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The Ideal State

*1 Corinthians 7:6-11 April 29, 2018 Lord’s Day Worship Sean Higgins

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The sermon starts at 15:25 in the audio file.

Or, Reluctance Is Not a Gift from God

G. K. Chesterton once wrote about how only a fool would look at the sun and the moon in order to argue about which one was better. He applied the point to value comparisons between men and women. Why would you do it?

One reason we compare and contrast is because we are God’s image-bearers and He is a distinguishing God. We learn to see differences and state the differences because He gave us that responsibility. There are times to make judgements about what is good, better, and best. There are other times, and perhaps this happens most of the time, when we don’t see what we’re supposed to see, and our assessments are ungodly.

Take for example one’s married state. What is the ideal state? In 1 Corinthians 7 Paul addresses a number of different marital conditions. There are the single, married, unmarried, widowed, married but celibate, unmarried and not celibate, celibate for good, and celibate with serious wishes to be done with it, married but separated, and the divorced. (Not quite as many as Facebook’s 71 options for gender, but still a lot.) Again, which is the ideal?

There is a way to read Paul’s comments, concession, and commands and think that we see the one ideal state. And I agree that there is just one, but it is not the “easy” one.

It would be easy to say, especially if all we had was 1 Corinthians 7, to say that it is ideal to be single. Paul says in verse 8 that he is single and loving it. Well, he says that it’s “good.” He says in verse 28 that to be married is to have worldly troubles, and in verses 33-35 that a married man has divided interests compared to the unmarried woman who can express undivided devotion to the Lord. There are some ways Paul talks that appear to make marriage less “spiritual,” suggesting half-hearted service for Christ or even a failure of self-control (verse 9).

Is singleness really what Paul believes is the ideal state? Does he believe that God is wrong in Genesis 2 when He said it is not good for a man to be alone? Are Paul’s celebrations over husbands and wives in Ephesians 5 a compromise from what he really believes? And if it really is not just better but the best, then why didn’t he start the chapter that way, and why does he give a place for marriage at all? Is it really because he thinks some Christians can’t control their sexual desires so that he reluctantly allows them to get married?

I don’t buy it. The ideal state is not being single, or married. The ideal state is being content in your state as a gift from God. There are some qualifications. Not each and every state is good, including every kind of sexual immorality. But immorality is possible regardless of what boxes you check on your tax forms, or Facebook, and so is grumbling ungratefulness. Yes, there are different opportunities and different temptations that come along with one’s marital state, but the ideal must include one’s happiness with their gift from God. Reluctance has never been a gift from God.

We’re going to consider the first three paragraphs of a four paragraph section in chapter 7. Paul says “I say this” in verse 6, then he has something to say to the unmarried in verse 8, then to the married in verse 10, and then “the rest,” which is another group of married couples, in verse 12. He’s driving to the middle of the chapter, verses 17-24, which is all about contentment; “let each person lead the life that the Lord has assigned to him, and to which God has called him” (verse 17). There are some specifics related to the letter they sent him before that, and we’ll see three sections today.

Different Gifts (verses 6-7)

A number of translations have verses 6-7 as part of the previous paragraph. I do believe that verse 6 refers back, but this section transitions to Paul’s concern with the ideal state.

In verses 1-5 he responded to a letter from the Corinthians in which at least some of them were arguing that married couples should not have sexual relations with each other, presumably because such a physical act must have been less spiritual. Paul disagrees. Husbands and wives not only should enjoy one another in the marriage bed, they are obligated to do so, and any breaks from the bed should be agreed upon by both and only for a short time.

Then he writes, Now as a concession, not a command, I say this. A concession is an allowance, it’s giving in, admitting that something ins’t necessarily the best. What is Paul conceding? There are a number of possibilities. He could be conceding about marriage, about sex in marriage, about a temporary break from sex in marriage, or possibly looking forward to the idea of singleness.

