Being Married in Times of Distress
Paul’s letter deals with various forms of bondage—first the bondage that circumcision and the Old Covenant impose upon men, then the bonds of slavery to men and to Christ, and now finally the bonds of matrimony.
Being married binds together a husband and wife. So Paul says in 1 Cor. 7:39, “a wife is bound as long as her husband lives.” This is not bondage as such, but it does indicate certain obligations and limitations. Any time a vow is taken, including a marriage vow, people obligate themselves to fulfill the vow.
1 Corinthians 7:25, 26 says,
25 Now concerning virgins I have no command of the Lord, but I give an opinion as one who by the mercy of the Lord is trustworthy. 26 I think then that this is good in view of the present distress, that it is good for a [single] man to remain as he is.
Here Paul expresses an opinion, not a law. He understood that God had instituted marriage from the beginning, and that there was no law forbidding marriage. His opinion was “in view of the present distress.” The Greek term translated “distress” is anagke, meaning “necessity, imposed either by the external conditions of things or by the duty of law.” The word is used in other literature to mean “calamity, distress, or straits.”
Since Paul made it clear that he was not talking about the constraints of the law, he obviously was referring to external conditions in his day. During times of calamity or persecution, ungodly men often torture believers’ wives and children unless they renounce Christ. So being married can present problems and even great heartaches. Such distressful situations did indeed occur in the early church.
So in regard to the bonds of marriage, Paul gave the same counsel that he gave to those who were considering circumcision and to slaves. Whether married or single, do not seek to change your status. 1 Cor. 7:27, 28 says,
27 Are you bound to a wife? Do not seek to be released. Are you released from a wife? Do not seek a wife. 28 But if you should marry, you have not sinned; and if a virgin should marry, she has not sinned…
Paul addresses those who are married, telling them not to “be released” from the bond of marriage. In other words, if you have become a believer, do not use that as an excuse to divorce an unbelieving spouse. In fact, do not seek divorce at all. But if you are “released from a wife” (i.e., divorced or widowed), “do not seek a wife, but if you should marry, you have not sinned.”
Here Paul was speaking to those who were widowed and divorced. He affirms the right of remarriage, as established in the law (Deut. 24:2, KJV), though he does not recommend it “in view of the present distress.” That Paul was referring to those previously married, including those who were divorced, is made clear by the fact that he next addresses those who have never been married: “and if a virgin should marry, she has not sinned.”
So Paul states categorically that it is not a sin for anyone to marry or to remarry. In fact, he specifically condemns those in the future, knowing that some would forbid marriage (1 Tim. 4:3). His counsel to remain single is based fully upon external circumstances.
Signs of Christ’s Coming
In 1 Cor. 7:28, 29, Paul continues,
28 … Yet such will have trouble [thlipsis, “tribulation”] in this life, and I am trying to spare you. 29 But this I say, brethren, the time has been shortened, so that from now on those who have wives should be as though they had none.
It appears that Paul thought that the coming of Christ was drawing near. He and the other apostles were not told the timing of Christ’s return (Matt. 24:36; Acts 1:6, 7). They were given only the signs that would precede His coming. Matthew had recorded many of those signs in his gospel, and there is no doubt that Paul had a copy of this. Though some insist that the Gospel of Matthew was written about 85 A.D. by someone other than Matthew, I believe that it was the first gospel written (about 40 A.D.), and that it was the primary gospel used in the Jerusalem church.
In 1 Cor. 7:29 Paul quoted from Matt. 24:22, which says,
22 And unless those days had been cut short [koloboo, “shortened, abridged”], no life would have been saved; but for the sake of the elect, those days shall be cut short [koloboo].
When Paul says “the time has been shortened,” he uses a different word with a similar meaning (systello, “to draw together, contract, shorten, abridge”). But there is no doubt that he was referring to the “distress” and “tribulation” that was soon to come upon Jerusalem, as Jesus had described in great detail in Matthew 24.
Paul counsels the Corinthian believers not to become attached to things in this world. This is the meaning of Paul’s expression: “from now on those who have wives should be as though they had none.” Paul was expecting a soon-coming calamity to befall not only Jerusalem, but also the entire Roman Empire, including the city of Corinth. After all, the return of Christ was to affect the entire world, not just Jerusalem. Paul continues in 1 Cor. 7:30, 31,
30 and those who weep, as though they did not weep; and those who rejoice as though they did not rejoice; and those who buy, as though they did not possess; 31 and those who use the world, as though they did not make full use of it; for the form of this world is passing away.
These are all expressions of detachment from the things of the world. Paul was saying that when Christ comes, “the form of this world” was to pass away in favor of something much greater. So he counseled them to treat their possessions in life as temporary things that would soon pass away. The word translated “form” is schema, “external condition, habitus, as comprising everything in a person which strikes the senses, the figure, bearing, discourse, actions, manner of life, etc.”
Paul was expecting great changes to take place in the earth, changes which would also affect the marriage relationship itself—at least, insofar as believers were concerned. His view came from Jesus’ warnings in Matthew 24, and so there is no doubt that Paul fully expected Jerusalem to be destroyed in the near future. Matthew 24:15, 16 specifically applies this time of distress to Judea and to the temple in Jerusalem.
