Honouring God in Singleness and Marriage

1 Corinthians 7

27 June 2010

Woodley Baptist Church

First morning service


We've got about fifteen minutes to delve into this long, subtle and immensely practical chapter of First Corinthians. It's going to be a challenge—the translation issues alone could keep us busy all morning—so we're going to take the Japanese tourist approach.

My colleagues from Japan tend to have very short holidays, so after a day in London, a day in Paris, and a day in Rome, they reckon that they have pretty much "done" Europe. That's what we're going to do with 1 Corinthians chapter 7: we're just going to visit a few significant highlights and take some snapshots to ponder on later.

First we're going to visit the general principle, the over-arching theme of this chapter, and then we're going to see how that works out in marriage, and then in singleness.

It may be that some will find the teaching of this chapter quite hard: it deals with issues at the core of who we are. I would urge you please to keep your Bibles open this morning, and to look at them with me, so that if you need to do business with God over these things you can see where they come from.

Lead the life that the Lord assigned to you

So, our first destination is verse 17 in which Paul states the over-arching theme of the chapter, each one should retain the place in life that the Lord assigned to him and to which God has called him.ref That is, Lead the life that the Lord assigned to you and to which God has called you.

You see, the Corinthians were asking the right questions. They were trying to address the issue of what happens when the asteroid that is the gospel of Jesus Christ smashes into my life. When I am converted from paganism to Christianity, when I'm regenerated and born again as a child of God, what will be the impact on my life? It's a great question, and one that we should think about ourselves more often.

Unfortunately, the Corinthians seem to have come up with a bizarre set of answers to this question. So Paul carefully considers all kinds of statuses in life and gives his own answers. So, he starts by considering married people in verses 1-7, then widowers and widows in 8-9, those married to believers in 10-11, those married to unbelievers in 12-16, those who are circumcised or uncircumcised in 18-19, slaves or free in 21-23, never married single people in 25-28, married and unmarried again in 32-35, engaged or betrothed people in 36-38, and finally widows again in 39-40.

And the general principle Paul applies to all these situations is the same. Lead the life that the Lord assigned to you and to which God has called you. We see it again in verse 20, Each one should remain in the situation which he was in when God called himref, and again in verse 24, Brothers, each man, as responsible to God, should remain in the situation God called him toref.

The point is that there are no second-class Christians. God calls people in all kinds of situations with every kind of worldly status: he calls people from all professions and none; he calls people from the working classes, middle classes and upper classes; he calls the young, the middle-aged and elderly; he calls people from every ethnic background; he calls the fit and he calls the disabled. He calls the married and he calls the single.

Paul's argument is that all these outward circumstances are only temporary, verse 31, For this world in its present form is passing away.ref

When the gospel collides with our lives we are called simply to live in undivided devotion to the Lordref, verse 35. We are never to consider our circumstances second best: God has put us there; we are to live to his glory wherever we are.

So, be the best Christian plumber you can; be the best Christian middle-class person you can; be the best Christian elderly person you can; be the best Christian disabled person you can. Stop hankering after a different life: God has put you there for a purpose.

Honouring God in Marriage

That, then is the general principle. So, how does it play out with respect to marriage and singleness? Well, let's follow Paul and consider marriage first.

In short, if you are a Christian and you are married, then honour God by staying married.

What's given rise to this whole chapter is that the Corinthians had come up with some peculiar answers to the question of what should happen when a non-Christian has come to faith.

It seems that certain factions in the church had decided that Christianity is incompatible with any sexual relations at all.

We see this in verse 1. If you have an NIV please ignore the main text of verse 1 and look at the footnote—just about everyone agrees that they made a dog's breakfast of translating this verse. The Corinthians we're trying to claim that "It is good for a man not to have sexual relations with a woman."ref. Perhaps this was a backlash against the shockingly immoral behaviour we saw in Chapter 6. Anyway, this faction seems to have been forbidding even married couples from sexual relations, presumably as a supposed higher level of spirituality. And they also seem to have been encouraging divorce and forbidding the marriages of engaged people who had become converted.

Against this Paul says, No!

First, he says in verses 2-5, far from being unspiritual, a healthy sexual relationship within marriage is mandatory for spiritual reasons.

Verse 2, since there is so much immorality, each man should have his own wife, and each woman her own husband.ref In this verse, "have" is a euphemism for "have sex with". In case it's not clear he spells it out in verse 3. A healthy sex-life within marriage is a way of avoiding immorality, of avoiding Satan's temptation (verse 5). It is a way of honouring God with our bodies, which is where chapter 6 ended.

