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  Marriage and Singleness - 2 Gifts from God 1 Cor 7


  You can almost imagine Paul, sitting at his desk, with the letter that the Corinthians have sent him in his hand, as he dictates his reply. He's been through the introductory remarks and now he comes to the questions they've put to him.
  And again we discover just how contemporary some of their issues are. The first of the issues he responds to is the question of celibacy, which leads on to a range of questions around the issues of marriage and singleness. Despite the immorality he's mentioned in ch6 it appears that there's a group in Corinth who are promoting some sort of celibacy. "Is it good for a man not to touch a woman?" appears to be their question. That is, should we remain single and celibate. This is not a question about inappropriate behaviour by men towards women. It's not a question about women as a source of evil and temptation as some have seen it. It's a question about marriage or singleness; about adopting an ascetic lifestyle perhaps.
  In fact it's interesting that as you read through this chapter you begin to wonder whether he's talking about not just single people remaining single and celibate, but even married people perhaps divorcing their unbelieving partners in order to become celibate in order to devote themselves to God alone.
  It may well be that the question arises as a reaction to the sexual licence of the city of Corinth. Remember this is a major trading city, close to 2 major ports, with 2 large temples dedicated to sexual expression in worship. So it may be that the newly converted Christians have reacted against this overt sexual liberty the way some newly converted rock musicians reacted against rock music back in the 60s and 70s. By turning in the exact opposite direction, forbidding sexual expression altogether.
  You can almost hear Paul's mind ticking over as he answers their question, going back to his training as a Pharisee: "Is it good for a man not to touch a woman?" What do the Scriptures say? 'Then the LORD God said, "It is not good that the man should be alone; I will make him a helper as his partner."' (Gen 2:18) And that passage from Gen 2 ends with the statement: "24Therefore a man leaves his father and his mother and clings to his wife, and they become one flesh." (Gen 2:24) So he says, "Sure it's a good thing if a man can keep himself free from a sexual relationship with a woman." In fact he'll go on later to say why this is a good thing for a Christian in the last days. "But the fact is, sex is part of how God has made us. Not everyone can handle celibacy. In fact it's only those who are so gifted by God who can handle the difficulties of a celibate lifestyle. So God, in his wisdom, has ordained that we should marry. Sex within a committed marital relationship is the gift and plan of God for men and women. So if the opportunity arises, take it."
  And then in this first section we find 4 statements about marriage that fundamentally challenge the prevailing view of the Corinthians and maybe even of people today.
  1. Polygamy is excluded.
  "Each man should have his own wife and each woman her own husband." Now the context here isn't Solomon with his 700 wives and 300 concubines. It's Corinth where sexual promiscuity was the norm. Last time we looked at the issue of prostitutes, male and female, being a common sight on the streets of Corinth. So when he says this is 'because of cases of sexual immorality', that's what he's talking about. He's talking about sexual promiscuity.
  Today it isn't prostitution that's the issue, necessarily. It's much more likely to be the short affair. What some have described as serial monogamy. The relationships that people have that are open-ended. That go on until one or other of the parties is tired of it. Then they move on. So what's wrong with that? Well, back in the previous chapter we saw that when a man unites himself with a woman or vice versa, the two become one. Back there the issue was that the Corinthian prostitutes were servants of pagan Gods. Here the issue seems to be more to do with the creation ordinance of a man leaving his father and mother and cleaving only to his wife and the two becoming one. And we'll see how that idea works itself out even where one partner is not a Christian in a moment.
  2. Mutual conjugal rights
  Secondly he emphasises the rights of husbands and wives to enjoy the physical intimacy of marriage. But notice that this isn't actually about rights. It's about responsibilities. The husband doesn't have a right over his own body, nor does the wife have any right over her body. Rather they belong to each other. The covenant they've made with each other is that they'll share their bodies with each other. Marriage has been instituted so that a man and a woman can enjoy physical, sexual pleasure in a stable, committed, complementary relationship, without any sense of guilt; without any sense that they should hold back from each other. Asceticism doesn't belong in the marriage bed.
  But having said that, there may be occasions when holding back, just like fasting, is appropriate. So he says:
  3. There may be times of mutual abstinence for the sake of prayer.
  Just as there are times when it may be appropriate to abandon food for the sake of prayer, so too, it may be appropriate to set aside a time when the couple can give themselves entirely to prayer without thinking about sex.
  But notice we're told that this should only be for a time then the couple should come back together again so Satan won't be able to tempt them through a lack of self-control. Because:
  4. Sex is an area where Satan takes every opportunity.
  Gordon MacDonald was the president of the Inter-Varsity Christian Fellowship (the equivalent of our AFES) in the US. He was well known as a writer of Christian books and did a lot of speaking at conventions and universities and the like. That is, until the day that he had an affair with someone he met in a hotel on one of his preaching tours. He talks about what happened in a book called: "Rebuilding Your Broken World." In it he comments: "I always guarded myself in areas where I knew I was weak. To my surprise, Satan defeated me in an area where I thought I was strong." What he discovered was that when he was away from his wife, the temptation to find sexual pleasure through promiscuity was heightened, to the point where eventually he succumbed. He thought he was strong, but in fact this turned out to be his area of weakness. And it totally destroyed his ministry, for a time at least, until he was restored through the grace and forgiveness of his wife and a loving Christian community.
  So be warned if you're someone who's away from home on a regular basis. Don't assume you're OK. Rather beware the attacks of Satan who'll take every opportunity to tempt you through any lack of self control you show.
  It's worth saying at this point that Satan has used sexual weakness to great effect in the Church in recent, and probably not so recent, times. The gospel has come into great disrepute through the failure of clergy and church leaders to control their sexuality. Countless men and women have been turned away from Christ through the shameful behaviour of men they trusted as God's servants. So watch out for the temptations Satan throws in your way.
