By Pastor Glenn Pease
John Woolman, the Quaker, demonstrated the power of the question to change lives. In the 18th century many of the wealthy Quakers were slave holders. He was convinced this was inconsistent with Christian compassion, and he vowed he would rid the Quakers of this terrible blight. His strategy was not to picket, or hold rallies. He did not publish vindictive sermons against slavery, and those who practiced it. Instead, he spent 30 years traveling up and down the length of the land visiting the slave holders. He would accept their hospitality, and ask them questions about how it felt, as a child of God, to own slaves.
He did not condemn, but just kept asking disturbing questions. What does owning slaves do to you as a moral person? What kind of an institution are you passing on to your children? These honestly asked questions sensitized the conscience of the Quakers, and brought forth something noble in their hearts. The result: One hundred years before the Civil War not a single Quaker held slaves. By means of questions Woolman changed the course of history for his people.
Robert Louis Stevenson was right when he said, "You start a question and its like starting a stone from on top of a hill; away the stone goes, starting others." Questions are the key to education. Every student needs to ask questions to learn. Every teacher needs to ask questions to teach effectively. The Bible is full of questions that have changed lives and history. Paul asked on the Damascus Road, "Lord, what wilt thou have me to do?" The answer has changed the entire world. The Philippian jailer asked, "What must I do to be saved?" The answer of believing on the Lord Jesus Christ led him and millions since into the kingdom of God.
Jesus was a Master at the art of using questions. To the group of His disciples he would ask, "Who do men say that I am?" Then He would draw from them what they had heard, and by so doing keep His finger on the pulse of the times. To Peter He asked, "Lovest thou me more than these?" And by this got Peter's personal commitment. After His parables, He would often ask the Pharisees questions like, "Who then was truly a neighbor to the one who fell among thieves?" Or, "Now which of them will love Him more?" Jesus was using questions all the time.
The point is, questions are vital to growth. They get us into new territory. This whole chapter of I Cor. 7 is the result of questions the Corinthian Christians asked Paul. Paul is here being the Ann Landers, and Dear Abby of the early church. They are constantly being asked questions about the male and female relationship. It just goes to show you, no matter how much things change, they are still the same. The questions asked of Paul 2000 years ago were the same questions that are asked everyday in advice columns. The reason for this is simple, no matter how much technology changes human life, it does not change the basic problems of the male-female relationship. The computer does not change the fact that they still love each other, lust for each other, and in varying degrees, hate each other. Progress has not changed this one iota.
The major theme of social questions has always been, and will always be, how do I relate to the opposite sex. You cannot escape these issues, for they are like the air we breathe, and are everywhere present. It is part of the human environment, and even monks who live in the desert discover that one of their biggest problems is the battle with the issue of sex. Nobody escapes. I Cor. 7 leads us into the universal topic man is capable of considering. It is the battle of the sexes. This is one of the most complex battles of life,
and the result is, we see Paul being more flexible and more cautious in this chapter than anywhere else in his epistles. He makes clear the distinction between what is God's command, and what is his own conviction.
Paul was an idealist, and he could conceive of ways that life could be better, but he was also a realist who knew life was not that way, and so we see him operating on two different levels right from the start. His first piece of advice sets the tone for the whole chapter. He starts off with this lofty statement, "It is well for a man not to touch a woman." He is not referring to Typhoid Mary either, but to all women. But then, as if to say, I know that is like asking a fish not to touch water, he goes on to deal with how men ought to touch women, and vice versa.
In other words, Paul is saying, it would be great if we did not have to struggle with all of the complex issues of sexuality. Just think of all the social issues that would be resolved if men would not touch women. It would end prostitution, rape, abortion, population explosion, child abuse, wife beating, and divorce, just to name the most obvious. The world could be changed by this simple formula. The major weakness of it is simply, nobody is interested in applying the formula. This is the primary reason all simple solutions do not work. Paul knows it is an ivory tower formula, and that is why, even though he really means it, he goes on to deal with the issues of sex.
Paul has an extremely high view of marriage and sex. There is no higher view anywhere. Therefore, let us not think that Paul urges singleness because he has a low view of the union of the sexes. He even warns about the heresy of those who forbid marriage. Paul is just pointing out that singleness has a place in God's plan, and some Christians would be better off to remain single. Paul had the gift for being single, and he knew others had it also. They might all be able to ride in a chariot at the same time, but they are there in every church. Some people are gifted to be single, and not just to grin and bear it, but to love it like Paul.
