1 Corinthians 7:17-24

Last Lord’s Day evening we read some verses from later in this same chapter 7 of 1 Corinthians, verses in which Paul seems to say that, all things considered, the single life is the life to be preferred for Christians, not requiring them to divide their interests between the Lord and a spouse (vv. 23-36). The short text we are reading this evening touches on that same issue but in a different way.

Text Comment

In chapter 7 Paul is responding to questions raised by the Corinthian Christians regarding marriage and divorce.  He has so far considered the situation of those who are already married, those believers who have been divorced improperly, and those believers who are married to unbelievers.  Now, in the remainder of the chapter he considers the situations of those who are unmarried, either never been married or who have lost a spouse to death.  But, first, in vv. 17-24 he lays down the fundamental principle by which to evaluate any believer’s situation.

v.17     Here is the general point.  Everyone so far considered in the chapter, in one way or another, wanted something different than what he or she had.  Those who were married wanted to live as if they were not; those who were married to non-Christians wanted a divorce. Now it sounds as if Paul is saying that no one should ever change his or her situation, and he will make it clear that this is not what he means. But, what he wants to say, and chooses to say it in his typically emphatic and unqualified way, is that their becoming Christians is a condition that far transcends in importance these other questions; their relationship to Christ, being so defining and profoundly fundamental, means that they are under no necessity to change their other relationships. The Corinthians were tempted to think of these matters as very urgent. Paul tells them that they are not as urgent as they might think, certainly not when considered in the great scheme of things.

Now he is going to illustrate this point from two other social settings that have nothing to do with marriage: circumcision (or the Jew/Gentile relationship) and slavery. Both of these matters, of course, would have been intensely interesting to the Corinthian congregation, as it contained both Jews and Gentiles and no doubt a significant number of slaves.

v.18     In other words, you can live out your Christian calling in whatever situation, whatever set of circumstances you were in when God called you to himself. The social setting of your life is not crucial, only your faithfulness to God in whatever life-setting you find yourself in. If you were a Gentile when called, you don’t need to become a Jew and vice-versa.

v.19     A good verse to keep in mind when talking to American evangelicals who have been taught that the gospel did away with the law or that the Christian life has nothing to do with obedience to commandments.

v.23     The last phrase is metaphorical.  If you are a free man in Christ don’t think and don’t worry and don’t live as if your slavery defined your existence. A slave may well obtain his freedom. Wonderful! But that change in social status should not have changed at all his sense of his own freedom as a man before God. He had that freedom just as much in the one condition as in the other; that is Paul’s point.

Now, from all of this we could have extrapolated Paul’s view of singleness, which, in actual fact, he will go on to give us in the later paragraphs of the chapter. If you want to get married and have the opportunity to marry — to be sure only in the Lord — by all means you are free to do so. On the other hand, you needn’t be married — no matter what you feel or what others seem to think — in order to live a rich and consequential Christian life. And there are those whose calling is to the single life. They enjoy some advantages that married believers do not and both Christian married and single people should appreciate that fact.

Marriage is not, of course, the only such sphere of Christian living and growing.  In 1 Tim. 2:15, for example, the Apostle Paul writes that “women will be saved through childbearing – if they continue in faith, love, and holiness with propriety.”  He is saying that for women – not all women, of course; he admits exceptions – the bearing and raising of children will be the primary sphere in which they live their Christian lives, the sphere in which they will love and serve the Lord, the sphere in which they will have to work out their salvation and grow in the grace and knowledge of God.  For Christian children, while they are children, their relationship to their parents is the primary sphere in which they work out their salvation.  For Christian men as well, their marriage and family, as the Bible makes clear, is a sphere in which they are to work out their salvation. His job, often more so than for a Christian woman, is such a sphere, so is one’s life in the church whether man or woman, and so on. For unmarried Christians, however, the sphere in which they live their Christian life, the sphere in which they grow as Christians, the sphere in which they serve the Lord, will be somewhat different than for married men and women. Many of the spheres will be the same: family, work, church, and so on. But marriage or bearing and raising one’s own children will not be such spheres, though perhaps we know of single Christians who have adopted children. It may be helpful to say that this is, by and large, the major difference for a Christian man or woman who is unmarried. Indeed, this is the only substantial difference for the Christian man or woman who is unmarried. In 1 Peter 3:7 spouses are told to live together as heirs of the grace of life. But every Christian is to live together with others as heirs of the grace of life. That is Paul’s point here. Being a Christian is the first thing, the main thing, the most defining thing! One’s circumstances count for less than that.

