Christian Living

Present Distresses and Wedding Dresses

This is part one of a two-part series on what 1 Corinthians 7 teaches us in light of the current Covid restrictions on weddings.

The seventh chapter of Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians is full of all sorts of brain-stretching moments. Sitting right up near the top of its ‘vexing verses list’ surely has to be vv.26-27 –

I think that in view of the present distress, it is good for a person to remain as he is. Are you bound to wife? Do not seek to be free. Are you free from a wife? Do not seek a wife.

A copious amount of ink (and pixels) have been spilt over these verses, not the least about what this so-called “present distress” could possibly be and how on earth it relates to marriage. And yes, here I come to spill more of the same! But before I do, let me give you some important context.

As I write it is August 2021 and my home-town of Sydney, Australia is back in lockdown. In an effort to curb the rampaging Delta strain of Covid-19, our state government has enforced a range of societal restrictions, including a ban on public gatherings. Because wedding ceremonies require the in-person gathering of the two prospective spouses, an officiant and at least two other witnesses, nobody in the Greater Sydney region has been able to get married for over 2 months now. This has been particularly difficult and disappointing for many Christian couples whose weddings have been indefinitely postponed. Unlike many of their non-Christian counterparts, these brides and grooms are not living together, and so they are understandably eager to start (and consummate!) their married lives. As a result, there has been lots of chatter and a fair amount of intensive lobbying by Christian individuals and church leaders for the government to provide allowances for safe weddings, with a gathering of just 5 people. To my mind that seems like an eminently reasonable thing for Christians to both suggest and support. I’m certainly willing to do so.

And yet, I do wonder whether our genuine pastoral concern for the deep disappointment and frustration of these engaged Christian couples might be leading us to overlook an important biblical lesson about marriage, distress and living now in light of eternity. Could it be that 1 Corinthians 7:26-27 is more directly relevant right here, right now, in the midst of a pandemic than at any other point in our lifetime?

The Present Distress Back Then

Well, to answer that question we must first answer another one – what exactly is the “present distress” which Paul speaks of in v.26? Unfortunately, nobody is entirely sure! But there are two broad schools of thought about Paul’s meaning here.

The first general approach understands Paul to have been speaking about the general woes of living in the ‘end times’, the hardship and pressures of Christian life in the time between Jesus’ resurrection and return. So for example, John Calvin writes of the distress as the way in which the “saints are often, in this world, driven hither and thither and are exposed to many and various tempests”.[1] In this view, the “present distress” refers to the all-encompassing pressure of seeking to live as God’s people in a hostile, fallen world. All this “hithering and thithering” doesn’t exactly provide solid ground upon which to make big changes and build a marriage. And so, the argument goes, Paul encourages those who aren’t married to remain unmarried, whilst also making it clear that if you are already married you ought to stay that way, and if you do marry then you haven’t sinned. As a result, this school of thought sees the ethical implications of “remaining as you are” to be more than just a specific instruction to the first century Corinthian Christians. To quote Calvin again, we ought to read it as “extending to all ages”.[2]

However, the other school of thought understands the “present distress” to have been a reference to a very particular crisis facing the Corinthian Christians. What was it? Well, there have been a range of suggestions, including a period of strong persecution, or perhaps a pervasive sickness within the community. However, the proposal which has proven most popular in recent decades comes from biblical commentator Bruce Winter who suggests that Paul was referring to a localised famine caused by a grain shortage in the area.[3] It is thought that such a calamity was likely to have fostered civil unrest and even riots. And so the argument goes that a time characterised by social anxiety, the threat of starvation and imminent danger was not exactly to best time to go and make big life changes, especially by getting yourself hitched!

So we are left to wonder, was Paul’s advice that the Corinthians remain as they were an ‘emergency ethic’ specific to what was happening to them at that time? Or is the “present distress” better understood as a reference to the ongoing and generalised pressure of Christian living, thereby making Paul’s exhortation relevant to all Christians, in all places, at all times?

Well, the good news is that ultimately the ambiguity actually doesn’t matter all that much! The reason for this is because Paul’s advice here in vv.26-27 is just one part of his larger theological and ethical argument about marriage and singleness in the Christian life:

26 I think that in view of the present distress it is good for a person to remain as he is. 27 Are you bound to a wife? Do not seek to be free. Are you free from a wife? Do not seek a wife. 28 But if you do marry, you have not sinned, and if a betrothed woman marries, she has not sinned. Yet those who marry will have worldly troubles, and I would spare you that. 29 This is what I mean, brothers: the appointed time has grown very short. From now on, let those who have wives live as though they had none, 30 and those who mourn as though they were not mourning, and those who rejoice as though they were not rejoicing, and those who buy as though they had no goods, 31 and those who deal with the world as though they had no dealings with it. For the present form of this world is passing away. 32 I want you to be free from anxieties. The unmarried man is anxious about the things of the Lord, how to please the Lord. 33 But the married man is anxious about worldly things, how to please his wife, 34 and his interests are divided. And the unmarried or betrothed woman is anxious about the things of the Lord, how to be holy in body and spirit. But the married woman is anxious about worldly things, how to please her husband. 35 I say this for your own benefit, not to lay any restraint upon you, but to promote good order and to secure your undivided devotion to the Lord.

