Throughout the ages, Christians have struggled with marriage. More than a few writers and pastors have taught a pretty negative view. For example, in some times and places, people have taught that marriage is basically a sadly necessary control for sexual passion. Sexuality is fundamentally corrupt, they imagine. So God had to find a way to band-aid it, and marriage serves this purpose.
Most Christians today are not likely to fall into that trap. It’s a dumb idea that quite obviously contradicts Scripture. It has a kernel of truth, of course. In a fallen world, our disordered desires need marriage to govern them. But that’s not the point of marriage’s original design, which has its roots before and apart from the Fall. Marriage is something God made with a positive goal. It serves to fill the world with life. It copies and replicates God’s glory throughout the earth as parents in God’s image create offspring in their image. Within marriage, there is a solid context to develop love, companionship, a household, and all kinds of other good things.
Nevertheless, even if marriage is good, the question remains how good it is. Is it better than staying celibate? Or is celibacy superior? Christian history is actually full of claims that celibacy is the better option. It is nice to marry, but to remain single and chaste is greater.
It’s easy to see the appeal of this belief. The idea of staying single can feel brave and countercultural. Sex is a powerful force, after all. Doesn’t staying free of it show the most self-control, plus other virtues? And sometimes Scripture seems to back it up. Jesus talked about people who live like eunuchs for the kingdom of God. He seems to give them high praise. Paul talked about the cares of the world, and he said how great it is to be able to focus only on God’s business.
Despite verses like these, the Reformed tradition has always held that marriage is generally normative. Protestants from Luther on rejected the Catholic belief that celibacy is better than marriage. Often they said the reverse. Why? Can this be biblical?
I don’t plan on giving a full ethic of sex and marriage here, but as a test case, I want to address one particular passage. First Corinthians 7 is one of the most commonly used arguments for the superiority of celibacy. The whole chapter is important, but I want to quote the most relevant part:
Now concerning the things about which you wrote: It is good for a man not to touch a woman…I wish all people could be like myself [unmarried], but each one has his own gift from God, one in this way and another in that way…
For the present form of this world is passing away…But I want you to be free from care. The unmarried person cares for the things of the Lord, how he may please the Lord. But the one who is married cares for the things of the world, how he may please his wife, and he is divided. And the unmarried woman or the virgin cares for the things of the Lord, in order that she may be holy both in body and in spirit. But the married woman cares for the things of the world, how she may please her husband. Now I am saying this for your own benefit, not that I may put a restriction on you, but to promote appropriate and devoted service to the Lord without distraction.
1 Corinthians 7:1, 7, 31-35
At first glance, this almost seems to prove that celibacy is superior. Paul says he wishes everyone could be single, like himself. He says that it’s good for a man not to touch a woman, and he mentions the split concerns of the married as opposed to the unmarried. It would seem the Reformed view is dead in the water.
The key to interpreting this passage, however, is found in verse 31. In it Paul gives a reason for his instructions: “For the present form of this world is passing away.” What does this mean? We are used to skimming by statements like this without much thought, but I would suggest this is the center of Paul’s thought on marriage.
Paul was deeply concerned with two impending changes to “the form of the world.” Two future events loomed in his imagination: the impending judgment on Israel and Jerusalem about which Jesus prophesied and the replacement of pagan imperialism with the nations confessing Jesus as Lord. These events were fulfilled in AD 70 and the eventual conversion of the Roman Empire, respectively. Together, the two events radically reshaped the ancient world and the place of the people of God within it. The process was intense and tumultuous. The churches would need to be ready for all kinds of changes. They would experience persecution and suffering. Families would crack. Loyalties would change. Jesus brought not peace, but a sword.
This meant that, until these events had passed, the Church would need to be vigilant and sit loose to the socio-political order. If Christians invested too heavily in the economy of the day, or the politics of the day, or any of the other systems and orders of the world, they were liable to suffer heavy losses. Paul obviously did not want this for his readers. The difficulty with marriage, then, is that having a family is harder to do without those kind of investments.
A family is not like an individual. An individual can move more freely. The single man or single woman is more flexible in almost every way, especially when it comes to survival. An individual only, at minimum, needs enough investment in any given social or economic order to survive himself, whereas a family involves the welfare of several people. The husband must love and protect his wife and children. The wife must serve and nourish her husband and children.
All of these entanglements tend to root families more deeply into a given social, political, or economic order. They depend more on the status quo than the unmarried and childless do. This makes things much harder when God is about to overthrow the status quo. Faith in a God who is going to judge everything that makes it possible for you to please your wife and feed your kids is much harder. There is more the temptation to give up, to rationalize, to compromise in the face of trouble and persecution along the way.
This meant that, in both Jesus’ time and Paul’s, marriage came with extra risks. Single people could easily flee cities, face suffering, and proclaim the Gospel boldly so long as they could love God just a little more than themselves. Marriage and family life was more complicated, adding an extra element to worry about. More wisdom would be necessary: how many risks do you take when you aren’t worried about your own life but the lives of your wife and kids?
For all these reasons, Paul thought it would be more helpful if Christians remained single. Then they would have maximum freedom, the most to gain and the least to lose, in their attempts to remain faithful to Christ amidst impending persecution and suffering. But he also knew that this wasn’t realistic. God gives different gifts to different people. No matter how hard things got for God’s people, for many people singleness would be harder still.
But all of this is contingent on the historical moment. Judgment was on the way. The ancient would was in for huge, tempestuous changes. The Gospel and pagan imperialism were in for a climactic clash. In our day, things are quite different. That clash is over. The whole world and age of that time has passed away. Now we face different challenges. The question for today is instead more like this: knowing that marriage and procreation are genuinely good and belong to human nature, how do they fit into challenges of God’s people today? Are they greater liabilities or greater assets than usual? Are marriage and family life more spiritually risky, or is singleness? What errors of the world do Christians need to stand against?
All of these questions are important. We will need to think them through as we discern a prudent approach for our own day. But I, for one, think our modern world has more than enough singleness and barrenness. The contemporary West is forgetting nature, forgetting responsibility, and forgetting the meaning of children, which is after all nothing other than the meaning of the human race. In a nihilistic, selfish, and sterile world, it seems in my opinion a much greater witness and more valuable strategy to witness to the goodness of genuine love, lifelong commitment, sexual propriety and fidelity, and humanity itself, continued generation to generation by the fruitful union of husband and wife.