It is better to marry than to burn...

This week, someone asked me to forward the manuscript from a sermon preached last summer here at Clearnote Church, Bloomington. Preparing it for him, I thought I'd post it here on Baylyblog because it deals with two failures quite common within our churches. Good churches have singles who purport to be singly spiritual and not in need of marriage while, privately, they're given over to impurities and immoralities. Similarly good churches have marriages in which either the husband or wife protests or actually refuses marital intimacy. He doesn't believe his marriage vow has ceded authority over his body to his spouse, nor does he submit to that authority.

So here's the manuscript. As always, what is preached is more extensive than the manuscript taken into the pulpit. And yet I hope these notes will be helpful...

From the Pulpit of Clearnote Church, Bloomington
August 21, 2011 AM

It Is Better To Marry than To Burn
1Corinthians 7:1-9

Please turn with me to 1Corinthians 7:1-9. This is the Word of God, eternally true:

(1 Corinthians 7:1-9) Now concerning the things about which you wrote, it is good for a man not to touch a woman. 2 But because of immoralities, each man is to have his own wife, and each woman is to have her own husband. 3 The husband must fulfill his duty to his wife, and likewise also the wife to her husband. 4 The wife does not have authority over her own body, but the husband does; and likewise also the husband does not have over his own body, but the wife does. 5 Stop depriving one another, except by agreement for a time, so that you may devote yourselves to prayer, and come together again so that Satan will not tempt you because of your lack of self-control. 6 But this I say by way of concession, not of command. 7 Yet I wish that all men were even as I myself am. However, each man has his own gift from God, one in this manner, and another in that. 8 But I say to the unmarried and to widows that it is good for them if they remain even as I. 9 But if they do not have self-control, let them marry; for it is better to marry than to burn with passion.

Some of the things the Apostle Paul addressed in his letter to the Corinthians were in response to news he’d heard from individuals. In chapter one, verse eleven, for instance, he speaks about their quarrels with one another that were dividing the church and he tells them he’d heard about them being quarrelsome from “Chloe’s people.”

Here he indicates that he’d also received a letter from the church and some of the things he’s addressing—particularly this section dealing with various things related to the the proper place of sex and marriage—are in response to that letter. So we see that the church had the sort of respect for the Apostle Paul that when they had questions, they were inclined to trust him for the answers.

So the reputation of the Aposstle Paul among the Corinthians was good enough for them to look to him for counsel.

Here we see one of the matters they asked him about:

1 Now concerning the things about which you wrote, it is good for a man not to touch a woman.

The church had written the Apostle Paul asking whether or not it was good for a man not to touch a woman; to stay away from a woman which is to say, not to marry. And the Apostle Paul responds, “Yes, it is good for a man not to touch a woman.”

Two things to deal with, here:

First, why the question; and second, in what way did the Apostle Paul mean that it is good for a man not to marry?

First, why the question?

At the time, there were two traditions in the Corinthian church competing against one another. One traditions was Jewish which considered marriage necessary. If a young man wasn’t married by the age of twenty, he was condemned. Marriage had been given to man by God and it was the duty of every Jewish man to get a wife and raise his family. End of story. No higher aspirations were allowed.

The other tradition was the Greek tradition of aesceticism which said that remaining single and not getting involved with a woman—not touching a woman or marrying a woman—was a more refined and disciplined and philosophical and spiritual way of life. Don’t give in to your bodily desires. Resist lust and say no to your physical and emotional weakness.

So you can imagine how this would divide a church. Some have taken a vow of celibacy and others are doing the hard work of marriage and childrearing and they have tension between them and they write the Apostle Paul asking if it’s good not to touch a woman, not to have a wife, not to marry.

So the Apostle Paul answers the question, “Yes. It’s good for a man not to touch a woman. It’s good for a man to live celibately. It’s good for a man not to marry.”

You wrote and asked and there’s your answer.

Those men and women who choose to remain single are not being irresponsible. They are not sinning. It’s good for a man not to touch a woman, and a woman not to touch a man.

And in this, let us remember that the Son of God, our Lord Jesus Christ, was Himself single and by His singleness, sanctified the single life.

