Advise to Widowers and Widows
1 Corinthians 7:7-9
Advise to Widowers and Widows
First Corinthians chapter seven places high value on the single life of celibacy and it strongly contradicts the popular idea that only those who are married are truly fulfilling their purpose and calling in life. It makes clear that it is not only possible but also desirable to be content and fulfilled while living a single life of celibacy. Singleness is a role that is to be endorsed and esteemed by the church, neither as inferior to marriage, nor as superior to marriage but on par with marriage. It is an honorable calling that God places on the lives of many people.
In our last study we saw in verses 1-6 that the Bible insists that if you are married you must devote yourself to giving care and affection to your spouse.
1 Corinthians 7:5 “Do not deprive one another except with consent for a time, that you may give yourselves to fasting and prayer; and come together again so that Satan does not tempt you because of your lack of self-control.”
The only exception is that intimate affection may be temporarily withheld on occasion so that the couple can give themselves to prayer; in other words so that they can give themselves to their relationship with the Lord. The affection and devotion between a husband and wife that the Bible is talking about here is one of the privileges of marriage. But it is also one of the responsibilities of marriage. A married person can only devote part of their time to the Lord but must also devote much of their time to their spouse and of course children when they come along. But a single person is free to devote all of their time to the Lord. Later on in the chapter Paul identifies this marital responsibility as one of the reasons it can be spiritually advantageous to remain single.
1 Corinthians 7:32-35 “But I want you to be without care. He who is unmarried cares for the things of the Lord—how he may please the Lord. But he who is married cares about the things of the world—how he may please his wife. There is a difference between a wife and a virgin. The unmarried woman cares about the things of the Lord, that she may be holy both in body and in spirit. But she who is married cares about the things of the world—how she may please her husband. And this I say for your own profit, not that I may put a leash on you, but for what is proper, and that you may serve the Lord without distraction.”
Vs. 7 “For I wish that all men were even as I myself. But each one has his own gift from God, one in this manner and another in that.”
Because of this freedom that comes with singleness to be wholly devoted to the Lord Paul personally wishes that all men had the time to devote themselves exclusively to the Lord like he has, but he quickly acknowledges that not everyone has been given that gift from God. Celibacy is a gift from God and it is a good gift. In Paul’s opinion he wishes all men had this gift of celibacy, but he acknowledges that not all do. We must each be faithful to that which God has called us to. We are wrong to lift up marriage as God’s ideal for everyone. Though it is the norm for the majority of people marriage is not superior to singleness in God’s sight. Marriage is good, but so is celibacy good. Both are gifts from God. The one who is called to be celibate will often not make a very good spouse and the one who is called to marriage will often not make a very good single person.
Paul was not married at this time when he wrote this letter and he remained single the rest of his life, but it is generally believed that Paul was once married and either his wife had died or she left him, perhaps when he became a Christian, though verse 8 seems to imply that he was a widower. The main reason for believing that Paul had at one time been married is that he seems to have been a member of the Jewish Sanhedrin before becoming a Christian (Acts 7:58; 26:10) and history tells us that marriage was a mandatory prerequisite of being a member of the Sanhedrin. (Morris, p. 104)
In this verse Paul identifies celibacy as a gift from God. What does it mean to have the gift of celibacy? The Bible doesn’t give us a definition but the way it is used seems to imply that one who has been gifted by God to remain single is able to experience a greater measure of contentment and fulfillment without a spouse than someone who is not gifted to remain single. It also suggests that one with the gift of celibacy may have a greater capacity to resist sexual temptation than someone who does not have the gift. This does not mean that they cannot be tempted, nor does it mean that they have no sexual desire. They may have just as much as anyone else, but they have a greater ability to resist the temptation and to ignore the desire.
Another important point to note is that the Bible does not say that only those who have received the gift of celibacy can or should remain single and all others must marry. Verses 8, 11, 27 and 40 all stand against the idea that only those with the gift of celibacy should remain single. By the grace of God anyone can remain single and celibate. But it will be more of a challenge for those who do not have the gift of celibacy.
