, whether marriage or singleness.
Here’s another counter-cultural thing: Christianity treats singleness as a gift from God, as a viable and worthwhile lifestyle. Stanley Hauerwas argues that Christianity was the very first religion that held up single adulthood as a viable way of life. Jesus lived as a single adult; so did the apostle Paul. The Christian faith doesn’t elevate marriage or singleness as the only ideal state. Both are gifts, and we are called to live as Christians in whatever state we find ourselves.
8 Now to the unmarried and the widows I say: It is good for them to stay unmarried, as I do. 9 But if they cannot control themselves, they should marry, for it is better to marry than to burn with passion.
Who are the unmarried? Gordon Fee suggests that this word refers specifically to widowers, rather than the unmarried generally. If so, this advice is given to widows and widowers: stay unmarried. Remain as you are. We’ll see later why Paul says this.
But he immediately adds this exception: if you can’t control yourself sexually, then marry.
This sounds like a really lame reason to get married! But once again, Paul is being radically counter-cultural. In Corinth, if you desired sexual pleasure, what did you do? Visit the prostitutes. Or have a mistress. In contrast, Paul insists that sex is for marriage, and if you are unable to remain celibate as a single, then go ahead and get married. Marriage is the only appropriate context for the expression of sexual passion. We need to hear this again: sex is for marriage.
But Paul isn’t saying that marriage is a cure-all for sexual temptation! In fact, the person who lacks sexual self-control before marriage will probably still lack it after being married. You must learn to control your sexual appetites, and to do that, we need the Holy Spirit—the Spirit of love, power and self-control. Marriage helps, but only God can give you self-control.
10 To the married I give this command (not I, but the Lord): A wife must not separate from her husband. 11 But if she does, she must remain unmarried or else be reconciled to her husband. And a husband must not divorce his wife.
Paul’s advice to the married: stay married! Remain as you are. And Paul emphasizes that this is the Lord’s command. See Matthew 19 and Mark 10. Paul is speaking to Christian couples: stay married. Don’t divorce.
It is possible that some of the Corinthian ascetics were saying that it is better to be single and celibate, therefore if you are married, get a divorce and you will serve the Lord better as a single. Paul says, “No. Don’t divorce.”
Notice that the command is absolute—“you must not divorce”—and then the absolute is broken: but if you do, remain single, or be reconciled to your spouse. God’s ideal for marriage all through the Bible is one woman, one man for a lifetime. Paul holds to that ideal here: if you divorce, stay single or be reconciled to your spouse. Does that mean that a divorced Christian should never remarry? Does the Bible ever allow for remarriage after divorce? Christians differ on the answer to this: some say yes, others no. I believe that remarriage is allowed in some cases. At Life Center, we try to help people seeking remarriage to understand what the Bible says and apply it to their situation with grace and truth. On the one hand, in this chapter Paul repeatedly gives a rule and then an exception. It’s complex—beware of simple answers. On the other hand, beware of ignoring what God says about this. This passage is not the only place the Bible addresses this; but here, Paul writes as though there is no remarriage: stay married or stay single. Without question, the Biblical standard is very high, and we have to take it seriously.
Notice once again Paul’s radical egalitarianism: neither husband nor wife should divorce the other. This was very counter-cultural: the husband had all the rights, the wife had very few. But in Christ, husband and wife are equal partners.
To the widows and widowers: remain as you are. To the married: remain as you are.
12 To the rest I say this (I, not the Lord): If any brother has a wife who is not a believer and she is willing to live with him, he must not divorce her. 13 And if a woman has a husband who is not a believer and he is willing to live with her, she must not divorce him. 14 For the unbelieving husband has been sanctified through his wife, and the unbelieving wife has been sanctified through her believing husband. Otherwise your children would be unclean, but as it is, they are holy.
15 But if the unbeliever leaves, let it be so. The brother or the sister is not bound in such circumstances; God has called us to live in peace. 16 How do you know, wife, whether you will save your husband? Or, how do you know, husband, whether you will save your wife?
To the rest…who are the rest? Believers married to an unbelieving spouse. When someone comes to Christ, what do they do with their unbelieving spouse? Evidently, some of the ascetics were saying, “The best way to follow Jesus is as a celibate single, especially if your spouse is not a believer. So dump him and follow Jesus.”
Paul’s response? Remain as you are. Even if you’re married to an unbeliever, stay married. Again, Paul applies this equally to husbands and wives.
And again Paul gives an exception. If the unbelieving partner chooses the leave, let him or her go. At that point, the believer is not bound to stay in the marriage.
