On Being a Single or Married Christian (preaching resource for Epiphany 3: January 21, 2024)

This post exegetes 1 Cor. 7:1-40, providing context for the RCL Epistle reading for 1/21/2024 (Epiphany 3). This exegesis draws on commentary from Warren Wiersbe ("Bible Expository Commentary") and Bruce Winter ("New Bible Commentary").

Christian marriage (public domain via Wikimedia Commons)


Prior to the seventh chapter of 1 Corinthians, Paul has dealt with sins of division and immorality hurting the church in Corinth. And now beginning in chapter 7, he answers questions submitted by the Corinthians (“the matters you wrote about…,” verse 1). He begins with their questions concerning being single or married as a Christian. Paul's answers address specific concerns that include unusual circumstances. For example, he refers to the “present crisis” (v 26), which archaeology has shown involved prolonged and severe famine together with multiple earthquakes and resultant social and political upheaval. Normal life (including normal family relations) at that time was severely interrupted. Paul’s answers had to deal with these unusual circumstances. Paul frequently relied for his answers on Jesus’ teachings, though Jesus did not address all the circumstances Paul had to. And so we find here a good example of taking God’s instructions and thinking with the mind of Christ to apply them to circumstances not directly addressed by the Lord. We will seek to follow Paul’s example in this. This is particularly important because of the delicate issues addressed in this chapter.

Celibacy, marriage, sex & divorce 

1 Cor. 7:1–11

In this section Paul addresses single or married, sex within marriage, and divorce and remarriage.

1. Single or married

Apparently the church’s specific question to Paul was something like this: “Which is better for a follower of Jesus: to remain single or to marry?” Paul notes that being single (celibate) is God’s gift to some (verse 7a), but it is not a better gift than marriage. Moreover, celibacy is God’s gift only to a few men and women; it’s not for everyone (verse 7b). Thus to remain single is permitted (and perhaps even desirable given the current crisis—see verse 26). But celibacy is not commanded (verse 6). We note that Paul’s perspective here seems to spring from Jesus’ teaching on the topic of celibacy (Mat. 19:10–12). Indeed, as God has said, "it is not good for the man to be alone” (Gen. 2:18). This is indeed true for most people most of the time. But for some people, in some circumstances (particularly the current crisis) there is a calling to remain single. This calling to celibacy should not be viewed as either “sub-spiritual” or “super-spiritual.” It’s a matter of God’s gifting of the individual. The church should therefore honor the gift of singleness and the gift of marriage—and both groups should live in ways that honor God and advance the cause of Christ.

2. Sex within marriage 

If a person is not called to celibacy, Paul says they should marry (verse 2) so as to avoid the temptation to commit fornication—a prevalent sin both then and now. If the decision is to marry, the person should marry a believer (verse 39), and should avoid polygamy (multiple wives). Some see verse 2 also prohibiting same-sex unions. In short, Paul sees God’s will for believers as either celibate singleness or the marriage of one man to one woman. In verses 8–9, Paul applies the principle stated in verse 1 to single believers including those who have lost a mate.

Paul goes on to note that though God-honoring sex is a reason to marry, it must not be abused within the marriage. The wife’s body belongs to her husband, and the husband’s to his wife—each must be considerate sexually of their mate. Sex in marriage is a beautiful way to build marital intimacy—it must never be used as a weapon to fight with. To refuse each other sexually is to commit robbery (1Thes 4:6) and to invite Satan to tempt a partner to seek satisfaction elsewhere. As in all things, the spiritual must govern the physical—our bodies are God’s temples. The husband and wife may abstain from sex for a time to devote full attention to prayer and fasting (verse 5, and remember that this was a time of crisis, verse 26); but they must not use this reason as an excuse for prolonged separation. In short, Paul encourages Christian partners to be “in tune” with each other both spiritually and physically no matter what the circumstance. 

