Interview with

Founder & Teacher, desiringGod.org

Audio Transcript

For the first time ever in the United States, unmarried women outnumber married women. This opens up a ton of questions (and future follow-up questions). When I read the literature on this phenomenon, Pastor John, what is often applauded is the liberation of women who have now escaped the “cultural norms” of the “shackles of marriage” and expectations of children in order to be free from these “oppressions.” That’s putting it bluntly, but that’s the tenor. There are other factors at play of course, including male immaturity, something we talk about often. But for this episode, the “freedom” language is very thick. And the more books I read, the more I sincerely don’t think modern-day feminists know that 1 Corinthians 7 exists, that the Bible commends lifelong singleness (on purpose, and for a purpose). Many feminists seem to assume the default position of the Bible/church is to call all women to find meaning and purpose in marriage, and that’s simply not exclusively true. How would you explain 1 Corinthians 7, and Paul’s words to unmarried women to the woman’s liberation movement today?

I don’t know if this is going to get at it exactly the way you would get at it. You should probably do this podcast, because you have clearly thought a lot about this. That is great. But I sat here and I thought. Let me come at 1 Corinthians 7 in a roundabout way. And I think if I do it this way, it might open up people to some unexpected things in the chapter that they are not as familiar with.

It seems to me that we are trying to avoid a misunderstanding on two fronts. The one front is the misunderstanding of marriage as bondage and oppression. And on the other front is the misunderstanding of singleness as liberation and freedom. But the reality is that pursuing the unfettered autonomy of singleness may be a deeper bondage, and embracing the sorrows of a disappointing marriage may be a more profound freedom.

Now of course that way of talking, that way of seeing the world, makes no sense to those who define freedom as doing whatever you feel like doing when you feel like doing it. But thoughtful people don’t define freedom or liberation that way. That kind of freedom will get children killed by running out in the street or putting their finger in an electric socket, because they feel like it right now. It doesn’t matter what anybody else says. That kind of freedom leads to thousands of free people being in the state penitentiary. It leads to thousands more being in bondage to venereal disease and thousands more leaving a carnage of broken relationships behind them.

Piper: “Doing what you feel like doing when you feel like doing it has never proved to be a life of liberation, but of bondage.”

Doing what you feel like doing when you feel like doing it has never proved to be a life of liberation, but of bondage. True freedom isn’t just doing what you want to do, period. It is doing what you want to do and wanting what you ought to do. In other words, there is something crucial that defines freedom underneath want to and feel like; namely, ought to and the person you were meant to be. And, of course, as soon as you bring an ought to onto the table or a person you were made to be, we are confronted immediately with a higher or deeper authority than ourselves; namely, God.

There can be no true freedom when a person tries to ignore God’s design for his life, just like there is no true freedom if you try to ignore the law of gravity. If you jump off a cliff, you may feel the exhilaration of freedom for three or four seconds. Then you die. And living your life without reference to God is like jumping off a cliff. It just takes a little longer to hit bottom. But you will.

So now we come to 1 Corinthians 7. Yes, it does have to do with 1 Corinthians 7, where Paul deals with two issues: One is marriage and singleness, and the other is slaves who get converted to Jesus — and the question is whether they should stay in their present condition or not. And it is very interesting to me that those two issues happen to land interwoven in the same chapter.

He says to slaves — and this is going to be relevant for marriage and singleness — he says to slaves, “Were you a slave when called?” — that is, called to be a Christian — “Do not be concerned about it.” — And, in parentheses — “(But if you can gain your freedom, avail yourself of it.) For” — the reason you shouldn’t be too concerned about spending your life even if you have to in the present difficult situation — “for he who was called in the Lord as a slave is a freedman of the Lord. Likewise he who was free when he was called” — namely, to be a Christian — “is a slave of Christ. You were bought with a price” — that is, the blood of Jesus, so — “do not become slaves of men” (1 Corinthians 7:21–23).

Now there is the key to the Christian life and to all of our relationships, including singleness and marriage. What makes for true freedom is belonging to Jesus, who bought us with his blood, who owns us by purchase, who loves us, who designs the best life for us, the most beautiful life for us, and who will bring us to everlasting and the deepest possible joy. That is freedom.

Which means that, if we are in a painful relationship, like slavery, or a deeply disappointing marriage, and we are there with Jesus, belonging to Jesus, owned by Jesus, loved by Jesus, getting help from Jesus, experiencing his fellowship, enjoying his guidance, following his will, then we are walking in great freedom. That is why I said at the beginning, there may be more freedom by embracing a painful relationship than in embracing unfettered autonomy.

It also means that, if we are free from all human commitments and restraints and living a life of unfettered autonomy, not submitting to Jesus, not enjoying his fellowship, we are in the profoundest bondage to sin and selfishness, and we will hit the bottom of the cliff sooner or later.

This is the principle that Paul applies in 1 Corinthians 7 to marriage and singleness. He loves his singleness. He wishes others could have this particular life of Christian freedom. This is what you were talking about at the beginning, Tony, when you said people don’t even know that this is in the Bible: that the exaltation of a life of devoted singleness is there rather than idealizing marriage as the only way to live.

Amazingly, he says — in 1 Corinthians 7:7 — “I wish that all were as I myself am.” Well, are you crazy, Paul? There wouldn’t be any babies if we were all single. But he says it. “But each has his own gift from God, one kind or another. To the unmarried and the widows I say that it is good for them to remain single as I am” (1 Corinthians 7:7–8). And then he adds, lest we draw the wrong inference, he is not telling anyone, he says, not to marry. It is amazing how he starts and ends with this kind of thing. “If anyone thinks that he is not behaving properly toward his betrothed, if his passions are strong, and it has to be, let him do as he wishes: let them marry — it is no sin” (1 Corinthians 7:36). So, he is not condemning marriage. He is just exulting in his singleness and wishing others could join him in it.

Here is the question: What makes his singleness so great in his mind? What should make it great in our minds? It is because singleness offered him a unique experience of devotion to the Lord. He said, “I say this for your own benefit, not to lay any restraint upon you, but to promote good order and to secure your undivided devotion to the Lord” (1 Corinthians 7:35). There is the bottom line of freedom: devotion to the Lord, belonging to the Lord, living in joyful submission to the Lord, who loved us and gave himself for us.

So, when Paul says that marrying is no sin and singleness provides undivided devotion to the Lord, he is not saying that marriage means you don’t walk as closely with the Lord or depend as deeply on the Lord or enjoy the Lord with less sweetness of fellowship. He means the challenges in both states, marriage and singleness, the challenges in both states are different — very different. There are unique distractions in marriage. That is what he is drawing attention to in particular. There are unique distractions in marriage that we must guard against, lest our hearts be divided and the Lord take second place. But I think if we pushed on Paul he would say: There are other kinds of distractions for single people that require similar vigilance.

The point is Christian freedom, whether in lifelong commitment in marriage or in a lifelong state of singleness. It means belonging utterly to the risen Lord Jesus, trusting him completely with our lives, submitting all our decisions to his will, enjoying all his fellowship, expecting all his promises of help, and finding ourselves wonderfully useful in our marriage or in our singleness in serving other people.

So, yes, Tony, I do encourage people to go deep into 1 Corinthians 7. I think there are profound things there about marriage, about singleness, because there are profound things about the lordship of Christ and what it means to be totally his and totally free.


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