Russell and Duenes

1 Corinthians 7:1-7

with 3 comments

1 Corinthians 7 must surely be one of the more difficult sections in the Scriptures. I have looked at it for various reasons over the years, mainly for its teaching on divorce and remarriage. Yet regarding its teaching on singleness, I have generally seen Paul as teaching that singleness is better than marriage, because, as Paul states, “The unmarried man is anxious about the things of the Lord, how to please the Lord. 33 But the married man is anxious about worldly things, how to please his wife, 34 and his interests are divided. And the unmarried or betrothed woman is anxious about the things of the Lord, how to be holy in body and spirit. But the married woman is anxious about worldly things, how to please her husband” (vs.32-34). Doesn’t this flat out say that singleness is preferable in terms of devotion to Christ and ministry? I have generally answered with an unqualified “yes.” However, in recently translating through the chapter and reading Gordon Fee’s commentary on it, more needs to be said about Paul’s theology of singleness than is generally thought, without at the same time negating Paul’s stated preference for singleness.

We’ll just take the first seven verses in this post. Fee starts out with the comment: “The controlling motif of Paul’s answer is: ‘Do not seek a change in status.’ This occurs in every subsection…and is the singular theme of the paragraph that ties the two sections together” (The First Epistle to the Corinthians: NICNT [Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1987], p.268). Thus, Paul’s overall concern is not to exalt one particular status – singleness or marriage – over another, at least in spiritual terms. Rather, it is to urge the Corinthians to remain in whatever status they were in when they converted to Christ, although Paul grants exceptions (Fee, 268).

Though the Corinthians do have a question as to whether it is better for those never married to remain single, they also seem to be asking whether it might not be better for those already married to either 1) end their marriages or 2) abstain from having sex within their marriages (Fee, 269). Paul argues that the Corinthians should not end their marriages nor abstain from sex while married, but rather, should remain as they are. So how does this work out?

Paul argues that those who are married should remain married and should continue to have sex as a married couple (vs.1-7). The only reason to abstain would be “for the purpose of prayer,” but even this is only a “concession” (Fee, 284). Paul hastens to add, “Then come together again so that Satan will not tempt you because of your lack of self-control” (v.5). So conjugal intercourse is something that Paul commands.

Then we come to v. 7, and it is here that we first encounter the notion that singleness might be better than marriage. Paul writes, “I wish that all people were as I myself am. But each person has his own gift from God; one has this gift, another has that.” Does Paul mean that he wishes all people were single, as he is, or that all people had the gift of celibacy, as he does. Fee argues for the latter, and I agree. Fee comments that Paul wishes that all had “that singular gift of freedom from the desire or need of sexual fulfillment that made it possible for him to live without marriage in the first place” (284). But not all have this gift, and so “in the present context [Paul] is both affirming his own celibate – and single – status and denying that those who are already married may also be celibate (vv. 2-6) or single (vv. 10-16)…For [Paul] both marriage and celibacy are gifts, and despite his own preference for his gift, he certainly does not raise it to a higher spirituality” (Fee, 285). There’s no getting around Paul’s preference for the gift of celibacy here, and it seems clear that later on Paul will show a preference for singleness, but none of this should be taken to mean that being single is somehow better in a spiritual or moral sense. That is, the single person is not on a higher spiritual or moral plane simply by virtue of his or her singleness (Fee, 285).

More to come on this chapter.




Written by Michael Duenes

January 7, 2012 at 4:46 am

Posted in Duenes, Theology

3 Responses

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  1. D-

    If it’s better to remain in your current status, whether that be married or single, wouldn’t that mean it’s better to be single, as we all start life in that status?



    January 7, 2012 at 9:36 am

    • As the verse applies to us today, Bates has a good point.

      russell and duenes

      January 7, 2012 at 10:12 am

    • Ah, you’ll have to await the rest of the chapter. None of Paul’s words can be taken in a vacuum, as you well know. This is why the work of biblical theology is so hard. You may want to ask yourself how Paul could at one and the same time write 1 Cor. 7:29 and Eph. 5:21-33. Look at these verses and you see the difficulty. Plus, I’m not disavowing the fact that Paul prefers singleness, though not as a morally or spiritually superior state than marriage. You seemed to ignore this part of my post. Paul prefers singleness for those who have the gift of singleness. But not all have it, and he certainly does not prefer it for those who don’t have it, as the subsequent verses, I think, will bear out. But as Kramer once said, “Patience!”

      But that’s not really the issue you’ve raised. You extrapolated Paul’s preference for singleness to your assertion that being married with no children is also advantageous for ministry and might have Paul’s commendation as well. I will argue that you are incorrect in this extrapolation. But that’s to come.


      russell and duenes

      January 8, 2012 at 1:23 pm

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