Letters to the Corinthians: on Singleness

We’re looking at 1 Corinthians 7:25-40 and it’s one the more clear sections about their different cultural attitudes about marriage.

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. Because of the present crisis, I think that it is good for a man to remain as he is. 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. 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.

I wish I knew what he meant by ‘present crisis’ after all, we live in relative luxury and in mostly peaceful circumstances in which marriage is considered to be the best expression of Christianity. Only those who teach that the Rapture is imminent might caution against marriage.

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; 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; those who use the things of the world, as if not engrossed in them. For this world in its present form is passing away.

I can get time being short in the early days of the church where Rome was a little capricious in it’s policies towards Christians. But two thousand years have passed and it feels as if time is either going to march on or it’s not. The Bible does say elsewhere that the sign for the last generation is that they will be marrying and giving in marriage up until the end of the world.

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. But a married man is concerned about the affairs of this world—how he can please his wife— 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. 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.

This is the the other passage that bolsters singleness, which is probably why it’s never really discussed in churches these days as the emphasis is on marriage as the fullest expression of living the Christian life.

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. 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. So then, he who marries the virgin does right, but he who does not marry her does better.

Perhaps now is a good time to discuss Christianity’s attitudes about marriage – you see, right now it’s pro-marriage. But for centuries there was a markedly terrible attitude about it. “Marry if you must, but don’t enjoy it.” “Marry to have children only – that’s the purpose.” Church fathers can be extensively quotes as to prove their hostility to marriage. Sometimes the question is whether or not it was right or better put, a sinful state of being. The pro-celibacy teachings suggested that the man who is unmarried can devote himself entirely to the Lord and the woman who is unmarried can give everything to God. It must mean that it’s superior to be able to focus on God than it is to married and have to worry about lowly, earthly things like taking care of one’s family. Christianity is like a yo-yo in this regard, either we’re for celibacy and against marriage or against celibacy and for marriage. We’ve never managed to strike a balance.

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. In my judgment, she is happier if she stays as she is—and I think that I too have the Spirit of God.

And here’s a pro-singleness message from Paul. Even in the ancient world, the odds were good that widows would outnumber widowers so you’ll find that there are provisions made for them. It’s also useful to consider that the church to take care of it’s widows because few people will – perhaps a child might if he felt so inclined or she had the permission of her husband, other than that, they didn’t have a husband to support them. That’s why such a big deal was made of taking care of widows early on in Acts. This relationship mirrored that of the patron and client, the patron (church) took care if the client (widow), their needs, but in return the client (the widow) was expected to minister to the patron (the church). In a world where widows could easily be reduced to begging off of the streets, Christianity blessed them not only by providing for them, but also by giving them something a ministry of their own. 1 Timothy 5 mentions widows and lays down some qualifications for the patron/client relationship.

In fact, the Order of Widows was formed and came to be an important part of the early church. They sat among the clergy and oftentimes were addressed to as if they were among the clergy – bishops, presbyters, deacons, and widows – were oftentimes mentioned together as being among the leadership. Widows were reminded that they ought to refrain from uttering curses as they were appointed to bless, they had an intercession ministry, and over time their position involved to be an ordained ministry, giving them additional tasks such as instructing others, rebuking others and seeking to restore them, and encouraging others. They were also called presbyteresses.

What can we learn from all of this? It’s human nature to worry about our relationships and when we throw religion in the mix to wonder whether they’re right or wrong or if special rules apply. Our attitudes determine our teachings and our teachings determine how we treat people, but we won’t go wrong if we remember to love one another, respect one another, be kind to one another, and to do right by one another. If the church continues to insist on marriage as a mark of maturity, a number of it’s potential leaders, will be shut out. A great many widows will be left to their own devices rather than drawn into ministry opportunities. Times change and ideas about marriage change with them; the test of Scripture isn’t whether or not we have the right ideas about marriage, but much more challenging – it’s whether or not we can love our neighbor with compassion and showing mercy – even when we’ve been marginalized because we aren’t married or haven’t realized that marriage gives us a privileged that we used selfishly rather selflessly speaking up for those who aren’t represented. You see, as it is, the vast majority of Christian leaders are married men. Their experience is one of privilege that doesn’t always inform them how they can best serve everyone else. They ought to be reminded that Paul did great things as a single leader. That Jesus was single for the duration of his life-time and for all the talk of the bridegroom metaphors – his marriage is not yet complete.

I much rather like this other interpretation of the qualifications from 1 Timothy: this person who has put their name forth to be a leader … if that person is married, then he or she must be devoted to their spouse … if they have children, then the children must respect them … but it is not a requirement for all leaders to be married and have children. We have to remember that we view rules as applicable to everyone equally, however, in other cultures rules are often flexible and have their exceptions. That’s how we should think of marriage and singleness as well, a good idea for some, but it has it’s exceptions for others.

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