This destruction was to be a time of tribulation (Matt. 24:21, 29) and a time of war (Matt. 24:6, 7), a time of lawlessness (Matt. 24:12) and false messiahs (Matt. 24:24). It was to be comparable to the days of Noah (Matt. 24:37), not only by its lawlessness, but also because of the flood that would deal with this problem (Matt. 24:39).
All of this formed the backdrop for Paul’s counsel to the Corinthians, because it defines “the present distress” that Paul expected shortly. He also understood that those days would come sooner, rather than later, because of the shortening of the days.
Of course, we know now that the war and destruction of Jerusalem and Judea was to occur just a few years later from 66-73 A.D. Paul lived to see the beginning of this war, for he was not martyred until 67 A.D., as I show in my book, Lessons from Church History, Vol. 1, chapter 23.
Paul also did not know that the destruction of Jerusalem at that time was to be repeated in our time. This time Jer. 19:10, 11 will be fulfilled, where the city is broken so completely that it “cannot again be repaired.” It was too soon for Paul to know that the cursed fig tree was to come to life in 1948 so that it could be destroyed again. In the first century, Jesus’ words were still too obscure to understand.
But Paul was giving his opinion, based on his understanding of Jesus’ prophecy about Jerusalem. Certainly, those living in Jerusalem at the time of its destruction might have been wise to remain detached from their possessions, for unless they moved away ahead of time, they were certain to lose most of what they owned.
We know from history, however, that the Jerusalem church did indeed move to Pella across the Jordan River in 68 or 69 A.D. during a lull in the war. Nero died in June of 68 A.D., and Vespasian, the general in charge of the war, had to wait for a new emperor to decide what to do about the situation. Various power struggles ensued until finally, Vespasian himself was proclaimed emperor toward the end of 69 A.D. He then returned to Rome to take the reins of government, leaving his son Titus to finish the war.
By this time the Jerusalem church had evacuated the city, as Eusebius, the fourth-century Bishop of Caesarea tells us in his book, Ecclesiastical History, III, 5. He says that “before the war began… to Pella, those who believed in Christ migrated from Jerusalem.”
The question for us today is how Paul’s counsel might apply in today’s situation. With the coming destruction of Jerusalem again approaching, it appears that believers should again take heed to Jesus’ warning as well as to Paul’s counsel. Those living in Judea (now known as Israel) ought to follow the example of the early church and leave the country while there is still time for an orderly evacuation.
If people decide to stay, thinking that God will save the day at the last minute (as many also thought in the first century), then they should follow Paul’s counsel and remain detached from their possessions and manner of life, most of which will pass away in the conflagration. It will be very important in that day to be led by the Spirit and to remember Jesus’ warning, even as the early church remembered it when they escaped to Pella. Understanding prophecy could well mean the difference between life and death in that day.
Yet above all, we should view this time of tribulation as a sign of Christ’s return, when great changes will take place worldwide and the Kingdom of God replaces the beast systems.
After telling the Corinthian church that “the present distress” had made it advisable not to be married, he suggests another advantage to being single. 1 Cor. 7:32-34 says,
32 But I want you to be free from concern. One who is unmarried is concerned about the things of the Lord, how he may please the Lord; 33 but one who is married is concerned about the things of the world, how he may please his wife, 34 and his interests are divided. And the woman who is unmarried, and the virgin, is concerned about the things of the Lord, that she may be holy both in body and spirit; but one who is married is concerned about the things of the world, how she may please her husband.
From a legal perspective, marriage carries certain obligations, as we have already shown. But beyond this, love itself makes one concerned about “how he may please his wife,” and rightfully so. Such a mindset is not only natural, it is how things ought to be. Nonetheless, “his interests are divided” between his wife and the Lord. So Paul points out an advantage that single people have over those who are married.
Holiness and Righteousness
Giving God undivided attention is “that she may be holy both in body and spirit.” This statement is sure to be misunderstood unless we know that being “holy” is not about being righteous, but about being set apart for divine service. Many have taken vows of celibacy in the attempt to achieve “holiness,” which they confuse with righteousness.
This misunderstanding caused many in the fourth century to leave society and to live in the deserts of Egypt and Syria in order to avoid worldly contamination, to pray, and to contemplate God. By doing this, many of them sought personal holiness. But in the end, their devotion took them away from the very people who most needed to see their example of a Spirit-filled life.
When God sanctified the Levites under Moses, they were set aside for divine service, having been given tithes and offerings to support them, so that they could devote their full attention to full-time ministry. Ministers who must work to support themselves are unable to devote their full energy and devotion to the work of the ministry. Their interests are divided. Hence, there is a great advantage for them to be able to stop devoting their time and energy to worldly business and to be supported in full-time ministry.
Yet this does not mean that everyone ought to quit their jobs in order to devote themselves fully to the work of ministry. All believers have a ministry, but if they all quit their jobs, who would be left to support them? From the example of the Levites and priests, we see that all Israelites were supposed to devote themselves to the Lord, but not all were specifically set aside to minister on a full-time basis.