But immediately, what the Apostle Paul gives with one hand he takes with another.

There are godly reasons for the believer to abstain from marriage, which is to say sex. But there are also ungodly reasons, and the Apostle Paul is no prude or stupid shepherd when it comes to the habits of his flock of sheep. So right away, he goes on to say:

2 But because of immoralities, each man is to have his own wife, and each woman is to have her own husband.

Note that word ‘but.’

On the one hand, it can be said that it is good not to touch a woman, not to have sex.

But on the other hand, it is not good to give yourself to immoralities. So even though in an absolute sense, singleness is a good, a legitimate and godly option for the believer, it’s the exception to the rule with the rule itself being that “each man is to have his own wife, and each woman is to have her own husband.”

The good of abstaining from marriage and sexual intimacy does not trump the good of abstaining from sexual immorality. At all cost, flee sexual immorality!

It is the habit of Christian men—particularly young and callow Christian men—to have higher opinions of themselves than are warranted by the facts, and therefore to think about or vow celibacy when they do not have the gift of continence (which is to say, they aren’t able to restrain themselves from sexual immorality).

So thinking themselves very spiritual and other-worldly and pious and holy, they become wicked and give themselves to moral filth.

We see this writ large in the Roman Catholic Church through the ages where, not simply as individuals, but as an entire formal association of churches, they took a vow of celibacy on the part of their shepherds despite the fact that many, many, many of their shepherds did not and do not have the gift of continence, of abstaining from fleshly lusts and desires. So across the history of the Roman Catholic Church, we’ve seen the sort of sexual immorality on the part of its priests that we see still today. Priests and bishops and heads of seminary and archbishops and cardinals who have semi-secret lives of immoralities—and immoralities of the sort that it’s impolite to mention in public. Wicked awful filthy immoralities after taking a vow not to touch a woman.

Among Protestant Christians, the habit is a little different. Feeling the dirtiness of their sin and being ashamed of their desires, some men promise God that they will never marry. They go around telling others that marriage isn’t for them and that they are going to remain single for the sake of the Kingdom of God.

Then they give themselves to moral filth—to what the Apostle Paul here refers to as “immoralities”—and having a very high commitment, they sink very, very low.

This must not be, commands the Apostle Paul:

1 Now concerning the things about which you wrote, it is good for a man not to touch a woman. 2 But because of immoralities, each man is to have his own wife, and each woman is to have her own husband. 3 The husband must fulfill his duty to his wife, and likewise also the wife to her husband.

Which is to say that touching a woman is required if you can’t keep yourself from touching a woman. If you do not have the gift of continence or celibacy, don’t overestimate your charisms—your gifts from the Holy Spirit—and try to be more spiritual than others, ending up much, much less spiritual than anyone.

We have seen before that the Corinthian church was dogged by sexual immorality. They lived in the midst of a grossly immoral city and had themselves drunk from the town well and were themselves given over to gross sexual immorality. They had a man in their midst who was married to his father’s wife and they were proud—that’s how bad things had become in the Corinthian church!

So yes, there’s nothing wrong with celibacy, with not touching a woman. In fact, it is good.

But because of immoralities, each or every man is to have his own wife, and each or every woman is to have her own husband.

There is the exception of singleness and the rule of marriage. Don’t make the mistake of thinking you should be single when you have not been given the gift of singleness.

And as immoralities are rampant among the single who need to take a wife and touch her, so immoralities are rampant among the married who need to touch their wife or their husband.

The dangers of sexual immoralities are among the married, also.

Married men and women are not to abstain from sex, but to give themselves to one another in sexual intimacy and union.

3 The husband must fulfill his duty to his wife, and likewise also the wife to her husband.

Note the word ‘must.’

The husband “must fulfill his duty to his wife.”

And in the same way, the wife must fulfill her duty to her husband.

If it’s wrong and bad and evil and dirty for the single man to take a vow of celibacy and proceed to give himself to sexual immorality of a private nature while publicly claiming to be single and holy, it’s even more perverse for a man or woman who is married to use holiness and asceticism and piety and Bible reading and prayer and “going on retreat” as a means of selling his own good reputation among others while giving himself to every form of dirtiness and shame and perversity and wickedness in private.