A Christian woman, for example, is the sister of the Christian man she marries, and vice versa, and for that reason all the obligations of Christian fellowship and brotherhood are particularly in force in marriage. Let me give you Richard Baxter’s summary of the “Common Duty of Husband and Wife” [this from The Poor Man’s Family Book, Practical Works, iv, 234].  As I read this take notice of how easily one could take this list and turn it into a statement of the obligation of any Christian toward any fellow Christian.

  1. Entirely to love each other…
  2. To dwell together, and enjoy each other, and faithfully join as helpers in the education of their children, the government of their family, and the management of their worldly business.
  3. Especially to be helpers of each other’s salvation: to stir up each other to faith, love, and obedience, and good works: to warn and help each other against sin, and all temptations: to join in God’s worship in the family and in private: to prepare each other for the approach of death, and comfort each other in the hopes of life eternal. [Christians are told to do that for one another in a number of places in the Bible.]
  4. To avoid all dissensions, and to bear with those infirmities in each other which you cannot cure: to assuage, and not provoke, unruly passions; and, in lawful things, to please each other.
  5. To keep conjugal chastity and fidelity, and to avoid all unseemly and immodest carriage with any other, which may stir up jealousy; and yet to avoid all jealousy which is unjust. [Those are the same obligations that are laid on Christians in general in the New Testament.]
  6. To help one another to bear their burdens (and not by impatience to make them greater).  In poverty, crosses, sickness, dangers, to comfort and support each other.  And to be delightful companions in holy love, and heavenly hopes and duties, when all other outward comforts fail.

With few changes you could use those six points to describe the obligations of one believer toward any other believer. The Christian life, in other words, is the Christian life, married or single.

What Paul is saying is clear enough. The real issue is not your station in life. Important as that may be in some respects, it cannot be what is uppermost in your mind. It does not define you as much as does something else. The real issue, the great concern must not be whether or not you marry, or anything like that, but whether you live your life in this world with an eye fixed upon the world to come! That is his point.

The ascetics in the Corinthian church, still too much slaves to the intellectual fashions of their culture, thought that the real need of the hour was to rid themselves of such physical and worldly obligations as the sexual relationship in marriage or marriage itself. They thought these issues were decisive. But, Enoch walked with God for 300 years and had many sons and daughters; Abraham is called the friend of God and he was a husband and father. David was the man after God’s own heart and he too was married and more than once. Peter was married, so too were at least most of the other apostles and the Lord’s brothers as Paul will remind these Corinthian Christians in 9:5. And we can add to that number a great company of men and women who have loved God and served him magnificently, all of whom were married. Think of Luther, Calvin, Knox, Rutherford, or Bunyan and, of course, the list goes on to the present time. In a similar way all five of the martyrs of Ecuador, Jim Elliot being the best known of them, were married men.

On the other hand, we also find single men and women in the Bible. Jeremiah was a life-time bachelor by the express command of the Lord. Anna was married for a few years and then a widow for many decades. The Apostle Paul was unmarried during the time of his apostleship, though we cannot say for sure that he was never married. It is at least possible that his marriage ended because of his conversion. When he says in Phil. 3:8 that he had for Christ’s sake suffered the loss of all things, it is at least possible that he was married and that one of the things he lost was his wife who was unwilling to follow him into the Christian faith and left the marriage for that reason.

Following Jeremiah and Paul a great number of other great Christians have remained single and served God with great success: the heroic leaders of patristic Christianity were invariably single men. They probably shouldn’t have been, to be sure, but they were, and their singleness did not detract from their service and no doubt enhanced it in some ways.

[By the way, Henry Coray’s novel of the life of Augustine, Son of Tears, is available again. Years ago we read it at family devotions and it was a great hit with our kids. It tells the story in historical novel form of the great man’s years-long love affair with the young woman with whom he had a son, Adeodatus (“Gift from God”; like our Theodore) — she is called Melanie in the Coray’s book though, in fact, we don’t know what her name was — and of his tragic decision to abandon her after he became a Christian. It couldn’t have been otherwise in that time and place, but how very, very sad.]

Still, Origen, Cyprian, Athanasius, Chrysostom, the Gregories, Jerome, Augustine, all lived and served as single men; and how they served! Then move on to St. Francis or Bernard of Clairvaux. And come into the modern period and the Protestant church. And there have been so many single women who were stalwarts of the Christian faith and of gospel ministry. Think of such missionaries as Mary Slessor, Amy Carmichael, and Mother Theresa.

