I think in the vast majority of Bible-believing churches today, at least in Western countries, Christian leaders tend to take one of two attitudes towards advising single young Christians about marriage.
First, there are those who encourage all young Christians to get married if possible rather than remain single. These leaders understand that it is not possible for everyone to get married. But they encourage people to think that as a general rule being single is not God’s plan for a Christian. Instead, they teach that if someone has an opportunity to marry a compatible, devout, fellow-Christian man or woman, then that person should get married.
And second, there are leaders who don’t in principle actively encourage young Christians to get married or to remain single. Because of special circumstances, they do advise some individuals to get married if they can. And they may occasionally encourage some to remain single. But generally speaking they don’t give encouragement one way or the other.
So, what should we make of these attitudes? Are they biblical? Does Scripture have anything to say about this subject? Or is it just a matter of opinion?
In fact, the apostle Paul speaks specifically about this issue in chapter 7 of his first letter to the Corinthians. Actually, Paul’s teaching about marriage in this chapter is directed to the whole church, not just to younger Christians. But he does have a lot to say about whether single Christians should get married or not.
Importantly, what Paul has to say on this subject is different from what is found in most churches today. He teaches as a general principle that single Christians should aim to remain single. But he also teaches that we can expect there to be many exceptions to this principle.
The key biblical passages
The following verses of 1 Corinthians 7 are especially relevant:
‘1 Now, regarding what you wrote about, it is good for a man not to touch a woman. 2 But because of sexual immorality, let each man have his own wife, and let each woman have her own husband.’
‘7 But I wish that all people were as I myself am [i.e., single]. But each person has his or her own gift from God, one in this way and another in that way.
8 But I say to those who are unmarried and to widows that it is good for them if they remain as I myself am. 9 But if they do not have self-control, let them marry. For it is better to marry than to burn [with sexual desire].’
’25 Now, regarding virgins, I have no command of the Lord, but I will give my opinion as someone who by the Lord’s mercy is trustworthy. 26 In view of the present crisis, I think that it is good for a person to remain as he or she is. 27 Are you bound to a wife? Do not seek separation. Are you free from commitment to a wife? Do not seek a wife. 28 But if you do marry, you have not sinned. And if a virgin marries, she has not sinned. But these people will have trouble in this life, and I am trying to spare you.’
’32 But I want you to be free from concern. A man who is unmarried is concerned about the affairs of the Lord, how he can please the Lord. 33 But a man who is married is concerned about the affairs of the world, how he can please his wife, 34 and his interests are divided. And an unmarried woman or virgin is concerned about the affairs of the Lord, that she may be holy in both body and spirit. But a married woman is concerned about the affairs of the world, how she can please her husband. 35 I say this for your own benefit, not to put a noose around your necks, but to promote what is fitting and unhindered devotion to the Lord.
36 But if any man thinks that he is behaving inappropriately towards the virgin he is engaged to, if his desire is too strong and it must be so, let him do what he wants. He is not sinning. Let them get married. 37 But he who stands firm in his heart, not acting from compulsion, but has authority over his own will and has made the decision in his own heart to keep her a virgin, he does well. 38 So the man who marries the virgin he is engaged to does well, but the one who does not marry will do even better.
39 A woman is bound as long as her husband is alive. But if her husband passes away, she is free to be married to anyone she wants to, only in the Lord. 40 But in my opinion, she will be happier if she remains as she is. And I think I also have the Spirit of God.’
Paul’s teaching in these passages
There are a number of interpretive and translational difficulties in the above passages, especially in vv. 36-38. The English versions differ among themselves in how they interpret the Greek text in some places, and it is not possible to be certain about a few things. My translation therefore might not agree in all respects with the preferred English version used by readers of this article.
Importantly, however, none of these obscurities greatly affects the issue we are discussing here. So I will not spend time trying to resolve any of the difficulties.
In the passages I have quoted we should clearly note two things. First, Paul repeatedly encourages single people in the Corinthian church to remain single if they can (vv. 1, 7, 8, 26-28, 32-35, 37-38, 40). And second, he also makes it clear that he expects many of them to get married, and he stresses that they should feel no shame in doing so (vv. 2, 7, 9, 28, 35, 36, 38, 39).
