Is It “Better to Marry Than to Burn”?

by | Jun 25, 2021 | Preparing for Marriage, Sex, Uncategorized | 24 comments

What Does "It is Better to Marry than to Burn" Mean?
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I’ve often heard pastors say that the only explicit reason given for marriage in the Bible is that it is better to marry than to burn with passion.

The context they’re quoting is from 1 Corinthians 7:

Now to the unmarried and the widows I say: It is good for them to stay unmarried, as I do. But if they cannot control themselves, they should marry, for it is better to marry than to burn with passion.
1 Corinthians 7:8-9

I often get asked what I think this verse means, and whether it means that if we’re struggling not to have sex with our boyfriend, the best thing to do is to marry quickly.

I’d like to look into the context of 1 Corinthians 7 a bit today. We looked at the context of the “do not deprive” verses a while ago, and I’d like to extend that to a few more verses in the chapter today.

As I said in the original post,

Paul's Writings about Sex in 1 Corinthians in Light of Roman Culture

From 3 Keys to Interpreting Paul's Writings on Sex in Light of Roman Culture

In this culture where sex was about power and was rather ugly, many people converting to Christianity were also committing to a life of celibacy. The Greek philosophy that the body was bad and the soul was good was still rampant at this time, and had infiltrated the church. It was only natural in a society that saw the body as bad, and that treated sex as ugly, that new Christians would think you could be more godly by giving up on sex altogether.

In fact, when Paul talks about “virgins” in 1 Corinthians 7, he doesn’t mean virginity as the state of one’s hymen, as we often think of it. Many scholars believe instead that he’s referring to people, and especially women, who have pledged themselves to a life of celibacy.

In the culture Paul was addressing, vowing celibacy was considered a mark of a good Christian.

There was a movement towards “the body is bad, the spirit is good.” And so the more you could defeat the body and concentrate just on God, the holier you would be.

People were even vowing to remain celibate in marriage–and Paul spent verses 3-5 saying why that isn’t a good thing to do. You’re married! Have sex!

But then the question turns to single people: what should they do?

Paul affirms people’s desires to stay single if they feel called to it–but he also affirms marriage. 

He says, “look, I wish you all could be single and totally devoted to God like me. But if you’re not cut out for it–then marry! It’s totally okay.”

I actually think we read the “it is better to marry than to burn” verses backwards.

We think the point that Paul is addressing is marriage, and when you should marry.

But he’s not. He’s dealing with lifelong celibacy, and if you should remain celibate.

These verses were written in a period where people were promising lifetime celibacy, and then struggling with it afterwards. And Paul was basically saying in 1 Corinthians 7, “hey, people, it’s okay to marry! You don’t have to stay celibate!” He wasn’t saying, “marriage is the cure for sexual temptation.” He was saying, “there’s no need to vow to stay celibate if you don’t truly want to. There’s nothing wrong with marriage.”

He also wasn’t saying in this context, “If you’re tempted sexually, get married right away.” He was saying, “if you’re a very sexual person, it’s better to aim towards marriage and look for a spouse.”

He wasn’t talking to people who were already paired off and having a difficult time not sleeping with someone, and saying, “you should move up the wedding date.” He was talking to people who were trying to decide if they would aim for celibacy or if they would seek out marriage. So even if they did decide to “marry rather than to burn,” this didn’t mean they would marry in two weeks. This still meant they likely had several years of waiting ahead of them! But at least they knew what they were aiming for their lives to look like.

That’s the whole point of the entire chapter. It’s too bad the cultural context has gotten lost.

Getting married simply because you want to have sex is a very, very bad idea.

I think purity culture made sexual temptation so terrible that it was often intimated that if you think you’re going to have sex or you might have sex or you want to have sex, then you better darn well get married so that you don’t sin.

That sounds like a recipe for disaster to me. Many, many people can be sexually attracted to someone who could make a horrible spouse. We’re going to have sexual feelings, and those feelings are based on a whole variety of things, including simple hormones. You can be attracted to someone that doesn’t treat you well, doesn’t really know you, and is actually quite lazy or selfish. You can be attracted to someone you don’t love–or attracted to someone you love for all the wrong reasons.

Paul was never saying that our sexual temptation should outweigh all other considerations for marriage. He was simply saying that if a person was very sexual, and would find celibacy difficult, then there was no need to vow to remain celibate. It was okay to marry instead.

And then, once you make that decision to marry, all the other biblical principles about how to be wise and walk by the Spirit and seek out Jesus first and foremost still apply.

Marriage is not primarily a sin-reduction strategy.