What does verse 14 mean: the unbelieving partner is sanctified through the believing spouse? It clearly doesn’t mean that a person is saved just because he is married to a Christian! We’re saved by Jesus not by our spouse! Here’s the best way to understand this. The OT understanding of uncleanness was that if you touched something unclean, you became unclean—in other words, it was contagious. Perhaps some of these Corinthian ascetics believed that if you were married to an unbeliever, you would “catch their unbelief”, you would be corrupted. But Paul reverses it and says that what is contagious is our faith! What is more likely to happen is not that the Christian would be corrupted, but that the unbeliever would catch the faith! The believer is not so much in danger of becoming unclean as the unbelievers are in danger of becoming clean! Is your faith contagious? Is it catching? Are you dangerous?
There’s Paul’s advice to the already married. Here’s:
2. The guiding principle: remain as you are. 17-24
17 Nevertheless, each person should live as a believer in whatever situation the Lord has assigned to them, just as God has called them. This is the rule I lay down in all the churches. 18 Was a man already circumcised when he was called? He should not become uncircumcised. Was a man uncircumcised when he was called? He should not be circumcised. 19 Circumcision is nothing and uncircumcision is nothing. Keeping God’s commands is what counts. 20 Each person should remain in the situation they were in when God called them.
21 Were you a slave when you were called? Don’t let it trouble you—although if you can gain your freedom, do so. 22 For the one who was a slave when called to faith in the Lord is the Lord’s freed person; similarly, the one who was free when called is Christ’s slave. 23 You were bought at a price; do not become slaves of human beings. 24 Brothers and sisters, each person, as responsible to God, should remain in the situation they were in when God called them.
Here’s the guiding principle that runs all through this chapter: remain as you are. He says it three times: v. 17, 20, 24. Live as a believer in the situation the Lord has assigned to you—right where God called you. Bloom where you are planted. Evidently the ascetics were pushing for a withdrawal from the world in general, and from marriage in particular. Paul says, “No. Live as a Christian right where you are.”
Obviously, there are some situations we should get out of. For example, if you were a prostitute or one of their clients, you leave that life behind. Like Paul said in chapter six, “this is what you were.” But most of us should live as Christians right where we are.
He cites two examples: circumcision and slavery. The new Christians were reading the Scriptures (OT) and some probably wanted to be circumcised to be part of God’s covenant people. But Paul says, “Circumcision is nothing; so is uncircumcision. Remain as you are.” In other words, it doesn’t matter. You can follow Jesus either way. You don’t have to be circumcised! I’m sure there were some men who were very happy to hear that!
The other example was slavery. There were 60 million slaves in the Roman Empire; they were considered to be the property of their master. The Christian faith was very appealing to slaves; the gospel said that they mattered to God so much that Christ died for them, and they were as valuable as their masters. In the church, social distinctions disappeared, and slaves and masters were simply brothers and sisters in Christ.
“Were you a slave when called—don’t let it trouble you.” That sounds strange to us. How many would be troubled if you were a slave? But Paul insists that as far as being a Christian, it doesn’t matter whether you are slave or free. You can live as a Christian either way. In fact, in Christ all are free and all are slaves. The slave is Christ’s free man, and the free man is Christ’s slave.
“But,” he adds, “if you can be free, do so.” Here’s another exception to the rule: remain as you are, but if you can be emancipated, do it!
Then Paul says, “Do not become slaves of human beings.” Why? You belong to Jesus—you were bought at a price. You belong to Jesus. It’s pretty clear how Paul felt about slavery. So why didn’t he attack it more openly? The short answer is that it was culturally impossible; had Paul instigated a slave uprising, the uprising and Christianity along with it would have been crushed. Instead, Paul sowed the seeds of freedom (read Philemon), knowing that in time, the gospel would overturn slavery. Someone might object, “But the southern slave holders used Scripture to justify slavery.” To our shame, I admit this is true. But it was a distortion of Scripture and the gospel, and the abolition movement was founded and fueled by Christians who understood the truth that:
Galatians 3:28 There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.
Christians today continue to lead the charge against slavery around the world.
Which brings us back to Paul’s guiding principle: remain as you are. Does this mean that we should never seek to change our situation? Not at all. There are many situations that should be changed. But what Paul is saying is that you should live as a Christian right now, right where you are: married or single, slave or free, circumcised or not. Don’t think that you have to wait for something else to change. Bloom where you’re planted. Start living as a Christian now.
ILL: Have you ever known someone who said, “When I get married, I’ll settle down and become a Christian.” Or, “If I wasn’t married, I could follow Jesus.” Or, “When I get out of school, it will be easier to follow Jesus.” Or, “If I had a different job, I could follow Jesus.”
The question to ask yourself is, “What does it look like for me to live as a follower of Jesus right now where I am?”
