1 Corinthians, Lesson 11: Celibacy—More Than What You Think

Celibacy (610x350)Like last week, we still find ourselves within a flow of thought taking place within a chiasm:

A  7:1-16  Sex relating to those who are or have been married

.       B  7:17-24  Being content in your callings

A’ 7:25-40  Sex relating to those not now married

This week, we look at remaining in celibacy, or marriage, based on the situation in which a Christian finds himself.  The main point in Paul’s chiastic structure is being content where the Lord has placed you.

In the Old-Covenant, God had forbidden the Israelites to marry those outside the covenant.  That would incline a Christian, who now finds himself married to an unbeliever, to divorce.  Paul—contrary to that thinking, sharing his opinion—says that a Christian must not divorce if the unbelieving spouse wants to remain married and the Christian can be at peace and “remain with God” (1 Corinthians 7:15, 24).  For the unbelieving spouse may become a Christian through the words and life of the Christian spouse.

Last week, we also looked at how marriage can be an arena for salvation, if properly lived out, as a living embodiment of the relationship between Christ and His Bride, the Church.  And just as marriage can point to an end-times salvation that includes the body, so can celibacy.  The point is to understand how both physical realities point to different aspects of our salvation of body and soul.


For Those Unmarried (the “Virgins”)

Read 1 Corinthians 7:25-26

  • In this section, is Paul sharing a command of the Lord or his opinion?


  • In line with the main argument that Paul makes through the chiasm of chapter 7, what does Paul recommend (he uses, “it is good”)?


  • What is Paul’s reasoning?


Read 1 Corinthians 7:27-28a

  • What does Paul repeat?


Read 1 Corinthians 7:28b-29a

  • Discuss: The “present troubles” and “the appointed time has grown very short.” Based on Paul’s experiences, what does he conclude, and why does he see that as encouragement for a Christian to remain where he is (married, unmarried, etc)?


Read 1 Corinthians 7:29b-31

Excursus: Living in the End Times

Paul may have used Jeremiah 16 to make his point on “how the appointed time has grown very short” (1 Corinthians 7:29) and that “the present form of this world is passing away” (1 Corinthians 7:31).  Although we might think that Christ’s return is a matter of the calendar, it’s not.  His first coming and His ascension into heaven in glory means that God has accomplished everything needed for His return.  We are living in the end times; thus, Christ could return at any time!

In Jeremiah 16, God had told Jeremiah not to do the first three things that Paul lists in this section.


Jeremiah 16 1 Corinthians 7
16:2: You shall not take a wife 7:29: let those who have wives live as though they had none
16:5: Do not enter the house of mourning, or go to lament or grieve for them 7:30a: let those who mourn live as though they were not mourning
16:8: You shall not go into the house of feasting to sit with them 7:30b: let those who rejoice live as though they were not rejoicing


Jeremiah’s actions all pointed forward to Israel’s impending exile.  Thus, Jeremiah and Paul were similar.  They both urged God’s people to remain in their present state “in view of the present distress” (1 Corinthians 7:26) and because “the present form of this world is passing away” (1 Corinthians 7:31).

Marriage is part of the present form of this world, which is passing away.  After the resurrection, people will “will neither marry nor be given in marriage; instead, they will be like the angels in heaven” (Matthew 22:30, also Mark 12:25).  We will be physical beings, confirmed in sinlessness like the angels, and will not marry or have children.

Paul was using himself as an example, and asked the Corinthians also to live in a way, that pointed to the age to come.  Being content in your current situation points to the reality that Christ could (not necessarily that He will) return today!  If married, marriage points to the fulfillment of what it means to be the Church, the Bride of Christ, when He returns.  If not married, celibacy also points to an end-of-time physical reality, but one that doesn’t include marriage with others or the procreation of children.

Paul then “amps up” his argument, including what Jeremiah did not.


Jeremiah 16 1 Corinthians 7
—– 7:30c: let those who buy live as though they had no goods
—– 7:31: let those who are using the world live as though they are not using it


What awaits us now is a much greater event than what awaited the people of Israel.  The destruction of Jerusalem prefigured the “Judgment Day” aspect of Christ’s return—but not the fulfillment of our salvation.  Our salvation will include a new heaven and new earth.  That’s why Paul says, “Let those who are using the world live as though they are not using it.”

“Using” and “Using Up”: Paul uses a series of paradoxical statements (such as, “let those who have wives live as if they had none”) that reach their peak with a play on words between “using” (chromenoi) and “using up” (katachromenoi).  Through the skills of rhetoric, Paul concludes his point: Since this fallen world will be no more at the resurrection of the body, then grasping for the things of this world like a greedy person wanting more is foolishness.  As Christians, we let nothing of this world become a “god” to us; after all, we are waiting for our God and what He has for us when He returns on the Last Day.