Marriage is a sacred covenant between two people. We shouldn’t take that lightly, and I think far too many in the church have pressured people to marry because they don’t want them succumbing to sexual sin.

Look, I don’t want anyone succumbing to sexual sin either. But I would much rather people succumbed to sexual sin than that they ended up in a really bad or abusive marriage with a lazy or selfish spouse with whom they could never feel truly intimate.

I have known parents who have pressured kids to marry simply because they’re sleeping together already. I think it’s far better to ask a kids to take a step back and ask, “is this wise? Do I want to be with this person for the rest of my life? Is having sex blurring my ability to see this relationship with clear eyes? Do I feel closer to them than I actually am? Or is this a healthy relationship?”

Everyday I receive social media messages, comments, and emails from people in very difficult marriages, and often those marriages started because they married for the wrong reasons.

So next time someone tells you that the only reason the apostle Paul gives for marriage is so that you don’t sin sexually, stop them.

Tell them the bigger context. And tell them that marriage is far too big a deal to reduce to hormonal impulses.

Are you ready for the honeymoon you always dreamed of?

The Honeymoon Course is here to help you plan the perfect honeymoon and start your marriage (and your sex life!) off with laughter, joy and fun!

Don’t make the same mistakes other couples have–get it right from the beginning! 

1 Corinthians 7:8-9: Meaning of It is Better to Marry than to Burn

What do you think? Have you heard that interpretation of the verses? Do you know people who got married just to have sex? How did it turn out? Let’s talk in the comments!

Sheila Wray Gregoire

Sheila Wray Gregoire

Founder of Bare Marriage

Sheila is determined to help Christians find biblical, healthy, evidence-based help for their marriages. And in doing so, she's turning the evangelical world on its head, challenging many of the toxic teachings, especially in her newest book The Great Sex Rescue. She’s an award-winning author of 8 books and a sought-after speaker. With her humorous, no-nonsense approach, Sheila works with her husband Keith and daughter Rebecca to create podcasts and courses to help couples find true intimacy. Plus she knits. All the time. ENTJ, straight 8

Related Posts

Sheila Wray Gregoire

Author at Bare Marriage

Sheila is determined to help Christians find biblical, healthy, evidence-based help for their marriages. And in doing so, she's turning the evangelical world on its head, challenging many of the toxic teachings, especially in her newest book The Great Sex Rescue. She’s an award-winning author of 8 books and a sought-after speaker. With her humorous, no-nonsense approach, Sheila works with her husband Keith and daughter Rebecca to create podcasts and courses to help couples find true intimacy. Plus she knits. All the time. ENTJ, straight 8

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24 Comments

  1. Anon

    This post made me sad. Why didn’t I find this blog before I got married. My wife and I engaged in a lot of sexual things before getting married and while i can’t say that this verse was the leading cause to our marriage it did affect it. I confused sexual attraction with love. I was even honest with my porn struggles while dating and I think we both thought marriage could solve it.
    We have been married for 7 years but it has been tough. I love her but have always questioned if I was ever in love which has led to a lot of anxiety and sadness. Which I sadly dealt by continuing with porn. I am dealing with that and learning to deal with it in a more healthy way but it sucks. My wife is a wonderful woman and we do make a good team but it’s not fun having to live with the “what ifs” and the lack of emotional connection and lack of desire because of that lack of emotional connection.
    And it didn’t get better with some people teaching me that marriage isn’t so much about being in love but a decision so I thought that it wasn’t important if I didn’t feel head Over heels. Now I sadly have to live like this for a lifetime and have to hide this from my wife who says she is happy and content with her life. I’m not miserable but the what’s it’s don’t help.
    I agree it’s better to have sex and then break up than setting up yourself for a failed marriage or a marriage where you don’t feel very well. One has to remember that there may be kids involved after some time and their life’s will also be affected by your decision to get married.

    Reply
    • Sarah

      Anon, you said were sexually attracted to your wife and she’s a wonderful woman but you have questioned if you were ever in love. When people told you it’s a decision, not a feeling, they are absolutely right! If you are still not fully recovered from porn, your lack of desire may have nothing to do with your wife. Your wife deserves your affection and for you to study her and really seek to know HER. You need to stop the what if’s and you need to stop it now. That only fuels your discontentment. You CAN have an amazingly wonderful marriage with the wife you are married to! It really has to do with YOUR attitude and seeing that she is the most precious gift God has given you on planet Earth. You only get to have one life to enjoy her so enjoy her to the full!!! She wants to be cherished! And know that she is fragile and needs your understanding and self-control if she is doing something that is upsetting you. Most importantly, fall in love with Jesus, I mean really! Meditate on his word, listen to Christ-centered music, pray, pray, and pray! It’s a marathon but it’s worth it and so is your wife!