Paul finishes with:
3. Advice to the engaged: remain as you are. 25-40
25 Now about virgins: I have no command from the Lord, but I give a judgment as one who by the Lord’s mercy is trustworthy. 26 Because of the present crisis, I think that it is good for a man to remain as he is. 27 Are you pledged to a woman? Do not seek to be released. Are you free from such a commitment? 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 and sisters, is that the time is short. From now on those who have wives should live as if they do not; 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.
Who are the virgins? There have been several suggestions, but the best answer seems to be single people who were engaged to be married. Apparently, the ascetics’ advice was that they should remain single. Paul agreed with them—remain as you are—but for a very different reason. They thought it best to remain single for moral reasons—to avoid sex. Paul disagreed with that—marriage is not a sin! Paul thought it best to stay single because of “the present crisis.”
What was the present crisis? We don’t know. Perhaps they were facing persecution and suffering—Paul certainly was. Whatever this crisis was, Paul thought that it wasn’t a good time to be getting married. “Don’t change horses in the middle of the stream.”
So hold steady. Remain as you are. If you are engaged, don’t break the engagement. If you are not attached, stay that way: don’t look for a spouse. Remember: this is not Paul’s advice for all Christians everywhere—this was for the Corinthians in light of “the present crisis.” It was time and place specific. I think all of us have had seasons when it’s best to hold steady.
ILL: We’ve been in an economic recession since 2008. Lots of people who would have retired, didn’t. They kept their jobs. Why? In a crisis, it’s best to remain as you are. Hold steady.
My pastor advised me during our first year of marriage to not add anything else new. Hold steady—the marriage would be change enough!
That is the principle here. Paul tells engaged: because of the present crisis, remain as you are. Hold steady.
Then here comes another exception: “But, if you marry, you have not sinned. I’m just trying to spare you trouble.” It’s no sin to marry. It’s just that you might make it harder on yourself right now. So Paul’s advice really has very little to do with the state of being married or single—both are fine. It has to do with his concern for them in light of the present crisis. He’s a pastor trying to spare his people from extra stress and trouble.
He goes on to explain: “The time is short, and the world in its present form is passing away.” Therefore, we should live in this world as people whose present is being shaped by our future. We are in the world but not of it. This is a very sophisticated view of history. In Jesus, the Kingdom of God has broken into the world, and our future is now secure, but not fully realized. So we are living in the in between.
ILL: It’s like being engaged. You’re not married, but you’re not single; you’re in between. Your future is decided: you are planning it together and it is changing the way you live now. Guys: you’re looking at tableware—come on! Ladies, you are watching football—really? You are looking at houses, talking about future children, jobs and plans. Your present is being shaped by the certainty of your future. You don’t get too comfortable because you know your world is about to change!
This is what Paul is saying. Jesus is coming. So don’t get too attached to the present order of things. It is passing away. We are already citizens of a new order. We let the certainty of our future shape our life in the present.
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 Paul’s pastoral defense for staying single in the present crisis. Married people have divided interests. They must be concerned about the affairs of this world—how to please their spouse. The single person can have a single focus: to be concerned about the Lord’s affairs. Paul is not trying to restrict them, but to help them. He wants them to live in undivided devotion to the Lord.
This is Paul’s advice to them based on the “present crisis.” But there is a true principle here. Both single and married people can serve the Lord, but there are things a single person can do that a married person may not be able to do as easily.
ILL: Paul is a good example. It is doubtful that if Paul had a wife, he would have traveled all over the Roman Empire preaching the gospel and getting beaten up! It’s not a lifestyle conducive to marriage. When I was a single youth pastor, I stayed out very late on weekends, hanging out with high schoolers. When I got married, Laina nixed that plan!
Are you single? Don’t waste your single years pining to be married. Serve the Lord with undivided devotion. Go rock the planet!
36 If anyone is worried that he might not be acting honorably toward the virgin he is engaged to, and if his passions are too strong and he feels he ought to marry, he should do as he wants. He is not sinning. They should get married. 37 But the man who has settled the matter in his own mind, who is under no compulsion but has control over his own will, and who has made up his mind not to marry the virgin—this man also does the right thing. 38 So then, he who marries the virgin does right, but he who does not marry her does better.
Back to those who were engaged to be married: Paul says, “Look, if your passions are too strong, get married. Marriage is good; it’s not a sin. But if you can stay single, I think that’s better given the present crisis.”
39 A woman is bound to her husband as long as he lives. But if her husband dies, she is free to marry anyone she wishes, but he must belong to the Lord. 40 In my judgment, she is happier if she stays as she is—and I think that I too have the Spirit of God.
Paul finishes with this: A widow may remarry, but it must be “in the Lord”—to a believer. This is standard for a Christian: marry someone who shares your faith. But again, Paul adds, it would be better for the widow to “stay as she is”—not because being single is better than being married, but because of the present crisis.
Take a look at your notes. What did God say to you from this passage?