Updated Sept. 2014
From 1 Corinthians 7, many teach that the apostle Paul was a single man who never married. But while the chapter seems to teach that very thing, such isn’t the case when read in its proper context. In short, the Bible doesn’t teach that Paul never had a wife, it teaches that he was a married man who lost his wife and then chose not to remarry, and so it’s only in this sense that he’s single. But let’s have a closer look.
1Now concerning the things whereof ye wrote unto me: It is good for a man not to touch a woman. 2Nevertheless, to avoid fornication, let every man have his own wife, and let every woman have her own husband.
7For I would that all men were as myself. But every man hath his proper gift of God, one after this manner, and another after that. 8I say therefore to the unmarried and widows, It is good for them if they abide even as I. 9But if they cannot contain, let them marry: for it is better to marry than to burn.
From these verses, Paul teaches that he’s single and that it’s better not to marry; but he also says that if we do marry, we’re not sinning (28, 36). Marriage is honorable and ordained of God, and so it can’t be sin (Heb. 13:4). But at the same time, each man has received his proper gift, and so some will marry while others will not (Mt. 19:12; 1 Cor. 7:7, 17-24).
But in reading through the chapter, what quickly begins to emerge is the subtle and uncomfortable notion that marriage is good but that being single is better. In fact, Paul says as much in v. 38 (So then he that giveth her in marriage doeth well; but he that giveth her not in marriage doeth better.). But here he says that it’s good for a man not to touch a woman and that it’s good for the unmarried and widows to be as he is. And since he’s single and in the ministry, and since his example is found in the authoritative pages of Scripture, then logic dictates that it’s God’s desire for all his ministers to be single males (preferably). But not everyone can control their natural desires, they can’t contain them, and so Paul counsels them to go ahead and marry – lest they fall into sin; i.e. fornication. It is, after all, better to marry than to burn; and so the subtle inference here is that marriage is good but that being single is better. Or, that a good man will marry but that a better man will not; or, that marriage is within the permissible will of God, but that being single is in the perfect will of God. But there’s more.
Paul then explains that marriage brings with it trouble in the flesh, which is why he’s counseling against it: he’s trying to spare us the hardship (28). This realization leads him to deduce that marriage is a snare and distraction to serving God (35). He explains that couples have their interests divided between serving God and pleasing their spouse whereas singles do not (32-35). He explains that singles are focused on how they may please the Lord, but that couples care for the things that are of the world; and the things that are of the world of which he’s referring are marriage and spouses (32-34). Thus we have a contrast where singleness is portrayed as godly and marriage as “worldly.” And since it’s worldly, then by definition it’s limited in depth and scope as opposed to the more “divine” or “spiritual” status of remaining single (31). So again, remaining single stands out as being the better of the two. Marriage isn’t sin. But from Paul’s comments, it would seem as though it isn’t far from it.
This of course leads to the unenviable conclusion that, like Paul, singles are better suited for ministerial work; they’ll be able to learn and do more thus being of greater value to the Kingdom. So if we want to be profitable for the Kingdom, we should selflessly remain single. But if we want to give in to our natural desires thus becoming less profitable, we should selfishly get married – that’s the implication. However, and unbeknownst to most, the context of the entire chapter hinges on v. 26:
26I suppose therefore that this is good FOR THE PRESENT DISTRESS, I say, that it is good for a man so to be.
With this verse, everything changes. Paul isn’t weighing the advantages of being single or being married, or being single or being married and in the ministry. He is single, and he does speak of his ability to control his natural desires. But at the same time, he’s not teaching that it’s better to be single, or that it’s better to be single and in the ministry, he’s only teaching that it’s better to be single while being persecuted (nor is he teaching that we should divorce under such circumstances: 10-17, 27), and so it’s within this context that the entire chapter must be understood. So when he speaks of the virtues of remaining single, it has nothing to do with the work of the ministry; he’s merely offering a practical suggestion based upon present circumstances. Because of the persecution, all he’s saying is that now isn’t the best time to get married and start a family; he’s counseling them to wait until things settle. He’s afraid that the added pressure of persecution will cause their marriages to fall apart, and of course he doesn’t want this to happen and so this is why he’s encouraging them to remain single, and it’s for only this reason. But he does say that if they do marry, it isn’t sin, and it isn’t. So in context, he isn’t establishing doctrine, he’s offering counsel! He even admits that he’s offering his opinion, but it’s an opinion based upon Scripture (6, 36-40)!
To put it another way, if you want to ignore this context, then you must teach that being single and working in the ministry is preferable to being married and working in the ministry, or being married at all. And if you ignore this context, then you must teach that singles are spiritually and morally superior to their married counterparts. And lest someone underestimate the importance of this “ignored context,” Rome’s priestly caste system is based upon this very logic.
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But this alone doesn’t teach that Paul never married, it only teaches that it’s better to be single while being persecuted. So how do we know that Paul was married? One of the first qualifications of the elders – qualifications that Paul wrote – was that you were to be “the husband of one wife” (1 Tim. 3:2; Tit. 1:6). This being the case, if Paul were truly single, then why would God send into ministry a man who didn’t meet the qualifications that he himself wrote? The answer should be obvious: Paul had been married but his wife had already died; and that in having become a widower, he chose not to remarry, which was well within his right (1 Cor. 9:5), and so it’s only in this sense that he’s single. He’d become an “eunuch for the kingdom of heaven’s sake,” as it were (Mt. 19:12). Otherwise, you have to justify why God allowed a man to serve as an elder who didn’t meet the qualifications that he himself wrote!
