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Paul's Instructions to the Unmarried and the Widows (I Corinthians 7:25-40)

I am a Christian pastor who wishes to bring glory to God in all that I do, and to help people through my writing to know Him better.

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Introduction: The Gift of Singleness

Here are a list of 10 myths on singleness which were listed in a 1998 edition of Kindred Spirit Magazine. The myths include the following:

1. All singles, especially women, want to get married. Changes in our society have given women more options and benefits to staying single.

2. Single men are irresponsible. Because some men know themselves well enough to know they are not ready for marriage, this does not make them irresponsible or afraid of commitment.

3. Singles are sexually frustrated. According to several national studies of non-Christian singles, sexuality ranks fifth in order of importance in their lives.

4. Singles are wild swingers. Single adults today are far more likely to throw themselves into a career.

5. Finding the right person will solve all your problems. Being married is not an insurance policy for happiness, satisfaction, or fulfillment.

6. Marriage is God’s highest calling. Is marriage preferred? Yes and no. Is it permanent? Yes, that is God’s design. Is marriage primary? No.

7. All single adults are lonely. The loneliest people in the world are not singles. They are those married people whose hearts are miles apart while they sleep back to back.

8. Singles are basically selfish. The reality is that they have no way to mask their selfishness. They can’t say, “No, because Johnny has a soccer game,” or “Gee, Ruth is not feeling well.”

9. Only a large church can offer something for singles. Unchurched, never-married singles prefer small churches, especially those with less than 100 people.

10. Single adults don’t understand family life. Nehemiah and Paul understood it, and so do most single adults.

Like all subjects that are part of this life, the Bible is not afraid to look at singleness and to address it honestly. The Apostle Paul was single himself at the time of his ministry and, as we have seen earlier in I Corinthians, he sees those who are unmarried as having a gift from God, just as he views those who are married as having the gift of a spouse. Also, we must realize that being single is in no way a lesser gift than being married, and in some cases, Paul sees it as superior because one can devote oneself solely to serving God just as the apostle himself did. Though Paul, at the same time, realized that most people couldn't live the life of singleness because of the culture around them and their natural desires for sex and companionship.

In I Corinthians 7 Paul talks specifically about these issues. They are handled by him in an attempt to answer some questions that the Corinthians themselves had asked the apostle. In I Corinthians 7:1-9, Paul begins by giving instructions on sex in marriage. In verses 10-24 he talks about divorce. Finally, in the last verses of this chapter, verses 25-40, we get Paul's teaching regarding those who are single and those who are widowed. Let's look at these verses to help us to understand better the biblical commands for singles.

I. A Recap of Paul's Earlier Instructions (1-24)

To get the full picture of this section, it might be good to get a recap of what the apostle has already said in the first verses of this chapter. If we remember, in verses 1,2 he tells the Corinthians:

"Now, concerning the things about which you wrote, it is good for a man not to touch a woman. But because of immoralities, each man is to have his own wife, and each woman is to have her own husband."

Apparently, there were some in Corinth who thought that because of the sexual sin there and the marital confusion, it would be better to be single. And they felt that it would be more spiritual to be celibate. This could have led some to believe that it would be best for those who were are married to get divorced in order to live the single life.

The apostle begins by elevating singleness, while at the same time teaching that marriage is in no way wrong or inferior. He goes on to teach that a married couple should engage in sexual intercourse. In fact, verses 3-5 see it as a marital duty that both spouses perform for the other. And they should not deprive the other of this duty except for a mutually agreed upon time in order to devote themselves to prayer.

In verse 7 the apostle elevates singleness again by saying that he wished that all men were even as he himself was, meaning single. But he realized that each person had their own gift from them Lord. So, to the unmarried and those who are widowed, in verse 8 he tells them that it is good if they can remain single like he was. However, it is better to marry than to burn with passion (9).

