A CASE FOR CELIBACY

1 CORINTHIANS 7:1-9

To marry or not to marry, that is the question. This is one of the major questions that has faced the Roman Catholic Church in my generation. Even today I continue to hear discussed among my Roman Catholic friends the question of whether or not priests ought to be permitted to marry. It is not a new issue. It was also an issue in Paulís day. It was an issue in the church at Corinth.

Corinth was known as the "sin city" of the ancient world. It had the low moral standards of a port city and the Temple of Aphrodite was known for its temple prostitutes that formed an integral part of the Greek worship. Divorce was also commonplace within the city as it was throughout the rest of the ancient world. But now Christianity had come to Corinth and the church was faced with new situations.

There is the case of a husband and wife who have both come to Christ in faith and they are now told that they are only to engage in sexual relations with each other and within the boundaries of their marriage. This has not been their previous practice. Their pagan religion called for them to engage in all sorts of promiscuity with other people and their society assumed that a man would have both a wife, a mistress and even a boyfriend.

Another couple come to Christ and they decided that they want to be especially spiritual. They are told that sex is of the flesh and so they begin to abstain completely from any sort of marital relations with one another. They arenít even holding hands any longer.

There are young people within the church who learn that sexual relations are to be limited to those who are married and so they rush out to marry the first person who comes along.

A wife hears the gospel in the marketplace one day and believes. She comes home to tell her husband of her newfound faith, but he doesnít want to hear about it. She wants to be both a good wife and a good Christian, but she is uncertain whether both are possible.

In an effort to find answers for these and other problems within the church, the Corinthians had sent a letter to Paul, explaining their various situations and asking for his guidance. The questions can be summed up in this: How should we treat the institution of marriage now that we are Christians?

The question itself presupposes an important principle. It is that Christianity ought to make a difference in the way we live. Christianity is not a system of rules and regulations. It is a living relationship with a person. It is a living relationship with Jesus Christ. But if you have that relationship with Christ, then it will cause you to live differently. Jesus has that effect on people.

If you are claiming to be a Christian and yet your life is no different than when you first came to Christ, then maybe you have been fooling yourself. Perhaps you need to go back and check on the reality of your relationship with Jesus.

 

CELIBACY IS GOOD

Now concerning the things about which you wrote, it is good for a man not to touch a woman. (1 Corinthians 7:1).

The church at Corinth was inter-racial. That is, it was composed of both Jews as well as Greeks. Each of these groups came into the church with their own preconceived notions. Nowhere was this more true than in the case of marriage.

To the Jewish way of thinking, celibacy was not only odd and unnatural, but it was considered to be in disobedience to Godís command to Adam and Eve to "be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth" (Genesis 1:28).

On the other hand, many of the Greek Christians may have turned away from the sexual sins of their past and sought refuge in complete celibacy. At the very outset, Paul commends this action. He says, It is good for a man not to touch a woman.

This was a common euphemism (that means it is a nicer way of saying it) for sexual intercourse. To touch a woman was to share in sexual relations with her.

Paul says that it is good to abstain from sexual relations. The abstinence of the Greeks in this matter was commendable. It was good that they turn away from their illicit sexual practices. But this does not deny the strength of sexual urges. Paul knows that sexual temptations can be extreme. And so, he offers a solution. It is called MARRIAGE.

 

MARRIAGE IS ALSO GOOD

But because of immoralities, let each man have his own wife, and let each woman have her own husband. (1 Corinthians 7:2).

As good as celibacy is, it has one major problem. It opens the door of temptation. There is no one who is so vulnerable to the temptations of immorality as the single person.

This is one of the problems facing the Corinthians Christians. Paul has already spent two chapters dealing with the problems of immorality in the Corinthian church.

This issue is just as relevant to the church today. Christians are in the midst of a spiritual war. In many cases, they are losing in the area of sexual morality. Living in the midst of a society that has gone absolutely crazy over sexuality, it is difficult not to be taken in by the fallen non-morality of the world in which we live.

At the same time, we have an absolute standard of righteousness. It is embodied in the law of God. We know what kind of behavior is proper because our Creator has told us how we ought to live. In this age of sex manuals and marriage manuals, we have the Manufacturerís Operating Booklet. It is the Bible.

Paulís instructions are to let each man have his own wife, and let each woman have her own husband (7:2).

One option that is open to the single Christian is marriage. This is a way out for those who are unable to stand up to the pressures of celibacy. But we ought also to point out several factors regarding this option.

1. Marriage is Permanent.

Marriages are not meant to be disposable. Oaths are taken at the marriage that bind the two parties and make them one. Because of this, marriage is to be "till death you do part."

