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Author:Rev. C. Bouwman
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Congregation:Smithville Canadian Reformed Church
 Smithville, ON
Preached At:Yarrow Canadian Reformed Church
 Yarrow, BC
Title:The Holy Spirit teaches that Singleness is Good
Text:1 Corinthians 7:1-9 (View)
Occasion:Regular Sunday

Order Of Worship (Liturgy)

Ps 121:1,4         

Ps 85:1

Ps 146:1,2,3

Ps 146:4,5

Hy 55:1,2

1 Corinthians 7:1-9

Genesis 3:8-16

Matthew 22:23-33

1 Corinthians 7:8

* As a matter of courtesy please advise Rev. C. Bouwman, if you plan to use this sermon in a worship service.   Thank-you.


 1 Now concerning the things about which you wrote, it is good for a man not to touch a woman.

 2 But because of immoralities, each man is to have his own wife, and each woman is to have her own husband.

 3 The husband must fulfill his duty to his wife, and likewise also the wife to her husband.

 4 The wife does not have authority over her own body, but the husband does; and likewise also the husband does not have authority over his own body, but the wife does.

 5 Stop depriving one another, except by agreement for a time, so that you may devote yourselves to prayer, and come together again so that Satan will not tempt you because of your lack of self-control.

 6 But this I say by way of concession, not of command.

 7 Yet I wish that all men were even as I myself am. However, each man has his own gift from God, one in this manner, and another in that.

 8 But I say to the unmarried and to widows that it is good for them if they remain even as I.

 9 But if they do not have self-control, let them marry; for it is better to marry than to burn.


Beloved Congregation of the Lord Jesus Christ!


Today’s text does not sit well with us.  Paul’s point seems clear: those who are unmarried should remain unmarried.  But how, we wonder, does that square with the Lord’s word in Genesis 2:18: “it is not good for a man to be alone”?  We find it disagrees too with the Holy Spirit’s word through Solomon: “He who finds a wife finds what is good and receives favor from the Lord” (Prov 18:22).  More: are our young people to break off their courtships and pursue a life of celibacy?  Would Paul have the married feel guilty for having married??  We experience singleness as a lack, somehow unfulfilling; are we so wrong in that?  In truth, Paul’s words are a puzzle….

Paul, brothers and sisters, is very positive about marriage; that’s clear from his words in vss 2-7.  Paul, though, does not conclude that therefore singleness is less than marriage.  Instead, the apostle is equally positive about being single.  In his letter to the Corinthians he teaches all God’s people that singleness is not less than marriage; singleness (be it never married or widowhood) is as acceptable as marriage.

I summarize the sermon with this theme:


1.       Why singleness is good.

2.       When singleness is not good.

3.       So what.

1.  Why singleness is good.

The apostle Paul had addressed concerns in the congregation of Corinth as he’d heard them via reports (cf 1:11), ie, divisions, also re incest (5:1), etc.  With chapter 7 he picked up on a letter he’d received from the Corinthian congregation (cf 7:1a), and proceeded to answer (parts of) it.  From that letter Paul quotes the words found at the end of 7:1b: “it is good for a man not to touch a woman.”

It appears that this sentiment was rooted in Greek philosophy, whereby the human being was divided into two parts, body and soul – of which the soul was the real you and the body only a shell in which you lived for the duration of your earthly sojourn.  Christ came to save the real you, and hence was interested only in the soul; the body was but earthly and irrelevant.  This perception of the body led in turn to two extreme forms of behavior.  On the one hand, some congregation members saw no problem in living up the desires of the body (it was only earthly anyway) – and hence frequenting the prostitutes of town.  Paul addressed this habit in the second half of chapter 6.  Other members of the congregation sought to downplay the body, even squash its desires – and so considered sex unchristian and declined to give themselves to their spouse.  It was good, they insisted, for a man not to touch a woman.  Paul addressed this perspective in the first half of chapter 7.  He disagreed emphatically; the married were to “stop depriving one another” (vs 5a), were instead to pay the debt of love that must characterize couples who, by God’s ordinance, are “one flesh” (vs 3). 

