Even well-meaning Christians may pressure unmarried fellow believers to marry and raise a family. But what does the Bible say about singles?
Paul begins 1 Corinthians 7 by writing, “Now concerning the things about which you wrote, it is good for a man not to touch a woman, But because of immoralities, let each man have his own wife, and let each woman have her own husband.” In allowing marriage, Paul only makes a concession, which he says point blank a few verses later in verse 6, adding in verse 7, “Yet I wish that all men were even as I myself am. However, each man 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. But if they do not have self-control, let them marry; for it is better to marry than to burn.”
Paul gives reasons for recommending singleness over marriage in verses 25-28:
Now concerning virgins I have no command of the Lord, but I give an opinion as one who by the mercy of the Lord is trustworthy. I think then that this is good in view of the present distress, that it is good for a man to remain as he is. Are you bound to a wife? Do not seek to be released. Are you released from a wife? Do not seek a wife. But if you should marry, you have not sinned; and if a virgin should marry, she has not sinned. Yet such will have trouble in this life, and I am trying to spare you.
Realizing his strong stance on singleness, Paul feels compelled to assure his readers that they needn’t divorce to avoid the troubles of marriage and they won’t sin if they do choose to marry.
He continues in verses 32-34, “But I want you to be free from concern. One who is unmarried is concerned about the things of the Lord, how he may please the Lord; but one who is married is concerned about the things of the world, how he may please his wife, and his interests are divided.”
Paul makes it clear that he is not speaking about men only (verses 34-35):
“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 this I say for your own benefit; not to put a restraint upon you, but to promote what is seemly, and to secure undistracted devotion to the Lord.”
Undistracted devotion to the Lord is a benefit and freedom of singleness.
Paul encourages fathers to keep their daughters single in the next verses (36-38):
But if any man thinks that he is acting unbecomingly toward his virgin daughter, if she should be of full age, and if it must be so, let him do what he wishes, he does not sin; let her marry. But he who stands firm in his heart, being under no constraint, but has authority over his own will, and has decided this in his own heart to keep his own virgin daughter, he will do well. So then both he who gives his own virgin daughter in marriage does well, and he who does not give her in marriage will do better.”
Several conditions must be met for Paul to condone a woman’s marriage but none if she remains single, the superior alternative he urges fathers to choose.
Marriage and childrearing are not necessarily God’s best for any Christian. On the contrary, marriage should be considered cautiously. Even veterans of marriage such as widows probably should not remarry, Paul says in verses 39-40: “A wife is bound as long as her husband lives; but if her husband is dead, she is free to be married to whom she wishes, only in the Lord. But in my opinion she is happier if she remains as she is; and I think that I also have the Spirit of God.”
Recognizing the difficulties widows face as singles, Paul sets up a system to care for them in 1 Timothy 5. In verses 11-15, he addresses younger widows, the exception to his general rule of singleness:
But refuse to put younger widows on the list, for when they feel sensual desires in disregard of Christ, they want to get married, thus incurring condemnation, because they have set aside their previous pledge. At the same time they also learn to be idle, as they go around from house to house; and not merely idle, but also gossips and busybodies, talking about things not proper to mention. Therefore, I want younger widows to get married, bear children, keep house, and give the enemy no occasion for reproach; for some have already turned aside to follow Satan.
In 1 Corinthians, Paul allows marriage as an alternative to burning (with passion). Here in 1 Timothy, the stakes are higher for younger widows: potential condemnation, idleness, gossiping, being a busybody, talking improperly, giving the enemy occasion for reproach and finally, following Satan.
If they can avoid the pitfalls, Paul recommends singleness to all believers. So where do Christians get the idea that God wills them to marry and raise families? Perhaps from Genesis, which, among other commands, records God’s order to “be fruitful and multiply” a handful of times: mainly at creation and after the flood, when our entire planet was virtually empty. He also commands it to form and maintain the nation of Israel. Basically it’s a command reserved for beginnings, such as the creation of the world or when God wiped out most of its inhabitants or when He was establishing His chosen people. In occasions like those, He does instruct humans (and sometimes even animals) to procreate. But that’s it.
Jesus Himself addressed marriage vs. singleness in Matthew 19, when the Pharisees tested him concerning no-fault divorce. Jesus replies in verses 4-6, “Have you not read that He who created them from the beginning made them male and female, and said, ‘For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh’? So they are no longer two, but one flesh. What therefore God has joined together, let no man separate.”
The Pharisees question Jesus’ response in verse 7, asking, “Why then did Moses command to give her a certificate of divorce and send her away?”
“Because of your hardness of heart Moses permitted you to divorce your wives;” Jesus replies in verses 8-9, “but from the beginning it has not been this way. And I say to you, whoever divorces his wife, except for immorality, and marries another woman commits adultery.”
Jesus’ response dismays not only the Pharisees, but His own disciples as well, who declare in verse 10, “If the relationship of the man with his wife is like this, it is better not to marry.”
Jesus agrees (verses 11-12): “Not all men can accept this statement, but only those to whom it has been given. For there are eunuchs who were born that way from their mother’s womb; and there are eunuchs who were made eunuchs by men; and there are also eunuchs who made themselves eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of heaven. He who is able to accept this, let him accept it.”
My unmarried eldest daughter suggested this topic, and my cousin recently complained about the pressure her unwed daughter faces from church mothers with single sons. I’m not more opposed to marriage than Paul or Jesus is, but these troubling times might warrant it, especially considering current divorce rates–although according to Gillespieshields.com, married couples today with strong religious beliefs are 14% less likely to divorce than those with no religious affiliation.
Proverbs 18:22 says, “He who finds a wife finds a good thing And obtains favor from the LORD.” I’m glad to be married to my one and only spouse for more than 33 years and consider our daughters most precious. However, I wish I’d sought the LORD more before my vows and understood all the Bible says about marriage. While there may be exceptions, marriage isn’t commanded but only recommended as an alternative to self-control and sin. Disciplined singles are simply freer to follow Christ single-mindedly. Perhaps believers would be less inclined to pressure their unmarried counterparts if they realized this, too.
- Scripture quotations taken from the NASB (New American Standard Bible) copyright by The Lockman Foundation http://lockman.org