What was going on in 1 Corinthians 7, where Paul recommended singleness?

Drawing from the teaching of Jesus and the Old Testament, Paul was showing the Corinthian church how to apply God’s commands (1 Corinthians 7:1, 6-7, 10-12, 25, 40) as they faced trials and challenges in life, particularly regarding relationships. I invite you to take out your Bible and walk with me through four key aspects of the passage.

Calling (7:7, 16, 23, 31, 35)

Paul begins his teaching on singleness by discussing the struggles that exist in marriage to maintain a workable relationship. He closes his counsel with a challenge to embrace singleness (of life and purpose) just as he does, to best serve God in the present circumstances. Paul makes it clear that neither marriage nor singleness should become our focus. Either may be the present situation that, as a man or woman of God, you find yourself in; and either way, you have a calling to fulfill.

As with Jesus (Matthew 19:11-12), Paul in his teaching does not use singleness to show disrespect to marriage; after all, the gift of marriage was given by God as well. But here’s what Paul does—he reawakens the identity of the single person as God’s son or daughter, and reestablishes their worth and contributions to the furtherance of the gospel in times of crisis and need.

Throughout Paul’s discussion, the calling of God is the focus that guides our singleness … and our marriage … and our vocation … everything. Paul calls us to see every station of our life as a unique opportunity to minister for God. He summarizes this challenge at the end of chapter 10: “Whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do it all for the glory of God” (v. 31).

Paul is not glorying in singleness so that one can spend his life on self-centered endeavors, nor is he glorying in marriage so that one can fulfill his or her passions. Herein lies the challenge—that each of us would use our current situation as an opportunity to further the kingdom of God, to advance in our calling as a believer.

Contentment (7:17-24)

Paul identifies the personal struggles people face in both marriage and singleness. One counselor told me, “Marriage is like the flies on a screen door. Those on the outside want in, and those on the inside want out!”

Whenever our focus is on personal feelings or self-centered expectations, discontentment can consume us. If we are not consecrated to God, we become careless about how we spend our life—and we could waste the opportunities afforded by singleness or marriage. This is why contentment is so important! (See Philippians 4:4-9.) Some of the keys to finding contentment noted:

  • Accepting one’s situation as God’s calling and special assignment for this season in life (7:17)
  • Being willing and wise in accepting a situation change in your life—such as marriage or even vocation—as a new assignment from God (7:21)
  • Completely trusting God’s wisdom and love for redeeming us in Jesus (7:23)

God wants to walk with and work through you in your special assignment to share the gospel, and He wants you to leave behind the self-focused pursuits this world values so highly.

Crisis (7:25-31)

It is important to see in this chapter that Paul’s advice and personal application came during a time of crisis. As Paul wrote to the Corinthians, Emperor Claudius had recently expelled all Jews from Rome. Suetonius writes, “Since the Jews constantly made disturbances at the instigation of Chrestus, he [Emperor Claudius] expelled them from Rome” (The Lives of Twelve Caesars, #25, 121 A.D.).

This action would certainty have caused a ripple throughout the Christian community also, since Christianity was seen as a sect of Judaism by the Roman government. Comparing Daniel with the words of Jesus (Matthew 24:19-34), Paul saw the beginning of persecution from Rome and reasoned that the time could be short (7:28 – troubles/tribulations; 29 – the time is short; 31 – this world is passing away). The church was facing a major crisis. And critical times call for critical measures.

In other writings during non-crisis moments, we see more long-term encouragements being issued by Paul. For example, in 2 Timothy, Paul developed a long-term strategy for propagating the gospel (2:2). In both Titus and 1 Timothy, church leadership development was presented as a long-term project, where marriage and family training are important aspects. So, as we read 1 Corinthians 7, it’s important to note that there was a unique context into which some of the urgent statements were made (vv. 26-28).

Concerns (7:32-38)

Paul’s call to drop everything and focus on completing the task—“undivided devotion”—must be seen in light of the crisis he was referring to. He was concerned for the church in that moment and wanted people to be as free as possible from the concerns of married life. He wanted as many Christians as possible to offer undivided devotion to the Lord during that time of crisis, fearing that the pursuit of relationships in the midst of heavy persecution would only complicate matters.

It was a short-term, last-days strategy, to be sure; and as we know, that particular persecution did eventually pass. However, the early church went through several periods of persecution under the rule of Rome over the next few centuries, and Paul’s words guided many to handle the trials and continue to advance the kingdom even while crisis situations unfolded around them. The Spirit has used Paul’s counsel to first-century Corinth to help believers at many times throughout history, even up until the present day, in areas of the world where persecution abounds.

In Singleness and in Marriage, We Will Serve the Lord

I have had the privilege of serving God in my singleness and in my married life. During both of those seasons, I found amazing opportunities to serve the Lord, for which I am grateful. My encouragement to you: Know the times, know your calling, and serve the Lord wisely, with all of your heart.

 

Dr. Richard Fisher retired from Moody Bible Institute as a Professor of Biblical Studies. He presently serves on the pastoral staff of Grace Church near Akron, Ohio.