Yet Paul’s disagreement with the Corinthian aesthetics who refused to give themselves to their spouses in the act of marriage does not mean that Paul disagreed totally with the adage of vs 1b: “it is good for a man not to touch a woman.”  After Paul in vss 2-7 has corrected the error of the married of Corinth, he proceeds in vss 8 and 9 to address “the unmarried and the widows” – and so to express his support for the position that it’s good not to touch a woman.  Says Paul under the guidance of the Holy Spirit: “it is good for [the unmarried and the widows] if they remain even as I.”  Or in the words of vs 7: “I wish that all men were even as I myself am” – and that’s unmarried.[1]  We wonder: why does Paul say this?!

At first blush, it appears that the passage gives no supporting reasons for Paul’s statement.  Yet that’s not so.  Paul had written in vs 3 that “the husband must fulfill his duty to his wife, and likewise also the wife to her husband.”  Those words were built on the command of God in Genesis 2, where God instructed young men and women to leave parents, cleave to each other, and “be one flesh” (vs 24).  The ‘one flesh’ the two were to be was not occasional or temporary (as in, when they engaged in sexual relations) but was full time and all the time – as Eve was always ‘one flesh’ with Adam, an extension of him, literally more of him.  Since husband and wife are ‘one flesh’, the husband must care for and cherish his wife (and the wife her husband), for “no one ever hates his own body, but he feeds and cares for it” – says Paul when he explains Genesis 2:24 in his letter to the Ephesians (5:28ff).

Adam and Eve in Paradise will have had no difficulty being the ‘one flesh’ God made them to be, that is, they will have had no difficulty caring for and cherishing each other, denying the self to look after the other.  But the Corinthian Christians do have difficulty doing so; that’s why Paul has to give the instruction of chapter 7.  Why it is that the Corinthians have difficulty applying the principle of Genesis 2:24?  That, of course, is because the fall into sin has warped and ruined so much of what God created, including marriage.  Shortly after Adam and Eve had eaten from the forbidden tree, God quizzed them on their transgression.  The damage to their ‘oneness’ was immediately apparent: “The man said, ‘The woman you put here with me – she gave me some fruit…’” (Genesis 3:12).  That statement did not reflect oneness between Adam and his wife; it instead displayed division, highlighted how the fall into sin had broken their oneness.  Adam spoke as if they were two separate entities.

The brokenness of that oneness was not limited to that one incident.  As part of the penalty for falling into sin, God spoke to the woman these words: “I will greatly increase your pains in childbearing; with pain you will give birth to children.  Your desire will be for your husband, and he will rule over you” (3:16).  The reference to pain in childbearing refers not only to the actual difficulty of labor itself, but includes also all the difficulties that come with childbearing – including the mood fluctuations of the menstrual cycle, and including too the emotional difficulties of the menopause years.  The mood swings and emotional imbalance can –and often do- strain the ‘oneness’ that husband and wife are to be. 

Further, God spoke of the woman’s desire being for her husband, and his ruling over her.  Those words have been much discussed, and their meaning often disputed.  However, God’s intent becomes evident when we lay these words beside the words God spoke to Cain in the next chapter.  For Genesis 4:7b is in Hebrew identical to the words of Genesis 3:16b, with the exception of the nouns and pronouns.  The NIV renders the two sentences as follows:



Your desire will be for your husband,

And he will rule over you.


[Sin] desires to have you,

but you must master it.


The meaning of the Lord’s words to Cain is clear: in his jealousy of his brother Abel, Cain is under attack; “sin desires to have you,” to dominate you.  Cain, however, must not let sin dominate him; he must instead master sin.  The same thought is true in relation to the woman.  Because of the fall into sin she desires to have her husband, that is, to dominate her husband.  The husband, however, must not permit that to happen; he must retain his role as head and so give his wife good leadership.  We realize: there’s a struggle involved when a fallen husband seeks to be head over a fallen wife - who for her part seeks to master her husband.  Here is the battle of the genders.  How radically broken the oneness of the two is!  Something of the goodness of marriage has certainly been lost through the fall into sin.

That struggle between the spouses comes out in the words of Job’s wife.  After that righteous man lost all his possessions, his children and even his health, his wife –his other half, with whom he was one flesh!- told him to curse God and die (2:9)!  Solomon instructs his readers that it is “better to live on a corner of the roof than share a house with a quarrelsome wife” (Proverbs 21:9) – though she by God’s ordinance is one flesh with her husband!  The fall into sin has ruined so much of the beauty of marriage; being one flesh all the time, cherish the spouse and emptying the self for the other has become so very, very hard….

