Is it Better to Marry than to Burn?
The Apostle Paul seems to say as much, as he writes in 1 Cor 7:9, “But if they cannot exercise self-control, they should marry. For it is better to marry than to burn with passion.”
But hold up! Is this what Paul meant? “You two kids sexually on fire? Just get married! BOOM! Problem solved!!”
But the fact of the matter is this: Paul’s words were not originally addressing the question, “Should a couple struggling to reign in their sexual passions just go ahead and get married?”
What Question was Paul Answering?
Paul gives the specific reason for addressing the topics of marriage and sexual passion in the first verse of 1 Cor 7, but before we get to that, it is important for us to understand that the church in Corinth could totally relate to the sexually perverse world of today. Indeed, the city of Corinth had such a reputation, that “to corinthianize” became another way of saying, “to engage in drunkenness and sexual debauchery.”
And surrounded by all of that perversion, the Corinthians had proposed an idea to Paul. However, it was a very different proposition from the typical situation where this “marry or burn” verse is usually applied today. In fact, their suggestion was pretty much the antithesis of that.
“Now concerning the matters about which you wrote: ‘It is good for a man NOT to have sexual relations with a woman.’” – 1 Cor 7:1 (ALL CAPS emphasis mine)
Did you catch what they were saying? Instead of suggesting that maybe every horny couple ought to get married, they were suggesting that maybe every married couple ought to act like they were single. Isn’t that a startling idea coming from a hyper-sexualized culture like ours?
The Corinthians apparently revered the single-and-celibate Apostle Paul so much they reasoned that perhaps the highest and holiest calling was to life-long abstinence. Even for married people!
Thankfully, in response, Paul essentially says, “Celibacy is not the goal. The goal is self-control.” Here are his words:
“But because of the temptation to sexual immorality, each man should have his own wife and each woman her own husband.” – 1 Cor 7:2
Though, later in verses 6 and 7 he admits that he would personally wish everyone were single like himself, Paul understood the reality of sexual temptation and for that reason encouraged those who couldn’t imagine a life of celibacy to go ahead and pursue marriage.
What Audience was Paul Addressing?
Having considered the question that Paul was actually answering, now let’s look at something just as important: the audience to whom he was speaking. For that we begin with verse 8.
To the unmarried and the widows I say that it is good for them to remain single, as I am. But if they cannot exercise self-control, they should marry. For it is better to marry than to burn with passion.” – 1 Cor 7:8-9 (bold emphasis mine)
Did you notice anything?
Paul doesn’t say, “To the dating and engaged COUPLES I say… it is better to marry than to burn with passion.”
Indeed, Paul isn’t talking specifically to couples at all (and if he were, he’d likely address them as betrothed, not single or widowed). He’s talking to ALL unmarried people whether they’re coupled up yet or not (whether they’re interested in marriage or not). It is to this much larger audience that he says, “Hey dudes! If you find sexual temptation difficult to resist than celibacy probably isn’t your calling. Marriage is. The goal is not celibacy. It’s self-control!”
What I’m getting at is this: Paul isn’t presenting sexual temptation as a good reason to get married to a particular person as quickly as possible. He’s presenting it as a good reason to get married in general. This verse is not a specific prescription for frisky couples, but a basic principle for all unmarried folks.
So to say the least, using his counsel as justification for sexually struggling couples to enter a hasty marriage (or to elope) is a poor application of this scripture.
In fact, as I explain in a guest post on another blog, if all you want is the sex, my recommendation is that you don’t get married, because marriage isn’t about sex.
Holiness and Sexual Happiness
I close with this last observation. Though the culture of Paul’s time was just as sexually depraved as ours today, consider this: the church in Corinth was willing to promote sexual abstinence (even inside marriage) out of a passion for holiness. In contrast, many in the church today are using Paul’s words to encourage couples to let their passion for sex direct the course of their entire life. Even into the life-long covenant of marriage.
In many cases, it doesn’t matter how long a couple has known each other, or how well suited they are for each other, or how prepared they are for marriage. (“Are you two burning? Already gone to far? Already pregnant? Better get married!”) In some churches, it doesn’t even matter whether the couple is heterosexual. (“You’re burning for each other? That’s so beautiful! And now you can get married too!”) In every case, the commanding factor is the desire for sexual happiness; not the desire for holiness.
But what if God would be pleased for you to enjoy both holiness and sexual happiness? (Paul sure seemed to think that a possibility for many.)
“I wish that all were as I myself am. But each has his own gift from God, one of one kind and one of another.” – 1 Cor 7:7
Would you like to enjoy both holiness and sexual happiness? Then I hope you’ll come back next week when I’ll attempt to put this “marry or burn” verse in a context where it could motivate you to actually prepare for your future marital sex life. Instead of just get married. (Here’s that post!)
In the meantime, for encouragement in the fight against sexual temptation, read this post.
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The LoveEd study guide series, Beyond Sex & Salvation, will empower you to prepare for relational success when it counts: BEFORE YOU FALL IN LOVE! It’s NOT for couples, but for any wise individual who thinks they might want to get married sometime before they die. Check out the first two 8-lesson study guides in our store. You can walk through it on your own, but it’s more fun with friends, so consider putting together an FMU LoveEd small group study. Even better? And ask a married couple you respect to lead it!