by Ray C. Stedman

Previous messages in this series have touched upon biblical marriage principles as viewed against the dark background of increasing unfaithfulness and skyrocketing divorce rates. But there are still some fifteen million bachelors in the United States, and thirteen million unmarried women and girls. Many of these are what are called "unclaimed blessings," but many of them of both sexes will probably never marry. Among this group, as among the married, moral anarchy is running rife. Encouraged by books such as Sex and the Single Girl, and the many lurid movies of today, single young people find it increasingly difficult to stay off the toboggan slide of sexual looseness. Scripture does not leave these unguided. In its character as a kind of handbook that goes with man, the Bible speaks to every class, every condition, unveils every basic problem of human life, and sheds light on every circumstance. We should expect, therefore, to find it has something insightful and perceptive to say to those who have never married.

The Holy Spirit, in his selection of instruments through which to impart the Word of God, has chosen those best suited to his task. The Bible's advice to the married was through Peter, the married apostle, who was used to unfold most fully the divine intent in marriage, so the words to the unmarried are given through two men who were not married -- the Lord Jesus Christ himself, and the Apostle Paul. They both begin at the same point, with an appraisal of the value of single life -- an especially reassuring word to any who are inclined to view singleness as subnormal or freakish.

We shall hear from Paul first, in the seventh chapter of First Corinthians. The apostle is here answering questions written to him from the Christians at Corinth. Among other matters, they asked about the value and conduct of married life and certain questions as to single life. There were bachelors and spinsters in those days also, and certain questions had arisen concerning them. In Chapter 7, he says,

I wish that all were as I myself am. But each has his own special gift from God, one of one kind and one of another.

To the unmarried and the widows I say that it is well for them to remain single as I do. (1 Cor 7:7-8 RSV)

The single life, Paul says, is as much a gift and calling of God as is the married life. This is where he begins. He says celibacy is a divinely approved status, and there is nothing wrong with it at all. In fact, Paul thinks so highly of it that he recommends it to everyone. He suggests they might all be like him. Some scholars feel from certain suggestions in the Scriptures that Paul was once married, although he certainly is not married at the time he wrote this letter, and probably had not been throughout his Christian experience. But some feel that perhaps Paul had been married and that this statement recommending single life for all is a case of sour grapes, like the old familiar saw, "I never knew what happiness was until I got married -- and then it was too late." But this seems doubtful. He is only indicating his approval of singleness as a perfectly acceptable and proper mode of life.

The Lord Jesus starts in exactly the same place, in a very illuminating passage in Matthew 19, the only time he speaks specifically to this question of single life. His comment also arose out of a question addressed to him this time by the Pharisees, who came to him with a question about divorce. For the most part, their question centered on the problem of whether divorce could be granted on the grounds of what we could call today "incompatibility." Is there ground for divorce simply because people cannot get along with each other? The Lord's answer is recorded in Verse 9 of Chapter 19:

"And I say to you: whoever divorces his wife, except for unchastity, and marries another, commits adultery." (Matt 19:9 RSV)

He had previously pointed out that, in the beginning, God did not envision divorce at all. He had said,

"...and [God] said, 'For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one.' So they are no longer two but one. What therefore God has joined together, let not man put asunder." (Matt 19:5-6 RSV)

They challenged that statement, saying, "Why did Moses then allow divorce?" He said, "It was simply because of the hardness of your hearts!" {cf, Matt 19:7-8 RSV}. Because the human heart had grown callous and indifferent, therefore, to prevent women having to live under extreme and difficult circumstances, Moses had permitted divorce. But Jesus makes very clear this was never the divine intention. He said that marriage was expected to be permanent, and that there was only one thing that could break it and that was sexual infidelity. When the disciples heard this, they said to him, "If such is the case of a man with his wife, it is not expedient to marry," {Matt 19:10}.

One wonders what kind of wives they had! They are almost shocked by our Lord's suggestion that even though marriage may have its difficulties, even though it may be very difficult to get along with one another, still the marriage is to be preserved. They say, "If this is the case then it would be better not to marry at all." And to this Jesus says, "Not all men can receive this precept, [i.e., about not marrying] but only those to whom it is given," {Matt 19:11 RSV}.

Thus he begins on the same note the Apostle Paul sounds. Single life is a calling from God; it is given to some to be single. God has so arranged life that for most people, as they grow into adulthood, marriage is the rule, and single life is the exception. It is good that it is so, for the race would never have been propagated successfully had it been otherwise. Imagine the difficulties we would be confronted with if this were not the case.

There is a time during childhood when the two sexes are highly incompatible. They will hardly speak to one another. Boys gather with boys and girls with girls and both groups look with mutual disdain upon each other. Suppose that condition were carried over into adult life. Imagine the shenanigans we would have to employ to get a couple together. What fringe benefits we would have to offer! But God solves the problem with the greatest of ease. An alarm clock goes off within the human system at a preappointed time of life, certain little glands pour out hormones and other secretions, and the two sexes run into one another's arms. Wild horses cannot keep them apart.

But not all! There are some who remain uninterested or who are pushed out to the edges of the melee and end up not married. But Paul and the Lord Jesus, speaking by the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, make it very clear that such individuals are not abnormal, they are not freaks. This is a designed area of life. God did not intend that all should get married, therefore, it is not failure or a mark of defeat to remain unmarried. It is a special calling of God.

Our Lord went on, in Verse 12, to indicate what factors should determine who would remain single.

"For there are eunuchs who have been so from birth, and there are eunuchs who have been made eunuchs by men, and there are eunuchs who have made themselves eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of heaven. He who is able to receive this, let him receive it." (Matt 19:12 RSV)

There are two groups here:

First he indicates that single life may be necessary because of circumstances. "There are eunuchs," he says, "who are so from birth." The word "eunuch" in its narrowest, technical sense means an emasculated male, but here it is evident that our Lord uses it in a wider sense, including any who for any reason at all find it impossible or unwise to marry. There are those who are sexually impotent, there are those who are mentally retarded, there are those who have experienced certain forms of physical disability that make marriage most unlikely or unwise. These, the Lord Jesus says, are not to be regarded as misfits or hopeless cases. They find a special niche in God's thinking and programming. He recognizes them as having a special function to perform.

Also under this classification of those who are single by circumstance are those who, he says, were made eunuchs by man. This was a very common thing in Roman times. There were those who were physically emasculated, such as slaves and temple priests. But there are also other circumstances that demand single life: accidents, imprisonments, and perhaps we might group under this classification those who are simply never asked to be married. Whatever the circumstance may be, something beyond their control has made it impossible for them to marry. Again this is not unanticipated in God's thinking. He finds room and place for such; they are not excluded from his grace and his activity.

Then our Lord speaks of a third class who are not forced by circumstances to be single, but who do so wholly by choice. He says there are those who have made themselves eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of God. Because of commitment to some special work within the great overarching dome of God's rule over men (the kingdom of heaven), there are those who choose to be single. As with the others, this is a perfectly proper mode of life. But now our Lord gives a word of counsel to these groups. These words are important, for they are the only words he addresses specifically to the single. He says, "He who is able to receive this, let him receive it."

Not only does he give the basic reasons for remaining single but, he says, if you fall into this classification, then be content with it, receive it, accept it. Accept your circumstances fully -- do not fight them, or resent them; do not constantly battle against the solitary life and feel embittered. Accept it, receive it as men receive gifts from God everywhere.

Now it is interesting that Paul picks up this whole matter exactly at this point and says the same thing. If we turn back to First Corinthians 7, we shall find that he devotes a complete section to expounding and developing this word of our Lord's concerning accepting the single state. In a very helpful passage, beginning with Verse 25, we have Paul's advice to the single.

Now concerning the unmarried, I have no command of the Lord [i.e., the Lord has not spoken directly on this] but I give my opinion as one who by the Lord's mercy is trustworthy. I think that in view of the impending distress it is well for a person to remain as he is. Are you bound to a wife? Do not seek to be free. Are you free from a wife? Do not seek marriage. (1 Cor 7:25-27 RSV)

Two words stand out in that passage, "seek not," he says, "do not seek." Do not seek either to be free from marriage or to be married. He too is saying, "accept the single state, stop this frantic, almost frenzied search for marriage; do not adopt a marriage-at-all-costs attitude."

