Chris Appleby Ministries

Chris Appleby Ministries


Marriage and Singleness - 2 gifts from God  audio

1 Cor 7:1-40 

“Dear Paul, life is so difficult here in Corinth. We’re trying to live a spirit filled life but Corinth is such a worldly city it’s hard to keep up the standards of life you seem to have set for us.  In your last letter you warned us about those members who were living immoral lives, so we need some advice. Some of our leaders are saying that that means we should lead lives of total abstinence from sex. Did you really say: "It is well for a man not to touch a woman" or have they come up with that by themselves?”

It’s seems this is the sort of letter that Paul’s received and is now sitting down to answer.

 He’s been through the introductory remarks about what he’s heard about them and now he comes to this and other questions they’ve put to him.

It’s a very contemporary question this, isn’t it? Not just about someone remaining celibate but about a whole range of questions around the issues of marriage and singleness and of sexual promiscuity. Like those leaders in Corinth it’s very easy to jump from a difficult and complex issue to a simplistic answer. You know the sort of thing: “The solution to holiness of life is to turn to an ascetic lifestyle where you avoid all sources of pleasure.” That’s going to be about as successful as the alcoholic deciding he just won’t drink any more or the smoker throwing out his cigarettes. The solution is a lot more complex than that isn’t it?

Dealing with sexual attraction needs some careful thought. Paul’s aware of their context. Corinth was a major trading city, on the route between 2 major ports, one on the Adriatic and one on the Aegean Sea. It had 2 large temples dedicated to sexual expression in worship. So sexual liberation was well embedded in the culture. That’s why Paul spent the last section of his letter warning about engaging with prostitutes. But the answer wasn’t a knee-jerk forbidding of sexual expression altogether. Rather it needed some careful theological thought.

So, “Is it good for a man not to touch a woman?” What do the Scriptures say? Where would you start? Gen 2:18: ‘Then the LORD God said, “It is not good that the man should be alone; I will make him a helper as his partner.” And then at the end of the chapter: “24Therefore a man leaves his father and his mother and clings to his wife, and they become one flesh.” (Gen 2:24) So Paul says, “Sure, it’s a good thing if a man can keep himself free from a sexual relationship with a woman.” In fact he’ll go on later to say why this is a good thing for a Christian in the last days. “But the fact is: sex is part of how God has made us. Not everyone can handle celibacy. In fact it’s only those who are so gifted by God who can handle the difficulties of a celibate lifestyle. So God, in his wisdom, has ordained that we should marry. Sex within a committed marital relationship is the gift and plan of God for men and women. So if the opportunity arises, take it.”

Then he gives 4 instructions about marriage that fundamentally challenge the prevailing view of the Corinthians and maybe even of people today. 

  1. Polygamy is excluded; life-time union is God’s plan.

“Each man should have his own wife and each woman her own husband.” Now the context here is Corinth, where sexual promiscuity was the norm, so he adds this is ‘because of cases of sexual immorality’. Remember he’s just mentioned the issue of sex with prostitutes as one example. Today it isn’t prostitution that’s the issue, necessarily. It’s much more likely to be the short affair. What some have described as serial monogamy; the relationships that people have that are open-ended; that go on until one or other of the parties is tired of it. Then they move on. So what’s wrong with that? Well, back in the previous chapter he reminds us that when a man unites himself with a woman or vice versa, the two become one. There the issue was that the Corinthian prostitutes were connected with pagan Gods. Here the issue seems to be more to do with the creation ordinance of a man leaving his father and mother and cleaving only to his wife and the two becoming one. Just as an aside I think it’s interesting that so much energy has been put in by Christians over the past couple of years arguing about same-sex marriage which affects maybe 2 or 3% of the population, but very little comment has been made about the sexual promiscuity practised by 40 or 50% of the population.