No! Don’t be more holy, more sanctified than you are. Be humble and fulfill your duty to your wife. Be humble and fulfill your duty to your husband.

And this is not “may” or “might” or “can” or “should” or “is permitted to,” but this is “must.”

This is a command.

3 The husband must fulfill his duty to his wife, and likewise also the wife to her husband.

Then the Apostle Paul goes on and opens up the sort of temptations and sins the Corinthian believers had fallen into:

4 The wife does not have authority over her own body, but the husband does; and likewise also the husband does not have authority over his own body, but the wife does.

This is the place to go in Scripture for a statement of the woman’s authority over man, and specifically the wife’s authority over the husband. God commands it!

Concerning the body, the wife does not have authority over her own headache and private devotions and holy and set apart body devoted only to God and having nothing to do with her husband and his dirty desires. But also, the husband does not have authority over his own headache and tiredness and different sleep schedule and prayer life and great self-discipline and business trips.

Marriage is the two becoming one in mind, soul, and body. To marry is to give over authority over one’s own body to one’s spouse, says the Apostle Paul. Any discussion of so-called “marital rape” must start with this declaration from God. Neither husbands nor wives are to manipulate or force themselves on one another, and yet each has authority over the other’s body, sexually, and this is a very serious matter that must be obeyed by husbands and wives.

Marriage is a contract by which the man ceases to have absolute authority over his own body concerning sexual intimacy. He now belongs—his body belongs—to his wife and he is to fulfill his duty to her. He is to submit to her authority over marital intimacy. She is his boss over the marriage bed and he is her boss over the marriage bed.

Concerning sexual intimacy, there is perfect equivalence between the man and his wife, the woman and her husband. She has authority over his body and he has authority over her body.

To put it bluntly, because of immoralities, the man is to get a wife and touch her and the woman is to get a husband and touch him.

Because of immoralities, the man is to get married and submit to the authority of his wife over his body and the woman is to get married and submit to the authority of her husband over her body.

But, this authority is not to be used to justify immoralities. It is to be used to flee immoralities! It is to be used to develop purity.

There is not to be authority exercised and submitted to that leads to sin. The marriage bed is to be kept pure, as Scripture says, “hating even the garment polluted by the flesh” (Jude 16).

The marriage bed is for purity, not filth. No husband’s or wife’s authority is to be submitted to in sin.

But also, no husband or wife is to refuse to submit to their spouse’s authority over their body under pretense of higher holiness. Which is to say, sex is not dirty. Sex is not sinful. Sex is not a lower function that truly spiritual men and women repudiate.

Sex is good. Beautiful. Right.

But the marriage bed is not just for purity, but also for love. For kindness. For affection. For tenderness.

So how can we talk about exercising and submitting to authority while at the same time we talk about kindness and affection and tenderness?

Because as continence fails, so also kindness and tenderness and love fail.

The man who doesn’t have the gift of celibacy must marry.

The woman who won’t be intimate with her husband simply because she loves him must be intimate with him because he has authority over her body. Her body belongs to him—that is the meaning of marriage.

He may not refuse to give her children and she may not refuse to give him love.

Or she may not refuse to give him children and he may not refuse to give her love.

If lovemaking won’t come from kindness and affection, it must come from the demand of the one who has authority over your body—namely, your husband or wife.

Spiritual is as spiritual does. Godly is as godly does. Holiness is as holiness does.

Marriage is as marriage does. Love is as love does.

We are not aerie spirits but bones and flesh and blood.

Stop depriving one another, except by agreement for a time, so that you may devote yourselves to prayer, and come together again so that Satan will not tempt you because of your lack of self-control. But this I say by way of concession, not of command. Yet I wish that all men were even as I myself am. However, each man has his own gift from God, one in this manner, and another in that.  - 1Corinthians 7:5-7 

Tim Bayly

Tim serves Clearnote Church, Bloomington, Indiana. He and Mary Lee have five children and fifteen grandchildren.

Comments

Thank you this is helpful to a conversation I was recently having with a friend. Love and miss you!

