1 Corinthians 7:38 states, “So then he who marries his betrothed does well, and he who refrains from marriage will do even better.” Does this verse mean God would prefer that you remain single? Many Christians would say, “Yes, God does want you single.”
But is that really what 1 Corinthians 7:38 means? Does God really prefer that all Christians remain single but only allows marriage for those who just can’t control themselves? Is singleness like the gold medal and marriage like settling for silver?
In this article, I’m going to give you 4 reasons 1 Corinthians 7:38 is misused and why marriage is sometimes what God prefers for some Christians and why singleness is sometimes what God prefers for some Christians.
1. In Context, 1 Corinthians 7:38 Is Talking About Singleness and Marriage Generally, Not in Regards to Specific Individual Christians
As is true of all biblical interpretation and application, the context of each verse is crucial. We have to be careful we interpret and apply each verse with the context of the whole passage in mind rather than coloring a whole passage in the light of just one verse. The whole Bible must be used to interpret each verse, while it is dangerous to interpret the whole Bible through the lens of just one verse.
When you read 1 Corinthians 7:38 in the context of the whole chapter of 1 Corinthians 7, you see that it would be very wrong to conclude that God would prefer every single Christian to remain single. For example, when talking about individuals with certain gifts, weaknesses, desires, and variables, Paul states in numerous places it is actually better for these people to get married:
- 1 Corinthians 7:2, “But because of the temptation to sexual immorality, each man should have his own wife and each woman her own husband.”
- 1 Corinthians 7:7, “I wish that all were as I myself am. But each has his own gift from God, one of one kind and one of another.”
- 1 Corinthians 7:9, “But if they cannot exercise self-control, they should marry. For it is better to marry than to burn with passion.”
- 1 Corinthians 7:36, “If anyone thinks that he is not behaving properly toward his betrothed, if his passions are strong, and it has to be, let him do as he wishes: let them marry—it is no sin.”
And likewise, when Paul refers to other people with other gifts, weaknesses, desires, and variables, he states it would be better for them to remain single:
- 1 Corinthians 7:7-8, “I wish that all were as I myself am. But each has his own gift from God, one of one kind and one of another. To the unmarried and the widows I say that it is good for them to remain single, as I am.”
- 1 Corinthians 7:32-35, “I want you to be free from anxieties. The unmarried man is anxious about the things of the Lord, how to please the Lord. But the married man is anxious about worldly things, how to please his wife, and his interests are divided. And the unmarried or betrothed woman is anxious about the things of the Lord, how to be holy in body and spirit. But the married woman is anxious about worldly things, how to please her husband. I say this for your own benefit, not to lay any restraint upon you, but to promote good order and to secure your undivided devotion to the Lord.”
So, going back to 1 Corinthians 7:38, I don’t believe Paul is saying that everyone would be better off single. Rather, when he states that “. . . he who refrains from marriage will do even better,” he’s saying this generally about singleness compared to marriage. He’s not saying this to each individual.
Yes, singleness is actually better than marriage generally speaking. But singleness is not better for each individual Christian.
2. In Context, 1 Corinthians 7:38 Is Telling All of Us that It Is Best to Focus Fully on Christ, Not Earthly Things
Why is singleness generally better than marriage when individual variables are subtracted from the equation? 1 Corinthians 7:32-35 explains:
I want you to be free from anxieties. The unmarried man is anxious about the things of the Lord, how to please the Lord. But the married man is anxious about worldly things, how to please his wife, and his interests are divided. And the unmarried or betrothed woman is anxious about the things of the Lord, how to be holy in body and spirit. But the married woman is anxious about worldly things, how to please her husband. I say this for your own benefit, not to lay any restraint upon you, but to promote good order and to secure your undivided devotion to the Lord.”
Again, you have to remember Paul is writing a letter of instruction to a group, not to an individual. Thus, we have to remember he’s talking about singleness and marriage generally. We already reviewed the numerous verses in 1 Corinthians 7 that state it is better for some individuals to be married (1 Corinthians 7:2, 7, 9, 36).
So, really, 1 Corinthians 7 is not about being single or married. It’s about putting God first. Paul is saying you must choose marriage or singleness based upon which one will help you have an “undivided devotion to the Lord.” This is why in 1 Corinthians 7:29-31 he said:
This is what I mean, brothers: the appointed time has grown very short. From now on, let those who have wives live as though they had none, and those who mourn as though they were not mourning, and those who rejoice as though they were not rejoicing, and those who buy as though they had no goods, and those who deal with the world as though they had no dealings with it. For the present form of this world is passing away.”