  1. Mutual conjugal rights

Secondly he emphasises God’s intention that husbands and wives should enjoy the physical intimacy of marriage. Notice this isn’t about rights. It’s about responsibilities. The husband doesn’t have a right over his own body, nor does the wife have any right over her body. Rather they belong to each other. The covenant they’ve made with each other is that they’ll share their bodies with each other. Marriage has been instituted so that a man and a woman can enjoy physical, sexual pleasure in a stable, committed, complementary relationship, without any sense of guilt; without any sense that they should hold back from each other.

But having said that, there may be occasions when holding back, just like fasting, is appropriate. So he says:

  1. There may be times of mutual abstinence for the sake of prayer.

Just as there are times when it may be appropriate to abandon food for the sake of prayer, so too, it may be appropriate to set aside a time when the couple can give themselves entirely to prayer without thinking about sex.

But notice we’re told that this should only be for a time then the couple should come back together again so Satan won’t be able to tempt them through a lack of self-control. Because:

  1. Sex is an area where Satan takes every opportunity.

Gordon MacDonald was the president of the Inter-Varsity Christian Fellowship (the equivalent of our AFES) in the US. He was well known as a writer of Christian books and did a lot of speaking at conventions and universities and the like. That is, until the day that he had an affair with someone he met in a hotel on one of his preaching tours. He talks about what happened in a book called: “Rebuilding Your Broken World.” In it he comments: "I always guarded myself in areas where I knew I was weak. To my surprise, Satan defeated me in an area where I thought I was strong." What he discovered was that when he was away from his wife, the temptation to find sexual pleasure through promiscuity was heightened, to the point where eventually he succumbed. He thought he was strong, but in fact this turned out to be his area of weakness. And it totally destroyed his ministry, for a time at least, until he was restored through the grace and forgiveness of his wife and a loving Christian community.

So be warned. Don’t assume you’re OK. Rather, beware the attacks of Satan who’ll take every opportunity to tempt you through any lack of self-control you show.

It hardly seems necessary to point out that Satan has used sexual weakness to great effect in the Church in recent, and probably not so recent, times. The gospel has come into great disrepute through the failure of clergy and church leaders to control their sexuality. Countless men and women have been turned away from Christ through the shameful behaviour of men and occasionally women they trusted as God’s servants. So watch out for the temptations Satan throws in your way.

Marriage and Divorce

Well, having briefly raised those issues about marriage he then moves on to the issue of Christians who are married to unbelievers. What should they do about their marriages? Jesus said that we shouldn’t be unequally yoked to an unbeliever. So what does that mean for the person who gets converted when they’re already married?

Well, this is another place where good theology helps us. What did Gen 2 say? “24Therefore a man leaves his father and his mother and clings to his wife, and they become one flesh.” So, he says, the unbelieving husband is made holy through his wife, and the unbelieving wife is made holy through her husband. Not saved mind you, (you see that in v16) but there’s a sense in which the fact that they’re now one flesh means they share the connection with Jesus Christ that the believing partner has. So too their children are holy, set apart for God, members of Christ’s Church.

And what’s more, he says, while you’re together there’s always the possibility that you might save your spouse. So what are you to do if you’re married to an unbeliever? Work on your marriage. Peter tells wives to show the love of Christ in the way they behave so their husbands might be won over without a word. Here Paul says look on your non-Christian husband or wife as someone who’s holy because of their union with you, and do all you can to win them over by your life, not just your words. In one sense of course that’s no different from any marriage situation. We all need to work on our marriages if they’re to survive. But in the case of an unbelieving partner, the possibility and hope is there that through the way you behave, your partner, too, will come to faith.

Of course if the unbelieving partner refuses to stay in the marriage, as still happens in some places today, then the bonds of marriage are broken. Here I guess, is one place in the New Testament where divorce is accepted as a fact of life beyond the control of the Christian. But notice that the initiative to end a marriage comes from the unbeliever, not the believer. For the believer the call is to live at peace with the other as much as it’s within their power to do so. I do need to add at this point that where there’s violence in a marriage it may not be possible to live at peace and the person may need to move out for their own and possibly their children’s safety.