Freedom from Concern; Freedom to be Concerned

Read 1 Corinthians 7:32-35

Paul uses a coordination conjunction (de) to join this section to the previous one.  It acts as a “so” or a “then.”  This means that this section is also his opinion.  (But since it’s from an Apostle and in Scripture, we are to value his opinion highly.)

  • What is Paul’s reasoning for someone remaining single (remember, if one has the gift of celibacy)?


Amerimnos, Merimnoo: Paul uses “wordplay” to makes his point.  He uses two words with the same root: one an adjective, one a verb.  The first has a prefix “a,” which is not to be something (example, an amoral person is someone without morals).  The unmarried person is free from the concerns, time, expenses, etc. of having a spouse and/or family.  This allows for more concern, time, money, etc. for the “things of the Lord.”  Paul see this as something positive, which the translation “anxiety” doesn’t convey.


Excursus: “Things of the Lord”

Paul said that unmarried men are freer to be more concerned about the “things of the Lord.”  But what exactly did he mean?

Not spending time on things sexual: In the Old Covenant, Leviticus 15 dealt with bodily discharges related to sex and reproduction, for both men and women.  After a man’s discharge of semen or woman’s menstrual cycle, each was to undergo ritual cleansing before being allowed around the things of the Lord, before entering the Tabernacle/Temple (Leviticus 15:31).  Naturally, when Paul used “the things of the Lord,” he was speaking about things other than having sex or children.

Doing that which affirms life: In the Old Covenant, Numbers 16 dealt with the ritual purification required for a person after he had touched someone who had died.  He had to undergo such ritual purification before he was allowed to enter the Tabernacle/Temple.  This was keep death from “infecting” in the Temple, where God gave out life, His forgiveness, through those Temple sacrifices.

But in the New Covenant, which fulfills the Old, death no longer defiles “the things of the Lord.”  Instead of death defiling inward toward the Altar, life flows outward from the Altar, making clean the death it touches.  (Think of the “Parable of the Good Samaritan” [Luke 10:25-37].  In it, the Old Covenant, represented by the Priest and Levite, didn’t touch the man who looked dead.  But in the New Covenant, the Samaritan, representing Jesus and His Gentile-including Church, picked him up.  Instead of being defiled, the man who looked dead was healed and made whole.)

Like the Good Samaritan, the “things of the Lord” include the Christian doing acts of mercy for others, acts which affirm life.

Following the Lord in word and deed: In Deuteronomy 1:36, God allowed Caleb to enter the Promised Land because he “wholeheartedly followed the Lord.”  Those who are free to be more concerned about the “things of the Lord,” can be examples to others (if they know the content of the faith more fully and live it out faithfully) on how living the faith can look like in areas outside of family life.

Bringing others to rejoice in the New Covenant: In Jeremiah 31, pointing to the New Covenant to come, Jeremiah called Israel a “virgin” (Jeremiah 31:4) and that they would rejoice in the “good things of the Lord” (Jeremiah 31:12): grain, wine, and oil.  This pointed forward to the New Covenant, the Lord’s Supper, and the people being anointed (“christed”).  Those concerned “for the good things of the Lord” will be all about the Lord’s Supper and having others become “christed.”

In the Old Covenant, the expectation (not command) for priests was to be married (see Leviticus 21:7, 13-15).  However, in the New Covenant, men with the gift of celibacy could also serve as pastors, administering the Lord’s Supper and “christing” others.

The celibate could also serve in mission work, for someone would have more time to focus on that, not having a spouse and/or family.  (For those married, the first, but not only, area of mission is with one’s spouse and family [See Lesson 10: “Excursus: Salvation and Marriage”].)

Living the sacrificial life: In Matthew 16:23 and Mark 8:33, Jesus called Peter “Satan” because he didn’t want Jesus to die on the cross.  Those concerned with “the things of the Lord” have more time to study and learn about “Jesus Christ and Him crucified” (1 Corinthians 2:2) and how that shapes living the Christian life (instead of the ways of the world).  They then can live in such a way, living and giving sacrificially of themselves and what they have, for the Church and others.  They have more time and resources available to do that. 

Conclusion: The unmarried person, with the gift of celibacy, who is concerned about “the things of the Lord,” has more time to learn the content of the faith.  He or she also has more time to live out the faith sacrificially to many people, like Jesus did.  (For those who are married, serving your spouse and/or children are your primary vocations of service).

As Jesus was celibate and could serve in many areas, so also can those who are celibate likewise serve.  They have more time, perhaps ability, and money to allocate for “the things of the Lord.”  In other words, the “the things of the Lord” is being the face of Christ to others, giving sacrificially in all areas for the benefit of others.


Excursus: Virgins Unleashed


Christians rarely talk about the virtues of virginity (unless it deals with keeping teens from having premarital sex).  We often see virginity as simply abstaining from sex relations before marriage.  But Paul sees virginity, not as just being physical abstinent, but involving the entire person.  “The virgin is concerned about the things of the Lord, how to be holy in body and spirit” (1 Corinthians 7:34).

