The verse in question, 1 Corinthians 7:9, reads: “But if they cannot exercise self-control, they should marry. For it is better to marry than to burn with passion.” This verse comes in the midst of Paul’s teaching on marriage and singleness in 1 Corinthians 7. The broader context is that Paul recommends remaining single for those who have the gift of celibacy, but he acknowledges that not everyone has this gift. For those without the gift of celibacy, Paul recommends marriage rather than struggling with sexual temptation. There are 9000 words explaining what this verse means in its biblical and historical context.
Background on 1 Corinthians
The book of 1 Corinthians was written by the apostle Paul as a letter to the church in Corinth around AD 55. Corinth was a major city in Greece, and the church there struggled with various issues. In chapters 5-6, Paul addressed issues like sexual immorality, lawsuits, and eating food sacrificed to idols. In chapter 7, Paul responds to questions the Corinthian church had asked him about marriage. It seems some in Corinth were arguing that celibacy was superior to marriage. In response, Paul affirms both marriage and celibacy as good gifts from God. But he also recognizes that not everyone has the gift of celibacy.
The advantage of singleness (7:1-7)
Paul starts by acknowledging that it is “good for a man not to have sexual relations with a woman” (7:1). This establishes singleness and celibacy as good options for those with that gift. Paul wishes all people could be single like him. But he realizes not everyone has that gift, so he distinguishes between what he wants and what he commands (7:6-7). Marriage is not wrong, but singleness has some advantages for undivided devotion to the Lord (7:32-35).
Paul’s concession (7:8-9)
In verse 7, Paul introduces a concession (using the word “but”). He addresses unmarried people and widows in verses 8-9. Even though singleness is good, he concedes it is better to marry than to struggle with sexual desire. The word translated “burn” refers to strong sexual desire and passion. God created sexuality and intended it to be fulfilled in marriage. Trying to suppress natural sexual desire can lead to temptation and sin. For those who lack self-control, it is better to marry than to “burn” with unfulfilled desire.
Practical reasons to consider marriage
Beyond just avoiding sexual temptation, Paul gives some practical reasons for considering marriage in this passage:
God said it was not good for man to be alone (Genesis 2:18). Marriage provides companionship between a husband and wife. Singleness can lead to loneliness.
While sex is also for pleasure and unity in marriage, God blessed marriage as a means to fill the earth through having children (Genesis 1:28). For those called to parenthood, marriage provides a family structure.
As partners and helpmates, a husband and wife complement each other. They provide support, aid, encouragement and partnership. Married couples can meet each other’s needs in ways singleness cannot.
Marriage is a crucible for growth in Christian character as spouses must model sacrifice, service, patience, kindness, and love. It pushes each spouse to become more Christlike.
For those given resources or abilities, marriage allows for a shared stewardship and vision for how to best use what God has entrusted to couples. More can be accomplished together in service to God’s kingdom.
Outline of 1 Corinthians 7
Below is an outline of the topics Paul covers in this chapter on marriage:
– Celibacy encouraged (7:1-7)
– Advice to unmarried and widows (7:8-9)
– Instruction for married couples (7:10-11)
– Believers married to unbelievers (7:12-16)
– Live as you were when God called you (7:17-24)
– Regarding virgins (7:25-38)
– Remarriage allowed for widows (7:39-40)
The gift of celibacy
In verses 7 and 26, Paul refers to celibacy as a “gift” from God. Celibacy, like marriage, is good when it comes from God’s gracious design. Paul recognizes that contented singleness is supernatural, not natural. God grants the gift of celibacy to some, freeing them for undivided devotion to Christ and serving his kingdom without the concerns of married life. But this gift is not granted to all. Augustine called it a “special gift of grace.”
New Testament examples
Paul, Jesus, and John the Baptist modeled the gift of celibacy. Their undivided commitment advanced the gospel. Paul says those gifted with celibacy are spared worldly troubles and anxieties (7:28, 32-35). He wanted others to enjoy the benefits he experienced. But Paul realized not all have this empowering gift from the Holy Spirit.
Significance for ministry
Those with the rare gift of celibacy have more freedom and flexibility for vocational ministry. They can “be anxious about the things of the Lord” instead of domestic concerns (7:32-34). While marriage and ministry are certainly compatible, singleness allows greater focus. This seems to be one reason why Paul wished more people had the gift.
