Frederick W. Robertson

Sermon 57


Marriage and Celibacy

Preached January 11, 1852

  Frederick W. Robertson

“But this I say, brethren, the time is short: it remaineth, that both they that have wives be as though they had none; and they that weep, as though they wept not; and they that rejoice, as though they rejoiced not; and they that buy, as though they possessed not; and they that use this world, as not abusing it: for the fashion of this world passeth away.” - I Corinthians 7:29-31


The subject of our exposition last Sunday was an essential portion of this chapter. It is our duty to examine now the former and the latter portions of it. These portions are occupied entirely with the inspired apostolic decision upon this one question-the comparative advantages and merits of celibacy and marriage. One preliminary question, however, is to be discussed. How came it that such a question should be put at all to the apostle?

In the church at Corinth there were two different sections of society; first there were those who had been introduced into the church through Judaism, and afterwards those who had been converted from different forms of heathenism. Now it is well known, that it was the tendency of Judaism highly to venerate the marriage state, and just in the same proportion to disparage that of celibacy, and to place those who led a single life under a stigma and disgrace. Those converts, therefore, entered into the Church of Christ carrying with them their old Jewish prejudices. On the other hand, many who had entered into the Christian Church had been converted to Christianity from different forms of heathenism. Among these prevailed a tendency to the belief (which originated primarily in the Oriental schools of philosophy) that the highest virtue consisted in the denial of all natural inclinations, and the suppression of all natural desires; and looking upon marriage on one side only, and that the lowest, they were tempted to consider it as low, earthly, carnal, and sensual. It was at this time that Christianity entered into the world, and while it added fresh dignity and significance to the marriage relationship, it at the same time shed a splendor and a glory upon the other state. The virginity of the mother of Our Lord-the solitary life of John the Baptist-the pure and solitary youth of Christ Himself-had thrown upon celibacy a meaning and dignity which it did not possess before. No marvel, therefore, that to men so educated, and but half prepared for Christianity, practices like these should have become exaggerations; for it rarely happens that any right ideas can be given to the world without suffering exaggeration. Human nature progresses, the human mind goes on; but it is rarely in a straight line, almost always through the medium of reaction, rebounding from extremes which produce contrary extremes. So it was in the Church of Corinth. There were two opposite parties holding views diametrically opposed to one another-one honoring the married and deprecating the unmarried life-the other attributing peculiar dignity and sanctity to celibacy, and looking down with contempt upon the married Christian state.

It is scarcely necessary to remind ourselves that this diversity of sentiment has existed in the Church of Christ in almost all ages. For example, in the early ages, in almost all the writings of the Fathers we have exaggerated descriptions of the dignity and glory of the state of celibacy. They speak as if the marriage state was low, carnal, and worldly; and the other the only one in which it is possible to attain to the higher spiritual life-the one the natural state, fit for man, the other the angelic, fit for angels. But ordinarily among men in general, in every age, the state of single life has been looked down upon and contemned. And then there comes to the parties who are so circumstanced a certain sense of shame, and along with this a disposition towards calumny and slander. Let us endeavor to understand the wise, inspired decision which the Apostle Paul pronounced upon this subject. He does not decide, as we might have been led to suppose he would, from his own peculiarity of disposition, upon one side only; but raises into relief the advantages and excellencies of both. He says that neither state has in itself any intrinsic merit-neither is in itself superior to the other. “I suppose, then,” he says, “that this is good for the present distress. Art thou bound unto a wife? Seek not to be loosed. Art thou loosed from a wife? Seek not a wife. But and if thou marry, thou hast not sinned: and if a virgin marry, she hath not sinned. Nevertheless, such shall have trouble in the flesh: but I spare you.” That is, I will spare you this trouble, in recommending a single, solitary life. You will observe that in these words he attributes no intrinsic merit or dignity to either celibacy or marriage. The comparative advantages of these two states he decides with reference to two considerations; first of all with respect to their comparative power in raising the character of the individual, and afterwards with reference to the opportunities which each respectively gives for the service of God.

I. With respect to the single life, he tells us that he had his own proper gift from God; in other words, he was one of those rare characters who have the power of living without personal sympathy. The feelings and affections of the Apostle Paul were of a strange and rare character-tending to expansiveness rather than concentration. Those sympathies which ordinary men expend upon a few, he extended to many. The members of the churches which he had founded at Corinth, and Ephesus, and Colossae, and Philippi, were to him as children; and he threw upon them all that sympathy and affection which other men throw upon their own domestic circle. To a man so trained and educated, the single life gave opportunities of serving God which the marriage state could not give. St. Paul had risen at once to that philanthropy-that expansive benevolence, which most other men only attain by slow degrees, and this was made, by God’s blessing, a means of serving his cause. However we may sneer at the monastic system of the Church of Rome, it is unquestionable that many great works have been done by the monks which could not have been performed by men who had entered into the marriage relationship. Such examples of heroic Christian effort as are seen in the lives of St. Bernard, of Francis Xavier, and many others, are scarcely ever to be found except in the single state. The forlorn hope in battle, as well as in the cause of Christianity, must consist of men who have no domestic relationships to divide their devotion, who will leave no wife nor children to mourn over their loss.

