A Message to the Married and Unmarried
The Reverend Bryn MacPhail / October 26, 2003
It was particularly difficult coming up with a sermon title for this morning’s text because of the wide range of topics that Paul addresses in this chapter. In 1Corinthians 7, Paul provides instruction for those who are married, and for those who are unmarried. He also addresses matters pertaining to divorce, being married to an unbeliever, and remarriage.
Yet, in addressing this wide range of topics we should, by no means, regard Paul’s instruction in 1Corinthians 7 as an exhaustive treatment of topics relating to marriage. We must bear in mind that Paul is responding to specific questions from the Corinthians on matters of marriage and sexual ethics. We infer this because of the manner in which Paul begins this section, “Now concerning the things about which you wrote”(7:1).
The Corinthians were divided on their views of marriage and sexual ethics. Some, who were heavily influenced by the pagan culture of the day, held very loose views about what was sexually permissible. And others, in strong reaction against the sexual license of the city, swung the pendulum to the other extreme by forbidding sexual relations altogether—even within the context of marriage. As a result, there arose confusion over whether Christians should even be married.
Paul, in this chapter, endeavours to temper this ascetic extreme. Paul also addresses the challenges of remaining single, and he outlines the challenges that face those who are married. And thrown into the mix is Paul’s own testimony and personal preference, “I wish that all were even as I myself am. However, each person has his own gift from God, one in this manner, and another in that. But I say to the unmarried and to widows that it is good for them if they remain even as I” (7:7,8).
There is much we can gain from Paul’s instruction in 1Corinthians 7. Whether you are married or divorced, single or engaged; whether you are a widow or a widower, there are principles in this passage for you to readily apply.
And lest we regard these principles as optional, I would like to present them to you as priorities, as I believe that Paul regards these principles as priorities for the Christian.
The first priority I see in this passage is the priority of the other person. This first priority is directed at those who are married. Those Christians who had adopted an ascetic view of things had apparently been neglecting the physical aspect of their marital relationship—in some cases at the expense of a spouse that did not share these stringent views. Paul’s reminds those who are married to prioritize the other person when he writes, “The wife does not have authority over her own body, but the husband does; and likewise also the husband does not have authority over his own body, but the wife does” (7:4).
As I think of the marital vows that are exchanged in a wedding ceremony, I am reminded that the vows centre around what you promise to provide and do for the other person. Marriage vows are not self-centred, but they are other-centred. And, in my estimation, when our desire to ‘get’ in a marriage relationship begins to overshadow our obligation to ‘give’ we have crossed a dangerous line. To those who are married, Paul returns our focus to the priority of the other person.
The second priority outlined by Paul is the priority of prayer. On the heels of reminding the husband that he is obligated to his wife, and the wife, likewise, that she is obligated to her husband, Paul makes an exception. But even the exception is by mutual agreement. Paul writes, “stop depriving one another, except by agreement for a time that you may devote yourselves to prayer” (7:5). In other words, the one exception to prioritizing the other person is the prioritization of God, which, in a sense, trumps the other priority.
The principle here is that, in the midst of our busy lives, we must all set aside time for prayer. The married person, the person fulfilling obligations to a spouse and children, needs to find time apart from those obligations to devote themselves to prayer. For others, your primary obligation may be to your career, or caring for an aging parent, or a combination of the above. Whatever activity, or activities, require your constant attention, these activities need to be set aside, from time to time, in order to give priority to prayer.
Our Lord Jesus Christ, a single man, models this for us. In Matthew 14:22, we read that Jesus actually “sent the multitudes away” in order that He might go up to the mountain to pray by Himself (Mt. 14:23).
Now, I recognize that your obligations are important, and I would not suggest that you neglect your responsibilities. Yet, we see in Jesus’ example that there is no activity too important to be interrupted by prayer. Jesus broke from the preeminent activity of preaching the gospel in order that He might pray to His Heavenly Father.
Elsewhere we read that Jesus “went off to the mountain to pray, and He spent the whole night in prayer to God” (Lk. 6:12). Surely there were important things for Jesus to be doing. Surely there were individuals who required Jesus’ attention, yet this did not prevent Jesus from prioritizing prayer.