It would be a problem if he was conceding marriage which God instituted. It would be inconsistent if he conceded sex in marriage, since he just commanded husbands and wives to reject abstinence while recognizing that abstinence brings it’s own temptation. There is also no good grammatical reason to look forward for the answer. So that leaves one option. He concedes, in reply to the argument of the Corinthians in favor of total abstinence, that temporary “abstinence” is okay for the purpose of prayer. There is an allowance, but he can’t agree with them to go the whole way; too much abstinence is “depriving” one another.

There is a way to be spiritual in abstinence, but it isn’t in marriage, it’s in singleness. The ESV fails to translate the adversative, the NAS helps. Yet I wish that all men were even as I myself am. However, each man has his own gift from God (NASB). We know that Paul was single because he says so in the next verse (8). He may have been married previously, and there are assumptions based on what was typical for a Pharisee that Paul must have been married. But those are guesses. He is not married now, and he says I wish that all men could be like him.

He says something similar in 1 Corinthians 14:5, wishing that all men could speak in tongues. But that’s after two chapters about how tongues isn’t the “best” gift, though it’s one they thought was special, and that God doesn’t give everyone the same gift anyway. There isn’t anything lesser about singleness, Paul is not married and is maximizing his opportunities. But it is a gift to him, and it is not the only gift nor is that particular gift for everyone.

Also, what is the gift he’s referring to? Each has his own gift from God, one of one kind and one of another. The gift is not equal to one’s marital status, the gift is satisfaction in one’s condition. Paul is happy being single, though there are some who aren’t, per the next paragraph. Others are satisfied being married, though there are some who aren’t, see the paragraph that follows where some spouses are separating from each other. Paul isn’t bitter about being single, nor is he distracted by thoughts of the marriage bed. He isn’t single out of reluctance; reluctance isn’t a gift.

God gives a variety of gifts, and it can’t be just married or single since there are many in both conditions who aren’t happy. The ideal state is living in the gift of God with freedom to serve the Lord with our without a spouse.

Different Goods (verses 8-9)

Now Paul begins to address different groups in the church. First, To the unmarried and the widows I say that it is good for them to remain single, as I am. It’s important to see the good, another hat tip to the “good” in the creation account. God created things good, including the very good of a man and a woman in marriage. But it’s not the only good.

It may be more than just single as in virgins, those who have never been married. Verse 8 is likely a reference to those who have been married but aren’t now, either because their spouse has died or because the divorce is final. The Greek word for “widower” is not typically used, and unmarried is a masculine form. That’s either a generic form (as “man” can refer to humans) applying to men and women, or it’s intended to complement widows. If Paul had been married but wasn’t now, he’s saying it’s good for the previously married to remain unmarried.

Verse 9 could be taken in a unflattering, even insulting way. But if they cannot exercise self-control, they should marry. It’s a condition, and at first it sounds like an substandard condition. The final sentence could throw gas on the fire. For it is better to marry than to burn (with passion).

We would definitely say that self-control failures are bad. But what is the failure? It’s not necessarily that they can’t, it’s about what they want. They don’t want to remain alone. To stay single, for some, would be a reluctant state. Their wants are indicated by the burn inside’ the phrase “with passion” is added as an interpretation (in italics in the NASB). It clarifies that Paul isn’t referring to some desire that would lead to the fires of judgment in hell, but uses this figurative, poetic language to describe the internal longing.

This isn’t a reluctance on Paul’s part. He’s not compromising on the Spirit’s ability to give self-control, he’s acknowledging that the Spirit doesn’t give everyone satisfaction in the state of singleness.

Do you want to have sex? The answer is not porn in private. Get married. “For Paul, the fire is not to be doused by fleeting, illicit sexual encounters or by grim repression of natural sexual desire. It calls for marriage” (Garland). Marriage responsibilities and pleasures are part of self-control, not that one must have all self-control before taking on the responsibilities. “Men are like trucks—they drive smoother and straighter with a load of responsibility.” (Driscoll)

Satisfied celibacy is a gift. You can’t make a religious vow, especially under the impression that it makes you more spiritual, and expect that you’ll be good. That’s actually the opposite of Paul’s point here. Those who are single may be able to serve the Lord without the distractions of marriage if they aren’t constantly distracted by desires to get in bed.

