To Marry or Not to Marry? A Theology of Singleness

Please turn with me to the New Testament, to the book of 1st Corinthians. We’re continuing our slow study through Paul’s letter to the church of God in the ancient Greek city of Corinth. 1 Corinthians 7:25-40.

Paul, as we have seen, has addressed a number of big issues found in this young church that he helped to plant. He’s addressed their love of worldly wisdom and human philosophy and rhetorical flair in chapters 1 and 2. He’s addressed their divisiveness and divisions among the body in chapter 3. He’s defended his own ministry of humility, and corrected their arrogant views of leadership in chapter 4. He’s tackled sexual immorality in chapters 5 &. 6, as well as teaching how a Christian is to relate to this pagan world. And now in chapter 7, he’s answering their questions regarding marriage and singleness.

Is singleness a problem that needs solving? Is singleness a spiritually inferior state, as opposed to marriage? Or is singleness to be preferred as the MORE spiritually mature state, as some were arguing in Corinth? Is marriage the thing that should be avoided as inferior? And if that’s the case, should I then dissolve my marriage for the sake of undivided devotion to the Lord? Or at least, perhaps I could stay married, but just abstain from physical intimacy, and instead practice spiritual celibacy, even within my marriage?

These are the kinds of questions that were facing Paul and were troubling the young congregation in Corinth.

And these questions, can’t be answered with a simplistic answers. There’s not a one-size fits all approach to these matters, as Paul’s language in this passage makes clear. You’ll note in our passage tonight a somewhat UN-Paul like sense of caution. He uses lots of phrases like “I think” and “It is my judgement” and “I would like you to” and “one should do as he pleases.” All of these phrases indicate NOT that Paul was unclear as to what holiness looks like. Rather, we should interpret any hesitation or caution in Paul as an indication of the complexity of these issues, and of the importance of not making Law there is no Law.

These are matters of prudence and wisdom, and as such, they belong in the category of charitable Christian liberty, and in the domain of the biblically-informed conscience.

Further complicating the interpretation of this particular passage is the social setting in which many of the Corinthian believers undoubtedly found themselves. For example, Paul has just addressed in verse 21 those who were slaves at the time of their conversion. The intersection of Roman slavery and Roman marriage laws was a complicated place.

Slaves, at the time, didn’t have an actual legal marriage, according to Roman law. They had something called CON-TUBER-NIUM, which was the word used to describe the quasi-marriage state between two slaves, or between a slave and a free man or woman. In short, depending on the situation, the slave owner had legal rights to determine the marital status of their slaves. So what was a slave in those situations to do if he or she became a believer?

These issues were complicated. And that’s the reason why I’ve decided to split this sermon into two parts. Lord willing, I will begin working through this passage tonight, and I will finish working through it next week, and conclude that sermon with some very practical applications and observations about marriage and particularly singleness in the body of Christ today.

And so, in our text tonight, what we’ll note is Paul reasoning from clear theological principles onto wise and sensitive practical application. And, Lord willing, we will be able to do the same over the course of these two sermons.

Let’s begin by reading 1 Corinthians 7:25-40:

25 Now concerning the betrothed, I have no command from the Lord, but I give my judgment as one who by the Lord’s mercy is trustworthy. 26 I think that in view of the present distress it is good for a person to remain as he is. 27 Are you bound to a wife? Do not seek to be free. Are you free from a wife? Do not seek a wife. 28 But if you do marry, you have not sinned, and if a betrothed woman[i] marries, she has not sinned. Yet those who marry will have worldly troubles, and I would spare you that. 29 This is what I mean, brothers: the appointed time has grown very short. From now on, let those who have wives live as though they had none, 30 and those who mourn as though they were not mourning, and those who rejoice as though they were not rejoicing, and those who buy as though they had no goods, 31 and those who deal with the world as though they had no dealings with it. For the present form of this world is passing away.