3. Divorce and remarriage

Not only did the church ask Paul about singleness and marriage, and sex within marriage, they also apparently asked about divorce. Again Paul cites Jesus’ teaching: ordinarily, husbands and wives are not free to divorce (verses 10 and 39). However, if divorce occurs (verse 11), the parties should normally remain unmarried so that reconciliation may be sought. This is, of course, the ideal, though Jesus himself made one exception: If one mate is guilty of gross sexual misconduct/perversion, the other is released from the marriage. Far better, however, that there be confession, forgiveness, and reconciliation.  

Comment: Sometimes Paul’s instructions here are used to forbid re-marriage following divorce. But such a rule might overlook the context here of Paul’s ruling and the complexities of individual situations. A person may indeed commit sin by divorcing and then again by remarrying. But care must be taken in applying Paul’s instructions. However, Paul’s main point is clear: God considers marriage as permanent and sanctions divorce in only limited circumstances. For more on this topic see the helpful GCI article on divorce and remarriage at https://archive.gci.org/articles/what-the-bible-says-about-divorce-and-remarriage/.

Marriage to a non-believer  

1 Cor. 7:12–24

Some of the members of the Corinthian church had non-member mates and were experiencing difficulties at home. So they asked Paul, “Must we remain married to non-believing mates? Doesn’t our conversion to Christ alter things?” Paul replies that they were to remain with their non-member mates so long as those mates were willing to live with them. Turning to Christ does not alter the marriage state; if anything, it ought to enhance and deepen it (note Peter’s similar counsel to wives with non-believing husbands in 1 Peter 3:1–6).  

Clearly believers should marry other believers (see 1Cor. 7:39 and 2Cor. 6:14), but if a person becomes a Christian after marriage, they should not use that as an excuse to leave the marriage, even if there are problems. In fact, Paul emphasizes the fact that the Christian partner can have a positive spiritual influence on the non-believing mate (1 Cor. 7:14)--a positive influence that extends to the children as well (14b). 

Christianity had a profound impact on the social order of the Roman world in teaching that every person, regardless of race, gender or social status had equal standing with God (Gal. 3:28). The Christian church was perhaps the only assembly in the Empire where slaves and freemen, men and women, rich and poor, could fellowship on an equal basis. However, this new equality brought some misunderstandings and problems which Paul addresses in 1 Cor. 7:17–24. He lays down an important principle: Even though Christians are one in Christ, each believer should remain in the calling they were in when they became a Christian. Jewish believers should not try to become Gentiles (by erasing the physical mark of their covenant), and Gentiles should not try to become Jews (by being circumcised). Moreover, slaves should not demand freedom from their Christian masters, just because of their equality in Christ. However, Paul did advise Christian slaves to secure their freedom if possible, probably by purchase. This same principle applies to Christians married to non-believing mates—if at all possible, they should remain married.

But what if the non-believing mate leaves? 1 Cor. 7:15 says that the Christian partner is not then obligated to keep the home together in that case. We are all called to peace, and should do all we can to live in peace (Rom. 12:18); but there comes a time when peace is impossible. If the non-believing mate separates from his or her partner, there is little the Christian mate can do except to pray and continue faithful to the Lord. Does this separation give the Christian mate the right to seek a divorce and to remarry? Paul does not say so. But what if the non-believing mate ends up living with another partner? That would constitute adultery and constitute grounds for divorce. But even then, 1 Cor. 7:10–11 encourages forgiveness and restoration. Paul does not here deal with every possible situation. Rather he is offering basic principles which must be applied on a case-by-case basis. 

Other considerations 

1 Cor. 7:25–40

Paul now adds additional advice for singles and marrieds. He seems to be answering a question something like this: “Must a Christian get married? And what about unmarried women in the church who are not getting any younger?” Perhaps Paul’s answer is addressed primarily to the parents of marriageable girls. Since Jesus did not give any specific teaching on this topic, Paul gives his own counsel as one taught of the Lord. He asks them to consider several factors. 

