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Let Them Marry
but if they cannot exercise self-control, let them marry. For it is better to marry than to burn (1 Corinthians 7:9).1
I. The Danger
The sexual drive is a strong one. Scripture warns about the wrong use of it over and again.2 It's important to deal with this issue right. For example, Paul warned in 1 Timothy 5 about widows to "not let a widow under sixty years old be taken into the number" (1 Tim. 5:9). He wrote,
But refuse the younger widows; for when they have begun to grow wanton against Christ, they desire to marry, having condemnation because they have cast off their first faith. And besides they learn to be idle, wandering about from house to house, and not only idle but also gossips and busybodies, saying things which they ought not. Therefore I desire that the younger widows marry, bear children, manage the house, give no opportunity to the adversary to speak reproachfully. For some have already turned aside after Satan. (1 Timothy 5:11-15)3
Why do they end up forsaking the faith and turning aside to follow Satan? Because, they “grow wanton against Christ” and “desire to marry.” So, to remedy such a disaster Paul says, “Therefore I desire that the younger widows marry . . . .” Marriage is the answer for a younger widow “who is really a widow, and left alone” (1 Timothy 5:5). Because of the strong sexual drive (and other reasons, vs. 13), they should not remain single. They should get married.
Besides the serious instructions given in 1 Timothy 5 on how to deal with certain widows, and among the many instructions on this subject, 1 Corinthians 7 is crucial. At the beginning of the chapter Paul writes,
Now concerning the things of which you wrote to me: It is good for a man not to touch4 a woman.5Nevertheless, because of sexual immorality, let each man have his own wife, and let each woman have her own husband. Let the husband render to his wife the affection due her, and likewise also the wife to her husband. The wife does not have authority over her own body, but the husband does. And likewise the husband does not have authority over his own body, but the wife does. Do not deprive one another except with consent for a time, that you may give yourselves to fasting and prayer; and come together again so that Satan does not tempt you because of your lack of self-control. (1 Corinthians 7:1-5)
Obviously, Paul is concerned about sexual immorality. So accordingly, he gives instructions to combat it, and he begins by saying, “let each man have his own wife, and let each woman have her own husband.” The sexual relationship within marriage is God's answer to the temptation of sexual immorality. As the Proverb says,
Let her breasts satisfy you at all times; and always be enraptured6 with her love (Proverbs 5:19).
With marriage being the Biblical answer for sexual immorality, it is very important for the church to properly deal with a couple who “cannot exercise self-control” (1 Corinthians 7:9). For the church to refuse to “let them marry” would be “forbidding to marry” (1 Timothy 4:3).
II. The Command
In 1 Corinthians 7:9 Paul tells the church to “let them marry.” It is not a command to “get married.” It is a command to “let them marry.”
It is the Greek word γαμησάτωσαν (gamêsatôsan), an imperative. In other words, it's a command. The command is to “let” the "unmarried and . . . widows" (vs. 8) "marry" (vs. 9), if they "cannot exercise self-control." And as should be obvious, the "unmarried" includes virgins, for this same term (ἀγάμοις vs. 8) is used for a virgin in verse 34 (ἄγαμος).
But, is it really a command? A prior verse in 1 Corinthians 7 says,
But I say this as a concession, not as a commandment (1 Corinthians 7:6).
What is “not . . . a commandment”? Is it the prior verses? There Paul commands,
let each man have his own wife
let each woman have her own husband
Let the husband render to his wife the affection due her
and likewise also the wife to her husband.
Do not deprive one another (1 Corinthians 7:2-5)
In the Greek, these are all in the imperative, which means they are commands. Likewise, after 1 Corinthians 7:6 (“not . . . a commandment”) “let them marry” in verse 9 is in the imperative. It is a command. So, what do we find in the text that is “not . . . a commandment”? What is not in the imperative? The non-commandment is the decision to be single or not.
