Single, Married, Divorced, and Christian
Scriptures: I Corinthians 7:8-16, 17-24
I Corinthians 7 is not a scripture one would normally pick for a wedding. In verses 8-9 Paul says,
To the unmarried and the widows I say that it is well for them to remain unmarried as I am. But if they are not practicing self-control, they should marry. For it is better to marry than to be aflame with passion.
Now there is a ringing endorsement for matrimony.
But this scripture does not only addresses marriage; it also has implications for civil rights. Listen again to verse 21: “Were you a slave when called? Do not be concerned about it. Even if you can gain your freedom, make use of your present condition now more than ever.” A verse like that, wrongly interpreted, could set back the civil rights movement 200 years.
This chapter can be easily misunderstood, so this morning I am going to talk about it more like a Bible study than a sermon, because if we don’t understand this scripture in the right way, we will get the wrong message.
I need to begin, however, with a quote from the Greek philosopher Socrates. This is one of Socrates’ teachings recorded by his disciple Plato: [Slides 1]
For the body is a source of endless trouble: … it fills us full of loves, and lusts, and fears, and fancies of all kinds, and endless foolery …. Whence comes wars and fightings and factions? Whence but from the body and the lusts of the body? … It has been proved to us by experience that if we would have pure knowledge of anything we must be quit of the body—the soul in herself must behold things in themselves. [Slide 2] … And thus having got rid of the foolishness of the body we shall be pure and hold converse with the pure, and know of ourselves the clear light everywhere, which is no other than the light of truth (Classics of Western Thought: The Ancient World: 102-103).
Socrates believed that to understand goodness and truth you must transcend human bodily life; you must get as far from bodily life as possible.
Socrates lived around 400 years before Jesus, so when Jesus showed up, the Greeks in Corinth tended to see Jesus in light of Socrates. Paul quotes their point of view in the first verse of chapter 7: [Slide 3]
Now concerning what you wrote: “It is well for a man not to touch a woman.”
Note that the words in quotation marks are not Paul’s point of view. They are the words that the Corinthians wrote to Paul. The Corinthians, at least some of them, think that sexuality and marriage are bad and that Christians are better off remaining celebate.
Paul certainly admits that bodily life contains hazards for our spiritual lives, but he does not want spiritual life to be divorced from our bodily life. He wants our bodily lives to be the arena in which our spiritual lives are lived out.
So in verse 8 Paul says, [Slide 4] “To the unmarried and the widows I say that it is well for them to remain unmarried as I am.” In other words, it is okay to be single. You don’t have to have a husband or wife to be a complete person. Jews were taught that to fulfill your personhood you needed to get married and have children. But Paul says no, you can serve God just the way you are as single person or a widow. In fact later in the chapter he mentions some advantages of being single. Without the responsibilities of a family, a single person can devote more time and energy to helping people in need and showing Christ’s love to the lonely and forgotten. For Paul being single is not a liability but an opportunity. It is an opportunity to serve God in ways you could not do if you were married and had a family.
On the other hand, Paul says, you can also serve God when you are married. Verses 10-11: [Slide 5]
To the married I give this command—not I but the Lord—that the wife should not separate from her husband (but if she does separate, let her remain unmarried or else be reconciled to her husband), and the husband should not divorce his wife.
Remember, Socrates taught that bodily life was a source of trouble. The Greek Christians in Corinth took this to mean that the best thing was for a man not touch a woman. In other words, they thought that Christians should avoid marriage, and if married, that they should separate from their spouses and become like monks or nuns.
But Paul says no. Don’t separate, because you think marriage is harming your spirituality. Rather think of marriage as a place for living out your spirituality. Verses 12-14: [Slide 6]
To the rest I say—I and not the Lord—that if any believer has a wife who is an unbeliever, and she consents to live with him, he should not divorce her. And if any woman has a husband who is an unbeliever, and he consents to live with her, she should not divorce him. For the unbelieving husband is made holy through his wife, and the unbelieving wife is made holy through her husband.
