Rev. Jeff Chapman ~ Faith Presbyterian Church
I wish that all were as I myself am. But each has a particular gift from God, one having one kind and another a different kind. 8To the unmarried and the widows I say that it is well for them to remain unmarried as I am. But if they are not practicing self-control, they should marry. 9For it is better to marry than to be aflame with passion…
25Now concerning virgins, I have no command of the Lord, but I give my opinion as one who by the Lord’s mercy is trustworthy. 26I think that, in view of the impending crisis, it is well for you to remain as you are. 27Are you bound to a wife? Do not seek to be free. Are you free from a wife? Do not seek a wife. 28But if you marry, you do not sin, and if a virgin marries, she does not sin. Yet those who marry will experience distress in this life, and I would spare you that.
29I mean, brothers and sisters, the appointed time has grown short; from now on, let even those who have wives be as though they had none, 30and those who mourn as though they were not mourning, and those who rejoice as though they were not rejoicing, and those who buy as though they had no possessions, 31and those who deal with the world as though they had no dealings with it. For the present form of this world is passing away. (First Corinthians 7:7-9, 25-31, NRSV)
Writer Marva Dawn tells the story of a single friend from Seattle who once went by himself to a church potluck. As an icebreaker, the host asked everybody at the party, “Please stand up one at a time and tell the group who you are and who you came with.” When it was her friend’s turn to stand and introduce himself, he said nervously, “Hi, my name is Bob and I came with the pasta salad.”
Nobody ever puts it so bluntly, and often times it’s very subtle, but in the church, just as in our culture, we sometimes view singleness as a second class status. Often the assumption is that if a life is going to be lived to the fullest, that life will need to include at least marriage and ideally children.
When I was just out of college I was in a Bible study with a group of other young men and I clearly remember the day we studied the passage we just read from I Corinthians. None of us were married at the time as we read these words from Paul extoling the advantages of the single life and instructing us that unless we burned with passion we should choose a life of singleness. Immediately we all publicly declared that day that, to a man, we each burned with far too much passion to ever qualify for the sort of life Paul was promoting. Though I did not realize it at the time, something had conditioned each of us to believe that life would always be somewhat less fulfilled for the person who did not find a partner with whom they could begin a family.
So far in this series we have seen how the Bible revolutionizes the way we ought to think about both marriage and sex. Today I hope to show you that the Bible also revolutionizes the way we think about singleness. You see, in traditional ancient society, the context in which Paul first wrote these words, there was no such thing as individual honor, success or achievement outside of marriage and children. Pastor Tim Keller, whose teachings on this subject have greatly informed this sermon, points out that a person in cultures like ancient Israel had to be married if their life was to have significance. In Israel at that time, the only single adult women around were, literally, either widows or prostitutes. A famous rabbinical teaching in those days declared: “Any man who has no wife is no proper man.” In ancient Roman culture pagan widows faced extraordinary pressure to marry. Caesar Augustus, in fact, would fine widows who did not remarry within two years.
This is the context into which Paul writes these words. Since it was believed at that time that a person had no future, no security, no status apart from family, marriage was seen as next to mandatory and the idea of singleness as a viable alternative way of life was simply unheard of.
Now, while there is certainly not that level of disgrace attached to singleness in our day and in our culture, let’s not fool ourselves into thinking that we afford singleness the same dignity we afford marriage. Tim Keller points out that modern secular western society is the first society in the history of the world which embraces a widespread belief that there is no ultimate future. In other words, this is the first time ever that more than just a few people actually believe that when our sun dies, all of existence will go away with it for good. Since more and more of us believe that what we see is all there is, our society has increasingly placed more and more emphasis on finding your ultimate meaning and security in the here and now. In particular, we have tied our significance in life largely to romance, to finding your one true love.
Think about it, how do most of our popular stories end these days? As the movie ends, the boy almost always gets his girl and both ride off into the sunset and live, say it with me, happily ever after. Think about nearly every Disney movie you have ever seen. Whenever there is the possibility of romance and true love, Disney makes sure that this is how the story ends, happily ever after. In the end, Cinderella finds her Prince Charming. The Beast ends up with his beauty. The little mermaid reels in Prince Eric. Bambi settles down with Faline. As the credits roll we see Simba and Nala beginning a family together. Even Lighting McQueen and Sally drive off together down the highway of life.
