What are the principles Paul lays out for us regarding marriage in 1 Cor 7?

  1. Marriage and singleness are both valued by God. One is not superior to the other. Just as we cannot say apples are ‘better’ than oranges, it is unwise to praise marriage above singleness, or vice versa. As with everything, it is God who should have the final say in how we live: ‘God, not your marital status, defines your life.’ (1 Cor 7:17, The Message)
  2. Both marriage and singleness are gifts from God. The sexual drive is God-given and is strong, but it should be harnessed, not allowed to run free. An inability to control sexual desires may mean marriage is preferable to singleness (1 Cor 7:1-6, 36-38), but marriage brings with it obligations, responsibilities and commitment; it is not a ‘cop-out for the sexually frustrated’, but a gift from God, just as the gift of celibacy is not the ‘inevitable consequence of the needy’ but a lifestyle choice of those dedicated to God (see Matt 19:11-12).
  3. God has placed sex within marriage and husbands and wives have a duty (as well as a delight) to seek the other’s sexual fulfilment in marriage (1 Cor 7:1-6). Just as we do not belong to ourselves but to God (1 Cor 6:19-20), so in marriage, the husband belongs to the wife and the wife to the husband. We hear a lot about ‘rights’ these days, but the Bible reminds us always that the way to fulfilment is through service. Sex is not a bartering tool or a weapon within marriage; there is no place for abuse, bribery and selfishness with sex, any more than with anything else.
  4. Sexual temptation must be resisted and the enemy’s wiles recognised (see 2 Cor 2:11). ‘Satan is about the destruction of marriages. He is totally committed to adultery, and all the personal problems that lead to it. When you battle with sexual temptation, you battle against Satan. Not because he creates the desire, but because he so powerfully and deceptively uses the desire. As married couples, we must guard our marriages from Satan. He is seeking to devour the marriage bed. Therefore, don’t let him into your bed.’ (Keith Krell) Satan’s great strategy, when it comes to sex, is to do everything he can to encourage sex outside of marriage, and to discourage sex within marriage. Paul reminds us in this chapter of the dangers of yielding to sexual temptation and offers advice on how to resist.
  5. There are great opportunities for undistracted service to God for those who are single. (1 Cor 7:7-9, 25-40). Paul urges those who are single or widowed not to chase after marriage, but to see their singleness as further opportunity to serve God with an undistracted heart. ‘I do want to point out, friends, that time is of the essence. There is no time to waste, so don’t complicate your lives unnecessarily,’ he says (1 Cor 7:29, The Message), reminding us that in everything, our wholehearted focus needs to be on God. The old chorus says that when we turn our eyes upon Jesus, ‘the things of the world will grow strangely dim.’ We do well not to burden people who are unmarried with the feeling that they are somehow inferior simply because they are unmarried; such a perspective is clearly unbiblical.
  6. Contentment is to be valued above a restlessness for constant change. (1 Cor 7:17-24) When we’re single, we often think marriage will be the thing that brings us happiness; when we’re married, we may well believe we’d be happier if we were not married or if we were married to someone else! Paul reminds the Corinthians that chasing after alternative status is unprofitable; ‘each person should live as a believer in whatever situation the Lord has assigned to them, just as God has called them.’ (1 Cor 7:17) This applies to both single and married people, and Paul says that for those who have become Christians after their marriage (and who are therefore married to a non-believer), they should not seek to end the marriage, though if their spouse wishes to leave, they should not prevent this. In modern language, ‘So please don’t, out of old habit, slip back into being or doing what everyone else tells you. Friends, stay where you were called to be.’ (1 Cor 7:24, The Message) Peer pressure and cultural norms can be hard to resist, but the Christian should live in ways that are honouring to God; constantly chasing after something new is not the way to godliness (see 1 Tim 6:6).
  7. Believers should only marry ‘in the Lord’ (1 Cor 7:39, see also 2 Cor 6:14). This is a key principle for successful marriages, for we are called to live in the light and not have anything to do with darkness. Much heartache could be avoided if believers put their commitment to God first and trusted Him with affairs of the heart, instead of seeking a partner anywhere and believing they have to sort this matter out for themselves. If we truly believe we belong to God, then He has control over every area of our lives and knows our needs; He is also well able to provide for us (see Gen 24 & Matt 6:30-34).
  8. For those who become Christians when already married, God is able to work in the marriage and can sanctify both the unbelieving partner and the children from the marriage (1 Cor 7:12-16). Whilst salvation must still be personally received, there is no reason for the Christian to end the marriage because of their conversion, though if the other person chooses to leave, the Christian should not seek to prevent them. God is able to work in all situations and the prayerful attitude of the Christian can have a great influence on the family (see also 1 Pet 3:1-8). Whilst it is true that bad company corrupts good character (1 Cor 15:33), ‘it is a scriptural principle that the blessings arising from fellowship with God are not confined to the immediate recipients, but are extended to others.’ (Leon Morris, commentary on 1 Corinthians, P 110) God’s grace and mercy can never be fathomed or underestimated!
  9. Divorce is to be avoided wherever possible. The Biblical concept of marriage is a lifelong union between one man and one woman, going back to the Genesis account of creation (Gen 2:24). Paul talks of separation in this chapter (1 Cor 7:10-11), but still urges reconciliation rather than divorce where possible. In Jewish and Greco-Roman culture, divorce was acceptable, so in re-emphasising God’s original purpose for marriage, Paul shifts us from the cultural norm back to God’s norm. This is always necessary, for culture so easily shapes our views and thoughts and we have to bring our thoughts captive to Christ (2 Cor 10:5).
  10. The gospel affects our everyday lives. Paul writes to the Corinthians about issues they have raised, dealing with different extremes (some Corinthians believed sex was sinful even within marriage and that true spirituality eschewed anything to do with the body; others were clearly promiscuous.) He was at pains to deal with as many different scenarios as people raised, always coming back to Scripture to explain his reasoning and his thoughts. There is no such thing as a sacred/secular divide in God’s kingdom. Absolutely every aspect of our living – our sex lives, our work lives, our relationships with family and friends, our hobbies, our hopes and fears, our health, our money – is to be surrendered to the Lordship of Christ.