First printed in the Dialogue Quarterly, April 2000
“Now to the unmarried and the widows I say: It is good for them to stay unmarried, as I am. But if they cannot control themselves, they should marry, for it is better to marry than to burn with passion…. What I mean…is that the time is short. From now on those who have [spouses] should live as if they had none; those who mourn, as if they did not; those who are happy, as if they were not; those who buy something, as if it were not theirs to keep; those who use the things of the world, as if not engrossed in them. For this world in its present form is passing away. 1 Corinthians 7:8-9, 29-31
When Paul was offering the spiritual wisdom above to the young church in Corinth, I know he was not imagining Circle of Hope and Philadelphia. Who could imagine Philadelphia?! But he could imagine young churches spreading across the globe that might result in Circle of Hope. There were some similarities between Corinth and Philadelphia. For one thing, there was plenty of sex going on in Corinth, what with the Temple of Aphrodite right in the middle of town offering a very popular spot for visiting prostitutes. There was a general cosmopolitan atmosphere that made the place famous for being “sin city.” There were dissimilarities, too, of course. For one thing, in Corinth, there was still a strong sense of community that encouraged people to make responsible relationships and get married.
In Paul’s day, people got married at a younger age than today, they had children younger and died younger. I think the system worked better all around. When Paul recommended that people remain single for the sake of focusing their energy on the cause of Christ during “these last days,” he was being radical. It was basically unheard of not to get married — one’s parents often arranged for it well in advance of puberty!
Nowadays, Paul’s exhortation doesn’t seem that radical. “Don’t get married? Who gets married, anyway?” Among the Circle of Hope it is not unusual at all to have been ready (sexually, at least) to be married for 10-15 years before the issue even comes up. Paul would probably be writing to us: “Do something radical — go ahead and marry!”
These days someone who is married at 21 years old seems like a freak. Someone who has never been married but has children seems relatively normal in my neighborhood. Someone who is between 30 and 40 and has never married doesn’t seem very unusual to me.
I certainly don’t understand all the reasons society has changed so much since Paul’s time, but I sort of wish the Christians would change it back a little. Here are a few changes of mind that would contribute to making marriage more common.
1) Don’t forget that partners are not products. A lot of people I know think it is fine to wait for the perfect mate and the perfect moment of that long-sought connection. We’ve watched so many great relationships in the movies and seen so many divorces in reality that we are very picky. But when you go to the store and have to squeeze every tomato on the shelf before you buy one it takes a long time to get to the check out. Go ahead and marry.
2) It’s delusional to think that random sex with uncommitted partners will not damage the soul. We have the pill, reliable condoms and others forms of birth control. We have safe, legal abortions if we get tripped up. So why does the Bible still say “no” to sex outside of marriage? And why get married if casual sex is OK with everyone but God? Because humans make more than a body-connection when they have sex. It is soul-reducing to leave yourself spread all over the landscape, a piece here and a piece there, connected to all your sex partners. Likewise, it is sex-killing to deaden your soul to what you are doing when you open yourself up to someone who ends up not committing to you. Go ahead and marry.
3) It is a lie that economic security is basic to happiness. So many people are waiting to get married because they want to be settled in their career. I am often amazed at the sense of control people think they have over their lives! They have it all worked out — “After I have my schooling done and I am settled into a good job, then I’ll get married.” But, basically, they often just spend all the passion of their youth coupling with a school or a job. Let’s get our priorities straight. For one thing, God shouldn’t have to compete with economics to be our security. And neither should a spouse and children have the perpetual back seat to what is really important to us (that is, ME and what I get from my work!). The love of God, good friends, a spouse and children is a lot better than a job. Go ahead and marry.
4) Remember that God is with us, no matter what happens. We know so much about the social and psychological factors contributing to our relationships we are often overwhelmed by the amount of info we have to sort through on the way to the altar. We honestly believe we have to do marriage just right, like a chemistry experiment, or explosions will follow. The older we get, the more we know, and the less we want to rub test tubes with untried substances. “Fools rush in where angels fear to tread,” the old love song says, “so open up your heart and let this fool rush in.” These days we‘re likely to say, “No way, fool!”
I think the “foolish “young are supposed to get married so they get the full benefit of the mutual maturing process God has in mind for marriage. By the time one is 30, some habits of the heart are like granite. At 20, things are a lot more malleable. In the hands of God, I think almost any malleable pair of people can get formed into a good marriage. God is with us. Go ahead and marry.
I guess I sound a little radical, huh? I’m telling 20 year olds to consider marrying the people they are sleeping with! Or maybe I sound like a kill joy. I’m telling 30 year olds to consider growing up to be more connective, contributing and communal. Or maybe I’m sounding like a scold, since you’re thinking, “I’d marry someone if I could find someone to marry me!”
I’m sure you are working it out. But as we’re doing that, let’s reinforce something Christians have always known. It is just like Paul says. For most of us, “It is better to marry.”