Q&A: Marriage vs. Celibacy

Marriage vs. Celibacy

Question

There are lots of confirmations that marriage is of God's origin. The union of a man and a woman is exactly what God created and enjoyed (Prov. 18:22; Eccl. 9:9; Eph. 5:33). On the other hand, there are no less powerful affirmations that the best choice is celibacy in complete devotion to God (1 Cor. 7:32-34,38). Where is the truth? Why does the New Testament sometimes appear to devalue marriage when the Old Testament and other parts of the New Testament praise it? Is it better for a Christian to be single or married? And what does the Bible say about conjugal love?

Answer

For many centuries, the church has basically taught that singleness is better than marriage, but that not everyone has the "gift of singleness." That is, the church has taught that Paul thought singleness and celibacy was an objectively better state for Christian devotion to God than was marriage.

The obvious problem with this view is exactly the point your raised: it contradicts the Old Testament.

The biggest problem passage regarding this topic is 1 Corinthians 7. This passage is the source of such assertions as: 1) it is good for a man not to have sexual relations with a woman; 2) Paul wished that everyone were single like him; 3) it is better not to marry; 4) those who marry have more difficult lives; 5) those who marry are less devoted to God.

In fact, these interpretations of this passage are completely erroneous, being based on a misunderstanding of the context and situation to which Paul wrote. In order to read the passage properly we need to notice a couple things about 1 Corinthians itself:

1) It was written as an "occasional" letter — Paul wrote this letter to a specific church regarding particular problems that church was having due to its peculiar circumstances. It was also written largely in response to a letter that the Corinthians had written to Paul (1 Cor. 7:1).

2) Corinth and much of the rest of the Roman world was suffering from famines. This is corroborated by secular history, and by the fact that Paul was taking up the famine relief collection for Jerusalem (1 Cor. 16:1-4). (Even though the Corinthians were suffering, those in Jerusalem were evidently suffering worse from the famines.)

Now, regarding some of Paul's statements:

"It is good for a man not to touch a woman." This was not Paul's statement, but the Corinthians' statement which Paul quoted and then refuted. 1 Corinthians 7:1 begins (in Greek) with the phrase "peri de" ("now concerning"). Paul used this phrase in this letter six times, and in each other instance (7:25; 8:1; 12:1; 16:1,12) he immediately stated the matter about which the Corinthians wrote to which he was responding. In fact, this seems to be the best explanation of this verse, as well. The NRSV and the NKJV explicitly (and correctly) translate the verse this way.

Verses 2-6 are Paul's response to the Corinthians' assertion that celibacy is superior — and Paul clearly says that celibacy is wrong in marriage. His command is for conjugal love: the verb "have" when used in this context means "live sexually with." Thus, Paul commands, "Let each man live sexually with his wife, and let each wife live sexually with her husband."

The reason Paul wished that all were like him (celibate) and that widows not remarry (1 Cor. 7:7-9,39-40) was the "present distress" mentioned in 7:26 — most likely referring to the famines. Otherwise, Paul not only contradicted the Old Testament by deprecating marriage, but he also contradicted himself: in 1 Timothy 5:14 Paul instructed young widows to remarry.

In 1 Corinthians 7:26-28, Paul tells men who are "bound to" wives not to be "released," and not to seek wives. Here, knowledge of Greek vocabulary is very important. The phrase "bound to a wife" is a technical term for "engaged" — it does not refer to a consummated marriage. "Released" means "released from the engagement contract." Those who are not to seek wives are unengaged bachelors. Paul cannot mean that men should remain engaged but never marry, because if they never married they would be "released" de facto. The marriage contract was a promise to marry. If they merely postponed marriage forever, they would in fact never marry — a clear violation of the contract. This also explains why the counterpart to the men in verse 27 are "virgins" in verse 28. Married "wives" are not "virgins," but engaged "wives" are.

It is these same engaged people to which Paul again refers in 7:36-38 (compare the NIV reading of these verses).

