PAUL’S MESSAGE: CELIBACY IS NOT A COMMAND

Paul opens up 1 Corinthians 7:1 by teaching that if one was unmarried, it is good for them to remain unmarried. He says this to all the unmarried including the virgin, the divorced and the widowed. In fact, this idea is a common thread throughout this chapter (v.7-8, 10-11, 26-29, 32-35, 40). Paul gives two reasons why it is better to remain unmarried if one was currently unmarried.

  • The first reason is because they would soon be experiencing present day distress (presumably heavy persecution). Paul says:

“I suppose therefore that this is good because of the present distress—that it is good for a man to remain as he is” (1 Cor. 7:26).

  • The second reason has to do with priority. If one is married, their mind will be focused on the cares of their family. This doesn’t mean that one is wrong if they are married, but the unmarried has more time to focus on the Lord. Paul says:

“But I want you to be without care. He who is unmarried cares for the things of the Lord—how he may please the Lord. But he who is married cares about the things of the world—how he may please his wife. There is a difference between a wife and a virgin. The unmarried woman cares about the things of the Lord, that she may be holy both in body and in spirit. But she who is married cares about the things of the world—how she may please her husband” (1 Cor. 7:32-34).

Therefore, one of Paul’s underlining themes throughout his marital teachings is that it is better to be single. If you are unmarried, then it is better to remain unmarried. If you have never been married, then don’t get married. If you are divorced, then don’t get married. It your spouse has died, then don’t get married. However, Paul makes it clear that it is not wrong to marry.

While Paul encourages celibacy, he doesn’t command it nor did he forbid marriage to the unmarried. Paul makes it very clear that he is encouraging celibacy only as an aid to help and not a command to hinder. In fact, Paul condemned those who were forbidding marriage (1 Tim. 4:1-3). Paul says:

“Now the Spirit expressly says that in latter times some will depart from the faith, giving heed to deceiving spirits and doctrines of demons, speaking lies in hypocrisy, having their own conscience seared with a hot iron, forbidding to marry…” (1 Tim. 4:1-3a).

Paul realized that remaining unmarried was a decision that one could make, but didn’t have to make. Paul freely acknowledged that it is a gift that not all possess:

“Now concerning the things of which you wrote to me: It is good for a man not to touch a woman. Nevertheless, because of sexual immorality, let each man have his own wife, and let each woman have her own husband” (1 Cor. 7:1-2).

“For I wish that all men were even as I myself. But each one has his own gift from God, one in this manner and another in that” (1 Cor. 7:7).

“And this I say for your own profit, not that I may put a leash on you, but for what is proper, and that you may serve the Lord without distraction” (1 Cor. 7:35).

This is very similar to the words of Jesus in Matthew 19:10-11:

“His disciples said to Him, ‘If such is the case of the man with his wife, it is better not to marry. But He said to them, all cannot accept this saying, but only those to whom it has been given.”

Therefore, while some may be able to serve the Lord better being single, this isn’t a command nor are the unmarried expected to remain unmarried. Those who would forbid marriage to the unmarried are guilty of teaching a “doctrine of demons” according to Paul (1 Tim. 4:1-3). All of the unmarried have the permission to marry.

Before we go any further, we must first understand who the “unmarried” are. To put it simply, the unmarried would be anyone who is currently not married. The Greek word for unmarried is “agamos” and means:

“unmarried, of a person not in a state of wedlock, whether he or she has formerly been married or not.” 

Paul specifically refers to all three categories of “unmarried” people in this chapter. He speaks about the one who has never been married (the virgin), the one who was married, but has been divorced (the divorced) and the one who was married, but their spouse died (the widowed). Let’s break down each one of these groups.

The Virgin

Paul used the term “unmarried” to classify the ones who have never been married. This group is also called “the virgins.” This doesn’t mean that if someone wasn’t a virgin that they were exempt from this category. It just simply meant that those who had never been married were referred to as “virgins.” Paul says that those who have never been married have the permission to marry (1 Cor. 7:8-9; 36-38).

The Divorced

Paul used the term “unmarried” to classify the ones who were divorced (1 Cor. 7:11). When someone was divorced, they were considered unmarried. In John 4, the woman at the well had been divorced and married 5 times, yet Jesus recognized that “she had no husband” (Jn. 4:17). One is only bound to the law of her husband if she has a husband (Rom. 7:1-2; 1 Cor. 7:39). When someone is divorced, they no longer have a spouse and are considered “unmarried.” This is the only way culturally and historically the phrase “unmarried” could and would have been understood at this time. No one saw the divorced as a “different kind” of “unmarried.” The unmarried was anyone not married, including those who were divorced.

The Widow

Paul used the term “unmarried” to classify the ones who had lost a spouse (1 Cor. 7:8, 39-40). While specifically only mentioning the woman, this would imply the male who has lost his spouse as well. It should also be noted that Paul is probably referring to the older widows based upon his admonishment to Timothy for the younger widows to marry so they don’t become busybodies (1 Tim. 5:14).

Paul gives permission to all three of these groups to marry. The “never-married,” “the divorced” and “the widow.” Notice the words of Paul:

“Nevertheless, because of sexual immorality, let each man have his own wife, and let each woman have her own husband” (1 Cor. 7:2)

“But I say to the unmarried and to the widows: It is good for them if they remain even as I am; but if they cannot exercise self-control, let them marry. For it is better to marry than to burn with passion” (1 Cor. 7:8-9).

“Are you bound to a wife? Do not seek to be loosed. Are you loosed from a wife? Do not seek a wife. But even if you do marry, you have not sinned; and if a virgin marries, she has not sinned. Nevertheless such will have trouble in the flesh, but I would spare you” (1 Cor. 7:27-28).

Some have attempted to argue that Paul is speaking of the betrothed in 1 Corinthians 7:27-28. However, such a conclusion is erroneous for several seasons. (1) First, the word for bound (deo) in 1 Corinthians 7:27 is a word Paul used to speak of the marriage bond (See: 1 Cor. 7:39; Rom. 7:2). (2) Second, one is not “joined” during their betrothal, but “joined together” only at marriage (Mt. 19:6). (3) Third, Paul makes it clear in verse 28 that he was not speaking of the betrothed virgin in verse 27, but of someone who was married. Since the one bound to a wife is one who is married, then the one who is loosed from a wife in 1 Corinthians 7:27 has to be someone who is divorced.

This can also be seen from the immediate context because Paul makes a distinction here between the divorced (v.27), the virgin (v.28) and the widow (v.39). He addresses all of these “unmarried” groups individually and specifically. In 1 Corinthians 7:27 he addresses the divorced “unmarried” group who was joined to a spouse, but is now loosed/divorced from them. Paul said that if someone is divorced from their spouse and they marry, they have not sinned (1 Cor. 7:28).

Paul’s teaching harmonizes with Jesus’ teaching. This shows that the sin is not in a subsequent marriage after a divorce in and of itself, but in an unlawful divorce and the process of how the new marriage was obtained.

– Kevin Pendergrass

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