These words are clearly addressed to those who have passed beyond the stage in which they might normally expect to be married. Perhaps they have gone beyond their early twenties into their thirties and have already begun their life's work. This is evident in the context here. In the early adult years it is never wrong for individuals to seek marriage if they are thus inclined. This is the normal thing, as we have seen in previous messages. But if the normal processes of meeting a partner have passed you by, then the counsel of both the Lord Jesus and the Apostle Paul is: "Accept this, do not fight it, put out of your mind this constant desire to be married, but give yourself to that which God has marked out for you for the present." This is very impressive advice coming from such an impressive source. The word of the Holy Spirit to those who are single is to stop any frenzied activity to correct what seems to be an abnormal situation, and simply accept it. This is God's will for you.

Paul lists certain reasons for this advice in Verse 35:

I say this for your own benefit, not to lay any restraint upon you, but to promote good order and to secure your undivided devotion to the Lord. (1 Cor 7:35 RSV)

I am not interested, he says, in simply putting you under a vow of celibacy; I am not trying to make monks or nuns out of you; I am not interested in founding monasteries, but I am saying this for your own benefit. It will be to your advantage if you follow this counsel -- that you do not seek marriage, that you do not make this the end and all of life, and there are two very good reasons why this is true:

First of all, to promote good order. What does he mean? He seeks to prevent the distress caused by this pathetic panting after marriage on the part of those who are single. It is unquestionably true that much social wreckage has been caused by the predatory female, or the housekeeper-hunting male. There are some individuals, unfortunately, who seem to devote their whole lives to seeking marriage. As a result, they cause endless confusion, not only in their lives, but in the lives of others. It is pathetic to see how desperately eager they are for marriage.

I heard of a spinster maiden who answered the phone one day and a male voice said, "Will you marry me?" and she said, "Yes! Who is this?"

The danger in this is not that they will not find a partner, but that they will. They are so set upon getting married at all costs that they ignore the danger signs that would indicate that the marriage would be most unwise. This is why so many who marry later in life make such poor marriages. They have not heeded the advice of the apostle, and have sought so desperately for marriage that they have lost perspective and are no longer able to judge the character of those they meet.

The second reason Paul gives for this counsel is, he says, "in order that I might secure your undivided devotion to the Lord." Now let me make one thing immediately clear. When he speaks of devotion to the Lord, he does not mean a call to the ministry. These words are not designed for ministers and missionaries only, but they are for everyone who is single, no matter what his work may be. Paul is simply recognizing what the New Testament recognizes everywhere, that all life callings are to be fulfilled as unto the Lord. We do our tasks before God, whatever work may be involved. He then develops two reasons for remaining single in order to give undivided attention to what God wants us to do. He has already mentioned one of them in Verse 26, where he points out a special condition that makes single life especially needful: "I think that in view of the impending distress it is well for a person to remain as he is." He enlarges that in Verses 29-31; if you want to know what he means by "impending distress," read these verses:

I mean, brethren, the appointed time has grown very short: from now on, let those who have wives live as though they had none, and those who mourn as though they were not mourning, and those who rejoice as though they were not rejoicing, and those who buy as though they had no goods, and those who deal with the world as though they had no dealings with it. For the form of this world is passing away. (1 Cor 7:29-31 RSV)

Unusually troubled times are indications that opportunity is passing away. This was particularly true in Corinth, to which this letter was written. Conditions in Corinth were notorious. There was moral decay on every hand. It was a city given over to the worship of sex. Ten thousand priestesses of the Temple of Aphrodite were there, and their worship was conducted in the pagan manner involving sexual immorality. The whole city was given over to shallow, pleasure-mad living. Paul says when those kind of conditions prevail, it means the fabric of civic life is growing rotten, that disintegration and ultimate destruction is very near at hand. The time, he says, is growing very short, and any who live in conditions like that are to realize that if they really want to make their lives count it may be much the wiser thing to remain single.

He views here the whole pattern of life: marriage, sorrow, joy, business life, commerce and industry, all the things of the world. He does not mean that we are to be callous or indifferent toward these, but the fulfillment of our calling before God must come first. Sometimes the comfort of home and the joys of marriage may tempt us to spend more time in enjoying these than we ought, and, if so, Paul says, these are to be denied temporarily, laid aside for a time, that our work might not be threatened. Sometimes sorrow comes into our hearts and we are tempted to go aside and hide from life for awhile, but Paul says this must not be; sorrow must not call us from our duty, it is not to be allowed. Sometimes thrilling and joyful circumstances come, and these may tempt us to turn aside to seek more of the same, but if they conflict with the call of God, the apostle says, these too must be swept aside.

Nothing must hinder obedience to what God has called us to do. That is what makes life meaningful. If business life threatens, you cannot stop your business but you must hold it loosely so it does not interfere with what God has given you to do. The great values for which God has placed us here are to be seized right now; the time is passing, life is short, the end can come suddenly and unexpectedly, so first things must come first. Do not miss God's best by mooning over marriage. Give yourself to the task God has called you to do.

There is a second factor he mentions which demands undivided devotion, and that is that certain tasks require complete concentration. His comments on this are these:

I want you to be free from anxieties. The unmarried man is anxious about the affairs of the Lord, how to please the Lord; but the married man is anxious about worldly affairs, how to please his wife, and his interests are divided. And the unmarried woman or girl is anxious about the affairs of the Lord, how to be holy in body and spirit; but the married woman is anxious about worldly affairs, how to please her husband. (1 Cor 7:32-34 RSV)

He does not mean that it is wrong for married people to want to please each other. He is simply indicating that they will find much more of their life taken up with their need for fulfilling each other before the Lord. It is a perfectly proper relationship, God-approved and blessed, but their time to give themselves to work is limited by the pressures and problems of married life.

Who of us that is married will deny this?

But, he says, there is a special privilege single persons have in which they can find an even higher fulfillment in their work before the Lord. They can be wholly for him in whatever they do, as no married person can. They can give to their work before God an intensity of concentration that no married person can give.

The other night my family and I went up to San Francisco to attend a concert by Van Cliburn, the young Christian pianist. It was thrilling to listen to his music. Here is a young man, thirty-one years of age, who, as far as I know, is not married. He has devoted his whole life to his work unto God as a Christian. He has spent hours and hours of practice perfecting his art to a agree impossible had he been married. On the program it said he does his practicing from midnight to three or four o'clock in the morning. What wife would put up with that? But here is a living example of what Paul is setting before us -- the fact that in God's program of human achievement there are forms of work and aspects of labor in every field of human endeavor which he especially wants single people to do. They can fulfill them as no married person can.

What the world owes to the dedication of single men and women before God is impossible for us to assess. There is Paul himself. His own marvelous ministry would never have been possible had he been married.

I think of Henrietta Mears, that remarkable woman in Hollywood Presbyterian Church. Through the years she picked out young men whom she felt the Spirit of God was calling to the ministry and worked with them, taught them, and encouraged them, and has sent out scores of young men trained for an effective, powerful ministry. What a blessing she has been to thousands in this way.

There is David Brainerd, that hot-hearted young missionary in the early days of our country, praying in the woods of New England, dedicating himself to reaching the Indians of America and becoming the instrument of God by which a tremendous revival broke out among the Indian tribes.

Robert Murray McCheyne in Scotland; Florence Nightingale's great work of healing the sick; Tom Dooley in our own day -- these men and women have given themselves with an intensity of concentration impossible to those who are married.

These all confirm the fact that single life need not be lonely, boring, unrewarding, if it is committed fully and unreservedly to Jesus Christ. It can be a daily adventure of dedication and achievement that surpasses anything possible to those who are married. Thank God for those among us whom God has called to this ministry.

There is one further word that the apostle gives. It is apparent through all his discourse to the unmarried, both implicitly and explicitly, that, in the will and purpose of God, this pattern of single life can be changed. Celibacy is never necessarily permanent. No lifelong vows for a celibate life are ever recognized in the Scriptures. Perhaps certain men or women intending to remain single and desiring to do so start out life on this basis, but they may find, the apostle says, that their passions are too strong.