The third priority given by Paul is the priority of permanence. To the unmarried, Paul recommends “it is good for them if they remain even as I” (7:8), it is good to be single, yet Paul concedes that it may be difficult for some to remain unmarried. Paul accounts for the possibility that a person may be so positively predisposed to marrying that he writes, “it is better to marry than to burn (with passion)” (7:9).
Paul also concedes that while his preference is to remain single, the primary issue here is one of calling. In verse 17, Paul writes, “as the Lord has assigned to each one, as God has called each, in this manner let him walk.” And in verse 20 we read, “Let each person remain in that condition in which they were called.” The priority of permanence then, follows the fulfillment of calling. If you are unmarried, but sense that God has not called you to singleness, it is not necessary to remain as you are.
The point the Paul stresses is that if you are called by God to remain single, then remain single. If God has called you to be married, so far as it depends on you, remain married.
I recently visited the Statistics Canada website and found that, on average, there are 70,000 divorces in Canada each year. To put that number in perspective, I should add that 150,000 weddings take place each year. For every two weddings that take place in Canada, statistics show that one of those marriages will end in divorce.
Paul, however, calls us to a higher standard. He issues this command, “the wife should not leave her husband . . . and the husband should not leave his wife” (7:10, 11).
As we read on in the passage, we see that Paul is not the least bit naïve regarding the challenges of keeping a marriage in tact, yet he insists on calling us to this higher standard. Paul establishes for us the priority of permanence.
The fourth, and final, priority that Paul establishes for us in this text is the priority of devotion to the Lord. We see this priority in verses 32 through 35, “I want you to be free from concern”, Paul writes, “One who is unmarried is concerned about the things of the Lord, how he may please the Lord; but the one who is married is concerned about the things of the world, how he may please his wife, and his interests are divided. And the woman who is unmarried, and the virgin, is concerned about the things of the Lord, that she may be holy both in body and spirit; but one who is married is concerned about the things of the world, how she may please her husband. And I say this for your benefit; not to put a restraint upon you, but to promote what is seemly, and to secure undistracted devotion to the Lord.”
What Paul says here is likely obvious to us all. The more responsibilities we have, the more difficult it is for us to devote ourselves to the service of the Lord. I don’t think Paul is being hard on married people here; I think he is simply reminding those who are married of their particular challenges in “securing undistracted devotion to the Lord”.
And I do not think Paul is letting married people off the hook either. The sense is that Paul expects the same “undistracted devotion to the Lord” from married folks as he does from unmarried folks. But, in establishing this high standard for all, Paul articulates an appreciation for a married person’s responsibility to his or her family.
Recognizing the fact that we have competing loyalties—obligations to our Lord Jesus Christ, obligations to our family, vocational responsibilities, and social obligations, the word “priority” becomes an important word for us. Paul concedes that we will have other obligations, but the key question is, ‘Which obligation will be our highest priority?’
Mindful of our competing loyalties, Paul does not hesitate to answer this question: “I am here to secure your undistracted devotion to the Lord”, he says (7:35).
Does the Lord want you to be a faithful husband/wife? Yes He does. Does the Lord want you to be an attentive parent? Of course. Does the Lord want you to meet the demands of your vocation? I am sure of it. But the question remains, ‘What comes first? What should be our greatest priority?’
Our confession statement answers by saying, ‘The chief end of man is to glorify God and to enjoy Him forever.’ And, in a similar vein, our Lord teaches us, “Seek first His kingdom and His righteousness; and all these things shall be added unto you” (Mt. 6:33).
God knows what your family needs; He knows your vocational and social demands. And knowing this He says, “Seek first My kingdom and My righteousness and I will make sure the rest gets looked after.”
There is a way to honour the Lord that will help you to honour your family. There is a way to honour the Lord that will help you to honour your vocational and social commitments. But the reverse is not necessarily true, and so Paul wants us to make no mistake about what comes first—he establishes for us the priority of devotion to the Lord.
The priority of the other person, the priority of prayer, the priority of permanence, and the priority of devotion to the Lord.
May the One who bought you with His precious blood help you to make these priorities your own, to the glory of God. Amen.