In v. 38 Paul says that a man who marries the virgin he is engaged to does well, but he who remains single does better. Modifying his words a little, we could say that the general principle Paul outlines in this chapter is that it is good for single Christians to get married but even better for them to remain single.
Some objections answered
It is important to recognise that there is no good reason for thinking that this principle does not apply to Christians today.
There are, however, those who deny that we should follow this principle in the present day. The following objections are sometimes made:
(1) In v. 26 Paul says that ‘in view of the present crisis’ it is good for the Corinthians to keep the marital status they have at present, which, of course, includes single people remaining single.
There are those who argue that Paul’s teaching here doesn’t apply to churches that are not experiencing ‘the present crisis’ he refers to.
The exact nature of the crisis that Paul has in mind is actually a matter of some debate, and it may well refer to a state of affairs that applies to all Christians of all ages. However, even if it refers to something more limited in time and space, the existence of this crisis is only one of the reasons Paul gives for his preference that single Corinthian Christians remain single. The reason he seems to concentrate on most is that those who are single will be more able to concentrate fully on the Lord’s affairs (vv. 32-35).
Therefore, even if the crisis Paul refers to does not apply to Christians today, we should still follow his principle about remaining single if possible.
(2) It is sometimes argued that Paul’s teaching doesn’t apply to Christians today because he wrongly thought that Jesus would return to earth soon after the time he was writing. If he had known how far in the future Jesus’ return would be, so the argument goes, he would have encouraged single Corinthian Christians to get married and have children where possible, so that these children could become the next generation of the church.
This argument is a very poor one. It assumes not only that Paul seriously misdirected (albeit by making an honest mistake) the Corinthians by encouraging them to remain single when God really wanted them to get married, but also that God made his misdirection part of holy Scripture.
It is surely far better to think that God really did want the Corinthians to remain single when possible, even though He knew that Jesus would not return for at least the best part of 2000 years.
(3) Other biblical passages are sometimes said to support the view that Christians today should aim to get married if they can.
Genesis 2:24 is one of these. In this verse we read:
‘Therefore a man will leave his father and his mother and be joined to his wife. And they will become one flesh.’
It is true that this text refers to a key aspect of God’s created order for human beings. However, it is reading too much out of the words to conclude from them that Christians should aim to get married where possible.
Especially since the time when Jesus died and rose, the people of God have been engaged in intense spiritual warfare with the powers of darkness. And some things that are standard in peace time are not so standard in time of war.
Proverbs 18:22 is another text that is sometimes cited. It states:
‘He who finds a wife finds a good thing and receives favour from the LORD.’
Nothing in this verse, however, conflicts with the principle that marriage is good but remaining single is even better.
Besides, we must remember that Proverbs was written under Old Covenant conditions, which were superseded by the New Covenant conditions under which Christians live at the present time. Although this book has much to teach us today, it is a mistake to simply assume that it all applies directly to Christians without qualification.
1 Timothy 4:1-5 is also often referred to, where Paul sharply criticises people who forbid marriage.
However, this just implies that marriage is good in and of itself. It doesn’t conflict with the principle that getting married is good but remaining single is even better.
Finally, appeal is sometimes made to 1 Timothy 5:14, where Paul encourages younger widows to get married and have children.
In v. 11 of that chapter, however, Paul has referred to younger widows losing their devotion to Christ because of unfulfilled sexual desires. He clearly considers it better for these widows to get married (more on this below). But his teaching in this chapter doesn’t conflict with the principle that, all other things being equal, it is better for Christians to remain single than get married.
There are other passages too that are sometimes cited by those who say that Christians should aim to get married if possible. However, I will not spend time listing any more of them. There is no real need for me to do so, for the simple reason that no biblical texts are nearly as relevant as 1 Corinthians 7 for the issue we are discussing in this article. What this chapter teaches should be seen as decisive.
There is, then, no good reason for thinking that Paul’s principle does not apply today. Today, as in the 1st century when Paul wrote 1 Corinthians, it is good for Christians to get married but it is even better for them to remain single.
Many exceptions to the principle
It is crucial to understand, however, that this principle is a general summary of how Christians should view the married and single lives. It does not mean that for each individual Christian it is better to remain single. Far from it.
