Questions on: Sex, Marriage and Singleness
When Steve jobs, known today as the founder of Apple, was thirteen years old, he had a conversation with his pastor that affected the rest of his life. Sadly, that conversation led to a decision that turned him away from Jesus. In the highly acclaimed book Steve Jobs by Walter Isaacson, we see this thirteen-year-old Steve ask his pastor a question. In July 1968, Life magazine published a shocking cover showing a pair of starving children in Biafra. Jobs took it to Sunday school and confronted the church’s pastor, “If I raise my finger, will God know which one I’m going to raise before I do it?” The Pastor answers, “Yes, God knows everything”. Jobs then pulled out the Life cover and asked, “Well, does God know about this and what’s going to happen to those children?” “Steve, I know you don’t understand, but yes, God knows about that.”2
According to Isaacson, after this exchange, Jobs left church and never darkened another door. George MacDonald in an article titled The Soul of Steve Jobs about this interaction says: “For the pastor, that brief exchange was likely incidental and forgettable. Yet, it was a turning point that would point Steve Jobs towards eastern philosophy.”
Questions about faith and life in Christ are often times dismissed or ignored by Christian leaders. This dismissal happens because the leader may say something along the lines of: “stop doubting and have faith!” And they believe this encouragement to blindly accept everything is true faith. However, this is not how Jesus or the ancient Christian leaders (such as Paul) treated such inquiries. Inquiries were welcomed, and then lovingly answered. In fact, in Acts 17:11, the Bereans were lauded for their seeking inquiries to see if Paul was preaching truth!
Questions are natural in the life of a believer and a chance for a good leader to answer in depth with love the questions raised by those they’re leading. Sometimes however, we seek answers to our questions in the wrong places, or ignore the good answers given from loving leaders. Paul took seriously the inquiries of the Corinthians and answered these questions: What is the sexual life of a Christian couple supposed to look like and is celibacy more holy?
WARNING: This will be a FRANK undertaking of the issue at hand.
Paul here is not laying out a complete theology of marriage or singleness in this chapter, but simply trying to answer the questions brought forth by the Corinthian church. By listening in, we can glean some incredibly valuable information for ourselves and the Church as a whole in a similar culture. In the opening portion of Chapter 7, it appears that Paul is answering the question: “Is celibacy (even within marriage) more spiritual?” (vs. 1) He begins by explaining what sex (and as a result the attitude of love) within marriage should be. So, within Christian marriage is Paul’s context. We see Paul first making this point:
- Within marriage, sexual love is a beautiful gift to enjoy, not withhold (vs. 1-6)
Although there was a lot of “sexual freedom” within the Corinthian church, there were the small subset of Pharisee types who interpreted Paul’s words on sex (in a previous letter most likely) as saying those who refrain from sex altogether, whether married or not must be holier than those who have sex. They desired then to see if this were true. Could they be “better Christians” if they stopped having sex altogether. It appears that these folks in their church had begun to demonize sex and make it the “naughty thing” no one is supposed to do or talk about…sound familiar? While most of the church had pornified sex and made it an impulse OK’d to give into, this small subset took it to the opposite side and made it the most awful thing imaginable. They were seeking Paul’s approval on their interpretation. Paul then completely shocked them by declaring sex within marriage a good and even a necessary thing.
Paul’s understanding of sex within marriage is that there should be mutual sexual fulfillment and that this is an essential and normal portion of married life. Song of Solomon 5:1 declares that married couples should be drunk with sexual love. Sex in marriage is something to be enjoyed, embraced and done often. It is not to be demonized, nor neglected, but fulfilled and satisfied. Paul declares that the man should give in to the right of sex for his wife and likewise the wife to her husband. He declares within this that neglecting sex in your married life does not make you holier and may in fact be dangerous.
