Paul next considers virgins and widows. And although he now leaves the topic of divorce, many have argued that these passages defend the traditional teaching on divorce.
28b But those who marry will face many troubles in this life, and I want to spare you this. 29 What I mean, brothers, is that the time is short. From now on those who have wives should live as if they had none; 30 those who mourn, as if they did not; those who are happy, as if they were not; those who buy something, as if it were not theirs to keep; 31 those who use the things of the world, as if not engrossed in them. For this world in its present form is passing away.
Paul now explains in more detail why he prefers that the Corinthians not marry. It’s not because it’s wrong to marry — or to remarry. It’s because marriage can be a burden when Christians face persecution. While Paul doesn’t explicitly refer to persecution, he sees “troubles” coming. Some have wrongly argued that Paul is referring to the Second Coming, expecting Jesus to return very soon. But Paul is referring not to future glory but to “many troubles.”
32 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. 33 But a married man is concerned about the affairs of this world — how he can please his wife — 34 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. 35 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.
Now notice also that Paul sees the world very differently from the way we do. Serving the Lord is most important — personal happiness or self-actualization is secondary, at best. Not marriage, not sex — nothing is more important than serving the Lord.
Paul then deals with virgins —
36 If anyone thinks he is acting improperly toward the virgin he is engaged to, and if she is getting along in years and he feels he ought to marry, he should do as he wants. He is not sinning. They should get married. 37 But the man who has settled the matter in his own mind, who is under no compulsion but has control over his own will, and who has made up his mind not to marry the virgin — this man also does the right thing. 38 So then, he who marries the virgin does right, but he who does not marry her does even better.
This is a famously difficult-to-translate passage. Paul is either discussing giving a daughter in marriage or marrying one’s fiancée. Either way, Paul makes the same point — marriage is not sin, but remaining single is better.
39 A woman is bound to her husband as long as he lives. But if her husband dies, she is free to marry anyone she wishes, but he must belong to the Lord. 40 In my judgment, she is happier if she stays as she is-and I think that I too have the Spirit of God.
Paul, having addressed virgins and the divorced in turn, discusses widows. Once again, it is better for widows to remain single, but marriage is not a sin.
In 1 Timothy 5:14, Paul says, “I counsel younger widows to marry.” Thus, we see beyond reasonable doubt that Paul’s strong preference for singleness is dictated at least in part by circumstances. Nonetheless, I have to believe that Paul’s ultimate preference is shown by his own life — it’s better to remain single to serve the Lord with unrestricted dedication.
Now some argue that “as long as he lives” means that a woman cannot become unmarried until her husband dies, so that an “unscriptural divorce” is no divorce at all. But this can’t be true. First, those who contend for this interpretation conveniently ignore the fact that Paul makes no exception for fornication — and so the rule stated by Paul must admit of unstated exceptions (as it very clearly does).
Well, what exceptions might be unstated? Certainly, Paul having already said that a woman is not bound when her unbelieving husband departs, he doesn’t need to say it again for it to still be true. And just as surely Paul would assure us that having said that divorced spouses may remarry without sin, he doesn’t have to mention that exception again here.
Paul is speaking in generalities. We can’t invent a doctrine by ripping a generality out of context and ignoring the exceptions stated in the very same passage.