Paul was not married (1 Corinthians 9:5, 15), and he wrote,
But I say this as a concession, not as a commandment. For I wish that all men were even as I myself. But each one has his own gift from God, one in this manner and another in that. But I say to the unmarried and to the widows: It is good for them if they remain even as I am; but if they cannot exercise self-control, let them marry. For it is better to marry than to burn. (1 Corinthians 7:6-9)
Paul desired that all would be single as he was, but he knew that was not what God had designed, as he wrote,
But each one has his own gift from God, one in this manner and another in that.
This non-command is akin to Jesus' words in Matthew 19.
All cannot accept this saying, but only those to whom it has been given: For there are eunuchs who were born thus from their mother's womb, and there are eunuchs who were made eunuchs by men, and there are eunuchs who have made themselves eunuchs for the kingdom of heaven's sake. He who is able to accept it, let him accept it. (Matthew 19:11-12)
Some are not able to accept singleness. Some “cannot exercise self-control” (1 Corinthians 7:9). So, it is imperative that we “let them marry.”
Paul's “concession, not as a commandment” (1 Corinthians 7:6) is the non-commandment of singleness. To remain single is a strong suggestion by Paul throughout the chapter (vs. 7-8, 26-27, 32-35, 37-38, 40), and in verse 28 he makes it abundantly clear it is simply a suggestion. He writes,
even if you do marry, you have not sinned; and if a virgin marries, she has not sinned (1 Corinthians 7:28).
Clearly, if you don't stay single, “you have not sinned.” There is no command given by Paul to stay single, although he strongly encourages it. The "concession" are his words about singleness.
Now, with “let them marry” in verse 9 and you have “not sinned” in verse 28, it should be quite evident believers have the freedom to marry in this context.
Of course, there is a time (Ecc. 3) to say someone should not get married (e.g. Romans 7:3).7 Paul makes this quite clear. For example, in 2 Corinthians 6 Paul writes,
Do not be unequally yoked together with unbelievers. For what fellowship has righteousness with lawlessness? And what communion has light with darkness? And what accord has Christ with Belial? Or what part has a believer with an unbeliever? And what agreement has the temple of God with idols? For you are the temple of the living God. As God has said: "I will dwell in them And walk among them. I will be their God, And they shall be My people." Therefore "Come out from among them And be separate, says the Lord. Do not touch what is unclean, And I will receive you." "I will be a Father to you, And you shall be My sons and daughters, Says the LORD Almighty." Therefore, having these promises, beloved, let us cleanse ourselves from all filthiness of the flesh and spirit, perfecting holiness in the fear of God. (2 Corinthians 6:14-1)
Likewise, in 1 Corinthians 7 Paul instructs the widows:
A wife is bound by law as long as her husband lives; but if her husband dies, she is at liberty to be married to whom she wishes, only in the Lord.(1 Corinthians 7:39)
Marriage should be among believers, not with unbelievers. And, this is what is in view in 1 Corinthians 7:9. The “them” in “let them marry” is speaking in the context of believers.8 The church (believers) is to let believing couples in the church marry, particularly “if they cannot exercise self-control.”
III. The Self-Control
Someone might argue,
But if “they cannot exercise self-control” they are lost (not saved), because “the fruit of the Spirit is . . . self-control” (Galatians 5:22-23). Therefore, “if they cannot exercise self-control,” it proves they do not have the Spirit of God.
Such a standard is not Biblical. Not only is Paul speaking to and about believers in 1 Corinthians 7:9, but just before that Paul wrote to the married couples and said,
Do not deprive one another except with consent for a time, that you may give yourselves to fasting and prayer; and come together again so that Satan does not tempt you because of your lack of self-control.(1 Corinthians 7:5)
Paul tells married believers, across the board (in other words to all of them), they lack self-control. This “lack of self-control”9 is no milk-toast word.10 It is translated “self-indulgence” in Matthew 23:25,11 and the context there is quite wicked (Matthew 23:23-33). Biblically, it should be no surprise that even believers could be in a state in which “they cannot exercise self-control.”
