“It is better to marry than to burn”

Original photo by Miguel SaavedraSo goes the King James translation of 1 Corinthians 7:9.  More modern versions add words to convey the sense: it’s better to marry than “to burn with passion” (NIV, CEB).  Perhaps we might imagine two young people falling madly in love, unable to keep their hands off each other.  Maybe we’d even bring them to a youth group meeting, where they’d be sure to get the message not to have sex before getting married.  Alas, too many faithful Christian students have then gone off to college and married young rather than sin sexually.  Some of those marriages work out, but many end in divorce.

As a marriage educator, I find the idea of marriage as the lawful container of youthful passion to be a rather low view of marriage itself.  Surely, that’s not what Paul meant?

Relax: I’m not about to say sex before or outside of marriage is fine.  Indeed, I’m mystified when I see a car zip past me with a bumper sticker that says, “What a great day for premarital sex” (yes, this has happened).  But odds are that Paul is dealing with something else here.

Remember the context.  Some of the Corinthian Christians have been visiting prostitutes, possibly because some wives have been abstaining for spiritual reasons.  Paul counsels against this, teaching that marital sexuality is a mutual responsibility.  Then he says that he wishes they could all be like him, but recognizes that he may have a special gift of self-control that makes it possible for him to remain unmarried and celibate.

It’s easy to read what follows as applying to those who have never been married: “Now to the unmarried and the widows I say: It is good for them to stay unmarried, as I do” (1 Cor 7:8, NIV).  But it’s an odd pairing. Throughout the rest of the chapter, Paul seems to make carefully balanced parallels: husband versus wife and unmarried versus married, even circumcised versus uncircumcised and slave versus free.  Why put “never married” together with “widows”?

In the margin, the NIV notes that the word “unmarried” could also be translated as “widower,” which would make more sense.  After all, Paul uses the same word again in verse 11, where “unmarried” clearly refers to someone who has already been married.

Thus, while verses 8 and 9 sit awkwardly in the midst of Paul’s teaching about marriage, they probably represent a bit of a detour.  Having spoken of his own singleness, he turns to a related question: what about those who used to be married, but are now widows and widowers?  His first response, given what he’s said in verse 7, is essentially, If you have the gift of self-control, my preference would be for you to remain unmarried.  But not everyone has that gift, and some of the widowers may be among those who have been visiting prostitutes.  In that case, Paul adds, by all means go ahead and get married.

I realize that this doesn’t completely eliminate the “marriage as container for sex” idea.  But it’s important to remember that Paul is not sitting down to write a theology of marriage, but answering questions put to him by the Corinthians–questions we can only infer.  He’s dealing pastorally with actual behavior.  And yes, in that context, it’s better for a widower to remarry than to think there is something spiritually superior to remaining unmarried but employing the services of a prostitute!

If that’s the right reading of the passage, then maybe we could be about the business of teaching a more inspiring view of marriage and sexuality in the context of a one-flesh unity, as I believe Paul intended.