  Marriage and Divorce
  Well, having briefly raised those issues about marriage he then moves on to the issue of Christians who are married to unbelievers. What should they do about their marriages? Jesus said that we shouldn't be unequally yoked to an unbeliever. So what does that mean for the person who gets converted when they're already married?
  Well, this is another place where good theology helps us. What did Gen 2 say? "24Therefore a man leaves his father and his mother and clings to his wife, and they become one flesh." So the unbelieving husband is made holy through his wife, and the unbelieving wife is made holy through her husband. Not saved mind you, (you see that in v16) but there's a sense in which the fact that they're now one flesh means they share the connection with Jesus Christ that the believing partner has. So too their children are holy, set apart for God, members of Christ's Church.
  And what's more, he says, while you're together there's always the possibility that you might save your spouse. So what are you to do if you're married to an unbeliever? Work on your marriage. Peter tells wives to show the love of Christ in the way they behave so their husbands might be won over without a word. So, here, look on your non-Christian husband or wife as someone who is holy because of their union with you, and do all you can to win them over by your life, not just your words. In one sense of course that's no different from any marriage situation. We all need to work on our marriages if they're to survive. But in the case of an unbelieving partner, the possibility and hope is there that through the way you behave your partner, too, will come to faith.
  Of course if the unbelieving partner refuses to stay in the marriage then the bonds of marriage are broken. Here I guess, is one place in the NT where divorce is accepted as a fact of life beyond the control of the Christian. But notice that the initiative to end a marriage comes from the unbeliever, not the believer. For the believer the call is to live at peace with the other as much as it's within their power to do so.
  But we're not finished with the question of singleness vs marriage because Paul takes another tack. He points us away from that particular issue to the question of priorities. More particularly to the urgency of the hour in which we live. He says, there are a whole host of issues that people face that aren't the most important issues for them. It might be the question of being circumcised or uncircumcised. It might be the issue of being a slave or free. But given the times in which they live these are really peripheral issues.
  If you think about it, the Christians in Corinth must have been under enormous pressure. Their entire economy, their cultural base, their entire existence was coloured by the paganism of their city. As we'll see next week, they couldn't even go to the market to buy a piece of steak or a lamb chop without having to worry about whether it had been previously offered to an idol. They were likely at any moment to be facing persecution, the loss of their livelihood, even death. So you can see why Paul tells his readers to stay as they are; because there are more pressing issues at hand.
  Apparently when Cliff Richard was converted, a number of advisers told him he should get out of the entertainment industry, I guess because it was such an ungodly place to be. But a few wiser heads advised him to follow Paul's advice here: to stay where he was when he was first called, though throwing off some of the trappings of that industry. To use the unique opportunities that God had given him to share the gospel with others. Well I guess we can see now how wise that advice was.
  You see this concern about the present time in v26: "26I think that, in view of the impending crisis, it is well for you to remain as you are. 27Are you bound to a wife? Do not seek to be free. Are you free from a wife? Do not seek a wife."
  This is why he says in v7 that he wishes everyone could be as he is, that is, single? Look at v32: "32I want you to be free from anxieties." The time is short. The present form of this world is passing away. There's too much to do and not enough time. Sounds like he's talking about my life! And you don't know when your time may be up. Now that's still true, but it was even more so at a time when Christians were often targets for persecution. And the fact is that married people are rightly concerned about how to please their partner, or their children. Whereas the single person is free to devote all their energy to pleasing God.
  Now it seems to me that that raises a good question for single people, but also for those of us who are married. The question is, how much of your time and energy are you devoting to the affairs of the Lord and how much to your own personal fulfilment? You see, it's no good saying one of the good things about being single is that it frees you up to serve the Lord if all it does, in reality, is to free you up to spend more time at the pub, or the footy, or the hairdresser's or in front of the television.
  If you're married then the question might be how well are you balancing the time you give to the Lord's work with the time you give to your family? And how are you and your partner working together to serve God through your marriage? I think those of us who are married need to be careful that we don't read these words in vs33&34 as an excuse for ignoring the affairs of the Lord. Rather let's read them as a reminder to put the affairs of the Lord at the top of our agenda as a married couple so that we're serving God in whatever we do.
  One of the dangers for us today is that the pressures on the Christian aren't the same as they were in Paul's day. These are quiet days, in the West at least, when it's easy to be a Christian. When the urgency seems to have disappeared from our lives as Christians. So we get lulled into a false sense of security. We think that it doesn't matter whether people hear the gospel. We think that the Church will just roll on as it always has. But the reality is that the urgency of the hour is just as great now as it ever was. Those without Christ are in as much danger today as they ever were. Perhaps even more so. Jesus' return is 2000 years closer today than it was when these words were written. Although many more people are Christians there are even more people today who haven't heard about him. Similarly the urgency to remain pure is just as great as it was in Paul's day, because the day on which we'll appear before God in heaven is getting closer every day.
  For some that will mean marrying in order to remain free from temptation. For others it'll mean using their singleness to free themselves up for ministry, so they can devote more time and energy to serving God than they'd otherwise have been able to do.
  So, is asceticism, celibacy, the answer? For some, perhaps, but not for most. What is needed though, whatever state we happen to be in, is this: "unhindered devotion to the Lord." Married or single, this is what matters: is your mind set on the things of the Lord? Are your energies directed to serving the Lord, to managing his affairs, or your own?
Let's pray, then we'll spend a short time thinking about those areas of our life where Satan might be tempting us and whether we need to devote more of our energy and time to the Lord's affairs.

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