Did Paul Prefer Singleness?


The difference between Roman Catholics and Protestants, at least in the United States, is quite remarkable. In Roman Catholicism, one can’t be a priest unless one is single, but in Protestantism (at least in most circles in the United States), it is difficult to become the preaching pastor, or what’s often called the senior pastor, unless one is married. A remarkable exception exists in Great Britain where we’ve seen a number of effective single pastors such as John Stott, Dick Lucas, Vaughn Roberts, etc.


Given the cultural climate in the United States, it’s surprising to see how positively Paul speaks about being single. He wishes all people were single (1 Cor. 7:6) and counsels widows to remain single if possible (1 Cor. 7:8). Singleness is preferred because of “the present distress” (1 Cor. 7:26, CSB), and those who aren’t married are advised not to “seek a wife” (1 Cor. 7:28). Married people are “concerned about the things of the world” (1 Cor. 7:33-34), but the unmarried are “concerned about the things of the Lord” (1 Cor. 7:32, 34), and thus the single person can concentrate on pleasing the Lord (1 Cor. 7:32). Paul thinks the one who doesn’t marry his fiancé does “better” than the one who gets married (1 Cor. 7:38). Those who don’t get remarried are “happier” (1 Cor. 7:40).


People react to what Paul says in 1 Corinthians 7 in a number of different ways. Some say, “Well, what we have in 1 Corinthians 7 is only Paul’s opinion.” Such a response is mistaken, for Paul ends the chapter by saying he possesses “the Spirit of God” (1 Cor. 7:40), which is another way of saying his words written here are inspired. When Paul distinguishes between his commands and the commands of the Lord (1 Cor. 7:10–12), he isn’t suggesting that his words aren’t authoritative. Paul simply points out that the historical Jesus didn’t speak to the matter of a Christian being married to an unbeliever (1 Cor. 7:12–16). Paul’s words in the chapter are authoritative, for he speaks as an apostle of Jesus Christ.


A better response notes the context in which these words are given. Paul likely responds to Corinthian questions, and he isn’t giving his entire theology of marriage in this chapter. Some think “the present distress” (1 Cor. 7:26) reflects a particular problem in Corinth, such as a famine, which leads Paul to speak more positively about being single, though I’m not as persuaded of this reading.

In any case, to construct a proper theology of marriage, we must read the entire Bible, and especially the foundational text in Genesis 2:18­–25. I think it is fair to discern from the Genesis account that it is God’s intention for most men and women to be married. Paul himself recognizes that one must follow one’s gift with respect to marriage and singleness (1 Cor. 7:7). When we consider Genesis 2 and the fact that a whole book of the Bible is devoted to marriage (The Song of Solomon), it is fair to conclude that most people aren’t gifted to be single. The context of the whole Bible helps us to interpret 1 Corinthians 7.


First, it is unbiblical to require pastors to be married. Such a reading misunderstands the requirements of being an elder in 1 Timothy 3:1–7, as if Paul is saying one must be married to be an elder, when his point is that if one is married one should be a godly husband and father. Also, it seems quite unlikely that Paul would think that he himself couldn’t serve as an elder since Paul was unmarried! Let’s acknowledge that American culture often thinks pastors must be married, but the scriptures disagree. It is interesting to see how in this area, even among conservative evangelicals, our own feelings and cultural thoughts trump the Bible.

Second, I am as guilty of this as anyone, but let’s not assume that everyone should get married or encourage everyone to get married. We need to reclaim the beauty of singleness as it is taught in the scriptures. Devoting one’s life to the Lord as a single person is something God commends, but we often view it as a second-class life. Yes, God intends most people to get married, but it doesn’t follow that singleness is second-class. Indeed, Paul prefers singleness since one can devote oneself to ministry and to the Lord without distraction.

Third, how can one tell if one should live a single life? If you have a strong desire to get married or strong sexual desires (1 Cor. 7:9), then you should pursue marriage. Paul isn’t saying to people who have a longing to be married that they must quench their desires and force themselves to be single. I think his advice is: don’t think you must or have to be married. If you can live happily as a single person, pursue such a life and honor the Lord with your time.

Fourth, what does all this have to say to a person who longs to be married and desires marriage but remains single? More and more people in our culture today find themselves in this situation. When the longings of our hearts aren’t realized, we are experiencing what the Bible calls “trials” or “afflictions” (Rom. 5:3–5), though we must remember that married people face trials and afflictions as well. Longing for marriage is an affliction and a trial, and it is probably one of the hardest afflictions a person faces. God doesn’t promise that the difficulties in our lives will vanish, and he doesn’t guarantee the desire to be married will be fulfilled.

But he does promise he will be with us as we go through the fire and the flood (Isa. 43:2). He calls upon us to trust him and to give ourselves to him, knowing that he loves us and that he knows best for our lives. In everything, he is working to make us more like his Son, Jesus Christ (Rom. 8:28–29). Let me close by encouraging you to read this very helpful article on singleness by Vaughn Roberts.

Thomas R. Schreiner

Thomas R. Schreiner is a Professor of New Testament Interpretation at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky, and the Pastor of Preaching at Clifton Baptist Church. You can find him on Twitter at @DrTomSchreiner.

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