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Now concerning the matters about which you wrote: “It is good for a man not to have sexual relations with a woman.” But because of the temptation to sexual immorality, each man should have his own wife and each woman her own husband. The husband should give to his wife her conjugal rights, and likewise the wife to her husband. For the wife does not have authority over her own body, but the husband does. Likewise the husband does not have authority over his own body, but the wife does. Do not deprive one another, except perhaps by agreement for a limited time, that you may devote yourselves to prayer; but then come together again, so that Satan may not tempt you because of your lack of self-control.
Now as a concession, not a command, I say this. I wish that all were as I myself am. But each has his own gift from God, one of one kind and one of another.
To the unmarried and the widows I say that it is good for them to remain single, as I am. But if they cannot exercise self-control, they should marry. For it is better to marry than to burn with passion.
To the married I give this charge (not I, but the Lord): the wife should not separate from her husband (but if she does, she should remain unmarried or else be reconciled to her husband), and the husband should not divorce his wife.
To the rest I say (I, not the Lord) that if any brother has a wife who is an unbeliever, and she consents to live with him, he should not divorce her. If any woman has a husband who is an unbeliever, and he consents to live with her, she should not divorce him. For the unbelieving husband is made holy because of his wife, and the unbelieving wife is made holy because of her husband. Otherwise your children would be unclean, but as it is, they are holy. But if the unbelieving partner separates, let it be so. In such cases the brother or sister is not enslaved. God has called you to peace. For how do you know, wife, whether you will save your husband? Or how do you know, husband, whether you will save your wife?
Only let each person lead the life that the Lord has assigned to him, and to which God has called him. This is my rule in all the churches. Was anyone at the time of his call already circumcised? Let him not seek to remove the marks of circumcision. Was anyone at the time of his call uncircumcised? Let him not seek circumcision. For neither circumcision counts for anything nor uncircumcision, but keeping the commandments of God. Each one should remain in the condition in which he was called. Were you a bondservant when called? Do not be concerned about it. (But if you can gain your freedom, avail yourself of the opportunity.) For he who was called in the Lord as a bondservant is a freedman of the Lord. Likewise he who was free when called is a bondservant of Christ. You were bought with a price; do not become bondservants of men. So, brothers, in whatever condition each was called, there let him remain with God.
Now concerning the betrothed, I have no command from the Lord, but I give my judgment as one who by the Lord’s mercy is trustworthy. I think that in view of the present distress it is good for a person to remain as he is. Are you bound to a wife? Do not seek to be free. Are you free from a wife? Do not seek a wife. But if you do marry, you have not sinned, and if a betrothed woman marries, she has not sinned. Yet those who marry will have worldly troubles, and I would spare you that. This is what I mean, brothers: the appointed time has grown very short. From now on, let those who have wives live 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 goods, 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.
I want you to be free from anxieties. The unmarried man is anxious about the things of the Lord, how to please the Lord. But the married man is anxious about worldly things, how to please his wife, and his interests are divided. And the unmarried or betrothed woman is anxious about the things of the Lord, how to be holy in body and spirit. But the married woman is anxious about worldly things, how to please her husband. I say this for your own benefit, not to lay any restraint upon you, but to promote good order and to secure your undivided devotion to the Lord.
If anyone thinks that he is not behaving properly toward his betrothed, if his passions are strong, and it has to be, let him do as he wishes: let them marry—it is no sin. But whoever is firmly established in his heart, being under no necessity but having his desire under control, and has determined this in his heart, to keep her as his betrothed, he will do well. So then he who marries his betrothed does well, and he who refrains from marriage will do even better.
A wife is bound to her husband as long as he lives. But if her husband dies, she is free to be married to whom she wishes, only in the Lord. Yet in my judgment she is happier if she remains as she is. And I think that I too have the Spirit of God.
1 Corinthians 7:1–40. ESV
Discontentment is rampant in our culture. I like restaurants like In n’ Out where there’s only a few things on the menu. When there are so many things on a menu it’s hard to be content with any one option.
Our society is a lot like a restaurant where there are far too many things on the menu. We have options for everything.
But, something interesting is happening, today, when it comes to relationships. It used to be pretty standard. You graduate high school and either go to college, the military, or a job and then you try to get married. Relationships progressed: single, dating, engaged, married—a pretty simple progression that most people followed.