Samson fell sexually (Judges 16:1), and it was via a woman his demise came (Judges 16:4-21). King David, a married man, a man after God's own heart (1 Samuel 13:14), fell sexually (1 Samuel 11 & 12). Solomon, a man whom God loved (2 Samuel 12:24) and who loved God (1 Kings 3:3), found his utter ruin in women (1 Kings 11).12 Proverbs warns of the immoral woman and emphatically declares,
For she has cast down many wounded, and all who were slain by her were strong men. (Pro. 7:26)
Here Proverbs warns she preys on strong men. It is foolish to esteem yourself as sexually impeccable.
Let him who thinks he stands take heed lest he fall.(1 Corinthians 10:12; see also Proverbs 28:26; 5:8; 7:6-27; Jeremiah 17:9)
Therefore, this issue is of utmost importance. It is imperative for the church to deal wisely with a couple who “cannot exercise self-control” and not to burden them with a prohibition that is not Biblical.
IV. The Love
If a couple is in love and cannot get their minds off of each other, even though they have tried and tried and tried, would it not dictate “they cannot exercise self-control”? As it is written,
for as strong as death is love, hard as Sheol is jealousy; its flames are flames of fire, a flame of Yah. Many waters cannot quench love, nor rivers drown it. (Song of Solomon 8:6-7a, a more literal translation, "flame of Yah" = שַׁלְהֶבֶתְיָה, see NAS "flame of the LORD")
The Song of Solomon is speaking about romantic love. That's the context. It unequivocally declares there is no stopping it. It is as strong as death. How strong is death?
What man can live and not see death? Can he deliver his soul from the power of Sheol? (Psalm 89:48 NAS)
No one has power over the spirit to retain the spirit, and no one has power in the day of death (Ecclesiastes 8:8).
Death is inescapable. When God places romantic love upon a couple (as in 1 Corinthians 7:9), the game is up. Let them marry.
Jesus made it quite clear that God brings people together in marriage.
what God has joined together, let not man separate (Matthew 19:6).
In another place Paul said on another issue regarding men and women,
Does not even nature itself teach you . . . ? (1 Corinthians 11:14).
Is it odd to see God bringing a couple together before it is actually accomplished via a strong romantic love attraction in which the couple can't get their minds off of each other? Such a thing is hardly weird or abnormal.
Self-control starts in the mind, and if you don't have control over your mind, you don't have self-control. If the mind is not controlled, how can the actions be?
Later in 1 Corinthians 7 Paul writes,
He who is unmarried cares for the things of the Lord-- how he may please the Lord. But he who is married cares about the things of the world-- how he may please his wife. There is a difference between a wife and a virgin. The unmarried woman cares about the things of the Lord, that she may be holy both in body and in spirit. But she who is married cares about the things of the world-- how she may please her husband. And this I say for your own profit, not that I may put a leash on you, but for what is proper, and that you may serve the Lord without distraction.(1 Corinthians 7:32-35)
A couple that is so attracted to each other they can't get their minds off of each other are unable to “serve the Lord without distraction.” They are not “able to accept it” (Matthew 19:12), since they are so thoroughly diverted with romantic thought (Song of Solomon 8:6-7). The very reason for singleness is to serve without distraction. A 1 Corinthians 7:9 couple just can't do that. The Lord has other plans for them.
So, Paul establishes, “it is better to marry than to burn” (1 Cor. 7:9), before he advises, "he who does not give her in marriage does better" (1 Cor 7:38). In 1 Corinthians 7:38 Paul is not discarding what he wrote just a few words beforehand. The “better” of 1 Corinthians 7:9 stands intact when Paul writes the “better” of 1 Corinthians 7:38.
Thus, when God draws people together in love, “against such things there is no law” (Galatians 5:23). In such a circumstance, before God, a couple is free to marry with or without anyone’s approval.
Where the Spirit of the Lord is [where the Spirit of Love is], there is liberty (2 Corinthians 3:17).
And we know, God is Love (1 John 4:8, 16).
