I’ve played enough games of Monopoly during my lifetime to appreciate just how powerful the Get Out of Jail Free card is. Having that trump card in your hand can make the difference between climbing to the heights of Mayfair or slumming it on Old Kent Road for most of the game. That one magic card has also taken on a life of its own beyond the Monopoly board. It has become a metaphor – a meme – for a quick, easy or simple fix that gets us out of a less-than-ideal situation.
I think we Christians can be tempted to think of 1 Corinthians 7:9 as our own Get of Jail Free card.
In 1 Corinthians 7:6-9, Paul turns from talking about the sexually active lives of married Christians to the sexually celibate lives of single Christians.
‘Now as a concession, not a command, I say this. 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 7:6-8).
But then, right on the heels of saying how much he wishes everyone was single like he was, the apostle goes on to say:
‘But if they cannot exercise self-control, they should marry. For it is better to marry than to burn with passion’ (1 Corinthians 7:9).
When it comes to our understanding of this passage, it can be all too easy to give the first three verses fairly quick and hurried treatment – ‘Yes, yes. Singleness is good. Paul says so…’ – before verse 9 quickly steals the majority of our focus and attention– ‘… BUT, it’s better to marry than to burn with passion. Which means that even as Paul wishes more people were single, he knows that most people aren’t cut out for it.’
We can be tempted to slap verse 9 down on the table as our very own Get Out of [the Celibate Singleness] Jail Free card. We tell ourselves (and others) that having an active libido, finding certain other people sexually attractive, or struggling with sexual temptation is clearly what Paul meant by ‘burning with passion’. And so if Paul says it is better to marry than to burn like that, then clearly marriage is necessary for us.1
Our long Christian history of seeing marriage as a ‘quick fix’ for sexual temptation has created a no-win situation for same-sex attracted Christians.
Or at least, that is the trump card that opposite-sex attracted Christians can be tempted to play. But for Christians who find themselves exclusively attracted to members of their own sex and who also believe that God’s design for marriage is as between a man and a woman, there is no corresponding magic solution to their ‘burning with passion’. To put it another way, our long Christian history of seeing marriage as a ‘quick fix’ for sexual temptation has created a no-win situation for same-sex attracted Christians. These brothers and sisters can’t stop themselves from ‘burning with passion’ any more than their opposite-sex-attracted spiritual siblings can. But, the ‘remedy’ of marriage is not available to them.
For many same-sex attracted Christians 1 Corinthians 7:9 isn’t seen as a free pass out of jail. Instead, it can feel exactly like a lifelong sentence to it instead.
But is our typical understanding of 1 Corinthians 7:9 actually correct? Are we properly interpreting and applying this verse? I want to suggest that we need to reread this verse with fresh eyes. In particular, we need to pay renewed attention to how its immediate biblical context and its broader theological context rightly informs its meaning.
The immediate biblical context of 1 Corinthians 7:9
As we have seen, contemporary evangelical Christianity typically reads 1 Corinthians 7:6-9 as saying that while remaining single is good, very few Christians are actually cut out for it. We are told that our desire – indeed, our need – for sex is so strong that the only way an unmarried person can indefinitely avoid falling into sexual immorality is if God has given them a special extra booster shot of the Holy Spirit (the ‘gift of singleness’) which takes their sexual temptations away and/or gives them supernatural contentment in singleness. Everyone else is destined to ‘burn with passion’ and so really ought to marry.
Other Living Out authors have already written about this so-called ‘gift of singleness’ (see here and here for example), so I won’t rehash that ground. Instead, I want us to zoom in a little more closely on v.9, and in particular on Paul’s comment about those who ‘cannot exercise self-control’.
In our day and age, sexual expression is prized as something which is both ultimately good and a necessary aspect of personal flourishing. Furthermore, sexual titillation and gratification are available at our fingertips 24/7, all under the cloak of privacy and behind the shield of anonymity. As a result, it is very easy for us to think that experiencing any sexual desire for or attraction towards another person, or any temptation to sin sexually (whether in mind or body, or both), is what it means to not only ‘burn with passion’ but also to be unable to ‘exercise self-control’. However, when we look a little more closely at Paul’s wording, we discover that things are not quite as simple as that.
