A Question About Marriage

By Mary Jane Chaignot

Categories: Biblical, Relationships


According to the New Testament, is it better to be single or married? (1 Cor. 7:25-40)

Response (staff answer):

In order to better understand Paul’s advice, it is necessary to go back to the beginning of chapter 7. He begins by saying, “Now concerning the matters about which you wrote: ‘It is well for a man not to touch a woman.’”

At face value these are stunning words. Scholars absolutely believe that this sentence was written by the Corinthians to Paul in a letter; I Corinthians is his response to their letter. What scholars don’t agree upon is who wrote this sentence.

What if this sentence had been written by the women? What if the women were the ones saying, “It is well for a man not to touch a woman?” It would be akin to them saying, “We don’t want that anymore.” Prior to this point in time, women have never had the right to make such a statement. Scholars now think that it’s the women who are asserting their right to freedom in Christ. And look what’s happened! The men are so frustrated they’re going to prostitutes (see I Cor. 6). There, Paul says that the way to stop immoral sexual activity is to make sure that there are avenues for moral sexual activity.

Paul is very worried about the status of marriages within this group. And he wants them to honor their commitments regarding their marriages. Women, for their entire lives, have never had the option of refusing sex. They have never had that right; they’ve never had the ability to say no. But now they do, and they must have been saying it loud and often. They were the ones who had taken Paul’s words to heart, and they were the ones who wanted to devote more of their lives to God. It is the married women who are flexing their newfound muscles and putting their marital duties on the back burner.

So with that as a new reality, let’s look at how Paul deals with this issue. He is repetitive in his treatment of men and women. Every statement is tit for tat. He does not say the man owns the woman without saying that the woman also owns the man. He does not say the man has authority over the woman’s body without saying the woman has authority over the man’s body. And this was new. The typical view was one of the subordination of women even outside of Judaism and Christianity, in the Greco-Roman society.

What he really wants here is for them to have a solid marriage. He talks about it as an obligation. He talks about it as being a duty; it’s a debt they owe to each other. And what he is really pleading for in a very thoughtful way is for the women to think about what they’re doing. He wants them to keep the best interests of their families in mind. Since women, traditionally, were responsible for the religious education of the children, they would have been in a good position to preach the gospel to their children. Equally important to Paul’s argument is the fact that in a case of divorce, the children stayed in the oikos of the pater familias, with the father, and could be potentially lost to the Christian community if the father didn’t believe.

Paul acknowledges, though, that this is not a command from the Lord. At best, this is his thought. He’s really asking the women in a very gentle way to be alert to their marital duties for the sake of their husbands. Let’s keep these marriages intact. Let’s respect the obligations of a marriage, and then those husbands won’t have to be going to prostitutes. But there is no rebuke here; Paul is being very persuasive.

And to single, unmarried women, Paul says, “You do not have to marry.” That would have been an incredible message for them to hear. “You do not have to marry; stay as you are.” But to those who are married, he also says “stay as you are.” He speaks very clearly about all of them staying in their station in life. You do not have to change your status in life in order to be a Christian. God loves you whatever you are. What matters is how well you keep God’s commandments and live in obedience to His will. They should not make themselves dependent on society’s values. Real freedom is found in service to God. Whatever state they are in, they have been transformed by the fact that they are in it with God.

Yet, many scholars have used this passage to argue that Paul is actually anti-marriage in the first place. Let’s consider whether Paul ascribes a special holiness to the unmarried woman and virgin because she is not touched by a man. In Paul’s view holiness should be the concern of all Christians. Moreover, if he spells out in more specific language what it means for unmarried women to try to please the Lord, it is very likely due to the previously accepted notion that marriage and submission have been their only options. Paul methodically attempts to show that holiness of body and spirit is possible by both men and women, through continence for the purpose of undivided devotion to the Lord.

There is also another very interesting possibility concerning Paul’s advice regarding the unmarried. In antiquity, the daughter “belongs” to the father until she marries. Then she “belongs” to her husband. In the event of a divorce or upon his death, she returns to her father's home or is assigned another male guardian or a new husband. It seems that a woman’s main access to power and wealth is through the men in her life. If Paul recommends the unmarried state, is he attempting to deny these women any influence in their society? Or, is it, in effect, quite the opposite?

Paul’s argument that believers remain unmarried is not because he regards sexual intercourse as inherently evil or because he has no appreciation of married life. His concern lies elsewhere. Paul’s approach, like that of other philosophers, is essentially practical. Believers, like the ideal cynic, should be able to devote themselves completely to the service of God. But for Paul, serving God is not an individual affair; it is a matter of community.

One final thought: It is also true that Paul and his followers strongly believe that Jesus will be returning soon. Paul tells the Corinthians that “the appointed time has grown short; from now on, let even those who have wives be as though they have none… For the present form of this world is passing away” (1 Cor 7:29). Neither Paul nor his followers are worried about the distant future; the only important time is the present (so there is no need to change one’s marital status), and believers need to be ready by serving God.

What was happening in this community was that a group of rigorists had established an ascetic elitism and were, consequently, thinking themselves superior to those who were unable to live up to this standard. Paul “chastises them for imposing their views on everyone in the community and, thereby, causing division within it.”

Paul’s treatment of marriage, then, is simply this: “Whether one is married or remains single, one must live in a way that is pleasing to God and builds up the community of God's people.”