Our subject this morning is "singleness".
What are the facts? In the two decades from 1971 to 1991 the number of single people in the UK (including widowed and divorced) rose by almost 3.5 million. That was especially due to the rise in divorces following the 1969 Divorce Reform Act that opened the flood-gates so that now the UK has the highest divorce rate in the Europe.
But divorce is not the only reason for the increase in singles. More are choosing not to marry. And not only are fewer people marrying; they are also marrying later. In 1961 the median age at which men contracted their first marriage in England and Wales was at 24 years; that rose to 27.9 by the mid-90's. Among women the rise was steeper - from 21.6 years to 26. Why is this? There are all sorts of factors: there are economic factors; there are educational factors; and there are moral factors, with people having sex without marriage: as someone has put it, "virginity now carries the social stigma that adultery and premarital sex once had."
Nor are Christians immune to these cultural and moral shifts. How important, therefore, that we look at what the bible says about these things and how we are to think about them. Otherwise we shall simply drift with the tide. So this morning we are to be looking at 1 Corinthians 7.25-40 - a passage that deals with singleness. And as we look at these verses, first of all I want us to look at THEIR CONTEXT; secondly, at what I have called FUNDAMENTALS; and then thirdly at the ADVANTAGES AND DISADVANTAGES.
First, THE CONTEXT.
Look at verses 25 and following:
25 Now about virgins: I have no command from the Lord, but I give a judgment as one who by the Lord's mercy is trustworthy. 26 Because of the present crisis, I think that it is good for you to remain as you are. 27 Are you married? Do not seek a divorce. Are you unmarried? Do not look for a wife. 28 But if you do marry, you have not sinned; and if a virgin marries, she has not sinned. But those who marry will face many troubles in this life, and I want to spare you this.
The basic context for Paul's teaching is that Corinth is a sex-mad city. The patron goddess was Aphrodite. Brothels were two a penny. Sex was glorified – hetero and homo. It was like much of the modern West – a moral sink. There was even a Greek verb, which we translate as "to Corinthianize". It meant "to debauch yourself". And in such a context the Christians were going one of two ways.
Some - the "super-spirituals" we can call them - were rejecting sex altogether as something nasty. They were against marriage and over stressing the single life and virginity. But others were going in the opposite direction. They would have said:
"this world of flesh and blood maybe nasty but it is so irrelevant compared with the world of the spirit. So it doesn't really matter what we do in our sex lives. If we choose to have sex with a prostitute it doesn't really matter; or if we choose to have a homosexual relationship it doesn't really matter. God is interested in love and compassion and the things of the spirit. He is not bothered about what we do with our genitals."
Have you ever heard anyone say that sort of thing? You'd have heard it said in Corinth. I've heard it said today. Now this second group were the sorts of people Paul had in mind in 1 Corinthians 6 where he has to tell them (verse 19):
Do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit ... Therefore honour God with your body.
And in chapter 7 Paul is making it clear to them (and everybody) that the only proper place for human sexual intercourse is within lifelong, hetero-sexual monogamous marriage which as we say in the marriage service is "for better for worse, for richer for poorer, in sickness and in health, till death us do part". But in the second half of chapter 7 and the verses we are looking at, Paul seems to be dealing more with the first group, the "super-spiritual" types who were over exalting the celibate, single, non-married state. You need to remember that in this chapter Paul is replying to a previous letter of the Corinthians in which they put to Paul a whole lot of questions. Verse 1 of chapter 7 begins:
Now for the matters you wrote about.
You need to keep that in mind as you try to understand this chapter. And you need to realize that Paul is trying to tread very warily. He has to do that more than once in his letters to the Corinthians. He has to do that here in this chapter on marriage, divorce and singleness. He has to do it in chapters 12 and 14 of this letter on the subject of spiritual gifts - the charismatic gifts; and he has to do it in 2 Corinthians, chapters 8 and 9, where he is dealing with the subject of Christian giving. Paul is trying to teach, very gently, some hard lessons. So he is being as positive as he can be. It is the "yes, but" approach; it is the "yes, that is right - but have you thought of this" approach. For these Corinthians seem to have been confused in their super-spirituality. And Paul is trying to reinstate marriage. He is not denying the goodness of the single state. Verse 25 "now about virgins ... it is good for you to remain as you are ... [However (verse 28)] but if you do marry, you have not sinned." Some were saying the single state alone is good. But Paul says, "No! marriage is also good. To be single is good but so is being married."
But you say, "isn't Paul here really on their side and actually suggesting that the single state is better than being married? And isn't that what some of the early Fathers of the church taught?" Yes! in answer to that second question. But those early Fathers were wrong because, no! Paul is not saying "singleness is better." True, in verse 26 he says:
Because of the present crisis, I think that it is good for you to remain as you are.
