It’s good to remain unmarried.

These words aren’t mine but the apostle Paul’s (1 Cor. 7:8). Yet despite their source, they’re not words we’re likely to hear enthusiastically preached from evangelical pulpits today.

I don’t recall being very aware of these words from Paul when I married young, just out of Bible college, where the faculty told girls they’d actually come for an “MRS degree” and gave classes on Christian family and marital responsibilities. In the years since, I’ve heard countless sermons on marriage, some describing it as the “pinnacle of creation,” others telling me that every woman’s “greatest joy in life” is being a wife and mother.

And my experience isn’t unusual. Church classes on marriage are de rigueur. Christians have reams of publications on marriage and traditional family values. Polling shows white evangelicals really do emphasize marriage and children in a way that most other religious groups do not: They think marriage is “important to living a fulfilling life.” And a recent CT article argued that nowhere does the Bible endorse long-term singleness that is not deliberately chosen for the sake of the gospel.

What would Paul make of all this noise about marriage? What would he think of our tendency to assume the experience of marriage is universal, our arguments that Christians should seek marriage, and the assumption that it’s an essential component of the life of faith?

He might wonder why we give so much attention to something that can compete with our devotion to the Lord. He might say: Stop talking so much about marriage—I think these singles will flourish if they stay unmarried.

Why is this so hard for us to hear today?

Part of it is our habit of forgetting who Paul was: a first-century itinerant Jewish teacher using scribes to write heated, long-winded, and sometimes crude letters to his disciples in between exalted visions. We instead cast Paul and the Corinthians in our own image.

But the options available to the Corinthians were not like ours. Nearly everyone got married at some point in the first-century world, and “not-yet-married-ness” was much rarer than today. Yet the pressures that led people to marry also meant that marriage was often involuntary and rarely lifelong or primarily romantic.

Marriage was not primarily an individualistic, romantic arrangement in the first century, but usually a social and economic necessity. Under Roman law, girls could marry at 12, and most were married before 20—a good paterfamilias wouldn’t wait too long before arranging a marriage.

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Augustus had introduced new law codes that encouraged early marriage, quick remarriage, and increased childbearing. Sexual abstinence was impossible for many enslaved believers, who had no legal rights to their bodies, and many enslaved women ended up marrying their enslavers, likely with no say in the matter.

And while it was less common to never marry, there were always many people currently unmarried, and Paul’s instructions include them. There wasn’t vocabulary equivalent to our “singles,” but Paul addresses the unmarried in general. He has guidance for unmarried people of different ages, sexes, and relationship statuses (including the widowed and possibly the betrothed) but does not distinguish between different reasons for currently being unmarried.

Many unmarried Christians would’ve been women in their 20s or 30s—some estimate that over a quarter of Roman women were unmarried widows, often young women left single for decades after a brief teenaged marriage to an older man.

The gendered age gap in marriage also meant that men usually experienced a period of unmarried adulthood into their 20s or 30s. Slaves couldn’t legally marry, and their cohabitation arrangements required permission from owners, so there must have been some who desired marriage but did not or could not have it yet (if ever).

So some first-century Christians would have remained unmarried for long stretches and undoubtedly sometimes for reasons outside their control—though often very different reasons than those we see today. In short, neither first-century marriage nor first-century singleness was just like ours, so we shouldn’t be surprised when we find a mismatch between our circumstances and what the Bible directly addresses.

But we shouldn’t draw ethical and theological conclusions from that mismatch alone. Just because a biblical text doesn’t explicitly address our circumstances with our categories doesn’t mean our circumstances and categories are necessarily problematic. Silence doesn’t mean disapproval.

When we forget how distant we are from those texts and come to the Bible expecting quick, straightforward answers to our modern questions, we can manhandle and flatten God’s Word, forcing it to address our concerns. And the image we flatten it into will be ours: We imagine a Paul who wants to promote the value of marriage for its own sake, like we tend to do, or who would be worried about the changes in society that we find troubling.