This is true of all gifts. For example, almost anyone can learn to sing or play the piano, but it will come much easier for those who are musically gifted and they will enjoy it more than those who are not gifted. Or most people, with a little work, can learn to play almost any sport, but it will be more of a challenge for those who are not athletically gifted. In the same way, most people can remain single and celibate but it will be much easier and more enjoyable for those with the gift of celibacy.
Look at verse 7 again: “For I wish that all men were even as I myself. But each one has his own gift from God, one in this manner and another in that.”
God has not given all of us the same calling in life and we need to avoid conforming to the pressures of society; for example young adults must resist directing the course of your life according to the expectations of parents who may be overly eager to be grandparents. You must not even make your decisions according to the wishes of the apostle Paul who wished that all could remain single. God has given each of us our own gift and calling and that is what we are to follow. You must follow God’s pattern for you, not any external pressure or expectation of others.
Sometimes marriages fail because the parents or friends or even the church has pressured individuals who were not gifted or called to marriage to get married with the false assumption that it is the norm for everyone. That is not a biblical position. But if you happen to be such a person who is married but now suspect that you were actually gifted to be single, divorce is not a solution. God’s grace will enable you to succeed at marriage and to find fulfillment in your role if you will trust Him. Likewise, if you are not gifted with celibacy but circumstances in life have left you single, you do not have to remarry. God’s grace will enable you to succeed at celibacy and to find fulfillment in your singleness if you will trust Him. For the grace of God specializes in giving strength in our weaknesses.
Now in the next two verses Paul addresses those who are in his situation, they have lost their spouse and are no longer married, but they do not all have his gift of celibacy.
Vs. 8 “But I say to the unmarried and to the widows: It is good for them if they remain even as I am”
Often this verse is interpreted as addressing all categories of unmarried people as well as widows. But a more logical explanation that fits better with the context is that this verse is addressing widowers and widows, men and women whose spouses have died. There are three reasons for interpreting it this way: First of all, most ancient cultures had a word for women who had lost their husbands—in English the word is widows, but few ancient cultures had a word for men who had lost their wives. Typical of the time, the Koine Greek language has no word to describe a widower. Therefore the generic word translated as “the unmarried” was typically used to describe a widower, especially when used alongside the word widow. (Fee, p. 287)
Secondly, I am proposing that the word “unmarried” should be translated as “widower” because the entire context of verses 1-16 is mutually addressing both husbands and wives or men and women repeatedly (about twelve times over) pairing together references to the man and to the woman. For example, 1 Corinthians 7:1-3 “Now concerning the things of which you wrote to me: It is good for a man not to touch a woman. 2Nevertheless, because of sexual immorality, let each man have his own wife, and let each woman have her own husband. 3Let the husband render to his wife the affection due her, and likewise also the wife to her husband.” We see the same pattern continue in the verses following our text: Therefore it would fit most naturally into that pattern of pairing the terms for the male and female to interpret this passage also as mutually addressing the male (widower) and the female (widow).
Thirdly this falls in the context of verses 1-16 which deals with those who are presently or formerly married while verses 25-38 addresses the issue of those who have never before been married.
Therefore it seems most likely that verse 8 is not addressing all those who are unmarried plus widows, but rather it seems to be addressing the widowers and the widows. (Fee, p. 288; Thiselton, p. 104) If this is the case then verse 9 and its comments about “better to marry than to burn” must also be understood as specifically speaking to people whose spouses have died. These verses are likely not addressing those who have divorced (that will be addressed in verses 10-16) and they are likely not addressing virgins who have never married (they will be addressed in verses 25-38) Though there may be some application of this principle to other classes of unmarried, at this point Paul is most likely specifically addressing widowers and widows.
