I wish that all were as I myself am. But each has his own special gift from God, one of one kind and one of another…. Wife, how do you know whether you will save your husband? Husband, how do you know whether you will save your wife? Only, let every one lead the life which the Lord has assigned to him, and in which God has called him. This is my rule in all the churches…. Now concerning the unmarried, I have no command of the Lord, but I give my opinion as one who by the Lord’s mercy is trustworthy. I think that in view of the present distress it is well for a person to remain as he is. Are you bound to a wife? Do not seek to be free. Are you free from a wife? Do not seek marriage. But if you marry, you do not sin, and if a girl marries she does not sin. Yet those who marry will have worldly troubles, and I would spare you that. I mean, brethren, the appointed time has grown very short; from now on, let those who have wives live as though they had none, and those who mourn as though they were not mourning, and those who rejoice as though they were not rejoicing, and those who buy as though they had no goods, and those who deal with the world as though they had no dealings with it. For the form of this world is passing away. I want you to be free from anxieties. The unmarried man is anxious about the affairs of the Lord, how to please the Lord; but the married man is anxious about worldly affairs, how to please his wife, and his interests are divided. And the unmarried woman or girl is anxious about the affairs of the Lord, how to be holy in body and spirit; but the married woman is anxious about worldly affairs, how to please her husband. 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. 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. But whoever is firmly established in his heart, being under no necessity but having his desire under control, and has determined this in his heart, to keep her as his betrothed, he will do well. So that he who marries his betrothed does well; and he who refrains from marriage will do better. 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 in my judgment she is happier if she remains as she is. (1 Cor 7:7, 16-17, 25-40)
Chapter 7 of St. Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians has a consoling and refocusing effect for those who take Paul’s words seriously and are single (not dating) in today’s perverse society, which seems to look down upon people who are single as inferior.
Many people often assume there is something wrong with themselves or others if they are not dating someone or haven’t dated in awhile. Sure, maybe they just haven’t found the right person. But who knows, maybe there is something “wrong.” It is just a fact that some are not as attractive as others to the opposite sex according to various criteria. But when the modern American asks, “What quality could possibly be superior to attractiveness to the opposite sex?” St. Paul answers, “Undivided devotion to the Lord” (7:35). We should not judge people based on how attractive we or others do or do not find them but rather on their devotion to the Lord.
But what about when one finds “undivided devotion to the Lord” itself to be attractive?
A nice saying that reflects this wise disposition and that I’ve seen on various Facebook profiles of young Christians (always women, I think) is something along the lines of “My beloved should be so deeply immersed in God that I have to draw closer to Him to find him/her” or rather “I want to be so immersed in God that he/she will have to draw closer to Him to find me.” But the Catholic/St. Paul commentary on this half-baked insight would be this: “Sometimes it’s best for the beloved to remain apart from you (and you from the beloved) so that one or both of you can remain so immersed or become more immersed in God and His holiness.”
There is no point in dating or marrying away from God; in fact, it’s positively harmful and sinful. I don’t think people realize how often that happens or how easily it can happen, even to the most devout men and women. This serious danger should inform the discernment of our vocations, of God’s will, of His gift and assignment to us.
But supposing one is in fact called to marriage, one should make choices about dating and marriage primarily by how they will affect one’s spiritual life, for nothing else is more important. We should carefully and seriously discern how certain relationships with others will affect us and our relationship with God (and how it will affect the other person and their relationship with God), keeping in mind St. Paul’s warnings of the dangers inherent in erotic love and married life.
Yes, even St. Paul acknowledges that spouses can be God’s means and instruments for each other’s sanctification and salvation (7:16). But we should not think that marriage is necessarily the ideal context for such ministry. We certainly shouldn’t date or marry merely for the purpose of such ministry. Moreover, supposing the man and woman are spiritual equals, even at a very high level of holiness, we should not presume greater love and holiness will result from their combination in marriage rather than from them being single. The example of St. Francis and St. Clare of Assisi comes to mind.
With all this in mind, one might even say that celibacy should be the default assumption for the Christian rather than marriage. The burden of proof rests upon marriage, not celibacy. The only danger with such an assumption, as St. Paul recognizes, is that the temptation to lust is generally very strong, and so many might perish reaching for a standard that they are too weak to achieve. Still, all things are possible through the Lord who gives us strength and forgives us of all our sins each time we confess them and truly repent.
Judging by the current state of American culture, St. Paul’s words are not taken seriously enough, even in Christian circles that are supposedly fond of the Bible. There has never been a better time for us to reflect on his words and how they apply to our own lives.
Click HERE to learn more about the Historical and Scriptural evidence for celibacy, esp. for clergy.