V. The Father
Of course, anyone considering marriage should certainly consider and be attentive to proper counsel (Proverbs 1:7; 11:14; 12:1; 15:22). But, in the final analysis, a 1 Corinthians 7:9 couple has the right before God to marry, no matter who may object. This command to “let them marry” is given to the whole church, which includes fathers.
Furthermore, not only is the father included in the command of 1 Corinthians 7:9, the father is specifically addressed on this very matter later in the chapter. Paul writes,
But if any man thinks he is behaving improperly toward his virgin, if she is past the flower of youth, and thus it must be, let him do what he wishes. He does not sin; let them marry. Nevertheless he who stands steadfast in his heart, having no necessity, but has power over his own will, and has so determined in his heart that he will keep his virgin, does well. (1 Corinthians 7:36-37)
Here Paul advises a father can “keep his virgin” when he has “no necessity.” 1 Corinthians 7:9, “let them marry,” is a necessity. God's commands are to be kept (John 14:23-24), and His will to be obeyed.
The world is passing away, and the lust of it; but he who does the will of God abides forever.(1 John 2:17)
Someone might ask, “What about Exodus 22:16-17? Doesn't that illustrate the father's will is paramount to any other?” Exodus 22:16-17 reads,
If a man entices a virgin who is not betrothed, and lies with her, he shall surely pay the bride-price for her to be his wife. If her father utterly refuses to give her to him, he shall pay money according to the bride-price of virgins.
Theoretically, someone could fall into sin as in Exodus 22:16-17, but thereafter repent and be able to exercise self-control. A momentary enticement and lack of self-control does not mandate “they cannot exercise self-control.”
But, what if this was a 1 Corinthians 7:9 circumstance? Would it be right for the father to utterly refuse? No, the father is commanded elsewhere in the law to,
love your neighbor as yourself (Leviticus 19:18).
This is the greater commandment (Mark 12:28-31), as it is written,
For all the law is fulfilled in one word, even in this: "You shall love your neighbor as yourself." (Galatians 5:14)
Likewise, Romans 13:10 declares,
Love does no harm to a neighbor; therefore love is the fulfillment of the law. (Romans 13:10)
Love, under the proper circumstances, dictates the father would and should give his daughter away. Simple compassion (love) for the daughter should move a loving father to do so. But, "not all have faith" (2 Thessalonians 3:2).
Exodus 22:17 does not say the father has the right to utterly refuse. It simply says, "If her father utterly refuses . . . ." This only addresses the obligation on the transgressor's part concerning his responsibility to pay "the bride-price." It doesn't address, either way, what the father should do or has the right to do. As is illustrated with divorce (Deuteronomy 24:1-4; Matthew 19:3-9), just because certain behavior is mentioned in the law that does not mean it is necessarily right to do it.
Children, obey your parents in the Lord, for this is right. Honor your father and mother, . . . (Ephesians 6:1-2).
Children should indeed obey their parents “in all things” as Colossians 3:20 says, but Ephesians gives an important qualifier to “in all things.” It says it is to be done "in the Lord." This equals “in His commandments” (Psalm 112:1), for He is His commandments. He is His Word (John 1:1; Revelation 19:13), and His Word says,
Therefore a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and they shall become one flesh. (Genesis 2:24)
From the very beginning, men have had the right to leave their parents and “be joined” to a wife. This is nothing new.
If the church were to teach that a couple must obey a father (believer or not) who is against such a marriage, then the church would be disobeying the command to “let them marry.” It’s forbidding marriage at the wrong time. Forbidding to marry in a 1 Corinthians 7:9 situation is simply wrong.
Moreover, any father who maintains his daughter sinned if she got married against his will, is a father who speaks directly against Paul. Besides Paul's command to "let them marry," Paul also says,
if a virgin marries, she has not sinned (1 Corinthians 7:28).
The father says, "she has sinned." Paul says, "she has not." Paul establishes freedom for a virgin both in 1 Corinthians 7:9 & 28.