If any one thinks that he is not behaving properly toward his betrothed, if his passions are strong, and it has to be, let him do as he wishes: let them marry -- it is no sin. But whoever is firmly established in his heart, being under no necessity but having his desire under control, and has determined this in his heart, to keep her as his betrothed, he will do well. So that he who marries his betrothed does well; and he who refrains from marriage will do better. (1 Cor 7:36-38 RSV)

He makes it very clear that there is no moral wrong in marrying, even though it comes later on in life. Yet there is to be no sexual license on the part of those who remain single. How clearly this answers some of the implications of much literature that is being widely distributed today. Single people are to keep their passions under control, if not, then let them marry. "It is better to marry," Paul says earlier, "than to burn with passion," {1 Cor 7:9 NIV}.

Or perhaps marriage comes later, after the work of life is well under way, simply because God has accomplished his purpose already. It is wonderful to watch the Lord work in bringing two people together who have sought nothing but his perfect will, and later in life he brings them to the partner of his choice. To such, Paul says in Verse 28, "if you marry, you do not sin, and if a girl marries she does not sin."

What a tremendous thing it is to receive this gift like Paul and to determine that in purity of heart and life and body you will dedicate yourself to the work that God has given you to do, that you might fulfill the whole calling of God, all the expectation that God has for you. As Paul wrote to the Philippians, "that I may so lay hold of Christ that he may lay hold of me for all that he wants me to do." What a mighty calling! May God fulfill this in the life of any of you whom he calls to go through life single.

Prayer: We thank you, our Father, for the clarity with which the Word teaches us that our relationship to you is the supreme thing of our life; everythingelse must find its focus in that, must center in that. Whether married or single, then, help us to ever keep in mind this one supreme thing. We live our lives before thee, and can only find meaning and fulfillment as we do so by means of thy activity in us. We thank thee for this word andpray that it may be of help to those to whom it is particularly addressed. In Jesus' name, Amen.

Series: The Christian and Moral Conditions
Date: February 21, 1965
The Ray Stedman Library



by Ray C. Stedman

In this section of First Corinthians, the Apostle Paul has already discussed the place of sex in marriage and the right and wrong of divorce. Now, beginning with Verse 25 of Chapter 7, we come to a section addressed to the unmarried that sets forth both the advantages and the pressures of single life: Verses 26-35 set forth three advantages of singleness; and then Verses 36-40 give us the pressures of single life. Paul begins with an explanatory word that looks over the whole subject. Verse 25:

Now concerning the unmarried, I have no command of the Lord, but I give my opinion as one who by the Lord's mercy is trustworthy [or faithful]. (1 Cor 7:25 RSV)

He means by that this matter of single life does not have a moral issue connected with it. He has already talked about the handling of sex drives and sexual immorality for either married or single. He gave certain commands of the Lord about them, and also about divorce, because there were moral problems connected with them. But here there is no moral issue, and the Lord has not spoken to this either publicly during his ministry or in private in the revelations he gave to the apostle. Therefore, Paul says he does not speak with a command of the Lord. But he suggests that he is given this as a subject to be settled by apostolic guidance. He is one who "has been found faithful"; he understands all the great issues that touch upon a question like this. So he wants us to understand that he speaks as one who by the Lord's mercy has been found faithful, and gives an apostolic word of counsel on this matter of single life. In Verses 26-28 we have the first advantage that he sees in single life:

I think that in view of the impending distress it is well for a person to remain as he is. Are you bound to a wife? Do not seek to be free. Are you free from a wife? Do not seek marriage. But if you marry you do not sin, and if a girl marries she does not sin. Yet those who marry will have worldly troubles, and I would spare you that. (1 Cor 7:26-28 RSV)

That does sound as though Paul had been married, doesn't it? Some, in fact, think that he had. But here he is clearly stating for us what he sees to be a great advantage in unmarried life, i.e., it helps to handle the pressures that may come in a time of crisis. Everything in that paragraph hangs upon the statement in Verse 26, "I think that in view of the present distress..." He is not talking about life in general, but about times of crisis, and evidently these Corinthians were facing such a time.

The commentators are at odds as to what this crisis was. Some of them suggest that there was a local crisis in Corinth that he is referring to -- perhaps some financial pressures, or a famine, or an economic situation of some kind. Others see in this a reference to Paul's hope of the coming of the Lord. Some have suggested that perhaps he is referring to the approaching crisis that was making its presence felt. In 70 A. D., as we now know, the Roman armies would have to come into Judea and quell a terrible disturbance among the Jews. This resulted in the capture of the city of Jerusalem, the overthrow of the Temple, and the dispersing of the Jewish population throughout all the nations of the earth. This letter was written about 57 A.D., just 10 or 12 years before crisis would come, and perhaps there were foreviews of it beginning to develop already and that is what Paul is talking about.

My own view is that because the apostle is aware of the fact that he is writing Scripture -- that it is for all Christians in all times, as he infers in some of his letters -- that he is not talking about any particular, immediate crisis then, but he is referring to the returning crisis that every generation of Christians have to face. Remember in Second Timothy the apostle says to his son in the faith, "that in the last days perilous times shall come," {2 Tim 3:1 KJV}. I think it is a mistake to read that as though he meant "in these last days," or "in the last days" as a reference only to the time preceding the return of Christ. Actually the church is always living in "these last days." They stretch from the first coming of Christ to his second return, as Hebrews 1 makes clear where it says, "God, who at sundry times and in divers manners spake in time past unto the fathers by the prophets, hath in these last days spoken unto us by his Son," {Heb 1:1-2a KJV}. Therefore, this is a reference to what Paul thinks of as continuing, returning cycles of trouble.

You can look back through history and see how true that is. Every generation of Christians has faced a time when they thought the Lord was about to return, when events were so terrible, in their view, that they were leading up to the crisis of the great tribulation that would precipitate the end times and the Second Coming of Christ. We are no exception. We are facing this kind of a crisis right in our own time, in our own day. Many today are saying, "Well, surely these are the days in which our Lord will return." But I believe God intended every generation of Christians to feel that. In fact, I think the Lord could have returned at any of those times of crisis of the past, as he could return now, but, as Jesus himself said, no one knows for sure. No one knows the day nor the hour of his return.

Perhaps Paul is referring to that. Therefore, this is a word that has application to Christians no matter when they have lived. It surely has application to us today as we face the terrible crisis of our own day and time, and it is a terrible time. Perhaps this condition has been true clear back through all of human history, back to the very beginning. Somebody has suggested that when Adam and Eve left the Garden of Eden that he turned to her, and said, "My dear, we must understand that we live in a time of transition." This has been true ever since. I was in Washington, D. C., a week or so ago, and one of the speakers who was addressing us about the state of the nation and of the world responded to his introduction with these words, "Mr. Chairman and fellow passengers aboard the Titanic..." That indicates the kind of a crisis we live in.

Now, in times of crisis, Paul says, single life has an advantage: you can be more flexible; you can adapt more quickly to certain, sudden catastrophic actions or events; you can pick up and move if necessary; there is less concern for handling all the affairs of others for whom you may be responsible. Paul is simply listing the advantages. He is not trying to put down marriage throughout this section at all. He is trying to lift up singleness as a perfectly proper way of life. Those who choose it are not secondary citizens, he is saying. They are exercising a degree of wisdom that perhaps is superior to those who have simply gone along and gotten married without weighing the advantages or disadvantages involved. So he is setting forth very plainly for us what might be the better course.

He makes clear, of course, that there is nothing wrong with getting married in a time of crisis, either. It may be unwise, he says, but it is not a sin, and if anybody marries he is not committing any terrible kind of misjudgment. Now, we laugh at that, but actually that was too often the view of the church in the past. There were whole periods of time in the past history of the church when it actually looked down on marriage. People were taught that to be single and to live by yourself was a superior state of spiritual progress, and that actually the married people were the second-rate citizens. It is hard for us to understand that in these times, but nevertheless that was once true.