Life Priorities

But we're not finished with the question of marriage vs singleness because Paul takes another tack. He shifts the focus from that particular issue to the question of priorities; more particularly, to the urgency of the hour in which we live. He says, there are a whole host of issues that people face that aren’t the most important issues for a Christian. It might be the question of being circumcised or uncircumcised. It might be the issue of being a slave or free. But given the times in which they live these are really peripheral issues.

If you think about it, the Christians in Corinth must have been under enormous pressure. Their entire economy, their cultural base, their entire existence was coloured by the paganism of their city. As you’ll see in the next chapter, they couldn’t even go to the market to buy a piece of steak or a lamb chop without having to worry about whether it had been previously offered to an idol. They were likely at any moment to be facing persecution, the loss of their livelihood, even death. So you can see why Paul tells his readers to stay as they are; because there are more pressing issues at hand.

You see this concern about the present time in v26: “26I think that, in view of the impending crisis, it is well for you to remain as you are. 27Are you bound to a wife? Do not seek to be free. Are you free from a wife? Do not seek a wife.”

Marriage and Singleness as Gifts

Notice that Paul describes this as an issue of giftedness. Most are gifted to marry but to others God gives the gift of singleness. Mind you I’m not sure he’s talking about those who are single because of a lack of opportunity or choice, though there are certainly implications for them here. But he seems to have in mind a group of people who are able to choose singleness for the sake of ministry; to whom God gives the ability to resist sexual temptation. These people are then freed up to serve God with all their energy and focus. Di and I have a friend we met on a Holy Land tour in Jerusalem. He’s a Marian brother, committed to a life of singleness in service God. And because he’s free of family responsibilities he’s been able to work in a number of difficult places including East Timor and now South Africa.

This is why Paul says in v7 that he wishes everyone could be as he is, that is, single.  Look at v32: “32I want you to be free from anxieties.” The time is short. The present form of this world is passing away. There’s too much to do and not enough time. Does that sounds like your life? And you don’t know when your time may be up. Now that’s still true, but it was even more so at a time when Christians were often targets for persecution. And the fact is that married people are rightly concerned about how to please their partner, or care for their children whereas the single person is free to devote all their energy to pleasing God.

Now it seems to me that this raises a good question for single people, but also for those of us who are married. That is, how much of your time and energy are you devoting to the affairs of the Lord and how much to your own personal fulfilment? You see, it’s no good saying one of the good things about being single is that it frees you up to serve the Lord, if all it does, in reality, is to free you up to spend more time with your social group, or on Facebook, or in front of a screen.

If you’re married then the question might be how well are you balancing the time you give to the Lord’s work with the time you give to your family? And how are you and your partner working together to serve God through your marriage? I think those of us who are married need to be careful that we don’t read these words in vs33&34 as an excuse for ignoring the affairs of the Lord. Rather let’s read them as a reminder to put the affairs of the Lord at the top of our agenda as a married couple so that we’re serving God in whatever we do.

One of the dangers for us today is that the pressures on the Christian aren’t the same as they were in Paul’s day. These are quiet days, in the West at least, when it’s easy to be a Christian; when the urgency seems to have disappeared from our lives as Christians. So we get lulled into a false sense of security. We think that it doesn’t matter whether people hear the gospel. The Church just seems to roll on as it always has. But the reality is that the urgency of the hour is just as great now as it ever was. Those without Christ are in as much danger today as they ever were; perhaps even more so. Jesus’ return is 2000 years closer today than it was when these words were written. Although many more people are Christians there are even more people today who haven’t heard about him. Similarly the urgency to remain pure is just as great as it was in Paul’s day, because Jesus’ return is getting closer every day.

For some that will mean marrying in order to remain free from temptation. For others it’ll mean using their singleness to free themselves up for ministry.

How shall we live?

So how shall we live? What we need is there in v35: “unhindered devotion to the Lord.” Married or single, this is what matters: is your mind set on the things of the Lord? Are you doing all you can to resist Satan’s temptation to sin in this area of sexuality? Are your energies directed to serving the Lord, to managing his affairs, or just your own?

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