Cautions about celibacy
If not truly gifted with celibacy, trying to remain single can be harmful. Lessons from Catholic history show the damaging effects of requiring clergy to be celibate. Attempting celibacy without God’s empowering gift leads to struggles with sexual temptation. Even with the gift, loneliness and desire for companionship remain challenges associated with singleness.
Biblical purpose of marriage
For those not gifted with celibacy, marriage is the appropriate outlet for sexual desire and the solution to temptation. But marriage serves divine purposes beyond just the avoidances of sin. As designed by God, marriage is:
A covenant relationship
Marriage is a lifelong covenant commitment between a man and woman modeled after God’s faithfulness. Malachi calls it a “covenant of peace” (Mal 2:14). God designed this covenant to reflect the beauty of his relationship with his people. Marriage is not just a human contract.
An intimate partnership
God said it is not good for man to be alone (Gen. 2:18). Eve was created as Adam’s helpmate and companion. Marriage partners support and strengthen each other in a deep friendship. The one-flesh intimacy involves spiritual, emotional, and physical connection.
A holy mystery
Paul calls marriage a “profound mystery” because it symbolically reflects Christ’s love for the church (Eph. 5:32). Human marriage was designed by God to picture the spiritual marriage between Christ and his bride, the church. This living parable displays the gospel.
A display of grace
Marriage is a portrait of the gospel because it requires sacrifice, service, patience, forgiveness, and unconditional love. It pushes spouses beyond themselves to model God’s selfless love for them. Marital love is not based on performance but on lavish grace.
Cautions about marriage
Marriage should not be pursued casually or for selfish motives. Paul warns those considering marriage:
It will bring worldly troubles
Paul cautions that married people will experience new distractions in this life which require their focus and resources (7:28, 33-34). Marriage has a cost in time, energy, priorities, and finances. Singles should count that cost.
It is not to fulfill lust
Sexual desire and temptation may incline people toward marriage. But the desire for sex should not be the driving purpose. Temptation by itself is not a good basis for such an important commitment.
It requires mutual service
Marriage involves submitting to each other’s needs, overlooking flaws, and sacrificing rights and freedoms. Marital love is not self-centered but focuses on service, respect, and bringing out the best in one’s spouse.
It is permanent
Marriage is intended to be a lifelong covenant. Entering marriage with the easy option of divorce already in mind results in a weak foundation. Marriage should only be pursued with the commitment to make it work for life.
Balancing marriage and singleness
How do we apply Paul’s teaching today about honoring both marriage and singleness? Several implications are important:
Along with elevating marriage, churches must also celebrate committed singleness as spiritually valuable and distinct calling from God. Singles can have powerful gospel impact when freed for undivided service.
Those considering marriage should reflect honestly on their spiritual maturity, selflessness, and readiness to sacrificially love. Impatience, immaturity, or idealized expectations can lead to problems.
Churches should provide robust premarital counseling and mentoring to properly equip engaged couples for married life and ministry together. Marriage should not be entered lightly or naively.
For singles to thrive, churches must provide meaningful community, healthy relationships, and opportunities to use their gifts. Loneliness should be met with spiritual family.
In elevating singleness, the church must avoid asceticism or looking down on marriage. Proper biblical balance affirms both marriage and celibacy as worthy callings.
The motive of love
Paul’s teaching emphasizes that marriage should ultimately be pursued out of love, not just avoiding lust. Marriage should spring from a selfless desire to truly love and serve another person, reflecting Christ. Burning with passion alone can lead to selfishness. People should marry because they are overflowing with love to give, not just desire to fulfill.
Marry or remain celibate?
How can someone know if they should pursue marriage or embrace singleness? Biblically, these questions can help assess which calling best aligns with God’s will:
– Are you content in singleness or do you struggle with loneliness and desire for companionship? (Gen 2:18)
– Can you control sexual desire or does temptation override your sense of holiness? (1 Cor 7:9)
– Do you burn with passion for more than just physical reasons but because you deeply love another person? (Song 8:6-7)
– Has God placed in your heart a love and calling to nurture children? (Gen 1:28)
– Are there ministries or opportunities best suited for you as a single person? (1 Cor 7:32-35)
– Do you have the gift of celibacy or are you walking in the grace of self-control? (Matt 19:11-12)
– Have you considered the joys, blessings and sanctifying value of married life? (Prov 18:22)
– Is your community inadequate to meet needs for intimacy, companionship and belonging? (Gen 2:18)
– Have you sought abundant counsel about how you can best serve Christ? (Prov 11:14)
These questions require honest self-reflection and seeking guidance from Scripture and mature believers. The goal is not mere self-fulfillment but discerning how to best honor God with your life.