Try and imagine Prince Charming deciding that even though the glass slipper fit, on second thought he’d rather choose to remain single so as to have more time and energy to focus on running his kingdom. What if the Beast decided at the end of the movie that relationships are just too messy and that he’d really just prefer the company of teapots and silverware to a lover? If Disney ended their movies that way do you think they would sell in our culture? No way! That’s never how the story ends because happily ever after, even in our day, has no conception of the single life. In fact, this idea that romantic partnership should be an ultimate goal for everybody in life is something we believe in so firmly that we indoctrinate our children through their cartoons. Finding your true love and living happily ever after has become for us what it’s all about and everything else in life is just prelude and prologue.
A contemporary scholar named Ernest Becker, in his book The Denial of Death, has this to say to Disney and the rest of us:
For that which human beings need in our innermost being we now look not to God but to our love partner. What is it that we want when we elevate the love partner to this position? We want to be rid of our faults and our feelings of nothingness. We want to be justified, to know that our existence has not been in vain. We want redemption, nothing less.
Don’t be fooled, contemporary society, even in the church, is just as hesitant to give dignity and significance to a life of singleness as was ancient culture, and so Paul, along with the rest of the Christian scriptures, is challenging us when he asks us to rethink our perceptions in revolutionary ways. The New Testament, in fact, may be the first place in all of human history where singleness is actually lifted up as an alternative paradigm of life which can be just as fulfilling and satisfying as marriage.
Addressing both singles and married people, Paul writes, “Each of you has a particular gift from God, one having one kind and another a different kind. To the unmarried and the widows I say that it is well for them to remain unmarried as I am.” I cannot overemphasize how revolutionary this is. We know from what we’ve studied the last few weeks that the Bible in general, and Paul in particular, have an extraordinarily high view of marriage. Here we learn that a life of singleness is also held up with great dignity and meaning. Not everybody is called into the single life, but those who are do not then choose for themselves a life that is, in any way, second best.
In fact, as we read on it almost seems as if Paul gives preference to the single life, urging others to imitate him in his choice to remain unmarried. Paul here suggests, in fact, that in some circumstances there are wonderful advantages to singleness over marriage. In times of crisis, for example, singleness may be a better option. Later in the passage Paul speaks about some “impending crisis” that was facing the Corinthian church. We don’t know the nature of that crisis but we do understand that there are times of intense grief, or war, or social upheaval, when adding the extra challenge of marriage may not be prudent. Under certain difficult circumstances marriage may not make sense, for at least a time.
Later in this same chapter Paul also points out that a secone benefit of the single life is that it can allow the Christian to devote much more of his or her time, energy and resources to the work of the church. In verse 32 he writes, “An unmarried man is concerned about the Lord’s affairs – how he can please the Lord. But a married man is concerned about the affairs of this world – how he can please his wife – and his interests are divided.” Understand that Paul is not diminishing the way God works through marriage and parenthood. Instead, he’s simply saying that family life, by it’s nature, necessitates that huge amounts of time and energy will be directed towards a small group of people while the single life allows Christians to serve and minister to many more people.
As a married pastor with four kids I am constantly aware of this reality and while I would not have things different than they now are, I do recognize that this church would receive a great deal more attention and care from this particular pastor if I were single and had no kids. Singleness, in this respect, can be a great advantage.
Finally, beginning in verse 29 Paul points out that in light of the coming Kingdom of God, singleness may provide one more advantage to some people in that it helps them to begin to prepare for the reality that earthly families, among other things, will ultimately pass away. Human marriage, as even Jesus taught, is not eternal. We are not together forever but only until death do us part. And so, as Tim Keller writes, “Paul is hinting here that singleness can help a person refrain from putting too much spiritual hope in the things of this world, such as marriage, family, money, investments, homes and status.”
So you see, there are some real advantages to singleness which make the single life, for some of us, a beautiful gift from God. But even though Paul seems to favor singleness in light of the circumstances of his day, don’t make the mistake of thinking that as he values singleness he devalues marriage. Again, we know from his other letters that Paul had very high regard for marriage and encouraged marriage as a way of life among Christians. So, you might ask, why then does he seem to suggest here that marriage is only a last option? Specifically he writes, “If you are not practicing self-control, only then should you marry. For it is better to marry than to be aflame with passion.” Isn’t Paul suggesting here that marriage is an inferior, even less spiritual, way of life for those too weak to live the single life?
Not at all. In fact, I believe that all Paul is saying here is that if along the way in life you find yourself falling in love with somebody else, go ahead and marry. If you’re lovesick, don’t torture yourself trying to live up to what you think is some spiritual ideal by remaining single while all the while your heart has been captured by another. If you fall in love then the single life, Paul would say, is not a gift God has given you. Marriage is your gift. And as he stated at the outset of the passage, each of these gifts, both marriage and singleness, are coequal in dignity and worth.
