1 Corinthians 7 is often put forward as the chapter on singleness. And while I do believe that it is the Bible’s most valuable chapter on that subject, how the Bible portrays singleness will–by implication– tell us a lot about what marriage is about. 1 Corinthians 7 states that singleness is better than marriage, because it allows you “undivided devotion to the Lord.” (1 Corinthians 7:35) So it would be easy to conclude that the singles are to be primarily devoted to the Lord, but those who are married aren’t. But, Paul then also states that “those with wives should live as if they had none…because the appointed time has grown short.” (1 Corinthians 7:29) This means that married Christians need to have a special priority for their wives, but there should be something distinct about Christian marriage that looks (in a lot of ways) like singleness. Let me lay out the views of two authors to flesh out this tension.
In “The Emotionally Healthy Leader,” Pete Scazzero argues against a distortion of marriage that is too often seen in ministry contexts. He sees leaders neglecting their marriages and understandably says that it is a distortion of Christian priorities to neglect your marriage at the expense of your ministry. Though he only briefly interacts with 1 Corinthians 7, I feel that he could have built much of his chapter on it.
This is because, as stated above, Paul argues in 1 Corinthians 7 that it is better to be single because you have undivided attention towards the Lord (1 Corinthians 7:32-35). Which means, in part, that a single will have more time and attention to spend towards the Lord’s work. This has to mean that a married person will, by implication, have less time and attention to spend towards the Lord’s work. A portion of his attention goes towards his wife, making his attention “divided.” (1 Corinthians 7:33-34) Scazzero illustrates a popular neglect of this passage in Christian culture when he tells a story where he went to conferences where the speaker said to marry someone who will “double your ministry.” In light of 1 Corinthians 7, it would seem that there is no such person.
Couple this with the passage on elder qualifications (must control his own household-1 Timothy 3:4), care for family (those who don’t have denied the faith- 1 Timothy 5:8), and and the hindering of prayers of those who are harsh with their wives (1 Peter 3:7), Scazzero makes a good point. Any “ministry” that destroys your marriage needs to be scaled back, in part because a destroyed marriage will disqualify you from the pastorate, deny the faith, and will hinder your prayers from being heard. And if you can run your ministry without your prayers being heard: well, you may be doing something, but it’s not Christian ministry.
But Scazzero then overcorrects. He writes that your primary ambition and your primary passion (if you are married) should be the marriage itself. This is where Francis Chan brings in a helpful corrective.
In “You and me Forever: Marriage in light of Eternity,” Francis Chan argues against another distortion of marriage. He makes a distinction between the “marriage-centered marriage” and a “Christ centered” one. (p. 117)
He argues that married couples are often too focused on the marriage itself, and that most people’s definition of a good marriage is a marriage that makes both people happy. He capitalizes on the often neglected 1 Corinthians 7:29: “this is what I mean, brothers: the appointed time has grown very short. From now on, let those who have wives live as though they have none…for the present form of this world is passing away” Clearly, in light of the above passages, this doesn’t mean to neglect your spouse, but there should be some distinction, in light of the second coming of Jesus, between your marriage and the marriages of those who do not believe in Jesus.
Chan in many ways moves away from the passages talking about the meaning of marriage and moves towards the passages talking about the meaning of the Christian life. (Matt 18:20, 2 Timothy 2:3-4) He argues in essence, if Christians are called individually by Jesus to do good works, then married Christians are also called by Jesus to do those same good works. Married Christians are still in a war. They are still called to make disciples, to help the poor, and to tell the good news of the kingdom. They are still called to lead healthy marriages, but healthy marriages with the urgency of eternity breathing down their necks.
I think both Scazzero and Chan would both say that your marriage is supposed to “do something.” But here’s the rub. Scazzero primarily sees the “work” of marriage as displaying the kingdom of God through the relationship itself and Chan primarily sees marriage as displaying the kingdom of God through the good works that the marriage produces.
With that said, both authors have something to bring to the table. Scazzero is speaking to church leaders who are neglecting their marriages in order to focus on the work of the kingdom. Chan is focusing on married Christians who are neglecting the work of the kingdom to focus on their marriages.
We would do well to see where we tend to err and correct, but not overcorrect. We need to realize that our marriage is a beautiful representation of the relationship between Christ and the church, and that also both Christ and the church are called to incredibly difficult things in the service of others. It would be easy to veer off of either end, either neglecting or idolizing your marriage. But the most fruitful, joyful, and Christ-exalting marriages are the ones that can stay in the middle and walk the tightrope of 1 Corinthians 7.