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.