Marriage or undivided devotion?

Sex and Marriage – Article Series
1. The Bride and the Bridegroom
2. Sexual sin and purity
3. Purpose of marriage
4. Shape of marriage
5. Futility of marriage
6. Marriage or undivided devotion?
7. Dating for marriage

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29 What I mean, brothers and sisters, is that the time is short. From now on those who have wives should live as if they do not; 30 those who mourn, as if they did not; those who are happy, as if they were not; those who buy something, as if it were not theirs to keep; 31 those who use the things of the world, as if not engrossed in them. For this world in its present form is passing away. 32 I would like you to be free from concern. An unmarried man is concerned about the Lord’s affairs—how he can please the Lord. 33 But a married man is concerned about the affairs of this world—how he can please his wife— 34 and his interests are divided. An unmarried woman or virgin is concerned about the Lord’s affairs: Her aim is to be devoted to the Lord in both body and spirit. But a married woman is concerned about the affairs of this world—how she can please her husband. 35 I am saying this for your own good, not to restrict you, but that you may live in a right way in undivided devotion to the Lord.
~ 1 Corinthians 7:29-35

You don’t have to get married. Some of you will never get married. Some of you should not get married. Have I provoked your attention?

Don’t get me wrong – an authentic, wholesome, meaningful human life is dependent on finding one person to satisfy your desires and affections. It’s just that this person is Jesus Christ.

We were made to be God’s representative rulers on earth and find our meaning and purpose in Him. Marriage is not an end goal or an ideal to strive towards. Marriage is a relationship that God has given us to express sexual desires, nurture and care for families (including the raising of children), and to partner with another person to serve others out of the overflow of loving faithfulness. But it isn’t the only way that we can serve God.

In fact, marriage can become quite taxing for a number of reasons; we saw this in the previous post on the reasons why marriage can seem futile. Marriage can come with a host of difficulties that draw our attention away from directly serving others by sharing the Gospel or encouraging them in their faith and witness. This is why Paul can say in 1 Corinthians 7:32-35 that if you want to have undivided devotion to the Lord Jesus Christ then you shouldn’t get married. This undivided devotion is referring to our ability to focus all our attention and time on serving God. That can seem quite jarring! Is Paul saying that marriage is a bad thing? Is Paul saying that married people aren’t truly obeying God’s word and are being unfaithful to Him? The answer to these questions is a resounding no!

Firstly, Paul says in 1 Corinthians 7:25 that these sentiments about marrying or not marrying are not commands from God, but are his exhortations to the Corinthians. This means that he is seeking to present a matter of wisdom instead of a matter of sin and obedience. Paul spends many places in his letters speaking of the virtues of marriage, children, and godly sexual activity. Even the start of this chapter contains an undeniably pro-marriage-pro-sex stance where Paul is trying to correct some errors in the Corinthian church. But at this section of the chapter, Paul switches his attention to direct their focuses upwards – they should be living in light of the fact that time is short, Jesus is returning, and marriage won’t last into eternity (1 Corinthians 7:29-31, Matthew 22:23-30). What matters to Paul is that we live in light of who Jesus is and seek to serve Him. That’s why he isn’t commanding the Corinthians that they can’t get married, but encouraging them to consider the costs of marriage and how unmarried people don’t have the same kinds of concerns that married people do. Not all of these concerns are sinful (e.g. raising children), but they are concerns that are unique to the marriage relationship.

Secondly, Paul goes on to say that people who want to get married have done nothing wrong and those who choose not to get married have also done nothing wrong (1 Corinthians 7:36-38). Assuredly, the person who doesn’t get married will be freer to minister to others than the married person. But the married person is still able to be a faithful Christian. This is because loving your spouse and serving each other are also commanded by God for married couples, meaning that faithfully fulfilling what it means to be married is a matter of obedience to God as well! Whether you are married or unmarried, you are still able to glorify and be faithful to God – the difference is that you will do so differently.

It is a choice that we must make. It is one that will bear a cost. For example, the unmarried person will have to wrestle without a clear and righteous outlet for their sexual desires. But Jesus Himself said that there would be those who choose to do this for the sake of the kingdom of God (Matthew 19:8-12). That doesn’t mean that these people wouldn’t struggle. Instead, the choice not to marry brings with it an acknowledgement that sexual intimacy and pleasure will not be experienced. That is a sacrifice people can make for the service of God. Admittedly, Paul does say that if one can’t control their sexual desires then marriage may be a better decision than to burn with sexual passion (1 Corinthians 7:8-9). But this wisdom must be taken in consideration with the other testimony of Scripture regarding what the purpose and shape of marriage is and should not be seen as Paul saying “if you can’t control your urges, just get married – that’ll solve it”. Other sacrifices that are involved in being unmarried include never raising a family, and being seen as a social outcast by society as they don’t comprehend why you would stay unmarried and celibate.

