I recently read an article that argued against early marriage as a way to fight sexual temptation. It seems that in response to the cultural trend to delay marriage, some evangelical churches have started promoting early marriage as a way of pursuing sexual purity. The author took issue with this approach, noting that marriage itself is not enough to ensure virtue because it can’t change the heart; it simply changes the boundaries of chastity.
A lot of my friends read the piece as well. Several responded with hearty amens while others wisely pushed back a bit. In our ensuing conversations, one question kept recurring: “Didn’t Paul advocate for marriage as a way to fight temptation in I Corinthians 7? Didn’t he write: ‘But if they cannot exercise self-control, they should marry. For it is better to marry than to burn with passion’?” Privately, Mere-O’s own Matt Anderson even suggested that the author had committed a part/whole fallacy, arguing that:
the recommendation to marry young isn’t rooted in the notion that marrying will solve *all* your problems with respect to lust or sexual temptation or anything else. But it seems like it actually does in fact solve some of those problems.
I’ve thought a lot about the piece, in part, because I myself was married at the ripe old age of 22. I’ve also thought about it because in the decade plus, I’ve seen too many early marriages disintegrate—most often because of sexual sin. But I suppose the main reason I’m still thinking about this piece is because I wrote it.
Since writing “Getting Married Is Not Enough to Fight Sexual Temptation,” I’ve realized that I made certain assumptions that I did not articulate well, assumptions that are essential to explaining why I both embrace Paul’s advice to marry to avoid sexual temptation as well as why I’m uncomfortable with evangelicals offering the very same advice. Truthfully, it has little to do with the timing of marriage so much as the presuppositions we have about marriage, singleness, and sexuality.
My main concern is that when evangelicals suggest early marriage as a means of fighting sexual temptation, we are not actually suggesting the same thing the Apostle Paul is because we do not (by and large) share his core assumptions about the goodness of singleness, submission to God’s providence, the inherent difficulties of marriage, and the rightness of sexual passion. Detached from these things, the current advice to marry to avoid sexual temptation plays out very differently than Paul’s does. This does not mean that I Corinthians 7 is irrelevant to our current dilemma but that we will only profit from it if we embrace the whole of Paul’s sexual ethic. That means several things.
First, we must develop a robust understanding of marriage and singleness as equally beneficial for kingdom living. For various reasons, evangelicals tend to privilege marriage over singleness—a far cry from what Paul writes in I Corinthians 7. For example, it’s not unusual for evangelicals to question whether a man could be a pastor if he is not also “the husband of one wife.” Paul, however, indicates that family life can actually be a distraction to service.
The problem for us is this: In a subculture that can easily idolize marriage, further promoting marriage as a way to fight sexual sin may confirm for young people that their greatest good is indeed found in marriage—including their ability to live a pure life. But for Paul, our greatest good is found in serving the kingdom, with the choice of whether or not to marry always being subject to what will best facilitate God’s work. In fact, Paul’s advice to marry to avoid sexual sin is not an end in itself but a means to an end; we fight for purity—whether in singleness or in marriage—because sexual sin will undermine the cause of the kingdom.
Second, we must cultivate an appreciation for the difference between natural passion and lust. Unfortunately for many young evangelicals, the rhetoric of the purity culture has collapsed these two categories into one, so that it’s hard for some to tell the difference between being attracted to a woman and lusting after her. In certain quarters, the rhetoric has been so strong that young women, after years of being taught to view their bodies and longings with shame, find it difficult to embrace sexual desire even within marriage.
Paul, on the other hand, understands the goodness of natural passion and argues for marriage as a way to preserve it, to protect it from evil. But for those who do not have such a category, marriage becomes a way to legitimize sex, to take something that is “wrong” and make it “right.” So when we tell young people to marry in order to avoid temptation, they hear “marry to fix sexual sin” simply because they cannot conceive of a category where sexual longing isn’t sinful. As a result, those entrenched in true sin (such as pornography or promiscuity) logically believe that marriage has the capacity to heal them as well because we have not clearly articulated the type of sexual longings that marriage can fulfill—sexual longings that are already good and natural.
Whole > Sum of the Parts
In order for us to benefit from Paul’s advice to marry to avoid sexual temptation, we must understand that it is contingent on the other truths woven throughout the rest of the chapter. Apart from them, it becomes meaningless. We will never understand the value of marriage to the kingdom if we do not also understand the value of singleness to the kingdom. We will never understand the destructiveness of deviant sex unless we understand the beauty and honor of married sex. At the same time, we can’t accurately celebrate the blessings of marriage—of which sex is one—unless we also articulate the stresses of marriage. Because if we’re completely honest, we must acknowledge that in the very same passage in which Paul advocates for marriage, he also advocates against it.
Held in tension, the opposing truths of I Corinthians 7 present a robust picture of the place of marriage, sex, and celibacy in the kingdom. When taken as a whole, this Scripture may be among the most relevant for a generation plagued by confusion on these issues. On the other hand, if we ignore the broader context and simply co-opt Paul’s advice to “marry to avoid sexual temptation,” we may accomplish the exact opposite of what we hope for. Young evangelicals may indeed marry early, but don’t be surprised if they also end up marrying “early and often.”