My wife and I married at the ripe old age of 21. We met in our first year of college, just before our 17th birthdays. Later, having both graduated at 19 and still living at home, we were working odd jobs to become more financially independent.
At one point, my mother sat me down: “You can’t marry until you’ve been working full-time for at least six months; that way, I’ll know you’re going to make it.” I argued back that six months was arbitrary, that I would be fine, and that at any rate, it was my right (God forbid) to fall flat on my face.
Ah, yes: spoken like the adolescent I was. In the end, I obeyed. That was 35 years ago, and we haven’t fallen on our faces, at least not yet. But I also know now what it’s like to be on the other side, worrying about whether my own kids will make it, get jobs, be financially stable. Given today’s economy, that’s no mean feat.
That kind of concern is what comes to mind when I read Paul’s words:
I don’t have a command from the Lord about people who have never been married, but I’ll give you my opinion as someone you can trust because of the Lord’s mercy. So I think this advice is good because of the present crisis: Stay as you are. If you are married, don’t get a divorce. If you are divorced, don’t try to find a spouse. But if you do marry, you haven’t sinned; and if someone who hasn’t been married gets married, they haven’t sinned. But married people will have a hard time, and I’m trying to spare you that. (1 Cor 7:25-28, CEB)
What was the “present crisis”? We don’t know, and interpreters disagree. Some take Paul to mean the suffering that precedes the return of Jesus, which Paul expected to happen soon (the NRSV translates this as the “impending” crisis), and the verses that follow have a clearly eschatological bent. But others suggest that there was a real social crisis; N. T. Wright, for example, cites evidence of an empire-wide food shortage.
If something like this is the case, whatever the actual distress, then we can read Paul as giving compassionate advice. Many couples would have been promised to each other in arranged marriages, and betrothed at what we would consider an impossibly early age. The hyper-spiritual faction in the church has probably not only been pressuring married people to abstain from sex, but telling young couples not to go through with their wedding. The couples (perhaps particularly the men, given Paul’s wording) may have anxiously asked, “Are they right? Are we supposed to stay single?”
In my opinion, Paul says, no. If you’re engaged, go ahead and get married. If you’re not, don’t worry about that either. Either way, don’t listen to anyone who tries to tell you that it’s a sin to marry. But if you really want my advice: things are tough right now, and getting married might not be the best idea.
It’s not just practical advice, of course; Paul sees the present crisis eschatologically, that is, in terms of the movement of history toward the ends God has ordained. We’ll see more of that in the next passage.
Meanwhile, it’s worth reflecting on the significance of Paul’s words for us. Frankly, it’s hard for me to identify with the question, “Is it a sin to get married?” If anything, as I’ve suggested before, it’s singleness that’s sometimes treated as the social sin. But there is freedom in his words: freedom to marry, freedom to not marry, freedom to decide on practical grounds, without concern of intrinsically compromising one’s spiritual status. What might this imply for the social attitudes we often find in the church?