What Is the “Gift” of Celibacy in 1 Corinthians 7:7?

By Wayne Jackson

Occasionally, when one of some years and experience believes he has heard about every devious manipulation of scripture that is possible, he must pause and confess that he has not. There is always a new, bizarre twist to some text. Let me introduce you to one of the latest that engaged my attention, resulting in an uncommon degree of dismay. It involves the “gift” of celibacy (1 Corinthians 7:7). Exactly what is this? And how does it relate to one’s sexual conduct?

God’s Law of Divorce and Remarriage

The New Testament teaches that there is but one cause for a divinely sanctioned divorce, with the option to remarry. The cause is fornication (sexual infidelity), and the license to divorce is for the innocent victim whose marriage has been violated by an adulterous spouse. According to Matthew 19:9, the innocent party has the right of divorce and subsequent remarriage, should he/she so choose at some subsequent point in time. Here is what the Lord said:

“Whosoever shall put away his wife, except for the cause of fornication, and shall marry another, is committing adultery: and he who marries her who has been put away is [also] committing adultery” (Matthew 19:9; cf. 5:32).

Incidentally, the parallel text in Mark’s Gospel provides the same privilege for the woman as Matthew’s account does for the man (cf. Mark 10:12). The rare view that only men have a scriptural right of divorce/remarriage is utterly void of divine sanction.

A New Method of Evasion

A recent writer has adopted a most novel position; one certainly deserving of refutation.

A philanderer adulterated his marriage, and was divorced by his faithful Christian wife. Initially he correctly concluded that he was not free to enter a new marital union. However, a friend ultimately persuaded him that he could remarry — with absolute impunity. What was the argument that convinced him of this option? It was a strange twist to 1 Corinthians 7:7. First, let us reflect upon the background to the text that is being employed to justify the position under review.

The Corinthian Context

First Corinthians, chapter 7, begins Paul’s response to certain questions submitted to him by the saints in Corinth (7:1). In this chapter, the issue revolved around various aspects of marriage. Though the questions are not stated explicitly, they may be deduced somewhat by the advice/answers supplied by the apostle.

For example, if a man is unmarried, but has strong sexual urges, how may he satisfy this legitimate inclination of his body? Might he simply find some woman, perhaps a prostitute, with whom to gratify his desire? Paul’s answer is an unequivocal, “No.” Such, the apostle suggests, would be “fornication” (v. 2) — a sin that will condemn the offender (6:9-10; cf. Galatians 5:19-21, etc.). Paul’s solution is: let him find a wife.

But what if he cannot find an appropriate wife? What should he do? He could keep looking; in the interim, he must remain celibate until he finds one. In the meantime he can work on developing character traits — like “self-control.”

It has long been acknowledged that there are a variety of issues addressed by Paul in this segment of his epistle. Some are binding as law (as in vv. 1-2); on the other hand, at times the apostle offers seasoned, apostolic advice.

In several instances he counsels against marriage. This was not a mere exaltation of celibacy as a life-style of superior merit; rather, it was on account of some very difficult times that lay ahead for these Christians. Note the following.

Paul speaks of a “distress” (persecution) that already was underway (v. 26). There would be a “tribulation in the flesh” (v. 28). These days would be characterized by “cares” or anxieties (v. 32). The hardships would create a “distraction” for those attempting to maintain their fidelity to Jesus (v. 35). Hence, it could be “better” not to be involved in marital unions under such circumstances (v. 38). One certainly might be “happier” if he did not have to witness a precious companion suffering persecution (v. 40). Such could test his faith severely.

Self-Control

Within this discussion is a consideration of the matter of “incontinency” (vv. 5-7). The Greek word is akrasia, literally “not controlled.” Its opposite is enkrateia, self-controlled (later cataloged as one of the qualifications of an elder — Titus 1:8). These terms distinguish the person who has his desires/emotions under control, versus the one who does not. Vile persons who make no attempt to exercise “self-control” are to be avoided by Christian people (2 Timothy 3:3). The Greeks considered the control of one’s passions “an essential virtue for the honest person” (C. Spicq, Theological Lexicon of the New Testament, Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, Vol. 1, p. 60).

As a part of the discussion, apparently some of the Corinthian Christians wanted to know if it was permissible for a husband and wife to remain apart sexually for a period of time. The apostle replied that such would be allowed, provided there is the mutual agreement of both parties. The goal was that they might be focused more upon spiritual concerns. He advised (v. 5), however, that their celibacy not be protracted too long, lest in their “incontinency,” they should be tempted to engage in some sexually immoral act.

Out of this background Paul expresses the wish that all Christians were as he was, i.e., able to live the celibate life in view of the tribulations that were descending upon them. He recognized, however, “that each man has his own gift from God, one of one kind, and one of another” (v. 7).

The Perverted Argument

Now we are down to the main point. Some suggest that while the divorced fornicator generally is not authorized to marry, if he/she does not possess God’s “gift” of self-control, then he/she is permitted to go forward and enter a new “marital” arrangement.

Let us carefully analyze the logic employed in this specious argument.

  1. Who is to say otherwise if the divorced fornicator simply says: “God did not give me the ‘gift’ of self-control; thus I am free to seek a new companion”? The claim becomes the authority for the act.
  2. If the divorced fornicator decides to enter an “adulterous” relationship, is not God to blame for the sin, since supposedly he did not provide the “gift” of self-control to the fornicating person — either during the marriage, or after the divorce?
  3. What if a single person decides that he/she has not been given the “gift” of self-control, but cannot find a suitable marriage partner? Can he/she, under the rationale cited above, find someone to assist with the intemperance “problem,” until a proper marriage partner comes along?

The Nature of the “Gift”

The truth of the matter is, God frequently is said to be the “giver” of certain qualities, simply because he has provided the means and motivation for the cultivation of the desirable traits. Such does not mean, however, that he drops some “gift” from heaven unconditionally, i.e., irrespective of one’s personal volitional exercise.

Salvation is God’s gift (Romans 6:23), but redemption is accessed by one’s obedience to Christ (Hebrews 5:9), not simply as an unconditional bestowal. Repentance is said to be a gift from God (Acts 11:18), but repentance (i.e., sorrow for sin and a resolution to abandon one’s evil conduct) must be an act of response on man’s part (Luke 13:3; Acts 2:38; 17:30), and such is a difficult, on-going effort.

Several “gifts” are said bestowed upon some Christians, one is that of “generously contributing” to the Lord’s cause (Romans 12:6-8). There seems to be a considerable number of church members who are convinced they have never been bequeathed the “gift” of being generous contributors to the advancement of the gospel. Does one suppose that they are exempt from the demands of 1 Corinthians 16:2 for lack of the “gift”? Why didn’t Ananias and Sapphira think of that (Acts 5:1ff)?

The argument under consideration constitutes a twisting of scripture of the worst sort (cf. 2 Peter 3:16), and those attempting to justify sinful conduct thereby ought to abandon the disposition immediately and seek Heaven’s pardon.

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About the Author

Wayne Jackson has written for and edited the Christian Courier since its inception in 1965. He has also written several books on a variety of biblical topics including The Bible and Science, Creation, Evolution, and the Age of the Earth, The Bible on Trial, and a number of commentaries. He lives in Stockton, California with his dear wife, and life-long partner, Betty.