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However, just because these concerns aren’t explicitly addressed in the way we recognize or within our categories, we shouldn’t conclude that the text’s message is irrelevant to our situation. This isn’t an attempt to have my cake and eat it too—it’s a plea for handling the biblical text with care as the ancient, complex, and morally and culturally weighty text that it is.

So what was Paul’s message here?

As nearly all commentaries will tell you, Paul’s instructions are an apparent response to the statement in the opening verse of 1 Corinthians 7: “It is good for a man not to touch a woman” (KJV). The Corinthians have written to Paul, and this is likely a quotation or restatement of their position, one which uses a euphemism for sexual activity: Some believers think that (male) sexual abstinence is a superior moral practice. (Some translations, like the NIV, put the line in quotes to signal that it’s not Paul’s statement.)

Paul rejects the view that sexual abstinence is unconditionally, morally good. He explains that marriage can also be a morally laudable practice that abstains from uncontrolled and destructive sexual behaviour (vv. 2–5). He admits his own preference for remaining unmarried but recognizes that different believers have different gifts from God (v. 7). Some will be divinely equipped for marriage, others for unmarried life. God has given believers many ways to live for him.

Throughout the rest of the chapter, Paul considers many of these different ways: What if you find it difficult to live without a sexual partner? What if your spouse is an unbeliever? What if a partner leaves? What if you have plans to marry? What if your spouse dies? What if a believer is circumcised or uncircumcised or enslaved?

In every case, Paul says believers shouldn’t seek to change their status, because there is not just one way to live in the Lord. Conversely, because of that very truth, believers can also accept change. Enslaved people can use freedom if it comes. Single people aren’t sinning if they get married. None of these particular statuses or ways of life are said to be necessary, and change can be accepted, because what matters is our calling in Christ.

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Some translations—like the NIV’s advice for every person to “remain in the situation they were in when God called them” (v. 20)—mask one of Paul’s central commands here. Verse 20 says each one is to remain in the calling with which you were called (my translation). In all circumstances, Paul teaches, believers must cling to their status in Christ and remain confident that this—not marriage, not singleness, or anything else—will save. While God has allotted us particular roles and circumstances, these can change; our consistent vocation is being in Christ.

So if we can live for God in every circumstance, why does Paul still say it is better to be unmarried (v. 8)? This is not an offhand comment but something repeated throughout the entire chapter. Paul’s concession (v. 6) is thought by many to mean that he sees marriage itself as an exception, not the norm. He later says that anyone without a wife shouldn’t look for one (v. 27) and he tells widows they will flourish if they stay unmarried (v. 40).

At one point he makes an outright comparison between the married and unmarried states and says that being unmarried is better (v. 38). He even entertains the possibility that marriage might be a sin—twice (vv. 28, 36)! Marriage isn’t sinful, he says both times, but we should notice that he felt the need to clarify this, perhaps because he was worried those reading his instructions could infer otherwise. That’s how strongly he makes the case for staying unmarried.

Paul gives several reasons for that case. One is the Christians’ position in a new eschatological landscape: Time has taken on a new character, and the present form of this world is passing away (vv. 29–31). All believers should continue normal life, but with a measured detachment that recognizes its transience. Even as we marry, grieve, celebrate, and work, we must not be overly invested in these activities.

Next, being married means accruing more of these transient commitments (v. 28). It brings new worries and concern to please a spouse, leaving a believer’s attention divided (vv. 32–35).

Given these two related rationales—the hope of a new form of this world and the concentration of this-worldly stuff in married lives—the unmarried have a practical advantage. There are simply fewer things competing for their attention, so Paul thinks they’ll find it easier to maintain undivided devotion to the Lord (v. 35).

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But wholehearted devotion to Christ is Paul’s goal for all, not just the unmarried. Since the vocation to Christ applies to all believers, Paul attempts throughout the chapter to mitigate practical limitations and distractions for everyone.