1. Consider the present circumstances (vv. 25–31)

It was a time of distress and change (verses 26 and 31). It appeared that there was not much time left for serving the Lord (verse 29). In view of these difficulties, it is Paul’s counsel that it is probably best for singles to remain unmarried. However, this did not mean that married people should divorce (verse 27). Paul’s counsel here is to the unmarried. Of course, some may choose to marry, and if they do they must be ready to accept the trials that will accompany it (verse 28). In fact, the situation might become so difficult that even those already married will have to live as though they were not married (verse 29). Perhaps Paul was referring to husbands and wives being separated from each other because of economic distress or persecution. To “count the cost” of marriage is good counsel for engaged people today.  

2. Consider the responsibilities (vv. 32–35) 

The emphasis in this paragraph is on the word concern, which means “to be anxious, to be pulled in different directions.” It is impossible for two people to live together without burdens of one kind or another, but there is no need to rush into marriage and create more problems. Marriage requires a measure of maturity, and age is no guarantee of maturity. So once again, Paul emphasizes living for the Lord. He is not suggesting that it is impossible for a man or a woman to be married and also serve God acceptably. But the married servant of God must consider his or her mate, as well as the children God may give them; and this could lead to certain distractions. So again, count the cost. 

Certainly it’s possible to please both the Lord and one’s mate if the person is yielded to Christ and obedient to his word. Indeed, a happy home and satisfying marriage are a wonderful encouragement to and support for active Christian service. However, unmarried believers who feel a particular calling to serve God should examine their own hearts to see if marriage will help or hinder that call. They must also be careful to wed mates who feel a like calling. Each person has his own gift and calling from God and must be obedient to his word. 

3. Consider that each situation is unique (vv. 36–38) 

Paul is here addressing the fathers of unmarried girls (“virgins”). In that day, the parents (the father in particular) arranged marriages (2 Cor. 11:2). Paul had already said in 1 Cor. 7:35 that he was not laying down an ironclad rule for everybody to follow, regardless of circumstances. Now he makes it clear that the father has freedom of choice whether or not he would give his daughter in marriage. Even though our modern approach to dating and marriage would be foreign to the Corinthian custom, Paul’s counsel still applies. It is a wise thing for couples to counsel with their parents and with church leaders lest they rush into something which afterward they regret. 

Paul hit on a key problem in 1 Cor. 7:36 when he mentions concerning certain unmarried women that they are “getting along in years.” Because of their age there is a certain sense of compulsion to rush in to marriage simply to avoid being a “spinster.” But as one preacher put it, “better to live in single loneliness than in married cussedness!” However, each situation is unique, and parents and children must seek the Lord’s will. It takes more than two Christian people to make a happy marriage. Not every marriage that is scriptural is necessarily sensible. 

4. Consider that marriage is for life (vv. 39–40) 

Clearly God’s will is that marriages be lifetime commitments. There is no place in God’s will for a “trial marriage,” nor any room for an “escape hatch” attitude: “If the marriage doesn’t work, we can always get a divorce.” Thus Christian marriage is based on something sturdier than good looks, money, romantic excitement and social acceptance. There must be commitment, character, and maturity. There must be a willingness to grow, to learn from each other, to forgive and forget, and to minister to one another. The kind of love Paul described in 1 Corinthians 13 is what is needed to cement two lives together in a lasting marriage. Thus Paul closes this section by telling widows that they are free to remarry, but the mate “must belong to the Lord” (verse 39). This means that they must not only marry a believer, but marry in the will of God. Paul’s counsel (for the reasons already given) was that they remain single, but he left the decision to them. 


As we review this chapter, we are impressed with the seriousness of marriage. Paul’s counsel makes it clear that God takes marriage seriously, and that we cannot disobey God’s will concerning marriage without suffering painful consequences. While both Paul and Jesus leave room for divorce under certain limited conditions, it is never God’s first choice for a married couple. Indeed, God hates divorce (Mal. 2:14–16) and certainly no believer should consider divorce until all avenues of reconciliation have been patiently explored. 

In summary, each person must ask himself or herself the following questions if marriage is being contemplated: 

1. Is marriage my gift from God? Or am I gifted to remain single?

2. Is the one I propose to marry a believer? 

3. Are the circumstances such that marriage is right at this time? 

4. How will being married affect my personal calling to the Lord’s service? 

5. Am I prepared to enter into this union of marriage for life?