I confess I struggle with this passage. How is it that marriage seems to be the second best to Paul? If you're gonna sin, THEN get married. I don't see this as the portrayal of marriage in Genesis. Maybe others struggle with this as well?

I imagine if I was one of the Greek ascetics I would feel vindicated. "I was right, our way is best! But yeah, I can see the point, sometimes people just have o compromise and marry."

Is my view of Genesis too romantic and not earthy and dusty enough? Isn't marriage fundamental and foundational to God's kingdom purposes, not simply something to give people an outlet to avoid sin?

Elsewhere the Bible talks about how a single man or woman is able to serve God single-mindedly, but the married man or woman has his attentions divided: he must consider how to please his wife, or she must consider how to please her husband. In that passage the Holy Spirit--through the Apostle Paul--notes that it will be more difficult for those who get married. And again, there is the exhortation to and high praise of singleness, for those who are gifted in that way--but because marriage divides your attentions, not because it is second-rate.

Very robust sermon, thankyou. If I may add a supplementary exegetical point noted by Piper in his recent e-book on Preparation for Marriage:

Now notice something else in 1 Corinthians 7:3–5. This is very important. In verse 4 Paul says that the man and the woman have rights over each other’s body. When the two become one flesh, their bodies are at each other’s disposal. Each has the right to lay claim to the other’s body for sexual gratification. But what we really need to see is what Paul commands in verses 3 and 5 in view of these mutual rights. He does not say, “Therefore stake your claim! Take your rights!” He says, “Husband, give her her rights! Wife, give him his rights!” (v. 3). And in verse 4, “Do not refuse one another.” In other words, he does not encourage the husband or wife who wants sexual gratification to seize it without concern for the other’s needs. Instead he urges both husband and wife to always be ready to give their body when the other wants it. I infer from this and from Jesus’s teaching in general that happy and fulfilling sexual relations in marriage depend on each partner aiming to give satisfaction to the other. If it is the joy of each to make the other happy, a hundred problems will be solved...  Wives, it is not always the case, but often, that your husband wants sexual relations more often than you do. Martin Luther said he found twice a week to be ample protection from the tempter. I don’t know if Katie was up for it every time or not. But if you’re not, give it anyway. I do not say to you husbands, “Take it anyway.” In fact, for her sake you may go without. The goal is to outdo one another in giving what the other wants. Both of you, make it your aim to satisfy each other as fully as possible. John Piper, Preparation For Marriage, p30-32

Actually, John gets it kinda wrong. The Apostle Paul doesn't say "take your rights," but neither does he say what John paraphrases him as saying: “Husband, give her her rights! Wife, give him his rights!”

There is no talk of rights here. That's an American fixation that, used to exposit this text, is really an equivocation.

The actual words the Holy Spirit inspires are "authority," "duty," and "deprive."

The husband must fulfill his duty to his wife, and likewise also the wife to her husband. The wife does not have authority over her own body, but the husband does; and likewise also the husband does not have over his own body, but the wife does. Stop depriving one another...

The Apostle Paul declares "the wife has authority over her husband's body" and vice versa. Where does God ever delegate authority without a correlative obligation on the part of the one to whom He delegates authority to exercise that authority? Necessarily then, the Apostle Paul is commanding the wife to exercise her authority over her husband's body and her husband to submit to his wife's authority over his body."

Why must we always revert to talk of "rights" when Scripture speaks of authority? It's awful.

Authority is a burden--not a privilege. And until we get this firm in our heads, we'll never submit or exercise authority in a godly manner that builds up our spouse, chillluns, or flock.

Let's stop playing to the audience of our decadent age. Argumentum ad populum is popular, but it's a cheap shortcut that is never as helpful as Scripture's own words.

This is not, of course, to approve any of the evils John goes on to condemn; but only to say we don't ever need to clean up the language of the Holy Spirit.

Love,

Yes those are some fair points. We should not water-away the authority bit that is there. So we could summarise Paul's 3 admonitions as:

"Husband/wife: fulfill your duty to your spouse"

"Husband/wife: do not deprive one another"

"Husband/wife: you have authority over one another's bodies" (implication - use it, and use it properly)

I am tempted to ask you the tricky question of how does a husband/wife exercise authority in a godly manner over their spouse when the other is unwilling. A friend was recently telling me about a documentary on wives who had a clinically obsessive compulsion for sex all the time that the husbands were not willing to oblige. What counsel then? Must she exercise her authority over his body by sitting him down and instructing him forthrightly (but calmly) that he must comply with her incessant requests?

