Sex and the De-married Christian (1 Corinthians 7:8-9)

For Christians, the rule of sex is this: fidelity within marriage, chastity without it. Against extreme ascetics among Corinthian Christians, who encouraged celibacy even within marriage, Paul encouraged Christians to maintain regular sexual relations with their spouses. And yet, he also reminded them that lifelong celibacy was a viable option, one that he himself had chosen based on his spiritual gifting. See 1 Corinthians 7:1-7.

Now, in verses 8-9, Paul goes on to apply the Christian rule to sexual relationships among de-married Christians, that is, men and women who had been married but are now widowed.

Now to the unmarried and the widows I say: It is good for them to stay unmarried, as I am. But if they cannot control themselves, they should marry, for it is better to marry than to burn with passion.

In Greek, the word for “unmarried” is agamos. Broadly speaking, it refers to any person who is not presently married, regardless of whether they ever have been. But in the context of 1 Corinthians 7, it likely refers to de-married persons generally and, in verse 8, widowers specifically, as Gordon D. Fee argues in his commentary on 1 Corinthians. He offers three reasons: (1) In koine Greek, agamos was sometimes used for “widowers.” (2) Paul pairs husbands and wives twelve times. This man/woman pairing makes sense in verse 8, especially since “widows” would be redundant if “unmarried” referred to all unmarried people rather than a specific subset of unmarried people. (3) Paul uses agamos of de-married people, not never-married people. The word refers to a divorced (separated?) woman in verse 11, and stands in contrast to “a virgin” (i.e., never married persons) in verse 34.

If Fee is correct, then Paul is counseling widows and widowers “to stay unmarried, as I am,” or more literally, “to remain as I am.” (The word unmarried does not appear a second time in Greek.) By saying “as I am,” is Paul implying that he is de-married, whether through the death of his spouse or divorce? Perhaps.

So, celibacy is Paul’s preference for widowers and widows. But verse 7 is still in force. If the de-married are now gifted for lifelong celibacy, then that is the lifestyle they should choose. If not, they should choose marriage. Sexual immorality in general, and consorting with prostitutes in particular, is not a viable option for Christians—even de-married ones.

Paul’s final statement—“it is better to marry than to burn”—is somewhat controversial. For one thing, it makes it sound like marriage is a begrudged concession to persons who can’t keep their clothes on, rather than the creation and gift of God. For another thing, it is unclear whether the burning refers to divine judgment on sin or to intense desire. In favor of the former, see 3:15; in favor of the latter—the NIV adds “with passion” to the Greek text—see 2 Corinthians 11:29.

Either way, marriage and celibacy are still the Christian’s options, whether never married or de-married.

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