Verse 7 marks a transition. Most translations leave the conjunction in this verse untranslated, but the NASB rightly includes it: “Yet I wish that all men were even as I myself am.” In verses 2-6 Paul responds to the issue of whether or not it is good for men and women to have sexual relations. Paul’s response is that within marriage there is no choice—a husband and a wife must have such relations. But, here he does acknowledge a situation in which it is good for a man to not have such relations: “To the unmarried and widows I say that it is good for them to remain single as I am” (v. 7).
Paul is not saying that singleness is better than marriage. He says it is good. Marriage is good. Singleness may also be good. Paul does say that he wishes everyone could be single like him, but he recognizes that singleness is a gift from God. Other people may have other gifts and not this gift. Paul commends singleness as a good thing, but he recognizes that it is only good for those to whom God grants it as a gift. He then provides a sure indication that one does not have the gift: if a person is not exercising self-control, he does not have the gift of singleness and ought to marry rather than “burn in his passion” (some think the intended meaning is rather than “burn in hell,” but “to burn” was a common idiom in Paul’s day for “burn with passion”) (Garland, 273-74).
Beginning with verse 10 Paul gives further instructions to the married. In general he is urging them to remain married. In verses 10-11 he reiterates Jesus’ teaching that divorce is not an option for a Christian (cf. Matt. 5:32; 19:3–9; Mark 10:2–12; Luke 16:18). In 7:12-16 Paul deals with the issue of Christians who are married to an unconverted spouse. Paul acknowledges that Jesus said nothing about this during his earthly ministry (“to the rest I say (I, not the Lord)” 7:12). But Paul’s words here are inspired by God and thus still carry divine authority. Paul says that the Christian should try to keep the marriage together for the sake of the unbeliever and the children. The presence of the believer in the family has a sanctifying effect on the family which may result in the salvation of those in it who are lost (7:14, 16). If the unsaved spouse ends the marriage, the saved spouse is not bound to attempt to keep the marriage together (7:15). Paul supports his teaching with illustrations about circumcision and slavery. Hellenized Jews would undergo surgery to reverse the marks of circumcision. Paul tells circumcised Christians not to do this. Likewise, uncircumcised Christians had no need to seek circumcision. In the same way, slaves were to be content with their position as slaves, though in their case they may take advantage of an opportunity for freedom (7:21). These illustrations reinforce Paul’s teaching about marriage. People who are married should be satisfied with their condition. It is wrong to seek divorce. If, however, an unbelieving spouse leaves, the Christian should be willing to accept the new condition of singleness.