A great deal of confusion about the relative value of “virginity” and marriage can be avoided if one pays careful attention to the text of Paul’s advice in 1 Corinthians 7. The two most important observations are: 1) that Paul’s specific recommendations are made because of the “impending crisis” (v. 26), and 2) that Paul wants both the unmarried and the married to be free from the anxieties that attend their particular estates.
First, the “impending distress” is the result of the huge change that was taking place between A.D. 30 and 70. The “appointed time has grown very short” (v. 29, ESV). The old “world/age” was under judgment and was “passing away” (v. 31). And although people still had to live in that old world (v. 30, 31), they needed to be careful about the “fleshy tribulations” that were coming (v. 28). Charles Hodge writes:
The awful desolation that was soon to fall upon Jerusalem and on the whole Jewish race, and which could not but involve more or less the Christians also, and the inevitable struggles and persecutions, which according to our Lord’s predictions, his followers were to encounter, were surely enough to create a deep impression on the apostles mind, and to make him solicitous to prepare his brethren for the coming storm.
In the light of this, then, secondly, Paul wants everyone to be free from anxiety. Everyone. This portion of the passage has been greatly misunderstood. Paul wants them to be free from anxiety—the anxieties that attend marriage and the anxieties that are peculiar to the single state. Paul says that the unmarried man or woman is unnecessarily anxious about “how he may please the Lord” (vss. 32, 33). That’s not a good thing. He’s not presenting some ideal celibate state where someone might direct all of his attention toward religious matters and not worry about the problems associated with marriage. He is warning single people that they should not be anxious about pleasing the Lord. Paul wants them all to be free from anxieties.
With that little introduction here’s my “interpretive translation” of 1 Corinthians 7:25-40.
25. Now concerning the special case of virgins [that is, unmarried and unmarried betrothed men and women]: I have no direct commandment from the Lord [Jesus regarding this special situation]; yet I will give you my judgement as one who by the Lord’s mercy is trustworthy.
26. Because of the present crisis [—you understand my meaning here: the great turmoil and distress surrounding the dissolution of the old world as prophesied by our Lord, a tribulation that will also spill over into the entire inhabited world and produce, among other horrors, great persecution for the Church of Jesus Christ—] I think that it is good for a man to remain as he is. [Haven’t I already urged you to accept this? Permit me now to apply this general principle to your present concern about unmarried men and women.]
27. Are you married [or under the obligations of betrothal to a woman]? Do not seek a divorce [or seek to be loosed from your betrothal obligations]. Are you unmarried [or free from a wedding engagement]? Do not seek a wife. [Just as I have been saying, don’t be anxious to alter your current marital status].
28. But if you do marry, you have not sinned [contrary to what your misguided leadership says, marriage will not drop you down into a second-class spiritual state; and so there is no religious reason why you should not marry]; and likewise if a young woman marries, she has not sinned. Nevertheless, [as a faithful pastor I must advise you that] those who are married will have tribulation in the flesh, and I want to spare you this. [Please notice, dear Corinthians, that my reasons for advising you against marriage now are strictly pastoral; they arise out of my evaluation of our own present crisis situation. Unlike your reasons for preferring singleness, spirituality does not enter at all into the rationale for my advice. The old humanity (“the flesh”) is passing away and is being replaced by a new world. That process will bring tribulation, as our Lord promised.]
29-31. Let me explain myself more fully, brethren: the time is short [—we are in the “last days,” the transition from the old to the new world—], so that from now on even those who have wives should live as though they had none, those who weep as though they did not, those who rejoice as thought they did not, those who buy as though they did not possess, and those who use the things of this world as if not engrossed in them. For this world in its present form [that is, the entire old world economy with Israel and Rome at the religious and political center of the world] is passing away.
32. Now, I want you to be free from an anxiety-ridden existence [Gk: 'amérimnos*]. The man who is unmarried [in the Corinthian community] is unnecessarily fretful* about the things of the Lord—how he may please the Lord. And the man who is married is anxiety-ridden* over the cares of the world—how he may please his wife [both kinds of anxiety are unhealthy and to be avoided].
*See Matt. 6: 25, 27, 28, 31, 34; 10:19; Lk. 10: 41; 21:34; Phil. 4:6; 1 Pet. 5:7;
34. Now consider the difference between a wife and a unmarried woman [in the Corinthian community dominated by your false view of spirituality. Your legalistic pestering has insured that] the unmarried woman is anxious* about the things of the Lord, that she may be holy both in body and spirit [and so she has gotten herself all worked up over whether getting married or staying single is more spiritual]. And she who is married is anxious* about the things of the world—how she may please her husband. [Why? Because the teachings that are circulating among you make her anxious about all this “secular” time she supposedly wastes on pleasing her husband. Again, both forms of anxiety are unspiritual and dangerous.]
35. I say this for your own benefit, not to lay any restraint upon you, but to promote good order and to secure your undivided devotion to the Lord [or as some have translated it: that you may serve the Lord without distraction—the distractions of these unspiritual anxieties].
36. Now if any one thinks that he is not behaving properly toward his betrothed, if his passions are strong, and it has to be, let him do as he wishes: let them marry — it is no sin.
37. Nevertheless, he who stands steadfast in his heart, who is under no compulsion but has control over his own will, and has determined in his heart that he will not marry—this man also does the right thing.
38. So then, he who marries his betrothed does right, but he who does not marry does even better [because of the present crisis and the trouble that the church will experience].
39-40. A wife is bound to her husband as long as he lives. If the husband dies, she is free to be married to whom she wishes, only in the Lord. But blessed is she who remains as she is—that is my judgment [given the coming crisis that will spare none of us], and I think that I have the Spirit of God.