When Paula and I were first married, we determined that divorce would never be considered as an open option for us. We made a commitment to each other that, no matter what the situation, we would work it out.

I believe this to be the most important ingredient to a successful marriage. It is the ingredient of COMMITMENT.

2. Marriage is not Polygamous.

Paul is very specific in describing Christian marriage. He says, Let each man have HIS OWN wife, and let each woman have HER OWN husband. He does not say, "Let each man have his own wives and let each woman have her own husbands. There is only one wife indicated for each husband and only one husband indicated for each wife.

It is true that polygamy was practiced in Old Testament times, but this was not Godís original design. He did not create Adam, Eve and Jane. He created a single man and a single woman and then He brought them together into a new union.

3. Marriage is a Partnership.

Most men in the ancient world would have said, "Let each man have his own wife," and left it at that. It was a male-dominated society. But Paul does not go along with the popular point of view. He instead describes marriage in terms of a partnership. The woman is more than just a possession of her husband. There is a mutual possessionship. There is mutual ownership. Each husband is to have his own wife and each wife is to have her own husband. Two separated people have become one. This extends even to their own bodies.

 

CELIBACY IS NOT FOR THE MARRIED

3 Let the husband fulfill his duty to his wife, and likewise also the wife to her husband. 4 The wife does not have authority over her own body, but the husband does; and likewise also the husband does not have authority over his own body, but the wife does.

5 Stop depriving one another, except by agreement for a time that you may devote yourselves to prayer, and come together again lest Satan tempt you because of your lack of self-control. 6 But this I say by way of concession, not of command. (1 Corinthians 7:3-6).

One of the most striking movies I have ever seen is the award-winning film "Ghandi." Although I do not agree with the Hindu philosophy that it teaches, I have found it to be a profoundly moving film. There is a scene in which Ghandiís wife is asked about her marital relationship with her husband. She reveals that Ghandi believes that sexual intercourse is a deterrent to spiritual growth and so he practices abstinence.

There was a similar philosophy to be found in Corinth. It was called Epicureanism after the Greek philosopher Epicurius (341-270 B.C.). This philosophy taught that happiness lies in the quiet of the mind and that anything that disturbs the soul is bad.

Sexual intercourse has never done a man any good, and he is lucky if it has not harmed him. Nor will a wise man marry and rear a family. (Diogenes Laertius, Lives of Eminent Philosophers 10:118-119).

It is easy to see how believers might equate the Christian morality with the Epicurean abstinence. And so, Paul states his principle. It is that celibacy is not for married people.

  1. A Duty to be Fulfilled: Let the husband fulfill his duty to his wife, and likewise also the wife to her husband (7:3).
  2. Paul regards sexual relations between married partners as not only acceptable, but an obligation and a duty. I must admit that I find it a very pleasant duty. But even if it were not, it is a part of my job as a husband to physically satisfy my wife. It is written in the husbandís job description.

    There may have been husbands who lived in Corinth who had come to know the Lord but who were still married to unbelieving wives. They may have thought it to be wrong to continue to engage in marital relations with an unbelieving spouse.

    Paul clears up any such misunderstanding. He does not say that it is okay to marry an unbeliever. But if such a marriage already exists, then the marital relationship between the partners should also continue.

    Notice once again the equality with which this marital relationship is pictured. Paul does not give this command only to the wives. What he has to say to married people is said both to the husband as well as to the wife. They are each responsible for their partner.

  3. A Temporary Deprivation: Stop depriving one another, except by agreement for a time that you may devote yourselves to prayer, and come together again lest Satan tempt you because of your lack of self-control (7:5).

The only case in which abstinence is permissible between married couples is when the following criteria are met:

Paul says that this abstinence can only take place by agreement (7:5). In the case where one partner is an unbeliever, there is to be no abstinence where the unbelieving partner is not agreeable to it.

Paul says that such abstinence is only to be for a time. After the allotted time has been fulfilled, then the couple is to come back together and resume their marital relationship.

It is possible that the pressures of married life may be so demanding that they interfere with the giving of sufficient time for prayer. Or there may be such a pressing need that the couple may feel compelled to set aside all normal activities and devote all of their time to prayer.

No matter what the reason, at the end of such a period, the couple is instructed to come back together.

  1. A Problem with Temptation: Come together again lest Satan tempt you because of your lack of self-control (7:5).
  2. When the temporary time of separation has been completed, the couple is to come back together and resume their relationship. The reason for this is plainly stated. It is because of the temptation of Satan.

    Satan is smart. He will try to attack you when you are at your very weakest. He will strike you with temptation when you are the most vulnerable.

