Monday, June 30, 2008

A Lifetime of Devotion

Part 2 (Part 1 is below)

In my last post, I wrote of the importance of marriage, and suggested from the Scriptures some of the various facets of God’s purpose and design for marriage.  Perhaps the single most specific chapter in the Bible that discusses singleness, marriage, divorce and remarriage, all in one place, is 1 Corinthians, chapter 7.  For the purposes of this post, I have chosen not to attempt to explain the entire chapter as I tried to do in my LIFE class.  Here in this brief version I merely want to touch on the aspects of this chapter that seem to me to be overlooked most often.

Paul the apostle begins that section of the letter by answering questions the Corinthian believers had asked of him.  There was good reason for them to ask questions regarding marriage:

  • Various false teachings had probably influenced the believers at Corinth to question guidelines for Christian marriage and sexual relationships. Some pre-Gnostic teaching had argued that all physical matter was bad, and therefore that all sexual activity—even within marriage—was wrong. (See 1 Timothy 4.1-5)
  • Apparently several types of legally-recognized marriages (under Roman authority) existed at the time, including tent companionships for slaves, common law marriage, the sale of one's daughter to a prospective husband, and a nobility class type of marriage.
  • Some people had become followers of Jesus and perhaps wondered what this new relationship meant with regard to their marriages.

Paul’s intent was to refocus the struggling believers with a radical concept for first century Greek-Roman culture: commitment, in lasting devotion, that ultimately reflects the glory of God.  God’s word speaks frankly to us about sexual relationships and about God’s plan with regard to singleness, marriage, divorce and remarriage.

As seen in 1 Corinthians, chapter 7, what God desires from us is a lifetime of devotion.

1.  A lifetime of marriage reflects a calling from God (vv. 17-24).

To understand what Paul is talking about in this section, we have to understand his idea of a calling.  The word "calling" is often misused today, even if well intentioned.  When Paul uses the term, he often speaks of a holistic approach—one that encompasses every area of our lives.  So when Paul talks about his calling, he seems to imply his salvation, allegiance to God, and even specific ministry assignments which God has given him.  Notice how he uses the term calling in the following sentences.

He saved us and called us with a holy calling, not according to our own works but according to his own purpose and grace, which was given to us in Christ Jesus before the world began.  Now, however, it has been revealed through the coming of our Savior Christ Jesus, who has destroyed death and through the gospel has brought life and release from death into full view.  For the sake of this gospel I was appointed to be a preacher, an apostle, and a teacher of the Gentiles.
2 Timothy 1.9-11 (ISV)

So, when Paul talks about a calling in 1 Corinthians 7.17-24, we have to realize he probably means more than salvation alone, or even a vocation or career alone.  In fact, it appears that he is talking about the whole person—all that God called you to be.

In this regard, it is a little bit easier to understand why he uses the illustrations of circumcision and slavery.  Certainly, without having an understanding of the cultural context, these ideas might be confusing.  But first century readers understood what Paul was talking about.  He was speaking with reference to an individual's particular current status in life.  He does not take the time to explain to non-Jews the perhaps confusing nature of circumcision, nor does he launch into an excursus on the social ills of the practice of slavery (although he makes sure to note that if a slave has the opportunity to be freed, he should happily take it!).  He simply says for the point of this discussion, "as the Lord has assigned to each one, as God has called each, in this manner let him walk."

Paul is encouraging them not to be obsessed with changing their status.  Instead, the point is, now that God has called you, live out your calling wherever you are in life.  Twice he says (7.20, 7.24), each one should "remain in that calling in which he was called."  And the immediate preceding context is that of staying married even in tough circumstances.  God's goal for us is not that we would be absorbed in trying to change our status or condition or calling, but instead that we would grow with Him in whatever place we find ourselves.

So unless you are called to singleness, marriage is an aspect of our calling from God, and He desires that we would demonstrate to others—through the lifetime of devotion in marriage—our lifetime of devotion to Him.  A lifetime of marriage reflects a calling from God.