Then Paul adds this statement, "those who marry will have worldly troubles, and I would spare you that." That is a practical recognition that marriage increases responsibility. (Some of you may have seen the cartoon in the paper recently of two men who were discussing marriage. One of them said. "Well, I'm still single thanks to Marriage Anonymous." The other man said. "What's that?" "Well," said the first, "when you get to feeling that you want to get married you call this number and they send over an ugly woman in cold cream and curlers and she nags you until the feeling disappears!") Paul may have had something like that in mind. I do not know, though I doubt it. It seems more likely that he was thinking of more mundane matters such as taxes, in-laws, children, schooling, flimsy things in the bathroom, and other problems that marriage presents. At any rate he is saying that those who get married take on greater responsibility. That is a wise, practical word. Anyone who lives in a time of crisis ought to weigh those advantages and disadvantages carefully before marriage. Paul gives us a second advantage to remaining single, beginning with Verse 29:

I mean, brethren, the appointed time has grown very short; from now on, let those who have wives live as though they had none, and those who mourn as though they were not mourning, and those who rejoice as though they were not rejoicing, and those buy as though they had no goods, and those who deal with the world as though they had no dealings with it. [The King James Version puts it better: "And they that use this world as not abusing it"] For the form of the world is passing away. (1 Cor 7:29-31 RSV)

Paul is saying here that single life makes it easier to maintain the proper priorities of life. These priorities apply to all, whether you are married or single, if you are Christian. You ought to face life differently as a Christian than you would as a non-Christian. You ought to see things differently; you ought to have different value standards. Whether you are married or single that should be true simply because you are a Christian. But there is the clear implication in all of this that it is easier to do that if you remain single. Once again Paul hangs this on a phrase marking the tensions of life: "the appointed time," he says, "has grown very short."

Here again many of the commentators disagree. Some say this is a reference to the Second Coming of Christ -- that Paul expected the Lord to return. It is true that he did look forward to that event occurring in his lifetime, and some think that is what he means here by, "the time before his return is very short." But I tend to reject that because nowhere do I find the Scriptures exhorting us to busyness and increased activity because the Lord is coming. We are exhorted to faithfulness and to soberness, but not necessarily to increased frenzy because the Lord is coming.

I would rather view this as a reference to the general brevity of life. Paul is thinking, perhaps, of the patriarchs. You read in Genesis that they lived 600, 700, 800, 900 years. You can spend a very leisurely lunch if you know that you have got 750 more years before you have to leave this earth! Life undoubtedly was very slow and sedentary during the time of the patriarchs, and perhaps the apostle is thinking of that as he says, "the appointed time has grown very short." Moses lived 120 years and he did not even start his major work until he was 80 years old. But when you get to the Psalms, you find that David sings of human life as consisting of 70 years, or at the most 80, if perchance you are very strong.

It is remarkable that, in the 3,000 years since that time, man has never increased or even come up to that length of life. I read the other day that the average length of life for a man in this country is 62 years. (It's a little longer for women because they do not wear neckties). But time goes by very fast. Two weeks ago I turned 61, and I want you to know that, as the years go by, they seem to go much faster. I am increasingly aware of the shortness of time and how few years we have on earth to do the things that God desires, the exciting adventures he sets before us. How one would want to pursue them more and more. The longer we live the more we are aware of how time seems to fly. As someone has said, "About the time your face clears up, your mind begins to go." This is the way life seems to be.

But it does not take a Christian to see that; non-Christians can as well. They speak of the shortness of time and their reactions to it is, "Well, if we've only got this short a time, then let's grab all we can get of it. Let's live life with gusto. There is nothing beyond, and therefore we've got to get all we can." Their philosophy seems to be: "If you are going to he a passenger on the Titanic you might as well go first class. Live it up. Eat, drink, and be merry for tomorrow we shall die." But that is not to be the philosophy of the Christian, as Paul brings out.

Clearly the Christian reaction is: "Use this short time for eternal purposes. Be sure that the aim and center of your life is not just making a living, but making a life." That is what he is saying, and that is why he says, "let those who have wives live as though they had none." He is not encouraging you to neglect your wife and not fulfill your responsibilities to your children and your home; it is not that at all. What he is saying, of course, is that we are to keep things in proper focus. Do not let maintaining your home be the major reason for your existence. Do not give all your time to enjoying this present life. There are higher demands and higher challenges to life than that. Marriages are only for this life. They are not for eternity.

Therefore, even marriage, God-given as it is, beautiful as it is, is not necessarily the highest choice an individual can make. That is what Paul means throughout this whole passage. If some people here choose not to get married in order that they might pursue other standards, especially spiritual dimensions of involvement, then they might to be honored for that, the apostle is suggesting. They are making a choice that is right and good and proper and no one should put them down because of it. So his word to us is, "Do not let all these things the world around lives for become the center of your life." Joys and sorrows are going to he seen quite differently from the viewpoint of eternity. Success in business is not the greatest aim of life and should never be allowed to be so for a believer, for all in the world is passing away, even its fame and its glory.

A few years ago, I was in Norfolk, Virginia, speaking to a luncheon group. I noticed a building with a little dome on it that looked somewhat like a church, and I asked my companion what it was. He told me it was the tomb of General Douglas MacArthur. I was immediately interested because I had been an admirer of General MacArthur, having lived during that era when he was the great American hero. I admired his military prowess and his conduct as the virtual ruler of Japan. I remembered the welcome he received here in San Francisco when he finally returned to these shores after World War II, and the ticker tape parades he received both here and in New York.

I went over to the tomb and wandered around by myself. I saw the cabinets with his medals and his memorabilia, the letters he had written at various stages of his life, and some of the uniforms he had worn, and various things that were associated with him. They were all gathering dust, and the paint was beginning to peel from the ceiling. As I wandered around I suddenly had a deep sense of the fading glory of earth. I began to compare it mentally with what the Scriptures say is awaiting the believer in Jesus Christ: that "exceeding weight of glory" {cf, 2 Cor 4:17} which Paul says is beyond all comparison which is waiting. It is something so fantastic, so mind-blowing, so unbelievable that nothing we know of on earth can remotely be compared to what's waiting for those who have found God's purposes and realized God's fullness in this life. How tawdry all this seemed to me in this tomb: How the glory of MacArthur was as nothing compared with the glory of the simplest believer in Christ. How important therefore it is to pursue that kind of glory rather than the empty baubles that would gather dust in the museums of the world. This is what Paul is talking about here -- "the form of this world is passing away."

When I was a new Christian, one of the most powerful influences on my life was the life and story of D. L. Moody. I remember reading that his favorite verses were found in First John 2:15-17, where he says.

Love not the world, neither the things that are in the world. If any man love the world, the love of the Father is not in him. For all that is in the world, the lust of the flesh, and the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life, is not in the Father, but is of the world. And the world passeth away, and the lust thereof: but he that doeth the will of God abideth for ever. (1 Jn 2:15-17 KJV)

This is what Paul is calling us to. What are you living for? Surely it has got to be more than to have a pleasant home and a retirement plan and cram your sunset years with a few activities you were unable to get in before you die. Christians are not to live that way because they have opportunity for fulfillment far beyond this life. If you do not have time to get in all the pleasures and enjoyments here you will have lots of time beyond. That is what the apostle is saying. We do not have to try and cram it all into one brief episode. What awaits is so exceedingly fantastic and beyond description that to give oneself fully to the pursuit of the things of God here is a much wiser choice than to waste one's whole existence on secondary levels of activity and involvement. It is easier, he suggests, to do that if you remain single, and many people have made that choice. There is still a third advantage here and it is set forth in Verses 32-35:

I want you to be free from anxieties. The unmarried man is anxious about the affairs of the Lord, how to please the Lord; but the married man is anxious about worldly affairs, how to please his wife, and his interests are divided. And the unmarried woman or girl is anxious about the affairs of the Lord, how to be holy in body and spirit; but the married woman is anxious about worldly affairs, how to please your husband. I say this for your own benefit, not to lay any restraint on you, [the word actually is lasso -- not "to lasso you," not to tie you down] but to promote good order and to secure your undivided devotion to the Lord. (1 Cor 7:32-35 RSV)

That is the climax of what Paul has to say about the single life. He says it makes possible a degree of dedication and devotion, of commitment to the work of Christ that married life does not allow. Now he does not mean there is anything wrong with a husband trying to please his wife, or a wife trying to please her husband. God has said elsewhere that is what marriage is for. What Paul is saying here is that if you have the gift of celibacy, of singleness, then for you it is better not to be married. For others it is better to be married, but for you it is not. Your highest fulfillment with respect to the things of God can he discovered if you remain single instead.

How much the world owes to men and women who have chosen to remain single for the Lord's sake rather than to be married. I think of men like John R. W. Stott. I never hear that great English preacher without rejoicing at the godliness, the sheer saintliness of his life. When he tells, as I have heard him say, that he spends two or three hours every morning in Bible study and prayer and worship of the Lord you can see where much of that godly spirit comes from.