 32 I want you to be free from anxieties. The unmarried man is anxious about the things of the Lord, how to please the Lord. 33 But the married man is anxious about worldly things, how to please his wife, 34 and his interests are divided. And the unmarried or betrothed woman is anxious about the things of the Lord, how to be holy in body and spirit. But the married woman is anxious about worldly things, how to please her husband. 35 I say this for your own benefit, not to lay any restraint upon you, but to promote good order and to secure your undivided devotion to the Lord.

36 If anyone thinks that he is not behaving properly toward his betrothed, if his passions are strong, and it has to be, let him do as he wishes: let them marry—it is no sin. 37 But whoever is firmly established in his heart, being under no necessity but having his desire under control, and has determined this in his heart, to keep her as his betrothed, he will do well. 38 So then he who marries his betrothed does well, and he who refrains from marriage will do even better.

39 A wife is bound to her husband as long as he lives. But if her husband dies, she is free to be married to whom she wishes, only in the Lord. 40 Yet in my judgment she is happier if she remains as she is. And I think that I too have the Spirit of God.

Tonight and next week, we will work through this text in three points, which you can outline using these three words: Remain, Remember, and Recognize. Remain, Remember, and Recognize.

The first point we see from Paul, which is in verses 25-27, is this: Remain as you are. Remain as you are.

Paul begins this section with words that sound initially strange, but are consistent with language he has used earlier in the passage. He says in verse 25:

25 Now concerning the betrothed [or literally “the virgins,” in Greek], I have no command from the Lord, but I give my judgment as one who by the Lord’s mercy is trustworthy.

His words there, “I have no command from the Lord,” are similar to the statements made in verse 10 and verse 12 of this chapter. He’s saying that in the earthly ministry of Jesus, the Lord didn’t directly address these situations.

“I can’t go back and quote Jesus on this, but I give an opinion as one who by the mercy of the Lord is trustworthy. This is coming from me, but you can count on it because God has mercifully enabled me to speak the truth.” And even at the end of the chapter in the final verse, he says, “I consider that I also have the Spirit of God.” (“This is not coming from me, but it is rather coming from the Holy Spirit.”)

So at no point in this chapter does Paul intend to say that I’m going to be teaching you something that the Lord is not speaking about. He is simply saying I am teaching you something that I cannot find in the precise scriptural record of the teaching of Jesus. It is no less from the Spirit, it is no less trustworthy.[1]

So, what is this apostolically-authoritative word? It is to remain as you are. Look at verse 26:

 26 I think that in view of the present distress it is good for a person to remain as he is.

The phrase “in view of the present distress” has given more than one commentator an equal level of distress. It could also be rendered “in light of the present necessity.” But, does that mean Paul is referring to some pressing issue or disruption within the Corinthian church, or within the city itself? Maybe. Some think that Paul was referring to a food shortage going on at the time in Corinth, thus presenting social pressure for people not to marry, and therefore not be burdened with providing for a wife and family when food was scarce.[2]

Or does Paul mean the “present distress” to refer to the more general pressures of living as a married or a single person in this present evil age? Scholars disagree on this precise point, but I tend to think it is the latter, although I don’t think it makes a ton of difference in the final application. Paul’s point is clear: stay as you are. If you’re single, you can remain single. If you’re married, you can stay married.

Further, the interpretation of this passage gets a little more complicated depending on how you translate the term “virgin” at the beginning of verse 25, and throughout this passage. If you translate the Greek word “virgin” (Parthenos), as “betrothed,” as the translators of the ESV have done for example, then you can see how applying Paul’s principle can be even more complex.

For example, if a young woman, along with her fiancée, was being pressured by some troublemakers in the Corinthian church to break off the engagement, then you can see the problem. If I am engaged, how do I apply Paul’s principle of “remain as you are”? Does that mean I need to remain single and break my vow of marriage to my fiancée whom I love? Or does that mean I remain in my status as a betrothed one, and take it to its normal conclusion, which is marriage?

Paul would answer these questions in a way that would frustrate the celibacy zealots. He says in verse 27:

27 Are you bound to a wife? Do not seek to be free. Are you free from a wife? Do not seek a wife. 28 But if you do marry, you have not sinned, and if a betrothed woman marries, she has not sinned.