On the other side, the choice to marry will also bear with it certain sacrifices that can be made for the service of God. Married individuals will have their own sins transparently exposed as they live with and become emotionally united with their spouse. Pain and weariness in raising children can take a toll on a married relationship. Additionally, matters of relating with the family of your spouse can cause immense disunity and bitterness. And all this can divide your ability to be devoted to serving the Lord as you become occupied with the concerns of relating with others in a household.

Either way, there is sacrifice involved. But the Christian life is one of willing and self-giving sacrifice as we seek to honour and serve our God and Saviour Jesus Christ. After all, Jesus loved us and gave Himself up for us as a sacrifice to God (Ephesians 5:1-2). So we should follow in His example.

It is important to say that some will remain unmarried as they never find another person to marry, despite their efforts to do so. A few years ago I visited a church and heard a sermon called ‘The Spouse Sermon’ where the preacher said that “our confidence should be in God that He will provide me a spouse” and that “the Lord wants to give [me] a spouse that will satisfy my heart’s desire”.1 Such teaching is unhelpful, unbiblical, and anti-Christian. God never promises that we will get married – He promises His people that all things will work for their good, regardless of the circumstances of life (Romans 8:28). His plans aren’t our plans and our hope is not in marriage but in our secure, full, and eternal identity in Jesus Christ (Colossians 3:1-4). To say that God is going to provide another human being to satisfy your heart’s desire dehumanises any potential spouse you may have as being there to fulfill your life, and sets untold millions up for disappointment as they will never get married. Our hope is in Jesus Christ as our sole source of satisfaction – not a spouse.

Sadly, many of our churches and Christian contexts may assume that marriage is the default expectation. Questions like “when are you going to get married?” and “why are you still single?” betray a truly Christian mindset that understands that whether we are married or not, we can serve God and glorify His name. It is not wrong to desire to be married, but that is not the rock that we build our purpose in life on. And being unmarried is not a lesser state of human existence, even if marriage is a blessed gift that God has given to humanity. This is why the title of this post is not ‘Marriage or singleness?’ but ‘Marriage or undivided devotion?’ which is the way that Paul put it in 1 Corinthians 7. That is the question.

Finally, let me also say that for one reason or another it may be advisable for some people to remain unmarried. There are a host of possible reasons why that may be the case, most of which go beyond the scope of this sort of article. But a few of them could be as follows:

  • they have not found a partner in Christ whom they can serve God together with (this is the most obvious reason)
  • they have an unacknowledged and unrepentant sex addiction (e.g. to pornography)
  • they idolise marriage and desire it above serving Christ

Marrying without carefully considering the cost is unwise and can hurt an incredible number of people. Of course, it is not my goal to authoritatively direct anyone as to whether they should get married or not through an article. My purpose is to articulate the notion that some people, though they desire to get married, may be better advised to avoid marriage (at least for the time being) for one reason or another.

But (once again) married or not, we can honour and serve God and that should be a constant throughout the life of the Christian.

Are you currently unmarried? -> Have you prayerfully considered how you will serve God with your life, married or in undivided devotion to the Lord? Are you pursuing a relationship/marriage more than you are pursuing God?

Are you currently married? -> Have you prayerfully considered how (apart from matters of faithfulness like loving your spouse and raising a family) your marriage may be drawing you away from honouring and serving God?

Are you currently considering marriage with another person? -> Have you prayerfully considered whether this person is someone you can partner with in order to serve and honour God? Perhaps you will marry this person. Perhaps you should not marry this person. Perhaps you will never marry.

In our next post, we will look at how we can prayerfully consider the potentiality of marriage with another person. Put in the language of our society, we will look at dating for marriage.

James Chen

James is a Philosophy graduate from the University of Sydney and is currently a teaching and learning manager of a senior high school tutoring centre. James is a member of St. Paul’s Anglican Church, Carlingford and loves reading and teaching the Bible.

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  1. I still have the sermon notes that are dated to the 16th of July 2012.