1 Corinthians 7:25-28
There is a common misconception in our western society, and particularly among Christians, that except for very rare extraordinary cases, it is a given that God intends for everyone to get married. In fact it is often viewed as almost tragic if someone begins pushing thirty years of age and they still are not married. (I speak from experience). Often the pressure from parents and relatives to find someone and get married can become intense. Well meaning friends begin setting you up with blind dates and you are personally introduced to every visitor of the opposite sex who comes to the church with the hopes that maybe this one will catch. The pressure to change your marital status can become intense.
But according to chapter seven of First Corinthians, this is an unbiblical and ungodly expectation among Christians. I am confident that the Lord does eventually lead the majority of Christians into a marriage partnership, but He does not lead many into marriage and for all who are single and available the instruction of First Corinthians chapter seven is clear, “Do not seek a spouse” (vs. 27).Why not? Well let’s look to the Bible to see why not.
In chapter seven, under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, Paul addresses the subject of marriage, divorce and remarriage in response to questions and issues that the church in Corinth has been raising in a letter they sent to Paul. In order to properly interpret each portion of the chapter we have to understand the context in which it lies.
Beginning with verse one, there was disagreement among the Corinthian church as to whether or not it was spiritually appropriate for Christians to ever be sexually active. Many in the church were insisting, it seems, that if you want to be spiritual you will avoid all sexual activity and remain celibate. There were those in Corinth who applied this recommendation of celibacy to marriage and were advocating that it was spiritually advantageous for a man to not have physical intimacy with his wife in marriage. So the first 6 verses of the chapter are refuting this extreme view of celibacy and Paul makes it very clear that there no place for celibacy in marriage.
But then in verse 7 Paul clarifies that there is a context in which it is good for a man not to touch a woman, and that is when you are single. In fact, says Paul, he wishes (for the sake of the furthering of the Gospel, vs. 32-35), that all men were single and celibate as he is. But he quickly acknowledges that God has not called all men to be single as he is. But while he is on the topic of his own marital status, Paul now, in verses 8-9, addresses those who are like himself, the unmarried widower and widow.
Then in verses 10-16 Paul moves on to address those who are in a mixed marriage in which their spouse is not a believer. Surely the fact that they were married to an unbeliever was justifiable grounds to abandon the marriage so they could have more freedom to exercise their spirituality. But Paul rules this out, insisting that as much as it is up to the believer they are to remain faithful to the marriage and if they do insist on ending the marriage they are to either remain single or be reconciled.
Then in verses 17-24 Paul gives the theological principle behind his instructions to remain in the marriage and if divorced or widowed to remain single. “Let each one remain in the same calling in which he was called.” The Message paraphrases verse 17 this way, “And don’t be wishing you were someplace else or with someone else. Where you are right now is God’s place for you. Live and obey and love and believe right there. God, not your marital status, defines your life . . .”
Now in verse 25-38 for the first time in this chapter Paul addresses those who have never been married. He’s not addressing the divorced; he already spoke to them back in verses 10-16. And he’s not addressing those whose spouse died; he spoke to them in verses 8-9. But in these verses Paul is speaking to virgins as he makes clear in the first verse of this section:
Vs. 25 “Now concerning virgins. I have no commandment from the Lord; yet I give judgment as one whom the Lord in His mercy has made trustworthy.”
“Now concerning virgins” introduces a new group of people. Why does Paul use the term “virgins” here rather than the term, “unmarried”? He is obviously intending to limit his comments to a specific segment of the unmarried people. What he says here does not include those who are single again but those who have never married.
Before answering the question they have raised concerning virgins, Paul puts his comments into perspective, “I have no commandment from the Lord”, meaning our Lord Jesus never addressed this issue. Back in verses 10-11 Paul did quote Jesus’ teaching when he said “Now to the married I command, yet not I but the Lord: A wife is not to depart from her husband. But even if she does depart, let her remain unmarried or be reconciled to her husband. And a husband is not to divorce his wife.” Paul now in essence says, “That instruction came from a command Jesus had given, but the instruction I am about to give does not come from Jesus. There is no command in scripture concerning this matter.”
“Yet I give judgment as one whom the Lord in His mercy has made trustworthy.” (vs. 25b) As we saw back in verse 12 when Paul made a similar statement, this does not mean that the following words are not inspired of God. It simply means that there is no scriptural precedent for what Paul is about to say. Although what he has to say is trustworthy, if the Corinthians respond like the Bereans in the book of Acts and search the scriptures to see if what Paul is saying here is true they won’t find a scriptural text to back it up. But nevertheless, Paul is confident that the advise he is about to give is of God and therefore it is trustworthy and not in conflict at all with the rest of Scripture.