Since I spent the last couple of sermons lifting up the life of marriage, however, I really want to stay focused this morning on lifting up the life of singleness. And perhaps there is nothing else that gives as much dignity and worth to the Christian single life as does the fact that Jesus, the perfect human being, himself never married or had children. Here is the very Son of God, come to earth as a man to demonstrate to the world, among other things, the fullness of humanity as God intended it, and that fullness for him does not include marriage or children. Who among us would say that somehow Jesus experienced a cheapened or second best life because he remained single and never had kids? His example alone assures us that while marriage and family life are indeed beautiful gifts from God, they are not prerequisites for abundant life in God’s world.
In light of all this, we as a church need to think hard about how we can avoid reinforcing the ignorance of our culture by suggesting, even subtly, that singleness is some sort of “Plan B” for the Christian life. Because let’s be honest, sometimes we can put unnecessary pressure on people in our families and in our community to marry. Younger people who are single, or younger couples who have no children, will tell you, many of them, that they constantly have people suggesting, sometimes subtly and sometimes not so subtly, that maybe it’s about time to think about getting married or starting a family. Think about what we are really suggesting to people when we do this.
Sometimes it’s simply the way that we try to explain singleness in the church which reveals our warped understanding. Paige Benton, in her article entitled “Singled Out by God for Good”, lists some of these common explanations you hear in churches.
We hear, “As soon as you’re satisfied with God alone, he’ll bring someone special into your life” – as though God’s blessings are ever earned by our contentment.
We hear, “You’re too picky” – as though God is frustrated by our fickle whims and needs broader parameters in which to work.
We hear, “As a single you can commit yourself wholeheartedly to the Lord’s work” – as though God requires emotional martyrs to do his work, of which marriage must be no part.
We hear, “Before you can marry someone wonderful, the Lord has to make you someone wonderful” – as though God grants marriage as a second blessing to the satisfactorily sanctified.
Let’s think carefully about how we as a church handle singleness and how we can speak to our brothers and sisters who are single in honoring, encouraging ways.
Having said all this we need to acknowledge – and I want to be very clear about this – that there are many single people, even in our own church, who are not single by choice and the reality of their singleness is for them a source of tremendous pain, discouragement or even fear. For some of you, death or divorce has forced unwanted singleness upon you and has left you with a great deal of loneliness and grief that at times can feel oppressive. In no way should we ever minimize that. For others of you, your heart’s desire is to marry somebody, but for whatever reason God has not yet brought the right person into your life. And as much as your friends and family tell you to be patient, it’s not so easy to be patient.
While she lifts up the goodness of singleness in her article, Paige Benton also confides that she longs to be married. She writes, “Had I any vague premonition of my present plight when I was six, I would have demanded that Stephen Herbison (incontestably the catch of the second grade) put his marriage proposal into writing and have it notarized. I do want this piece to be practical, so to all you first graders: CARPE DIEM.” Seize the day!
Let us not forget that while some singles in our community have found tremendous peace in their singleness, truly seeing it as the gift from God that it often is, there are others who painfully wonder when Stephen Herbison, or Sally Herbison, will wander back into their life. I pray we will be compassionately sensitive to this reality, offering constant encouragement and hope to our brothers and sisters.
And really, encouragement and hope are perhaps what we most have to offer, not only to the singles among us but to every last person in this community. For at the end of the day we must not forget that it is not our marriages, or our children, or our families, or our singleness which ultimately define us. It is, in fact, not any of our human relationships, nor our jobs, or money, or possessions, or health, or anything in this world, which form the foundation of our security, purpose, or hope.
Paul writes here, beginning in verse 29, “Brothers and sisters, the appointed time has grown short; from now on, [therefore], let even those who have wives be as though they had none, and those who mourn as though they were not mourning, and those who rejoice as though they were not rejoicing, and those who buy as though they had no possessions, and those who deal with the world as though they had no dealings with it. For the present form of this world is passing away.”
Here’s what Paul is not saying. He’s not being literal. He’s not telling husbands to abandon their wives, or for us to ignore the grief and the joy of this life, or for Christians to completely separate ourselves from the material world, as if that were even possible anyway. No, Paul is using rhetorical language here to remind us that as Christians we are marked by eternity. We live in this world presently but this world is not our ultimate home. We live in relationships with parents and spouses and children but these earthly families are only temporary and will ultimately fade to the background when one day we are completely united with our eternal brothers and sisters in Christ, and when the church as bride is united in marriage to Christ our bridegroom, and when we all live as children together with our one Father who is in heaven.
