I Cor.7:1 Now for the matters you wrote about: It is good for a man not to marry.[a] 2But since there is so much immorality, each man should have his own wife, and each woman her own husband. 3The husband should fulfill his marital duty to his wife, and likewise the wife to her husband. 4The wife’s body does not belong to her alone but also to her husband. In the same way, the husband’s body does not belong to him alone but also to his wife. 5Do not deprive each other except by mutual consent and for a time, so that you may devote yourselves to prayer. Then come together again so that Satan will not tempt you because of your lack of self-control. 6I say this as a concession, not as a command. 7I wish that all men were as I am. But each man has his own gift from God; one has this gift, another has that. 8Now to the unmarried and the widows I say: It is good for them to stay unmarried, as I am. 9But if they cannot control themselves, they should marry, for it is better to marry than to burn with passion. 10To the married I give this command (not I, but the Lord): A wife must not separate from her husband. 11But if she does, she must remain unmarried or else be reconciled to her husband. And a husband must not divorce his wife. 12To the rest I say this (I, not the Lord): If any brother has a wife who is not a believer and she is willing to live with him, he must not divorce her. 13And if a woman has a husband who is not a believer and he is willing to live with her, she must not divorce him. 14For the unbelieving husband has been sanctified through his wife, and the unbelieving wife has been sanctified through her believing husband. Otherwise your children would be unclean, but as it is, they are holy. 15But if the unbeliever leaves, let him do so. A believing man or woman is not bound in such circumstances; God has called us to live in peace. 16How do you know, wife, whether you will save your husband? Or, how do you know, husband, whether you will save your wife? I Cor. 7: 32 I 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.
Let me tell you briefly about Saints Irene, Agnes and Philomena from the Roman Emperor Diocletian’s time, near the end of the 3rd Century. Diocletian was one of the last Roman emperors to persecute the church, and his persecution was perhaps the worst. These three Christian women, Irene, Agnes and Philomena, got caught in his dragnet because they refused the marriage proposals of Roman noblemen. And that was considered bad because, in matters of love, sex and marriage, the Roman noble man, and the father of the household, had the lion’s share of civil, legal rights. So for a woman to refuse him was already threatening enough. When pressed as to why they didn’t wish to marry these men, their answers exposed their illegal faith.
The noble, slave-owning Roman master and mistress also considered themselves entitled, by legal rights, to all the physical services of their slaves, including sexual services. So we know that there were also many Christian slaves, men and women, who were punished and persecuted both when they resisted the sexual demands of their pagan masters and mistresses, and when that resistance was traced to their Christian faith. To the Romans, these acts of resistance, with their bodies, only confirmed their fears, that the Christian faith challenged the divine order of society.
The stories of Irene, Agnes and Philomena, and of the slaves who refused the demands of their masters and mistresses, reveal a very basic difference between the way the first Christians viewed matters of love, sex, desire and marriage, and the way the world around them did. In their stories, and those of the untold numbers of Christian slaves, men and women, we see worst case examples of what can happen when people view such matters as 1) rights, and 2) as gods or goddesses, as the pagan society did. Yes, Greek and Roman society actually viewed desire as not only something divine, but as a god in itself. The word “Eros,” from which we get words like “erotic” and “eroticism,” was actually the name of an ancient Greek God at the time of Jesus and Paul. The Romans called him Cupid. And like any god, his demands and commands were to be resisted only at great risk to yourself, once he got you in his bow sights and stuck you with his arrow.
Twenty centuries later, things have not changed all that much. Sex, love and marriage are today discussed in the wider world mostly as “rights.” To be fair, that may be the only way that a secular, pluralistic, multi-cultural, multi-religious society can approach such matters. If it comes someday to extending legal rights to all sorts of marriages, I’m not losing any sleep over it. Not as long as everyone also has the right to follow their consciences and their beliefs at home and in their churches.
But if that’s where we stop, if “rights” are the only ways we can talk about love, sex and marriage, then whoever has more power in a relationship will logically have more rights, like the Roman man. Furthermore, legal and personal rights are not a solid, nor secure enough foundation on which to build a lifelong, faithful and mutually enriching relationship. If our own rights are all we care about, then we must take the words, “for better or for worse, for richer, for poorer, in sickness and in health,” out of our wedding vows. Lots of married people are not getting all their rights, like a friend of mine whose wife has been hospitalized for years with a chronic medical condition. Yet he remains devoted and faithful to her in a very Christlike way.