Vs. 26 “I suppose therefore that this is good because of the present distress— that it is good for a man to remain as he is:
He gives the same advice to this circumstance that he has given to every other marriage related circumstance so far in this chapter, and that is to remain in the position you are in. Notice that verse 26 says almost exactly the same thing as verse 20:. “Let each one remain in the same calling in which he was called.”
Vs. 27 “Are you bound to a wife? Do not seek to be loosed. Are you loosed from a wife? Do not seek a wife.”
What is this verse doing in a passage that is addressed to virgins? To answer that we need to understand the culture that Paul is writing to. One of the reasons many people interpret verse 27-28 as addressing those who are divorced is because verse 27 speaks about being bound to and loosed from a wife, which from our western 21st century perspective seems to be speaking of being married (bound) and divorced or at least separated (loosed). Here the non-literal translations (i.e., NIV and NLT, etc.) add to the misunderstanding because they use the words “married” or “marriage” which are not found in the original languages. For example the NIV says, “Are you married?” But a better translation of this passage is found in the ESV, NASB and NKJV for example which all literally translate the Greek in verse 27 as saying, “Are you bound to a wife? Do not seek to be loosed.”
Now it may not sound like much of a difference to you but there is a crucial difference between being bound to a wife and being married, which significantly impacts the interpretation of the passage. Being bound to a wife can be interpreted as being betrothed but being married cannot be interpreted as being betrothed. What am I getting at? I don’t believe Paul is speaking to those who are married but to those who are either betrothed to be married or considering marriage.
The term “virgins” is a term that is commonly used in the New Testament to refer to one who is betrothed or engaged to be married but who has never consummated a marriage. (Fee, p. 327; Gordon Wenham & William Heth, “Jesus and Divorce”, Paternoster Press, 2002, p. 147) For example:
Luke 1:27 The angel Gabriel was sent . . . “to a virgin betrothed to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David. The virgin’s name was Mary.”
And Matthew 1:18, “Now the birth of Jesus Christ was as follows: After His mother Mary was betrothed to Joseph, before they came together, she was found with child of the Holy Spirit . . . 23“Behold, the virgin shall be with child, and bear a Son, and they shall call His name Immanuel,” which is translated, “God with us.”
And again in 2 Corinthians 11:2, “For I am jealous for you with godly jealousy. For I have betrothed you to one husband, that I may present you as a chaste virgin to Christ.”
In verse 27, many scholars believe that Paul is still addressing virgins, including those who are betrothed (engaged) to get married. He is responding to the uncertainty in the minds of the young adults who are perhaps wondering, “With all these ideas going around about it being better not to touch a woman, should we be going ahead with plans to get married?”
Let’s go back to Matthew chapter one which we looked at just a moment ago which talked about Mary and Joseph. Look at Matthew 1:18 - 20 “Now the birth of Jesus Christ was as follows: After His mother Mary was betrothed to Joseph, before they came together, she was found with child of the Holy Spirit. 19Then Joseph her husband, being a just man, and not wanting to make her a public example, was minded to put her away secretly. 20But while he thought about these things, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream, saying, “Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take to you Mary your wife, for that which is conceived in her is of the Holy Spirit.”
In Jewish culture, betrothal was almost as binding as marriage; they were even called husband and wife, though they had not yet come together physically. Our western mind argues that you cannot be bound to a wife if you are a virgin and not married. But we must keep in mind that Paul was writing to a different culture. The Greek word, which in English is translated as “wife”, can also be translated more generically as “woman.” But regardless of how you translate it, it is a word that includes one whom you are betrothed to be married to, but have not yet consummated the marriage. (Fee, p. 332) As we saw already in Matthew, this describes the situation of Joseph who was betrothed to Mary and she was called his wife before they had become married.
So clearly it seems to me that we have the same thing here in 1 Cor. 7, when read in the context of verse 25, “Now concerning virgins”, Paul says in verse 27, “Are you bound [betrothed] to a wife [but still a virgin]? Do not seek to be loosed”. “Are you loosed from a wife?” [Are you not betrothed? Are you a virgin, single and available?] “do not seek to get married.”
Notice again that this verse is almost exactly the same argument that is used in verses 17-18. The Message paraphrases verse 17 this way, “And don’t be wishing you were someplace else . . . Where you are right now is God’s place for you. Live and obey and love and believe right there . . .”
Applying the truths he just taught in verses 17-24 to this question about should we or shouldn’t we plan to get married?, Paul is saying that they need to recognize that the circumstance they were in when God called them is therefore the place where they are to live out God’s call. The circumstance each of us found ourselves in when God called us is also the place God has called us to. That place is your calling. It is your assignment or your mission field. You are to remain there until called elsewhere. Therefore if you were betrothed when God called you to Christ you are not to try to get out of that situation, go ahead and get married. But if you were not already betrothed when God saved you don’t seek to get married but remain as you are until the Lord Himself leads you into a change.
