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Is it really better to marry than burn with desire?

A lack of sexual stewardship is not a call to marriage.

Published on:
May 17, 2021
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During my last year of college, the campus minister met weekly with two other senior guys and me. This capstone of four years of mentorship was meant to prepare us to faithfully make the transition from student to adulthood. We sat in leather chairs surrounded by the mahogany walls, like a Bible study on the set of a Dos Equis commercial. The four of us read through a book about leadership, or maybe it was on masculinity or discipleship—I couldn’t tell you the title. But I do remember what our weekly check-ins were about: sexual purity. After a few months of honest confession and little progress, one guy desperately asked the campus minister:

“I just can’t seem to get rid of sexual temptation. Am I doomed to a lifetime of lust?”

“Well,” the campus minister responded, “1 Corinthians 7:9 says that if you’re struggling to be abstinent, the best thing to do is get married.” His solution didn’t surprise me. He frequently encouraged men to date Christian girls and marry before their temptations became too great.

My college pastor isn’t alone. Campus ministers, parents, and pastors offer Paul’s words in Corinthians to those struggling with self-control the same way a doctor writes a prescription for someone who is sick. If sexual stewardship in singleness is too difficult, God has a simple solution: marriage.

A lack of sexual stewardship is a call to sexual integrity discipleship, not a call to marriage.

Today, more Christian young adults are postponing marriage or considering never marrying than ever before, and the church at large fears plummeting marriage percentages and the declining birth rates that follow. As those numbers soften, their refrain booms louder: “If abstinent singleness isn’t easy for you, don’t worry. Just get married.” Armed with 1 Corinthians 7:9, they plead with the under-thirty crowd, “PLEASE. Get married.” 

In our context, it’s easy to hear the words of Paul and happily interpret them how many cultural conservatives have suggested. Abstinence is hard. Having sex in marriage does seem like a good, sin-free alternative. But more than a cursory look at this advice betrays its painful effects. 

The Problem with the Marriage-as-Remedy Approach

Do lust, temptation, and the possibility of all sorts of sexual deviance disappear when someone marries? Is sexual stewardship only a habit of holiness for the unmarried? We know instinctively to answer no. 

A simple Google search, Twitter scroll, or conversation with a local pastor reminds us of the pornography, extra-marital affairs, and sexual abuse ravaging both the married and the unmarried who profess Christ. Famous Christians exposed for extreme and egregious examples have made headlines—Josh Duggar, Ravi Zacharias, and Jerry Falwell Jr., all married, drew media and legal attention for their abhorrent sexual deviance. Average church-goers grasping for faithfulness in marriage fill the seats of counselors’ and pastors’ offices. 

If you can’t control yourself, get married, isn’t working. It’s better to marry than to burn with desire, isn’t producing flourishing, faithful marriages. Just tie the knot, isn’t forging a path to sexual obedience. And of course not: when a Christian confesses sexual desires that threaten to outpace their self-control, they’re expressing a need for sanctification, not a need to make a commitment with even greater consequences. 

When a Christian confesses sexual desires that threaten to outpace their self-control, they’re expressing a need for sanctification, not a need to make a commitment with even greater consequences.

God gives the gift of marriage, in part, to provide a place for sexual intimacy that is pleasing to God and good for the couple. But pushing marriage on those who lack the will or maturity to faithfully control their sexual impulses is not a solution to a sin problem. It’s negligence. Instead of eradicating lust, encouraging these sexual strugglers to marry multiplies the number of people injured by their moral failures. A lack of sexual stewardship is a call to sexual integrity discipleship, not a call to marriage.

The clear consequences of placing the burden of spiritual immaturity on marriage leads us to question the popular interpretation of 1 Corinthians 7:9. Did Paul set out to encourage the sexually tempted to choose marriage over sexual stewardship? Or have we misunderstood Paul all along? 

Paul’s Actual Audience

Mentors of all sorts point young adults to 1 Corinthians 7:9 as if Paul tailor-made his exhortation for the sexually frustrated but spiritually driven twenty-something. But unsurprisingly, Paul did not write the epistle in question to twenty-first-century college students or pastors following up on spiritual interest surveys in dining halls. 

A chorus of trusted commentators and scholars including Tom Wright, Gordon D. Fee, Anthony C. Thiselton, Peter Brown, Wolfgang Schrage, Raymond F. Collins, Andreas J. Lostenberger, and Max Thurian[1] agree that Paul’s audience in Corinth was made up of two different groups: early practitioners of Christian asceticism and new converts with pagan backgrounds. Christian ascetics were generally committed to self-denial (with some permanently renouncing marriage and sex), while many from pagan backgrounds were plagued with sexual immorality. 

Many scholars argue that Paul is calling out a lack of judicious restraint instead of recognizing overwhelming sexual desire.