Paul sees virginity as having two dimensions: physical (body) and spiritual (spirit).  Holiness means to be “set apart for sacred use”; virgins then “set apart” both their bodies and spirits for God.  Married people are concerned with the cares of the world, how to please their spouses.  But virgins, not being divided in mind and heart, can dedicate their whole selves to God.

In 2 Corinthians, Paul applies this full-person view of virginity to Eve and to Christians:

I’m as protective of you as God is.  After all, I promised you in marriage to one husband, to present you as a pure virgin to Christ.  But I fear that, just as the serpent deceived Eve by his cunning, your minds may somehow be lured away from sincere and pure devotion to Christ. [2 Corinthians 11:2-3]

Let’s follow Paul’s line of thinking.  Just as Eve was once betrothed to Adam as a pure virgin, Paul betrothed the Christians in Corinth as a “pure virgin” to Christ.  By “pure virgin,” Paul means the full understanding of virginity, which doesn’t focus on being deprived but on being holy in both body and spirit.

Paul tells the Corinthians that, despite Eve’s devotion to Adam, she was “lured away,” which in the Greek (phtheiro) carries with it a sense of being corrupted, defiled, or even seduced (see also Ephesians 4:22, 1 Timothy 6:5, and Revelation 19:2).  Eve’s deception resulted in spiritual infidelity—not physical infidelity, as there was no other human there but Adam.  She was no longer sincere and purely devoted to Adam because she had become friends with the Serpent.  By being “lured away,” Eve conceived sin and brought forth disobedience and death.

Paul uses the luring away of Eve as a warning for the Christians in Corinth.  They, like Eve, were betrothed to one husband (in their case, Christ).  Paul tells them not to follow Eve, but to remain faithful to Christ, in both body and spirit.



In Matthew 19, the Pharisees tried to test Jesus by asking Him about the legitimacy of divorce.  Jesus turned their question on its head by returning to Genesis 2 and the order of creation.  The Pharisees then asked why Moses allowed a man to divorce his wife.  Jesus answered that divorce was permitted because of the hardness of their hearts.

Jesus said that for those who wanted to be righteous according the Law, if a man divorced his wife for any reason except adultery and then married another, he commited adultery.  The disciples then responded, “It’s better not to marry!” (Matthew 19:10).

Jesus then gave an unexpected answer: “Some men are eunuchs because they were born that way, some were made eunuchs by others, and some became eunuchs for the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 19:11-12).

Jesus teaches that there are those to whom the gift of celibacy is given.  Marriage is good, but for those who have the gift of celibacy, for them, virginity is better.  They can serve in many ways in “the kingdom of heaven,” the Church.



Our culture treats virgins as freaks and virginity as something only for those who are such losers that they can’t “get laid.”  Even in the Church, we often treat virginity as a curse, instead of a gift.  We’ve let our culture and our traditions within Lutheranism override Paul’s counsel (remember this is his opinion) and Jesus’ teaching.

For the celibate, freedom from sex is not being deprived, but being freed to serve!  The celibate can serve in many ways that the married cannot.  They can dedicate their time, resources, and abilities to be the face of Christ to others in the Church and society.  For Lutherans, we see being a “pure virgin to Christ” and a “sincere and pure devotion to Christ” being lived out by serving others, like Jesus did.  A Lutheran worldview recognizes that “God doesn’t need our good works, but our neighbor does.”

Properly understanding both Paul and Jesus, after 2,000 years, the Church should have institutions within her structure to allow the celibate to serve “for the kingdom of heaven.”  Using the Church of Rome as a comparison and contrast, think of monasteries and convents that are outwardly focused, without the taint of “works righteousness.”  Think of those with the gift of celibacy wanting freely to serve in such a way, without a binding vow, so they can freely move to serve in other ways, as well.  The Lutheran Church should be that Church!  We, best of all, have the Gospel-rooted theology that encourages serving others in Christian freedom, which includes those with the gift of celibacy.

But, sadly, we’ve let our “bad blood” with the Church of Rome and Rome’s bent theology keep us from establishing pathways for the celibate to serve.  Those with the gift of celibacy should have many ways to channel their abilities to serve as Christ served, who Himself was celibate.





  1. John Morgan says

    Interesting. Of the 528,700,00 people living in North America, can you name three whom God has granted the gift of celibacy?

    • Now, no need to get snarky. 🙂 You are correct in that the gift of celibacy is not that common, which has caused much havoc in the Roman-Catholic Church (as a practice they’ve adopted; it’s not dogma for them) for having a celibate-only clergy. But I remember someone from my youth who thought all the craziness about sex and girls, which occupied much of my mind and energy then, was weird. It just didn’t connect with him (and he wasn’t “gay” either).

      For those who don’t have the gift of celibacy, it’s hard for us to understand. But it does exist. And such saints should have a positive role in the life of faith and the Church.

  2. John Morgan says

    Now you know one. Yes, maybe we should be role models. But as long as the church idolizes marriage and family, that is a few light years away.