The father may argue he has the right to keep her no matter what the circumstance, because of what Paul says in verses 36-38. But, these verses give "no commandment from the Lord" "concerning virgins" (1 Corinthians 7:25). As Paul says three verses later,
if a virgin marries, she has not sinned (1 Corinthians 7:28).
There's clearly no command upon virgins here, but rather freedom.
Verses 36-38 address a father's own struggle on whether to give a virgin away or not. Verses 36-38 do not break Paul's earlier comments of "let them marry" and "she has not sinned."
The Scripture cannot be broken (John 10:35).
With 7:9 & 28 intact, Paul gives father's "no commandment" (vs. 25), but advice. Verses 36-38 do not obliterate the liberty Paul already established in verses 9 & 28. Verses 36-38 give "no commandment from the Lord" about absolute authority over a virgin. God does not give parents absolute authority.
God's commandments teach there is a time (Ecc. 3) to go against parents. For example, Gideon was told to destroy his father's idol (Judges 6:25-32). Jonathan disobeyed Saul (1 Samuel 20:30-34). The Rechabites dwelt in Jerusalem against their father's command, and yet God commended them for obedience to their father (Jeremiah 35). God desires "mercy, not sacrifice" (Hosea 6:6; Matthew 9:13; 12:7).
Jesus said, "Who is My mother . . . ?" (Mark 3:33). People left parents to follow Christ (Luke 18:28-30).13 Jesus even said He came to cause division within the parental/child relationship (Luke 12:51-53).14 He said,
Do you suppose that I came to give peace on earth? I tell you, not at all, but rather division. For from now on five in one house will be divided: three against two, and two against three. Father will be divided against son and son against father, mother against daughter and daughter against mother . . . (Luke 12:51-53).
This may very well manifest itself in this very context, when a couple desires to marry. When God says, “let them marry,” no one has any authority to say otherwise.
But did He not make them one, having a remnant of the Spirit? And why one? He seeks godly offspring. (Malachi 2:15)
1 NKJV adds “with passion,” but that is not in the Greek text.
2 For example, see Proverbs 2:1-19; 5:1-23; 6:20-7:27; 9:13-18; 22:14; 1 Corinthians 6:9, 18; 10:8; 1 Thessalonians 4:3; Hebrews 13:4; Jude 7; Revelation 21:8.
3 Paul instructs that “the younger widows marry.” 1 Corinthians 7:39 adds, “she is at liberty to be married to whom she wishes, only in the Lord.”
4 The Greek word for “touch” here is ἅπτεσθαι (haptesthai). It's found about 40 times in the NT. It is the word for “touch.” For example, it's used when Jesus “touched” him in Matthew 8:3, “touched” her in Matthew 8:15, when the woman “touched” Jesus' garment in Matthew 9:20, etc., and when Jesus said, “Do not cling to Me” (NKJV) in John 20:17 (KJV “Touch me not”). See also, e.g. 2 Corinthians 6:17; 1 John 5:18. It is also used to light a lamp (“lit a lamp”) in Luke 8:16; 11:33; 15:8, and to kindle a fire (“kindled a fire”) in Luke 22:55.
5 When Paul says, “It is good for a man not to touch a woman,” it is obviously in a sexual context. Paul is addressing romantic contact (touching), and Scripture bears witness to the fact that it is indeed truly “good for man not to touch a woman” in such a way.
For example, when the Israelites were about to meet God at Mt. Sinai, note what Moses said to the people.
Be ready for the third day; do not come near your wives. (Exodus 19:15)
Why would he make this command? This was part of being “sanctified” (holy) in preparation to meet the Lord, as the verse just before it says,
So Moses went down from the mountain to the people and sanctified the people, and they washed their clothes. And he said to the people, "Be ready for the third day; do not come near your wives." (Exodus 19:14-15)
In this case of Exodus 19 it is speaking of married men not touching their wives.
Likewise, note the discourse between David and Ahimelech when David was fleeing from Saul and was hungry. Remember, David was married at this point.
