Russell and Duenes

1 Cor 7:8-9 – It’s Better to Marry Than to Burn with Passion

with 6 comments

Some have made the blanket statement that the apostle Paul prefers singleness, and in some sense, I believe this is true. But I think it would be more accurate to say that Paul prefers singleness for those who have the gift of singleness, that is, for those who can “control themselves.”

We get a clue that this is true from the last words of 1 Cor. 7:7, where Paul says, “Yet I wish that all people were even as I myself am (i.e., single), but rather, each one has his own gift from God; one thus, and another that.” Hence, Paul qualifies his desire for people to remain single. This thought continues on into verses 8-9, and seems to be the reason for the next two verses, as Gordon Fee notes, “Paul has just spoken both to his preference for celibacy (as a genuine gift of freedom from sexual need) and to his awareness that his is not the only gift. Thus he speaks to those who are in his situation – not now married, but without his gift – before he comes back to the further question of the dissolution of marriages” (p.287).

In v. 8, Paul says, “But to the unmarried and to widows I say that it is good for them if they remain as they are, even as I.” Fee here argues that “unmarried” should be translated as “widowers” (p.287-88). This seems to fit the context well, since Paul addresses those who have never been married later on in the chapter (Fee, 288). Thus, in this verse, Paul is indeed stating that, for those who now find themselves single, it is best for them to “remain as they are,” which is the central theme of the chapter. However, verse 9 provides a qualification to this statement.

In v. 9, Paul says, “But if they do not exercise self-control, let them marry; for it is better to marry than to burn with passion.” Fee comments, “The implication is that some of these people are doing the same as some of the married in v.1-7, practicing ‘sexual immorality,’ that is, probably also going to prostitutes. The antidote for such sin is to get married instead” (289). So Paul is not offering here an unqualified statement that “singleness is better” for those who were married and are single again. It is certainly better to remain single if they can swing it with proper self-control, but if they are not presently exercising such control, then marriage is the better alternative. Fee writes, “On the one hand, consistent with the general view in Jewish and Christian antiquity, Paul urges the formerly married to remain in their present single state…But he also clearly recognizes that that represents what he thinks is ‘good’; it may not be elevated to the position of a commandment. On the other hand, it is a strong word against the formerly married who are not living in continence. For them, marriage is the proper alternative to their being consumed by their sins” (290). This seems an eminently practical concern, if not a wholly “romantic” one.

The subsequent verses deal in some detail with divorce and remarriage. As such, I will deal with them in a more cursory way in the next post in order to return to the general topic of singleness more quickly.



Written by Michael Duenes

January 10, 2012 at 4:34 am

Posted in Uncategorized

6 Responses

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  1. And to supplement your quotes from Mr. Fee, here is some ancient commentary from St. Jerome, Father of the Church:

    “The Master of the Christian race offers the reward, invites candidates to the course, holds in His hand the prize of virginity, points to the fountain of purity, and cries aloud ‘If any man thirst, let him come unto me and drink.’ ‘He that is able to receive it, let him receive it.'” – “Against Jovinianus”, NPNF 2nd series, Volume VI, p. 355

    “Let no one think that by this saying [‘not all man can receive it etc.’] either fate or fortune is introduced, for those are virgins to whom it is given by God, or that chance has led to this, but it is given to those who have asked for it, who have desired it, who have worked that they might receive it. For it will be given to the one who asks, the seeker will find, and to the one who knocks it will be opened.” – “Commentarium in Evangelium Matthaei”, P.L. XXVI, p. 146

    Travis Lawmaster

    January 10, 2012 at 7:35 am

    • Leviticus Lawmaster – So nice to have you weigh in. I appreciate the quotes. Perhaps you can enlighten me further as to their meaning. I think I get the gist, but what would be a good paraphrase?


      russell and duenes

      January 10, 2012 at 9:27 am

  2. Lol Hey Mike…I was just writing something on this topic recently. And then it came up again with another friend’s blog post, in which I chimed in, too. So this caught my eye.

    Well, I like the focus in your post here on the necessity to honestly evaluate one’s capacity to observe “perfect chastity” (as they called it in the early Church), and as rightly stated above, due to the various capacities of individuals to observe this counsel of Paul’s for the sake of the kingdom, it is just that – a counsel. He does not bind anybody with a commandment from the Lord here. As Jesus also does in Matthew 19, he extends the vision to his hearers as an invitation to something “better”, for those who are disposed to receive and live it, according to the example of our Lord (and, in fact, all the Apostles, even those who, according to early Church history, had wives, and began to observe perfect continence within their marriages.)

