How the Marriage Movement Misuses 1 Corinthians, Chapter Seven

When a discussion of marriage and celibacy is taken up by Evangelical pundits, some of them would have you believe that God expects most people to marry in order “to avoid fornication.” The Bible proof-text most quoted for this idea is 1 Corinthians 7:1-2:

“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.” (NKJV)

A lot of people assume that this passage means that most people just don’t have the self-control to stay single. But in actuality, the verse is not talking about single people; it’s talking about married people. Consider what Gordon Fee has to say in his commentary on 1 Corinthians regarding v. 2:

“His [Paul’s] response to their slogan—and remedy for the cause of porneia—is (literally): ‘Let each man be having his own wife, and each woman be having her own husband.’ This sentence in particular presents considerable difficulties for the traditional view. First, it does not say that people should get married, a verb Paul is obviously willing to use in this section when he intends that (v. 9). Second, there is no known evidence that the idiom ‘to have a wife’ means ‘to take a wife.’ In fact this idiom is common in biblical Greek and usually means either to ‘have sexually’ (Exod. 2:1; Deut. 28:30; Isa. 13:16) or simply to be married or to be in continuing sexual relations with a man or woman (see esp. 5:1 and 7:29; cf. Mark 6:18; John 4:18). Third, the terms ‘each man/woman’ and ‘his/her own’ should mean that Paul intends everyone in the community to get married. Since the rest of the chapter contradicts that, this is read in other ways: to ‘imply monogamy’ or to mean ‘as a general rule.’

“When the clauses are taken at face value, however, giving all the words their normal usage, then Paul is saying No to their slogan as far as married partners are concerned. Thus he means: ‘Let each man who is already married continue in relations with his own wife, and each wife likewise.'” (Fee, Epistle to the First Corinthians (NICNT), pp. 278-279)

Some, mistakenly believing v. 2 applies to single people, want to make the instructions in that verse the “concession” that Paul speaks of in v.6 (see John Macarthur, 1 Corinthians), but Fee rightly comments on v. 6:

“As throughout the paragraph, the ordinary sense of words in their immediate context offers the best understanding of the sentence. Their [the Corinthian’s] letter has argued for abstinence from sexual relations within marriage, to which Paul in vv. 2-5a has responded with an empathic No. That leads to incontinence, he says in 5c, and the cases of sexual immorality that already are a plague on your house. So stop defrauding one another in this matter, he commands, unless perhaps there is temporary abstinence by mutual consent at set times for prayer. But this is a concession for you; you are not to take it as a command. Thus even such a good thing as temporary abstinence for prayer will not be raised to the level of command, precisely because of (1) the difficulties that already persist in the church over this matter, and (2) that fact that such matters belong to the category of “gift” not requirement, as he will go on to say in v. 7.” (Ibid, 283-284)

As with a lot of commentators, Fee suggests that celibacy is the gift of God that Paul mentions some have (v. 7). Fee takes celibacy to mean the “singular freedom from the desire or need of sexual fulfillment” (Ibid., 284). However, even if one grants this interpretation, it is a leap of logic to assume that other people who do have normal sexual desire are required to get married. Some would like to suggest that vv. 8-9 teaches this:

“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.” (NKJV)

But, again, let’s consider Fee for some commentary on this passage:

“For many later Christians this has been the troubling verse. Paul is seen to be arguing in v. 8 for all singles to stay that way, then as making allowance for marriage for those who cannot remain continent, for it is better to be married than to be consumed with sexual passion. But it is doubtful whether Paul’s point is quite so stark. In the first place, Paul does not say (as the NIV), ‘if they cannot control themselves.’ Rather he says, ‘if they do not, or are not practicing continence (or exercising self-control).’ The implication is that some of these people are doing the same as some of the married in vv. 1-7, practicing ‘sexual immorality,’ that is, probably also going to prostitutes. The antidote for such sin is to get married instead.

“With an explanatory ‘for’ Paul appends a reason: ‘It is better to marry (or to be married) than to burn.’ This final word is the difficult one. The usage is clearly metaphorical, but it could refer either to burning with desire or burning in judgment (cf. 3:15). Since both of these can be supported from Jewish sources, that evidence is not decisive. The question must finally be decided contextually, and by Paul’s usage in 2 Cor. 11:29, which is almost certainly a metaphor for inner passion. Even though the larger context, including the warning in 6:9-10, could be argued to support the judgment metaphor, such an idea is missing from the immediate context altogether. It seems more likely, therefore, that Paul intended that those who are committing sexual sins should rather marry than be consumed by the passions of their sins.

“In this case, then, Paul is not so much offering marriage as the remedy for the sexual desire of ‘enflamed youth,’ which is the most common way of viewing the text, but as the proper alternative for those who are already consumed by that desire and are sinning.” (Fee, 288-289)

The bottom line is that Paul never commanded single people who have normal sexual desires to get married, per se. His exhortation to marry was for people already committing fornication and were thereby burning in unrestrained passions. Fornication is never acceptable, so somene who refuses to practice self-control is better off getting married than continuing in sin.

On the other hand, to claim that most people must choose between marriage or fornication is to pose a false dilemma. Average single people can choose a third way: practice self-control. They do not have to marry if they really don’t want to. It is true that people who have the rare trait (gift?) of being asexual have an easier time than single people who do have sexual desires but are trying to remain chaste. Yet it is also true that single people who have sexual desires but are trying to remain chaste have an easier time than people in lousy marriages. Sex, then, is not a compelling enough reason to browbeat people (especially men) into walking down the aisle! In conclusion, if single people want to get married, it is permissible but it is not required. That some Evangelical commentators are currently trying force single people into marriage using passages such as 1 Corinthians 7 is sad indeed.

Works mentioned:

Fee, Gordon. The First Epistle to the Corinthians. NICNT. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1987.

Macarthur, John. 1 Corinthians. Macarthur New Testament Commentary. Chicago: Moody, 1984.

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