“So then he that giveth her in marriage doeth well; but he that giveth her not in marriage doeth better.” 1 Corinthians 7:38.
I’ve heard this verse misinterpreted by some as if it says that St Paul was calling celibacy ‘better’ than marriage.
If so then Paul would have contradicted his prior statement in the same chapter:
“But if they cannot contain, let them marry: for it is better to marry than to burn.” 1 Corinthians 7:9.
Paul strongly favours that people get married:
“I will therefore that the younger women marry, bear children, guide the house, give none occasion to the adversary to speak reproachfully.” 1 Timothy 5:4.
“Notwithstanding she shall be saved in childbearing, if they continue in faith and charity and holiness with sobriety.” 1 Timothy 2:15.
“For this cause shall a man leave his father and mother, and shall be joined unto his wife, and they two shall be one flesh…. Nevertheless let every one of you in particular so love his wife even as himself; and the wife see that she reverence her husband.” Ephesians 5:31,33.
He urged marriage particularly upon those in church leadership:
“A bishop then must be blameless, the husband of one wife, vigilant, sober, of good behaviour, given to hospitality, apt to teach;” 1 Timothy 3:2.
“Let the deacons be the husbands of one wife, ruling their children and their own houses well.” 1 Timothy 3:12.
“For this cause left I thee in Crete, that thou shouldest set in order the things that are wanting, and ordain elders in every city, as I had appointed thee: If any be blameless, the husband of one wife, having faithful children not accused of riot or unruly.” Titus 1:5-6.
Although Paul was single, he asserted that it was his right to marry if he so desired:
“Have we not power to lead about a sister, a wife, as well as other apostles, and as the brethren of the Lord, and Cephas?” 1 Corinthians 9:5.
And he identified mandatory celibacy as a satanic doctrine:
“Now the Spirit speaketh expressly, that in the latter times some shall depart from the faith, giving heed to seducing spirits, and doctrines of devils; Speaking lies in hypocrisy; having their conscience seared with a hot iron; Forbidding to marry, and commanding to abstain from meats, which God hath created to be received with thanksgiving of them which believe and know the truth.” 1 Timothy 4:1-3.
[Paul opens up chapter 7 by writing in the first verse, “Now concerning the things whereof ye wrote unto me: It is good for a man not to touch a woman.” The only proper context for human intimacy is between husband and wife. Thus marriage, including divorce and re-marriage, is always better than fornication. Those that satanically forbid marriage – whether to priests/nuns, or to those with living prior spouses – are doing the devil’s work by encouraging fornication. (Rev. 2:20)]
Thus the position of St Paul on marriage is therefore very clear from all his writings, and it is obviously a mistake to minimize what he said by taking select verses from 1 Corinthians chapter 7 out of context – verses that announce the Christian liberty to remain single.
5 Defraud ye not one the other, except it be with consent for a time, that ye may give yourselves to fasting and prayer; and come together again, that Satan tempt you not for your incontinency.
6 But I speak this by permission, and not of commandment.
7 For I would that all men were even as I myself. But every man hath his proper gift of God, one after this manner, and another after that.
8 I say therefore to the unmarried and widows, It is good for them if they abide even as I.
9 But if they cannot contain, let them marry: for it is better to marry than to burn.
Thus all who have fleshly appetites are suppose to marry, but those without such desires are free to not participate in a marriage.
Paul, who optimistically saw the Lord’s victory in every situation of Christian living (Romans 8:28), calls the lack of desire a ‘gift’ – the person can then serve the Lord with less distraction:
” 32 But I would have you without carefulness. He that is unmarried careth for the things that belong to the Lord, how he may please the Lord:”
Paul’s admonitions here were directed to adults living in Corinth, a “Las Vegas” sort of town full of immorality. Paul was helping them transition from a loose and worldly culture into a manner of living marked by mature, sensible, and godly choices about marriage, divorce, and remarriage. Without condemnation or legalism, he urges all of them who have biological drives, to get married, stay married, or get re-married in the Lord, and thus avoid fornication.
But when it comes to a young girl still under her parent’s command, St Paul backs-off from his pro-marriage urging so as not to create undue pressure for her father to rashly place the girl in an inappropriate marriage.
“36 But if any man think that he behaveth himself uncomely toward his virgin, if she pass the flower of her age, and need so require, let him do what he will, he sinneth not: let them marry.
37 Nevertheless he that standeth stedfast in his heart, having no necessity, but hath power over his own will, and hath so decreed in his heart that he will keep his virgin, doeth well.
38 So then he that giveth her in marriage doeth well; but he that giveth her not in marriage doeth better.”
The father who is waiting for the right husband for his daughter can continue to say “no” to the suitors who ask for his daughter’s hand in marriage without feeling pressured by St Paul.
Of course, as time goes by the daughter is getting older and older and the father comes under a natural pressure from society and all the relatives to give permission to somebody before too much time elapses!
The idea is that if, say, the daughter is 15 and the father insists in all good conscience that he refuses to allow his daughter to marry a particular suitor, then the father is commended as having done “better” – it is “better” because he refused to give permission while he had doubts. Paul was always very careful to urge Christians to not offend their own conscience by doing what they doubt. The solution is to pray and get light on the situation until the Lord removes the doubts and makes the proper choices clear.
So it is “better” because the father can simply wait until such time as his doubts are dissolved. If he had said “yes” too soon he would not be doing the sensible thing.
This is not a permanent decision that Paul is speaking of – it is only the decision the father makes at a certain time. Perhaps in a few years he will believe that she is sufficiently mature and that the suitor is sufficiently appropriate, and then he will give his permission to marry without any reservation.
But at a certain age the girl becomes a woman who is legally old enough to make her own decisions, and then what St Paul wrote beforehand – that all with desires should marry – applies to her regardless of her father’s decision.