December 29, 2012
Commentary on First Corinthians
By: Tom Lowe
Topic #6: Questions Concerning Marriage, 1 Corinthians 7.1-7.40



Lesson 6.5: Engagement and Marriage
 Scripture: 1 Corinthians 7.36-38

1 Cor 7.36-38 (KJV)

36 But if any man think that he behaveth himself uncomely toward his virgin, if she pass the flower of her age, and need so require, let him do what he will, he sinneth not: let them marry.
37 Nevertheless he that standeth stedfast in his heart, having no necessity, but hath power over his own will, and hath so decreed in his heart that he will keep his virgin, doeth well.
38 So then he that giveth her in marriage doeth well; but he that giveth her not in marriage doeth better.


36 But if any man think that he behaveth himself uncomely toward his virgin, if she pass the flower of her age, and need so require, let him do what he will, he sinneth not: let them marry.

But if any man think
Apparently, Paul had been asked a question pertaining to the duty of a father toward his daughter with regard to marriage, and this passage contains his response, since this and the following verse are addressed to fathers, and Paul’s advice concerns his single daughter. It will help in understanding this passage to know the control which the father had over the marriage of his daughter in ancient times. According to the practice both of Jews and of Greeks, the father had total control over his daughter’s marriage; whether she could be married, when she could marry and to whom. From what we have learned so far, it is clear that the apostle regarded marriage at that time as undesirable. In this short passage, he tells fathers that they are perfectly free to exercise their own judgment in giving their daughters in marriage or keeping them single.

that he behaveth himself uncomely toward his virgin,
“His Virgin” in this context is his daughter, or his ward, or any unmarried female committed to his care, and it does not mean a virgin, in the sense of never having sexual relations with a man, but the state of virginity or celibacy, whether in a man or woman. The term “uncomely” signifies behaving improperly, and in this passage where Paul is giving advice relating to marriage, it probably means denying his daughter the right to marry—perhaps for the reasons mentioned in 1 Corinthians 7.25-34—which would expose her to criticism, and she would lose respect. Remember that in this ancient culture, a young person's parents had the primary responsibility for arranging their marriage.

The Jews say that the time of marriage is from 16 or 17 to 20; while some of the Gentiles specify from 30 to 35. This is called “the flower of her age” in the next clause. If a father would keep his daughter at home past this age, they would say of her, “she passed the flower of her age,” and she would be disgraced in the eyes of many. Forcing her to live a single life may be contrary to her nature, especially if she lacks self-control, and by doing so, he may cause her to be tempted to do that which is improper; to commit fornication, which would damage the reputation of both him and her.

if she pass the flower of her age
If she passes the marriageable age or the age of “full sexual maturity,” she is considered ripe for marriage, and that could occur as early as twelve years and a half old, at which age virgins were judged fit to marry: consequently, the Jews had a saying, “if thy daughter, ‘is ripe’, or has come to ‘the flower of her age,’ make thy servant free and give her to him.” It is well known that in Paul’s day it was regarded as particularly dishonorable to remain unmarried; and the authority of a father, therefore, might be the means of involving his daughter in shame and disgrace. When this would be the case, it would be wrong to prohibit her marriage. Any denial of marriage to an aging daughter would seem inappropriate to a loving parent, who should feel no sense of sin in giving his daughter's hand in marriage.

and need so require,
That is, if circumstances of any kind seem to require her marriage; if she does not have the gift of continence (self-control, having power over sexual desires); if she is in danger of falling into the sin of fornication, and the father or guardian are aware of this; if it will encourage her happiness; and if she would be unhappy, and regarded as dishonored, if she remained in a state of celibacy, she ought to be allowed to marry.

In Corinth, there was a grave danger facing a girl who had reached the age for marriage. If she wanted to marry, and her farther would not allow her to do so, she might disgrace her father and ruin her own testimony by marrying the wrong person. In that case, what God intended to be morally beautiful would become morally ugly and bring about a scandal in the church and in the community.

let him do what he will, he sinneth not:
“Let him do what he will,” because he has all the authority and power in this case; since in the east the authority resided with the father. He may either give her in marriage or not, as he pleases. But in this case it is advisable that she marry. Paul says it is not wrong for a father to allow his young daughter to marry, even though singleness was desirable at the present time, due to the persecution of Christians.