So it is also with marriage. Paul did not expect everyone to become single in order to devote himself fully to the Lord with undivided attention. Righteousness is a matter of following the leading of the Spirit and being obedient to His voice and His commands, regardless of whether one is married or not.
Paul continues in 1 Cor. 7:35, saying,
35 And this I say for your own benefit; not to put a restraint upon you, but to promote what is seemly, and to secure undisturbed devotion to the Lord.
So once again, Paul makes it clear that he was not discouraging marriage, but rather, he was showing how being single could be used to a person’s advantage. If Paul had lived in happier times, it is doubtful if he would have recommended being single. But he fully expected to see Jesus’ prophecies in Matthew 24 and Luke 17 fulfilled shortly.
Paul then says in 1 Cor. 7:36,
36 But if any man thinks that he is acting unbecomingly toward his virgin daughter, if she should be of full age, and if it must be so, let him do what he wishes, he does not sin; let her marry. 37 But he who stands firm in his heart, being under no constraint, but has authority over his own will, and has decided this in his own heart, to keep his own virgin daughter, he will do well. 38 So then both he who gives his own virgin daughter in marriage does well, and he who does not give her in marriage will do better.
To paraphrase this, Paul says that if a father believes that it is unjust to prevent his daughter from marrying, he should “let her marry.” Marriage is not a sin. On the other hand, if he sees “distress” coming, he may decide not to give his daughter in marriage and “will do better.” Even so, he is “under no constraint, but has authority over his own will.”
In every society and in every age, men’s authority was restricted legally by government decrees. But the government in Paul’s day did not place restrictions on a father’s will (that is, his legal right) to determine the marital status of his own daughter. Hence, he was free to decide either way, and the divine law as well did not command him one way or the other.
The laws of each nation are different. Some are more restrictive than others, but all of them leave some measure of responsibility to individuals. God’s law does the same, for it leaves many matters to the conscience. Where the law does not constrain their actions, God expects people to be led by the Spirit. Hence, there are times when some course of action may not be addressed by any command of law, and yet it could be a sin according to God’s specific leading.
Finally, Paul summarizes this topic of marriage in 1 Cor. 7:39, 40,
39 A wife is bound as long as her husband lives; but if her husband is dead, she is free to be married to whom she wishes, only in the Lord. 40 But in my opinion she is happier if she remains as she is; and I think that I also have the Spirit of God.
Paul’s point was to say that if a woman is married, she should consider herself bound (by law) to her husband. In other words, the present distress should not be used to justify separation or divorce. The laws of marriage must be respected, and conscience should not be used to overrule the law. The Spirit of God does not lead people to violate His own law. But if her husband is dead, and she is a widow, she is free either to remarry or to remain single. The law of God does not attempt to restrict one’s freedom in such matters.
The law of marriage contracts is expanded in Rom. 7:1-3,
1 Or do you not know, brethren (for I am speaking to those who know the law), that the law has jurisdiction over a person as long as he lives? 2 For the married woman is bound by law to her husband while he is living; but if her husband dies, she is released from the law concerning her husband. 3 So then if, while her husband is living, she is joined to another man, she shall be called an adulteress; but if her husband dies, she is free from the law, so that she is not an adulteress, though she is joined to another man.
In both Romans 7 and in 1 Corinthians 7, Paul shows that marriage is a legal contract that is regulated by God’s law. The law respects men’s right to enter into such contracts, but once a contract (or promise) has been made, they are bound by their word or vow. Marriage was intended to be a life-long contract, ending only with the death of one spouse.
Some have used this, however, as a way of contradicting the law’s provision for divorce in Deut. 24:1-4. Doing this, however, only pits one law against another with the result that one Scripture contradicts another. Such arguments are destructive. In these passages, Paul was not commenting on the laws of divorce.
Law and Conscience
In Rom. 7:1 we read that Paul was “speaking to those who know the law.” He had not yet taught in Rome, but he knew that the saints in Rome had already learned the law. No doubt Paul taught the law also to the Corinthian church, as well as to the other churches that he established. Having the basic knowledge of the law was a good start, but the law did not answer every question, for as I said earlier, the law left much to the conscience.
Where the law is silent, the conscience must be utilized. Conscience, as part of our being, was created by God, but it is shaped by man, his beliefs, his culture, and his environment. For this reason, conscience is man-made until the Holy Spirit begins to shape it according to the will of God. This occurs through the knowledge of the underlying principles in the word of God and by personal experience as we are led by the Spirit.
Paul’s epistles focus mostly upon these “gray areas” where the law is silent. When the law forbids murder and adultery, no one has the right to appeal to conscience, because even if a culture glorifies murder of “an enemy,” this does not make it right in the eyes of God. One’s conscience does not have veto power over the law of God. The purpose of conscience is to clarify the law and to apply the law in daily life.
Paul’s letters grapple with matters of conscience, rather than of law. This is seen throughout the seventh chapter of First Corinthians in matters of celibacy and marriage. In the next chapter, Paul will deal with a different matter of conscience—whether or not a person should eat food that has been sacrificed (or dedicated) to idols.