The mix of these two groups made for an interesting dynamic. Ascetics over-zealously encouraged the promiscuous—and everyone else—to give up sexual intimacy altogether. The promiscuous crowd saw the invitation to celibacy as a means to avoid the responsibilities of marriage but failed to seriously practice celibacy. While popular interpretation suggests the recipients of Paul’s wisdom were earnestly trying to steward their sexualities, it’s more likely the Corinthians were looking for a loophole that made a way for sex and a way out of marriage.  

Paul’s Intended Emphasis

Beyond the question of Paul’s target audience, scholars have debated the translation of his words. Poor translation of the verse is so infamous that K. C. Russel titled his short research on 1 Corinthians 7:9 “That Embarrassing Verse in First Corinthians.” A host of commentaries repeatedly challenge a common translation of the phrase “if they cannot control themselves.” Many scholars argue that Paul is calling out a lack of judicious restraint instead of recognizing overwhelming sexual desire. Gordon Fee’s popular commentary argues that the poor translation “if they cannot control themselves” incorrectly emphasises the magnitude of desire. Instead, Fee suggests that Paul is better interpreted to say, “if they do not practice, or are not practicing, continence (or exercising self-control).” Fee continues, “[T]he issue for Paul is not the sexual drive as such, but the sinful practice of some of the brothers for whom marriage, rather than sin, is to be the proper order of things.”

Another issue arises with the word “burn.” Burn is most often understood as either “burn in judgment” or “burn with passion.” Regardless of the interpretation of burn, the translation offered by Fee and others clarifies that Paul was exhorting those who made little effort to live faithfully outside of marriage, not individuals with insurmountable desire that made faithfulness impossible. First Corinthians 7:9 could more accurately be understood to say, “But if they choose not to exercise self-control over their sexual desires, it would be better to marry than to engage in rampant sexual immorality (and thus incur judgement).”

At a glance, switching the emphasis seems small, almost unnoticeable, but recognizing the nuance in translation changes our application of Paul’s words. Anthony C. Thiselton describes the impact of this emphasis in his commentary on 1 Corinthians:

In popular thought [less nuanced translations] suggest that Paul ranks marriage as little more than a remedy for a strong sex drive which cannot be controlled. A crude transplant into the world of our own day might perceive it as a recipe for a two-tier system in which those who cannot control themselves forestall a series of extramarital affairs by remarriage, which a stalwart band of disciplined believers doggedly pursues celibacy. Clearly the context excludes any meaning even remotely of this kind.

Using the sacred institution of Christian marriage as a crude remedy for weakness blemishes the testimony of Christian marriage sorely needed in our communities just as it sidesteps the work of developing spiritual maturity. 

Paul’s Understanding of Calling 

Instead of wringing his hands over an unmanageable sexual desire, Pauls seems to reasonably cast doubt on whether Christians struggling with sexual stewardship have yet received the call to lifetime celibacy. Paul is pushing back on the over-zealous ascetics we mentioned earlier who encouraged everyone to give up sex for a lifetime. Calvin’s commentary on this verse understands Paul to be cautioning Christians struggling with sexual stewardship from committing to lifetime abstinent singleness and instead encouraging them to assess whether their inability to steward their sexualities is from a lack of a calling to celibacy or a need for better strategies of resistance.[2] Theologian Peter Brown summarizes the “better to marry than burn” controversy this way: “It had not been Paul’s concern to praise marriage; he strove, rather, to point out that marriage was safer than unconsidered celibacy.”

The gift of marriage is not available to all and when it is, it’s just as much a call to God-honoring sexual stewardship as singleness is.

Paul offered caution in response to early Christians over-promising, “Anyone can give up sex for a lifetime, it’s easy!” Christians today offer an opposite but equally-problematic promise: “Just get married if abstinence is too hard. It’ll be easy!” Maybe if Paul were writing to us today, he’d instead cast doubt on whether Christians struggling with sexual stewardship have yet received the call to marriage. The wise Bible-reading believer recognizes that just because a Christian isn’t called to vocational singleness at a particular time doesn’t automatically mean God is calling the person to marriage at that moment. As the fruit of the marriage-as-remedy approach makes abundantly clear, pursuing Christian marriage without a discernible calling and positive gift is just as dangerous as pursuing lifetime Christian celibacy without a discernible calling and positive gift.

Paul and Jesus confirm this understanding. Just two verses before, Paul urges that “each has a particular gift from God, one having one kind and another a different kind.” God wants to offer the gift of vocational singleness to some and the gift of marriage to others. In Matthew 19:11, Jesus reinforces his high standard for Christian marriage by clarifying that only those who have been given the gift of marriage will be able to accept his teachings on marriage. The gift of marriage is not available to all and when it is, it’s just as much a call to God-honoring sexual stewardship as singleness is. Both Jesus and Paul would caution against entering into marriage without a clear calling to marriage. Both believed marriage also requires a call and gift. 

