God’s Word for You
1 Corinthians 7:39-40 She is free to marry
by Pastor Timothy Smith on Wednesday, February 15, 2023
39 A wife is bound to her husband as long as he lives. But if the husband dies, she is free to marry anyone she wants, only in the Lord. 40 But in my judgment she is more blessed if she remains as she is. And I think that I too have the Spirit of God.
Paul concludes this chapter about marriage by describing what will always be the end of marriage for one spouse: the death of the other (he also talks about this in Romans 7:2-3). In most cases in our present culture the husband will die first, because women today as in Paul’s day tend to live longer. But marriage is a blessing for this lifetime, and when it ends with a death, the widow is free to marry again if she wants to.
Paul adds “only in the Lord” here. He means that a Christian widow will be wise if she chooses her second husband from among the unmarried men or widowers in the church, so that they will share their faith and so that her new husband will not object if part of her time is spent helping with the affairs of the church. Even in Paul’s time there were details to be seen to that the women were better at than the men, and the same is usually true today. Some of these duties require no special gifts, but certain women like Tabitha (Acts 9:39) have amazing talents that they share with the church. But “only in the Lord” could also mean “in a Christian way,” that is, with the Lord’s blessing, since there could certainly be cases where a Christian widow might want to marry a man who is not a Christian. It is going too far to insist that 2 Corinthians 6:14, “Do not be yoked together with unbelievers,” must apply to marriage, since that passage is clearly about the work of the church and fellowship in worship and church work. But (if I may borrow Paul’s phrase) in my judgment, I think she is better off if she marries a Christian man.
Paul’s conclusion is that she would be “more blessed” (this is the word from the Sermon on the Mount, “Blessed are…,” Matthew 5:3-11) if she remains as she is if she can. This means, if she remains a widow and does not get married again. A widow is in a far better position in life to judge whether she could remain unmarried for the rest of her life than, say, a girl in her teens or twenties, when nuns make their choices. Luther’s own caution is well worth listening to, since he himself was a man who had been a monk and a priest and who married a woman who had been a nun. They both left their orders for theological reasons, but they found that since marriage was truly open to them, that it would be wise to marry and set a good example for monks, priests, nuns, and abbesses everywhere. Luther said:
“No one is created for chastity, but we are all born to beget children and carry the burdens of married life, according to Gen. 1, 2, and 3. Now, if someone should not suffer from this necessity, he would be the exception solely by the grace and the miraculous hand of God, not because of command, vow, or intent. Where God does not effect this, it may be attempted, but it will come to no good end. Therefore they are nothing but abominable murderers of souls who put young people into monasteries and nunneries and keep them there by force, as though chastity were something that could be put on and off like a shoe and something that is in our hand. Meanwhile they themselves take quite a different view and drive others to attempt what they have never even raised their little finger to attempt or would not be able to. It is easy to say: ‘Be chaste,’ but why are you not chaste? It is great for you to eat like a pig and drink like a horse while telling me to fast! But enough said for those who are willing to listen. And what more can one say to those who will not listen? May God enlighten them or prevent them from strangling souls in this fashion! Amen.” (LW 28:55)
When Paul says, “And I think that I too have the Spirit of God,” he is making an understatement. They had asked him a question, or more than one, about marriage, and he gave them his answer relating to every aspect of marriage. He didn’t do this as a lawgiver, although the human mind prefers laws and rules. We want to say, “Just tell me if I can or can’t” but then we want to follow with, “But can we make an exception in my case?” This is the way of the fallen human flesh. Instead, Paul has expressed himself clearly in each case: “It would be better to remain single… but they are not sinning if they marry.” Paul acknowledges that there are external circumstances that make remaining single to be preferred (“the present distress,” verse 26), and there are circumstances that make getting married to be preferred (“because there is so much sexual immorality,” verse 2). There are also internal things that make being single a better (but not the only) option: “I want to spare you many troubles” (verse 28) and “I want you to be free of concern” (verse 32). But there are other internal things that make being married the better choice: “It is better to marry than to burn with passion” (verse 9). So Paul’s sanctified and divinely inspired judgment is this: Consider your faith in Jesus with everything that you do. Think about your own circumstances. Will being married be good for you and for your faith? Will it remove a lifelong temptation and struggle over sex and place it in a godly context? Or do you perhaps have the rare, almost non-existent gift, to be single? Especially if you are a little older, and have already been married? Then being single might be something you can continue in, a path that will lead you to new service in the kingdom of God.
Pastor Timothy Smith