Vs. 28 “But even if you do marry, you have not sinned; and if a virgin marries, she has not sinned.”
So why does Paul tell virgins not to seek a wife if it is not a sin to get married? Notice carefully what he is and is not saying in verse 27. He says “Do not seek a wife.” He does not say “do not find a wife.” That would contradict Proverbs 18:22 which says, “He who finds a wife finds a good thing, and obtains favor from the Lord.” What Paul cautions against is taking the initiative to go on the hunt and search for someone to marry. Don’t be going from singles group to singles group in search of a spouse. Look to the Lord and wait on Him to provide. If God doesn’t lead you by His Spirit and bring these things together then don’t go trying to make things happen.
The principle behind this exhortation is that which Paul underscored in verses 17-24; the Lord is our Master and we are His slave. If our Master opens the door and leads us into a marriage then we are free to take it. But none of us are free to initiate a change of status on our own. But if you do go ahead and seek out an eligible partner and get married you have not sinned. Don’t get on a guilt trip over it. But God had a good reason for wanting to keep you waiting.
Some interpret verse 28 as making a distinction between two different individuals, one a virgin and the other not. Who is this other who is distinguished from the virgin? Some interpret it as referring to someone who has been divorced. But I believe the distinction here is a distinction between the male and the female. (Fee, p. 332) This pairing of the male and female is consistent with the pattern that Paul has followed throughout the chapter where his comments have consistently been directed to pairs, man and woman, husband and wife (see comments on verse 8). In this verse the woman alone is referred to as a virgin.
“But even if you do marry [speaking to the same man he is addressing in verses 26-27], you have not sinned; and if a virgin marries [applying the same instruction equally to the woman], she has not sinned.”
To interpret these verses as addressing those who are divorced and now single is to ignore the clear context of verse 25. Paul is speaking to virgins, not to the divorced. And to interpret verse 28 as authorizing the remarriage of those who are divorced is to contradict the clear teaching that stands like a pair of bookends before and after this text. Before this text Paul clearly stated in verse 11 on the authority of Jesus’ own teaching that if a woman leaves her husband she is to “remain unmarried or be reconciled to her husband.” And after this text, verse 39 clearly states that “a wife is bound by law as long as her husband lives; but if her husband dies, she is at liberty to be married to whom she wishes . . .”
God never contradicts Himself in His Word. Therefore, if a passage of Scripture you are studying seems to contradict another passage you are studying the problem is not with God’s word, there is something wrong with your interpretation of the passage. You have a good indication that you have a correct interpretation of the verse when it harmonizes with the rest of the Bible. But a sure sign that your interpretation is faulty is when it clashes with the rest of Scripture.
There is one last issue in these verses which I have not yet addressed: What is meant in verse 26 by “the present distress” and in verse 28 by the statement, “Nevertheless such will have trouble in the flesh, but I would spare you”?
Vs. 26 “I suppose therefore that this is good because of the present distress— that it is good for a man to remain as he is”.
No one knows for sure what the present distress in verse 26 refers to. There are obviously a lot of issues going on in the church including marriages in crisis and sexual immorality which Paul could be referring to. Another indicator of distress in the church is given in chapter eleven suggesting that there is a spiritual crisis in the church resulting in sickness and death. First Corinthians 11:30 says, “For this reason many are weak and sick among you, and many sleep [death].” Paul’s point in 7:26 seems to be that in light of the many troubles you are already experiencing, don’t add to it the additional challenges of marriage as well. Instead focus your full attention on cultivating your walk with the Lord. This is excellent pastoral advice. The solution to our problems in life is never a change in marital status. The solution is to cultivate our relationship with the Lord and begin drawing life from Him.
In verse 28 however, his comments seem to be tied directly to those who, rather than wait for God’s leading in their lives, choose instead to push ahead in pursuit of gratifying their own desires for marriage and they “seek” out a spouse and get married. They have not sinned in getting married though they will have trouble in the flesh because they were unwilling to wait for God’s timing and God’s leading in their lives. We can all choose to go our own way but we cannot make it work. We make life much more difficult for ourselves when we pursue the way that seems right in our own eyes rather than patiently waiting upon the Lord and trusting His way and His timing. Paul’s motive in advising them to not impatiently “seek a wife” is to spare them from the unnecessary trouble that comes when we rush ahead of God in pursuit of what we want.
It has often been observed that some of the worst marriages come to those who were desperate to get married. While on the other hand, some of the healthiest marriages are those who were in no rush to find someone but were content to pursue their relationship with the Lord and to let Him have His way in their lives in His timing. God gives His best to those who leave the choice and the timing up to Him.