Marriage and singleness

Does Paul consider marriage or singleness better?

I’m preparing for a sermon (as a layman) on Ephesians 5:22-6:9. As far as I can tell, Ephesians has the theme of uniting all things in Christ (1:10), and Paul often uses concepts around the household as a way of talking about this (fatherhood, inheritance, training children, family, household of God). In 5:22-6:9, he addresses husbands and wives, parents and children, masters and slaves - three main relationships in a household. It looks like households are a microcosm of the future kingdom, and marriage is a precursor to the marriage of the lamb Christians should joyfully embrace. Singleness is not even mentioned.

And yet, in 1 Cor 7, Paul recommends singleness above marriage as a way of purer devotion - and not just for a particular situation in Corinth at the time. 1 Corinthians 7:29 speaks of the “appointed time” being short, which to my mind refers to Christ’s return. In this chapter, Paul concedes that marriage is not sinful for those to Christians who cannot control their sexual appetites, but better is the life of singleness.

I’m finding it hard to reconcile the two. Surely God wants godly offspring (Malachi 2:15); surely he wants Christians to be fruitful and multiply (Genesis 1:28). And yet, if Paul had his way, we would become like the Shakers and be extinct within a generation.

Any thoughts?

I really don’t think these need to be reconciled. Thomas Sowell said:

There are no perfect solutions, only tradeoffs.

This is good general rule of thumb in a fallen world, even when we are talking about being obedient to God. The fact is that there are tradeoffs to getting married, difficulties and hardships even while there are great blessings. There are also tradeoffs while remaining single, after all, it was not good for man to be alone, even while, as Paul points out in 1 Corinthians, your focus is divided when you get married.

Although plenty of people have taken this view of the “present distress” or “appointed time” (Calvin for instance), many have understood it to be refering to the destruction of Jerusalem alnd surrounding wars. This, I think, makes the most sense of Paul’s meaning, if for no other reason than Paul comes close to being contradictory.

Some of these Bible commentaries may help.


Given the overall witness of Scripture, I would say that St Paul’s advice to live a single life, is specific to the Corinthians’ situation, but you also have the comments of Jesus in Luke 18:29, which talks about someone “leaving a wife … for the sake of the Kingdom of God”. It’s the case of the exception that proves (tests) the rule. And Paul speaks in the pastoral epistles about marriage and getting married (e.g. 1 Timothy 5:14, Titus 2:4). Was Timothy himself married?

The pastoral issues thrown up by singleness are complicated, and here, there is no one-size-fits-all.


Thanks for the reply, Jesse.

I think it is worth trying to get to the bottom of Paul’s attitude toward marriage, especially in today’s climate. At the risk of over-simplification, as a younger man I struggled with the idea that singleness was the better option because I wanted to please to God as much as I could. (No doubt other motives were involved, as well). It was only when I came across the idea that marriage is also a highly commendable way to serve God (as opposed to second rate) that I found a measure of freedom.

The way I’m reading it at the moment is that Paul is emphasising the benefits of being single in light of the bias toward marriage in his day. I wonder whether, in our day when people reject marriage in pursuit of perfection and fantasy and are beginning to justify it on the basis of 1 Cor 7, he would take a different approach.

Thanks Ross. The thing about the Pastoral Epistles is that Paul recommends marriage for younger widows because their passions may overtake their devotion, and their idleness may breed sin. He’s hardly recommending marriage as a positive good on its own! There’s no mention of building microcosms of the cosmological household of God.

Still, in both 1 Cor 7 and the Pastorals, he assumes the majority of women (and men) will be married. We could take that as an acknowledgement that most people fail to meet the highest standard of devotion, or rather that Paul has one gift and almost everyone else has another.

The pastoral question, of course, becomes, what if singleness is an unwanted gift, through divorce, death or born-that-way singleness? Definitely, as you say, not a one-size-fits-all situation, but knowing that marriage is a godly and good goal will change how we counsel others to order their lives, don’t you think? Matthew 19:11-12 only gives us three options, and it seems to me that Paul is talking about the final one.

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Definitely, as you say, not a one-size-fits-all situation, but knowing that marriage is a godly and good goal will change how we counsel others to order their lives, don’t you think?

Yeah … but I have dealt with too many people over the years for whom this was not an option - they were not married, were not going to marry, and did not have any particular charisma of celibacy for it either. One can certainly counsel people to seek after the godly goal of marriage, but it takes wisdom to know when not to - what is good advice in one situation may not be in another.

There was a U2 album entitled, “How to dismantle an atomic bomb”, which may be a good metaphor for this sort of situation! :slight_smile:

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So, would these situations come under being born eunuchs and being made that way by men per Matthew 19:12?
(Taking “eunuchs” to refer to more than physical inability).

