READ : 1 Corinthians 7:7-9
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. But if they cannot exercise self-control, they should marry. For it is better to marry than to be aflame with passion.
1 Corinthians 7:7-9, rsv
I want to think with you today about the choices we all make at one time or another with regard to marriage. The thoughts I want to share about that are drawn directly from Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians, chapter 7. These are marriage concerns, accordingly, that apply in a special way to believers in Jesus Christ. They arise from various questions which the Christians in Corinth had apparently raised. They feature for us marriage choices in the light of the gospel.
But if you aren’t a Christian at this point or aren’t sure whether you are, please don’t feel excluded. I believe there’s an important message in this for you, too. After all, since the gospel comes from the God who made us and who loves us, we can expect that His purposes for His people in matters of marriage will be good for everyone. So whatever your present faith and commitment, please listen in. Please think with me about marriage choices in the light of Jesus Christ. Some of these observations may surprise you. Some may not. But I’ll warn you about this at the outset: many of them will be quite different from the prevailing outlook of our day.
SHALL I MARRY?
Let’s look first at the choice which almost all of us make at some time in our maturing lives: the choice of whether or not to marry. In some cultures, of course, this is hardly a choice. Young men and women are expected, at a certain age, to marry. Among some groups, marriage is an obligation for a man and a matter of economic necessity for a woman. In most modern cultures, however, a certain element of choice still enters in.
The apostle Paul, in writing to the Corinthians, has a good deal to say about the choice to remain single. Apparently, there were some believers in the city of Corinth who believed that to remain single, to abstain from any sexual relations, was the Christian ideal. The apostle wants to correct that idea, but also to affirm that singleness with celibacy is a valued Christian option.
The apostle notes that Christians who remain single often display an admirable intensity in their devotion to the Lord. Unmarried men are “concerned about the affairs of the Lord, how to please the Lord.” Unmarried girls are “concerned about the affairs of the Lord, how to be holy in body and in spirit.” Their singleness somehow plays a part in that undistracted devotion.
At the same time, Paul in no way insists that all Christians should remain single. He recognizes that the ability and inclination to do that, with integrity and purity, is a special gift from God. But for those who make that choice, he wants to give his encouragement and support. If they are able to do so, he believes it is a good thing for them to remain single.
On the other hand, Paul also makes it plain that when a young man and a young woman are attracted to each other, share a common faith in Christ and want to commit themselves to one another in marriage, they also do a good thing.
In one sense, marriage is seen by the apostle as a preventive. He recognizes that sexual desire is strong; and with some individuals, at least, if it does not find expression in faithful marriage, may express itself in other liaisons, without commitment. Marriage, as all of us know, is no guarantee of fidelity to one partner, but it remains a valuable bulwark against promiscuity. Paul writes, “Because of the temptation to immorality, each man should have his own wife and each woman her own husband.” But when people marry, it’s far more than an expedient to restrain transgression. Paul himself urges that when people marry, they “do well.”
There were, apparently, some in Corinth who had the notion that a kind of “spiritual” marriage was most desirable: a man and a woman living together, yet without sexual relations. Paul gives no countenance to that. He sees the marriage bond as inescapably sexual. The husband should give to the wife her conjugal rights and likewise the wife to her husband. They should not deprive one another of sexual relations except, as Paul indicates, when they do so by mutual consent, for a specified time, and with a godly purpose.
The apostle has a realistic understanding of the power of sexual desire in all of us. He is also realistic about the problems and the adjustments which marriage often involves. He knows that people who marry have troubles, inconveniences, and tensions. He wants those who contemplate marriage to face those concerns honestly.
At the time when the apostle Paul wrote 1 Corinthians, he saw particular circumstances that needed to be taken into account in deciding about marriage. He speaks of a “present” or “impending” distress. He reminds us that our milieu in life at any given time, political and economic factors, and the approaching end of the age, may complicate the issue. Each person, in the light of all these factors, is to discover what is his or her own special gift from God, the special calling of each with regard to singleness and marriage, and then to pursue that calling, as he writes, “with God.”
SHALL I REMAIN MARRIED?
Now let’s look at the choice of whether or not to remain married, if we are. The apostle’s general outlook on this is clear. As a true disciple of Jesus, His risen Lord, he is opposed to divorce. He is for marriage. Listen: “To the married, I give charge, not I but the Lord, that the wife should not separate from her husband and that the husband should not divorce his wife.” That’s the general rule. That’s the abiding principle. That represents the will of the God who created marriage for the welfare and happiness of people and who “hates divorce.”
