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I’ve often heard pastors say that the only explicit reason given for marriage in the Bible is that it is better to marry than to burn with passion.

The context they’re quoting is from 1 Corinthians 7:

Now to the unmarried and the widows I say: It is good for them to stay unmarried, as I do. But if they cannot control themselves, they should marry, for it is better to marry than to burn with passion.
1 Corinthians 7:8-9

I often get asked what I think this verse means, and whether it means that if we’re struggling not to have sex with our boyfriend, the best thing to do is to marry quickly.

I’d like to look into the context of 1 Corinthians 7 a bit today. We looked at the context of the “do not deprive” verses a while ago, and I’d like to extend that to a few more verses in the chapter today.

As I said in the original post,

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From 3 Keys to Interpreting Paul's Writings on Sex in Light of Roman Culture

In this culture where sex was about power and was rather ugly, many people converting to Christianity were also committing to a life of celibacy. The Greek philosophy that the body was bad and the soul was good was still rampant at this time, and had infiltrated the church. It was only natural in a society that saw the body as bad, and that treated sex as ugly, that new Christians would think you could be more godly by giving up on sex altogether.

In fact, when Paul talks about “virgins” in 1 Corinthians 7, he doesn’t mean virginity as the state of one’s hymen, as we often think of it. Many scholars believe instead that he’s referring to people, and especially women, who have pledged themselves to a life of celibacy.

In the culture Paul was addressing, vowing celibacy was considered a mark of a good Christian.

There was a movement towards “the body is bad, the spirit is good.” And so the more you could defeat the body and concentrate just on God, the holier you would be.

People were even vowing to remain celibate in marriage–and Paul spent verses 3-5 saying why that isn’t a good thing to do. You’re married! Have sex!

But then the question turns to single people: what should they do?

Paul affirms people’s desires to stay single if they feel called to it–but he also affirms marriage. 

He says, “look, I wish you all could be single and totally devoted to God like me. But if you’re not cut out for it–then marry! It’s totally okay.”

I actually think we read the “it is better to marry than to burn” verses backwards.

We think the point that Paul is addressing is marriage, and when you should marry.

But he’s not. He’s dealing with lifelong celibacy, and if you should remain celibate.

These verses were written in a period where people were promising lifetime celibacy, and then struggling with it afterwards. And Paul was basically saying in 1 Corinthians 7, “hey, people, it’s okay to marry! You don’t have to stay celibate!” He wasn’t saying, “marriage is the cure for sexual temptation.” He was saying, “there’s no need to vow to stay celibate if you don’t truly want to. There’s nothing wrong with marriage.”

He also wasn’t saying in this context, “If you’re tempted sexually, get married right away.” He was saying, “if you’re a very sexual person, it’s better to aim towards marriage and look for a spouse.”

He wasn’t talking to people who were already paired off and having a difficult time not sleeping with someone, and saying, “you should move up the wedding date.” He was talking to people who were trying to decide if they would aim for celibacy or if they would seek out marriage. So even if they did decide to “marry rather than to burn,” this didn’t mean they would marry in two weeks. This still meant they likely had several years of waiting ahead of them! But at least they knew what they were aiming for their lives to look like.

That’s the whole point of the entire chapter. It’s too bad the cultural context has gotten lost.

Getting married simply because you want to have sex is a very, very bad idea.

I think purity culture made sexual temptation so terrible that it was often intimated that if you think you’re going to have sex or you might have sex or you want to have sex, then you better darn well get married so that you don’t sin.

That sounds like a recipe for disaster to me. Many, many people can be sexually attracted to someone who could make a horrible spouse. We’re going to have sexual feelings, and those feelings are based on a whole variety of things, including simple hormones. You can be attracted to someone that doesn’t treat you well, doesn’t really know you, and is actually quite lazy or selfish. You can be attracted to someone you don’t love–or attracted to someone you love for all the wrong reasons.

Paul was never saying that our sexual temptation should outweigh all other considerations for marriage. He was simply saying that if a person was very sexual, and would find celibacy difficult, then there was no need to vow to remain celibate. It was okay to marry instead.

And then, once you make that decision to marry, all the other biblical principles about how to be wise and walk by the Spirit and seek out Jesus first and foremost still apply.

Marriage is not primarily a sin-reduction strategy.

Marriage is a sacred covenant between two people. We shouldn’t take that lightly, and I think far too many in the church have pressured people to marry because they don’t want them succumbing to sexual sin.

Look, I don’t want anyone succumbing to sexual sin either. But I would much rather people succumbed to sexual sin than that they ended up in a really bad or abusive marriage with a lazy or selfish spouse with whom they could never feel truly intimate.

I have known parents who have pressured kids to marry simply because they’re sleeping together already. I think it’s far better to ask a kids to take a step back and ask, “is this wise? Do I want to be with this person for the rest of my life? Is having sex blurring my ability to see this relationship with clear eyes? Do I feel closer to them than I actually am? Or is this a healthy relationship?”

Everyday I receive social media messages, comments, and emails from people in very difficult marriages, and often those marriages started because they married for the wrong reasons.

So next time someone tells you that the only reason the apostle Paul gives for marriage is so that you don’t sin sexually, stop them.

Tell them the bigger context. And tell them that marriage is far too big a deal to reduce to hormonal impulses.

Are you ready for the honeymoon you always dreamed of?

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The Honeymoon Course is here to help you plan the perfect honeymoon and start your marriage (and your sex life!) off with laughter, joy and fun!

Don’t make the same mistakes other couples have–get it right from the beginning! 

Better to Marry than to Burn - Is It "Better to Marry Than to Burn"?

What do you think? Have you heard that interpretation of the verses? Do you know people who got married just to have sex? How did it turn out? Let’s talk in the comments!

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Sheila Wray Gregoire

Founder of To Love, Honor and Vacuum

Sheila has been married to Keith for 28 years, and happily married for 25! (It took a while to adjust). She’s also an award-winning author of 8 books, including The Good Girl’s Guide to Great Sex, and a sought-after speaker. With her humorous, no-nonsense approach, Sheila is passionate about changing the evangelical conversation about sex and marriage to line up with kingdom principles. ENTJ, straight 8

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