The Pursuit of Marriage: Part 5, Choice Justified
Gen 1,2; 1 Cor 7, Matt 19:3-12 are largely consistent with 1 Cor 7:7 being about a gift of celibacy, and also with it being about a gift of singleness. I am not aware of any biblical exegesis much beyond people citing verses that could be interpreted either way and asserting their interpretation, except for a couple of papers written by a friend. In this post I aim to justify my position that there is no gift of celibacy that determines whether a person should marry or not so that people are free to choose based on other considerations.
Paul does not set out the details of the gift of celibacy. In v7 he does not say what the gift is, and it is in speaking to the first group of people he addresses (unmarried and the widows) that he mentions burn with passion and not marrying, but with no connection made to the gift. He does not mention the gift when discussing whether members of the various groups should/could marry (I find the reference some see in v37 having his desire under control – ESV, to be unpersuasive given context and the word translated desire). Not only does this mean that there is an absence of support for the claim that Paul is teaching about the gift of celibacy, but it is also strange given the supposed importance of the gift. There is no reference to contentedness being part of the gift either, though some claim it is.
It is often claimed that burn with passion means having any sexual desire, and that those who do have such desire do not have the gift. But why must it refer to all levels of sexual desire, might there be people who only smoulder with passion, but don’t burn and who need not marry? That those who burn are described as people who cannot control themselves seems to imply that there are also people who can control their sexual desire. Also they should marry, for it is better indicates a pragmatic choice rather than a logical command. If the ESV translates v36 correctly if his passions are strong, and it has to be, let him do as he wishes: let them marry then this would imply that a person can have weaker passions and not marry.
It is also argued or assumed that the gift is a spiritual gift, such as in 1 Cor 12. However the word used for gift is also used to refer to the gift of eternal life in Rom 3:26, and Paul’s delivery from death in 2 Cor 1:11, which show that it can refer to more general gifts from God. Fee and Stevens also argue here that the word for gift “only refers to “Spirit giftedness” when modified by the adjective pneumatikon (pertaining to the Spirit) or in a context in which such concrete expressions of grace are directly attributed to the Spirit”.
Paul bases his arguments in 1 Cor 7:25-35 on the present distress which some have claimed means that the passage does not apply today since we do not have such a distress, but in v29-32 Paul says What I mean, brothers, is that the time is short… For this world in its present form is passing away indicating that Paul is talking about in the end times, and the section does apply. Also his reference to many troubles in this life seems to suggest he had in mind a situation that went beyond any particular temporary distress. In any case, his argument in vv32-35 that singles can have undivided devotion remains valid irrespective of distress.
That Paul in vv25-35 is offering arguments in favour of virgins choosing singleness, rather than describing benefits of singleness for those who have the gift of celibacy is indicated by phrases such as judgement; I want to spare you; I would like you; I am saying this for your own good, not to restrict you. His judgement is that the virgins should not marry, but if they do he says that they have not sinned (see also v36) which is a strange thing for him to say if the default is that marriage is mandated for those who do not have the gift of celibacy. He spells out a situation where he encourages a man to marry his fiancée (though the man does as he wants, not as he must), while the engaged man who has firmly decided not to marry his fiancée also does the right thing, again no mention of the gift. To the widows he again recommends singleness, without any qualifications at all (nor is the comment regarding the distress even addressed to them), because of his judgement that they would be happier. I think these 2 verses most clearly show that there are people for which they may choose to remain single, and certainly widows could be young and childless. But the gift must surely apply generally if it applies at all.
The idea of choosing singleness extends to Matt 19:12, where Jesus speaks of those who choose to remain single for the sake of the kingdom. People are not in the category because of a gift they have, but because of a choice they make for the kingdom. It should also be noted that Not everyone can accept this word, but only those to whom it has been given and The one who can accept this should accept it sandwich 3 types of eunuch, and presumably apply to them all, and so is unlikely to refer to a spiritual gift for the 3rd type of eunuch since such a gift is clearly not the reason for the state of the other eunuchs.
I have argued that the gift in 1 Cor 7:7 is not something that determines if people should marry. I believe instead that Christians should instead choose based on the arguments that Paul lays out in favour of singleness and marriage along with their circumstances, desire for and benefits of marriage, etc. I still expect that for most Christians, marriage is the correct choice. Certainly if they struggle significantly with sexual control then they probably need to get married. Being single is no justification for remaining single. All Christians should seek to glorify God through their actions, for some singles that may mean using their singleness better, and for others it may involve pursuing marriage.
Update: I would like to add this point to the above argument.
Verses 8 and 9 are addressed to the unmarried and the widows, but I have seen it said that at the time Paul wrote this, the Greek phrase he used was used to mean widowers and widows. While I cannot speak to whether that translation is correct or at least legitimate, it certainly makes the categories that Paul addresses much neater removing overlap between and within them. In this view, while marriage because of a lack of control applies to the unmarried virgins too, Paul specifically addresses that point to those whose spouse has died because control is made harder for them due to their previous sexual relationship. I’ve also seen it argued that unmarried should instead be understood to mean formerly married, as in divorced, but this makes less sense to me from the point of view of the categories.
Update 2: Further to the original update I add the following table from here which includes the comment that “In each case he mentions both male and female. In the case of verse 8-9 the female is termed “widow” and the male is termed “unmarried” (yes, masculine in Greek here)- that is, a widower. For there is not other term explicit to a widower to use in the Greek.” I think you could extend the argument to include Paul addressing married men and women generally in the first few verses too. I now find this line of argument compelling, though it doesn’t mean that Paul’s point in vv8,9 is only relevant to widows and widowers.
|vs 8-9||Spouses died||“Unmarried”(Widowers)||Widows|
|vs 10-11||Married considering divorce||Wife||Husband|
|vs 17-24||Married with non-Christian spouse||any brotherhath a wife that believeth not||And the womanwhich hath an husband that believeth not|
|vs 25-38||Virgins||if thou (masculine) marry,thou hast not sinned;||if a virgin (feminine) marry,she hath not sinned.|