What’s Better About Celibacy?

Much has been made about Apostle Paul’s statement that those who choose celibacy “doeth better.” 1 Corinthians 7:37-38:

37 Nevertheless he that standeth stedfast in his heart, having no necessity, but hath power over his own will, and hath so decreed in his heart that he will keep his virgin, doeth well.

38 So then he that giveth her in marriage doeth well; but he that giveth her not in marriage doeth better.

These verses have fueled the marriage/celibacy debate for centuries. And then of course Paul also referred to celibacy as a “gift of God (1 Cor 7:7). But why is it better than marriage?  First of all, I don’t think Paul is talking about a father-daughter relationship here.  He is still talking about single men and single women, as he was in the previous verses. He is not talking about fathers giving away their virgin daughters in arranged marriages, which is a common interpretation. He is not talking about father/daughter purity balls. “Power over his own will” can only be referring to single men who are thinking about getting married. Today we call it self-control.  Also, I think these verses apply equally to men and women.  In verse 37, he is saying that if a man makes the choice under their own free will to get married and commit to a life of sexual fidelity to their wives, he does well.

Notice that verse 38 starts with “So then.” These two simple words are a testament to the literary genius of Apostle Paul and the divine inspiration of his writing. He had just described the self-control that a man and woman need to remain chaste until marriage. “So then” transfers all of that standing “stedfast in his heart” and “power over his own will” to the man who chooses celibacy.  “But he that giveth her not in marriage doeth better” adds to it an honor and dignity that is above marriage. In other words, Paul is saying: “It takes steadfastness and willpower to commit yourselves to an honorable marriage and sex with one woman for the rest of your lives. If you think that’s tough, it takes even more to commit to a life of celibacy and no sex.”  Also notice how Paul juxtaposes a man who giveth her in marriage with a man who giveth her not in marriage.  The word “giveth” is a verb.  In order to give something, you have to make a decision.  In other words, he is placing just as much importance on the decision to get married as he is on the decision not to get married.  It is a sacred decision; not an extended period of adolescence and greedy singleness as many preachers would have you to believe.   Another point to remember from earlier verses in chapter 7 is that when a man chooses a life of virginity, he is never again defined by something he will never have.  When he chooses to giveth her not in marriage, he is not required to continually look at women in the future and contemplate the merits of that decision.  Paul hinted to that in these verses.  “His virgin” in verse 37 is carried to verse 38 as “her.”  Unfortunately, we live in a world today where virginity means only thing – waiting until marriage to have sex.  That is directly opposite of what Paul is saying here.  People who choose celibacy are only waiting on one thing – the return of Christ.  We are not waiting on weddings, on finishing college, on finding a better job, on saving enough money, etc.   We are defined by what we are saying yes to, a life of dedicated focus on God’s concerns; and not defined by what we say no to, marriage and concern for a spouse.  1 Corinthians 7:32-33:

32 But I would have you without carefulness. He that is unmarried careth for the things that belong to the Lord, how he may please the Lord:

33 But he that is married careth for the things that are of the world, how he may please his wife.

A lot of people today are asking: “What’s the difference between married men and single men?” This ought to serve as an answer.  Married men have chosen to keep their virgins and care for the things of the world (having babies, education, domestic chores, securing the home, etc).  Single men have chosen to keep Christ and care for the things that belong to him.  How do we know when we do things that please the Lord?  In general, when we do these things, it will make the world very angry.  For example, if we try to defind the very definitions of virginity and chastity in order to provide virtuous role models for children, we may be called judgmental, narrow-minded, unforgiving,, etc.  While waiting on the rain to slack up in front of a Walmart store recently, a young black man, who works as a greeter in the store, walked up to me and said “I have this ex-girlfriend and she’s thinking about leaving town with this other guy.”  I asked him what he thought about the other guy and he said “well, I really don’t know him, but the thing is they are going to live together.”  I asked him what he thought about two people living together who were not married and he said:  Well, I don’t think it’s right.  But she keeps talking about how Russell Wilson and his girlfriend did the same thing.”  I just told him that I didn’t think they provided good examples of Christian behavior.  I said the same thing about Russell Wilson and Ciara on an internet blog and was called a narcissist along with a half dozen other names.  There are a few good celebrity role models out there.  I think Lolo Jones is a good example.  She’s not afraid to tell the world that she’s a virgin and waiting on marriage.  Is Lolo a better person than Ciara?  No.  But she does provide a better role model for young adults, just as the man who giveth her not in marriage doeth better than the man who marries her from an eternal standpoint.  It’s not about being a better person than someone else.  It’s about what we take and don’t take, our actions, our witness to the world, and our availability to help other people.  It’s about humbling ourselves enough to know that our purity doesn’t even begin to compare to the standard of purity that Christ has already established.

Another thing to look at is how Paul is using the word “better.” When our 21st century consumer-driven brains think of better, we think of an object being better than another. We automatically default to objectification. This car is better than that car. This peanut butter is better than that peanut butter. Paul is not using the word in that sense. We must connect the body back to the spirit and consider man as more than a bag of tissue and bones. Paul said that the man who passes on marriage “doeth better.” The word “do” is also a verb. It is not a subject. Since it is not a subject, he cannot be saying that those who choose celibacy are better humans than those who choose marriage. So really, we’re talking about a difference that goes beyond apples and oranges. He is not disparaging marriage whatsoever. I think he’s trying to communicate that celibacy is a more efficient and straighter route to heaven. Without a spouse obstructing our vision, we can see the gaits of heaven directly in front of us. It’s like choosing flying over driving. You wouldn’t explain your choice of air to your friends by telling them that jet planes are better than automobiles. It’s just the shortest and most efficient route to your destination. Likewise, people who choose celibacy and remain virgins for their lifetimes are simply taking the shortest and most efficient route to heaven. In addition, it’s a more accurate representation of what heaven will be like because there will be no marriages or families in heaven. Also, note that virginal chastity is not compared with any other form of chastity, including conjugal chastity.  Yes, it’s difficult. But that does not negate its reality. Christ was also a virgin, which reinforces that truth. And by giving birth to Christ and remaining a virgin, Mary ushered in an era where fruitfulness did not destroy virginity and virginity did not destroy fruitfulness, because the multiplication of children of God became more important than the multiplication of human lives to populate the earth.

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