He advises widows who want to remarry to find a fellow believer, perhaps because a spouse who shares your vocation will support it in practical ways (vv. 5, 39). For those already married, Paul proposes mutually agreed temporary celibacy to create times of undistracted ministry (v. 5). Perhaps Paul counsels those who “burn with passion” to marry because their sexuality threatens to consume them, dividing their attention like the married couples’ “troubles” do (vv. 9, 28).

The advice to remain unmarried is designed, then, to circumvent one particular set of complications altogether. The rationales given indicate its purpose: Singleness is for “the Lord’s affairs” and to “please the Lord” (v. 32). But notice how open-ended this is; Paul doesn’t specify purposes we might expect for unmarried Christians, like church work, serving others, or evangelism.

Here, again, history is helpful. First-century believers who decided to remain unmarried weren’t usually devoting their lives to church service in any formal sense. Though asceticism was practiced in widely varying ways at this point, there weren’t distinct, self-supporting communities like monasteries until centuries later. No matter how much time singleness made available for ministry, most of the unmarried would have had to find support within a household or through—in our terms—secular full-time work.

Furthermore, nowhere does Paul dictate that remaining unmarried is a permanent commitment. Many would have been powerless to make such a commitment, and even the few who could might have ended up getting married, something Paul recognizes. While Paul doesn’t want the believers to seek change for its own sake, his instructions still expect change to some degree. Again, our calling is to Christ, not our circumstances.

He asks unmarried believers to remain unmarried in the same way he asks married people to maintain married sex and in the way he advises the enslaved not to worry—as guidance on how to inhabit their current circumstances with allowance for future changes. Paul isn’t endorsing only singleness deliberately chosen for the sake of the gospel but singleness in general as something useful for the Christian life.

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The attention we give today to marriage undermines Paul’s message. When some Corinthians suggested that one particular way of life was morally superior, he resisted because of his belief in the power of God’s calling. And if we carelessly advise people to prioritise finding a spouse, we risk giving the opposite of Paul’s advice: “Do not look for a wife” (v. 27).

Most of us will marry. Many of us will find sexuality and the realities of this world too cumbersome without marriage’s arrangements. Marriage is a proven and biblical way to address the embodied concerns of this life, and Paul’s words here are not all we need to hear.

Genesis reminds us that it is not good to be alone and that marriage has a foundational place in our present world (Gen. 1–2). With Ecclesiastes (9:9), I can say that there are few things better than enjoying life with my husband—even while I know that this can’t save. I hope you’ve seen, like I have, reflections of Jesus in many different marriages that mirror the one-flesh-ness of Christ and the church (Eph. 5:25–33).

But let’s hear Paul’s voice endorsing singleness clearly, without cushioning him with equivocation or drowning him out with a cranked-up canonical or contemporary chorus. We must resist the urge to domesticate Paul and instead echo his incessant refrain: Christ, crucified and risen.

I still want to hear sermons about how good marriage can be—but also about how incredibly painful it is for many, and how it can be a distraction from devotion to Christ, and how we’re all waiting for the new creation. We can rejoice in our families while stating unequivocally that Christ alone is our greatest joy.

And let’s talk about how lonely and weary singleness can be and consider, too, its joys and its rich gifts to the church. Let me tell you about unmarried Christians who have kept pastor-less churches going while working demanding jobs, about singles whose friendship has sustained me and my husband through hard times, and some who speak of Christ to places and parts of society that married life could never have taken them.

Let’s hope our unmarried friends who want marriage find it, but let’s also strengthen them with the knowledge that they already have what they need for faithfulness, pray that they’ll remain in Christ, and rejoice that so many do find fulfilment in him, even without marriage. Let’s have faith that it can be good to be unmarried, because Christ is very good.

Annalisa Phillips Wilson teaches New Testament at the University of Cambridge and WTC, both in the UK. She is contributing a chapter on 1 Corinthians 7 to the book New Testament Ethics: Hermeneutics, Texts, and Practice, forthcoming with Eerdmans in 2024.

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