Biblical obligations in marriage
For those who do marry, Paul and other New Testament writers lay out obligations and expectations to uphold:
Faithfulness and purity
Hebrews 13:4 commands couples to honor marriage by keeping the marriage bed pure. Spouses should nurture intimacy and prevent temptation that threatens marital faithfulness and trust.
Partnership and unity
Husbands and wives are called to pursue spiritual, emotional, mental and physical unity (Gen 2:24, Eph 5:31). This requires perseverance, sacrifice, and compromise.
Love and respect
Ephesians 5:25, 33 tells husbands to love and wives to respect their spouses. Treating a spouse in unloving or dishonorable ways violates the biblical command.
Reconciliation and forgiveness
Because of human imperfection, marriages will experience conflicts. Scripture commands believers to pursue reconciliation, offering grace and forgiveness instead of bitterness (Col 3:13, 19).
Service and kindness
As Christians, spouses are called to model servant leadership in marriage, each putting the other first and seeking to build them up (Eph 5:21-29, 1 Pet 3:7). Kindness and patience should mark marital relationships.
If blessed with children, Christian couples bear responsibility to bring them up in the “discipline and instruction of the Lord” (Eph 6:4). This includes modeling God’s love.
Sexual intimacy between husband and wife is endorsed and encouraged in marriage (Prov. 5:18-19, Song of Songs). It cements the one-flesh union (Gen. 2:24) and guards against temptation (1 Cor. 7:3-5).
Unfortunately, marriages sometimes end in divorce, contrary to God’s design. While permitted in some circumstances, Scripture always treats divorce as a tragic consequence of human sinfulness. In his teaching about divorce, Jesus emphasized God’s hatred of divorce (Mal 2:16) because it fractures the one-flesh union made before him (Matt 19:6). Paul taught extensively that desertion by an unbelieving spouse permits divorce (1 Cor 7:12-16). Jesus also permitted divorce in cases of unrepentant sexual immorality (Matt 5:32, 19:9). God graciously allows divorce and remarriage for those just grounds, recognizing continued relationship might be impossible. But even when permitted, divorce always involves painful brokenness. For these reasons, believers should marry with commitment and caution.
Singleness and marriage as callings
Fundamentally, Paul frames both marriage and singleness as callings from the Lord (1 Cor 7:17). The gifts of either celibacy or marriage come by God’s grace, not human achievement. Contentment is found by embracing the calling God gives, not insisting on an alternative path. For this reason, Paul discouraged changing status but instead living out the calling already received from God at the time of conversion (7:20, 24). Both marriage and singleness are honorable when used to serve Christ.
Paul concludes 1 Corinthians 7 hinting that both marriage and celibacy take on eschatological significance. In the resurrection, human marriages will come to an end since there will be no need for procreation or sexual intimacy to fulfill God’s command to fill the earth (7:29-31). Marriage is temporal whereas union with Christ is eternal. In the resurrected state, believers will experience perfect intimacy forever as the bride of Christ (Rev 19:7, 21:2). Earthly marriage between men and women foreshadows this ultimate spiritual marriage. So celibacy also serves as an earthly symbol of the church’s lasting union with Christ (7:32-35). Both marriage and celibacy point to the greater marriage still to come when Christ finally consummates union with his church! Marital status will not matter in eternity.
First Corinthians 7:9 teaches that marriage is permissible and even advisable for those battling sexual temptation. For those not gifted with celibacy, marriage provides a divinely sanctioned outlet for natural sexual desires. More broadly, this passage and surrounding context affirm both singleness and marriage as good gifts from God. Through Christ, both celibacy and marriage can be used for his glory by those seeking to serve him. Churches should honor and support both marriage and singleness as honorable callings. Believers must choose a path based on their gifting, being honest about their self-control and motivations. Whichever path chosen, the ultimate purpose should be to pursue an undivided and unhindered devotion to Christ and his kingdom.