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1 Corinthians seems pretty clear that remaining unmarried is the lifestyle that Paul prefers for Christians:

1 Corinthians 7:8 (NASB)
But I say to the unmarried and to widows that it is good for them if they remain even as I.

Looking at the larger passage in 1 Corinthians 7, is Paul giving this as a command or is this more of a desire of his?

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I won't post this as an answer but it is wise in evaluating texts of this sort to bear context in mind. It's likely that Paul like other early Christians held the belief that the second coming was going to occur any time. Any earthly attachments, including marriage, would be tying someone to this Earthly life. I can't take credit for this observation but I also cannot recall where I read it--hence I add this as a comment. – Onorio Catenacci Sep 12 '12 at 1:50
up vote 6 down vote accepted

Foundational considerations in approaching this passage:

  1. The theology of marriage that is derived from this passage must jive with the theology of marriage in the rest of Scripture. We have from other places, including Paul's own writing, a beautiful view of marriage as a prelapsarian blessing which is meant to reflect Christ and the church. Thus it would be odd if here he were to be making some strong censure of it.
  2. Throughout this letter to the Corinthians, Paul combats certain false ideas they have acquired without pushing them to the other extreme. However, due to Paul's carefulness, some have used this letter as the basis of a move towards the practices of the Corinthian church. We must avoid this error. Here, it seems he is responding to some group that was promoting celibacy. Thus, I take Paul to be defending the legitimacy of marriage while not denigrating celibacy towards greater service in the kingdom.

From verses 10, 12, and 25, Paul seems to be making a distinction from commands that he has personally received from Jesus Christ (when he was in the desert of Arabia?—Galatians 1:16-18) and commands that he, as a Spirit-filled apostle, a man of prayer and the word, and writing under the Spirit's inspiration, delivers. This distinction does not, however, imply that what he himself tells them is not authoritative, so this alone does not answer the question. At most, it indicates authoritative advice rather than authoritative command.

But his phraseology makes the answer to the question clear. Whether the adverbial use of καλὸν is interpreted as "it's fine" or "it's good" or even "it's better," this is clearly not Paul's normal mode of giving commands. He has no problem using the imperative mood; he uses it in all his letters. Thus, even if you were to form a dim view of marriage from this passage (which I think is an error), you still could not claim that Paul is commanding them to remain single.

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Paul seems to be very careful at the beginning of I Corinthians 7 in his statements, hedging them so that they are not taken as absolutes, e.g. vv. 1-2 and 8-9 with "it is good [...] but", and v.6 with "by way of concession, not of command", and in the middle of the chapter when he's talking about divorce he does clearly separate his "I say, not the Lord" (v. 12) from what "not I, but the Lord" says (v. 10). So while he is giving both advice and doctrine together, overall he wants his readers to know which is which.

He seems to want to make it clear that yes, while he does prefer people to live an unmarried life, he also realizes that a lot of people can't pull that off (vv. 1-2, v. 8, NASB quoted):

It is good for a man not to touch a woman. But because of immoralities, each man is to have his own wife, and each woman is to have her own husband.

I say to the unmarried and to widows that it is good for them if they remain even as I. But if they do not have self-control, let them marry; for it is better to marry than to burn with passion.

But he also wants to say that the choice between celibacy and marriage is not between right and wrong, but between the best thing and the next best thing (v. 38):

So then both he who gives his own virgin daughter in marriage does well, and he who does not give her in marriage will do better.

He gives two reasons for preferring the celibate life; the first (v. 26) seems to be based on the context of his time:

I think then that this is good in view of the present [or impending] distress, that it is good for a man to remain as he is.

(He does not elaborate on what the impending distress is; presumably the Corinthians understood what he meant.) His other reason is that of religious devotion (vv. 32-35):

One who is unmarried is concerned about the things of the Lord, how he may please the Lord; but one who is married is concerned about the things of the world, how he may please his wife, and his interests are divided. The woman who is unmarried, and the virgin, is concerned about the things of the Lord, that she may be holy both in body and spirit; but one who is married is concerned about the things of the world, how she may please her husband. This I say for your own benefit; not to put a restraint upon you, but to promote what is appropriate and to secure undistracted devotion to the Lord.

This seems to be an elaboration of his statement in v. 3 that "The husband must fulfill his duty to his wife, and likewise also the wife to her husband." To this reasoning we may also adduce Jesus' statement in Matthew 6:24:

No one can serve two masters; for either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to one and despise the other.

If Christians marry, then, they are either going to have a less perfect devotion to God (due to attending to their spouses) or a less perfect devotion to their spouses (due to attending to God). Paul does not want his Christians to think of marriage as an expected or necessary part of life--something one would just expect to do when one grows up, like getting a job--but as something to be entered into thoughtfully and with understanding of the consequences on one's relationship to God.

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@Peter Actually wanted to cut that out altogether as I mainly wanted it for the hedging, not the content itself. Will do that. – Muke Tever Dec 8 '11 at 13:26
@Peter Refactored the opening a bit. – Muke Tever Dec 8 '11 at 13:39

"I think then that this is good in view of the present [or impending] distress, that it is good for a man to remain as he is."

Persecution had already started as Paul pens this letter. And, in light of the forced denial of their faith, the statement makes sense. As a single person, it is a lot easier for me to stand up against oppressors. When I am married, and the life of my wife is threatened, it becomes a bit more difficult. Now we have children, and if their lives are threatened...

It seems to be an answer based on the realities of the persecution, yet in its infancy, but soon to be unleashed with more force.

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