Paul does not mean that marriage will automatically make your spouse into a believer. Marrying someone because you think you can change them, or fix their problems, or make their issues go away—marrying someone for such a reason is almost always a mistake. However, if you are married and you are a follower of Jesus, or if you become a follower of Jesus after you are married, then you don’t need to leave your marriage to go live in a monastery or convent. Your marriage can now be part of your mission field. [Slide 7: Blank]
Paul is not dealing here with situations like domestic violence, adultery, criminal behavior, destructive addictions, or severe mental and emotional dysfunction. We cannot apply this scripture blindly to these situations because Paul is not addressing these situations in this scripture. He is addressing people who have been told that bodily life is bad and that sexual relations will corrupt you, especially when a believer is married to an unbeliever. Remember, these are people who say to Paul, “It is well for a man not to touch a woman, isn’t it?” To them Paul says, “No, bodily life is good. Jesus came to redeem our bodily lives.” You need not be afraid of being tainted by an unbelieving spouse. You can be the one doing the “tainting.” As a husband or wife you can be the one infecting the people around you with faith.
Of course sometimes that doesn’t work. In verses 15-16 Paul talks about a situation where the spouse does not want to stay in the marriage. In that situation, Paul says, you cannot control what your spouse does. If your spouse is determined to leave, or to wreck the marriage by persistent destructive actions, then you can’t save it by yourself. As Paul says in verse 15, God has called you to a life of peace. The point is to continue serving God whatever your situation, whether you are single, married, divorced, or widowed.
By the way, that is also the key to understanding Paul’s words about slavery in verse 21: [Slide 8] “Were you a slave when called? Do not be concerned about it. Even if you can gain your freedom, make use of your present condition now more than ever.” Paul is not endorsing slavery. Paul is the one who said, “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3:28). Paul does not endorse slavery, nor is he against slaves gaining their freedom. Paul is the one who set free a slave girl in Philippi and later a slave named Onesimus. When Paul says, [Slide 9] “However that may be, let each of you lead the life that the Lord has assigned, to which God called you,” he does not mean you should never change your circumstances. He means that you should live into your calling as a disciple of Jesus Christ no matter what your circumstances. If you are a slave, you don’t have to wait until you are free to serve Jesus; you can do it now. If you are single, you need not wait until you get married to serve Jesus; you can do it now. If you are married, you need not wait until you get rid of your husband or wife before you can serve Jesus; you can do it now. Because if you learn to serve Jesus now, in your present circumstances, you will still know how to do it when your circumstances change, as inevitably they will. [Slide 10 Blank]
There is a wonderful picture of this in C. S. Lewis’ book The Screwtape Letters. As I have mentioned before, The Screwtape Letters is a series of imaginary letters from Screwtape, one of the devil’s chief tempters, giving advice to his nephew Wormwood on how to tempt people. At one point Screwtape reprimands Wormwood for letting his subject get into a relationship with a devout Christian girl. Here is Screwtape’s description of the situation. Remember, this is written from the devil’s point of view. When Screwtape talks about the “Enemy,” he means God. Screwtape says,
I have looked up this girl’s dossier and am horrified at what I find. Not only a Christian but such a Christian…. The sort of creature who’d find ME funny! Filthy, insipid little prude—and yet ready to fall into this booby’s arms like any other breeding animal. Why doesn’t the Enemy blast her for it, if He’s so moonstruck by virginity—instead of looking on there, grinning?
Then, of course, he gets to know this woman’s family and whole circle. Could you not see that the very house she lives in is one that he ought never to have entered? The whole place reeks of that deadly odor. The very gardener, though he has been there only five years, is beginning to acquire it. Even guests, after a weekend visit, carry some of the smell away with them. The dog and the cat are tainted with it. … The whole house and garden are one vast obscenity. It bears a sickening resemblance to the description one human writer made of Heaven (pp. 101-102).
God does not despise human bodily life, whether single or married, divorced or widowed, working, unemployed or retired. God does not despise your life as it is; rather God sees your life right now—single or married, working or retired—God sees your life right now as an opportunity to share God’s love in a way that other people will be tainted by it.