Marriage is not a sin, Paul is saying. You’re free to marry. But if you’re single, neither do you have to get married. If you’re already engaged, you’re free to marry. Remain as you are, but you’re not in sin if you change. Each role, singleness and marriage, is a gift, as Paul says above, and is a divine calling, as we saw last week.

And here it will be good to stop and reflect for a moment. Here Paul’s argumentation produced in me a sort of tension that I couldn’t immediately reconcile as I was studying. This tension stands behind many of today’s deficient interpretations of this passage, I think, and it is a tension that lead me to read hundreds of pages this week to try and resolve it.

And the tension for me was this: how can I reconcile Paul’s exhortations in this passage about the benefits of intentional singleness with passages like Genesis 1:28, commanding Adam to be fruitful and multiply? Further, how can Paul commend the benefits of singleness when Genesis 2:18 says it is not good for man to be alone? This tension has been lurking in my mind as I have studied this topic and this chapter.

Thankfully, God led me to a wonderful book that I hadn’t heard of before by a guy named Barry Danylak. It’s called Redeeming Singleness and it is a biblical theology of singleness.[3] He traces the theme of singleness, and related themes like offspring and marriage, throughout the bible, and he greatly helped me answer these tensions in my mind.

With much help from Danylak, I want to do something different. I want to spend the rest of the evening tracing out some themes from the Old Testament, showing how they are fulfilled in the New, in an effort to try and make explicit the theology that is undergirding Paul’s words to the Corinthians in this chapter. We need to get our theological framework right on this issue of marriage and singleness if we are to avoid the Corinthian temptation of elevating singleness to spiritual superiority, and if we are to avoid the opposite pitfall of treating singleness as a curse from God.

If we want to build a theology of singleness and marriage, we need to begin, of course, in Genesis. In the beginning, God created the earth and filled it with all the creatures, and on the 5th day He blessed the birds and the fish, and told them to be fruitful and multiply. And on the sixth day, God made man and woman and He blessed them and said “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth” (Genesis 1:28). Notice this theme of divine blessing tied to fruitfulness and multiplying.

This command to be fruitful and multiply has sometimes been called the creation mandate, along with the command to subdue and have dominion over the earth. We’ll come back to that.

But in Genesis 2 we see that Adam had no helper fit for him, and God says in verse 18 it is not good for man to be alone, so God creates Adam a wife, and they became one flesh. Thus, marriage is something necessary for Adam to physically carry out his creation mandate of being fruitful and multiplying.

This same creation mandate to be fruitful and multiply was given to Noah right after the flood. Noah gets off the boat, almost like a new Adam figure in a newly washed creation, and God blesses Noah and his sons and says to them “be fruitful and multiply, increase greatly on the earth and multiply in it” (Gen 9:7; 9:1).

Later in Genesis 35, God blesses Jacob and renames him Israel, and says “’I am the Lord God almighty,’ be fruitful and multiply. A nation and a company of nations shall come from you, and kings shall come from your own body” (Gen 35:11).

So this theme of God blessing tied to being fruitful and multiplying is permeating God’s interaction with the patriarchs. Blessing and physical fruitfulness in the form of offspring are being tied together in the minds of the people of God.

Then, in God’s dealings with Abraham, specifically in the covenant that God makes with Abraham, God ties together expectations of blessing, future offspring, inheritance, and a name.

I won’t read the text, but you can look at Genesis 12:1-3 and see that God promises to Abraham that his offspring will become a great nation, that he will be blessed, that he will be given a great name, and that all the families of the earth will be blessed through him. The promise of blessing is tied, not only to a man of God, but to the whole earth, through the production of physical offspring, a promised seed.

In the upcoming chapters, God goes on to promise Abraham an inheritance of land that would be possessed by his offspring. He even calls it an everlasting possession, or an everlasting inheritance (Gen. 17:8).

