Married Christians love telling single people why they can’t have sex.
I can’t say why. But I can say that we singles are left navigating sexual desires that are good and holy, which are nevertheless expressed and experienced by twisted and sinful hearts and minds, souls and bodies.
Singles have been given a one–verse allowance for thinking about their sexuality: “. . . it is better to marry than to burn with passion” (1 Corinthians 7:9).
I wish that all were as I myself am. But each has his own gift from God, one of one kind and one of another. To the unmarried and the widows I say that it is good for them to remain single as I am. But if they cannot exercise self-control, they should marry. For it is better to marry than to burn with passion. (1 Corinthians 7:7–9)
An ancient command, and the scenarios which we face as singles today are arguably more difficult: “Asking unmarried singles to control their sexual impulses for longer and longer periods of time is a fairly new phenomenon in our culture. This has been brought about by an earlier-age onset of puberty combined with later-age marriages” (Balswick & Balswick, Authentic Human Sexuality, 107).
Some dating couples abuse 1 Corinthians 7:8 and wield it (and their wedding plans) to rush foolishly in lust instead of taking wise steps out of love for God and neighbor. Struggling, unhealthy couples will steal “better to marry” as an excuse to make their destructive relationships permanent, and “than to burn” to legitimize sinful actions as good and natural. We need a serious look at 1 Corinthians 7:8–9, to bulldoze through our cynicism and snide glances, and to open up our sinful impulses to critique and explanation, because God has spoken here about something that has gone nuclear in the past 20 years among Christian millennials. All while we’ve been laughing about or marginalizing the passage that’s intended to inform and encourage us.
Below, we’re going to get into Paul’s very complex thoughts about the sexual desire of the unmarried Christian. But I want you to keep one thing in mind as you read (the main point): The sexual desire of the unmarried person is good, is holy, and is part of the shining creation of the image of God. Among all of the other voices, some helpful and needed (and some not), I want you, when you feel shame for sexuality or sexual desire, to be able to return to 1 Corinthians 7:9 and find peace. I want 1 Corinthians 7 to, without a doubt, be a place of respite for the unmarried Christian from shame, from self-hate, and from accusation, insofar as they feel those things about God’s good creation of their sexuality. You are loved, and you have sexual desires which propel you to get married which God endorses. Remember that as we interpret the text below.
It’s better to marry than to burn, but is it bad to burn?
What Does It Mean to “Burn”?
A central issue in interpreting these verses is what Paul intends by the term “burn with passion” (a single word: puroústhai, “to burn”) and how burning relates to the theology of marriage that surrounds 1 Corinthians 7:8–9 (1 Corinthians 7:1–7, 10–16). Is marriage the coveted arena where each and every sexual fantasy comes to life? Is marriage a crude medium to satiate our base and carnal desire for something that disgusts God (i.e., sex)? Is burning an inconvenient reality that both God and man must shamefully and reluctantly endure until heaven?
I believe burning, for Paul, is a legitimate sexual desire among the unmarried. He states his audience clearly: “the unmarried and the widows.” The danger of this interpretation is that some will inevitably misconstrue sinful sexual desires as regular and good, and assume that marriage is meant to be an unrestricted place for our unhindered sexual whims.
But Paul answers this objection in the text, when he makes the point that the Christian sexual ethic requires love of neighbor applied to the context of marriage — to love the spouse above oneself, against abusive relationship structures (1 Corinthians 7:2–4; cf. also Ephesians 5:3, 25–33). Mutual consent, healing, and concern for the other are necessary aspects of a Christ-honoring sexual relationship within marriage. It seems backward, then, that Paul would advocate entering into such a relationship for selfish reasons. “Burning,” then, seems to be best understood as legitimate and holy sexual desire among the unmarried.
The Goodness of Burning
Having taken this meaning for “burning” (as legitimate sexual desire among singles), we have three anchors which give us helpful points of application for Paul’s attitude toward premarital sexuality in 1 Corinthians 7:8–9. Each is a stepping stone to understanding Paul’s overall attitude toward a Christian’s premarital sexuality.
1. “It is good for them to remain single as I am.” (1 Corinthians 7:8)
Paul is not saying that Christians should not pursue a spouse. This may be a counterintuitive reading, but we must listen to the text. We have an analogy to this way of speaking in Paul later in 1 Corinthians, when he says, “I want you all to speak in tongues” (1 Corinthians 14:5). Paul’s point in 1 Corinthians 14:5 is clear. He is not saying that the whole church should speak in tongues — that’s the problem he’s addressing (1 Corinthians 12:30–31). Paul is saying that, for the sake of love (1 Corinthians 13), God only gave the gift of tongues to a few, so that the gift could be exercised as a gift to those who don’t speak in tongues. And, while tongues is a grace given to a few “for the common good” (1 Corinthians 12:7), it is not meant to be had by all — in order that each church member should depend on the others (1 Corinthians 12:8–11). Whether you believe the church should speak in tongues today or not, Paul’s teaching is clear: not everyone should speak in tongues, in order that love might prevail in the body.