The verb Paul uses for ‘exercising self-control’ means to restrain one-self, to have mastery over one’s desires and actions. But interestingly, although most English versions of the Bible translate the verb with a view to the future (i.e. ‘if they cannot exercise self-control’), Paul actually wrote that verb in the present tense (i.e., ‘if they are not exercising self-control’). It is certainly possible for a present tense verb to have ongoing or progressive significance (i.e., it is not necessarily limited to what is happening only in the current specific moment). And yet, I don’t think Paul is asking his readers to subjectively predict if they think they’re cut out to be self-controlled indefinitely into the future.
Why do I say that? Well, the only way any of us can confidently know that we cannot exercise self-control in any area of our lives is if we’ve already proven that we can’t. Sure, I could say ‘I think it’s going to be really tough for me to be self-controlled indefinitely’ or ‘I’m not feeling optimistic about my ability to always be self-controlled in this area of my life.’ But ultimately, we only know we can’t if we already haven’t, and more to the point, if we currently aren’t. And even then, not exercising self-control in the present doesn’t mean we will never be able to exercise it in the future.
As Paul addresses the unmarried and the widows here (see v.8) he isn’t saying ‘If you think you’re going to struggle to be sexually self-controlled then you should marry.’ Instead, it seems likely that Paul is addressing unmarried Christians (mainly never-marrieds who were betrothed and those who were widowed) who were engaged in an active sexual relationship with each other. He’s saying to them, ‘If you are having sexual intercourse with each other then you should marry each other. Because while it is good to remain unmarried, it is better for you to marry each other than to continue in sexual sin.’
Understanding that puts a bit of a different spin on his imperative for those who are not (currently) exercising self-control to go ahead and marry. It requires us to think responsibly about how we apply this verse to unmarried Christians today, especially as we recognise the vast societal differences between the first century Roman empire and the 21st-century West. And it especially requires us to think carefully about the implications of this verse for those who struggle with sexual temptation, but for whom marriage remains frustratingly out of reach – something that can be just as true for opposite-sex attracted and same-sex attracted Christians alike, even if for quite different reasons.
Paul is not suggesting that marriage is a remedy – a Get of Jail Free card – for a person who is struggling with lust.
When we take a closer look at this verse in its immediate context we can see that yes, Paul seems to be suggesting that opposite-sex marriage may be a potential remedy for specific instances of sin. Marriage between two single Christians who are sleeping together is a godly ‘solution’ to the very particular sin they are committing with (and against) each other. However, Paul is not suggesting that marriage is a remedy – a Get of Jail Free card – for a person who is struggling with lust. After all, getting married (and so having ‘legitimate’ sex) does not justify, redeem, alleviate or sanctify our lustfulness. Lust is always sinful, even when directed to your spouse. This means that marriage is not a general antidote or legitimation of ‘burning with passion’.
So what then is? What is the solution to a single (or indeed married) person’s struggle with lustful thoughts, longings, fantasies and desires?
The broader theological context of 1 Corinthians 7:9
The answer to that question is self-control. Over and over again in Scripture, the Bible says that self-control is a vital aspect of the Christian life.
Paul exhorts women to adorn themselves with and continue in self-control (1 Timothy 2:9, 15; Titus 2:5). Both older and younger men are to be characterised by self-control (Titus 2:2, 6). Being sober-minded and self-controlled are essential criteria for leaders of God’s people (1 Timothy 3:2; Titus 1:8). A man without self-control is like a city that has been broken into and left without its protective walls (Proverbs 25:28). A lack of self-control is an identifying feature of those who have the appearance of godliness but who deny its power (2 Timothy 3:2-5). Our loving Heavenly Father has given us, however, a spirit of self-control (2 Timothy 1:7).
