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God’s Word for You

1 Corinthians 7:7-9 Better to marry than to burn

by Pastor Timothy Smith on Monday, January 30, 2023

7 I wish that all were as I myself am. But each has his own special gift from God, some have one kind and some have another. 8 To the unmarried and the widows I say that it is good for them to remain single as I do. 9 But if they do not have self-control, they should marry. For it is better to marry than to burn with passion.

When Paul says, “I wish all were as I am,” he doesn’t mean single. Paul was not married (2 Corinthians 9:5-6), but what he means is that he wishes that everyone had his gift, which was to remain celibate, and then (having the gift) they could remain single and unmarried. But Paul does not elevate the gift of celibacy above the gifts that marriage brings; one is not better than the other. But “it is clear that Paul cherishes his gift of celibacy because he has seen its great value to the kingdom of God.” The advantages of remaining single have chiefly to do with time and stress:

1, Single people have more time to pursue the word of the Lord and to assist in the work of the church, including Bible study and Christian service.

2, Single people might have less distress than a person married to an unbeliever or that believers in general have in a culture that is increasingly anti-Christian and anti-marriage.

3, Single people might have greater personal freedom, or might possibly enjoy fewer personal problems that often accompany marriage.

There is a question we might want to address: Although Paul, as we have said, was single at this time (“as I myself am”), had he been married before? The traditions of the Jews at this time were more strictly followed than even the Law of Moses, and the Talmud said that all Jews should be married in order that they might have children. Yet was Paul perhaps separated from or divorced from his wife? It seems improbable, though not impossible, that he could have remained unmarried when he was on the way to have become a Pharisee and a rabbi among the Pharisees. When Paul talks about his younger days, he says, “I was advancing in Judaism beyond many Jews of my own age and was extremely zealous for the traditions of my fathers” (Galatians 1:14). So on the one hand, he was more likely to have been married on account of being so zealous for the traditions, but on the other hand he was not necessarily married on account of his youth. The question that is sometimes raised is whether, after Paul’s conversion, his wife (if he had one) might have wanted to remain a Jew and not to become a Christian, and that this was perhaps Paul’s thorn in the flesh (2 Corinthians 12:7). Paul chose to keep quiet about the nature of his thorn, and therefore we cannot say. But because Paul knows many things about marriage that a man who had never been married might never learn, it has led some to wonder. But we cannot do anything more than wonder.

To remain single is not a holier state than to be married. We have seen that to remain single might mean certain advantages for the sake of the gospel, but there are also advantages for a Christian and even a minister to be married. One such advantage is the ability of the pastor to counsel the married as well as the unmarried, and, when he is married, to be able to relate to the troubles and challenges of both the married and the unmarried, having been both himself. The same is true of the pastor who is a widower, who has now added to his experience the loss of a spouse. But it is not experience that makes the pastor. It is the call of the Holy Spirit through the church that makes the pastor. And the word of God is his tool and his environment. So much for advantages, for now.

Paul adds: “But if they do not have self-control, they should marry. For it is better to marry than to burn with passion.” “Burn with passion” here is not to burn in hell, but to have the desire for the intimate union, which is like a burning and consuming fire in the body and in the mind. If a single person cannot control such a burning, then they should pursue marriage—not the way the hungry pursue a meal or the cold pursue shelter. For to a starving man, any food will do, and to a cold man, any shelter is better than none. But a spouse should be chosen carefully, as a partner for life, a partner in faith and in all things.

Remember that God honors and glorifies marriage in three of the commandments: the Fourth (commanding us all to honor and respect our parents and their marriage), the Sixth (commanding us to honor our own marriages), and the Tenth, (commanding us to honor the marriages of others and not to covet the spouse of another, whether we happen to be married or not). In our Confession, Luther proclaims: “God established marriage as the first of all institutions, and created man and woman differently (as is evident) not for lewdness but to be true to each other, be fruitful, beget children, and support and bring them up to the glory of God.”

God has blessed the estate of marriage as the correct and core unit through which children are raised, with a loving mother and father, so that the children have adequate role models for these future roles of theirs, and so that they will be brought up to serve the world, to promote the knowledge of God and faith in God, godly living, and yes even virtues to fight against wickedness and the devil. It is a false clergy that despises and disdains marriage, and that claims that ministers, for example, should not be married, where nowhere in Scripture is this ever taught and where every example of Scripture shows the opposite to be true, and that marriage among clergy, like marriage among lay people, is to be preferred except in rare cases, such as with Paul and also with the prophet Jeremiah in the days just prior to the exile in Judah and Jerusalem (Jeremiah 16:1-2).

May God bless those who remain unmarried, as long as their gift for celibacy remains. In some, that gift may diminish, and they may find that marriage is preferable after all. I will also say from experience that a widower may find, if he still has children at home, no matter what their age, that he has less time for many things while he cares for his children, his household, and his ministry. But whatever our circumstances, God will bless us and give us what we need to serve him so that we all can pray: “Strengthen me according to your word” (Psalm 119:28). May God strengthen you, in your singlehood, or widowhood, or marriage, today and always.

In Christ,
Pastor Timothy Smith

Pastor Tim Smith
About Pastor Timothy Smith
Pastor Smith serves St. Paul’s Lutheran Church in New Ulm, Minnesota. To receive God’s Word for You via e-mail, please visit the St. Paul’s Lutheran Church website.


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