These promises of blessing, and offspring, and land, and inheritance made to Abraham are repeated to Isaac in Genesis 26, and to Jacob in Genesis 35.

If you’re struggling to see how all of this is relevant to singleness in Corinth, or even to singleness and marriage today, just trust me, the New Testament will tie together these themes of blessing, inheritance, and name very soon.

Moving ahead to the people of God under the leadership of Moses, we can begin to see why the Jewish understanding was that faithfulness to God meant being married and having children, and that to be single and childless, meant some measure of God’s dis-pleasure upon you.

For example, starting in Deuteronomy 7:12, God tells Israel that these themes are not only tied together, but that faithfulness necessitated obedience in these areas. God says, “And because you listen to these rules and keep and do them, the Lord your God will keep with you the covenant and the steadfast love that he swore to your fathers. 13 He will love you, bless you, and multiply you. He will also bless the fruit of your womb … the increase of your herds and the young of your flock, in the land that he swore to your fathers to give you. 14 You shall be blessed above all peoples. There shall not be male or female barren among you or among your livestock. ” God explicitly ties together obedience to HIM with the promise of marriage and fruitfulness, particularly fruitfulness of the womb.

Conversely, in the covenantal curses in Deuteronomy 28, God says, “But if you will not obey the voice of the Lord your God or be careful to do all his commandments and his statutes that I command you today, then all these curses shall come upon you and overtake you. 16 Cursed shall you be in the city, and cursed shall you be in the field [that’s the whole promised land]. 17 Cursed shall be your basket and your kneading bowl.18 Cursed shall be the fruit of your womb and the fruit of your ground, the increase of your herds and the young of your flock. 19 Cursed shall you be when you come in, and cursed shall you be when you go out.”

God even says that in the next chapter that anyone who is unfaithful to God, who’s heart goes after the false gods of pagan nations, that person will have his name blotted out from under heaven (Deut. 29:21).

And so, under the mosaic covenant, the Israelites saw the utmost importance for each and every Israelite to marry and beget offspring, since those offspring were the necessary demonstration of covenantal faithfulness and blessing, and by extension they served as validation of his or her obedience to the covenant stipulations. To be a faithful Jew was to be married and have children.

Furthermore, the presence of offspring was necessary to perpetuate the family’s name and their inheritance in the land. If someone did not have an heir, then their family’s name and their inherited plot of land would be gone forever. That’s part of why being barren was seen as such a curse in the old testament. Think about Ruth and Naomi, for example. Why was it such a big deal for Boaz to be Ruth’s kinsmen redeemer? Because he wasn’t merely rescuing her from loneliness or danger. He was providing her and Naomi an heir, who would then be able to inherit the land and perpetuate the name of Naomi’s clan. Her name would not be blotted out from among Israel.

Blessing, fruitfulness, inheritance, and name are all coming into sharper focus as we move through the bible. Indeed, given the massive importance placed on marriage and offspring in ancient Israel, “it is not surprising that we do not read in the Old Testament of any person who remained single voluntarily.”[4]

We do read, for example, of the prophet Jeremiah who was called by God to remain single. In Jeremiah 16 we see that God tells Jeremiah to not take a wife as a visible sign of God’s impending judgment upon the people. Singleness and fruit-less-ness, no offspring, was a sign of judgement.

Jeremiah’s life was to be a living sermon illustration that Israel had broken God’s law, and consequently, Jeremiah’s lack of offspring was to model God’s judgment on his people that they too would become bereft of their offspring through plague, sword, and famine. Jeremiah’s singleness was a visible reminder of God’s coming judgment upon the nation.

Jeremiah, a man raised in this culture that prized marriage and offspring, lamented his calling. For example, in Jeremiah 11, the prophet laments that his “tree and his fruit” would be destroyed, and that his name would be “remembered no more.”

There are other examples we could look at too. How God’s covenant with David promises his heir would be on the throne forever, with an everlasting name, and how he’d have a kingdom forever, an eternal place of inheritance and blessing. God is sharpening, narrowing the scope of his promises, and aiming them all at the coming messiah.