In fact, not only is it certainly God’s will for many Christians to get married today, but, when everything is taken into consideration, I think it is probably His will for most to get married.
There are several reasons, not mutually exclusive, why God wants many Christians to get married in our day:
Especially noteworthy here is 1 Corinthians 7:2. In this verse, as we have seen, Paul writes:
‘But because of sexual immorality, let each man have his own wife, and let each woman have her own husband.’
In this verse Paul teaches that the danger of falling into sexual sin is the reason why many of the Corinthians should get married. And I think he probably implies that most of them should get married for this reason.
Similarly, in 1 Timothy 5:11-14 Paul seems to imply that most of the younger Christian widows should get married to prevent them falling into sexual sin.
All sex outside marriage is, of course, a sin, and so is all auto-erotic activity. Today, as in the first century, many single Christians, especially younger ones, find it difficult to properly control their sexuality. If someone finds that they keep falling into sexual sin of some kind, then in most cases it will be better for that person to aim to get married if possible.
I am not condoning sexual sin or saying that Christians who fall into it cannot avoid doing so. But nevertheless, as well as fighting hard against this sin, those who do find that they are often defeated by it should normally aim to get married if they can.
(2) Even when Christians have good sexual self-control, there are surely other reasons why it is sometimes the will of God for them to get married.
One of these is simply that for some it is so painful to remain single. I know something about this myself. I am now in my late 40s, and, so far at least, God has called me to remain single. And it really does hurt.
For some, however, it is much harder than for others. I personally know of devout Christian people who have literally become suicidal through years of being alone. If someone finds it this distressing to be single, we should have no hesitation in encouraging them to get married if possible.
(3) God will surely want some Christians to get married so that they can raise Christian children. However, given that many Christians who get married for other reasons have children, I don’t think this should often be the main factor that leads a Christian to aim to get married.
(4) Although being a member of a strong church is usually enough to support a Christian ministry, sometimes being married to the right person will enhance a ministry in a special way.
The radical nature of what it means to follow Jesus
There will, then, be many exceptions to the principle that it is better for Christians to remain single than to get married. But it is nevertheless still the case that the Bible encourages single believers to remain single if possible. And we must not ignore this or explain it away.
I think one reason why this is taught so little by church leaders in Western countries is because the church in these parts of the world has a relatively poor understanding of the radical nature of what it means to be a follower of Jesus. The normal Christian life is seen by so many, even in Bible-believing churches, as about doing things like attending Sunday services faithfully, going to prayer meetings, giving a certain proportion of our income to the poor, etc, etc.
It is about these things, but so much more as well. The normal Christian life is about nothing less than living for Jesus instead of ourselves (2 Corinthians 5:15). It is about losing our lives for His sake (Matthew 16:25; Mark 8:35; Luke 9:24), even hating our lives for His sake (John 12:25). And this will cost us. Normal Christian living is about using 24 hours of every day to do the will of God to the best of our ability, and then doing the same the next day, and so on. It is about carrying our cross every day (Luke 9:23) to give our all for Christ.
If we think it is going to help us achieve more for Jesus by getting married, then that is what we should aim to do. And if we think we will achieve more by remaining single, then that is what we should aim to do. And we should be open to God’s voice correcting us in case we have made a mistake about what He is saying to us in this respect.
It is important to recognise that the preference for the single life that Paul speaks of is not because the celibate, single life is somehow more spiritual than the erotic, married life. It is all about practicality, about what will enable us to do more for the Lord. This is Paul’s overriding concern in 1 Corinthians 7, and it should be ours today.
Finally, despite the general preference we should have for remaining single, we need to understand clearly that it is wrong for a Christian ever to make a vow to remain single. This might look holy and spiritual on the surface, but it is actually anything but.
If Jesus is Lord of our lives, then He has the right to choose what happens to us in the future. A vow to remain single – or to do anything else, for that matter – removes some decision making from Jesus and replaces it with our own control. Instead, we must allow Him to direct every aspect of our lives. And that includes letting Him lead us to get married if that is His will.
By Max Aplin
I have been a Christian for over 30 years. I have a Ph.D. in New Testament from the University of Edinburgh. I am a UK national and I currently live in the south of Scotland. Check out my blog, The Orthotometist, at maxaplin.blogspot.com