In the next section, verses 9-24, Paul addresses those who think that divorce is the option to live a more spiritual life. Paul took marriage as seriously as Jesus here. Jesus said that the only reason for divorce is marital unfaithfulness in Matthew 5:32 and Matthew 19:9. Though Paul doesn't address this exception clause here, he would never go against Jesus' teaching, so it is assumed. And he says that anyone who leaves husband or wife should remain unmarried or be reconciled to their spouse.

Paul does, by revelation of the Holy Spirit, however, add another exception to the mix, which was in answer to what to do if the person who became a christian had a spouse who remained unconverted. If the unbelieving spouse chose to stay, then the believer was to stay with them. However, if the unbeliever leaves the believer, then the believer is not bound in such cases and is presumably free to remarry.

This section ends with Paul telling the believer to remain in the situation in which he or she is called until the Lord moves them in another direction. Paul not only includes marriage here but any other circumstances as well. He gives the example of being circumcised or uncircumcised as well as being a slave or free (17-24).

The principle here is to live for the Lord wherever you are right now. No matter what your station in life, whether married, single, divorced, widowed, remarried or whatever you may be at the moment, don't think that God cannot use you until your situation somehow changes. The Lord can use a person no matter where they happen to be in life at this moment in time.

If you are divorced and remarried for instance, don't try to rewrite the past. Repent of whatever sin may have brought you to this moment, if there is any, and move on with your present marriage, making it all that God wants it to be, serving Him with all of your heart.

And of course, if you happen to be single, don't think that you need a spouse before you can effectively serve the Lord right now in this place. God may eventually give you a spouse, but be working for Christ until that time, if or when it should come.

With these things in mind, Paul now turns to the subject of virgins and widows. He uses the next few verses (25-40) to give the benefits of the single life without implying that marriage is an inferior lifestyle choice for whomever it was meant. He even gives reasons why some virgins should marry and why the widow is free to marry or stay single, whatever their choice.

II. Marriage is Good but Has its Unique Problems (25-31)

Paul uses the term virgins in this section, perhaps to separate this category of people from the ones he used earlier. He talked about the unmarried in earlier verses. The term unmarried may include those divorced whereas virgins are those who have never been married and presumably never have had sexual relations.

In talking to these never married persons he begins by saying that each person should remain in the situation in which he is, whether married or single. But at the same time, he points out the unique problems that marriage has that singleness doesn't. This is especially true in light of what he calls 'the present distress.' This is an unspecified calamity that is going on, or will soon go on, during Paul's time. Perhaps it might have been that the apostle was anticipating the upcoming Roman persecutions of Christians that were about to take place. They actually began around 10 years after this epistle was written. Persecution is hard for anyone to endure. However, this would be especially true if one were married with children. In which case it would definitely be better to be single.

However, he also points out that if one gets married, they haven't sinned. Paul was simply trying to spare them the problems that were about to take place. The truth is that marriage and family have their own unique problems that the one being single doesn't have to face. Paul will expand upon this in the next section, but it is easy to let all of these married problems get in the way of one's devotion to the Lord and eternal things. That is why he gives the Corinthians here in verses 29-31 this piece of advice:

"But this I say, brethren, the time has been shortened, so that from now on those who have wives should be as they had none; and those who weep, as though they did not weep; and those who rejoice, as though they did not rejoice; and those who buy, as though they did not possess; and those who use the world, as though they did not make full use of it; for the form of this world is passing away."

Here he is not saying that marriage is no longer important or binding. He is saying that marriage should in no way reduce one's devotion to God and to service for Him. Paul is elevating the eternal priority of heaven over that which will one day pass away, including human marriage. A mature Christian does not get so wrapped up in this life that he or she loses the motivation, hope and purpose that comes with putting the Lord first in everything.

III. Married People Necessarily Have Different Concerns (32-35)

In verses 32-35 Paul points out that a married person has different concerns than a person that is unmarried. A single person is free from the concern about the earthly needs that a spouse and children have. So, he or she is potentially able to exclusively set him or herself apart for the Lord's work.