In verse 7 Paul wishes those who had this gift were the majority, but he knows it isn't so, and he recognizes the variety of gifts in the body. He will not try to impose his gift on those who do not have it, for he knows it is a mistake for a Christian with a strong sex drive to try and live the single, or celibate life. History reveals the terrible battles Christians have fought who tried to follow Paul's example without his gift of a fully controlled sex drive.
Henry Martyn, the famous missionary, is a powerful illustration of the ungifted trying to imitate the gifted. As a young single pastor Henry could perform weddings, and be grateful that he did not feel any need for a wife. Then Lydia Greenfell came into his life, and he lost his certainty. He could not get her out of his mind. He would toss and turn in his bed at night, trying to keep this idol out of his mind, so he could pray and not think of her. He was soon to leave for India as a missionary. Some felt he should marry before he left, but others said no, and in spite of the fact that he loved Lydia, and he could not stop dreaming of her, he listened to those who urged celibacy.
He was so miserable in India, and so lonely without her, that the leaders on the field agreed he should marry. He wrote to her and asked her to come to India. It was agony waiting for her reply. It took 18 months for a letter to get to England and a reply back. Meanwhile, he was in torment as he fought off lust for the women in India. He begged Lydia to come and be his wife. He had no gift for singleness at all. He was like those of whom Paul wrote, "It is better to marry than to burn." Paul was talking of the very lust that Henry was battling.
Henry Martyn became the first missionary to live in Persia. He had a gift for languages, and was an excellent translator of the New Testament. He laid the foundation for the church in several languages. He died trying to get back to England, and to his Lydia. He died at age 31. He died single, but not successfully so. The evidence would indicate that his life would have been more effective for the glory of God had he married. Singleness is not for everyone. John Fletcher, another preacher, came to realize this. For years he remained single, for he believed it was the best, but then he got to thinking about Enoch in the Old Testament. He was a man who walked with God, yet he bore sons and daughters. He reasoned that if a man can attain the highest degree of holiness, and still be married, why couldn't he too be both spiritual and married. So he did marry. Most all of the Protestant reformers were celibate priests, but when they got the freedom to do so, they married.
Would Paul be disappointed in them? I am sure not. Paul makes it clear, all through this chapter, he would like to see everyone stay single, but only if they can handle it. If they do not have the self-control to do so, he expects them to marry. Paul is not trying to contradict God. In Gen. 2:18 God said, "It is not good for a man to be alone." Paul knows marriage is ordained of God. He knows it is the highest illustration he had for the relationship of Christ and the church. Nothing in this chapter can be interpreted in a way that degrades marriage. All Paul is doing is emphasizing that there is a valid alternative for many Christians. No Christian needs to feel obligated to get married, as if that is the only way to have a full and meaningful life. This is a truth that needs to be heard in our day, for there are millions of singles who have little chance to ever marry.
Singles and married people alike need to know about what Paul is saying. You do not need marriage to give life meaning. Life can be complete, and fulfilled to the glory of God without it. It is just not true that never having sex and babies, and never having a mate means never having a complete life. Peter had a wife, but Paul did not. Was Paul's life less meaningful? History is filled with very successful people who never married, and never had children. They are not the majority, but they are a powerful minority, and they have made a difference in history.
So the first lesson we need to learn from Paul's response to the questions of the Corinthians is this: Reject the myths about singleness.
1. The myth that singles cannot be complete and happy. The fact is, there are many singles who do not even have the gift who are able to live very meaningful and effective lives. Many of these do burn, as Paul says they will. They have a terrible battle with the sex drive, but they do manage to keep it under control, and make their lives count for the cause of Christ.
2. Another myth that needs to be shattered is that singles must not be as normal, or as attractive as those who marry. The facts are that some of the most beautiful, handsome, educated, and well rounded personalities in the world are single. Singles often keep themselves looking good longer than married people, who often lose interest after years of marriage. Singles get satisfaction out of being liked and appreciated by both sexes, and this keeps them trying to be attractive, for they are more aware of the need to do so in all relationships.
3. Another myth is that singles are anti-children. It is false, for singles make up a large part of the professions of teaching, nursing, and social work. It is singles who are constantly striving to overcome the problems created by married people who have children they do not want. It is poorly adapted married people and not singles, who are anti-children.
4. Another myth is that singles live a life of sexual frustration. It is true that this is a major battle for many, but it is for married people as well. The degree of their frustration is not necessarily any greater than that of married people, and for many, the battle is far less severe.