But before we leave the Old Testament, one more passage is worthy of reflection, for it gives us great hope. Even though Israel was not faithful to her covenant, and she had earned for herself the covenantal curses of rejection from the land and the blotting out of her name among heaven, God doesn’t break his promise to Abraham.

God remains faithful, and indeed abounds in mercy despite Israel’s unfaithfulness. For example, In Isaiah 56, God paints a picture of restoration and hope, centered specifically around a eunuch. Eunuchs were men who were physically maimed in a way that prevented their procreation.

And because their bodies were defaced, Mosaic law excluded such a person from the assembly of the Lord, and thus also from the covenant blessings. They couldn’t enter the tabernacle or the temple, they couldn’t fully worship God, and they couldn’t be full partakers of the Israelite community. Indeed, because they had no ability to bear offspring, they had no hope of their name lasting after they died. They had no hope of a legacy or an inheritance beyond this life.

But in Isaiah 56:5, God promises something special. God promises to the eunuch and foreigners (that’s us Gentiles) something wonderful. God says:

“I will give in my house and within my walls
a monument and a name
better than sons and daughters;
I will give them an everlasting name
that shall not be cut off.”

Rather than being cut off from the worship of God, and cut off from the hope of offspring, and cut off with no hope for a name (or a legacy), God instead promises to take the eunuch, and the barren, and the gentile and make for them a new name, a name better than any sons or daughters could ever produce. An everlasting name. That’s what is promised to come. And all these promises are important, as we will soon see.

Now let’s move to the New Testament to see how God ties together these themes of offspring and inheritance and name. I hope you’re hanging with me, because this next step is the difference between answering well our original tension and messing it up. And this next step is the key difference between several theological systems, so we want to think well about what’s happening, because if we do, then we will better be able to understand our entire bible, and put it all together well.

Galatians is where we head next, because in Galatians chapter 3, Paul teaches us how to think about important things like: offspring, and promise, and blessing, and inheritance.

Look first at Galatians 3:16 and see what may be for you a paradigm shifting verse, it certainly was for me when I first understood its implications. Paul says, “Now the promises were made to Abraham and to his offspring. It does not say, “And to offsprings,” referring to many, but referring to one, “And to your offspring,” who is Christ.”

Paul is saying that the promises made to Abraham, weren’t made to ALL the physical offspring of Abraham. Rather, they were made to one specific offspring: one specific seed, Jesus Christ. This is a radical claim: that the Abrahamic promises were not ultimately to be fulfilled through the physical Jewish nation, but through Abraham’s son Jesus Christ.

The promise given to Abraham, that through him all the nations of the world would be blessed, that promise was not to be mediated through the Jewish nation’s commitment to the mosaic law, but solely through Christ’s atoning death.

That’s why Paul says what he says in verse 13-14: “Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us—for it is written, “Cursed is everyone who is hanged on a tree”— 14 so that in Christ Jesus the blessing of Abraham might come to the Gentiles…”

Paul’s statement here is the culmination of God’s promised seed of the woman, first mentioned in Genesis 3:15, and the promised seed of Abraham, the promised seed of Isaac, and the promised seed of Jacob. Christ is the fulfillment of what Isaiah said about the shoot coming from the root of Jesse. Christ is the promised son of David who would be given an everlasting name and would sit on the throne forever.

Praise be to God that Christ was the faithful son, and that he died in the place of a sinful people. Even though the first Adam was a sinner, the last Adam was not. Even though Israel was faithless and earned all the covenant curses, the second Israel was faithful to both earn the covenant blessings and faithful to bear the full weight of those covenantal curses. Even though David was a man who shed blood, His son was instead a man who gave his own blood. That’s the gospel.

Indeed, all that is needed to become a partaker of God’s blessings is faith. It’s not physical lineage that makes one part of the blessed community, it is faith. It’s not your own obedience that earns covenantal blessing, it is faith. And when we come to Christ, we are born again, born of the Spirit, and it is that second birth that makes us Abraham’s offspring, and therefore heirs of the blessing through union with Christ.

