As we move from 1 Corinthians 5-6 to 1 Corinthians 7, our focus quite naturally shifts from sexual ethics to singleness. Roman Catholics have a long history of celebrating those who have embraced a life of singleness for the sake of the gospel. Protestants, by contrast, have sometimes assumed that marriage is the primary, or even the only, acceptable destiny for followers of Jesus. For example, it is not uncommon for search committees to ask single candidates for ministry positions if they are gay, even if those candidates have expressed no desire to remain single.
This is quite far from the state of affairs that Paul envisions in our current text. Indeed, for whatever reason (and I think it had to do with Paul’s reading of his current political and cultural context), the venerable apostle hypothesizes that it is actually preferable to be single. Moreover, as David Brooks has observed in his book The Second Mountain, those born between 1981 and 1996 increasingly find themselves less interested in and less committed to the institution of marriage.
So what should we in the church be saying about singleness? I think that our message can be summed up in the following points.
- Marriage is not for everyone. This is the point that Jesus seems to be making when his disciples reacted negatively to his teachings on divorce (Matthew 19:1-12). Our Lord said this because people have different responsibilities in the Kingdom and have been given different gifts by which to discharge those responsibilities, but he also said it because of his own, high view of marriage. If we are unwilling or unprepared to take on the responsibilities that come with the marriage bond, then we must make the hard choice to remain single.
- Singleness is not a sign that there is something wrong with us. Being single does not mean that a person cannot find a mate who will tolerate them. It simply means they are single. It may not even mean they will not find a mate in the future. It simply means, for now, they do not have a spouse. Singleness would be a lot easier to endure if people would stop shaming those who are single.
- Being single is not a sign of emotional or spiritual immaturity. American society has construed sex as a rite of passage to adulthood, and many in the church have bought into this destructive idea. Now, we need to be honest about the fact that marriage teaches us things about ourselves which are difficult to learn in other arenas of life, and we need to be honest about the fact the birth of our first child changes the structure and function of our brains. Nevertheless, singleness comes with its own unique set of hardships, and Paul is clear that perseverance in the midst of hardship is the path to “proven character” for the Christian (Romans 5:3-4).
- There are both advantages and disadvantages to singleness. Paul focuses on the advantages in our text, but he implies the existence of disadvantages in 1 Corinthians 9:5. When deciding whether to marry or to remain single, each person must consider her or his own calling, vocation, disposition, strengths, and weaknesses, and these considerations must be undertaken under the leadership of the Holy Spirit and with the help of trusted, spiritually mature friends and mentors.
- Committing oneself to singleness means committing oneself to celibacy. Paul is clear in our text that one must marry if one cannot master one’s desire for sex. It simply is not fair to someone to engage them in a sexual relationship, knowing that you have no intention of committing your heart and life to them.