He also says that married people will have "trouble in this life." This, however, is not a translation but an interpretation. Literally, the Greek should be translated "in the flesh," as in the NKJV. This is a much preferable translation because it makes sense of the "present distress," that is, of the famines. Marriage is more difficult "in the flesh" than engagement during times of famine because marriage produces children. During famines, creating more mouths to feed creates trouble meeting physical, fleshly needs.

Paul also supposedly said that single people were able to remain more devoted to God (7:32-35), but that is not at all what he meant. What he said was that he did not want people to be anxious or to worry. Single people worry about pleasing God, and married people worry about pleasing God and their spouses. Both types of worry are wrong: "I want you to be free from anxieties" (1 Cor. 7:32 NRSV), the first example of which is anxiety over pleasing God. The presence of verses 29-31, which teach that Christians should maintain an eternal perspective rather than being absorbed in worldly approaches to live, further demonstrates that Paul is speaking about improper anxiety in all instances mentioned in verses 32-35. Undistracted devotion to God does not require singleness, but an eternal perspective, and both married people and single people have trouble with devotion and perspective.

In fact, in 1 Timothy 5:11-15 Paul teaches that young widows have more trouble being devoted to God than do young married women, and consequently he instructs those widows to marry. If we interpret 1 Corinthians to teach that singleness and widowhood are more conducive to devotion to God than marriage, then Paul again contradicts himself.

In short, 1 Corinthians 7 teaches only that Paul wanted the Corinthians to place a temporary moratorium on weddings so that they would be better able to survive the "present crisis." He did not intend to give normative instructions regarding marriage in any other circumstance. He wanted marriages postponed until the crisis passed. But the importance of surviving the crisis was not great enough also to interfere with conjugal love within existing marriages. Conjugal love was so important that married couples were to continue having sex even though it might increase their "trouble in the flesh" by giving them more babies.

Jesus' statement about eunuchs in Matthew 19 is a bit different. He did not actually define what he meant by "eunuch," so many have understood him to mean that some people abstain from marriage for the sake of devotion to God. The statement actually comes in response to the objection, "If marriage is like this, it is better not to marry," which objection really meant, "If I have to be devoted to my wife and to forgive her, it's better not to get married." This, of course, was a sinful objection. Jesus did not intend his response to validate the sinful hearts of these Pharisees. Rather, he meant to demonstrate to them their own sinfulness.

It is somewhat difficult to determine exactly how Jesus' response did rebuke the Pharisees, but we might draw some insight into the matter from his actual words. Literally, what he said was that some men had castrated themselves for the kingdom of God — he did not say that they had merely remained single. This is rather harsh language akin to his statements in the preceding chapter (which is in the immediate context) that people should pluck out their eyes, and cut off their hands and feet (Matt. 18:8-9).

Immediately before Jesus' teaching about divorce, Matthew records Jesus' teaching on forgiveness. Lack of forgiveness also seems to be the "hardness of heart" from which the Pharisees suffer (Matt. 19:8). Adultery, in turn, is the sin to which this hardness of heart leads. It would seem, then, that Jesus' rebuke meant something like: "If you can't forgive your wives, it would be better for you to castrate yourselves to avoid falling into adultery." Of course, he did not really mean that men should castrate themselves any more than he meant that they should really cut off their hands and feet. What he meant was: "Give up your hardness of heart and learn to forgive."

In conclusion, Jesus did not teach that men should remain single, but that they should forgive, and Paul taught only that certain difficult circumstances in life may make it wise to postpone marriages.

Other than that, the New echoes the Old Testament in praising marriage, especially in that it portrays marriage to Christ as the ultimate goal of Christianity. The Old Testament remains valid, and marriage remains the means to the covenant blessing of children. No redemptive-historical progress has taken place to turn marriage from a good thing into a bad thing (Gen. 2:18; Rev. 19:7).

Sadly, the church has interpreted these passages rather simplistically for hundreds and hundreds of years, and many people have been hurt as a result. Thinking that we have been teaching righteousness according to the Bible, we have instead deprived ourselves of a great source of biblical joy and blessing, and have troubled those who have desired that blessing.

Answer by Ra McLaughlin

Ra McLaughlin is Vice President of Finance and Administration at Third Millennium Ministries.