I find that very difficult to do as a married man. Certain demands, certain requirements and responsibilities of the household, make it difficult to fulfill that kind of a schedule. I frankly do not do it, but I am very grateful that there are men like Stott who can, and who do. How he has enriched the entire evangelical world by his writing and his preaching that has that deep spiritual element to it that grows out of the time he can give to the pursuit of the things of God. I think of Henrietta Mears, that remarkable woman for so long on the staff of the Hollywood Presbyterian Church. I think of the scores, if not hundreds, of young men who are in the ministry today because she captured their imaginations and taught them the Scriptures. She chose never to be married so that she might have the time to give to the study and the teaching of the Word of God with such remarkable power and effect. I think of C. S. Lewis who never married until his 60's. He gave to the world a brilliant array of philosophic probing of the depths of Christian truth for which it ought to be eternally grateful. If you look further back in history you see men like Robert Murray McChayne of Scotland, the saintly young man who shook the British Isles by his godliness. Even though he died at around the age of 30 he was a remarkable influence, and still is in many areas of the church today, because of his saintliness. In this last issue of Decision Magazine there is an article by Margaret Clarkson. She is a prolific hymn writer, a single woman, and her hymns have been a tremendous blessing to me. (One of my favorites is her hymn, We Come O Christ To Thee.) She wrote an article entitled, Single But Not Alone, and this is her opening paragraph:

To know God, to know beyond the shadow of a doubt that he is sovereign and that my life is in his care: this is the unshakable foundation on which I stay my soul. Such knowledge has deep significance for the single Christian.

Then she goes on to tell of her struggles, how she did not accept singleness for a long time. But she finally came to understand that this was God's choice for her, and how grateful she ultimately became that he led her along these lines, and how profound was her experience of discovering that he could meet the loneliness of her life. She would never be alone because of his presence. That is what Paul has in mind.

He himself is an example of this. We owe the Herculean labors of this mighty apostle to the fact that he was free of the encumbrances of marriage. He was able to travel up and down the whole length and breadth of the Roman Empire. Out of that dedication of spirit, and devotion of heart, he lived in complete moral purity, and, by the grace and power of God, there come these remarkable letters that have changed the history of the world. All he is saying, of course, is that the single life is OK. If anyone desires to choose it, it is a high and a holy calling and one that is perfectly appropriate. He now turns to the pressures of singleness. Paul is a realist, and he knows that it is not easy to be single. One of the pressures every single person faces is sexual pressure, and so Paul brings that up. Verse 36:

If any one thinks that he is not behaving properly towards his betrothed, if his passions are strong, and it has to be, let him do as he wishes: let them marry -- it is no sin. But whoever is firmly established in his heart, being under no necessity but having his desire under control, and has determined this in his heart, to keep her as his betrothed, he will do well; and he who refrains from marriage will do better. (1 Cor 7:36-38 RSV)

This is a bit harder to translate because it is somewhat difficult to understand just who the apostle is referring to here when he talks about someone and his "betrothed." Some commentators feel he is referring to a father and his virgin daughter, because in the culture of that day it was up to the father to arrange the marriage. Others feel, as this and other versions seem to indicate, that he is talking about an engaged couple, a betrothed couple, as this language implies. He says, in effect, if they find it difficult to keep their passions under control, if they tend toward the dangerous area of giving way to sexual immorality, then it is far better for them to marry: "Let them marry -- it is no sin," he says. But if they have the gift of continence, though their passions are strong, nevertheless they keep them under control and they decide that it is better not to marry to pursue other certain advantages that he has already listed, then, he says, it is better for them not to marry. In fact, it would be a weakness for them to do so.

Paul suggests that it is very possible to control these sexual drives. The key is this phrase, "whoever is firmly established in his heart" What he is talking about there is someone who has learned to be secure in his identity as being one with the Lord. He has learned the secret of strength, and that is the affirmation of significance and meaning which he must have in order to function; he knows who he is before God. He draws deeply upon the love and strength and affirmation of Christ himself, and therefore, he is able to handle even the pressures of sex. Now, if that is the case, Paul says, then he will do well not to marry because he has opened to him doors of opportunity he can enter into that marriage would not permit. Finally Paul takes up the matter of emotional pressure. Verse 39:

A wife is bound to her husband as long he lives. If the husband dies, she is free to be married to whom she wishes, only in the Lord. But in my judgment she is happier if she remains as she is. And I think that I have the Spirit of God. (1 Cor 7:39-40 RSV)

He is obviously thinking of an older woman, a widow whose husband has died, who is left alone, and facing the declining years of her life. She misses the companionship, she misses the fellowship of her mate, and, in the emptiness of her life, she is tempted to plunge back into marriage just for companionship alone. "Now," Paul says, "be careful there." That is an emotional pressure and many succumb to it without any thought about what the alternatives might be. But, he says, if she does succumb it is all right; it is not a sin to remarry as long as it is to a Christian, someone "in the Lord' -- whom she can share her faith and life with -- "But in my judgment she is happier if she remains unmarried."

Notice the ground he chooses. Her own happiness is involved in this. Why? Because she has learned a lot of secrets about life, and now has an opportunity to put them into practice in a way she never had when she was married. Now may be the golden opportunity of her life, and she may find a renewed sense of adventure and excitement that she has never felt before. So, "In my judgment," Paul says, "and I think that I have the Spirit of God" (which is probably the understatement of the century), "I think she would be happier if she remained unmarried."

All that he is saying is that married life is good and proper and right, but so is single life. The thrust of this whole passage is against those who tend to look down upon and make jokes about single people. They look upon them as odd, or strange, or even perverted, and make disparaging remarks about when they are going to get married, and what is wrong with them that nobody has chosen them, etc. We Christians ought, above all others, to face the facts as Paul lays them out here, and see that single life is a perfectly appropriate style of life, and approve of it, and encourage it if some desire to choose and fulfill that. What a wholesome view life this is, whether married or single. The great thing is that we keep our priorities in focus. We live not for this passing world scene, but for that greater life that lies waiting for us in that unbelievable world of opportunity that awaits beyond. That is where the Christian's hopes ought to be.

Prayer: Again we thank you, Father, for the practicality of your Word, this counsel from the wise and loving heart of the Apostle Paul. We pray for all the single people in this congregation this morning, some who are going on to marriage soon and look forward to it with anticipation and delight; others to whom you are already suggesting that perhaps you have another style of life for them. May they accept that with gladness and joy, and look forward to an increasing adventure of delight along other paths than some of their friends have chosen, but nevertheless filled with the possibility of fulfillment and satisfaction. We ask in the name of Jesus our Lord, Amen.

Series: Studies in First Corinthians
Date: October 15, 1978
The Ray Stedman Library



Doug Goins

The church at large probably tends to make single people uncomfortable with its very consistent focus on what the Bible has to say about marriage, children, and family life. Think about all the Christian books, radio and television programs, conferences, and magazines articles on those subjects. It isn't that those things aren't good and important. But there is a lot less attention given to what the Bible has to say about singleness. And it seems to me that what literature and media programs there are that address the issue are directed toward helping single adults cope with their condition, as if single adulthood is not quite normal and certainly not desirable. Unmarried adults probably have a sort of second-class citizenship in the church. The implication is that married people are the healthy ones. If you're a single in that sort of environment, it can be pretty miserable. We who are married in the church either tend to ignore you, or try to rescue you from your misery with our incessant matchmaking!

The apostle Paul, as a single man, would have been outraged by our assumptions, attitudes, and behavior in this regard in the church. Remember, in the early part of this chapter he gave his ringing endorsement of the single life (Discovery Paper 4521). In 7:7-8, speaking very personally, Paul said, "...I wish that all men were even as I myself am. However, each man has his own gift from God, one in this manner [being married], and another in that [being single]. But I say to the unmarried and to widows that it is good for them if they remain even as I." His point is that the marital status we have right now, whether we're single or married, is a gift from God, an evidence of God's grace to us.

We also saw, later in chapter 7 (see Discovery Paper 4522), the universal spiritual principle that can control our attitude about marital status, whether we're single or married: learning to be content where we are. We should ask God to change us before we start asking him to change our circumstances. Three times Paul hammered away at this principle, in verses 17, 20, and 24: "Only as the Lord has assigned to each one, as God has called each, in this manner let him walk...Let each man remain in that condition in which he was called...Brethren, let each man remain with God in that condition in which he was called." Those verses were applied in the middle part of the chapter to those in difficult marriage relationships. But now Paul is going to address the unmarried adults among us.