Today we still invest love, sex, desire and marriage with the power of God to make our lives whole, meaningful and worthwhile, even to heal everything broken about us. But reality says we can be sexually active, and stay just as broken. We even invest sexual desire with God-like ability to determine our identity. We divide, identify and categorize people by the nature and focus of their desires. That causes us to overlook all the needs we have in common.
But for the Christian, the rock bottom, solid center of our identity is the constantly-repeated biblical phrase, “in Christ.” God alone has the right to define us, and he calls all of us “beloved,” whoever we are, however the world defines and divides us. Yes, sexuality is deep, too, but compared to our eternal identity in Christ, it ebbs and flows, is fluid, changing, confusing and mysterious. And, as I’ll explain in a minute, it is a gift.
That’s why the church and the world today are talking past each other on moral and social issues. One side is talking rights, the other, gifts. And that impasse was happening in the church Corinth. Just when we thought it couldn’t get any crazier there, Paul today addresses another church faction, a faction that took the totally opposite position of the loose-living libertines we heard from last week, who said, “All things are permitted to me.” This opposite group says, “Its good for a man not to touch a woman.” Those are their words, not Paul’s. Paul doesn’t agree with this new faction either.
Into this stalemate between the extreme prudes and extreme libertines, Paul reframes the whole discussion with one simple little word: the word “gift.” He says, “But each [one] has his own gift from God; one has this gift, another has that.” For that word, “gift,” he even uses the same word that we encountered when we looked at spiritual gifts such as prophesy, discernment, tongues and administration: the word charism, from which we get the word “charismatic.” That implies that these gifts are 1) given by God and 2) intended for ministry.
This word “gift” applies both to marriage and to sexual expression within marriage. What’s more surprising, and counter-cultural, maybe even subversive, is that Paul also applies it to singleness and celibacy. If that wasn’t subversive enough for the time, Paul calls women as well as men to discern what their gift is. So we can have either a ministry of marriage, or a ministry of singleness. This passage invites us to see both conditions, married or single, as callings and gifts, with their blessings, challenges and responsibilities, and encourages us to discern which of those gifts is God’s calling for us. If we’re already married, we don’t have to discern that again. Instead, we’re called to stop worrying about if we’re getting our rights, and instead to ask ourselves, “How can I be a gift to my spouse? What gift does he or she need that I can give him or her? and How is he or she already a gift to me?”
So let’s briefly consider some of the gifts of marriage and of singleness. And the challenges and responsibilities. On the marriage side of the equation, the gifts are many and obvious: gifts of love, companionship, affection, family and intimacy on many levels, spiritual and emotional as well as physical. As I said last week, such love reflects God’s covenanting, self-giving nature and relationship with us.
Just when the world almost had us convinced that Paul and the whole Bible for that matter was prudish, puritanical and hostile to sexual intimacy and union, Paul talks in this passage about the intimate, sexual part of marriage in the same way, as also a gift. Last week we heard that our bodies are not our own, they were bought with a price, and are now temples of God’s Holy Spirit, belonging to God. Now this week, just a few verses later, we hear that the husband’s body also belongs to his wife, as a gift, just as the wife’s body belongs to her husband, as a gift. So the gifts of married bodies are not to be despised, nor withheld for very long, not even for reasons of prayer and fasting.
Furthermore, in marriage there can be and often are gifts of ministry to the world and the church. I know of pastoral and missionary couples who together minister to other churches and mission teams around the world, each one bringing gifts of teaching, counseling, listening and leading worship. They do more as a team than they each could do separately. Like Glenn and Gwenn Pickering, a couple who led our church retreat several years ago. The one in which we almost got blown away to Iowa.
But we must also be honest about the difficulties and challenges of marriage. Paul says that marriage can just as easily detract from our spiritual lives and ministries, if ever we value our spouses and our families before God. That’s an ever-present temptation, and a hard one to recognize when we’re trying to do right by our family. For example, I have heard stories of young people growing up in Christian homes, where they prayed for missionaries and even hosted and supported them and were all enthusiastic about global mission….uhhh….until their children grew up and said they’d like to serve God overseas. Then you’d think they’d taken up a life of crime! “How can you abandon your parents? Don’t tell me you intend to raise our grandchildren in a far-away land, among heathens! Can’t you wait till we’ve died? What’s another forty years?” Or when one spouse wants to explore a call to ministry, maybe even just a leadership position in the church, and the other spouse says, “Don’t even think of it!”