But, we live in a more complicated world today. We have a sexually fluid society, where there are so many different relationship status’s, most people prefer to leave their relationships undefined. You might have two people having sex, but have absolutely no relational attachment and then two other people who have almost no physical contact, but they’re planning a wedding. It’s very complicated.
For so long discontentment in marriage has been driving up divorce rates. But, now for the first time ever, divorce rates are actually going down. Why? Because, we tend to deal with discontentment by refusing to commit. And that’s precisely what our society does. We refuse to define our relationship status as a defence against discontentment.
When you commit to something, you give it power. When you place your order at a restaurant and you know you have to pay for whatever you order, your plate comes and you feel pressure to eat it whether you like it or not, because you’re committed. Now, if you like it, you may find yourself content. But, if you don’t like it, you’re discontent.
So, you might go to the all you can eat buffet. Because, then if you don’t like it, there’s no pressure to eat it. You can just go get something else that you may like.
And this is what is happening to relationships, particularly for young people. It’s an all you can eat buffet. You refuse to DTR, you refuse to define the relationship, so that there is no discontentment if the relationship progresses or digresses in one way or another.
And that’s interesting, because, in our Bible text for today, we see that the Apostle Paul—the author of the book we are studying—calls us to contentment, regardless of our relationship status.
So, Paul says, go ahead and DTR, because there is a way to be content, wherever you are at. He writes,
Only let each person lead the life that the Lord has assigned to him, and to which God has called him. This is my rule in all the churches. (1 Corinthians 7:17, ESV)
Paul calls all the churches to be content in whatever circumstance they are in.
What’s going on in your life? Are you in a relationship? Are you single?
That’s good! Be content where you are at. Lead the life that God has given you at this time.
So, we’re going to look at 5 defined relationship status’ and explore how to be content in each situation. We’ll start with those who are…
My wife, Jami and I have known each other since 7th grade and have been in a somewhat defined relationship since our senior year of high school. So, we went through all the same things our senior year where you talk to the counselors and you go to assemblies where they talk about college and careers. We took the ASVAB test together in case we wanted to do the military thing. And we took the career assessments and all that.
Jami wanted to go to Cal State Long Beach and become a marine biologist. I was going to continue to study music at Musician’s Institute in Hollywood, but neither of us actually ended up going those routes. There were a lot of factors, but, if I’m honest, the biggest reason I didn’t go to Musician’s Institute was because I knew if we went different directions, that would mean the inevitable end of our relationship.
Two people heading in different directions are not going to have an easy time staying together.
Well, there was an issue in the Church in the city of Corinth where two people were already married and one of them would become a Christian. They started to have different values and different goals for marriage and children and life in general. It got hard to stay together.
So, Paul gave them this advice.
…if any brother has a wife who is an unbeliever, and she consents to live with him, he should not divorce her. If any woman has a husband who is an unbeliever, and he consents to live with her, she should not divorce him. (1 Corinthians 7:12–13, ESV)
If you are a Christian and your spouse is not, the best thing to do is to stay where you are at, to be content.
But, notice, Paul does make an account for divorce, but only if the unbeliever leaves. The believer shouldn’t instigate a divorce.
For the unbelieving husband is made holy because of his wife, and the unbelieving wife is made holy because of her husband. Otherwise your children would be unclean, but as it is, they are holy. (1 Corinthians 7:14, ESV)
When we see words like holy, clean, and unclean, we aren’t talking about sin. It’s not about right and wrong. This doesn’t have to do with whether or not God approves. It has to do with whether things are common things of this world or if they have eternal value.
So, Paul says, if the couple stays together, then there is something about even the non-Christian spouse and the kids that has eternal value.
When Paul talked about marriage in his letter to the Ephesian church he wrote this,
This mystery is profound, and I am saying that it [marriage] refers to Christ and the church. (Ephesians 5:32, ESV)
Marriage parallels the relationship that Jesus has to the church, the collective body of Christians. When we honor marriage, even through difficulties, we honor Jesus, the Christ because honoring marriage demonstrates Jesus’s faithfulness to humanity, even when broken humanity refuses to honor him.
So, if the spouse is not a believer, but consents to stay together in the marriage, that’s good. It’s holy. It has eternal value. And if the spouse is a believer, then that’s even better.
I want to spend a moment giving something practical for those of you who are married, but I think it’s also important for those of you who one day hope to be married.
Marriage can seem like too much commitment. A lifetime might seem like too long.