In verses 25-40 he is going to unfold some tremendous advantages that single people have that married people don't. This teaching is anchored by the same spiritual principle that we just surveyed in those three verses. Look at verse 26: "...It is good for a man to remain as he is." And verse 40, where he is speaking of widows: "...She is happier if she remains as she is...." Paul was a great model in this regard. He walked his talk. He didn't teach one thing and then live out something else in contrast.

In Philippians 4:11 Paul says this about his own condition: "Not that I speak from want [I don't view myself as disadvantaged, as needing or wanting anything]; for I have learned to be content in whatever circumstances I am." Learning contentment with circumstances is a lifelong process. But Paul had gotten to the place in his life that he really could be contented as a single man. He understood that changing our circumstances won't make us better, happier, or more fulfilled people. He had worked through the false belief that "the grass is greener on the other side of the fence."

In the last message we saw that whether we're a Jew or a Gentile, a slave or a free person, married or single, none of those conditions have anything to do with character development, with what God wants to do in us and through us. We tend to think that our limitations or our difficult circumstances are somehow hindering us from being everything that we could be. But from God's perspective, those very circumstances are helping us grow up into "the measure of the stature which belongs to the fullness of Christ" (Ephesians 4:13).


Let's look at the text. Verse 25 explains the verses that will flow out of it.

Now concerning virgins I have no command of the Lord, but I give an opinion as one who by the mercy of the Lord is trustworthy.

Paul uses the same language to start this verse that he used to introduce the whole chapter: "Now concerning the things about which you wrote...." Apparently a question was addressed to him: "Paul, you're an advocate of marriage. Should virgins (single people) try to get married? Is singleness normal? What is God's view on singleness?"

Paul says he doesn't have a clear apostolic word from God about whether single people ought to stay single or try to get married. But he does say that we should be able to trust his opinion. He says that he has experienced much of God's merciful patience in his life. There were many times when Paul needed God to bail him out, to save him from bad choices and difficult circumstances, and so he has covered some miles. He has learned a lot of things in the life that he has lived. Paul was probably married at one point in his life. He has now been single for awhile. So he has experienced both states of living, and he speaks out of a great heart of wisdom and maturity. This is really good pastoral counsel. He says so right off the top in verse 26, because the word "good" shows up twice in this verse.


The first advantage to remaining single, which is summarized in verses 26-28, is because of the pressures we live under in the world, both external pressures from the culture around us and the internal pressures of marriage itself. There's also a sub-theme in this paragraph about living contentedly with our current marital state.

I think then that this is good in view of the present distress, that it is good for a man to remain as he is. Are you bound to a wife? Do not seek to be released. [Are you married? Don't try to get separated or divorced.] Are you released from a wife? Do not seek a wife. [Have you been divorced? Then don't try to get remarried.] But if you should marry, you have not sinned; and if a virgin should marry, she has not sinned. [If you make the choice to marry or remarry, there's nothing at all sinful about it.] Yet such will have trouble in this life, and I am trying to spare you.

Paul speaks of two crises here. The first is found in the phrase in verse 26, "this present distress." This speaks of external issues. The word "distress" is always used in the New Testament of something external to oneself. He is not talking about the general stresses and strains of life, but rather about particular times of crisis. Now, we don't have a clue about what was wrong in Corinth historically. The city was prosperous and stable economically. There was no famine or plague. There was no persecution of believers at the time of Paul's ministering and writing these letters.

But Paul wrote transparently about his life in his letters, and we know that there were alternating periods of blessing and deprivation, living bountifully and being persecuted. We know the repeated cycles of distress in his life. He alludes to it again in Philippians 4:12: "I know how to get along with humble means, and I also know how to live in prosperity; in any and every circumstance I have learned the secret of being filled and going hungry, both of having abundance and suffering need." He's describing distressing cycles of humiliation, hunger, and suffering; and all of them in his case were for the sake of Jesus Christ. He understands that there will surely come, in the life of the individual believer and in the life of the church, continuing cycles of trouble that will put tremendous pressure on individuals, marriages, and families. In 2 Timothy 3:1 Paul calls them "perilous times."

Persecution and personal threat are difficult enough for a single person, but the problems and pains are multiplied if somebody is married. If Paul had still been married during his travels, his sufferings would have been intensified by his own worry about his wife and children at home, and by their tremendous worry for him as he was beaten, stoned, thrown in prison, and faced with impending execution. Married believers who go through the distress or peril of social turmoil can't escape carrying a much heavier emotional load than do single Christians.

A number of weeks ago in two of our adult Sunday School classes, we heard James Marweh, a pastor from Liberia, talk about the terrifying experience of being forced to lie on the ground with his wife right next to him, as rebel troops in Liberia told them they were going to execute them. They had automatic weapons, and as he lay there waiting for him and his wife to be executed, his distress for his wife was great. A single person would not have had to experience that. Praise God! He delivered them from that peril.

The second crisis is described by the phrase in verse 28, "trouble in this life" for married people. Now, Paul makes clear in verse 28 that marriage is a legitimate option for single people, but it is good to thoughtfully consider the option of singleness. As I said, he is thinking practically from his own experience in marriage. He wants to spare single people "trouble in this life," or literally, "many tribulations in the flesh."

The word "trouble" or "tribulation" means "pressed together under pressure," which is an interesting description of the marriage relationship. You have two people who are pressed together in the closest possible way-physically, emotionally, spiritually. They are two very distinct individuals with different personalities, different temperaments, different wills, different histories, different struggles and difficulties that they have brought as baggage into the relationship. And even believers in Jesus Christ are still subject to the limitations and weaknesses of the flesh. So you have two angry, selfish, dishonest, proud, forgetful, thoughtless people. And that's true even in the best marriages. It's hard enough for a sinner to live alone with himself, let alone with another sinner. You put those two separate constellations of problems together when two people are bound together in marriage, and the problems of sinful human nature are multiplied.

Now, we've seen throughout chapter 7 that Paul is very much pro-marriage. But here he's pointing out that while there are troubles that are unique to being a single person, they may be exceeded by those in marriage. Marriage was never intended by God to resolve all the personal, emotional, spiritual difficulties in our life. Whatever struggles we bring into marriage will be a part of the process. And marriage definitely will intensify the struggles.

I thought of two examples of this, two men who really illustrate both the circumstantial crisis and the relational crisis in their marriage. These are two of my heroes in church history, and I've read biographies of both of them. These two men were good friends who had a phenomenal impact for God's kingdom in eighteenth-century England. One was John Wesley, and the other was George Whitfield. Both were removed from the Church of England for their preaching of the gospel. Both men were married, and both had terrible marriages. Throughout their entire life in ministry, their marriages never got better. Their families said later in life that neither one should have been married because of who they were temperamentally. And then that was compounded by the persecution they suffered from the Church of England, and the constant itinerating. In the same way that the apostle Paul had an impact on the Roman Empire, both of these men had a phenomenal impact on the British Isles. Yet the tribulations in the flesh and the present distresses had a terrible effect on their marriages. As a matter of fact, John Wesley's wife left him late in life and didn't live out her years with him in marriage. In a pressure-packed world, singleness may be an advantage.


Now look at the second advantage of singleness in verses 29-31. It may be helpful in maintaining spiritual priorities, living with an eternal perspective and values.

But I say this, brethren, the time has been shortened, so that from now on those who have wives should be as though they had none; and those who weep, as though they did not weep; and those who rejoice, as though they did not rejoice; and those who buy, as though they did not possess; and those who use the world, as though they did not make full use of it; for the form of this world is passing away.

Paul's argument here seems to be that the single person will find it easier to maintain spiritual balance in life, to resist unhealthy attachments to people, things, and institutions.

The opening and closing statements focus on how single life should be viewed. Verse 29 says, "...The time has been shortened...." Time has been drawn together, compressed down to a small amount. The Bible tells us that human life, no matter how many years we have on earth, is a very brief moment. And the older you get, the more you realize how quickly time goes by. So Paul's point is that we should live our life with a sense of spiritual urgency. The reality of eternity is barreling down on us. The return of Christ may be imminent, and it should control our priorities in how we live our lives. Can those around us tell that we're followers of Christ because of our expectation of his coming back? Do they sense an urgency in our commitment to spiritual things?