That’s why Paul can say in Romans 2:28, “For no one is a Jew who is merely one outwardly, nor is circumcision outward and physical. 29 But a Jew is one inwardly, and circumcision is a matter of the heart, by the Spirit, not by the letter.” To be a part of God’s blessing through Abraham, you need not be his physical offspring. Rather, you must be circumcised of heart, born again by the spirit, not merely circumcised in the flesh, as was required in the Old Testament.

And thus, we can see that the blessing of all the nations of the world comes through the seed of Abraham. But it is not merely blessing that comes through Christ. We also have in Christ our inheritance.

It is in Christ that gentiles can become sons of Abraham, and heirs according to the promise. This is what Paul goes on to say in the next verses of Galatians 3. It is by faith that we become sons of Abraham. And these sons are heirs according to the promise, verse 18, that is, heirs of the eschatological inheritance mentioned in verse 18.

This designation of Christians as co-heirs with Christ is used several times in the New Testament (Rom 8:17, Eph 3:6…), but the significance is huge. Abraham’s spiritual offspring Abraham’s heirs, become so by faith, and by believing can anticipate receiving their inheritance. But this is not merely a physical plot of land in Palestine, but rather a spiritual inheritance, one that is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading, kept in heaven for us (1 Peter 1:4).

“The essence of this paradigm shift represented by the very core of the Christian gospel has profound implications for all areas of life, including how we as Christians understand [singleness and] marriage and procreation. For whereas marriage and physical procreation were the necessary means of building the physical nation of Israel, the spiritual people of God are [instead] built through the process of spiritual regeneration.

Moreover, whereas marriage and physical procreation were necessary for maintaining one’s physical inheritance for the next generation, they are not necessary for preserving one’s spiritual inheritance within the eternal kingdom of God. Christ is thus the promised offspring and also the heir of the promised inheritance, bringing God’s blessing to nations. It is this offspring of God, whom Isaiah so vividly depicts the shoot and the root of Jesse-who brings this blessing to the world not by means of power and positioning, but through his sacrificial death as the Suffering Servant of the Lord.”[5]

It is by faith that we have access to the promises and inheritance of God.

I’m going to have to stop here tonight, and save much of my final analysis and practical application of these themes for next week. However, I hope you have been encouraged by reflecting again upon the blessings found in Christ, and his gospel. We’re not bound to works of the law to preserve our blessing, nor is our physical fruitfulness and blessing tied to our obedience to the law. Rather, when we come to Christ, we become full heirs to all the divine blessings of our savior.

We are co-heirs of eternal life and blessing.

We’re granted adoption in to the household of God.

We have taken away from us the curses of the law, and instead are granted the blessings of Christ’s obedience.

And we have an eternal inheritance, of a glorified body resurrected and ruling with Christ over a New Heaven and a New Earth, forever enjoying the presence of our blessed savior.

However, if you have not yet come to Christ by faith, then you are outside of God’s covenant, and under the curses of the law. If you do not repent, then your disobedience, your selfishness, your anger, your jealousy, your unbelief, all of it will stand as a testament of God’s righteousness when the day of judgment comes.

Don’t remain outside of God’s grace. Come to him tonight, and you too could be made a child of God, a son of Abraham, and thus an heir of the promises of life.

As the rather profound children’s song goes, Father Abraham had many sons; many sons had father Abraham. I am one of them. Are you?

Let’s pray.


[1] John MacArthur, “Marriage, Divorce, and Singleness”, sermon on 1 Corinthians 7:1-40, preached on 11/21/2010,, accessed 11/9/2021.

[2] Barry Danylak, Redeeming Singleness: How the Storyline of Scripture Affirms the Single Life (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2010), 205 nn. 85 & 89.

[3] Danylak, Redeeming Singleness. Much of this survey of singleness come from Danylak’s work.

[4] Danylak, 70.

[5] Danylak, 126.


You might also like...