Thoughts from the Sukkah 2018 Day 4

There is a lot of talk in those circles about Paul’s statement that it’s better to marry than to burn meaning marry *anyone* so you aren’t just lusting – as though it will fix you. And that’s not what that verse is about AT ALL!

Before I tackle that, though, I want to bring out another verse that is relevant to understanding how the misunderstanding took place.  While the KJV renders 1 Thessalonians 5:12, “Abstain from all appearance of evil,” the better translation is from the NKJV’s

Abstain from every form of evil.

If you confuse these two ideas you will begin to misunderstand other ideas presented in Scripture.

Those who strive to avoid the “appearance” of evil often believe that this verse is cautioning people to hide their sins so that no one sees them. The idea becomes that we need to protect God’s reputation and the Church’s public image because of people outside the church see our weakness they will lose respect for us and we will embarrass God.

Contrast this with the idea that we are to actually avoid “every form of evil.”  Rather than try to hide our sins so no one sees them, this teaches that we are to rid ourselves of sin.

Which sounds more like God? “Hide your sins.” Or, “rid yourselves of all kinds of sin.”

Which leads us to the interpretation of Paul’s teaching in 1 Corinthians

But I say to the unmarried and to the widows: It is good for them if they remain even as I am; but if they cannot exercise self-control, let them marry. For it is better to marry than to burn with passion.

One of the first things you need to know is that in the KJV and NKJV the things that appear in italics have been added to the text.  It’s not necessarily an attempt to mislead but is an attempt by the interpreter to [more] clearly communicate what they believe the original text is trying to communicate. It is, however, the understanding of the interpreter(s) and not part of the original text.  The addition of ‘with passion’ is what has aided the confused teachings of this passage to men.

For one thing, it is almost exclusively applied to men.  Clearly, however, when we look at the preceding verse that explains the audience of this particular instruction we see that Paul is talking not to men, but to “the unmarried and to the widows.”  This group includes men and women.

So let’s break it down . . .

Paul first says it is good that the unmarried and the widows remain even as he is – single and wholly devoted to Kingdom work.

There is scholarly debate about the marital status of Paul.  Some argue that he was unmarried.  Some suggest he was a widower.  Others have argued that perhaps it is another instruction in this chapter of 1 Corinthians that gives us insight to the marital status of Paul.  Because he argues that men and women who have spouses who leave them over the Gospel are to let them go and try to live at peace with them, it has been suggested that Paul’s wife could not handle the change in him at his conversion. Regardless, Paul appears in the letters he has written to be living a single, celibate and devoted life, busy with Kingdom work.  And he speaks in this chapter about the reality that this makes it easier – it removes the distraction of another person’s needs, the needs of children, and the reality that when you attach yourself to someone else they will need you and you will need them.

But while Paul is clear that it is good for the unmarried and the widows to remain single, he acknowledges that this is a hard thing. He acknowledges that not everyone has the level of self-control that he does. Not everyone is called to celibacy. And in the context of the chapter and the other advice he is giving there are some who are single, some who are engaged by believing they are more holy to not marry, and some who are married and believing they are more holy if they remain celibate. Paul calls out all fo these ideas – it is not more holy to not marry, it is not more holy to be married and remain celibate.

It is also, despite his encouragement that he wishes the unmarried and widows would remain as he was, his very Jewish understanding that there is nothing unholy or unrighteous about being married and engaging in sexual relations with one’s spouse.  In fact he goes further – it is unrighteous to be married and deprive your spouse of sex through the mistaken belief that it makes you  more righteous! (The misapplication of his teachings on sex within marriage is the topic for another day.)

Still Paul understands that humans are sexual and without a calling to celibacy and without the self control to remain celibate he says to go ahead and get married!

It is this last passage that brings the confusion . . . “For it is better to marry than to burn with passion.

Paul is not suggesting the very unrighteous idea that if a man lacks the ability to exercise self control in the area of sex he should find a wife – any wife – and unleash his lack of self control on her.  Paul is not speaking of indiscriminate lusting or sexual passions that are controlling the man. This would run counter to all of God’s instructions in Torah, through Jesus, and through Paul’s other words on this issue that God calls us to sexual responsibility and sexual accountability.  

One of the reasons that this passage has come to suggest that young men should marry if they cannot control their lustful sexual passions is that Complementarian Christian doctrine teaches that boys and men are visual, sexual beings and they cannot control their sexual drives without the help of a woman who needs to be responsible for these things.  While a nod is given that this is believed to be a problem of sin and the Fall, it is also explicitly taught that when men fail to exercise restraint it is because a woman has tempted him in some way – whether through dress, conduct, or, in the misapplication of this statement from Paul, her very presence inciting him to burn with passion.

This has led to many men believing that if they are struggling with lust they will be best served by finding a woman – any woman who sexually arouses them – and marrying her so that he can direct all of his lust at her and he won’t then be tempted to lust after other women.  The problem with this is that it objectifies the women being considered for marriage, it produces marriage based not on a foundation of friendship or mutual respect, but on sexual attraction, and it presents the purpose of marriage as being primarily about providing a legal and acceptable sexual outlet for lustful men.  An additional problem with this is that, as many men with lust and sexual control issues find, being married does not cause them to stop lusting after other women.

I can state with confidence that Paul is not admonishing young men to marry someone who arouses their lust because being married will take the place of developing self control in the area of sexual arousal. Not only does it violate his Jewish understanding, it violates the teaching of Jesus and other statements made by Paul about sexual accountability. Being married is not the cure for rampant sexual arousal in young (or old) men.

So what does Paul mean?

Paul is addressing the unmarried and the widows and telling them that if they find someone for whom they burn with passion – if they are in a relationship with someone that has developed to the point of you being passionately aflame for them, if they are burning with passion for a person in their life who would be a suitable spouse, there is no reason to refrain from marrying them.  While Paul believes that staying single is good for the Kingdom, he doesn’t believe it’s the only way to be righteous.

So this is where I’m going to remind that “with passion” has been added to help communicate the understanding of the interpreters.  If “with passion” is being twisted to suggest “lustful sexual expression” then drop it completely.  It is better to marry than to burn.

It means if you are unmarried or a widow and are burning *for a specific person* there is no reason to imagine that you are holier to not marry you need to know that God wants you to be with that person if you have a heart that burns for them. Having a heart that burns for someone specific and is a desire for that whole person is a very different thing from having undisciplined sexual urges that are set ablaze by any random person. This is the distinction. Burning with emotion may be described as passion, but it does not indicate unrestrained sexual lust.

This verse means something so different than the abusive way it’s used!

Because our lives on this Earth, and our bodies, are temporary it is so important that if we are going to marry we make wise choices about who we marry. If we marry someone because they cause fire in our loins we will be in trouble when time is less than kind to us, or we meet someone else who causes fire in our loins. If we marry someone thinking that they will cause our lust to be directed only at them, we will blame them and feel let down when our lust remains our own to tame.

If you are unmarried or a widow then, like Paul, I want to admonish you that you are free to do more for the Kingdom if you remain single. At the same time, if there is someone for whom you burn with deep emotional attachment, by all means get married! It is not more righteous to remain single and God ordained marriage! Just do them the honor of marrying them because of your burning for them – who they are, their whole person – and not for unrighteous reasons or a lack of sexual self control. It is unkind and harmful to marry someone for the wrong, or selfish reasons.

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