But this is clearly specific advice for a specific situation. Remember, Nero is Emperor. And believers were persecuted under Nero. During the Second World War in continental Europe, if you were in any of the Resistance movements, this sort of advice would have been given to you by non-believing commanders. You don't have to be a Christian to realise that such advice is common-sense in crisis situations. No! Paul knew, and we can know from Jesus' teaching and from the rest of the bible, that marriage is God's calling for most, but singleness is God's calling for some. Paul calls it a "gift" in verse 7:
I wish that all men were as I am [single]. But each man has his own gift from God; one has this gift, another has that.
Nor is that a "wish" that must be taken as an indirect command. It is the wish of "I wish you could all read Greek - then you would find understanding the New Testament a little bit easier." But I also have a wish for good schooling, for a good NHS, for the trains to run on time and you name it. If everyone learnt Greek at school and university, those other wishes would be unfulfilled. Who would be the teachers of science, the doctors and the engineers? That, surely, is the sort of wish Paul is expressing here. Paul knew that there were different callings. He is just saying that he see the great value in his own calling. But he is not denying the great value in another person's calling to be married. Well, all that is the context for what Paul is saying here about singleness.
Let's move on to ... secondly, FUNDAMENTALS.
Look at verse 29 and following:
29 What I mean, brothers, is that the time is short. From now on those who have wives should live as if they had none; 30 those who mourn, as if they did not; those who are happy, as if they were not; those who buy something, as if it were not theirs to keep; 31 those who use the things of the world, as if not engrossed in them. For this world in its present form is passing away.
As we view all these questions of human sexual relationships, this is the perspective all of us should have. We may consider ourselves happily married; happily single; unhappily married or unhappily single (because we have never married, but wish we had); or we are widowed, separated or divorced. Whatever our status, we need to realize that "this world in its present form is passing away" (v 31). And marriage, Jesus says, is only for this life. In heaven all will enjoy a more wonderful state. This is the true relativism. Everything in this life - from sex, to business or trade, to pleasure, to pain needs to be considered in the light of eternity. So in the light of eternity, your marriage or singleness problems or, for a few, your homosexual temptations are "light and momentary troubles", as Paul says elsewhere, and "are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all" (2 Cor 4.17). As you face them, in Christ's strength, and endure pressure and sadness and suffering, God is working his purposes out for you, for eternity if only you will trust him.
And what is more important - that you feel fulfilled maritally or sexually, or that you are right with God for all eternity? Now, of course, in these verses here in chapter 7 Paul is no more forbidding Christians from wanting to enjoy themselves and be happy than he is forbidding marriage. No! He allows them all under the same conditions, namely (verse 31) that "those who use the things of the world, must not be engrossed in them. For this world in its present form is passing away." Who needs to hear that lesson this morning? Who is engrossed with the things of the world? You have pressures at work and pressures at home. And before long you can forget that "this world in its present form is passing away." But to hold on to that is so fundamental - and Paul here is saying that it is fundamental as you think about these issues of marriage, divorce, singleness and sexual relationships. Jesus said, "What does it profit a man [or woman] to gain the whole world but lose his own soul?" Who this morning needs to face that question, if necessary, for the first time? You then can say,
"Yes, Jesus, I need to put you first in my life. Forgive me for not doing so until now. Strengthen me by your Spirit to do so for the future."
Let's move on thirdly and finally to ADVANTAGES AND DISADVANTAGES.
Look at verses 32 and following:
32 I would like you to be free from concern. An unmarried man is concerned about the Lord's affairs--how he can please the Lord. 33 But a married man is concerned about the affairs of this world--how he can please his wife-- 34 and his interests are divided. An unmarried woman or virgin is concerned about the Lord's affairs: Her aim is to be devoted to the Lord in both body and spirit. But a married woman is concerned about the affairs of this world--how she can please her husband. 35 I am saying this for your own good, not to restrict you, but that you may live in a right way in undivided devotion to the Lord.
36 If anyone thinks he is acting improperly toward the virgin he is engaged to, and if she is getting along in years and he feels he ought to marry, he should do as he wants. He is not sinning. They should get married. 37 But the man who has settled the matter in his own mind, who is under no compulsion but has control over his own will, and who has made up his mind not to marry the virgin--this man also does the right thing. 38 So then, he who marries the virgin does right, but he who does not marry her does even better.
It is not totally clear who these "virgins" are that are being referred here. The scholars are not agreed. Most likely they are women who are virgins and who are engaged to be married - that is how the NIV of the bible understands it. But some argue that they are an early example of women who had entered into a non sexual spiritual marriage with a male partner. Others say that the man referred to in verse 37 is the woman's father and he is trying to marry her off - so a virgin is simply an unmarried daughter. And there are other suggestions. But the application of this for today doesn't depend on a precise understanding of who these virgins were. For they certainly were single people. And these verses have important lessons for us about singleness.