Paul’s comment in verse 8 about “It is good for them if they remain even as I am;” is a reference back to the issue raised by the Corinthians in their letter to Paul. Paul began verse 1 quoting the issue they raised, “It is good for a man not to touch a woman.” He began in the first 5 verses by making clear that there was one exception to this principle of not touching a woman, it could not be applied to married couples for it is good for them to intimately touch each other. But once a person’s spouse had passed away, it was good for them to remain single and not remarry. This does not mean that it is wrong for them to remarry. He is simply saying that it is a good idea for them to remain single.
Paul says almost the same thing again at the end of the chapter using different words which bring out the balance and make clear that he is not opposed to widows (and widowers) remarrying but recommending that they seriously consider staying single.
1 Corinthians 7:39-40 “A wife is bound by law as long as her husband lives; but if her husband dies, she is at liberty to be married to whom she wishes, only in the Lord. 40But she is happier if she remains as she is, according to my judgment—and I think I also have the Spirit of God.”
Vs. 9 “but if they cannot exercise self-control, let them marry. For it is better to marry than to burn with passion.”
Remember that Paul is likely not addressing virgins in this verse nor does he seem to be at this point addressing those who are divorced. According to some scholars, the NASB has the most literal rendering of this passage which in the Greek doesn’t say, “if they cannot control themselves”, as if we are powerless over our passions. But rather the Greek literally says, “If they do not” control themselves, as translated in the NASB. As a Christian the truth of the matter is that indeed we can do all things through Christ who strengthens us. On our own in the energy of our flesh we often are powerless over our passions and desires. But God gave us everything we need for life and godliness in Christ Jesus. It is a choice we must make to either yield to the Spirit and experience victory or to yield to the flesh, but as Christians we can never absolve ourselves of responsibility and say “I couldn’t control myself.” Instead you didn’t trust God for the victory.
Therefore the Bible is not offering marriage as the solution for controlling the passionate desires of the body for intimacy. Rather the indwelling power of the Holy Spirit is the only solution for controlling the passionate desires of the flesh. But for those who do not bring those passions under the control of Christ marriage is the only acceptable outlet for those passions and it is therefore better to marry than to be consumed by lust and sexual sin. Going to the prostitutes is not an option; other forms of fornication are not an option; if you are bent on sexual gratification marriage is the only acceptable outlet. However, uncontrollable lust and passion is a poor reason for marriage, thus Paul’s tone is very reluctant, but he concedes that it is better to get married even with such ignoble reasons than it is to burn with passion. But the best choice for a widower or widow is to find victory in Jesus and then remain single unless the Spirit leads you into marriage. And Paul urges us in the direction of this option.
Verses like this are difficult for our generation to swallow, but this has not always been a difficult teaching. In fact until recent modern times, it has been quite normal for Jews and Christians alike who lost their spouse to remain single. Remarriage, though not rare was not the normal Judeo-Christian practice. (Fee, p. 290) It is only in more recent years that Christians have adopted the mindset that we must be married in order to be complete and fulfilled in life. First Corinthians chapter seven challenges this anti-single mindset by affirming that singleness is not only possible but it is normal and in many cases it is to be preferred over marriage. It is a good thing.
The Bible makes it clear in Hebrews 13:4 that “Marriage is honorable among all, and the bed undefiled . . .” The reluctance we sense in these verses to allow marriage or remarriage is directed toward those who are motivated by uncontrolled lustful desires. To such individuals the Bible reluctantly says, “It is better to marry than to burn.” But the ideal scenario is to be yielded to the control of the Holy Spirit and to gladly make the choice either to remain single or to enter marriage because that is the direction He is leading you. And if He leads you into marriage it will be a wholesome, loving relationship in which both the husband and wife are expressing God’s love to each other and not selfishly gratifying their lustful desires.
When we are led by God both marriage and singleness can be equally beautiful and fulfilling experiences. But if we are not led by God, both marriage and singleness can be equally painful and very unfulfilling experiences. It is our relationship with the Lord that makes the difference. It is not having a spouse that makes you complete. Only Christ makes us complete (Colossians 2:10; Hebrews 13:21). It is not marriage that makes your life fruitful, but abiding in Christ (John 15).
Copyright © 2009 by Parkdale Grace Fellowship
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