Better to Marry than to Burn
Nov 20 2020
One place where Christians have sometimes been caught flat footed is in the common assertion that while heterosexually tempted Christians ought ordinarily to seek Christian marriage as part of the solution for their sin, the same principle should not be applied to homosexually tempted people. I have been told this is a set up for disaster, heartache, and pastorally irresponsible. I, in turn, have meekly insisted that the opposite is true: leading homosexually tempted people into singleness is a burden too heavy to bear and a pastoral snare.
Let me begin my stating that I completely agree that encouraging any sinner toward marriage certainly could be a setup for disaster, heartache, and could be pastorally irresponsible. There are some marriages that should not be, yea verily, many that ought not be, including some that are unlawful (e.g. marrying an unbeliever or after unlawful divorce, etc.).
And I will add that when the sexual sin is compounded by years of fornication, porn use, or various forms of increased perversion: homosexuality, sexual abuse, incest, pedophilia, etc., the intensity of pastoral care must needs increase at a similar rate. So do not for a moment think that what follows is in any way a defense of being hasty, foolhardy, sloppy, simplistic, naive, or manipulative. Marriage is no automatic fix for anything, and as a general rule who you are prior to marriage will only be amplified upon entering marriage. Marriage is not a magic solve-all or heal-all. God’s law may prohibit and prudence and/or providence may sometimes ultimately prevent marriage.
However, all that said, Christian marriage is a blessing from God, a means of sanctification, and a God-ordained protection against sexual sin.
And that means that unless providentially hindered or lawfully prohibited, sexually tempted single Christians ought to pursue marriage, seeking that blessing, sanctification, and protection against sexual sin. And to my point here: this is true whether that Christian has previously faced primarily heterosexual or homosexual temptations. I’ve received several questions about the number 8 in my alternative Church Review about whether homosexual temptation/sin indicates that someone should be pastored toward Christian marriage or not. I want to argue that the Bible teaches that those who struggle with any and all sexual sin and temptation should be carefully pastored toward Christian marriage.
Romans 1 makes it clear that homosexual desire is at its core a rejection of heterosexuality: “For this reason God gave them up unto vile affections: for even their women did change the natural use into that which is against nature: and likewise also the men, leaving the natural use of the woman, burned in their lust one toward another…” (Rom. 1:26-27). Of course prior to that rejection is a rejection of the Creator God and a refusal to be thankful to Him (Rom. 1:20-21). This genealogy of homosexual sin indicates that homosexuality is a turning away from heterosexuality.
Homosexuality does not arise from deep desires to have same-sex friendships. No doubt men and women who are tempted to homosexual sin may have deep hurts and loneliness that arise from broken friendships or strained familial relationships with the same sex. But the Bible teaches that homosexual sin is leaving the natural use of heterosexuality. Therefore, repentance from homosexual temptation/sin includes returning (at least in principle) to a heterosexual orientation to the world and at least discipleship towards marriage. I certainly grant that not all those who repent of sexual sin (of any sort) will be called to marriage. This is why I like the language of being “carefully pastored toward” Christian marriage.
The other text that is crucial here is 1 Cor. 7. “But I say to the unmarried and to the widows: It is good for them if they remain even as I am; but if they cannot exercise self-control, let them marry. For it is better to marry than to burn with passion” (1 Cor. 7:8-9).
Denny Burk makes a very convincing case here that the word “unmarried” in v. 8 should not be understood as generically “single” but rather synonymous with v. 11 and parallel with “widows” — that is, a previously married man, a widower. In other words, Paul is not setting “singleness” and “marriage” side by side as two alternate Christian tracks. Paul is rather saying that if you’ve been married previously, you ought not feel like you must get remarried. It’s perfectly fine to remain unmarried for the purpose of giving themselves to ministry like Paul himself (implying that Paul had been previously married).
There are two additional and important qualifiers in 1 Cor. 7. The first is v. 9 where Paul says it is better to marry than to burn. A man who has any sort of ongoing temptation to sexual sin (of any sort) is burning with passion. Now the question often arises, but does what Paul is talking about in 1 Cor. 7:9 apply to those tempted to homosexuality? The short answer is, in principle, yes. In Romans 1, Paul says the same thing: “leaving the natural use of the woman, burned in their lust one toward another.”
It’s true that Paul uses a different Greek word there for “burned,” but the word is lexically synonymous. What are men doing who turn away from the natural use of women? They are burning with unnatural lust, vile affections. What must they do? They must repent of that lustful burning and return to natural, holy sexuality. Now certainly, the greater the perversion, the greater the need for pastoral counseling, discipleship, and I do not believe that Paul’s admonition means that marriage should be rushed into.
Likewise, it certainly may be the case that a repentant homosexual is providentially hindered from being married (no woman will marry him), but this is a cross he must bear not an ideal solution. I see no evidence in Scripture that homosexual temptation/lust is to be considered unique to heterosexual temptation/lust (in this regard). It is better to marry than to burn. Christian marriage is God’s gift and part of the way He protects and delivers people from sexual sin (cf. 1 Cor. 7:5).
The other important qualifier in 1 Cor. 7 is v. 26 where Paul is generally encouraging folks to remain in the state that they were called, but here he finally gets to virgins — those never married, and though he recommends singleness where possible, he says “I suppose therefore that this is good for the present distress…” In other words, Paul is not laying down a principle for all times and all places but specifically speaking to the tempestuous socio-political situation of the first century full of persecutions.
Lastly, Paul himself recognizes the potential for his words to become a “snare” (v. 35), and I believe that is precisely what is happening in the celibate/gay Christian movement. Paul is teaching that there certainly are times and places where singleness is to be preferred for Kingdom work, and there are some exceptional individuals who simply do not have the desire, which means they are not burning with sexual temptations.
Lack of desire does not include those who would just rather not have to deal with the challenges of marriage and children, all the while struggling to stay pure on the weekends. Sometimes lack of desire for marriage (like a rejection of marriage responsibilities) is sinful. Where there is sexual desire/temptation, Paul makes it clear that people should pursue marriage. I fear that the way it is often articulated in the gay celibate world, it is implied that homosexual sin/lust is so unique that there’s a good chance that Christian marriage is not for you (which the Bible nowhere teaches).
How will men who have always been sexually attracted to men be sexually attracted to women? Romans 1 says that homosexual attraction is a rejection of sexual attraction to women. This is one of those places where we need to trust God’s word over all the studies and anecdotes coming at us from the world. Let God be true and every man a liar.
Homosexual temptation does not make a person less likely to need marriage; rather, it makes that person more likely to need marriage. Yes, it may also make that person more needful of longterm pastoral care and discipleship, but failure to pastor those people toward the blessing, sanctification, and protection of Christian marriage is a pastoral snare. Far better to generally and carefully pastor sexual sinners toward Christian marriage, even if they are providentially or prudentially prevented from it.