Maybe you’re looking at your marriage now and you think you’re losing connection or you aren’t as happy as when you first got married and you’re losing contentment.
Or maybe you’ve watched your parents, a sibling, or a friend go through a divorce because they grew apart.
Why isn’t there contentment in so many marriages?
See, we are by nature self-centered people. We look to our own needs and our own interests first. That’s why when we get into a relationship we look for someone who has similar interests. At the heart of it, we don’t intend to change our interests, so we look for someone who can compliment us.
But, as we grow older, our personalities continue to develop and our interests change.
What then? What do you do when you marry someone and one day their interests no longer suit your self-interest?
You lose your contentment and either have a bitter and boring marriage or you end up divorced.
Today, I think a lot of people would say, “Yeah, that’s why I’ll never get married!” But, look what happens when you let God influence your marriage.
Paul wrote this to the church in the city of Philippi,
Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others. (Philippians 2:4, ESV).
Paul, very practically, tells us that life is not about me and my interests. It’s about me and other people together.
By nature my heart and mind are focussed on me—what I want, what I need—so my interest is only in myself. But, when I come to Christ my mind and heart are focussed on God and as a result my interests become for other people.
What does that mean for a marriage?
It means that you can find continued contentment in your marriage because your focus becomes, not how to please yourself, but how to please your partner. And your partner’s focus becomes not how to please himself or herself, but how to please you.
The reality is, you can never make yourself content, but other people can!
Paul gives an example of how this plays out. He writes,
The husband should give to his wife her conjugal rights [sex], and likewise the wife to her husband. For the wife does not have authority over her own body, but the husband does. Likewise the husband does not have authority over his own body, but the wife does. Do not deprive one another, except perhaps by agreement for a limited time… (1 Corinthians 7:3–5, ESV)
Sex, in marriage is focussed on the needs and, I would argue, pleasure of your husband or wife. Seeking to please each other, gives great contentment, because it draws you together instead of growing apart by unmet sexual desires. Instead of growing apart, because you seek your own pleasure, you grow closer together.
That’s what a focus on God does, it brings us closer to one another.
That’s marriage, but now let’s talk about being…
In 1950, only 22% of adults in the United States were single. Today, the US Census reports that over 50% of adults are now unmarried.
I read an article this week titled, “Singles now outnumber married people in America — and that’s a good thing!”
The article reported that young adults are more involved in community activities. They are more likely to volunteer their time. They are more generous with their wealth. They are also more likely to spend their money, which is good for the economy. And they are more likely to spend time outside the home with extended family.
It seems that, at least when it comes to building authentic community, having more singles is a great benefit, because they have more time and more wealth to offer the community than those who are married and have children.
That’s pretty interesting research, but, they are really only discovering the same principles that the Apostle Paul taught 2,000 years ago.
Look what Paul says,
I want you to be free from anxieties. The unmarried man is anxious about the things of the Lord, how to please the Lord. But the married man is anxious about worldly things, how to please his wife, and his interests are divided. And the unmarried or betrothed woman is anxious about the things of the Lord, how to be holy in body and spirit. But the married woman is anxious about worldly things, how to please her husband. I say this for your own benefit, not to lay any restraint upon you, but to promote good order and to secure your undivided devotion to the Lord. (1 Corinthians 7:32–35, ESV)
In the article I read, the author made the connection that a single person is free to do all sorts of things in life that the married person can’t, because he or she is bound to their partner. The married person has more responsibilities than the single person, especially if there are children. That’s exactly what Paul said.
In verse 7, Paul actually calls singleness a gift from God.
How is singleness a gift?
Well, Paul explains that you are free from the anxieties, worries, and responsibilities that married people have. In other words, it’s easier to be content.
And that freedom allows you to serve God it a greater capacity. Notice, Paul said, the married person is anxious about worldly things, how to please their spouse, but the single person can focus on how to be holy, how to please God.
Now, maybe these ideas conflict. You’re like, of course I want to please God! But, I also want to be loved and I want to have a relationship. I feel so discontent, so unsatisfied being single.
I totally get that.
You’ve probably heard these verses before. Paul wrote this to the Church in the city of Philippi,
Not that I am speaking of being in need, for I have learned in whatever situation I am to be content. I know how to be brought low, and I know how to abound. In any and every circumstance, I have learned the secret of facing plenty and hunger, abundance and need. I can do all things through him who strengthens me. (Philippians 4:11–13, ESV)
We often hear this verse quoted to say that we can accomplish anything because we are strengthened by Christ. It’s like if you have enough faith, then you can do amazing things.
