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It Is Good To Stay Unmarried
By Stanley M. Horton
“Now to the unmarried and the widows I say: It is good for them to stay unmarried, as I am”* (1 Corinthians 7:8). When Paul wrote this to the Corinthians, some of them may have asked, “What is good (Greek, kalon, ‘noble, praiseworthy, desirable, advantageous, pleasing to God’) about staying single?” Everything in their culture and in their Bible (the Old Testament) seemed to encourage marriage. Everybody considered it a shame not to get married.
In the Old Testament, only a few remained single. In the Book of Ruth, Naomi chose to stay unmarried after her husband Elimelech died. At first she felt she was under the judgment of God. When she returned to her home in Bethlehem, she told the women not to call her Naomi, a name that means “pleasant or sweet,” but call her Mara, meaning “bitter” (Ruth 1:20,21). But Naomi did not sit around pitying herself. Instead she guided and encouraged Ruth. When she sent Ruth out to glean and Boaz encouraged his workers to drop handfuls of grain on purpose for Ruth, Naomi was quick to give God praise. She said, “The Lord has not stopped showing his kindness (Hebrew chasdo, ‘His faithful, covenant-keeping love’) to the living and the dead” (2:20). Naomi did not think of herself, but continued to help Ruth understand local customs. After Ruth married Boaz, Naomi had the joy of holding a grandson. This caused the women of Bethlehem to praise the Lord (4:14,17). Naomi found peace and contentment—and she lived up to her name.
Jeremiah, unlike Naomi, did not choose to stay single. God told him, “You must not marry” (Jeremiah 16:2). The Hebrew (lo’ tiqqach lekha ‘ishshah, “You shall not take for yourself a wife”) is in the form of a command as strong as the Ten Commandments. It was probably harder for a man than a woman to stay single in Old Testament times. But like the other prophets, his life as well as his words had a message for the people. God had saved Jerusalem from the Assyrians in Isaiah’s time. But the people had become more and more rebellious and idolatrous. God was going to judge them. None of them would grow old in peace with their children and grandchildren around them. Instead, they would all become victims of disease, war, and famine.
Because Jeremiah did not marry, people asked why. He then gave them God’s warning, hoping that some would repent. Though the people of Jerusalem did not respond and the Babylonians took 10,000 into exile, Jeremiah did write a letter and encouraged them (29:1–23). Though he suffered more than any prophet, he prepared the way for God to bring the exiles back, and he received a vision of the Messiah (23:5,6) and the New Covenant that we enjoy (31:31; Hebrews 8:8–13). He was truly one of the heroes of the faith.
Paul, in 1 Corinthians 7, answered several questions the people had asked about marriage. He began by saying, “It is good for a man not to marry.” In verse 8, he made this more general when he addressed the unmarried and widows and told them it was good for them to stay unmarried. In his judgment, inspired by the Holy Spirit, he said a widow is happier if she stays as she is (verses 39,40). Paul qualified this with other statements because he was not against marriage, and he did not want to encourage sex outside of marriage, prostitution, or sexual immorality. Neither did he want people to marry for sex alone, for that would be contrary to God’s purpose for the family.
Paul considered the unmarried state an advantage for several reasons. The chief reason is found in 1 Corinthians 7:32–35: “I would like you to be free from concern. An unmarried man is concerned about the Lord’s affairs—how he can please the Lord. But a married man is concerned about the affairs of this world—how he can please his wife—and his interests are divided. An unmarried woman or virgin is concerned about the Lord’s affairs: Her aim is to be devoted to the Lord in both body and spirit. But a married woman is concerned about the affairs of this world—how she can please her husband. I am saying this for your own good, not to restrict you, but that you may live in a right way in undivided devotion to the Lord.”
Paul wanted them to be free from concern (Greek, amerimnous, “free from care, untroubled, unworried by the things of this world”). He wanted their concern (Greek merimna, “care, concern”) to be about the Lord and His work. Jesus used the plural of the same word, merimna, when He explained about the seed that fell among thorns in the Parable of the Sower. They heard, “but as they go on their way they are choked by life’s worries [merimnon], riches and pleasures, and they do not mature” (Luke 8:14).
Those who are married divide their energies and concerns, for they have the responsibilities of caring for and pleasing each other—giving attention to the affairs of this world. That is not wrong; it is a fact of life. But it means their interests are divided. But those who remain unmarried can choose to live in a right way (Greek, euschemon, “noble way”) in full, undivided (Greek, aperispastos, “undistracted”) devotion to the Lord—adhering faithfully to Him.
Paul had a further concern. Because of the crisis times in which they were living, marriage, sorrows, happiness, buying, and possessions should not be the center of the believers’ attention. The “present form” or outward appearance of this world with all of those things is “passing away” (1 Corinthians 7:31). This can mean that the things of this world are going by so we cannot hold on to them anyway. Some commentators suppose Paul had the nearness of Christ’s second coming in mind, but this does not fit the context of the “present crisis” (7:26). When he said, “the time is short” (7:29), the word “time” (Greek, kairos) means a point in time or a short season. It can also mean a time of crisis or opportunity. Life is short. Whether married or unmarried, we need to focus our attention on Jesus (Hebrews 11:13–16; 12:2,3). We know, too, that the world is headed for judgment (Daniel 2:44,45). We need to take every opportunity to serve the Lord before it is too late. It is time to seek first the kingdom of God and His righteousness (Matthew 6:33), and it is time to help spread the gospel in every way we can. Then we will be prepared to share in God’s “eternal purpose which he accomplished in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Ephesians 3:11).
Stanley M. Horton, Th.D., is distinguished professor emeritus of Bible and theology Assemblies of God Theological Seminary, Springfield, Missouri.
*Scripture quotations are from the New International Version.
Some of this material is from 1 and 2 Corinthians, by Stanley M. Horton and published by Logion Press.