Hid within this is also a gem on the full picture a husband and wife are to have with one another. 1 Corinthians 7:4 is an often abused passage of Scripture, but it is one of the most beautiful statements on marriage in all of scripture. This statement echoes Paul’s words to the church in Ephesus in Eph. 5:22-32. The point is this: True love is selfless, not selfish. If each spouse is to care for and have “authority over” the other, they will have a hard time trying to have their own way. Spouses are to fight for their significant other’s way, not their own. If each person in the beautiful dance of marriage is looking out for the betterment of the other, both are guaranteed to be fulfilled. However, if they selfishly look out for their own desires, one will most definitely be neglected.
Misinterpretation of this passage has been the cause of much spousal abuse and spousal rape in Christian marriages. In fact, some well-known Christian leaders have used this passage of scripture to declare that if a man wants a sexual favor, the wife is bound to do so.
Yet, it is the exact opposite. Greg Ogden once said: “Love and trust are inseparable. As soon as we suspect that someone is attempting to control us…then we will become guarded and withdraw.” If I’m given authority over something, I desire it flourish, not flounder or be crushed. We should desire that our spouses run to us, not run away from us! As Christian husbands and wives, our passion is supposed to be the flourishing of our spouses, not forcing them to do our bidding. Sex in marriage is to be desired, not dreaded. If my desire is to see the flourishing of my wife and I live and love that way, she too will desire my flourishing…we both win! THIS is the beauty of Christian marriage.
Paul then continues in this discussion of should sex be withheld in marriage. He declares it could be used as a type of fast, abstaining for a time but not allowing the Devil a foothold in your sex life by abstaining too long. Soards says of this: “Paul’s warning should be a sobering reminder to the Corinthians that they live out the reality of God’s salvation, not by their own decisions and efforts, but through the presence and the power of God’s Spirit at work in their lives”. Paul then says in the next verse that this is not a prescription, simply an idea couples could seek to use in order to get closer to God for a time. Paul then jumps in to address another issue, the issue of singleness and to this Paul declares
2. Singleness is a Gift to be treasured (vs. 7-9)
Paul’s point is that chastity and singleness are gifts from God that we can use to get closer to Him as well as utilize in service to Him. Many view their singleness as a curse rather than a gift. Some may remain single for their lives and others may not, however that time of being single is a gift from God, as is the ability to live a single, celibate life. Soards reminds us too that: “One must see, however, that for Paul not marrying is preferable only if the capacity to remain single is given by God; but the gift of chastity is not universal, and it is not necessary.” Although singleness is a gift, it is not for everyone and shouldn’t be forced upon anyone, unless they realize the gift of having the capacity to remain single and chaste. If an unmarried person in Corinth does not have the Spirit-given ability to be chaste, then Paul says that person should marry. It’s as it is with all gifts, not everyone has the same one. We should embrace, love and rejoice with those who have the gift and do the same for those who do not. Paul’s comments seem to recognize that before Christ, in the old world, there was no value to single life from the human point of view. But now, as part of the gospel, there is a new sense or value to single life—lived in complete devotion to Christ—in the context of the new Christian life. Paul is not so much saying “Fight the urge” as he is advising “Recognize the gift or its absence.”
I know a guy who has this gift and he has decided to use it to be a missionary in a violent, Middle Eastern country. This guy is amazing and in love with Jesus and is a handsome man, yet he recognized the gift of singleness on his life and is living into it. I remember talking with him about this decision and in my mind I wanted to say: “Get married! You’d be a great husband!” but the Spirit stopped me and challenged me to encourage him in his mission work. He doesn’t need a wife worrying about him. He doesn’t need to worry about his kids. He can simply live into the calling he’s been called to while using his gift of celibacy! My friends story shows that the gift of singleness can be one of the most important for service to Christ. We should be a people that celebrate this gift with those God has given it to, rather than criticize them for their lack of marriage.
Paul sought to show the Corinthian church that sex within marriage is a gift. Marriage is a gift as is the one we marry. Also, celibacy and singleness are gifts as well. We are to rejoice with those who have gifts and not despise them, nor arrogantly think we are better than them if their gift happens to be different than ours. Neither marriage nor celibacy are “better” spiritually in and of themselves, simply put each person is gifted with gifts they are to use and those gifts for those people are the best ways to live for that person.