Thursday, September 15, 2011

Was the Apostle Paul Single? Did He Ever Marry?

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 woman2Nevertheless, 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 myselfBut 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 I9But 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. 

*     *     *     *     *

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).[1]  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.[2]  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. 

*     *     *     *     *

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.”[3]  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.[4]  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.

*   *   *   *   *

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.  

[1] 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.
[2] Cp. Mt. 18:14-15; Mk. 1:29-31; Lu. 4:38-39; 1 Cor. 9:5
[3] 2 Cor. 11:1-2; Rev. 19:7-9 etc. 
[4] 1 Tim. 2:11-3:13; Tit. 2:5-9  


  1. i am more than certain that Apostle Paul was married before he met with Jesus. If he had a wife and divorced, i believe that due to his exploit for the Lord, he will have been exposed, opposed and his teachings tagged heresis. hence it must have been that he was a widow as at the time he wrote this passage

  2. I couldn't care less if he was married or not. He still made a VERY wise statement that applies to men more NOW then it did THEN....DO NOT MARRY UNDER ANY CIRCUMSTANCES! It is a will lose EVERYTHING.

    1. And we wonder why the church is in such bad shape...?

    2. omg. sounds like bitterness!

    3. Good suggestion ya! The word of God for man to fill the world is done. why we should increase our population to a point oxygen become expensive. Anyone who wana see the jail in real life get married. But at least don't bring copy of your face to world, no reproduction anymore. NO OFFENCE INTENDED!

  3. Whether Paul was divorced, or separated for some reason, or a widower, he had one quality that stands out above everything else, his devotion to God. There is something that is trending among young men and women these days. They call it secondary virginity. I am sorry to have put so blatantly but I find no other way to put it across. This is where even after indulging in fornication young people opt out of the culture, repent, turn to Jesus for salvation and remain faithful until they marry. I find nothing wrong with that as long as they find their way to God out of the maze that is the world today.

  4. Allow me to comment on point 2 above. Jesus talked about three types of eunuchs(Matthew 19:12, one, those who have been born eunuchs, two, those who have been castrated, and three, those who have chosen to be celibate 'for the sake of the kingdom of heaven'. It is for you as an individual to know exactly to which category you belong, then take a firm stand in your faith in God. I have said this due to some weakness that I have seen in the
    Roman Catholic clergy, both men and women. I have a cousin who has three boys by a priest who still does mass; they are now over thirty years old and their father still serves the 'church'. Isn't that hypocrisy of the highest order?
    About a year ago, I was out doing field work near Mt. Kenya in a small town called Meru. I was talking to the supermarket manager and he told me a story of how cctv cameras caught a 'sister' in her full nuns' habit sneaking a packet of condoms under her clothes(three pack). When she came to pay for her provisions, she failed to surrender the packet of condoms. Even after being questioned about it she refused to own up; they ushered her to the manager's office where a female deputy manager pulled out the stolen packet. She paid for the same amid shame but there is clincher to the story; the manager ordered that the 'sister' be given the largest package(it contains about three hundred condoms). She accepted the gift with thanks and lowered dignity. They advised her to seek the services of the store assistants to package the condoms discreetly next time she comes shopping. Will she really come back?
    I have related these two instances to show that R. Catholic are misleading the flock. Certainly they are having sex full time, one way or the other. Aren't they supposed to be celibate?
    I have a colleague who was abused as a young boy by a priest, he has never been able to relate to women.
    Why do they want people with different callings to join them? If they have that calling, why can't they stick to it if the so believe it? They have demonized sex so much, who would they be preaching to if we all abstained or remained single for that matter? Why do sex scandals follow them wherever they are? Here in Kenya we have a small group of them who call themselves charistmatic catholics, they don't believe in celibacy they cannot contain. R.C should know that unless it appointed by God, canal efforts are useless and futile. In the old testament, the Levites were married and had children to continue with lineage of serving God.
    Just as Jesus said, we all have each his special gift in this regard but honesty and being pure is key to serving Him.

    1. Rome is based on ancient pagan practices and fertility rites, so there you have it. And yes, their definition of "celibacy" is different than most peoples'.

  5. Do you folks ever weary of bashing Catholics. I would rather learn and understand our God and our Lords' true message and meaning than a man's biased babbling. Shame on you for spreading gossip and dissension. Heavenly Father, forgive them for they know not what they do!

    1. You of course can demonstrate the "true message and meaning" of his passage... right? Can you show me where I've erred? Can you show me how I'm biased? If you're right you're right and if you're wrong you're wrong. Doesn't matter who...

  6. Fantastic read. I would add 2 comments: 1) Twice in this chapter Paul specifically states he is not speaking with spiritual authority, saying "Now as a concession, not a command, I say this" (verse 6), and "Now concerning the betrothed, I have no command from the Lord, but I give my judgment as one who by the Lord's mercy is trustworthy" (verse 25). It is certainly debatable whether these caveats actually mean these passages are not meant to be as authoritative as other passages in scripture that do not have such explicit expressions that these words are opinions; but, assuming at least for the sake of argument that Paul delineates between authoritative "commands from God" and his personal reflective, reasoned, well contemplated opinions, I think this perspective enhances your contention that this passage is best understood as "wise counsel." -- 2) Beyond the "present circumstances of persecution", which I found fascinating and on point, is also the belief of the early Christians that Jesus was returning imminently, as in literally in an hour or a day or a week. "This is what I mean brothers: the appointed time has grown very short" (verse 29); "For the present form of this world is passing away" (verse 31). So in addition to the chaotic circumstances of persecution, it was understood that there may not be anywhere near the sort of time available to start a marital relationship, raise a family, etc etc. I think both of these observations add to your interpretation, interested in your thoughts on the matter. Wesley Loofbourrow

    1. Per your first point, I agree. Paul was giving sound advice based on his understanding of Scripture and how to apply it to their local situation. And evidently, God thought he did such a good job that he included his counsel in Scripture.

      Per your second point, Jesus could return at any time... true. But, I read vv. 29-31 in the context of the local situation and not as a general statement. In other words, because of the persecution, THEIR time was (likely) short. He was simply trying to compel them to focus on staying alive verses getting married, which, in the context of the persecution, should've been of minor importance. So they were making it an issue when it shouldn't have been - hence the reminder that the time could be short and so set it aside for now and pick it back up again later when the persecution subsides.

  7. What everyone is missing is that nowhere does it say Paul was an elder. Peter was but not Paul. Paul was constantly on the move. So the case is disproved. He didn't have to meet the qualifications of an elder. He could have been married at one time but biblically we just don't know.

    1. It doesn't have to. To be an apostle meant that you were an elder. Or, elder is what he was and serve as an apostle is what he did. An "elder" is just a more general term for all positions of leadership in the church. Peter was both an elder and an apostle (1 Pet 5:1), and so nothing is disproven. If I'm wrong, then you must explain by what authority Paul operated under if he didn't have to meet the qualifications that he wrote.