      Reply
      • Maria Bernadette

        “You CAN have an amazingly wonderful marriage with the wife you are married to! “
        Sorry, but you don’t know his situation. Neither do I, so I’m not telling you that you are wrong. You are guessing. And presenting a guess as if it’s proven fact.
        Anon, I don’t know your theology or denomination. Feel free to ignore the following if it goes against your morals.
        If you confused sexual attraction for love, then you might not have been in the right state of mind when saying your vows. That is to say it POSSIBLE that you were saying “I do” to something that you didn’t understand at the time. You MIGHT NOT have really been consenting to marriage IF you did not really understand.
        In the Catholic Church, the solution would be to ask for a special tribunal (I forget the name) to look into whether or not a Sacramental marriage existed in the first place. It does not affect the Civil Marriage. And it doesn’t make children illegitimate if their parents were legally married but not Sacramentally, because the legal marriage is what makes children legitimate.
        This isn’t advice or a suggestion. I have no idea what you need to do.
        Praying for you.

        Reply
    • Sarah

      Anon, I’m not sure if my other comment went through, but I totally understand where you are coming from. I got married very young because we had had premarital sex and I wanted to make things right. I understand that I got married for the wrong reason and really felt that it was the wrong reason even then. We were both immature and not ready for marriage. I’ve had way too many “what if” thoughts over the years, but I know those thoughts are wrong. It makes me miserably discontent and does me absolutely no good. The “falling in love” idea really doesn’t make sense because then you can “fall out of love.” But the Bible says to love each other deeply. Honor others more than yourselves. You can love your spouse deeply even if your feelings don’t agree. And I agree wholeheartedly that love is a decision not based on feelings. The Bible also says are hearts are desperately wicked and CANNOT be trusted. I’ve spent wasted YEARS of my life thinking I shouldn’t have married my husband, but it’s just not true. God saved me from a lot of terrible decisions because I married my husband when I did. I met another man 3 weeks after my marriage who was absolutely no good. But I if I would have met him before my marriage, I might have never gotten married. I desired to do God’s will the year I was engaged and even read through the entire Bible (which I have never done since). I asked for a sign from God if I really should get married and that very night I dreamed of wearing a wedding dress. I don’t recall ever having God answer in that way ever since. So I believe my marriage happened when and to whom it should have happened, even though my heart was deceived and desperately wicked. In other words, my marriage wasn’t the problem, I was the problem. My husband and I have learned so much over these 21 years, even if many years weren’t wonderful. It reminds me that God’s purpose for us isn’t necessarily to be happy but to be holy. I’m finally receiving “rewards” in my marriage that God would have gladly given in the beginning, had I not been so distracted and so focused on my own happiness and fulfillment. I decided I wanted to have an amazing marriage and blessed marriage bed and I wanted to love my husband deeply. And so I decided to do this about 1 1/2 years ago. I haven’t cried more in all my life these last 1 1/2 years but God has worked on me and my husband and is refining us. God is doing something new for our marriage. God works all things together for good to those who love Him and are called according to His purpose. For those of you less than 20 years into your marriage, PLEASE don’t wait to be content! Also, stop the “what if’s” right now! God wants your marriage to be completely blessed! Let Him do His work through you. Honor your spouse more than yourself and pray that your spouse’s heart will be softened toward you if there have been years of distance between you. Don’t give up. Your marriage is worth fighting for.

      Reply
      • Sheila Wray Gregoire

        Great thoughts, Sarah! I love how you decided what kind of marriage you wanted, and then threw yourself into it. That’s beautiful.

        Reply
      • Anonymous Husband

        Sarah, this is SPOT ON! Great advice. I had a similar situation in my marriage, and we just about ended it at one point. Now, 23 years later it’s better than ever – in every respect.

        Reply
  2. Becky

    My experience was more the usual context of this verse being damaging, as a single woman who wanted to marry. I was struggling with finding any decent single Christian guys to even go on one date with, and everywhere I turned for advice, it was all “but the Bible says being single is good” — which is true, though I believe the wider church culture often doesn’t live that out as well as they should — and then crickets on how to handle oneself when sex is desired, other than “get married” or “channel it into ministry”, i.e. the mission field, whether one feels called to that or not. My only conclusion was that even wanting sex as a single person was bad, unless I was getting ready to marry, and something that needed to be suppressed. And I think that unconscious message from my young adult years was far more damaging to me than my relatively light brushes with purity culture as a teen.
    Just a thought— whenever you get through all of the research and books that you’re currently plotting, a healthy Christian resource for how to handle sexuality as a single adult is a serious hole in the market, or at least it was a decade or so ago when I was desperately searching for them!