    That being said – that we are dealing with a counsel and not a commandment – what I rarely see discussed (particularly outside Catholic and Orthodox circles) is the value of the counsel, in terms of how it promotes more single-minded devotion to God, particularly in the form of a more contemplative life majoring on love of God, and thus situating one to practice the first and greatest commandment more perfectly.

    Paul does wish everyone to imitate him in this, and he does say several times that practicing this counsel is “better” and happier than the married state (as, by the way, is officially echoed in Catholic dogmatic teaching, such as at the Council of Trent, [Session 14, Nov 11, 1563]: “If anyone says that the married state is to be preferred to the state of virginity or celibacy, and that it is not better and happier to remain in virginity or celibacy than to be united in matrimony [cf. Matt. 19:11; 1 Cor. 7:25): let him be anathema.”)

    Part of Paul’s counsel seems to be precipitated by the Apostle’s eschatology, “given the present distress”. But, as he explains in the rationale for perfect continence that he provides in this passage, he does give the reason why it is better, at least in terms of our final end, that of becoming perfected in the Christian life, first and foremost in our love of God and devotion to Him.

    So, I don’t see that rationale of why it is “better” spoken of very much these days. And the other interesting perspective that St. Jerome adds is that, since perfect continence for the kingdom is, ultimately, a work of God’s grace, and only possible by God’s grace to those who “receive it”, then, like any grace, we cannot imagine that God would deny the gift to anyone who asks for it, a la Lk. 11:13.

    Travis Lawmaster

    January 10, 2012 at 1:12 pm

    • Many good points, Travis, some of which I hope to address in subsequent posts. I particularly agree with your observation that we don’t contemplate seriously enough the great value of a life of singleness, wholly consecrated to Christ. There is great need of this, particularly in light of the difficulties of taking the gospel into some of the more volatile regions of the earth, where marriage is not conducive. Yet it is a struggle, as I well know, having been single until age 37.

      However, I find myself disagreeing with your assertion that “Paul does wish everyone to imitate him in this.” This chapter, taken in its proper exegetical context, would mitigate against such a view, which I hope to show. While it is certainly true, in Paul’s estimation (and based on practical observation) that singleness allows for a more focused pursuit of Christian devotion, Paul does not wish that everyone imitate him in his singleness, for such a desire would run at odds with the “Cultural Mandate,” given in Genesis 1:26-28, and would deprive the world of the reflection of “Christ and the church” which marriage uniquely brings about. Not only that, but Paul himself speaks against such an absolute view by saying that “some people have one gift, and others a different one.” I don’t think this can be taken to mean that we should all simply pray for the gift of singleness because God will surely answer our prayers. A world full of only single Christians would hardly be God’s will, and this passage cannot support such a view.

      Further, Paul manifestly does not say that remaining single, in every instance, would make one “happier.” I would hasten to add that, while I do not share modern man’s rejection of Patristic theology, I also do not accept it wholesale, and I think much of their theology on marriage and sexuality suffered from an unbiblical bias against this fleshly existence.

      Finally, anathematizing people (i.e., consigning them to hell) for having a certain view of celibacy and virginity is also something to which I cannot subscribe. I suppose both Catholics and Protestants were “into” anathematizing people back then, but it got a bit ridiculous. More to come.


      russell and duenes

      January 10, 2012 at 6:50 pm

  3. Interesting points, Mike…

    Taking the discussion down a different path, I am left to wonder: when your interpretation of Scripture diverts from the interpretation of a Church Father – or what’s more, the consensual opinion of all the Fathers – and/or from the official interpretation of a certain passage by the Catholic Church, on what exactly should I base my confidence that your interpretation is the correct one, and theirs the false?

    And further, in the case when other modern Biblical scholars might dissent from your opinion, how is one to judge who is correct? Surely all would claim to be guided by the Holy Spirit.

    Travis Lawmaster

    January 11, 2012 at 5:22 am

    • Travis, all great and penetrating questions, which have interested the minds of great “divines” down through the centuries, and worthy of my than just a passing 2 cents. So I’ll try to do the questions a bit of justice and respond to them here in the next few days.


      russell and duenes

      January 11, 2012 at 2:59 pm

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