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[updated: 1/13/23]

Do you know a Christian couple struggling to reign in their sexual passions; wondering, “Is it better to marry than to burn?”

Should they just go ahead and get married?

The Apostle Paul seems to say as much, as he writes in 1 Cor 7:9, “But if they cannot exercise self-control, they should marry. For it is better to marry than to burn with passion.”

But hold up! Is this what Paul meant? “You two kids sexually on fire? Just get married! BOOM! Problem solved!!”

I see this passage used this way all the time. In fact, just this month someone referenced this verse in a comment on our facebook page to justify eloping. (Como say what?!)

But the fact of the matter is this: Paul’s words were not originally addressing the question, “Should a couple struggling to reign in their sexual passions just go ahead and get married?”

What was the Original Question?

Paul gives the specific reason for addressing the topics of marriage and sexual passion in the first verse of 1 Cor 7, but before we get to that, it is important for us to understand that the church in Corinth could totally relate to the sexually perverse world of today. Indeed, the city of Corinth had such a bad reputation, that “to corinthianize” became another way of saying, “to engage in drunkenness and sexual debauchery.”

And surrounded by all of that perversion, the Corinthians had proposed an idea to Paul. However, it was a very different proposition from the typical situation where this “marry or burn” verse is usually applied today. In fact, their suggestion was pretty much the antithesis of that.

Now concerning the matters about which you wrote: “It is good for a man NOT to have sexual relations with a woman.” – 1 Cor 7:1 (ALL CAPS emphasis mine)

Did you catch what they were saying? Instead of wondering whether every “burning” couple ought to get married, they were wondering whether every married couple ought to act like they were single. Would it be better for men (married or not) to forego sexual relations altogether?

Isn’t that a startling idea coming from a hyper-sexualized culture like ours? The Corinthians apparently revered the single-and-celibate Apostle Paul so much they reasoned that perhaps the highest and holiest calling was to life-long abstinence. Even for married people!

Thankfully, in response, Paul essentially says…

The goal is not abstinence, but holiness.

Here are his exact words:

But because of the temptation to sexual immorality, each man should have his own wife and each woman her own husband. – 1 Cor 7:2

Though, later in verses 6 and 7 he admits that he would personally wish everyone were single like himself, Paul understood the reality of sexual temptation and for that reason encouraged those who couldn’t imagine a life of celibacy to go ahead and pursue marriage.

Who was Paul Addressing?

Having considered the question that Paul was actually answering, now let’s look at something just as important: the audience to whom he was giving this advice. For that we begin with verse 8.

To the unmarried and the widows I say that it is good for them to remain single, as I am. But if they cannot exercise self-control, they should marry. For it is better to marry than to burn with passion. – 1 Cor 7:8-9

Did you notice anything?

Paul doesn’t say, “To the dating and engaged COUPLES I say… it is better to marry than to burn with passion.” Indeed, Paul isn’t talking specifically to couples at all (and if he were, he’d address them as betrothed, not single or widowed).

So who is Paul issuing this “marry or burn” counsel to?

He’s talking to ALL unmarried people. It is to this much larger audience that he says, “Hey dudes! If you find sexual temptation difficult to resist than celibacy probably isn’t your calling. You should pursue marriage.”

In other words, everyone need not be celibate, but all must be self-controlled.

So, in light of the original question Paul was answering and the original audience he was addressing, here’s the accurate application of his words:

Paul isn’t presenting sexual temptation as a good reason to get married to a particular person as quickly as possible. He’s presenting marriage as a good reason to get married in general.

This verse is not a specific prescription for frisky couples, but a basic principle for all unmarried folks.

So to say the least, using his counsel as justification for sexually struggling couples to enter a hasty marriage (or to elope) is a poor application of this scripture. In fact, as I explain in a guest post on another blog,  if all you want is the sex, my recommendation is that you don’t get married, because marriage isn’t about sex. Sex is about marriage. And marriage is about relationship.

Holiness and Sexual Happiness

I close with this last observation. Though the culture of Paul’s time was just as sexually depraved as ours today, consider this: the church in Corinth was willing to promote sexual abstinence (even inside marriage) out of a passion for holiness. In contrast, the modern church often uses Paul’s words to encourage couples to let their passion for sex direct the course of their entire life. Even into the life-long covenant of marriage.

Regrettably, in many churches it doesn’t matter how long a couple has known each other, or how well suited they are for each other, or how prepared they are for marriage. (“Are you two burning? Already gone to far? Already pregnant? Better get married!”)

In some churches, it doesn’t even matter whether the couple is heterosexual. (“You’re burning for each other? That’s so beautiful! And now you can get married too!“) In every case, the commanding factor is the desire for sexual happiness; not the desire for holiness. But…

What if God would be pleased for you to enjoy both holiness and sexual happiness?

(Paul sure seemed to think that a possibility for many.)

“I wish that all were as I myself am. But each has his own gift from God, one of one kind and one of another.” – 1 Cor 7:7

Would you like to enjoy both holiness and sexual happiness? Then check out this post where I attempt to put this “marry or burn” verse in a context where it could motivate you to actually prepare for your future marital sex life. Instead of just get married.

Or for encouragement in the fight against sexual temptation, read this post.

And for more on the Bible’s teaching on sex before marriage, check out the LoveEd series, Premarital Sex & the Scriptures on our FMUniversity YouTube channel.

A dating life that leads to a life-giving, lifelong marriage doesn’t happen by accident. You need to know what you’re doing.

That’s why I wrote Date Like You Know What You’re Doing to empower you to:

  • Discern God’s will for your dating life.
  • Avoid heartbreak, rejection, and regret.
  • Date with confidence and clarity.
  • Win the war over sexual temptation.
  • Let your marriage hopes inspire, instead of impede your dating life.

Learn more here!

[originally published: 9/29/16]