“He sinneth not” means the father has not made a mistake; he will do nothing wrong by allowing his daughter to marry. Marriage is lawful, and in this case it is advisable; and he may consent to it, for the reasons stated above. Therefore, let him do what he wishes. He can let them marry: he is under no obligation by what the apostle had said to detain her in a single life; he may give her in marriage if he pleases.

let them marry.
Let the young men and young women marry if they are so disposed; there is no reason why they should not; there is nothing contrary to it in the word of God, or in the advice given by the apostle; according to him, it was much better to marry than to burn, or to be exposed to any snare and temptation. This was the advice for parents and guardians, and it has no reference at all to some passionate suitor shacked up with his girlfriend. But, because singleness does have its benefits, Paul will recommend it, not only to individuals, but also to fathers in regard to the marrying off of their daughters. “He who gives her in marriage does well, but he who does not give her in marriage does better: For Paul, the choice between married and single was not the choice between good and bad, but between better and best.” And for Paul, and the present circumstances, he regarded singleness as best. But in spite of Paul’s foregoing advice, he does not intend to discourage marriage, especially in situations where it becomes necessary for the happiness of the individuals involved. Note, Paul had already said in 1 Corinthians 7.35 that he was not laying down a hard-and-fast rule for everybody to follow, regardless of circumstances.

Even though our modern approach to marriage and dating was completely foreign to the Corinthians, the council Paul gave them still applies today. It is a wise thing for couples to council with their parents and Christian leaders, in the church, so that they don’t rush into something that they will regret afterward.

37 Nevertheless he that standeth stedfast in his heart, having no necessity, but hath power over his own will, and hath so decreed in his heart that he will keep his virgin, doeth well.

Nevertheless he that standeth steadfast in his heart,
In this verse, the apostle states some instances where it would not be proper to give a daughter in marriage, and he comes close to summing up all he said on the subject. “Nevertheless” (yet, but, however, on the other hand, all the same, even so) is a conjunction that connects this verse with the previous verse.

Most commentators have interpreted “he” as the father of the virgin, and deduce that it refers to his purpose, which is to keep her from marrying. The phrase, “that standeth steadfast,” is opposed to a nature or disposition that is vacillating, unsettled, etc., and refers to a man who has control of himself, who sticks to his purpose, a man who has up till now stuck to his purpose or principles, and it is likely that he is a man who believes it is important for him to be known as one who is not vacillating, or indecisive. He is convinced in his heart that he is doing the right thing by refusing to permit his daughter to marry.

In this verse,  the apostle returns to bolster his former advice; and remarks that, although what he had permitted might be done lawfully, and that it was actually a good thing to do; nevertheless a man that had thoughtfully consider it, and had carefully weighed the matter of virginity, and the case for a single life, and had made up his mind on the matter, and can express his opinion without hesitation or wavering of the mind concerning it: and also, not "having circumstances that would make either marriage or singleness a “necessity,” either through the father’s poverty, or because his daughter does not have the gift of continency (self-control).

having no necessity,
“Having no necessity” indicates that there is nothing in her nature or inclination that would make marriage necessary, or there does not exist an engagement or obligation that would be violated if she did not marry. If no need makes marriage necessary, and the reason for her to remain unmarried still exists, it would be well for him to allow her to remain so. This man has control over his own will and can thus make his own decision.

but hath power over his own will,
This suggests that the father has the right to act according to his own conviction and desire of his heart. It does not necessarily mean that he has control over his own will, but that there is nothing to interfere with his exercising his right as a parent, which would be the case if he was a slave. What is true today was exactly the opposite in Paul’s day. Customs in those days placed the disposal of a daughter entirely under the power and at the discretion of the father. He had the right to say “Yea” or “Nay” concerning her marriage. But even today, a believing father who has the welfare of his daughter at heart, and flatly refuses to go along with a wedding which would not be to the glory of God or for the happiness and welfare of his daughter, “doeth well” if he takes a stand and exercises his authority.

and hath so decreed in his heart
When the father “hath so decreed in his heart,” meaning that he has made up his mind (determined, decided, come to a decision), he has the power to do as he pleases, unless one of the following exceptions to the rule is present; there is a previous engagement, or marriage contract, made in childhood, or promise made in early life that he must honor. Often daughters were espoused, or promised, when they were very young; and in such a case a father would be obligated to go along with the engagement; and as much as he might desire to invalidate the engagement, and preserve her celibacy, he would not have the power to do so.

