Paul’s inspired instructions regarding marriage in 1 Cor. 7 are influenced by what he calls the “present distress” in verse 26: I think therefore that this is good by reason of the distress that is upon us, namely, that it is good for a man to be as he is. The King James reads similarly: I suppose therefore that this is good for the present distress, I say, that it is good for a man so to be. (emphasis supplied, rcv). What is “the present distress” and why did it make it good for a person to remain in their current marital state?
A number of commentators argue that the “present distress” was a reference to the end of the world. They say that Paul mistakenly believed that the end of the world was imminent, and this belief colored his “advice” on the marriage question. But this view fails to take into consideration the nature of inspiration, and that Paul’s instructions were not merely his own opinions. In 14:37 he wrote that “the things which I write unto you…are the commandment of the Lord.” So Paul was not merely expressing his personal judgment, colored by his own alleged misconceptions about the end of the world. Further, there is no evidence that Paul labored under such a mistaken view, or that he believed the second coming of Christ was imminent. Rather, his teaching on that subject comports exactly with our Lord’s instructions, who said, “of that day and hour knoweth no one,” (Mt. 24:36). These verses are often misunderstood by commentators who deny the verbal inspiration of the Scriptures.
But if Paul were mistaken about the timing of the end of the world, what other matters did he erroneously address? And if he was not guided by verbal inspiration in dealing with these marriage issues, how can we have confidence in any of his inspired teaching?
The much better approach is to acknowledge and respect the inspiration of the Bible generally, and of Paul in particular. The “present distress” would thus appear to be a reference to trials and tribulations associated with the onslaught of persecution against Christians, which were in fact occurring at that time. The word translated “present” means at hand, impending. And history bears out the fact that waves of persecutions against Christians were indeed pending at that time.
Persecution of Christians was a feature of the first century, almost from the very beginning of the church (cf. Acts 8:1). Paul himself had been a frighteningly effective persecutor of the early church prior to his conversion. The Christians were no strangers to persecution by the time this epistle was written, about A.D. 55. Organized governmental persecution of Christians traces its history at least as early as Nero, after the great Rome fire in A.D. 64.
Paul was cognizant of the fact that these persecutions would have a very significant effect upon Christians, and upon domestic relations. A married person is concerned about their spouse and children. He that is married is careful for the things of the world, how he may please his wife, and is divided…(7:33-34); Such shall have tribulation in the flesh: and I would spare you, (7:28). It may be that Paul was envisioning the situation where the Roman government would threaten to harm or kill a Christian’s spouse or children if the Christian did not deny Christ, (cf. Jer. 16:1-4). God knew that such atrocities, and many others, were soon coming upon Christians. Dealing with them while unmarried would be far easier than with a family.
In view of such tribulations, Paul knew that an unmarried Christian could focus attention wholly on the service of Christ, free from such domestic cares. Paul’s instructions are practical, and expedient under those distressful circumstances.
There would seem to also be a principal here that, although we are not suffering under the distress characteristic of that time, it may not always be expedient to marry. If there are pending tribulations or difficulties which would be exacerbated by taking on family responsibilities, such domestic obligations should be delayed. Maintaining a healthy, godly marriage, and the responsibilities of parenthood, is a challenging task even under ideal circumstances. If one is facing unusual obstacles, such a “present distress” may signal the need to rethink marriage. As Paul would say, even if the thing is “lawful,” it may not be “expedient,” (6:12; 10:23). Although marriage is generally a good thing, prudence may temporarily dictate a wiser course.
-by Robert C. Veil, Jr.