In light of the fall, neither faithful monogamy nor lifetime abstinence come naturally to the Christian. To do either Christian marriage or vocational singleness well, we need a provision of grace from God to thrive.

Taking into account Paul’s audience, proper translation, and scripture’s consistent wisdom on marriage, 1 Corinthians 7:9 is more likely a somewhat-facetious, punchy line calling out the spurious attempts at celibacy by some instead of a meaningful recommendation to pursue marriage.

If the answer to our current question of “What do I do about all this lust?” isn’t marriage, what is the answer? Discipleship and discernment.

But the problem remains: what should single Christians who lack a calling and struggle to faithfully steward their sexuality do? If they need a gift from God to do either vocational singleness or Christian marriage well, how do they get it? If God has a preference for which gift he wants to give, how do they discover and receive that gift?

Seeking Sexual Discipleship and Vocational Discernment 

If the answer to our current question of “What do I do about all this lust?” isn’t marriage, what is the answer? Discipleship and discernment. Christian singles struggling with sexual sin can take a break from dating and leverage the time and energy they would invest in romantic relationships to instead learn how to faithfully steward their sexualities, regardless of their future calling. In community, in prayer, and through time in God’s word we can seek to conform the desires of our heart and the actions of our life to God’s will. First Thessalonians 4:3–5 addresses this specifically: “For this is God’s will, your sanctification: that you keep away from sexual immorality, that each of you knows how to control his own body in holiness and honor, not with lustful passions, like the Gentiles, who don’t know God.” Perhaps these verses in 1 Thessalonians would serve as a better go-to remedy in college accountability groups and dining halls.

Then, from a place of spiritual health and sexual sobriety, Christians can begin prayerfully asking the Lord whether he is calling them to Christian marriage at some point or to vocational singleness. 

Robust discernment begins by developing a capacity for general Christian discernment and working to recognize any theological or emotional barriers to either relational vocation. Historically, spiritual directors guiding discernment have noted a strong desire for the kingdom work of raising children, a strong desire for other kingdom work mutually exclusive with raising children, or a lack of a strong desire for either as meaningful in discernment. While it's beyond the scope of the space here to address the painfully common reality of infertility or the strong desire of some singles to raise children, discerners might consider whether their level of desire to raise children hints at God’s calling. Next, discerners can explore their past and present circumstances for any indications of God’s preference. Throughout this process, discerners invite a spiritual director or mentor to guide their process, seek the spiritual covering of prayerful conversation with friends, family, pastors, and other mentors, and allow God ample time to provide wisdom.

Don’t misuse marriage as a band-aid for a lack of self-control, haunting marriages and poisoning generations of loved ones.

With these ingredients for healthy discernment, Christians can open-handedly offer the question marriage to God, accurately discern which gift he wants to give, and receive either with gladness, joy, and a commitment to faithful sexual stewardship. 

Rethinking the apostle’s words in 1 Corinthians 7:9 provides single Christians and campus ministers alike with a challenge: Don’t misuse marriage as a band-aid for a lack of self-control, haunting marriages and poisoning generations of loved ones. Instead, root out sexual immorality, discern whether God wants to give the gift to faithfully live out vocational singleness or Christian marriage, and receive his provision of grace that leads to a lifetime of thriving.

Pieter Valk
Pieter Valk is a licensed professional counselor, the director of EQUIP (equipyourcommunity.org), and cofounder of the Nashville Family of Brothers (familyofbrothers.org), an ecumenically Christian brotherhood for men called to vocational singleness. He helps churches love gay people and celibate Christians find family. Follow Pieter @pieterlvalk on all platforms.

[1] Tom Wright, "Paul for Everyone: 1 Corinthians" (Louisville, KY: Westminster, 2004), 77.

Fee, G. D. (1987). "The first epistle to the Corinthians." Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing.

Thiselton, A. C. (2000). "The First Epistle to the Corinthians: A commentary on the Greek text" (Vol. 7). Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing.

Brown, P. (2008). "The body and society: Men, women, and sexual renunciation in early Christianity." Columbia University Press.

Wolfgang Schrage, "Zur Fonrstellung der paulinischen Ehebewertung in 1 Kor 7 1-7," ZNW 67 (1976): 220.

Raymond F. Collins, First Corinthians, ed. Daniel J. Harrington, S. J., SP (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 1999), 253.

Köstenberger, A. J., & Jones, D. W. (2004). "God, marriage & family: Rebuilding the biblical foundation." Crossway.Max Thurian, Thurian, M. (1959). "Marriage and Celibacy" (Vol. 10). SCM Press.

[2] John Calvin: Commentary on Corinthians - Volume 1 - Christian Classics Ethereal Library. (n.d.). https://www.ccel.org/ccel/calvin/calcom39.xiv.iv.html. 

[3] Cover image by Markus Winkler.

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