It’s always helpful when an author writes “This is what I mean…”, and Paul is certainly no exception to that rule (v.29)! The apostle explains to his readers that the appointed time left in and for this world – the time between Jesus’ resurrection and return – has grown very short (v.29). Even now, he writes, the present form of this world is passing away (v.31). If we understand this, then we can see there is actually not that much division between the two schools of thought about the character of the “present distress” after all. You see, even if Paul was referring to a famine or a sickness or a season of persecution, he goes on to contextualise it within a broader eschatological framework. Whatever “present distress” the Corinthians were facing, it was a sign that the present creation is lumbering towards its appointed end with loud moans and groans. A famine. A sickness. A season of intense persecution. Or the general “hithering and thithering” of Christians living in a tempestuous, fallen, hostile world. All of these things are distresses experienced as we live in the last days.

Note that Paul isn’t bothered about exactly how many more of these last days are left. He’s not interested in working out exactly when the appointed time is due. He just wants the Corinthians to know that it has grown very short. The Greek word he uses to speak about this shortening of time in v.29 is the same word those ancient sailors used to speak about rolling up or contracting their sails as they prepared to sail into harbour at the end of their journey. The time between Jesus’ resurrection and his return has been similarly rolled up and contracted. The journey is not just going on and on endlessly. The final destination is in view. And so, it can no longer be business as usual. Christians need to learn how to properly tell time.

The Present Distress Right Now

Marriage is great, even in the midst of a pandemic! There should be no doubt about that in our minds. But in Luke 20:34, Jesus reveals that marrying belongs to this world alone. And, as we learn in 1 Corinthians 7:31, the present form of this world is already passing away. Jesus’ death, his resurrection and his promised return means that Christians do not blithely carry on as if it were just business as usual. After all, what can be said to be ‘usual’ about living in the now-but-not-yet? 

This passage in 1 Corinthians 7 helps us to see that marriage (including the decision of whether and when to marry) is one key part of life which is shaken up by the revelation that the appointed time has gown very short. Those who marry have worldly troubles which Paul would spare his readers from (v.28). He goes on to write that those who have a spouse are to now live as if they have none (v.29). This is in no small part because married Christians will struggle to not be anxious about worldly things. Paul says that they will find it difficult to be undivided in their devotion to the Lord (v.33-34). Does this mean that no Christian should marry? Not at all! Marriage remains wonderfully good. Paul himself says this just a few verses later in 1 Corinthians 7:38 when he writes that the betrothed person who marries “does well”.  But Paul doesn’t want the Corinthians’ good pursuit of marriage to mean they miss out on the important things there are to learn within their “present distress”.

Now, we must be very careful here. Yes, we are undergoing our own “present distress”. But we don’t know precisely what crisis the Corinthians were facing, let alone how similar or dissimilar it is to our own. And so, we need to be very wary of creating an unjustified false equivalence between first century Corinth and twenty-first century Australia. And yet, just as the Corinthians’ distress was the manifested groans and moans of a broken world which is passing away, so also is our distress. This devastating pandemic is a jarring wake-up call – no, a demand – that we Christians remember that the appointed time has grown very short, that it is no longer business as usual, that we are already sailing into our home harbour.

Does that mean that Christians and church leaders here in Sydney ought to stop lobbying the government to allow marriages during lockdown? No, I don’t think so. In fact I’ve happily signed my name to a petition requesting just that.  However, I suggest it does mean this should not be our only, or even our most important response to the situation. Our own present distress is an opportunity to consider what it might look like to encourage frustrated, disappointed and distressed Christian husbands and wives to-be, to “remain as they are” for the time being, and to even see that as a good thing. It is an opportunity for us to consider what our frustration over a temporary moratorium on weddings might reflect about our theology of marriage (and so also of singleness). It’s an opportunity for us to remember that the appointed time has grown very short, that the present form of the world is passing away and that a new, wonderful, perfected creation is even now rising just there on the horizon.

So yes, as Christians let’s ask our government to consider allowing us to marry in the midst of our present distress. But as Christians, let’s also ask ourselves whether we are genuinely willing to remain as we are in the midst of that same distress, and if we aren’t, what that reveals about our ability to properly tell the time in which we live.

[1] John Calvin, Commentary on the Epistle of Paul to the Corinthians, trans. Reverend John Pringle, vol. 1 (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Christian Classics Ethereal Library, 1979); Calvin, Commentary on the Epistle of Paul to the Corinthians, 1.

[2] Calvin, Commentary on the Epistle of Paul to the Corinthians, 1; Calvin, Commentary on the Epistle of Paul to the Corinthians, 1.. Interestingly, however, Calvin didn’t think many Christians were able to remain faithfully single and so elsewhere he strongly urged Christians to marry. But that’s a topic for another article!

[3] Bruce W. Winter, “Secular and Christian Responses to Corinthian Famines,” Tyndale Bulletin 40, no. 1 (1989): 94.