On top of that are all the other normal daily challenges and difficulties of marriage. Whenever I do pre-marriage counseling, I tell couples not to worry about whether or not you’re compatible, or how compatible you are. Assume from the start that, in some areas of life, you’re incompatible, just for being male and female, as well as for being two unique persons. Compatibility is just something you’ll be working at for all of your married lives. You’ll think you’ve got it down for a while, and then there’ll be another change to navigate, like children, aging and ailing parents, a change of career, retirement, and your own aging. Yes, its work, its hard, but that’s where the rewards are.
Now for the singleness side of the ledger. For Paul, the rewards of singleness and celibacy are such that he actually recommends it. Again, that’s a big change and a challenge to both the Jewish and the Gentile view of marriage, then and now. But he got it from Jesus, whose singleness allowed him to court the church that is becoming his global bride. Neither Paul nor Jesus see marriage as bad nor inferior. But singleness allows for the kind of freedom he has for his apostolic calling and permits the kind of dedication to his ministry that wouldn’t be possible otherwise.
But today’s text also mentions the costs and challenges of singleness and celibacy. One that Paul mentions is the loneliness, longing and desire that have nowhere to go, that he describes as “burning with passion.” Sometimes its also just like a constant dull ache. Like when a pastor asked an engaged couple, “When are you thinking of getting married? To which they replied, “Oh, all the time, Pastor.”
What’s more, the single person has to navigate a world and churches that are often structured around couples and families, often without recognizing what kinds of barriers they’re throwing up before single people. The single person has to navigate a world that assumes marriage as the norm, and which often judges people by their ability to attract and keep a mate, and then assumes all sorts of wrong reasons for why we may not have done so, or chosen not to do so. Recently, a family member emailed me copies of a six-sermon series on marriage given at a church in Arizona. Each sermon was great, powerful, inspirational and instructional. I was in awe of that pastor, and his sermon series, until I heard that some single, divorced and widowed people in that church were logically wondering, “Is this the church for me?”
Woops. Maybe that sermon series should have been an elective Christian education offering.
Whether we are married or single, today’s text calls us to the same three things: One, to consider our current state, single, engaged or married, as gifts and blessings, rather than as matters of rights, or the lack of rights. Rights are more about getting than about giving. And the more rights we have, typically, the more we expect. Seeing these states as gifts, however, implies a relationship with the Giver, and responsibilities to the Giver, with the way we use his gifts. And gifts inspire us to keep giving. We also know that gifts come with challenges and responsibilities. If someone gives us a car, we know we have to maintain it and pay for insurance, tabs and licenses. Its the same with the gift of singleness or marriage: there are responsibilities and challenges, as well as joys and blessings.
A second thing we are called to is discernment: if we are single, to discern which gift God wants for us, whether to stay single or seek a spouse. If we are married, then to discern how we might be gifts to our spouse. And, how can our marriage serve God’s kingdom?
Thirdly, we are to honor and respect our own gifting, and each other’s gifting, whether single or married. If married, that we act according to our gift, not like the person I knew of in my youth, a womanizer, about whom it was said, “His wife is married, but he is not.” I also tell couples, in pre-marriage counseling, that just as their coming for counseling is a sign of strength, so would it be a sign of strength if they go together for counseling now and then after their wedding. Rather than looking down on you, we’d celebrate and affirm you for the effort you’re making. The same with attending marriage enrichment retreats: I’d see that as the best possible excuse for missing church.
To honor our gift especially means that we honor and support the single people among us, and that we become aware of the big and little ways that the married majority might be excluding them, or stepping on their toes. It means that married couples resist the tendency to think only in the mathematics of base two, and keep making space in their lives, homes and activities for base 3, base 5 or whatever. Odd numbers of people should not be considered odd, nor do they mean that there are odd people. It just means that God is distributing his gifts to different people in different ways, gifts that are to be respected, appreciated, celebrated, and used for God’s kingdom, God’s honor and God’s family, the church. Whatever those gifts might be.