Let this great truth bring its improvement to those who, either of their own choice or by the force of circumstances, are destined hereafter to live a single life on earth; and, instead of yielding to that feeling so common among mankind the feeling of envy at another’s happiness; instead of becoming gloomy, and bitter, and censorious, let them remember what the Bible has to tell of the deep significance of the Virgin Mary’s life-let them reflect upon the snares and difficulties from which they are saved-let them consider how much more time and money they can give to God-that they are called to the great work of serving causes, of entering into public questions, while others spend their time and talents only upon themselves. The state of single life, however we may be tempted to think lightly of it, is a state that has peculiar opportunities of deep blessedness.

On the other hand, the Apostle Paul brings forward, into strong relief, the blessedness and advantages of the marriage state. He tells us that it is a type of the union between the Redeemer and the Church. But as this belongs to another part of the subject, we shall not enter into it now. But we observe, that men in general must have their sympathies drawn out step by step, little by little. We do not rise to philanthropy all at once. We begin with personal, domestic, particular affections. And not only is it true that rarely can any man have the whole of his love drawn out except through this domestic state, but, also, it is to be borne in mind that those who have entered into this relationship have also their own peculiar advantages. It is true that in the marriage life, interrupted as it is by daily cares and small trifles, those works of Christian usefulness can not be so continuously carried on as in the other. But is there not a deep meaning to be learned from the old expression-that celibacy is an angelic state? that it is preternatural, and not natural? that the goodness which is induced by it is not, so to speak, the natural goodness of humanity, but such a goodness as God scarcely intended?

Who of us can not recollect a period of his history when all his time was devoted to the cause of Christ; when all his money was given to the service of God; and when we were tempted to look down upon those who were less ardent than ourselves, as if they were not Christians? But now the difficulties of life have come upon us; we have become involved in the trifles and the smallness of social domestic existence; and these have made us less devoted perhaps, less preternatural, less angelic-but more human, better fitted to enter into the daily cares and small difficulties of our ordinary humanity. And this has been represented to us by two great lives-one human, the other Divine-one, the life of John the Baptist, and the other, of Jesus Christ. In both these cases is verified the saying, that “Wisdom is justified of all her children.” Those who are wisdom’s children-the truly wise-will recognize an even wisdom in both these lives; they will see that there are cases in which a solitary life is to be chosen for the sake of God; while there are other cases in which a social life becomes our bounden duty.

But it should be specially observed here that that life which has been given to us as a specimen of life for all, was a social, a human life. Christ did not refuse to mix with the common joys and common sorrows of humanity. He was present at the marriage-feast, and by the bier of the widow’s son. This, of the two lives, was the one which, because it was the most human, was the most Divine; the most rare, the most difficult, the most natural-therefore the most Christlike.


II. Let us notice, in the second place, the principle upon which the apostle founds this decision. It is given in the text-“This I say, brethren, the time is short: it remaineth that both they that have wives be as though they had none, “for the fashion of this world passeth away.” Now observe here, I pray you, the deep wisdom of this apostolic decision. In point of fact it comes to this: Christianity is a spirit, not a law; it is a set of principles, not a set to rules; it is not a saying to us, You shall do this, you shall not do that; you shall use this particular dress, you shall not use that; you shall lead, you shall not lead a married life. Christianity consists of principles, but the application of those principles is left to every man’s individual conscience. With respect not only to this particular case, but to all the questions which had been brought before him, the apostle applies the same principle; the cases upon which he decided were many and various, but the large, broad principle of his decision remains the same in all. You may marry, and you have not sinned; you may remain unmarried, and you do not sin; if you are invited to a heathen feast, you may go, or you may abstain from going; you may remain a slave, or you may become free; in these things Christianity does not consist. But what it does demand is this: that whether married or unmarried, whether a slave or free, in sorrow or in joy, you are to live in a spirit higher and loftier than that of the world.

The apostle gives us in the text two motives for this Christian unworldliness. The first motive which he lays down is this-“The time is short.” You will observe how frequently, in the course of his remarks upon the questions proposed to him, the apostle turns, as it were, entirely away from the subject, as if worn out and wearied by the comparatively trivial character of the questions-as if this balancing of one earthly condition or advantage with another were but a solemn trifling compared with eternal things. And so here he seems to turn away from the question before him, and speaks of the shortness of time-“The time is short!”

Time is short in reference to two things. First, it is short in the person who regards it. That mysterious thing time, is a matter of sensation, and not a reality; a modification merely of our own consciousness, and not actual existence; depending upon the flight of ideas-long to one, short to another. The span granted to the butterfly, the child of a single summer, may be long; that which is given to the cedar of Lebanon may be short. The shortness of time therefore, is entirely relative-belonging to us not to God. Time is short in reference to existence, whether you look at it before or after. Time past seems nothing; time to come always seems long. We say this chiefly for the sake of the young. To them fifty or sixty years seems a treasure inexhaustible. But, my young brethren, ask the old man, trembling on the verge of the grave, what he thinks of time and life. He will tell you that the threescore years and ten, or even the hundred and twenty years of Jacob, are but “few and evil.” And therefore if you are tempted to unbelief in respect to this question, we appeal to experience-experience alone can judge of its truth.

