32I would like you to be free from concern. An unmarried man is concerned about the Lord's affairs—how he can please the Lord. 33But a married man is concerned about the affairs of this world—how he can please his wife— 34and his interests are divided. An unmarried woman or virgin is concerned about the Lord's affairs: Her aim is to be devoted to the Lord in both body and spirit. But a married woman is concerned about the affairs of this world—how she can please her husband. 35I am saying this for your own good, not to restrict you, but that you may live in a right way in undivided devotion to the Lord.
36If anyone thinks he is acting improperly toward the virgin he is engaged to, and if she is getting along in years and he feels he ought to marry, he should do as he wants. He is not sinning. They should get married. 37But the man who has settled the matter in his own mind, who is under no compulsion but has control over his own will, and who has made up his mind not to marry the virgin—this man also does the right thing. 38So then, he who marries the virgin does right, but he who does not marry her does even better.
39A woman is bound to her husband as long as he lives. But if her husband dies, she is free to marry anyone she wishes, but he must belong to the Lord. 40In my judgment, she is happier if she stays as she is—and I think that I too have the Spirit of God.
One of my high school basketball players came to me with a very challenging problem one year. He wanted to continue to play on the basketball team but he wasn’t sure he could. He was a very good player with the potential to play in college one day, but now he was thinking about giving up playing. His family was not doing well financially and he had been given the opportunity to work full-time after school. The money he would make there would help out his family greatly in the short-term but would not be as beneficial in the long-run as a college education would. Making matters more difficult was the fact that he believed he couldn’t afford college without a basketball scholarship. The real difficulty in the situation was that these two competing interests completely conflicted with one another; he simply could not do both well. Eventually a compromise was worked out where he was able to work and play basketball, although he wasn’t able to do either to the best of his ability.
Paul continues here with advice on marriage to a church that is torn between their social customs and pressures about marriage on the one hand and their desire to do God’s will on the other hand. Paul’s personal preference is that people, if so gifted, remain unmarried so that they can focus on God’s work. He has no problem, however, with those who choose to get married. He just wants them to realize the difficult road ahead if that is the path that they choose.
Paul doesn’t think that it’s impossible for someone to be married and serve God, as most of the other apostles were married (see 9:5). Yet he does personally believe that the ideal situation would be for people to be gifted with singleness. The thrust of Paul’s statements, though, can be better understood in context of the famine at the time. With famine in the midst, times were hard and being married was going to be more difficult than ever. Providing for a family and serving God during times of economic hardships can be almost impossible.
Above all, Paul does not really lay down any rules, he wants people to learn to demonstrate discernment and to think about things from the perspective of their life in Christ. One of the things that Paul wants people to realize is that many people get married for the wrong reasons. Getting married for a reason any other than glorifying God with one’s marriage will certainly lead one into divided loyalties. Paul is not against marriage, he is against marriages that pull one’s loyalties away from the Kingdom of God.
Verses 36-38 are notoriously difficult to translate and to understand. Many commentators now agree that the NIV translation is at best misleading from the original meaning. Theologian N.T. Wright translates these verses to read: “If anyone thinks he is behaving improperly towards his fiancee — if he finds the situation overly stressful, and matters reach a point of necessity — then let him do as he wishes, he won’t be sinning. But the man who settles it firmly in his heart and is not under necessity, but in control of his own will, and has made his judgment in his own heart to keep her as his finacee will do well. So the one who marries his fiancee will do well; and the one who holds back from marrying will do better.”
Paul is probably offering advice (although this passage could be taken in a couple of other ways) to engaged couples. They would have been engaged at a young age and the social pressure was for them to go ahead and get married. With their devotion to the Lord and the coming economic hardships to think about, Paul wants to remind them that they are in Christ. This matters far more than the social pressures to get married and have children, so whatever they decide is best to do is okay. If they feel that it is wise to postpone or cancel their marriage, that is a perfectly acceptable position to take.
In verse 39, Paul returns to briefly address the group of women that had been married but had lost their spouse. First he affirms the ideal permanency of marriage by saying that a woman is bound to her husband as long as he lives. They should not feel that this bind reaches beyond the grave. If they are widowed, they are free to make a wise Christian decision about their future marriage. This would have been quite freeing for women who would have faced great public pressure to get remarried. Paul reminds them, then, that their status in Christ and the reality of them living as people of the resurrection age moves them beyond social pressures. The only restriction that they should observe is to marry someone who belongs to the Lord.
Paul has already given his advice to those who find themselves married to a non-Christian, but no one should voluntarily enter into that arrangement. It would be foolish for someone in Christ to unite themselves willingly with someone who is still ‘in the flesh’. Paul’s judgment is that the widow might well be better off remaining unmarried. He ends with the cryptic phrase, and I think that I too have the Spirit of God. It’s hard to know if Paul meant this seriously or sarcastically, and to what specifically he is referring. He may be poking fun at those in Corinth who were offering differing advice and claiming that they could do so because they were ‘in the Spirit’. He might, however, be referring to the possibility that he was a widower who had remained unmarried. His phrase, then, would mean that has been perfectly happy with his decision, and he has the Spirit of God as much as anyone who decided to get remarried.
As Paul brings this section to a close, he has continued to look at the underlying question that began in chapter 6: In light of the resurrection, what is the body in this present age for? Christians should not just view the resurrection as some nice theological theory that we look forward to in the future but which has little to impact to how we live in the present. The reality is quite the opposite. The reality of the resurrection and the age to come should affect every aspect of how we order and live our lives.
The topic of marriage and divorce is as difficult and muddled in our world as it was in Paul’s world. Whenever we are in the midst of situations like these or offering advice to those involved with these issues we must do as Paul did. Consider what it means to think like someone who is in Christ and put the social expectations and pressures of the pagan world to the side.