Whereas I Corinthians 7:1-16 deals chiefly with married persons, and verses 17-24 address the issue of calling, verses 25-40 treat mainly of single persons, especially virgins and whether or not they should marry. The apostle does not answer with a sweeping command: "All must marry" or "All must not marry." He states, "Now concerning virgins I have no commandment of the Lord" (25), for Christ did not specifically address this in His public ministry. This does not mean that Paul had nothing to say on this subject: "yet I give my judgment, as one that hath obtained mercy of the Lord to be faithful" (25). The apostle advises that it is "good" for a virgin (or a single male) not to marry (26; cf. 1, 8). Why? Because of the "present distress" (26) and to avoid "trouble in the flesh" (28), though it is not a sin for single persons or widows or widowers to marry (28).
Do the "present distress" (26) and "trouble in the flesh" (28) refer only to marital hardships during intense persecution or to difficulties in marriage in this fallen world in general? First, there is no evidence of fierce persecution in Corinth at that time or shortly thereafter, unless it is in these phrases themselves. Whereas other epistles (e.g., I Thessalonians or I Peter) major on the church’s persecution, this is not the case in I or II Corinthians. Indeed, unlike the apostle, the Corinthians were having things easy (I Cor. 4:8-10)! Second, two other difficulties in marriage—its transitoriness (7:29-31) and its cares (32-35)—refer to the whole post-fall age, so why not the "present distress" (26)? Moreover, "the time is short" (29) and "the fashion of this world passeth away" (31)—both referring to this whole age—serve as the interpretive guide for the "trouble in the flesh" (28). Similarly Romans 8:18 speaks of the "sufferings of this present time." Thus many, including Calvin, Godet, Grosheide and Engelsma, see these hardships in marriage (I Cor. 7:26, 28) as referring to the whole period from the fall (Gen. 3:16) to Christ’s second coming. This view, as we shall see, makes good sense of the passage.
Distress and trouble "in the flesh" (26) speaks of the hardships of married people, in both body and soul, in connection with all the circumstances of life in this sinful world (for there was no distress in marriage before the fall).
In marriage, two sinners are bonded together for life under one roof. Consider a husband who does not love his wife, but is tyrannical, bossy and grumpy. Think of a wife who refuses to submit to her husband. Selfishness, quarrels, bitterness and resentment rob the union of joy and fellowship.
The two of them may have entered marriage with different backgrounds, interests and tastes (as well as both possessing old natures). She likes to spend money, but he likes to keep a close rein on it. He does not get on with his in-laws, and she has problems with his family, and so on. What scope there is here for distress and trouble in marriage!
Then there are children. There are the pains of child birth (Gen. 3:16), the sleepless nights, and trips to the hospital with sick children. Maybe one parent does almost all the unpleasant things with the children, while the other only does the "fun" things with them. Perhaps she wants to mollycoddle them, but he thinks that they should not be wrapped in cotton wool. Or he is authoritarian, while she is a "soft touch" and the children begin to play on this. Different views on the children’s education provide more room for grief and trouble. Then the couple sinfully fail to communicate properly and never come to one mind regarding the training and discipline of their children.
Hardships also come at the other end of marriage. Perhaps your spouse becomes disabled and you must care for him or her, or he or she takes Alzheimer’s and no longer even recognises you, or you become a widow or a widower.
If persecution intensifies, the troubles of marriage increase, with Christian husbands (like John Bunyan) in prison concerned for their wives and children, or mothers fleeing with their little ones (cf. Matt. 24:19-20).
Clearly those contemplating marriage ought to count the cost. Are you ready for this? One’s eyes ought not be closed to the truth stated in the Reformed marriage form that "married persons are generally, by reason of sin, subject to many troubles and afflictions." Paul knew of these hardships and could have written more, merely stating, "but I spare you" (I Cor. 7:28). If a child of God is not ready for marriage, he or she should consider delaying it or continuing in a single life. But if you are prepared to get married and live with your spouse by God’s grace, you must still be forewarned of some of the difficulties. All this is designed to inculcate sobriety in courtship and marriage. It is not all sugar and sweetness or "unmixed honey," as Calvin puts it. We need a healthy biblical realism.
This does not mean, though, that Christians have an excuse for a bad marriage. The Bible teaches that there are and will be troubles in marriage, to a greater or lesser degree, but this is different from a troubled marriage. If there is a problem with your relationship with your spouse, this is because of sin, either yours or your spouse’s or (usually) both. We must accept responsibility before God for this and repent. Your marriage must reflect the union between Christ and His church, with the husband loving his wife as Christ loved the church and the wife submitting to her husband in the Lord (Eph. 5:22-33). Sin must be confessed and forsaken, especially selfishness. Seek God’s mercy and forgiveness in the cross. Work at your relationship and ask help of a faithful pastor. Also, younger women should go to older women for counsel (cf. Titus 2:3-5).
All this should be of comfort to married persons. Perhaps you entered marriage with rose-tinted glasses and suffered a few jolts. The Bible speaks to your situation; God knows your lot in life and will succour you. Also many, I trust, have found marriage even better than they expected: godly companionship, sharing your life with the person you love, the joys of parenthood, etc. By His Word and Spirit, Christ even brings faithful couples closer to Him and to each other through distress and trouble in marriage.
- Volume: 10
- Issue: 16
Rev. Angust Stewart (Wife: Mary)
Ordained - 2001
Pastorates: Covenant Protestant Reformed Church of Ballymena, Northern Ireland - 2001Website: www.cprf.co.uk/
Address7 Lislunnan Road
State or ProvinceCo.Antrim
Zip CodeBT42 3NR
Telephone(01144) 28 25 891851