Once more: time is short with reference to its opportunities. For this is the emphatic meaning in the original-literally, “The opportunity is compressed, or shut in.” Brethren, time may be long, and yet the opportunity may be very short. The sun in autumn may be bright and clear, but the seed which has not been sown until then will not vegetate. A man may have vigor and energy in manhood and maturity, but the work which ought to have been done in childhood and youth cannot be done in old age. A chance once gone un this world can never be recovered.

Brother men, have you learned the meaning of yesterday? Do you rightly estimate the importance of to-day? That there are duties to be done to-day which can not be done to-morrow? This it is that throws so solemn a significance into your work. The time for working is short, therefore begin to-day; “for the night is coming when no man can work.” Time is short in reference to eternity. It was especially with this reference that the text was written. In those days, and even by the apostles themselves, the day of the Lord’s appearance and second advent seemed much nearer than it was. They believed that it would occur during their own lives. And with this belief came the feeling which comes sometimes to all. “Oh, in comparison with that vast hereafter, this little life shrivels into nothing! What is to-day worth, or its duties or its cares?” All deep minds have thought that. The thought of Time is solemn and awful to all minds in proportion to their depth-and in proportion as the mind is superficial, the thought has appeared little, and has been treated with levity. Brethren, let but a man possess himself of that thought-the deep thought of the brevity of time; this thought-that time is short, and that eternity is long-and he has learned the first great secret of unworldliness.

The second motive which the apostle gives us is the changing character of the external world. “The fashion of this world passeth away”-literally, “the scenery of this world,” a dramatic expression, drawn from the Grecian stage. One of the deepest of modern thinkers has told us in words often quoted, “All the world’s a stage.” And a deeper thinker than he, because inspired, had said long before in the similar words of the text, “The scenery of this world passeth away.”

There are two ways in which this is true. First, it is true with respect to all the things by which we are surrounded. It is only in poetry-the poetry of the Psalms for example-that the hills are called “everlasting.” Go to the side of the ocean which bounds our country, and watch the tide going out, bearing with it the sand which it has worn from the cliffs; the very boundaries of our land are changing; they are not the same as they were when these words were written. Every day new relationships are forming around us; new circumstances are calling upon us to act-to act manfully, firmly, decisively, and up to the occasion, remembering that an opportunity once gone is gone forever. Indulge not in vain regrets for the past, in vainer resolves for the future-act, act in the present.

Again, this is true with respect to ourselves. “The fashion of this world passeth away” in us. The feelings we have now are not those which we had in childhood. There has passed away a glory from the earth-the stars, the sun, the moon, the green fields have lost their beauty and significance-nothing remains as it was, except their repeated impressions on the mind, the impressions of time, space, eternity. color, form; these can not alter, but all besides has changed. Our very minds alter. There is no bereavement so painful, no shock so terrible, but time will remove or alleviate. The keenest feeling in this world time wears out at last, and our minds become like old monumental tablets which have lost the inscription once graven deeply upon them.

In conclusion, we have to examine the nature of this Christian unworldliness which is taught us in the text. The principle of unworldliness is stated in the latter portion of the text; in the former part the apostle makes an application of the principle to four cases of life. First, to cases of domestic relationship-“it remaineth that they that have wives be as though they had none.” Secondly, to cases of sorrow-“and they that weep as though they wept not.” Thirdly, to cases of joy-“and they that rejoice as though they rejoiced not.” And, finally, to cases of the acquisition of worldly property-“and they that buy as though they possessed not. “Time will not allow us to go into these applications; we must confide ourselves to a brief consideration of the principle. The principle of Christian unworldliness, then, is this, to “use this world as not abusing it.” Here Christianity takes its stand in opposition to two contrary principles. The spirit of the world says, “Time is short, therefore use it while you have it; take your fill of pleasure while you may.” A narrow religion says, “Time is short, therefore temporal things should receive no attention: do not weep, do not rejoice; it is beneath a Christian.” In opposition to the narrow spirit of religion, Christianity says, “Use this world;”-in opposition to the spirit of the world Christianity says, “Do not abuse it.” A distinct duty arises from this principle to use the world. While in the world we are citizens of the world: it is our duty to share its joys, to take our part in its sorrows, not to shrink from its difficulties, but to mix ourselves with its infinite opportunities. So that if time be short, so far from that fact lessening their dignity or importance, it infinitely increases them; since upon these depend the destinies of our eternal being. Unworldliness is this-to hold things from God in the perpetual conviction that they will not last; to have the world, and not to let the world have us; to be the world’s masters, and not the world’s slaves.