And it’s not that the Lord God after the fall into sin has lowered the bar for husbands and wives, as if they may now cherish each other less or may now live for themselves first of all.  Even after the fall, the norm of Genesis 2:24 remains a reality.  Hence Paul’s words in 1 Corinthians 7:3: husband and wife must fulfill their duty to each other, must “pay” the “debt” they owe each other in marriage, must cherish each other in denial of self.  

And that’s now so hard.  It goes so very much against the grain, against the inclination of our sinful selves.  If, now, God had said that all (young) men and women must marry…, there would be no option – just as those who do marry have no option but to love and cherish the other in denial of self.  But God gave no command to marry!  He left that option to the freedom of the human race.  Hence Paul’s words in vs 8: “I say to the unmarried and to widows that it is good for them if they remain even as I” – unmarried.  The fall into sin has damaged so much!

For that reason the church does well not to place a stigma on singleness.  Being single does not mean you are a ‘leftover’, someone not good enough to attract (or keep) another’s attention.  Marriage is good, and being unmarried is equally good.  As Paul also states in vss 32ff: “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.  But a married man is concerned about the affairs of this world –how he can please his wife- and his interests are divided.”  The married man (and woman) needs to invest time, energy, and effort into his marriage –after all, they are two sinners needing to be one flesh all the time - and that takes opportunity away from other prospects in God’s kingdom.  Paul’s mission work was made easier by virtue of the fact that he had no responsibility to a wife….

We come to our second point:

2.  When singleness is not good.

Back in vs 7 Paul had stated that everyone has own gift from God.  The one has the gift to be married; the other has the gift to be single.  The married person needs grace from God to “pay” his “debt”, to deny the self in order to serve other; he is dependent on the Lord to make his marriage work.  The unmarried person also needs grace from God to walk through life alone; he is dependent on the Lord to survive the loneliness of singleness.  Both persons need God’s gifts in equal measure; none can flourish on his own.

God, however, does not give the same gifts to each person, nor does He give His gifts in equal measure.  Back in Genesis 1, when God created man in own image, He gave mankind the instruction to rule over all creation, “the fish of the sea and the birds of the air and over every living creature that moves on the ground.”  This command to “rule over” included that man rule over himself; it should not be that man’s hormones rule over him.  Adam and Eve had no trouble in Paradise being master over their hormones.

The fall into sin ruined so much here too.  Not only does mankind struggle to rule over the animals of the forest; fallen man also struggles to rule over himself.   We all repeatedly experience that our hormones master us, instead of we mastering our hormones.  It leads to the frustrations of masturbation, pornography, premarital relations, etc. 

The Lord, though, has renewed His people through His Holy Spirit.  Paul reminds the Galatians that “the acts of the sinful nature are obvious: sexual immorality, impurity and debauchery…, orgies, and the like” (5:19).  He adds that “those who live like this will not inherit the kingdom of God” (vs 21).  On the other hand, those who have been renewed by the Holy Spirit bring forth different fruit.  “The fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control” (5:22f).  Several of those fruits dovetail with the care the Lord wants the Christian to display to the spouse; they are the fruits required to “pay” your “debt” to your spouse.  That list includes also ‘self-control’, the ability to rule over oneself in accordance with the principles of Genesis 1:26ff. 

No one has received all these gifts in perfect measure.  As Paul wrote to the Romans, “I have the desire to do what is good, but I cannot carry it out” (7:18).  That means in practice that not all those renewed by the Holy Spirit have the ability to exercise the required self-control.  In the face of that ongoing struggle against our remaining weaknesses, the apostle gives the advice of vs 9: “if they do not have self-control, let them marry.” 

Paul adds a reason: “it is better to marry than to burn.”  Most translations add to that sentence the words “with passion” (they’re missing in the Greek).  Then the point is that your sex drives dominate you, and so you had better get married so that you can satisfy those drives.  This cannot be Paul’s intent.   To marry because your passion demands it goes against Paul’s instruction in vss 3 and 4.  In those verses Paul had drawn out that within marriage you belong to the other, are to pay your debt of love-for-the-other and so cherish the other in denial of self.  In marriage, then, there is no room for take; marriage is instead to be characterized by give (and therefore receive).  To marry in order to satisfy burning passions means you take; your sexual activity is driven by your own hunger rather than answering the spouse’s need for affirmation of your love.  One can understand easily that such marriages end up with more tension, more adultery and divorce than where sexual activity not dictated by burning passions.