Next Lord’s Day our group will be worshipping with David Robertson at St. Peter’s, Dundee, in Scotland, in the very sanctuary where Robert Murray McCheyne ministered during the tremendous outpouring of the Holy Spirit in the late 1830s and early 1840s. They will be in a sanctuary that once was filled to overflowing with weeping men and women under tremendous spiritual impressions from their pastor’s preaching. McCheyne was a single man. Actually he is a particularly interesting figure because he twice proposed to young women and twice was turned down! He wished to change his marital situation, but the Lord never permitted him to do so. But who can read Andrew Bonar’s Memoir of McCheyne and not take Paul’s point: the man’s interests were undivided and he made something magnificent of his life for the kingdom of God!

And, of course, there have been many other such bachelors doing yeoman service for the kingdom of God. My pastor in Aberdeen, Scotland was a bachelor and many have thought that his extraordinarily fruitful ministry was not unrelated to the fact that he had no obligations to wife or children. John Stott, whose worldwide ministry was one of the most happily influential among Protestant evangelical Christians during the second half of the 20th century, had always assumed that he would marry. He entered the ministry of the Anglican church as a young man expecting that he would find a wife at some point, but he never did. He lived his immensely fruitful life as a bachelor. Stott himself provides a particularly instructive example. The longer he remained single, the more sure he became that it was his calling to remain a single man. But it was a gradual thing. A powerful influence in his younger life, indeed the man who led him to Christ as a teenager, had been a bachelor who had committed himself to singleness precisely for the sake of his gospel ministry. So the seeds were there. Here is an excerpt from an article about John Stott in the Anglican paper, Church Times, in 1995. [Dudley-Smith, John Stott, vol. I, 330]

“The most widespread John Stott rumour was that he had sworn off women at an early age in order to devote himself to the ministry. ‘I’ve never taken a vow of celibacy,’ he says, … ‘in fact, when I was in my twenties and thirties I was expecting to marry. There were two [women] who attracted me, although not simultaneously!

‘It’s difficult to explain what happened. All I can really say is that when I had to make up my mind whether to go forward to commitment, I lacked assurance that this was God’s will for me. So I drew back. Having done it twice, I realized it was probably God calling me to be single. Looking back over my life, I think I know why God has called me to be single — because I could never have travelled or written as I have done if I had had responsibilities of family. It has been lonely in some ways, but I’m grateful for a very large circle of friends.”

But there is always the realism. To an American audience, he confided:

“I do regret not having had my own family in that I have always loved children and I love home life. I also believe very strongly that marriage is God’s will for the generality of human beings, and that marriage, sex and family are all good gifts of the good Creator, and I rejoice in them when I see them in other people.

“So, naturally, from time to time, I am envious, and sometimes it is lonely. But it has its advantages in terms of freedom and output, which also I greatly value.

“As my ministry developed in the way that it has, with a great deal of travelling all over the world and the writing and with very little free time, I suppose I said to myself that God had called me to be single in order to devote myself to the kind of ministry to which He had called me.” [331]

By the way, there was another side to all of this. His biographer goes on to say that women tended to find Stott irresistible and that numerous problems were caused by their attraction to him. “George Cansdale is quoted as saying that he had more problems as Churchwarden of All Souls from the Rector’s single state than from any other source.” [331] He broke a lot of hearts, in other words.

And, of course, what is true of ministers is equally true of Christian laymen. I grew up with bachelors and unmarried women among my Christian acquaintances, though perhaps it is more difficult for laymen to explain precisely how choosing singleness represented an advance of their ministry. Nevertheless, I have known men and women, and perhaps you have as well, who seemed at least to me very well suited to the single life. True enough, we don’t always know what they thought in the privacy of their own hearts or if they wept when they were alone!

There is, of course, a significance difference between those who have chosen singleness as a way of life and those who are single because he or she cannot find a partner. Jeremiah did not live his life as a bachelor because he had chosen to, but because the Lord chose that life for him. On the other hand Paul, no doubt, met women among his travels whom he might have married. But the viewpoint he expressed in 1 Cor. 7 suggests to me that he had decided that he ought to live a single life.

There have been many who lived a single life not of their own choosing. I’ve told you before that in the mid-1970s Florence and I were struck by how many older single women there were at Gilcomston South Church in Aberdeen, Scotland. But one had only to look to the front of the church for an explanation. Under the pulpit were listed in two beautiful panels of engraved wood, the names of the war dead from that parish from 1914-1918 and from 1939-1945. There were probably forty names altogether in letters of gold. Forty young men from a single parish who would never marry, leaving forty young women at home for whom there would never be a husband. Or consider this anecdote from Elisabeth Elliot concerning her conversation with Gladys Aylward, the famous missionary to China, and the subject of the movie Inn of the Sixth Happiness, in which Gladys was played by Ingrid Bergman.