The reason why sex is so bad in chapter 6 is precisely the reason that it is so good in chapter 7. Sex is designed for marriage. It is the glue that binds together a man and a woman, by which the two become one fleshref.

And one-fleshness is not simply a nice philosophical image of marriage, it is a reality. Have a look at verse 4, The wife's body does not belong to her alone but also to her husband. In the same way, the husband's body does not belong to him alone but also to his wife.ref Paul is totally even-handed in his treatment of husbands and wives. The marriage relationship is utterly mutual. There is no mandate for abuse here, only a call to total intimacy.

In a dysfunctional marriage, the withholding of sex becomes a weapon, a way of exercising power. The Apostle says this should never be: verse 5, Do not deprive each other except by mutual consent and for a time.ref

There is so much that ought to be said here. I know that this is a huge can of worms, and an area of great difficulty for many people. But, as I warned, we've got time this morning only to take a quick snapshot and move on.

But what I would urge you if you are married and your sex-life is not all that it ought to be, then sort it out as a matter of urgency. It is the barometer of your relationship. Whatever the underlying issues, deal with them together, getting help if necessary. To do anything less is failing to honour God with your body; to do anything less is to lay yourself open to the attacks of the devil.

Just one further note. For a Christian couple, divorce is never the solution, verses 10 and 11.

Honouring God in Singleness

The other great destination in this chapter is singleness, and, on the whole, Paul seems quite keen on it, whether for never-married people, or widows and widowers.

We've seen that the great calling of the Christian life, whether married or single, is to live in a right way in undivided devotion to the Lord.ref But Paul reckons it's easier to do this as a single person than as married. A married person is concerned about the affairs of this world: supporting a family; catering for another person's agenda; sustaining a good sex-life. A single person is freed from these anxieties.

If you have been given the gift of living as a single person, then you can throw yourself into living all-out for God. You have far fewer ties, far fewer constraints. You can take more risks, you can be single-minded and focused in a way that is simply not possible for the married person.

There are so many advantages to singleness! But the corollary is, no sex. The Bible is crystal clear: sex is for marriage. The sole good reason that Paul gives for a Christian to marry is in verses 9 and 36: it is better to marry than to burn with passion.ref If you cannot control your sexual desire, then marriage is for you.

So, for a Christian, to remain single or to get married is a question about how best you can live in devotion to God. If you can live chastely as a single person, then this is easier. But if your sexual desires are distracting you from devotion to God—if they are in danger of leading you into immorality and you could better serve God from within a sexually fulfilled relationship, then marry: it is no sin.

There is only one caveat: in verse 39 Paul commands that if a Christian marries, it should only be to another Christian, someone who is in the Lord. The only mixed Christian/non-Christian marriages there should be are those in which one of the partners was converted after marriage, and this is not an easy situation, as he discusses in verses 12-16. Spare yourself much grief: if you are a Christian seeking to marry, then marry another Christian.


So there are some snapshots of Paul's principle applied to marriage and singleness. If you are Christian and married then honour God by staying married and cementing your union with a good sex-life. If you are Christian and single, honour God by remaining celibate and throwing yourself into undivided devotion to him. If you are married don't crave to be single; if you are single don't crave to be married. In the long term, both marriage and singleness are only temporary states: we should think about each in the light of eternal realities.

As a final word, I just want to point out how undogmatic Paul is as he discusses all of this. This chapter is peppered with Paul's opinions. On the whole, he's not giving us commands, he is sharing his wisdom.

If you tend to think of Paul as rigid and dogmatic, then re-read this chapter. Verse 6, I say this as a concession, not as a command.ref Verse 27, Are you unmarried? Do not look for a wife. But if you do marry, you have not sinnedref. Verse 35, I am saying this for your own good, not to restrict youref. And many other examples. The Corinthians were seeking to impose unbiblical rules on people; against this, Paul appeals to godly wisdom.

But do note verse 25, he is trustworthyref. His opinion is no less inspired and authoritative here than anywhere else in his writings. In any case, this chapter is full of deep pastoral realism.

As we deal with issues of marriage and singleness, we are dealing with immense forces in our lives, and we are all weak in different ways. We need God's help. We need pastoral wisdom.

So let's spend a few moments reflecting on how these issues impact our lives.

Are you married? Then pray about how you will honour God in your marriage. Thank God for your marriage. If you are aware of any issues between you and your spouse then bring them humbly to God; plead with him for help, and be prepared to do what it takes to resolve them.

Are you single? Then pray about how you will honour God in your singleness. Ask him for help to resist the devil's attacks on your sexuality. Beg him to forgive you when you fail. Thank him for the opportunity to relate to him with undivided devotion.