Undivided InterestsBy Nathan Mates
In many Christian groups, I've heard 1 Corinthians 7:32-35 quoted often. Those verses are as follows:
I would like you to be free from concern. An unmarried man is concerned about the Lord's affairs--how he can please the Lord. But a married man is concerned about the affairs of this world--how he can please his wife-- and his interests are divided. An unmarried woman or virgin is concerned about the Lord's affairs: Her aim is to be devoted to the Lord in both body and spirit. But a married woman is concerned about the affairs of this world--how she can please her husband. I am saying this for your own good, not to restrict you, but that you may live in a right way in undivided devotion to the Lord. [1 Corinthians 7:32-35, NIV]The way I've typically heard this (especially at church groups that focus on ministering to singles) is that this basically says that if one gets married, one won't be able to serve God as much. Now, first, a word of a disclaimer: I've never been married, so I can't quite personally comment on how that affects one's service to God. However, I do think that an over-reliance on this passage from 1 Corinthians 7 can lead to an unfair attitude that married folks can't serve God's kingdom.
Looking at the Bible, one sees that most of the famous figures were married. Starting off in the Old Testament, we from the beginning that many were married-- Adam & Eve (hardly the best representative, to admit), Noah (Genesis 6:18), Abram/Abraham (Genesis 11:29), Isaac (Genesis 24:67), Jacob (Genesis 29:28), Joseph (Genesis 41:45), Moses (Exodus 18:5), Deborah (Judges 4:4), David (1 Samuel 25:39). Even prophets were married as well-- Isaiah (Isaiah 8:3), Ezekiel (Ezekiel 24:18) The Bible verses are just ones that point out that they were married,
Even those who are not explicitly mentioned as having wives in the Old Testament, it is still quite probable that they were married. Enoch, who walked with God so closely he skipped death (Genesis 5:24), had children. Samuel, the prophet, also had children (1 Samuel 8:1-2). The Bible is silent as to whether they were married, which is why they're not in the earlier list. While it's possible that these children were born out of wedlock, I think that the rest of their lives were dedicated to God enough that they did fulfill God's command to be married before having children.
Even in the New Testament, many important figures were married as well. Joseph and Mary, the parents of Jesus were married (Matthew 1:24). Peter, arguably the greatest of the disciples-- he was always mentioned first in the list of disciples, and the one who would found the church (Matthew 16:18, Acts 2:14-41)-- was married. Matthew 8:14 mentions "Peter's mother-in-law," which indicates that he had been married. At least some of the other disciples were married as well. Acts 21:5 notes that on one of Paul's journeys, at a stop in Tyre, "All the disciples and their wives and children accompanied us out of the city." This verse doesn't note how many wives there were, just that there were some. Aquila and Priscilla, some of Paul's helpers on various missionary journeys, were a married couple as well (Acts 18:2).
To the first century audiences of the Bible, the lack of mentioning wives and family for most of the passages was commonplace. To most societies of the time, only men counted. When Jesus fed the crowds, Luke 9:14 notes that "About five thousand men were there." Only the parallel passage in Matthew notes that some other people were there: "The number of those who ate was about five thousand men, besides women and children." [Matthew 14:21] The natural state of people at the time was to be married, so that mentioning men implied their families as well, as a form of shorthand. To the Jewish culture of the time, it was everyone's duty to be married and have a family; those that were single were looked down upon as second-class citizens.
Paul, the author of the 1 Corinthians passage quoted at the start of this passage did commend marriage as well. In 1 Timothy 3:12, in the list of requirements for church leadership, he says "A deacon must be the husband of but one wife and must manage his children and his household well." I've heard this passage slightly rewritten by churches to read "husband of at most one" to be more friendly towards singles, i.e. marriage isn't required to be in leadership, but if one is married, their married life must reflect Christian values.
I believe that the evidence shows that a lot of work for God's kingdom has been done by married people-- and the list of people above is strictly from the Bible, not covering the 1900-plus years since then. This is not to demean the actions of singles as well-- Jesus was never married, and Paul, by the time of this writing was single as well (1 Corinthians 7:8). Given the prevailing attitudes of the Jewish culture of the time, it is highly likely that Paul, in his pre-conversion days as Saul, had been married (Philippians 3:4-6 quotes his "faultless" following of Phariseeism). Whether Paul was a widower, or his wife had left him following conversion (1 Corinthians 7:15), is not stated.
Given all of this, why does the 1 Corinthians 7:32-35 passage put such a focus on divided attention towards God, and how marriage splits one's attentions? I would say that this is a passage to be understood as a hypothetical, best case, situation. In other words, in the abstract, best-case situation, singles may peak out with higher devotion than married couples. However "divided" their attentions may be, married people have still managed to do quite a lot for God and his kingdom over the centuries.
What can one pull out of all of this? As a single, one certainly can give God complete, undivided attention. However, I would say that the reality is that most singles don't. We have things like jobs, friendships, tasks, hobbies, and the like to care about in our lives. All of these compete for our attention, and can divide it. If God is a lower-priority item on our lists, and falls off the "todo list" often, then one's service to God is hardly likely to improve once married. The problem there is neither singleness nor marriage, it is simply our priorities.
We need to make Jesus and God the first priority in all our actions, and do them for him. Ephesians 6:5 said that people are to obey one's earthly masters (including bosses at work, though we no longer have slave as our title), just as if Jesus was our boss. We need to do all things in worship and thanksgiving unto God, making him first in our lives. Then, one will be close to God and do his will, no matter what our situation in life is.