Difficult cases like these make it clear that we would probably be wisest to sacrifice the normal on the altar of the abnormal, no? (I jest)

//And again, there is the exhortation to and high praise of singleness, for those who are gifted in that way//

[1] What may or may not be helpful to point out is that many Christian singles are not really "gifted" to be single. That a Christian has ended up single is not the same as saying they are gifted for it. If they are obviously not gifted for it, then we respond differently: we start looking to remove the things which are obviously getting in the way of a good Christian marriage.

[2] I would think that the restriction that a Christian marry only another Christian would trump all other considerations, but maybe that's a statement of the obvious.

As usual, comment/disagreement/criticism welcome.

Thanks Abram (and Ross). But again, my struggle. I suspect that since you don't know me, and for the benefit of others, you point out that it is the Holy Spirit that says these things you us, and amen. I want to bow to scripture, my struggle is understanding scripture rightly that I might bow rightly.

God created male and female, does this indicate something special about marriage in the fulfillment of the creation ordinance? Something a bit higher than marry or burn?

"...because marriage divides your attentions, not because it is second-rate." My mind has difficulty seeing the distinction. Better would seem to mean better. Of course "second rate" sounds more pejorative. Isn't it in marriage and family that the dominion mandate is carried out?

Paul's words are God's words. The deficiency is in me.

>>Must she exercise her authority over his body by sitting him down and instructing him forthrightly (but calmly) that he must comply with her incessant requests?

Yep, I run into this situation all the time.

I jest.

Love,

Think of things in terms of a decision tree. 

* If you end up married, what God expects of you is x.

* If you end up single, what God expects of you is y.

* While the majority of Christians will end up married, not all will. The reasons for that, in most individuals' cases, will a mixture of positive and negative ones. Not many single Christians could be fairly described as being 'called' to be single. 

* it is not that 'being married' is better than being single; what is the better, is what God wants for you personally.

perhaps the distinction you are looking for is in Genesis chapter 3. Pre-fall, marriage was(and is) the standard. Post-fall, the standard is still the standard, but with the problems that accompany the introduction of sin into the world. Paul is presenting the standard as the standard , with a provision made for an extraordinary circumstance, namely the gift of singleness. This gift is good, along with all other gifts, but it is a gift; not attained by effort. Paul wants the Corinthians (and us)to know that it would be good to posess that gift, just as it would be good to posess any spiritual gift. BUt we who are not so gifted need to accept that, and receive God's equally good gift of a husband or wife in the Lord. The provision God has provided in either situation is good, as all His gifts are, and His gifts are for the edification of His church.

I would know many Christian singles whose situation as a single does not really reflect a gift of singleness. Why this distinction matters I've covered in one of the other posts of this thread, because it needs to be kept in mind when working through any pastoral response. Perhaps some singles do have a genuine call to/gifting of singleness but don't really realise it. 

Ross,

I notice your sentiments about the failure of many who should get married to actually get married.

I've been wondering if part of the reason for this is the unwitting abdication of responsibility by parents to help their children find a spouse (in western culture, that is).  

Is it really a responsibility the parents have?

Out of many passages in scripture where we see the pattern of parents taking a proactive role in finding spouses for their children, here is one where God himself speaks directly:

Take wives and have sons and daughters; take wives for your sons, and give your daughters in marriage, that they may bear sons and daughters; multiply there, and do not decrease... Jer 29:6

To state it mildly, I'm thinking that the current autonomous approach in regard to finding a spouse (an approach bestowed on young singles by their parents and society), has slender biblical precedence in comparison to parental matchmaking.

Perhaps that is a large reason why so many are frustrated at not finding a spouse. We have casually discarded the parental role that God himself seemed quite happy with in the Bible. And it should go without saying that this does not necessitate forced marriages.