As it turns out, the Scripture uses the term ‘burn’ repeatedly to describe God’s judgment.  The cities of Sodom and Gomorrah experienced the judgment of God upon their licentiousness through devastating fire (Gen 19).  The Lord’s disciples requested Jesus to let fire come down from heaven to destroy the people not welcoming Jesus (Luke 9:54).  Jesus Himself spoke repeatedly of the ungodly going into eternal fire (cf Mk 9:43ff).  The apostle Peter relates that when Christ returns, the earth will be purged with the fire of judgment (2 Peter 3:10).  Paul in our text, then, warns against the dangers of falling into God’s judgment.  It’s the same thought as he expressed to the Galatians: those who give themselves to sexual immorality, impurity, debauchery, orgies, and the like, will not inherit the kingdom of God (5:19ff). 

Though the saints of Corinth are renewed by the Holy Spirit (6:11), they have but a small beginning of the obedience God requires and so can easily be overcome by the domination of one’s hormones – and so give oneself to sin and hence provoke God to anger and incur His judgment.  One is then better off to marry – and within the school of marriage learn to deny the self for the sake of the spouse, cherish the other, and so pay the debt that one owes to the spouse.  

With this Paul is not saying that marriage is better than being single.  He takes nothing away from his statement that “it is good for them to remain as I am.”  But he recognizes that in our fallen world not everyone has received the gift to control the self.  If it comes to a choice between marrying and hell because of struggles with sexuality, Paul would have the Corinthians choose marriage. 

That brings us to our last point:

3.  So what?

What are we to learn from all this?  In the first place this: marriage is not everything!  Let neither the married nor the unmarried make an idol out of marriage!  The same is true in relation to sex.  Neither marriage nor sex catches the purpose of life, and neither constitute the road to happiness.  God alone is purpose of life, and He alone gives happiness and contentment.  He has become our Father through Jesus Christ, and now gives to each child of His what He in wisdom determines is best for that Christian in his service to God.  It is the task of each Christian to accept, without protest, whatever He gives, whether that be singleness or marriage, whether it be a happy marriage or a marriage characterized by tension or distrust.  For whatever situation, He gives the gifts His child needs – for He is faithful (see vs 7).

Further, every child of God needs to be aware that the Lord God has sent His Son into the world in order to forgive all our sins – also in relation to marriage and sex.  The disastrous fall in Paradise, through which we ruined so grievously God’s beautiful gift of marriage and sex, is washed away in Jesus’ blood.  So too are the sins we commit in the years leading up to our marriages as well as the sins we commit within our marriages.  Jesus Christ atoned for our sins of looking down on singleness, and He atoned too for the discontent we feel with our singleness or perhaps with our marriages.  Despite all our sins, we can yet stand without fear before the God who created both marriage and sex.

This God is more than both marriage and sex, more also than the frustrations and pains and longings and tears that come with both.  When the Lord returns in glory, “He will wipe every tear from [our] eyes” (Revelation 21:4) - including the tears triggered by singleness or widowhood or betrayal and frustrations within marriage.  On that Day of Glory the Bride will be presented to the Lamb of God without spot or blemish, and the people of God –the Bride- will be perfectly and eternally enamored with the heavenly Bridegroom, Jesus Christ.  Because of that total focus of the Bride upon the Bridegroom, there will be no (other) marriage in the New Jerusalem (cf Matthew 22:30), and no one will miss (human) marriage either.  The marriage state, like so much else in this life, will pass away.

That reality puts both marriage and singleness into perspective today.  We are all travelers together on the road to the New Jerusalem.  Some of us walk alone, without the responsibility of marriage for those walking beside us.  Others of us walk beside a spouse, and hence have responsibility for that Special Other.  For all of us, though, the Lord has one command: He seeks our undivided and total attention in whatever circumstance He has placed us.  We live and travel for Him and for none other.  As we walk the road of life, alone or with a spouse (happily or not), every word or act or mood is to be from Him and to Him and for Him – till we receive the crown of glory.

[1] We read nowhere that Paul was ever married.  However, he was a zealous Pharisee, and it’s known that the Pharisees considered marriage a sacred duty.  That raises the possibility that Paul was once married, and was now a widower.  We simply do not know.

* As a matter of courtesy please advise Rev. C. Bouwman, if you plan to use this sermon in a worship service.   Thank-you.
(c) Copyright 2006, Rev. C. Bouwman

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