    Reply
    • Jane Eyre

      Wholeheartedly agree.
      I married relatively late in life, and that is, unfortunately, becoming rather common. We cannot just say, don’t have sex for a couple of years as an adult, learning to control your desires is good for your marriage, too, etc.
      The way that many married Christians (not you, Sheila!) talk about sex is so icky.
      “It’s the best thing ever!” So now I’m not just aching because I am single, I am also missing out on amazing pleasure. Thaaanks for rubbing it in.
      “If you wait until marriage, your sex life will be amazing.” Not true at all, and in fact, it’s a very damaging teaching.
      “Just don’t think about it,” spoken as if you are 16 and not twice that age.
      That does even get into how hard it can be to flip the switch back on when you finally do get married. Two decades of self restraint can cause problems in the other direction. Nor does it give any guidance on navigating a dating world gone mad.
      Hands down, the most healthy thing I heard from my married friends is that the value of sex is really about the person you’re doing it with.

      Reply
      • another anon

        yes! I married for the first time at 36. Being treated like a middle schooler for 3 decades was really, really hurtful. But the churches around me were dominated by couples who met as teenagers, who didn’t have enough imagination and empathy to treat single adults any differently, apparently.

        Reply
      • Sheila Wray Gregoire

        Yes, I know it’s so tricky. i do feel very awkward saying very much to singles, because I worry that it sounds condescending. I married at 21. I honestly have no idea what it feels like to be 30 and single. I try to include singles as much as possible in the posts, but I’m very aware that I just don’t get it. I can THINK it, but I can never really FEEL it. And I hate writing too much to a demographic that I’ll never really understand. It feels wrong. It’s like military wives (although now that my daughter is one I feel a little more qualified on that). The struggles are so unique and so immense and i feel like if I wrote on them I’d downplay it simply by assuming I had something to say. Does that make sense?

        Reply
      • Chris

        ““Just don’t think about it,” spoken as if you are 16 and not twice that age. “
        Jane, I always enjoy your posts. I got a chuckle out of this one because it shows the difference between men and women. Or rather, 16 year old girls vs. 16 year old boys. 16 year old boys are only a year or two off from their sexual peak so they think about sex a lot. But I guess this comment means 16 year old girls don’t? I guess?

        Reply
      • Lisa

        Chris– depends on the teen, for boys and girls. The idea she was trying to convey is not that 16 year old girls don’t think about sex (some do, some not as much) but that single adults are still talked to the way people typically talk to teenagers– stupidly. People tend to say really stupid and unhelpful things to teenagers. And many evangelicals don’t know how to interact with adults who aren’t married because they think of unmarried people as being young and underage.

        Reply
      • Anon

        Another anon – “Being treated like a middle schooler for 3 decades was really, really hurtful.” I hear you! One of the most infuriating things I found about getting married for the first time in my mid 40s has been the way I’ve been suddenly graduated to ‘grownup’ status by some people. I want to shout at them that I’ve been legally adult for over quarter of a century!!!
        I’m praying I’ll never forget what it felt like to spend so many years of adult life being treated like a kid, and that I can use those memories to inform my treatment of other singles in church and to advocate for them when people start treating them as juveniles.
        Of course, I’m still regarded by some as not fully adult because I’m childless…

        Reply
      • Maria Bernadette

        anon, in my experience, the people who scream the loudest about how no one is really an adult until they get married and have kids… are the people who never “grew up” themselves. Not emotionally, anyway.
        They got married before they were mature enough. And had kids before they were ready to raise them.
        Now, people who were ready to marry when still young typically don’t claim that marriage turns someone into an adult. They don’t need a crutch like that.

        Reply
  3. Andrea

    I attended a Christian college, so there was a lot of that going around. The professors themselves were actually trying to discourage it because a study had come out at the time showing that Christian college graduates have an even higher divorce rate than the general population. (I don’t know about that study, but there are plenty showing that divorce rates decrease as age of marriage increases.) One professor in particular frequently liked to say the following: “It’s better to be single and wish you were married than to be married and wish you were single.”