A good case can be made for selective celibacy. There are people so gifted that they can live very complete and useful lives as singles. Paul is making it clear, it is a good thing for those so gifted to discover the joys of voluntary singleness. In the Old Testament there is not real place for singles. The priests had to marry, and the concept of bacherlorhood did not even exist. There are hints of singleness, but no where is it encouraged. It was very near disgrace to remain a virgin as an adult, and a definite disgrace not t bear a child. Old Testament saints could not dream of giving heed to Paul. There whole perspective on life demanded marriage, sex, and children.
Why does the New Testament change this whole value system? Because it is no longer earth centered. In Christ the kingdom of God has come, and now the focus is on the eternal, rather than the earthly. Now one can give up earthly values, and still find fulfillment. You don't have to bear children now, for you can, like Paul, bring forth children on the spiritual level. The new birth makes it possible to be a single parent, and not by sex, but by the Gospel of salvation. You can bring forth new life for the kingdom of God. There will be singles in heaven with large families of children they have brought into the kingdom. Now that the bridegroom has come, singles can be married on a spiritual level.
Yes, there is the sacrifice of the pleasure of sex, but for those who do not burn to satisfy the desire, there is an anticipation of even greater pleasure. The pleasure of loving for ever all those who will be in heaven, because of their sacrificial labors. For all we know, the pleasure of hugging each of his converts in heaven will far surpass the pleasure of sex. The point is, in an earth centered religion like Judiasm, sexual pleasure is vital, and children are essential. In a heaven centered religion, sex and children are no longer essential to completeness. Jesus, Paul, and John, lived beautiful fruitful lives without marriage. Each of them had close relationships with the opposite sex, however. We need to get the idea out of our heads that singleness means sexless. Singles are sexual beings, and they still relate to the opposite sex in many positive ways. Love is the greatest
virtue for singles, as well as for married people, and love includes relating to the opposite sex.
Paul had numerous women he related to. He loved them, and appreciated them, and they loved him in return. The same was true for Jesus and John. Women played a major role in their lives. They were not hermits who ran off to avoid contact with the world of sexuality. The single person with the gift of celibacy can actually be more loving, and more intimately related to more people, than the married person. A single person with self-control can hug and kiss and touch and make many people feel they are loved. Paul may have kissed more women than we could imagine, and with him, it would truly be the holy kiss, that could express love without lust.
I do not pretend to know how many people can live like Paul. All I know is that Paul felt there were more than most of us would guess, and he appeals to them to examine their lives to see if they have the gift. The single saint is not sexless, but one who can be satisfied with psychological sex. Physical sex is reserved for the married, but psychological sex is for everyone. This is simply the enjoyment of the opposite sex. Conversation with them, activity with them is pleasant and enjoyable.
Jesus enjoyed the presence of Mary and Martha, and Mary Magdelene, to name a few. Paul also had a close friend named Mary, and the dear sister Phoebe was special to him, and also the married woman Pricilla. He has a whole list of girl friends in Rom. 16. John writes his second epistle to the elect lady whom he loved in the truth. There is no escaping it, for the New Testament opens up a whole new possibility in the male-female relationship. They can now, in Christ, be very loving to each other, and devoted to each other, without the commitment to sex and marriage.
It is rare, but history does record some famous examples of this kind of relationship.
1. St. Jerome, who translated the Vulgate. This was the Bible the church used for a thousand years longer than any other Bible. He had St. Paula, a wealthy widow who abandoned everything to follow him, and help him in his translation.
2. St. Francis of Assissi had his Clore, who left her family to be his disciple.
3. John of the Cross and Teresa of Avila loved each other, and wrote books together.
4. Francis de Sales and Jane de Chantel served the kingdom together, and were buried
Here were singles with deep love relationships that did not demand physical union. They were sexual in that they were of the opposite sex, and they met needs only the opposite sex could meet, but they were relationships free from scandal, and full of fruitfulness for the kingdom of God. Rare indeed, but like all rare things, very valuable, and that is why Paul is searching for them in this chapter. Christians need to take Paul seriously, and examine their lives to see if they might be gifted to be a single saint.
The complete personality is one who can love self, love others, and love God. The single is just as capable of this as is the married person. Married people do not have a monopoly on love. They actually limit their freedom to express love by their commitment to the exclusive love of their mate. The gifted single can be far more free to expand the outreach of their love. The great love chapter of the Bible was written by Paul-the single saint. This means we need to recognize that in Christ the best is possible for both marrieds and singles. Both can live a life of love, and be channels of God's love in a world dying for lack of it.
Single or married life finds its highest meaning, and fulfillment, in love-the agape love of God which is found only in Jesus Christ. All other relationships are secondary to ones relationship to Christ. If He is your Lord and Savior, you can live a life of meaningful love regardless of whether you are married or single. Paul recommends it because he knows by experience it is possible to be a single saint.