Paul’s language in 1 Corinthians 7:8 functions the same way. His point is that unique gifts (singleness and tongues) are great graces for him, but not for everyone (the full sense of Paul’s “wish” language should be rendered “I wish all were as I am — but they’re not, so they shouldn’t try to be”). In fact, it was in making particular gifts (singleness and tongues) signs of a higher and more mystical spirituality that the Corinthians were oppressing one another. The unmarried became the godly ascetic. The tongue-speaker became the divine mystic. Paul writes against both mindsets.
The gift of singleness is not given to all — and, for some, to attempt to live a life of singleness like Paul, without being called or gifted, is to spurn God and try to accomplish a ministry for which God has not given you resources (hence, “burning”). If you cannot exercise control, that doesn’t mean you should stay single until you don’t desire sex. It means, if the other right things are in place, a spouse may be a great help to you.
2. “If they cannot exercise self-control, they should marry.” (1 Corinthians 7:9)
As we mentioned earlier, Paul is not saying that marriage is the playground for unfettered sexual fantasy to become reality. It means that whatever is good about our sexuality and sexual desires (which is quite a bit) is meant to be fulfilled in marriage. Our very bodies signify the obvious: “The two will become one flesh” (Genesis 2:24; 1 Corinthians 6:16). Moreover, the sexual life to which Paul invites the unmarried in 1 Corinthians 7:8–9 is described only a few verses earlier in 1 Corinthians 7:2–5. “Conjugal rights” (1 Corinthians 7:3) for Paul is more than a carnal and animal reality. For Paul, sexuality is a deeply spiritual and soteriological reality (1 Corinthians 6:16–20; Ephesians 5:31–32).
How can anyone accuse Paul of reducing the value of marriage to the fulfillment of carnal desires when he just placed value on temporary abstinence within marriage? He’s also just said in speaking of sexuality, “Your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you” (1 Corinthians 6:19). Paul is laboring here to present a balanced answer to a practical question asked by the married and unmarried about sex. We need patience to hear and embrace the fullness and nuance of Paul’s argument.
Of course, there is no such thing as sexuality that is not tainted by sin. Everyone entering marriage is entering it with their good desire twisted into lustful and selfish forms. And yes, it is only the Holy Spirit who can bring change and healing into that. But God has created ordinances and means of grace for his church to use for restoration and healing. It’s inordinately ambitious and theologically naïve to assume that healing and sanctification of one’s sexuality would not be helped by marriage. Again, we need to acknowledge, like Paul in 1 Corinthians 5, that if a relationship is destructive, dysfunctional, or unhealthy, there are many times when the best path is separation and discipline, not marriage. Paul makes a basic, common-sense point: Marriage can help those struggling to remain pure with regard to their sexual desires.
3. “It is better to marry than to burn with passion.” (1 Corinthians 7:9)
For the married, sex is, according to the holy ordinance of marriage, a way to combat Satan himself (1 Corinthians 7:5b). But abstinence is sometimes necessary in order to intentionally realign one’s sexual activity towards God (1 Corinthians 7:5a).
For the unmarried, sex is, according to the natural constitution of human sexuality, a way to combat “burning” (1 Corinthians 7:9), but abstinence is necessary for the time in which the ordinance of marriage has not been instituted. Neither of these groups of people — the married or the unmarried — contain any members that remain unaddressed by Paul’s exhortations here. For all married, they should cultivate regular Christ-honoring sexual activity and proportionate abstinence for the sake of spiritual health. Likewise for the unmarried, except their cultivation of regular Christ-honoring sexual activity takes the form, not of copulation, but of following the exhortation “they [the unmarried and the widows] should marry” (1 Corinthians 7:9). Our view of the goodness of the unmarried Christian’s sexual desire points us to Paul’s obvious point: “It is better to marry.”
Sojourning Sexual Beings
Take heart, unmarried brothers and sisters. Calvin knows. Speaking of the believer who burns, he says: “Let them not despise the remedy which is offered to them. For those who are denied the power of continence [self-control] are called to marriage by God’s clear word (1 Corinthians 7:9)” (Calvin, Institutes (IV.13.17), 2:1272).
Now, many of us would, of course, love to get married. . . if only we were asked.
If only she would say yes. If only, if only. . . if only. Yes, I understand. I’m single, and I want to be married. We don’t have space here to get into that, but we do have one consolation from these passages: We’re not dirty and sinful because of our sexual desires, and God fights for us as creatures in his image with sexual desires, while Satan fights against us as creatures in God’s image with sexual desires (1 Corinthians 7:5). In our sojourning as sexual creatures in the image of God, we have a high priest who helps us and endorses our journey along the way — even as we wrestle with sin (Hebrews 2:17), so that we might “hold fast our confession” (Hebrews 4:14), who guides us along the way in perfect power and wisdom (Hebrews 8:1). May God purify, sustain, and provide for the needs of his holy unmarried children.
The single person’s desire for sex can be very good and God-glorifying.