At present, yes, we are black and white, Asian and Latino. We are married and single. We are men and women. We are Chapmans and Smiths and Johnsons and Gonzales’. As Christians, however, all those distinctions are ultimately secondary to the eternal reality that we are brothers and sisters in Christ, sons and daughters of the one, eternal God. When we hold on tightly to the hope of this future reality, and encourage one another to do the same, we then find ourselves able to hold more loosely to our present circumstances, joyful or sorrowful as they may be.
Theologian Gordon Fee shows beautiful insight when he writes, “[Christians] have a definite future and see it with clarity and therefore live in the present with radically altered values as to what counts and what does not.” He uses the analogy of a terminally ill person who, on one hand, has come to grips with the reality of their impending death but also has, on the other hand, come to trust the hope that has been offered in Jesus Christ. Many dying Christians have said in the end that the most spiritually fulfilling season of their life was the last season. Even though they were dying and, in many instances, in considerable physical pain and discomfort, for the first time they began to truly live their present life in light of their future life and the freedom and peace they discovered from and in the midst of the cares and troubles of this world was unlike anything they ever imagined possible.
When God gives the gift of singleness to Christians and those men and women embrace and honor that gift and live in a community which embraces and honors that gift just as much as the gift of marriage, singleness then actually can become a powerful witness to the Gospel both in the church and to the world. Though they are beautiful gifts given to some of us, there is no ultimate hope or permanent security in romance, or marriage, or children. As Tim Keller puts it, all Christians, single and married alike, share in an ultimate family which is the church, an ultimate journey which is the Kingdom, and an ultimate lover who is God. When all is said and done, our ultimate identity is never in our marital status but is, instead, found in our redemptive status as children of God!
As I said was true of marriage let me also say is true of singleness. Never underestimate the beautiful and mysterious gift of singleness and all that it was meant to point us to.
The Next Step
A resource for Life Groups and/or personal application
Read I Corinthians 7:7-9, 25-31 again. What stands out here for you?
Paul says here that there are at least some times when it is good for a person to remain unmarried? Why do you think he says that? Do you agree? Are there advantages to singleness?
How do you see our culture, or even the church, devaluing singleness in ways that are unhelpful or even destructive?
Paul says here in verse 7 that God has given each of us either the gift of singleness or the gift of marriage. Which gift do you believe God has given to you? Are you at peace with that gift?
A single Christian named Paige Benton has written this: “Am I a Christian single or a single Christian? I am a single Christian. My identity is not found in my marital status but in my redemptive status. I’m one of the ‘haves,’ not one of the ‘have-nots.’” What is she saying? Could the same be said of married people?
Read verses 29-31 where Paul gives us instructions because the “time is short.” What do you think Paul is teaching us here?
What are practical and specific ways that our church community here at Faith can avoid making single people feel as if they are somehow living less full lives than married people?
How can our church provide loving encouragement to those among us who are single but who long to be married?
Suggested Scriptures for the Week: Taken from the Seeking God’s Face resource our church is using daily.
Monday: Psalm 101 ~ John 15:1-8
Tuesday: Psalm 102 ~ John 15:26-27; 16:12-15
Wednesday: Psalm 103 ~ Luke 24:44-53
Thursday: Psalm 104 ~ Acts 1:3-11
Friday: Psalm 105 ~ Hebrews 10:19-25
Saturday: Psalm 106 ~ Ephesians 1:3-10
Sunday: Psalm 107 ~ John 17:13-19
 See especially his chapter on “Singleness and Marriage” in The Meaning of Marriage, (New York: Dutton, 2011). Also, see his excellent sermon entitled “Sexuality and Christian Hope” found at http://sermons2.redeemer.com/sermons/sexuality-and-christian-hope
 A quote from R. Eleazar, as cited by Gordon Fee in The New International Commentary on the New Testament: The First Epistle to the Corinthians, (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1987), p. 332.
 Cited by Tim Keller in “Sexuality and Christian Hope”.
 I Corinthians 7:32-34, NIV.
 Keller was helpful here in The Meaning of Marriage, p. 270-271.
 See Mark 12:18-27.
 The Meaning of Marriage, p. 271.
 See Hebrews 4:15 & I Peter 2:22.
 Paige Benton, “Singled Out by God for Good”. This is an excellent article and it can be found online at http://www.pcpc.org/ministries/singles/pdf/singledout.pdf
 Jesus speaks beautifully to this in Matthew 19:29-30.
 Fee, p. 339.