How can Paul tell married people to live like they are single? He’s not telling them to neglect their spouse, as that would contradict what he said in 1 Corinthians 7:3-5, Ephesians 5:21-33, and in every other Bible passage where he mentions marriage. No, he’s saying that married people should act like single people in the fact that they too must have an “undivided devotion to the Lord.”
While married people will be tempted to focus on their spouse in sinful ways and will have more opportunities to be distracted and anxious because of this relationship, Paul is saying that married people must also take the mindset of one who has chosen singleness so that they can fully focus on Christ.
He’s not saying singleness or marriage is better for every individual. He’s saying that fully focusing on God is best for every individual, whether single or married. He’s telling us that whatever relationship status best helps our walk with God, we should choose that.
3. We Know 1 Corinthians 7:38 Is Not Saying God Prefers Every Christian to Be Single Because the Greater Context of Scripture States Otherwise
Not only must we be careful to read 1 Corinthians 7:38 in the context of 1 Corinthians 7, we must also be careful to read it in the context of the whole Bible. Scripture must always be used to interpret Scripture. This means the right biblical interpretation is the one that fits in-line with the rest of what the Bible says about that subject and does not contradict any other part of Scripture.
If we said that God really wants every single person to be single but just allows some to get married who are weak, that would contradict many other Scriptures. For example, when God said that it was not good for Adam to be alone (Genesis 2:18), this was stated of Adam before sin had occurred. Thus, it was not a weakness or a flaw in Adam that caused God to allow Adam to marry Eve. God made him this way. As 1 Corinthians 7:7 clearly states, “I wish that all were as I myself am. But each has his own gift from God, one of one kind and one of another.”
Paul was happy to be single, which is why he said he wanted everyone to be single. He wanted them all to experience the happiness he had found in Christ. Which is why he also said in 1 Corinthians 7:40, “Yet in my judgment she is happier if she remains as she is. And I think that I too have the Spirit of God.”
But he also recognized that not all were designed by God like he was designed by God. He recognized that God had given some people the gift of singleness like him and had given other people the gift of marriage – like Adam, the other apostles, and Peter (Ephesians 5:31, 1 Corinthians 9:5). So when Paul advocates for singleness, he’s advocating for the happiness he’s found in Christ, which he encourages people with the gift of marriage to also pursue (1 Corinthians 7:29, 35).
So we know 1 Corinthians 7:38 is not saying everyone should be single because throughout the Bible marriage is promoted as a good thing that glorifies God (Ephesians 5:21-33, Song of Solomon, 1 Peter 3:1-7, Hebrews 13:4). In fact, in 1 Timothy 4:1-5, Paul states one sign of a false prophet who teaches demonic lies is when someone tries to prevent people from getting married (1 Timothy 4:3).
Thus, we know 1 Corinthians 7:38 is not meant to encourage everyone to remain single.
4. 1 Corinthians 7:38 Is Not About Singleness or Marriage. It’s About God
“So then he who marries his betrothed does well, and he who refrains from marriage will do even better” (1 Corinthians 7:38) has to be placed in context. Paul just laid out how people who can serve God best in singleness should remain single. In that context, those who choose singleness are doing better than those who choose marriage.
But if you have the gift of marriage (1 Corinthians 7:7), strongly desire sexual love in marriage (1 Corinthians 7:2-9), and want to be married (1 Corinthians 7:36), 1 Corinthians 7:38 does not mean you are choosing a lesser love for God by choosing marriage. Rather, in context, we must all remember that even if we do have a spouse, we must “live as though [we] had none.” This doesn’t mean we neglect our spouse but rather than we take the same mindset of someone who has chosen singleness so they can fully focus on God.
God wants you to be single if you can best serve God in singleness. And God wants you to be married if you can best serve God in marriage. Whether you have the gift of marriage or singleness, this gift is meant to be used to love God and people for God’s glory (Matthew 22:37-40, Romans 12:6, 1 Peter 4:10-11).
Does 1 Corinthians 7:12-16 mean that you can date and marry an unbeliever? Find out by reading this article: Does the Bible Say You Can Marry an Unbeliever in 1 Corinthians 7:12-16?