While some in the Corinthian church struggled with immorality, there were others who sought to set marriage aside as a hindrance to attaining deeper levels of spiritual life. Paul agrees there is some benefit remaining single, but only if the person is already single. He does not want believers to divorce their unbelieving spouses. Beginning with widowers and widows, Paul turns at this point to a few examples of marital statuses to emphasize the importance of marriage. What does Paul say about how the church should care for widows?
The “unmarried” (ἄγαμος) in verse 8 is paired with widows (χήρα), so it may be Paul has in mind both men and women who had been married but lost their spouse to death. Later in this chapter he will address people who have never been married, but in this first section his focus is on people who may want to remarry.
The best case, Paul says, is that they remain as Paul is. The word “single” is not in the Greek and “what Paul is” remains unstated. They knew, we are not quite sure. Possibly Paul had been married and was widowed or divorced, but at the present time he is not married. In 7:7 he expressed his wish that everyone could “be as I am,” but even there he does not explicitly say he is practicing celibacy. Give the context of the whole chapter, it is likely Paul means that he is able to practice self-control and live an unmarried life in order to devote himself to ministry.
Paul needs to address people who are unmarried because their spouse had died because women often married young, just after puberty. Since arranged marriages between older men and younger women were common, a woman might be quite young when her husband died. Since young women often died in childbirth, men were left without a wife. If there where Christians in the Corinthian church in these common situations, how does “I wish that all were as I myself am” apply to them? Should they remarry or stay single?
Unlike 1 Timothy 5:3-16, Paul does not make a distinction between younger and older widows, nor does he command the church to care for older widows (although 1 Timothy is clear the church ought to take care of them). Paul does not consider a widow any different than a person who has not yet married. Marriage is good, so they should remarry if they desire, or they can stay single if they prefer. But if they do not remarry, the church ought to take care of widows as a family should.
I realize I am including widowers (men who have lost their spouse) in this discussion although Paul does not directly address them as much as he does widows. I do this because in a modern context, churches need to care for older men who have lost their wives as much as they do women who have lost their husbands. Since modern marriages are between people of similar ages (unlike the Roman world), the church needs to care for all spouses who have lost their partners.
Verse 9 has two difficult phrases. First, Paul says if the widowers and widows “cannot exercise (or practice, NRSV) self-control” (ESV), or “if they cannot control themselves” (NIV 2011). The verb (ἐγκρατεύομαι) refers to controlling passion and desire. Later Christians used the word for abstinence (for example, Justin, Apology, 1.29). But in 1 Corinthians 9:25 Paul uses the same word for the self-discipline of an athlete.
Second, Paul says it is “Better to marry than to burn (πυρόω).” The word “passion” does not appear in the Greek. The ESV and other modern translations add the word to avoid the impression of “burning in hell.” Paul does not say, “you better get married, or you are doomed to hell!” The verb burn here refers to burning with passion. Achilles Tatius (Leuc. Clit. 5.26.2) is an example of the verb “burn” used for sexual passion: “However angry you make me, I still burn with love for you…. Make a truce with me at least for now; pity me, a single consummation will be enough. It is a small remedy I ask for so great an illness. Quench a little of my fire” (cited by Garland, 1 Corinthians, 275).
Self-control is Paul’s overriding concern in this passage. Marriage is good, Paul says, and sex is part of God’s plan, but in all things believers ought to control their passions.
4 thoughts on “Widowers and Widows – 1 Corinthians 7:8-9”
An element of these verses that I find interesting is that this commandment (remain unmarried), is actually not a commandment at all. Compare verses 8-9 to 10-11; Paul goes from speaking from his experiences to speaking with authority. Paul is very clear that there are some black and white areas with marriage and divorce. However, every case is unique and sometimes circumstances merit overruling the commandment to never divorce your spouse. Then there are further cases in which divorce is not a factor. Paul offers solutions to a number of possible situations and also clearly distinguishes his personal convictions with divine command.
Another part of the issue is that Roman law allowed for divorce for virtually any reason. So a number of members of the Corinthian church may have been getting divorced simply out of boredom or convenience. This could be another reason why Paul reminds the Corinthians that God hates divorce. Paul’s intention is not to alienate and condemn those in unique and possibly unfortunate circumstances, but to call out those living their lives with ignorance or disregard for God’s commands.
I find it very interesting that the term “abstinence” was related to 1 Corinthians 7:9 by Christians after the letter was initially written. Growing up in the church and youth group, I have heard sermons and lessons on abstinence that are supported by passages like this. However, I had never known that the Greek word and wordings used are also used in language to describe an athlete and their self-control. Now, I’m not saying that the lessons I heard are diminished or invalid because the wording was used for another purpose elsewhere as well, rather, I believe that this strengthens the argument for abstinence and emphasizes the effort it takes. Any prepubescent boy knows this struggle for abstinence and purity, so when Paul says that it’s “better to marry than to burn [with passion]” (7:9), using the word “burn” is an adequate representation of that feeling. Any athlete knows that the self-control and discipline that it takes to train and work out can be difficult, especially in the long run, and sometimes giving up or giving in can seem like the best option. It would make sense then for Paul, assuming he was understanding of these athletes, to use this type of language when talking about purity and marriage. Nowhere in the Bible does it say that it’s bad to get married, and, although Paul makes the argument that you could be more devoted to your life in Christ without a spouse, his audience has this idea flipped that singleness means they’re more holy. Thus, I would agree with you that this passage relates more to encouraging the Corinthians to have self-control with their passions than to change their lifestyle altogether and be celibate.
While at weddings, I have found the vows so interesting to listen to and what they contain. Commonly the quote, “til death do us part” is within these vows and I wonder how many couples cannot see life together after death. We vow to love one another forever, if one in the marriage passes away and the other one is left alone, is it appropriate to move on? If so, how long must one wait until they can find true love again? I do believe that not everyone will find true love with another person, but we should not dwell on it as what is more important is finding your love for God and trusting him to guide you down the path he chooses in life.
The discussion on widowers and widows is quite interesting when comparing it to the Greco-Roman and modern world. First, in the Greco-Roman world, most females have gotten married shorty after puberty, much earlier than in today’s modern world. According to Lake (2022), the average age of females getting married, from a 2021 statistics, is about 28 years old. To come in realization, girls normally experience puberty around their teenage years. With that, there’s about a ten or plus year difference between the Roman and modern world of females getting married. Secondly, Paul addresses that people are unmarried because there will come a time when your spouse dies. Although there is no right or wrong way as to whether the widower’s remarry or not, Paul concludes that if they choose to not remarry, the church ought to take care of them as family should. Finally, Paul’s main point when it comes to this passage is self-control. The interesting thing about this, is the term abstinence as a way to identify self-discipline of an athlete. This was an interesting perspective because when I think of abstinence, I think of ways to resist something that I really want.