The closing statement, at the end of verse 31, is, "...The form of this world is passing away." The manner of life in this world, the way of doing things, the mode of existence is passing away. All five things listed in these three verses are impermanent and fleeting: the institution of marriage; grieving over death or loss; celebration and joy in some kind of personal success; buying, possessing, and managing things; and pleasure and recreation. All these physical, material things are good in themselves. God doesn't withhold them from his children. But they are impermanent. Even marriage, which God blesses and greatly values, is not eternal. Jesus said there will be no marrying in heaven (Matthew 22:30). None of these things should be over-valued, because they are passing away. And if a spiritually unhealthy pattern develops in any of these five areas of life, the Bible would call that idolatry.

Marriage partners can tend to reinforce that sinful pattern in each other, whether it's idolizing the marriage relationship, a grief-stricken obsession with loss of a loved one, exhilaration over personal success which reinforces materialism, or a driven, compulsive hedonism. In these areas the marriage relationship can compromise the spiritual urgency with which we are called to live. Listen to the words of the apostle John:

"Do not love the world, nor the things in the world. If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him. For all that is in the world, the lust of the flesh and the lust of the eyes and the boastful pride of life, is not from the Father, but is from the world. And the world is passing away, and also its lusts; but the one who does the will of God abides forever." (1 John 2:15-17.)

Listen to the paraphrase of verses 29-31 from The Message:

"I do want to point out, friends, that time is of the essence. There's no time to waste, so don't complicate your lives unnecessarily. Keep it simple in marriage, grief, joy, whatever. Even in ordinary things, your daily routines of shopping and so on, deal as sparingly as possible with the things the world thrusts on you. This world as you see it is on its way out."(1)

The apostle Paul believes that it's easier for a single man or woman to maintain these priorities, so if some people among us choose not to get married in order to pursue that spiritual simplicity, we should honor them, not assume that there's some weirdness about them.

The best example of this that I can think of from my thirty-five years since college is John R..W. Stott. Stott committed himself to celibacy years ago. He's now the Rector Emeritus of All Souls Anglican Church in London. What has impressed me so much about Stott is not just the prolific output of his ministry-his commentaries, preaching, teaching, mentoring, and leading in the evangelical world-but the simplicity and purity of his focus as a follower of Jesus Christ. Stott spends four hours every morning uninterrupted with the Lord and the word. And that's not doing the academic work. That's a life of worship seven days a week.

I can't live that way as a married man with a wife and four children. The priorities have to be different. The call here is to be committed to maintaining these spiritual priorities of living with eternity's values in view. And Paul believes, as a loving pastor, that it's probably easier to maintain that if you're a single man or woman.


The argument is strengthened in verses 32-35. In serving the Lord, giving your life away in ministry, there are fewer distractions in singleness, and it may be an advantage.

But I want you to be free from concern. One who is unmarried is concerned about the things of the Lord, how he may please the Lord; but one who is married is concerned about the things of the world, how he may please his wife, and his interests are divided. And the woman who is unmarried, and the virgin, is concerned about the things of the Lord, that she may be holy both in body and spirit; but one who is married is concerned about the things of the world, how she may please her husband. And this I say this for your benefit; not to put a restraint upon you, but to promote what is seemly [attractive or graceful], and to secure undistracted devotion to the Lord.

It seems pretty simple and obvious from Paul's perspective: Being single will allow you to devote more time, energy, and resources to the kingdom of God, to serving people, to ministering in Jesus' name. Single people and married people have different concerns. These verses are a glorious description of the single life for men and women-if they are sold out to Jesus Christ. Paul's assumption is that they really do care about pleasing the Lord, about intimacy with the Lord.

Jesus Christ is a powerful example of this kind of singular focus in the intimacy he had with his heavenly Father, in the submissive, loving relationship that nurtured him every day of his life. Jesus in essence said, "I do nothing without checking with my heavenly Father" (see John 5:30; 8:28-29; 12:49-50; 14:9-10; 14:31). Jesus Christ gave himself wholeheartedly to twelve men, and then to a circle of seventy people. Jesus was not lonely or isolated. He gave himself away for his Father's sake to men and women. Remember, in Matthew 12 there was a point in his ministry when his mother and brothers came. Embarrassed about the extremism in his life, they tried to call him out of a meeting where he was teaching. Jesus said rhetorically, "Who is my mother and who are my brothers?" and then answered the question: "Whoever does the will of My Father who is in heaven, he is My brother and sister and mother." (12:48, 50.) And single men and women, you can have a spiritual family that's as wide as your heart, if you want to follow the Lord Jesus. Loneliness doesn't have to be a part of your life.

Think about the freedom the apostle Paul had to travel in service to the Lord Jesus around the Mediterranean basin, from one end of the Roman Empire to the other, dedicated in spirit and heart, living a life of moral purity and abstinence before the Lord. And by the grace and power of God in his life, he planted churches all around the Roman Empire. More importantly from our perspective, he wrote these letters that have literally changed the course of human history, all because of this singular focus in his life. And even for Paul, relationships were paramount. In the last chapter of the letter to the Romans, there's a list of about thirty names of people who had become dear to him over his years of ministry. They were his best friends in Christ from all around the empire, his spiritual family.

The single life makes possible a degree of devotion and commitment to the work of Christ that married life does not allow. And as a single person you have a phenomenal opportunity to minister to the needs of other people in the church, in the world, in the neighborhood, in the work-place. Give yourself away to people. Married men and women have preoccupations built into the equation. In Paul's words, our interests are divided. That is not a bad thing, it's just reality. I want to have the same passion, the same concern as my single brothers and sisters about the evangelism of the world and of my neighborhood. I want to be a discipler of men and women. But I committed myself to a wife and four children, and I have responsibility for "the things of the world." We care about college education, about a home for our children, about planning for the future. Those are good, important things to care about, but it does set up a tension for me that a single man doesn't have in terms of his money, his future, and the resources that God has entrusted to him. The call to single Christian adults is to live with spiritual abandon, complete and undivided devotion to the Lord.

The challenge both for single people and for married people is to be able to rejoice in either your gift of singleness and the freedom that comes with that, or the gift of marriage and the responsibilities that come with that. They both come from God's hand. And then the challenge is for us to commit ourselves together as singles and married couples to pleasing and serving the Lord, and to be honest about our self-absorption, self-pity, and jealousy of folks in the other state, and to repent of those things.

Another one of my heroes from church history is Robert Murray McCheyne. McCheyne, who is not as famous as Wesley or Whitfield, lived only thirty years, and died from influenza. He made a choice as a teenager not to marry. He went to a tiny country parish in Scotland and poured his life into the people and the word of God. He became a powerful expositor of the Bible. Revival broke out in that little parish, and it spread through the entire country of Scotland, basically because of the faithfulness of one man with a powerful life of prayer, preaching, and writing. God took him home at age thirty, yet his light still shines. His influence, in the books that he wrote and the example that he was, is still powerful and attractive to me.

Contemporarily, my dear friend Lambert Dolphin represents this to me as well. Because of Lambert's singleness, he is freer to minister, study, write, think, and process. Lambert is a tremendous resource to me, because I don't have the time that he does to sit in front of my computer, read voluminously, and correspond. Lambert has made a choice for celibacy to the glory of God and the furthering of God's kingdom, and it's a choice that he lives out joyfully.


In the next section, verses 36-38, Paul address another category of single people: unmarried, dependent women. Of all the little sections of this text, this one was the most intriguing and rewarding to me. This is the one section I never really thought through very much before. It has been really encouraging to me, because these verses can help us understand how the families of single men and women can encourage them, surround them, and have input in their lives about singleness, marriage, and serving the Lord.

But if any man thinks that he is acting unbecomingly toward his virgin daughter, if she should be of full age, and if it must be so, let him do what he wishes, he does not sin; let her marry. But he who stands firm in his heart, being under no constraint, but has authority over his own will, and has decided this in his own heart, to keep his own virgin daughter, he will do well. So then both he who gives his own virgin daughter in marriage does well, and he who does not give her in marriage will do better.