    Reply
  4. Donald Johnson

    Here is how I understand things. I think you are correct as far as you go, but you might want to go further. There were 2 basic possibilities based on Greek philosophy that Paul was concerned about, they can be called the legalistic path and the license path, which what Paul wanted was the Godly path.
    The legalistic path added to God’s words and so claimed that having no sex at all was better than “soiling” oneself with the material world by having sex. This included married people as one can tell from 1 Cor 7:1.
    The license path was that to point out that the sex organs were made for pleasure so have at it with no constraints.
    The latter is perhaps more obvious to be outside of what God wants, God wants sex to be a part of a mutually-agreed-upon committed relationship for life (as you know).
    The legalistic part is a little trickier to handle as an individual may choose to “make a fence around Torah” and voluntarily add to God’s laws for oneself, but trying to do this for others is one of the way Jesus objected to some teachings of the Pharisees, as it negated God’s word. Paul does point out that if one wants to make a fence around sex when married, one needs to include one’s spouse in the discussion.
    Thoughts?

    Reply
  5. Laura

    Wow! As always, this is an excellent post.
    In 1999, when I was 23, I married my ex-husband for the wrong reasons. First of all, I believed I loved him and felt that I would never find anyone else since he was my only serious relationship. Secondly, I got married because we had already engaged in premarital sex which I deeply regretted. I was a saved Christian who rarely attended church so I did not realize I was exposed to purity culture. However, I believe the purity culture of the church seeped its way into secular culture. I realize that now as I recall how I believed that I ruined myself sexually before marriage.
    Now, I have been celibate for 19 years and at times, I do get sexually frustrated. This time, I am pickier than ever and do NOT want to settle just so I could have sex. Unfortunately, there hasn’t been anyone I’ve felt a mutual attraction to, even my ex-fiance who was more like a friend. Of course, I believe mutual sexual attraction is important in determining who you marry, but at the same time, I do not want to be blinded by that attraction. Finding the middle ground is hard.

    Reply
  6. Emmy

    A lovely and interesting post, as allways!
    Honestly, who would be happy and pleased to get a marriage proposal like this: “My dear Lady, I’d rather stay single but in order to avoid the sins of lust fornication I’m considering to get married, and it seems to me you’d do as well as any other woman. Would Thee consent to be my wife and my methadone against fornication, porn and all other sexual sins and provide me a regular outlet untill death us departeth? What will be Thine answer?”

    Reply
    • Sheila Wray Gregoire

      Exactly! That sounds about what so many say is Christian. Ridiculous when you put it that way, isn’t it?

      Reply
    • Hope

      Unfortunately this is basically what my husband has told me (so many years later) heavily directed him into our marriage. Even though we did engage in a lot of premarital oral sex for him, I was technically still a virgin. How is it that you said it, Sheila?—My “hymen was still in tact” until the honeymoon! (Insert eyeroll here.) I began to cringe about our dates and wanted the oral sex to stop. I wanted to know that there could be love without it. That didn’t happen because he said he was marrying me anyway, so God would honor that. He had also discovered porn in his teens, and truly believed marriage would solve all of that. Big surprise! It didn’t! I was not truly cherished, not nurtured, not respected, and contrary to his emphatic belief, not loved. Our marriage has not been lived in a partnership and does feel like he would have rather stayed single–except for that pesky burning part. Now 20+ years later, and with beautiful God-given children, how do we go forward? The wounds have caught up. It’s devastating.

      Reply
  7. Leann

    I was given this teaching and rushed into marriage because we couldn’t wait any longer and were tired of resisting having sex. We got married 8 months after our first date. I was blinded by sexual desire. Six weeks into our marriage I discovered that my then husband was an alcoholic. The mental and emotional abuse started and continued to get worse. A year and a half later, after he threatens to kill my dog, I left and filed for divorce. Rushing into marriage just so we could have sex changed my life and left lasting affects. It was the worst decision I’ve ever made and the worst year and half of my life. I was broken and had to start over after leaving with nothing. I am so thankful for these new teachings I am learning as I continue to heal. I will never marry someone again with out taking the time to really get to know them. Although I do believe that sex was created for marriage that is no longer a factor in how soon I get married.

    Reply
    • Sheila Wray Gregoire

      I’m so sorry for what you went through, and I’m so sorry that people didn’t teach you better. I’m glad you’re in a better place now.

      Reply
  8. Raphael Tisserand

    It would have been very helpful if Paul had addressed what someone should do if they “burn” but can’t find a suitable spouse. But in that culture marriage was economic in nature and often arranged.
    This is maybe a good indication that most of the Bible’s advice on marriage can’t be applied to our present day conditions. There was no dating in the ancient world. People didn’t have to wait until they were 30 to get married. Biblical marriage was based on survival, the sharing of resources, and the production of offspring. Modern marriage is based on companionship and personal fulfillment. Marriage for love is less than 200 years old.
    Modern marriage and biblical marriage are so different that they almost can’t be called by the same term.

    Reply

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