  3. Concession versus Command: But this I say by way of concession, not of command (7:6).

Paul is not commanding believers that they should immediately begin instituting regular periods of abstinence for prayer purposes. He is merely allowing them this choice should the need arise and he is regulating that decision so that it does not turn to evil. Thus he speaks by way of concession, not of command.

 

CELIBACY IS NOT FOR EVERYONE

Yet I wish that all men were even as I myself am. However, each man has his own gift from God, one in this manner, and another in that. (1 Corinthians 7:7).

Paul sees some very practical advantages in being single. Later in this chapter, he will list these advantages in detail.

Paul sees these practical advantages to being single. But he also realizes that being single is not for everyone. Thus he admits that each man has his own gift from God, one in this manner, and another in that.

There are some people that God has designed with the capacity to be single. This is a gift from God. Others have a capacity and even a need to be married -- to merge their lives with another person so that the two become one. This is also a gift from God.

Now you are going to ask, "Which gift has God given to me?" Are you happy being single? Then that is your gift. Are you married? Is there someone in your life with whom you have become one in mind and who is your counterpart? Then that is your gift.

You might answer, "I donít fit into either one of those categories. Iím not happy being single and yet there is no one in my life who is my counterpart." If that is the case, then I have a message for you. It is to WAIT.

God knows what He is doing. He doesnít make any mistakes. If you are waiting for that special someone to come along, it might be because God wants to get you ready first. It could be that He wants to develop some spiritual quality in your life that will make you the right kind of marriage partner.

 

TO MARRY OR NOT TO MARRY

But I say to the unmarried and to widows that it is good for them if they remain even as I. 9 But if they do not have self-control, let them marry; for it is better to marry than to burn. (1 Corinthians 7:8-9).

Paul has been speaking to two groups up to this point. He has been speaking to those who are single and to those who are married. The single are to abstain from sexual relations while the married are not to abstain. Now Paul turns to a third group. It is those who were once married but who now are not.

  1. It is Good to remain Single: But I say to the unmarried and to widows that it is good for them if they remain even as I (7:8).
  2. In order to understand of whom Paul is speaking in this verse, we need to example all of the types of people mentioned in this chapter.

    7:10

    The Married

    Even though there were different types of marriages within the ancient world, they are all lumped together and treated under this one general category.

    7:25

    The Virgins

    These are single people who have never married

    7:8, 7:39-40

    The Widows

    These are people who were once married, but whose mates have died.

    7:15

    The Divorced

    These are people who are separated and divorced

    I want to suggest that when Paul speaks to the unmarried and to widows, he is addressing those two groups who have already been married but who now are not. These are both the widows as well as the divorced.

    This identification of "the unmarried" is seen in verse 34 where Paul speaks of two groups, "the woman who is unmarried and the virgin." It seems to me that there is a distinction between these two groups. This means we can conclude that the virgin is the single person who has never been married, while the "unmarried" is that person who was once married.

    Thus by speaking to the unmarried and to widows, Paul directs himself to the two groups who have been in a marriage relationship in the past but who are not now presently married. His advice to people in these two groups is that it is better for them if they do not marry.

    Although remarriage in such a case is not necessarily forbidden, it can still be difficult. When you remarry, there is the ever-present danger of comparing your present partner with the one from the former marriage.

  3. Marriage is an Acceptable Alternative: But if they do not have self-control, let them marry (7:9).
  4. Although it is good to remain single after having once been married, it is still better to remarry if you lack the self-control mandated by the single lifestyle. If you are now single and feel yourself to be under heavy sexual temptation, then perhaps you need to consider remarriage, although Paul is going to give some very specific stipulations regarding the taking of this option.

  5. Marriage is Better than Immorality: For it is better to marry than to burn (7:9).

What does it mean to "burn?" We automatically conjure up visions of being cast into hell, but I do not think that this is what is in view. In the epistle to the Romans, Paul uses similar language to describe those who are inflamed with lust.

...and in the same way also the men abandoned the natural function of the woman and burned in their desire toward one another, men with men committing indecent acts and receiving in their own persons the due penalty of their error. (Romans 1:27).

Rather than attempting to withstand the burning of unsatisfied lust, Paul says that it is better for the unmarried and the widow to remarry.

Paul admits to the reality of the physical and sensual desires that you feel. He gives you a way out. It is that you marry.

Does this mean that if you are feeling these sorts of physical urges that you ought to run right out and get married? No. But it does mean that if you are in a situation in which those physical urges are threatening to overcome you, then the alternative to falling into a sinful relationship is to enter into the pure relationship of marriage.

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