Second, and similar to the above, there’s absolutely no scriptural evidence supporting a celibate priesthood. It wasn’t practiced by the Old Testament priests nor Jewish culture as a whole (Gen. 1:22; 9:7). In addition, Scripture specifically teaches that Peter was a married man as were the other apostles – else they too weren’t qualified to minister. And so the real question isn’t whether he was married or not, but why wouldn’t he be? Paul’s wife could have left him, but in his opening remarks he addresses the unmarried (singles) and widows and notes his preference that they remain as he is, single, with the implication that he’s single as a result of having been widowed.
And finally, Paul spoke more about the marriage and family and Christ’s relationship to it than any other New Testament writer, and such wisdom and insight isn’t imparted to those who haven’t walked through it. Just ask Hosea.
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But if all of this is true, then why are we being told that Paul was a unmarried single man?
(1) Man loves works-based religions. Instead of relying solely upon God’s grace to save and sustain him, man always wants to prove himself worthy to receive God’s love through denial of self, and this is why people take poverty vows, flagellate, choose not to marry, etc. But we can only love God or desire to serve him because he first loved us (Rom. 5:8). This being the case, there’s nothing that man can do to merit or earn God’s love, he can only respond to the love that’s already been shown to him. So if we decide to deny ourselves of anything, it should be done in accordance with God’s will and not our own.
(2) The pride of Rome (in particular). Rome emphasizes the advantages of being single in an attempt to distinguish its professional clergy from the rest of God’s people (i.e. the “laity”). This is done as a means of inferring spiritual superiority which is nothing more than the sin of pride and a continuation of the Nicolaitan heresy (Rev. 2:6, 14-15). Rome doesn’t suggest that marriage is sin, as it would be foolhardy to do so. But they’ve clearly adopted the view that being single and working in the ministry is better than being married, or being married and working in the ministry. As proof, their priests are all single males and their nuns single females, while married people are relegated to “lay ministry.” But in choosing to remain single “for the kingdom of heaven’s sake,” they sanctimoniously add that they’re now “married to the church,” and this they claim despite the fact that all of God’s people are figuratively spoken of as being part of the bride of Christ with Jesus as its “husband.” In other words, in claiming to be married to the Church, they’ve adopted a position for themselves that’s uniquely reserved for Jesus Christ! They’ve replaced Jesus with themselves! (More pride)
(3) To Destroy the Family. Via the traditional interpretation of this passage, marriage is reduced to being God’s “second best” for man, which in turn implies that celibacy is preferred to monogamy. It implies that sex is “dirty” – that God just kind of “winks” at it because there’s no alternative. People, after all, have to come from somewhere. Thus marriage and sex become a “necessary evil” in the eyes of both God and man, which is soundly unbiblical (Heb. 13:4 etc.). But suffice it to say that the ministry has always been an extension of being a husband and father first and not the other way around (1 Tim. 3:5 e.g.). God demonstrated this in that he didn’t allow Adam to go a single day without also providing him a wife; therefore by his own actions he taught the superiority of marriage over remaining single.
(4) Singles Ministry. Evangelicals possess Scriptural support in favor of excluding singles from the ministry, but choose to ignore it. They generally prefer married males, but privately they’re conflicted because they can’t reconcile 1 Corinthians 7 with the qualifications for the bishops and deacons found in Timothy and Titus. So when it comes to singles, they adopt the same logic as Rome minus its celibacy. Like Rome, they view singleness as a “special time” to focus on God and accomplish his will. But this often comes from married ministers who never seem quite convinced of their own words. But it’s all they know and so they just regurgitate what they were taught when they were single. So if you’ve ever heard a lesson on the virtues of being single and walked away longing… there’s a reason for it: their doctrine is wrong.
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But what have we learned? To begin, that it’s only better to be single while enduring persecution. Second, that Paul was a widower who chose not to remarry, and so it’s only in this sense that he’s single. This is the only interpretation that satisfies all of the verses on the subject without forcing a person to accept one at the expense of another. Third, that in missing the true context of this passage, both Rome and evangelicals have led God’s people into gross error. Rome uses it as a justification for their celibate priesthood while evangelicals use it when ministering to singles. Fourth, that God’s Word is a Living Word that we can learn to apply to our daily lives if willing. Paul adapted it to address a local short-term problem, but the church has altered its context and turned it into a standard doctrine although this was never God’s intention. And finally, it’s a good example of the difference between what Scripture says and what it teaches. What it says is that it’s better to be single (and in the ministry) as opposed to being married; but what it teaches is that it’s only better to be single while being persecuted. And what was the difference? Four words in English. Selah.
 This alone, if none else, disqualifies every Roman Catholic priest. There is no biblical evidence supporting a celibate priesthood although there is much evidence found in pagan cultures. Selah.
 Cp. Mt. 18:14-15; Mk. 1:29-31; Lu. 4:38-39; 1 Cor. 9:5
 2 Cor. 11:1-2; Rev. 19:7-9 etc.
 1 Tim. 2:11-3:13; Tit. 2:5-9