God’s Word for You
1 Corinthians 7:36-38 Do not marry for the wrong reason
by Pastor Timothy Smith on Tuesday, February 14, 2023
This passage usually has the longest footnote in any modern printed Bible, even though there is no doubt as to what the Greek text is. Instead, there is a difference in what the translation should be, depending on whether one thinks that the point of view is a man who wants to get married, or a father who wants to give his daughter in marriage. My translation assumes the former, but I will include the latter in a footnote.
36 If someone thinks that he is not behaving appropriately toward his virgin, if his feelings are strong, and he needs to, let him do as he wishes. It is not a sin. Let them marry. 37 But if someone is firm in his heart and is not driven by need and has his desire under control, and has determined this in his heart, to hold back his virgin as she is, he does well. 38 So someone who marries his virgin does well, and someone who does not marry does better.
We will assume that the virgin (parthenos, παρθένος) here is a man’s fiancé rather than his daughter. We do this for these reasons: (1) “Let them marry” in verse 36 refers to the engaged couple, (2) it is difficult to understand “it is not a sin” as referring to the girl’s father, (3) it is difficult to understand why Paul would praise a father (“he does well”) for such a decision, and (4) the whole chapter is about marriage relationships (husbands and wives) and not fathers and daughters.
Here the potential husband is concerned: Am I acting properly? Would it be better to end my romance, to push down my feelings of love and affection for this woman I want to marry, and let her go? Paul answers: No, it is not a sin to marry. This couple should get married.
On the other hand, in verse 37, Paul takes us into the realm of the marriage of convenience: A man who is not driven by desire, love, or affection, who even has his desire “under control,” and could either marry the girl or not without any real impact on his spiritual life. This is a man who might be getting married for land, or for money (for her dowry), or for political reasons and the status he might gain from such a marriage. These are all issues that might seem foreign to some modern readers, but they were common enough once and still happen today. Such a marriage might be permitted, but if there is no love, it would be better not to marry this way. This would not be not a couple uniting to form a new and loving family for companionship, and therefore the question must be asked: Would this be a God-pleasing marriage at all? The Christian man would do better to “hold her back,” which is to say, not marry her but release her, let her go, to serve the Lord as a single woman or to find a husband who will cherish her as “flesh of his flesh.”
Of course, all of these things would all still apply if Paul were talking about a father contemplating whether his daughter (now past her prime) had a prospect for marriage. Perhaps it would be a good thing. Perhaps she would be better off remaining as she is. But this should be added: A child should not get married without the parents’ consent and blessing. At the same time, a parent must have an excellent and godly reason for failing to consent when his child has chosen a godly spouse. But Luther adds with his usual wisdom: “But when they have no such guardians or they (the parents) refuse to accept the responsibility for them, they (the couple) should do as they can” (LW 28:54).
Marriage is a fine thing. Being single is a fine thing. But being married for the wrong reason is not something that should be pursued. Let God bless you as you are! Let God bless you as you live according to his will! His blessings will surely come.
Pastor Timothy Smith