Defined Goals (verses 10-11)

Being single is no guarantee of happiness, you might burn to be married. So get married. Being married is also no guarantee of happiness, and yet it’s not an option to stop being married. To the married I give this charge (not I, but the Lord): the wife should not separate from her husband. It’s interesting that Paul starts with the wife. Possibly there was a wife, the wife known to them, or maybe a group of wives, who for some reason wanted out of their marriages.

This charge to not separate is given by the Lord, not Paul. That is, Paul is drawing on explicit words recorded that Jesus taught. It refers to Matthew 19 where Jesus told the Pharisees that every divorce apart from sexual immorality is wrong; “What therefore God has joined together, let not man separate” (Matthew 19:6). The Jews gave themselves loopholes to divorce for “any cause” (Matthew 19:3). The Romans likewise were loose; ours is not the first generation to have no-fault divorce. What’s unique about our generation is that we had a time when divorce for selfish reasons was disgraceful. What was unpopular in Paul’s day was staying together. He tells the Corinthians: Jesus says stay together.

In Matthew 19 Jesus did recognize divorce as lawful in cases of sexual infidelity, more on that next Sunday. But in 1 Corinthians 7:10-11, that’s not the case. These are husbands and wives in the church who are both professing believers. When one spouse is not a believer there are additional instructions that Jesus didn’t teach about but Paul does starting in verse 12. Whatever the reasons given by these couples here, they weren’t sufficient reasons.

Marriage is bigger than what one spouse says. God says marriage is only broken by adultery, or death, not when a wife decides she’s done or finds an upgrade. She might leave, (but if she does, she should remain unmarried or else be reconciled to her husband). The goal is reconciliation, which means that the relationship has troubles of some kind.

It’s not ideal for her to leave. There could be a case where she should separate for sake of safety, but others should be helping. In the meantime, remarriage is completely off the table. In her condition remarriage would be adultery, for her and the one she marries.

The final part of verse 11 includes the man: and the husband should not divorce his wife. He is not allowed either. It would be sinful even if it is legal.

There might be serious problems between a husband and a wife. Husbands can be real jerks, wives can be cold and disrespectful. For the Corinthians who were in pursuit of holiness, they may have thought it right to disassociate with spouses who weren’t helping. But apart from two scenarios, either marital infidelity or the other spouse not being a believer and unwilling to live together, reconciliation is always the goal. Reluctance to pursue reconciliation is also not a gift from God.


God gives gifts of gladness to be single and serve Jesus AND gladness to be married and serve Jesus by serving one’s spouse. God gives gifts including satisfied celibacy and satisfied sex in marriage. Neither, in and of itself, makes one better. There is not “one gift to rule them all.”

Don’t think you have the gift of singleness if you have reluctance or resentment. Also, stop looking for ways to satisfy your physical longings apart from a spouse. If a spouse sounds like too much trouble, then no wonder your backend is fishtailing.

Don’t complain that others have something else that is good for them, don’t covet what your neighbor has, and don’t cover your dissatisfaction by trying to sound more “spiritual.”

Receive your gift with thanks and contentment. It’s a reason to boast in the Lord.


Discontent is a danger in two ways. First, it snubs God’s gifts, and He sees our hearts. Second, it will grow into something worse, something disobedient acted out, possibly something adulterous. God sees all of that, too. Kill discontented thoughts. Punch them in the mouth as soon as they start whispering. The Lord commands you to give thanks, and it’s not for no reason.


May your hearts be encouraged, being knit together in love, to reach all the riches of full assurance of understanding and the knowledge of God’s mystery, which is Christ, in whom are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge.

As you received Christ Jesus the Lord, so walk in him, rooted and built up in him and established in the faith, just as you were taught, abounding in thanksgiving. (Colossians 2:2-3, 6-7, ESV)