Yeah, probably. I think also of Jephthah’s daughter, “weeping that she could never marry” (Judges 11:37-39), and also of Tamar (2 Sam 13:20), left in the same boat because of Amnon’s actions. To round off the list, think of Jeremiah as well (Jer 16:1-2). Again, these are exceptional cases, but they are in Holy Writ, so there are occasions in which they will have something to say.

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Absolutely. I also think it’s important to remember the overall teaching of Scripture when thinking through what Paul says.

I think a lit of people today, especially young people who may be starting to take their faith seriously, can feel the same way when they read 1 Corinthians 7. Many people also have a bit of a “pie in the sky” view towards marriage. I think its important for the church not to sugarcoat either the hardships or the wonders and blessings of marriage. So often we fall into a ditch of one side or the other. That’s why I mentioned tradeoffs earlier.

That’s an interesting thought that I haven’t considered before. You may be right

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I’m not a pastor but I Cor 7 seems to teach lessons about prudence and contentment in the face of persecution or worldly difficulties. It doesn’t prescribe a vocation of celibacy, call Christians to a preferrably celibate role in the church (like apostle), or teach that all of Anno Domini is difficult enough that celibacy is preferred.

I like how Matthew Henry counsels:

That condition of life is best for every man, which is best for his soul, and keeps him most clear of the cares and snares of the world. Let us reflect on the advantages and snares of our own condition in life; that we may improve the one, and escape as far as possible all injury from the other. And whatever cares press upon the mind, let time still be kept for the things of the Lord.


Yes, all things considered, I think your take on this passage is the most robust one.

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Can I recommend a podcast I did on this topic? I’m convinced that for most people singleness is not a gifting. I do not think the Apostle Paul is recommending it over marriage.


Joseph: I would agree with you that “for most people singleness is not a gifting” and that St Paul is not recommending it over marriage. If your response is to then say to Christian singles, “get married”, I get it, but then I also wonder if you also need to look at the other side of the coin? - that is, the singles who would love to get married and have a family, but for whatever reason cannot.

I deal with singles who desire marriage and yet are not on the episode but my answer is similar to what I would tell a married couple who wants a child and is having fertility issues. It is not a gifting but an affliction.


One of the interesting points that keeps jumping out at me is the assumption by Paul that people should get married if they want to - and he seems to indicate it’s a fairly easy thing to do.

“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.”
1 Corinthians 7:8-9

This is not to minimise the difficulties faced by those who do not find it easy to find a spouse - those born that way or made that way by men - but on the whole, marriage is meant to be easy to achieve. In line with that thought, raising and discipling people into heterosexuality is extremely important today, whether people end up single or married…and I believe many more will end up married if this continues to be done.

I listened to the podcast. I think using Matthew 19:10-12 as the controlling verses for 1 Corinthians 7 is wise. It is also appropriate to expand the meaning of “eunuch” to include non-physical restrictions on getting married based on the disciples’ comment in verse 10.

When we do that, we encompass people who are born unmarriageable for emotional or psychological or social reasons, and those who have been made unmarriagable by men for those reasons as well.

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Thanx - noted, for future reference.

I remember several years ago having a go around with a couple in our church whose older daughter ( if I remember correctly, she was 29 or so) desired to marry but couldn’t find the right kind of guy. Her parents had the view that she was a high-powered woman and needed a high-powered man. They may have been correct, but my take was that she thought too highly of herself and so couldn’t find a guy to match. She had expectations of a husband that no man could meet. She was very proud. She also, I thought, loved her life, her career, her income, and knew that to marry would be to come into conflict with herself.

I bring this up to say that “for whatever reason cannot” is sometimes (often?) due to pride and prioritizing career and income and status over marriage and children. To say this to the couple in my church was not well received. They had convinced themselves that the problem was the lack of high caliber men. I thought differently. Though, at her age, it could have been that all of the men worth marrying were already married. She had waited too long prioritizing her education and career, that by the time she wanted to marry there was no one worth marrying left to marry.

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Hi, to explain (and I do take your point). When I made that comment, it was in the context of:

  • “Regular guys” on low-wage jobs, who have complained to me of being ignored in the courtship stakes
  • Single women who would marry for the “right guy”, but figure - not without reason, I will add - that they are better off remaining single than ending up in a bad marriage. Christian singles are quite frequently told this - I certainly was, and by someone who was in a bad marriage. Quite humbling, I must say.
  • Demographics - more women than men in the singles’ community, which is a function (I think) of how our evangelism works better with adult women than adult men.

At any rate, I have seen several good marriages of Christians who were well into their thirties by the time they married, I’m sure we all have, but perhaps that is a discussion for another time!

What is often forgotten is that, mathematically speaking, this choice necessarily also results in a man not marrying