But first let me remind you of what the bible teaches elsewhere about singleness and particularly of Jesus' teaching on singleness. In Matthew 19 he teaches us why people do not marry. He was talking about "eunuchs" or people who remain single and celibate. First, he says, with some it is "because they were born that way" - that includes those who have a physical ailment or, according to the statistics, a very tiny few of those who claim to have a homosexual orientation. Secondly, he says, "others were made that way by men" - that includes people who in the ancient world were forced to be castrated - a terrible practice. Today it includes anybody who is compelled by external circumstances (or it is not their wish) to remain single. It could be out of a sense of duty to others, perhaps a sick relative or it could be due to a number of reasons. Finally, says Jesus, "others have renounced marriage because of the kingdom of heaven." These people voluntarily, for the sake of the gospel, forgo marriage, either temporarily or permanently. This is true of a number of missionaries and Christian workers.
Listen to John Stott who preached at JPC last Sunday night:
"In spite of rumours to the contrary, I have never taken a solemn vow or heroic decision to remain single! On the contrary, during my twenties and thirties, like most people, I was expecting to marry one day. In fact, during this period I twice began to develop a relationship with a lady who I thought might be God's choice of life partner for me. But when the time came to make a decision, I can best explain it by saying that I lacked an assurance from God that he meant me to go forward. So I drew back. And when that had happened twice, I naturally began to believe that God meant me to remain single. I'm now seventy-six [this interview was four years ago - he is now eighty] and well and truly 'on the shelf'! Looking back, with the benefits of hindsight, I think I know why. I could never have travelled or written as extensively as I have done if I had had the responsibilities of a wife and family."
This is singleness for the kingdom of heaven's sake. Because of the freedom a single person has, like John Stott has had over the years, they often can be more useful in Christian work. That is what Paul is suggesting here in these verses. There are indeed advantages in being single. It is a simple matter of fact. But there also disadvantages. Paul doesn't focus on them. However, let me mention three.
First, there is the problem of loneliness. But you shouldn't think that marriage and the family are the only ways out of loneliness. No! If you are single you can seek to develop many non-erotic friendships with people of all ages and both sexes. And married couples need to help make that possible. Secondly, there is the problem of sexual temptation - nor is this only for single people. And in our sex-obsessed culture this temptation can be very strong. But Christians must never say that sexual control is not possible. You have to learn to control your temper, your tongue, your greed, your jealousy, your pride and other things. So why should you think it is impossible to control your sex drives? Today many think, and (worse still) teach, that if you have a sexual drive it must be acted on. But that is to be animal - not human. Jesus taught us how to control our sexual drives in the Sermon on the Mount. He was speaking about heart adultery - or looking at a woman lustfully - as he put it. He then spoke of gouging out your eye, if it causes you to sin - in that context - sexually; or cutting off your hand if it causes you to sin. He was speaking metaphorically and saying,
"if you're tempted through what you look at [and today pornography is everywhere], you should not look. Or if you are tempted through what you do with your hands you should stop doing that. You should be ruthless with the first approaches of sin and say 'No!'"
The old theologians called this "mortification". Paul speaks of it in Romans 8.13 where he speaks of "by the Spirit putting to death the misdeeds of the body." The world may call a sexual free for all "self-fulfilment". Jesus and the apostles call it death. Of course it is not necessary to be "sexually active" to be fulfilled in life. Jesus was the most fulfilled human ever and he was sexually inactive. Then, thirdly, there is the temptation to self-centredness. "If we are not careful, we may find the whole world revolving around ourselves," writes one single person. That is why it is good to be in a lively Christian fellowship where other Christians can make you accountable and take you out of yourself. But here in this chapter 7 of 1 Corinthians, Paul is not stressing the disadvantages, but the advantages of the single life. Single people - whether they are never married, widowed, separated or divorced have greater freedom - and that means greater freedom to serve the Lord.
Well, how does Paul conclude this chapter? Look at vv 39-40:
39 A woman is bound to her husband as long as he lives. But if her husband dies, she is free to marry anyone she wishes, but he must belong to the Lord. 40 In my judgment, she is happier if she stays as she is--and I think that I too have the Spirit of God.
This is a reminder that death alone frees a person from the marriage bond. So a widow or widower, can remarry - but says Paul, the new partner "must belong to the Lord" - they must be another Christian. That is such an important principle - the principle of Christians only marrying other Christians.
To sum up: singleness is good, but so is marriage; but keep everything in perspective - the perspective of eternity and life after death; and if you are single, praise God for the advantages, but be aware of the problems and temptations, or disadvantages, and face them in God's strength.
And remember, God is good. He wants the best for you and me. If you have disobeyed him, he will forgive. Just trust him. Then seek to live obediently for him in the future. As we said together earlier in the service, "with the Lord is unfailing love and with him is full redemption" (Ps 130 verse 7).