And the priest answered David and said, "There is no common bread on hand; but there is holy bread, if the young men have at least kept themselves from women." Then David answered the priest, and said to him, "Truly, women have been kept from us about three days since I came out. And the vessels of the young men are holy, and the bread is in effect common, even though it was sanctified in the vessel this day." (1 Samuel 21:4-5)
Notice the time (three days) is the same amount of time given in Exodus 19 (vs. 11, 15-16). In both cases it was a matter of holiness before God. It is clear Scripture portrays,
It is good for a man not to touch a woman.
It should also be clear all of these contexts dictate the touching to be in a sexual way, as Paul wrote immediately after 1 Corinthians 7:1,
Nevertheless, because of sexual immorality, let each man have his own wife, and let each woman have her own husband. (1 Corinthians 7:2)
In other words, nevertheless, go ahead and touch (obviously, sexually). But, even after this, he gives a time in which they ought not to touch.
Do not deprive one another except with consent for a time, that you may give yourselves to fasting and prayer; and come together again so that Satan does not tempt you because of your lack of self-control. (1 Corinthians 7:5)
So, the “good for a man not to touch a woman” is found again here in time of fasting and prayer as the couple seeks God. This parallels the holiness before God mentioned above in Exodus 19 and 1 Samuel 21.
Moreover, 1 Corinthians 7:1 (“good for a man not to touch a woman”) is some seriously good advice to single men and women in an effort to keep themselves pure. God has made the male/female attraction quite strong and driven toward greater strength via simple touching of the opposite sex. The Song of Songs (שִׁיר הַשִּׁירִים) well illustrates the intoxicating nature of passionate love.
Let him kiss me with the kisses of his mouth-- For your love is better than wine. (Song of Solomon 1:2)
We will be glad and rejoice in you. We will remember your love more than wine. (Song of Solomon 1:4)
How fair is your love, My sister, my spouse! How much better than wine is your love, . . . . (Song of Solomon 4:10)
Eat, O friends! Drink, yes, drink deeply, O beloved ones! (Song of Solomon 5:1)
For a married couple, the love that is better than wine is overwhelming and wonderful, as the Song well illustrates. But outside of marriage, it is an enticing drink for sin. Paul's words of wisdom, “It is good for a man not to touch a woman,” is potent counsel for those who want to be virgins on the day of their wedding.
6 The word for “enraptured” is תִּשְׁגֶּה (tishggeh) in both Proverbs 5:19 & 20. It is used for going “astray” in Proverbs 5:23; 19:27 (“stray”); 28:10. It is the same word for being “led astray” via strong drink in Proverbs 20:1. It is used for those who “have erred through wine” and “erred through intoxicating drink” and who “err in vision” in Isaiah 28:7. It is also used for those who cause a blind person to “wonder off the road” in Deuteronomy 27:18, for “let me not wander from Your commandments” (Psalm 119:10), for those “who stray from” God's Word (Psalm 119:21, 118), for sheep who “wondered” (Ezekiel 34:6), for “sins unintentionally” committed (Leviticus 4:13; Numbers 15:22; Ezekiel 45:20), for Saul when he “erred exceedingly” (1 Samuel 26:21), for Job's wanting to know if he had “erred” (Job 6:24; 19:4), and for the “deceived and the deceiver” (Job 12:16; NAS “misled and the misleader”).
7 For example, see also Leviticus 18.
8 Believers are clearly the context, not only because the book is addressed to believers (1 Corinthians 1:2), but also, because the church does not dictate to the ungodly how to live (e.g. 1 Corinthians 5:12; Revelation 22:11).
9 KJV “incontinency” - Webster defines incontinence as “failure to restrain sexual appetite” (merriam-webster.com/dictionary/incontinence).
10 ἀκρασίαν (akrasian)
11 KJV “excess”
13 See also Matthew 12:46-50; Mark 3:31-35.
14 See also Proverbs 29:27.
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