Elliot had been talking about Gladys being a single woman when she went to the mission field.

“Not that she had never thought of marrying, however. She told me how she had worked happily for six or seven years in China alone, when a missionary couple came to work nearby. She then began to ponder the privilege that was theirs and to wonder if it might not be a lovely thing to be married. She talked to the Lord about it. She was a no-nonsense woman and very direct and straightforward and she asked God to call a man from England, send him straight out to China, straight to where she was, and have him propose. I can’t forget the next line. With a look of even deeper intensity, she shook her little bony finger in my face and said, “Elisabeth, I believe God answers prayer. He called him,” and here there was a very brief pause and an intense whisper, which carried more power than her loudest voice. “He called him, but he never came.”

Nowadays, of course, it is not the numbers of war dead that have affected the likelihood of marriage, but other national and cultural factors, perhaps even more significant over time. The collapse of marriage and the prevalence of divorce has made marriage less attractive and has put a lot of young people off of marriage altogether; their own experiences of their parents breaking up has spoiled the prospect of getting married for them. The acceptance in our culture of sex outside of marriage has made marriage less and less necessary for many young people, young men in particular. Careerism, the middle-class’ contemporary expression of materialism, has now placed other goals in competition with marriage. The result of such developments has been that there are more single adults in America today — many more — than ever before. In fact it is not entirely certain that there aren’t more single adults in our culture per capita than there have ever been in the history of the world.

But, the fact of the matter is that most of us were not created to live a single life. That is why it is always possible to marry, no matter the spiritual advantage that singleness may confer on a Christian life. But, that being so, when we are single, not by choice but by necessity, it can be a great trial. As a pastor I have faced this reality a number of times and have often had to tell a heart-broken person that the only comfort that I can give him or her, apart from the sovereignty and wisdom and goodness of God, is that the cause of their loneliness is not some fault in themselves but because of social factors beyond their control. Jeremiah didn’t life a single life because he couldn’t find a woman who would marry him. He was single because he was born at the wrong place at the wrong time! And so for many today. The male homosexual population of the New York metro area is approximately half a million. That means that there will be half a million women for whom marriage partners are simply not available in the city, no matter what. That means that there are going to be a lot of heartbroken people whose situation cannot be remedied. The collapse of American manhood means that there will be many modern American men, alas sometimes even Christian men, who will prefer to flit from one woman to another rather than commit to one for their entire lives. And so on.

But that doesn’t take the loneliness away. That, I fully understand, does not assuage the sense of loss on the part of a woman or a man who wanted a husband or wife and children of one’s own. And that doesn’t overcome the sense of estrangement that many single Christians feel in churches full of married couples and their children. That is not always the case, of course. Our Redeemer Presbyterian Church in Manhattan, several thousand strong, is mostly single adults, some 80% or more are single. It is the married people who are the minority there; but in most places and in most congregations it is decidedly the opposite.

So, where does that leave us? It leaves us with single men and women in the church; some of whom wish to be single and perhaps more of whom do not. It leaves us who are single and those of us who are married to take with equal seriousness the points that Paul makes in the one passage in the Bible that is directly devoted to the issue of singleness.

  1. Marriage is always an option for those who wish to marry. It is never forbidden and that is because it is the normal proper condition of life for most men and women. It is not good for the man to be alone, and not good for the woman either. So, if we have single adults among us, it is our calling to make sure that they can say, as John Stott did, that they are very grateful to have “a large circle of friends.”
  2. However, the great issues of life remain the same whether one is married or single, and whether one is single by choice or by circumstances beyond his or her control. The great summons that has been addressed to us is that we serve the Lord and that we do so in recognition of the brevity of life and the soon-coming judgment. Holiness of life is likewise the calling of every Christian whether married or single. In other words, married and single Christians have much more in common than not. And it is incumbent upon both groups to realize this and to act accordingly. We are all in this together.

Paul puts it more forcefully. The great issue is not marriage versus the single life, all the more given that marriage is a state that does not continue in the next world. The great issue is living in this world as a stranger; the issue is the consecration of our lives to the cause of Christ and living daily under the looming prospect of the judgment and the world to come. The time is short! That is the issue and these questions about marriage and the single life are meaningful only in respect to that far larger and more pressing concern. “I’m happy to see a man or woman marry if he or she lives for eternity,” Paul says, “and I don’t give a fig for a married man or woman or a man or woman who stays single but who lives for this world.”