In Roman, Greek, and Jewish cultures in the first century, the parents, particularly the father, had the primary role in arranging their children's marriages. They did so with input from the children; children had full voice in who they married and didn't marry, in cooperation with the fathers. So some Christian fathers among these Corinthians were struggling with their daughters' best interests regarding marriage. Should they enforce singleness or should they allow marriage, if that's what their daughters desired?

What Paul is doing is encouraging these fathers to follow through in helping the child to process the advisability and the value of marriage in their respective situations; to be willing to be committed to them financially for the long term, if they choose to stay single. There's a wonderful sense in which decisions like this are a family affair.

In verse 36 there are three conditions to be met if the father agrees to the marriage of his daughter. First, there's that word "unbecomingly." He must be convinced that her continued single life is inappropriate for him to insist on, because she wants to get married. It would be unbecoming toward her if she really had a young man she was in love with and wanted to marry, and the father refused that. Second, he must determine if she's "of full age," old enough not only in years but in maturity and wisdom. And third, she must want to be married. It must be important to her. If those conditions are met, then Paul says it's a great thing, let her get married.

In verse 37 he says there are two conditions that the father must meet if he decides against the marriage of his daughter. First he must be free from any pressure on her part to marry: "being under no constraint." So she's comfortable with staying single. And second, he must be willing to assume the responsibility for her financial support, because single women in that culture had no means of support except for their fathers, uncles, or brothers. The phrase "keep his own virgin daughter" has financial implications for the rest of her life.

In verse 38 Paul is saying to the fathers, and indirectly to the daughters who are considering marriage, "Seek God's best. If you're going to think about singleness or marriage, don't just look for the expedient. Try to say before the Lord, 'What do you want, Father? What's best from your perspective?'" Paul says the issue is not whether singleness or marriage is right or wrong, but which is better to the Lord. He's acknowledging here that every family situation is unique, and each individual situation is unique, and you must go to the Lord to figure out what he wants. The call is for families of single people to encourage them in their walk with the Lord.

Spiritual responsibilities to our unmarried children are just as important as the financial responsibilities are. Rather than encouraging our young unmarried men and women either toward marriage or toward singleness, what we ought to be concerned about is encouraging them toward deepening their relationship with the Lord, seeking his kingdom, in the words of Jesus. Remember the promise, if you learn to seek God's kingdom, he'll add everything to your life that you need (Matthew 6:33).

I thought of the beautiful family relationship of the ten Booms. If you've read the book The Hiding Place (2) or seen the movie, remember that beautiful, intimate relationship between Papa ten Boom, the widowed father in the family, and his two grown single daughters, Corrie and Betsy. What did Papa ten Boom teach them? He had taught them a skill, repairing clocks and watches, so they could be self-supportive. And they worked together in the family business. He taught them to love the Lord Jesus with their whole heart. You saw that in their family life and in their worship life. He also taught them to serve people, to give their lives away with abandon. They were willing to risk their very lives to save the lives of the Jewish people whom they hid in their attic, until the Gestapo caught them and took them away to the concentration camps.

Betsy died in the concentration camp, as did Papa ten Boom. Corrie ten Boom emerged from that experience with a passion to remain as she was in the Lord, to become a "tramp for the Lord," in her own words, trotting around the globe for the rest of her life, telling people about the liberation that they could have in Jesus Christ, exulting in that freedom as a single woman. But I am convinced that much of what Corrie understood about herself came from her family, from the influence of her father, who was committed to her well-being materially, spiritually, and relationally.


The final word in verses 39-40 speaks of the permanence and weightiness of marriage.

A wife is bound as long as her husband lives; but if her husband is dead, she is free to be married to whom she wishes, only in the Lord. But in my opinion she is happier if she remains as she is; and I think that I also have the Spirit of God.

The marriage relationship is permanent not in the sense of being eternal, but in the sense of being lifelong. We say in the marriage service, "...As long as we both shall live," or, "...Till death do us part." In Matthew 19:10 the disciples understood the weightiness of this. When Jesus taught about the lifelong nature of marriage, they said, "If the relationship of the man with his wife is like this, it is better not to marry."

Paul makes clear in verses 39-40 that you have the freedom as a Christian single to marry, and if you're widowed, to remarry another believer in Jesus Christ. But Paul doesn't feel that remarriage is the ideal. It is not God's best for everyone. And again, he makes clear, as he did at the beginning, that this is not apostolic commandment, but rather counsel from a pastor-caring counsel for the benefit of people who can receive it. So a widowed man or woman who has worked through the grief of loss, and then can see their singleness as the grace of God at work in their life, Paul says will be more fulfilled spiritually if they stay single. But whether they embrace remarriage or singleness, it must be in the context of their relationship with Jesus Christ.

I know some cases in which God has blessed the remarriage of widows and widowers here at PBC, and I count several of those couples as friends. They are people who serve here among us regularly, and we benefit from their new life together and their commitment to follow the Lord Jesus as a remarried couple. But I also value relationships with several widows and widowers who have chosen to embrace the gift of widowed singleness and serve the Lord without the preoccupations of remarriage.

Charlie Luce, a founding elder here at PBC who is eighty-five now, very transparently went through the grief of losing his beloved wife Roberta, now almost ten years ago. And yet Charlie has chosen to throw his time, and energy, and resources into ministry. Charlie elders all of the current generation of leaders at PBC. He is so available, so faithful, so involved with us. Many men in this church can say Charlie Luce has spent time with them, counseled them, taught them the Scriptures, taught them how to be a godly man. The newest ministry Charlie has now is that he has become an elder to elders in other churches in the area. They're calling him up and asking him to come and help them figure out how to be leaders in their churches. He says, "I can't keep up with the ministry!"

I spent an hour and a half with Kay Grover last week. Kay is in her mid-seventies now, a widow among us who took a very small pension, her Social Security, and a tiny bit of financial support from a few people in this body, and in 1992 went to Japan. She has a whole new life teaching English as a Second Language. She is working totally on her own, without mission boards behind her. She is part of a small church in Japan. She teaches the Bible to new Christians. I was a bit intimidated by her energy, her enthusiasm, and her sense of adventure and excitement about what God is doing in her life because she chose to remain single and follow the Lord Jesus.

This entire passage offers a wonderfully healthy view of the single life. It's a perfectly appropriate choice for many people in the body of Christ. If you're single, the good news is that you can live life in Christ to the full right now. You are not in limbo. You are not incomplete. You don't have to wait for the miracle of marriage before life can really begin. You can express the same Christ-confidence as the apostle Paul, who said as a single man, "I can do all things through Him who strengthens me" (Philippians 4:13).

And as single people or married people, we are called to contentment, to fulfillment that's going to come only through the Lord Jesus, not through our singleness or marriage. Thirty-five years ago in college I came across the phrase "learning to live a fulfilled life with unfulfilled desires." It comes from the writings of a South African marriage counselor named Walter Trobisch, who wrote a number of books in the 1950's on sexuality, dating, and marriage. He was very influential in my life. But it's taken me more than thirty-five years to even begin to understand that principle a little bit. You see, there will always be things that are unfulfilled in your life, no matter what state you find yourself in-never married, married and divorced, married but longing to have children, having more children than you think you can handle, or widowed. The calling in Christ is to learn to live in fulfillment, and changing stations in life will not make that true. We look across the fence and think, "They are so lucky because of what they have that I don't have." What does Paul say? "Brothers and sisters, let each man remain with God in that condition in which he was called"-and not just remain, but abound in that condition, exult in it, ask God what he wants to do with the condition that we're remaining in.

Paul, with the heart and soul of a single man who loves singleness, says this:

"Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, rejoice! Let your forbearing spirit be known to all men. The Lord is near. Be anxious for nothing, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all comprehension, shall guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus." (Philippians 4:4-7.)


1. Eugene Peterson, The Message, © 1993, NavPress, Colorado Springs, CO. P. 348.

2. Corrie ten Boom (with John and Elizabeth Sherrill), The Hiding Place, © 1971, Chosen Books, Washington Depot, CT. The Hiding Place, © 1975, World Wide Pictures. All rights reserved.

The Scripture quotations in this message are all taken from New American Standard Bible, © 1960, 1962, 1963, 1968, 1971, 1972, 1973, 1975, 1977, 1995 The Lockman Foundation. Used by permission.

Catalog No. 4523
January 25, 1998

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