As a married person, you are responsible for the lives of a wife or husband and your children. You have to feed and clothe them. You must care for their physical needs as well as lead them in the ways of the Lord, or their spiritual needs. You must make a priority of their total well-being.

Marriage doesn't, in and of itself, prevent devotion to the Lord. However, it does bring with it many more potential matters that could possibly interfere with that devotion. Singleness, by definition, has fewer distractions. However, it doesn't guarantee spiritual devotion.

IV. Marriage Should Sometimes be Encouraged, and Sometimes Discouraged (36-40)

Having given the reasons for remaining single, Paul feels an obligation to advocate for reasons that a single person should get married and point out some in which it should be discouraged. He talks specifically regarding a virgin woman here. There is some lack of clarity as to whether Paul is talking to a man who is engaged to be married to a virgin woman and whether he should go through with that engagement, or whether he is talking about a father who is to give away in marriage his virgin daughter. Some translations, because of this latter interpretation, add the word 'daughter' in the text to clarify it.

It is believed that in Corinth some of the fathers, intending to be in devotion to God, had dedicated their young daughters to the Lord as permanent virgins. So, when their daughters became of marriageable age and insisted on being married, there would be a problem. If this is indeed the problem he is discussing, Paul would be telling the fathers that it would be all right to break their vow for their daughter's celibacy if they thought it would be in the best interest of their daughter. That would be if she didn't have the gift of celibacy and needed to marry in order to remain pure. However, they were not compelled to break the vow if they thought it best for her not to marry or remain single.

The more likely scenario is that Paul is talking about a man who is engaged to a woman and encouraging him to go through with the marriage under the right circumstances and discouraging him under the wrong ones. For example, if the engaged man thinks that breaking off the engagement would be dishonorable to her, he should marry her. Or if he may not be able to contain his virtue or hers without marriage because of sexual desire toward her, when she becomes of marriageable age, he would not be sinning if he married her. As a matter of fact, he would prevent sin.

However, if he has the gift of celibacy and is able to contain his sexual desires, then he should not feel a compulsion to get married to her. Presumably then, if she doesn't have the same abilities to remain pure, she should marry someone else.

The final two verses, (39-40), deal with widows. As a wife, a woman is only bound by the law to a marriage as long as her husband is alive. When he dies that frees her to marry another. But, at the same time, she is under no obligation to do so, and Paul's opinion is that she would be happier remaining single, and certainly freer to serve the Lord with her entire life. Paul ends this section by saying that having the widow remain single is his Spirit-filled opinion rather than a command of the Lord.

Conclusion

In summing up this section, it becomes apparent that the Church of Jesus Christ has to make room in its thinking and in its programs for the single Christian. Paul shows us that it is a definite lifestyle choice which can and should be made by some. Yet the church, in general, mostly focuses on marriage and family and almost makes the single person feel like a second-class citizen at times. Also, many young Christian individuals feel like they are left out of society and are missing out on life if they aren't married by a certain age.

While marriage is a wonderful covenant relationship that was established by God, it is not for everyone, though admittedly it is for most at some point in their lives.

If you are currently single, then be encouraged that God can use you in your singleness as much as He is using those who have found a lifetime partner. He has a plan for you, which at this time involves a solo act. But not really because, to be sure, you aren't truly alone. You have God as your Father. Jesus as your Lord and Savior and you are a joint heir with Him in eternity. The Holy Spirit is living inside of you. And you have members of the Body of Christ who are your spiritual brothers and sisters and who can share their lives and ministries with you as well.

Singleness, whether it be for a short period of time or for a lifetime, is not a curse but a gift from God to serve Him in this life to the best of your ability. My prayer is that no matter where you may find yourself at this point in life, don't put off becoming all that God would have you to be and doing all that He would have you to do.

This life is short. May we spend the rest of the time we are given, whether married or single, bringing glory to the one who has given us a life beyond this world that we now know. And may we all make a contribution to His Kingdom that will last for eternity. Let the Lord be praised by what we accomplish for Him!

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2022 Jeff Shirley

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