In this chapter, the apostle deals with a special kind of situation in which one partner in a marriage is a believing Christian and the other is not. Perhaps they both were unbelievers when their marriage began but one has since been converted. Should that believing partner remain in the marriage? There are some factors, of course, over which he or she may not have control. It can happen that the unbelieving spouse now desires to dissolve the marriage. He or she doesn’t want to continue living with a partner who has made a commitment to the lordship of Christ. If that unbelieving spouse is determined to leave the marriage, the Christian is not to resist that legally. And having been divorced or deserted, the believing spouse is no longer bound to that marriage commitment.
If on the other hand, the unbelieving partner wants to remain in the marriage, the believer, says Paul, should take no initiative to dissolve it. There may be many difficulties, obviously. It may not be pleasant at times for a Christian to share his or her life with a partner who is an unbeliever. But if that spouse consents to live with the Christian partner, he or she should not take steps toward divorce.
The motivation given for this is most striking: “Wife, how do you know whether you will save your husband? Husband, how do you know whether you will save your wife?” The word save here is a missionary term. Paul is asking, “How do you know whether or not your witness by word and life may lead to your partner’s becoming a Christian?” Maybe he or she will come to know the saving love of God in Christ because of living with you. So “hang in there,” he says, in effect, in that marriage for the sake of the Lord and for the sake of the spiritual welfare of the person to whom you have committed your life.
SHALL I REMARRY?
Let’s look now at the choice of whether or not to remarry. In the case of separation or divorce, Paul does not envision remarriage. He says if a wife separates from her husband, she is to remain single or else be reconciled to her husband. The case is presumably the same with husbands. Before any consideration of remarriage, the first effort and concern is to be to restore that original relationship.
The apostle does not envision here every conceivable circumstance when he says that. Where there is repeated unfaithfulness or total desertion, the situation may be different. Paul, like his Master, does not view the matter of divorce and remarriage in a legalistic way. He simply points out what should be the chief concerns of a Christian. And he wants to remind everyone who has ever been married and then separated or divorced that the restoration of the original marriage is to be a primary goal.
When that fails or becomes impossible, or when a partner is taken from us in death, then should we remarry? Listen to the apostle: “A wife is bound to her husband as long as he lives. If the husband dies, she is free to be married to whom she wishes, only in the Lord.” This passage makes a number of important observations. One is the binding character of marriage as long as both partners are alive. Another is the freedom of the Christian person to marry whomever he or she wishes. In other words, we’re not in the Old Testament system of levirate marriages where the next of kin has to be the first person considered.
But the really vital qualification here is the last one: “only in the Lord.” That means, evidently, that a Christian person who is considering remarriage should consider only persons who share the same faith in Christ. He or she should not be unequally yoked with an unbeliever. Since our Christian faith is the most significant and far-reaching commitment in our entire lives, the intimate bond of marriage should be shared with someone who has the same faith and has made the same life commitment.
But this “in the Lord” means more than simply marrying someone else who is a Christian. It means that the person considering remarriage should face this decision and all decisions as one who belongs to Jesus Christ.
THE SUPREME CHOICE
Now I know that this brief review of marriage choices doesn’t begin to answer all imaginable questions, but I hope it gives to all of us a perspective, at least, a kind of overview of how these issues appear in the light of the gospel of Jesus Christ. And what I most want to say is that all of these choices with regard to marriage hinge upon an even more significant choice, upon what we could call the supreme choice in our whole lives. Listen to what the apostle Paul says about marriage and other important conditions: “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 use the world as not using it to the full, for the form of this world is passing away.”
The apostle is saying something like this: in the light of what has happened, in the death and resurrection of Jesus, in the light of the kingdom’s progress in our history and in the light of the approaching end, all these concerns of ours have a decidedly provisional and temporary character. In the life to come, people will not marry or be given in marriage, says Jesus. Our circumstances and possessions are also but for a time. All are to be held, therefore, with a light grasp. None is to claim our total concentration and allegiance.
The apostle doesn’t mean here that we shouldn’t be devoted to our families, that we shouldn’t enter into the joys and sorrows of common life, or that possessions and business aren’t important. But he is saying that every Christian is called to an ultimate choice and commitment. What the apostle wants to see in everyone who names the name of Christ, whether single, married, separated, divorced, widowed, or whatever, is an “undivided devotion to the Lord.” Christians have been bought with a price, he observes here. In Christ, those who are free have become His bondservants. Believers are to live in the calling in which God has placed them, giving to relationships, tasks, joys and sorrows, their due place, but not letting anything distract them from waiting on God and seeking to please Him above all.
And here’s the wonder of it, friends: all of us will be better wives and husbands, better laborers and sufferers, better servants of our generation if we set the Lord always before us, if we make it the great aim of our lives to honor Him who loved us and gave Himself for us. Oh, may that be true for you if you’ve never trusted Christ! May it be true for you if you have! God bless you!
PRAYER: O God, in these large choices that have so much to do with our service, with our fulfillment and our joy, help us to make them as those who belong to Christ, in the light which the gospel gives. For Jesus’ sake. Amen.