2. A lifetime of singleness reflects a commitment to God (vv. 1-9; 25-40).

Paul has much to say about singleness in 1 Corinthians 7.  He first speaks of singleness at the beginning of the chapter in terms of abstaining from sex.  He says that abstaining from sex is good, but not so simple (vv. 1-2).  It is certainly an honorable thing if you never marry and thus never have a sexual relationship with anyone; however it is not easy at all for human beings to keep their passions in check (see v. 9).  He then says that abstaining from sex is a gift, but only for singles (vv. 3-9).  Abstaining in singleness is so honorable that Paul even considers it a gift from God for those who possess it (including himself); however, for those who are married, sex within marriage is God’s design, and abstaining within marriage should be limited to reasons dealing with spiritual growth.

I believe that a part of what Paul is doing in this chapter is to raise the perceptions of the value of singleness—if that is in fact one's gift and calling.  Later in the chapter, Paul outlines several arguments for staying single:

  • Problems in the world (vv. 25-27)
  • Difficulties of married life (v. 28)
  • The passing nature of this life (vv. 29-31)
  • Preoccupations in marriage (vv. 32-35)
  • Problems with parental consent (vv. 36-38)
  • The binding covenant of marriage (vv. 39-40)

So his point is not to minimize marriage, nor to minimize singleness.  Instead, he elevates both, and encourages his readers to pursue whatever gift and calling God has given individually to each one.  For most people, it seems, marriage is their calling.  However, if one's gift happens to be singleness, Paul argues that he or she is able to be undistracted in devotion to the Lord.  A lifetime of singleness reflects a commitment to God.

3. A lifetime of faithfulness reflects the compassion of God (vv. 8-16).

It is unfortunate that so many Christians miss the power of what Paul describes here.  He encourages those who are married to stay married, and even specifically says that a believer who is married to a nonbeliever should remain married, because of the positive influence the believer may have on his or her spouse.

Paul could have been writing to a variety of situations that existed then and now.  Perhaps there were some situations where believers had married nonbelievers.  In other cases, perhaps two nonbelievers were married, and then one of the two came to faith in Christ.  And there may have been still other situations where two believers married, and but later one of the two decided to abandon the faith.

From the way Paul answers their questions, it seems they were asking about reasons they thought might warrant their leaving their spouses.  For example, in light of present difficulties (7.26), perhaps they wondered if they should no longer consider themselves married—except with respect to being "married to Christ."  But Paul says they should consider their fidelity to their spouses in the highest regard.  As long as the nonbeliever desires to remain married, he says, then the believing spouse should not pursue divorce, because he or she might be able to point the nonbelieving spouse to God.  The bond of marriage is extremely important, and Paul is careful to remind his readers about the significance of faithfulness in that bond.  In the letter to the Romans, look how he uses marriage to illustrate the principle of being "bound."

Don't you realize, brothers—for I am speaking to people who know the Law—that the Law can press its claims over a person only as long as he is alive?  For a married woman is bound by the Law to her husband while he is living, but if her husband dies, she is released from the Law concerning her husband.  So while her husband is living, she will be called an adulterer if she lives with another man.  But if her husband dies, she is free from this Law, so that she is not an adulterer if she marries another man.
Romans 7.1-3 (ISV)

Faithfulness to one's nonbelieving spouse can serve as a huge—and perhaps  primary—influence on that spouse to help keep them from further sin, and to help point them to the grace and compassion of the Savior.  A lifetime of faithfulness reflects the compassion of God.

Ultimately, marriage was instituted and designed to show us, as we mentioned in the previous post, God's loving, permanent relationship with His chosen ones—those who would place their faith and trust in Him.  To put it another way, marriage shows us the gospel.  Notice this wonderful principle in the letter to the Ephesians:

…For we are parts of his body—of his flesh and of his bones.  “That’s why a man will leave his father and mother and be united with his wife, and the two will become one flesh.”  This is a great secret, but I am talking about Christ and the church.  But each individual man among you must love his wife as he loves himself, and a wife must respect her husband.
Ephesians 5.30-33 (ISV)

Although it's never easy, a lifetime of devotion and faithfulness, whether in marriage or singleness, reflects the glory of God to a world that is watching.