To the unmarried and the widows I say that it is well for them to remain unmarried as I am. But if they are not practicing self-control, they should marry. For it is better to marry than to be aflame with passion.
I really, really wish I could share a meal with Paul and talk this through
One time, at a conference, a colleague told me that for me to love a woman (romantically, sexually) is a sin, and that my unrepentance of such desires makes me unfit to be a pastor. We were having breakfast. I'm going to get a sign for pastor conferences. On one side it will say, "Yes! I would love to talk about all things gay. Please ask me details, cuz hoo boy do I got 'em." On the other side it will say, "Today I am just eating breakfast. Go ask your wife."
My colleague went on to say that he had thought about my situation quite a bit, and that he understood that I make my living as a pastor, and that it could be a little rough on my little family if I couldn't be a pastor anymore. He suggested that the most faithful thing I could do would be to renounce my ordination and resign from my church. He and his wife (who live in another part of the country) would be willing to take us in.
"Have you spoken to your wife about this?"
"No," he said, "but she is a godly woman."
"Well," I said, "my ex-husband would be coming with us. He will need his own room."
"Also, I have 4 cats. And some fish. Do you think my china hutch will fit in your dining room? I don't want to impose, but my grandmother gave me those dishes for my wedding and promptly died. I'm partial to keeping them."
"Can you pass the salt? These eggs are bland. Oh this is going to be great. I have always wanted a sister-wife."
"You are not taking me seriously," he said.
So the question for me, as I read the passage above from Paul, is this: Was Paul a humorless, naive, pompous ass of a man, or is this passage the tip of a much deeper, context-driven conversation? Because if he was anything like my breakfast companion, then no need to engage further. I can make some jokes about how Paul was right, and marriage smothers the flames of passion right good--and a whole lot of you will wink and nod in agreement. Or I might hiss with feminist distaste over the concept of owning one another's bodies--nothing smothers the flames of passion for me than a partner asserting ownership.
So go ahead and read narrowly. I won't give it the time of day, but that's your prerogative. Indeed, as you pass the salt, I'll quote Paul right back to you, "I wish that all were as I myself am. But each has a particular gift from God, one having one kind and another a different kind." Do you.
But if Paul is as complex as I suspect he might be, this passage is full of angst, self-doubt, longing, restrained passion, and regret. What are pastors supposed to say on this subject? How many lives have we seen shipwrecked because sexual partners were dishonorable towards one another? How many people have we talked to who torture themselves over their sexual desires? We watch whole communities lift their noses in disapproval at the shortness of a girl's skirt in church. We watch elders unable to take their eyes off cleavage tumbling out of tight shirts and sundresses. We watch women throw themselves after the few single, straight, unattached men who actually come to church. We watch same gender couples scared to touch one another in the church for fear that they might be seen as "flaunting" their sexuality.
As pastors, we find ourselves the object of desire, sometimes expressed in the strangest of ways. And there are enough of us pastors who get romantically or sexually involved with people in our flock that I have commissioned a t-shirt that says, "I do not date parishioners". (Yes, I know, I am Presbyterian, and we do not have parishes, nor parishioners. The grammar police can be reached at 555-1212.)
Paul, at times, speaks out of aggrieved exasperation. "Now concerning the matters about which you wrote." Was he thinking, "Dear GOD, are we on this topic AGAIN?" When one is working with a group that will not stop hurting each other through romantic and sexual entanglements, it is easy to get to a place where one says, "Nobody here is allowed to date/touch/snuggle/smile at anybody else." As a youth pastor, I am constantly saying, "Make room for the Holy Spirit!" as I walk through students piling on top of each other. Same gender sleeping arrangements make little difference in a time when sexuality is openly more fluid. It is not unusual to have to ask students not to share a sleeping bag or an air mattress.
But then again, I remember a time when I was 13, and a volunteer informed me and my love interest that we could not actually sleep wrapped in each other's arms all night. I protested, something about "we're not doing anything" and "this isn't about sex."
And it's just all such a mess, isn't it? As I go back to the beginning of the passage, the Corinthians had written, "It is well for a man not to touch a woman." This must have given Paul pause--what had he taught them that they were afraid to touch one another? What had been taught in his absence that the Corinthians were filled with shame enough to make this rule?
So that Paul's answer was this: sexual immorality hurts people. But all y'all are burning up in flames with passion. So let's figure out how to do this without cruelty and then get about the gospel.
Perhaps what he missed is that even in burning passion there is a need to get about the gospel. And I bet he and I could argue that all day long. And then we would probably go long into the night, arguing about what exactly constitutes "sexual immorality". At some point Jesus would probably appear with more wine and tell us to shut up already. Maybe he'll bring the good wine again.