1 Corinthians 7:32-40 (NLT)
I want you to be free from the concerns of this life. An unmarried man can spend his time doing the Lord’s work and thinking how to please him. But a married man has to think about his earthly responsibilities and how to please his wife. His interests are divided. In the same way, a woman who is no longer married or has never been married can be devoted to the Lord and holy in body and in spirit. But a married woman has to think about her earthly responsibilities and how to please her husband. I am saying this for your benefit, not to place restrictions on you. I want you to do whatever will help you serve the Lord best, with as few distractions as possible.
But if a man thinks that he’s treating his fiancée improperly and will inevitably give in to his passion, let him marry her as he wishes. It is not a sin. But if he has decided firmly not to marry and there is no urgency and he can control his passion, he does well not to marry. So the person who marries his fiancée does well, and the person who doesn’t marry does even better.
A wife is bound to her husband as long as he lives. If her husband dies, she is free to marry anyone she wishes, but only if he loves the Lord. But in my opinion it would be better for her to stay single, and I think I am giving you counsel from God’s Spirit when I say this.
You may have heard jokes about unmarried marriage counselors not being particularly useful. As a man married for more than three decades, I similarly may not be of much use as I try to explore what Paul has to say about celibacy. I’ll do my best, though.
Perhaps the biggest problem any of us will face when processing this text is that our culture sees little value in celibacy, which is the voluntary decision to forgo a sexual relationship. As a people so deeply immersed in the idea that sexuality defines our very being, we see celibacy as a negative state rather than something positive.
Paul clearly was taking early Christians in the other direction. He certainly affirmed marriage and the sexual relationship naturally occurring within a marriage, but he also saw high value in the decision to put aside the sexual aspect of life in order to better serve God. This assumed, of course, that people choosing celibacy were convinced of their ability to live without this powerful drive taking them down the path of sin.
I wonder if that kind of certainty was more easily achieved in a time when sex was not so heavily a part of daily experience, when the world had no advertising or other media so determined to draw our attention through an appeal to our most basic drives.
That is mere speculation. I don’t know the answer. The story that Thomas Aquinas needed a special waist cord brought to him by angels so he could avoid sexual temptation might argue otherwise.
I do know this. People who find themselves drawn to celibate lives because of their love for Jesus Christ have much to offer the kingdom, and should be highly valued in any church setting. They have received a special gift from God, and they may astonish us with their works.
Lord, we thank you for the gifts you pour out on our church, especially the ones we sometimes have a hard time recognizing. Amen.