Now, I’m not saying that is or isn’t true, but if you look careful, that’s not what Paul is saying. Paul is actually talking about the secret to contentment.
How to be content wealthy. How to be content poor.
How to be content when I’m failing. How to be content when I’m winning.
How to be content when I’m hungry. How to be content when I have plenty.
How to be content married. How to be content single.
Those of you who are in that age bracket where you’ve been an adult longer than you were a kid, know this—I just hit that barrier this year. We know that striving to please ourselves never results in real satisfaction. When we live for the pleasures of the world, we are never content, because we always want more than we can get.
Listen, it makes no difference if you are a Christian or not. That’s always going to be true.
But, Paul has contentment figured out, because he knows that serving God always satisfies. Doing God’s work in the world always results in greater contentment. Pleasing God always gratifies your soul.
So, I wonder if you’ve put this together yet. Being single is a gift that allows you to experience greater contentment than you could ever have as a married person. Being single allows you to serve God with all your time and all your resources. Your interests aren’t divided between God and the responsibility to your family; everything you have can be given for God and you will be so much more content because of it.
I think that’s amazing!
There is a caveat, though. Paul says clearly that you do not sin if you marry. And some people are going to have to find someone to marry. Paul says,
…it is good for them to remain single, as I am. But if they cannot exercise self-control, they should marry. For it is better to marry than to burn with passion. (1 Corinthians 7:8–9, ESV)
If your singleness is going to lead you down the path of sexual sin, whether in the flesh—sex outside of marriage—or in the mind—pornography—you should pursue marriage. It is better to marry than to fall into sin because you try to stay single.
And I think this is the biggest application for us, today. Studies show that casual sex has always been a problem in society. The only difference is that, today, its not taboo; casual sex is an acceptable practice. So, with over 50% of adults remaining unmarried there’s a huge temptation to fulfill your sexual desires without getting married. Even in many Christian circles this has become an acceptable practice.
But, as we discussed through chapters 4 and 5, sex outside of marriage is always sin. It always leads down destructive paths.
You need to take this seriously. If you burn with passion, then you need to pursue marriage.
Now, the next three paths are pretty simple, so we’ll go through them a little more quickly. Next we’ll talk about those who are…
Men rarely outlived their wives in biblical times because of wars and hard labor. So, they had a lot of widows. The Church in Ephesus had a pretty smart way of caring for them. I’ll tell you about it, but you can read more details in 1 Timothy 5.
So, if a widow had living family, they would require the family to take care of her. But, if there was no family, then they would enroll them into the care of the church and would give them the responsibility of prayer. Basically, they would commit to a life of prayer and receive food and shelter through the church.
Well, like I said, there were a lot of widows and they were becoming a burden on the church. But, not only that, they were getting bored. So, they would go from house to house talking to the women they knew and they became the town gossips, stirring up all sorts of problems.
So, Paul says, no way. The church should only enroll them if they have only been married once, they have a good reputation as a Christian, and—this is my focal point here—they are over 60 years of age.
If they are younger, they follow the same principle Paul laid out in our passage. Paul wrote,
A wife is bound to her husband as long as he lives. But if her husband dies, she is free to be married to whom she wishes, only in the Lord. Yet in my judgment she is happier if she remains as she is… (1 Corinthians 7:39–40, ESV)
The widow is free to be married again—notice, only in the Lord; she should marry a Christian man. But, Paul believes it is better for her to remain single if she does not need to remarry for passion sake.
Now lets talk about people who are…
Dating wasn’t really a thing in ancient times, so I think it belongs under this heading. Actually, you may not call it dating if you are one who avoids the DTR talk. So, let’s just say for people who are in some sort of romantic relationship, but are not yet married.
Several years ago a young couple came to me and confessed that they were having trouble controlling themselves. They tried not to be alone too much, but kept finding themselves in situations where they were alone and every time they were alone they would go a little further and a little further.
But, they were both Christians who wanted to honor God by protecting their purity so they came to me for advice. And I don’t think I gave them the advice they were looking for. I explained from the scripture that having sex is equivalent to consummation of marriage.
So, I told them they pretty much have two options: break up now, or plan to get married, because that’s the advice Paul gives,
But if they cannot exercise self-control, they should marry. For it is better to marry than to burn with passion. (1 Corinthians 7:9, ESV)
I actually wrote up a contract for them and had them sign it, demonstrating that they both agree with that advice.