Again, there is no hard and fast rule which can be applied here, so Paul is able to say to this man, you have done well. Of course, the ideal situation would exist when his daughter agrees with his decision.

that he will keep his virgin,
Here is the opposite of "giveth his own virgin daughter in marriage" in the next verse, which absolutely requires the sense of this clause to be that he will not give his daughter in marriage, making it absolutely certain that the problem of whether or not to give daughters in marriage was the problem Paul was discussing in this passage. The sense of this verse is that a Christian parent or guardian, who has made up his mind to withhold his daughter's hand in marriage, might do so without sinning, and might even be commended for it.

doth well.
In either of these cases, he does well. If he has a daughter, and chooses to keep her at home in an unmarried state, he does well or right or if he gives her in marriage, he does well or right.

38 So then he that giveth her in marriage doeth well; but he that giveth her not in marriage doeth better.

So then he that giveth her in marriage doth well;
The oldest manuscripts have "his own virgin daughter." In this place, “Doeth well” means does the right thing; violates no law in doing it, and is not to be blamed for it. The father-daughter relationship, as it applies to marriage, is the subject of this passage. Paul said that if the father allows his daughter to marry, he “doth well;” that is, it is ok, he has the authority to do it, and there is no law that would prevent him from doing so. Of course, her marriage must be agreeable with the will of God.

The Holy Spirit is not contrasting between “well” and “better” as far as it has to do with what is morally right or wrong. This has to do with that which is expedient (or to the advantage of all parties concerned), always keeping in mind that we are dealing here with believers, not with sinners.

If a father knows the man his daughter is about to marry is a sinner, it is the duty of any father to do everything within his power to prevent the marriage. Paul has already pointed out that there are great advantages in being unmarried, insofar as stewardship and service to God are concerned; and always the one thing uppermost in his mind was “to do all to the glory of God.” If young people can marry for the glory of God, “Amen!” If they cannot marry for the glory of God, it is far better that they remain single.

But he that giveth her not in marriage doth better.
The oldest manuscripts have "and" rather than “but.” The act of “not giving a daughter in marriage” is not a better action in itself, but more profitable and advantageous under the conditions that existed in Corinth, at that time. That is why Paul is able to say “But he that giveth her not in marriage doth better.” But why is it better? It is better because a single person is more capable of meeting and enduring persecutions, is freer from the cares of life, and more at liberty to wait upon the Lord, and give up himself to His service.

Either solution to the problem was acceptable; but, throughout this chapter, Paul still recommended (although he did not command it) that the father not give the daughter's hand in marriage. His advice is “All things being equal, the one who giveth her not in marriage DOETH BETTER. While there is no sin in marriage and no superior virtue in celibacy, in light of the “present distress,” Paul still maintains that the single life is BETTER.

To choose either course is perfectly alright, but the last is the BETTER, where circumstances permit, on account of the “distress” (persecution of Christians): “I suppose therefore that this is good for the present distress, I say, that it is good for a man so to be” (1 Cor 7:26; KJV). If a parent can prevent a marriage that is not to the glory of God, because of circumstances and the parties involved, that person is doing a service for God and his daughter. We are responsible for our children and should be seriously concerned about whom they marry.

The celibate state is not holier than the married state, and it does not insure service to God; celibacy simply has a greater potential for serving the Lord, but actual involvement in serving the Lord depends on the commitment of the individual. But even in marriage, everything as far as possible is to be in subjection to the will of God. The words “givith in marriage,” always has this sense in the New Testament, it never means simply to marry, which seems to clinch the interpretation given here as being the true one.

Do you have any questions or comments?

 When asked to share the secret of their success in staying married for over fifty years, the wife provided some very interesting logic. She said, “On our wedding day, we decided my husband would make all of the major decisions and I would make all of the minor decisions. This has worked out especially well for us because in fifty-three years of marriage we’ve not yet had to make a single major decisions.”

Preacher’s Joke-a-Day Calendar, Aug. 14, 1998