Indeed, the grace of God has appeared training us to live self-controlled, upright and godly lives in the present age (Titus 2:12). Because we know this world is coming to an end, we are to be self-controlled and sober-minded for the sake of our prayers (1 Peter 4:7). Furthermore, we are to supplement our faith with self-control which leads to steadfastness, godliness and love, all of which are imperative to effective and fruitful living in Christ (2 Peter 1:5-8). The reason we can have utter confidence in our ability to actually be self-controlled is because self-control is a fruit of the indwelling Holy Spirit, something he is actively cultivating within us (Galatians 5:23).
Self-control is not a minor footnote in Scripture. It isn’t something that some Christians are lucky enough to have a natural propensity towards, while others have to live without it. Developing and exercising self-control isn’t an idealistic pipe dream for the Christian person. It’s not simply on the ‘wouldn’t it be nice’ Christian wish list. It’s not something we possess via an extra special spiritual gift.
Self-control is a major theme in Scripture. It is something that the grace of God is training us all in. We’ve already been given a spirit of self-control.
Rather, self-control is a major theme in Scripture. It is something that the grace of God is training us all in. We’ve already been given a spirit of self-control. It is a spiritual fruit that we are called to nurture and nourish and cultivate. The biblical call to develop and exercise self-control is not only realistic and attainable but also vital and foundational. Self-control is a marker, a feature, and a characteristic of life in Christ. It’s an ‘ordinary’ part of the Spirit’s work in and through us.
Given all of this, why do we have such a pessimistic view of the single Christian’s ability to be sexually self-controlled? Why do we readily cheer on the call to cultivate peace, patience, kindness and so on, but place self-control in celibacy in a different bushel of fruit altogether? What possible basis do we have for believing that the indwelling Holy Spirit – the Helper – is in fact insufficiently able to help us in this area of godliness? Why do we believe that singles need either an extra spiritual booster shot of self-control or, alternatively, to get married?
Furthermore, why do we tend to think about sexual self-control as a one-strike and you’re out deal? If we occasionally (and regrettably) give into anger, we don’t typically think we’re destined to never be able to exercise self-control over our anger henceforth. Yet, for some reason, giving in to sexual temptation on one (or multiple) occasions is imagined as being like opening the floodgates. There can be no going back. (In saying that, I don’t mean to minimise the seriousness of sin. Whether it be on one occasion or many, our sin is always abhorrent to God and always forgiven in Christ. I’m just seeking to make a point about the different ways we tend to think about sexual sin in comparison to other besetting sins, and the possibility of our exerting self-control in relation to them.)
And one final thing: Why do we imagine that getting to have sex with one person in marriage is going to be the magic silver bullet that allows us to exercise indefinite sexual self-control? Why do we think that the simple experience of sexual intimacy and gratification (rather than abstaining from those things) is going to slake our sinful sexuality and satisfy our corrupted desires? Why do we believe that having sex with one person will mean we won’t ever have to worry again about lusting after another person?
No friends. Whether we are same-sex attracted or opposite-sex attracted, male or female, young or old, single or single again, marriage is not the remedy for our problem with lust. It’s not a Get out of Jail Free card that acts as a magic cure for our sexual sinfulness. It’s not the solution to our corruption. It’s not a stand-in for godly self-control.
For all of us – single and married alike – Christ’s death is the antidote to our sexual sinfulness. His resurrection is the solution to our death-deserving passionate burning. And the Holy Spirit is the Helper who promises to cultivate self-controlled sexual righteousness within us in this life, as we together set out minds on the perfected life that is yet to come.
- NB. Paul didn’t actually write the phrase ‘burning with passion’. In his original letter he simply says it is better to marry than to ‘burn’. That word can have the connotation of burning with passionate ardour, which is why a number of English translations make the interpretative choice to translate it as ‘burning with passion’. But some biblical commentators observe, the word can also refer to burning in judgement. So it is possible that Paul meant that ‘it is better to marry than to burn in judgement for persistent and unrepentant sexual sin.’