They broke up two days later.
But, Paul had different advice for those who are in a relationship, but don’t feel they lack self-control. And to explain that, I’ll need to explain some of the cultural background.
The church was growing rapidly in the early days of the church and it was growing, by and large, because of the people of the church—like we are talking about in our Oikos training. The people of the church were telling their family and friends about Jesus and the church was spreading out into the world.
But, at the same time, the early church was going through a period of tribulation or persecution which began at the feast of Pentecost in the year that Jesus died and lasted until the destruction of the Jewish Temple in 70 AD. There were different groups that were trying to snuff out Christianity.
So, Paul knew that the people of the church would need to be all-in if the church would survive this period of persecution. Here’s what Paul wrote,
Now concerning the betrothed [committed relationship], I have no command from the Lord, but I give my judgment as one who by the Lord’s mercy is trustworthy. I think that in view of the present distress it is good for a person to remain as he is. Are you bound to a wife? Do not seek to be free. Are you free from a wife? Do not seek a wife. But if you do marry, you have not sinned, and if a betrothed woman marries, she has not sinned. Yet those who marry will have worldly troubles, and I would spare you that. (1 Corinthians 7:25–28, ESV)
Paul didn’t want them to break off a relationship that they were already in, but he advised against getting into a new relationship or progressing the relationship you are in, because your attention will need to be fixed on the persecution you are facing and on spreading the message of Jesus in a hostile culture.
In other words, the persecution is so great, you’ll never be content in Christ if you are trying to dodge persecution and plan a wedding at the same time.
Today, we don’t have that problem, at least not in our society. We are not in a period of tribulation in the Western Church. Regardless of what you see in the media, Christianity is still alive and well for the time being, and it’s completely acceptable to be a Christian in our society, as long as you’re acting like one—full of grace, mercy, and compassion.
But, there is a principle to be learned here. When something demands a large part of your attention—maybe you’re in school, or you are taking care of an ill family member, or you have to work two jobs—this might not be the best time to progress towards marriage, because your spouse will divide your attention from the other important things you are doing.
But, again, Paul says, whether you marry or not, you have not sinned. And he agrees that if you burn with passion, the best thing is to get married no matter what is going on in life around you.
Then, as we wrap up, I want to look at the last status, those who are…
In our text, Paul addresses people who are divorced because a non-Christian spouse left them. Paul says, you can’t really do much about that.
But, many people find themselves divorced for any number of other reasons. I won’t pretend that all of those reasons are good reasons or biblical reasons, but we are where we are. And God’s grace always affords us a way forward.
What’s the way forward?
Well, there are two things. First, Paul says,
…the wife should not separate from her husband, but if she does, she should remain unmarried or else be reconciled to her husband… (1 Corinthians 7:10–11, ESV)
It’s preferable, by Paul’s advice, that you remain single to focus on God’s purposes, or pursue reconciliation with your spouse. Again, we aren’t talking about pleasing your flesh, we are talking about finding contentment in God. Paul believes this is the best path to finding contentment in God.
And then there is a second way to move forward. If an unbelieving spouse initiated the divorce, or if your spouse has remarried or entered into a sexual relationship, in any of those cases, you are free to remarry if being single is not a viable option for you.
Again, Paul would prefer that you find contentment in God and in His purposes. Paul would prefer that you lead the life that the Lord has assigned to you, that you find contentment in the place that you are at. But, Paul also knows that you may need to be married so that you do not find yourself involved in sexual sin.
And I think the reason for that is simple. It’s where we started this message, talking about contentment. We don’t find contentment when we pursue our passions; we only find contentment when we pursue God’s purposes.
The single person—whether unmarried, widowed, divorced—finds great contentment when they pursue God’s purposes and not the pleasures of the world.
The married person finds great contentment when they selflessly serve their partner as they also serve God.
At any rate, contentment comes when we focus on God and others, when our lives become less about ourselves and more about the people God has created. Discontentment stems from a desire to please yourself, to gratify your own desires.
Yes, this passage is about relationships, and Paul gives us wisdom for defining relationships, but in every one of these circumstances, he follows a pattern designed to lead you to contentment. His pattern is this:
Do you have to marry so that you don’t sin?
Great, get married. Ⲓt’s not sin. But, set your mind on God and His purposes. That is the only way to be content in this life.