Instead of raising children with (unrealistic) expectations of building their own castles in the sky, why don't we raise children with the expectation that dad and mum will help them find them a good (but not castle-in-the-sky-perfect) spouse one day?

It has been very interesting for me speaking to a number of Muslims and Indians on the manner of spouse finding. They don't seem to have the same problem we do. Could we perhaps have something to learn from them?

Methinks that to counsel the clinically obsessive of either sex, one might do well to take a look and see whether it's really clinically obsessive, or whether it's a response to the duties "not being paid."  Wait a week/month/whatever, and don't be surprised when the one denied wants to get it while the getting is good.

Well said on this, and of course 1 Cor. 7 is not the end-all in discussing sexuality between man and wife--but it's a great start.  To get the full picture, of course, you read the full word and understand it, no?

This is something that the courtship movement, implicitly, and the betrothal movement, quite explicitly, do argue for. It wouldn't fix all the problems, by any means, but it would mean a much more 'intentional' approach to the process of getting married than what the American culture of dating. Thots, anyone?

This is off-topic to the original post, but...

You have to consider whether the courtship or betrothing encourages the young men to be men, or if it imprisons them in perpetual boyhood. Some parents see courtship, not as an opportunity to help find a good spouse for their child, but as the route to continue coddling him into adulthood. If a mother finds a woman for her son who will just be another mother for him; or if the betrothment is simply another avenue for a controlling matriarch to continue controlling her child's life, including and well-after the wedding...

Not that I'm trying to defend dating. But I am unconvinced that the Bible prescribes a certain formula for match-making; in fact, in the book of Proverbs the wisest man who ever lived wrote that the way of a man with a maiden is something too amazing for him to comprehend. Given the condition of most young men in America today, they probably don't need a wife match-made for them (think of the poor women!). What most of them need is to stop looking at porn, stop squandering all of their time and energy on video games and movies, stop whining about how they don't like being single, stop being afraid of rejection--and just man-up, and go ask a girl to marry him (or, failing that, ask her if she wants to go get some ice cream with him sometime...with the end-goal and trajectory of marriage).

If the problem were that the men are having trouble finding wives, then maybe courtship and betrothal would be the solution. But that's not the problem. Churches are overflowing with Christian women. The problem is that there aren't any men to marry, because we're all stuck in perpetual boyhood.

A friend was recently telling me about a documentary on wives who had a clinically obsessive compulsion for sex all the time

...if you find a young woman with that much energy, who is godly, and cares for holiness, strangers, considerate...let me know. I am a guy who will probably have to make his own way in business anyways, having such a screwed-up paper trail (sick, abandoned, homeless/couch-surfing, need to move through jobs, a year undocumented while caring for a relative...) so building-in flexibility in scheduling should be possible. : )

Just as seriously as the above comment actually is, that kind of compulsion is something the man can help the wife with, you know, figuring-out the psychology, helping her build restraint and delay gratification, little-by-little, but not to the point that she might be tempted exceedingly. I think I have heard a lot of women complain about when they first marry and their husbands being...insatiable.

The kind of situation you describe, btw, Henry, is probably one that godly elder men and women are perfect for helping with, i.e. in counsel, and there are also "stags" out there too, men who have more testosterone than they know what to do with: maybe match-making by the elders is in ordre? Now if only there were many ecclesial institutions that pay those duties of the elders to teach the youthful, and properly, seriously. I have encountered more who have more the "prudence" so-called of this world than that contained in our Holy Book.

A note on the rights vs. duties thing, while I like sticking with the scriptural terms, "right" and "duty" have long been used as opposite sides of the coin or the equation; older discussions of political science (the kind which produced the American Republic), though more specifically its descendents, for instance, speak of the problem of the courts creating "rights" which are not fundamental or necessary, because this creates "duties" in others which, because the rights proclaimed are unessential, actually infringe (if not abrogate) the fundamental ones.

Perhaps it is this sort of vocabulary, lingo, that Piper is familiar with.

I do not know whether ancient minds conceived of duty in such terms or no.

Churches are overflowing with Christian women

O/T, but I think how we do our evangelism is the culprit for that. Marc Driscoll is on the right track here.

 

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