“Remain” means to continue on in a certain state of existence. In their case, that state was one of widowhood. And Paul says “as I am.” This suggests that Paul is putting himself into the same category that they are. But it is not a category of singleness in general but a category of widowhood in particular. It is for this reason that many interpreters—including myself—believe that these words imply that the Apostle Paul married earlier in his life.
I don’t believe it is the case that Paul was never married. In fact, it would have been nearly unthinkable to imagine a never-married Pharisee. As an exemplary Pharisee (Philippians 3:5-6), Paul would have sought to fulfill the creation mandate to “be fruitful and multiply,” which means he almost certainly would have been married at some point. And verse 8 seems to confirm that he was in fact married but subsequently widowed.
So the Apostle Paul married, but how has Paul spent his life since becoming a widower? He has completely devoted himself to the gospel ministry. Marriage has certain responsibilities that come with it. And Paul was thrilled to remain free from those responsibilities so that he could pursue with single-minded devotion the ministry to which God had called him.
Think about it. Could Paul have traveled all over the Roman world for two decades if he had a wife and children at home to care for? Of course not. Paul is simply expressing here that “it is good” for widows and widowers to choose to remain unattached for similar purposes. They don’t have to feel any pressure to remarry simply because they were married before. God may give them a post-marriage life like Paul has. And if so, it is not a less-than life. It is a glorious calling to remain “unmarried.”
But then Paul qualifies:
9 But if they cannot exercise self-control, they should marry. For it is better to marry than to burn with passion.
The text doesn’t actually say if they cannot exercise self-control. It says if they are not exercising self-control. It does not necessarily refer to a sinful lack of self-control. It could be referring to one who finds their desire for marital relations to be a constant distraction. Paul is simply saying that if you find yourself in that situation, then you should get married. Of course, Paul understands that not everyone has the same opportunities to marry, so I think he means that it is good and right to pursue marriage if or when the opportunity emerges. Paul’s “unmarried” example should not at all constrain a believing widow or widower from remarrying. Why?
For it is better to marry than to burn…
This phrase can mean one of two things: (1) it is better to marry than to burn with passion—as the ESV has it, or (2) it is better to marry than to burn in judgment.
When I first began teaching as a college professor, I was actually teaching this very text in one of my classes. I had a classroom of undergraduates before me, all of whom were in the vicinity of 18-21 years old—except for one student. I had one elderly widow in that class who was 83 years old. And she had decided that she wanted to come back to school and learn the Bible, and so there she was in the midst of all these whipper-snapper undergraduates. And it was great.
But I was teaching this text about widows, and when I laid out the interpretive options (“it is better to marry than to burn with passion” or “to burn in judgment”), she spoke up and interjected with force and conviction. She said, “Oh, I think it means to burn with passion.” I remember at that moment being kind of stunned because it was clear that she had not studied this before, but she nevertheless spoke with great confidence about her interpretation. And I tried not to break into too big of a smile as the realization came over me—and the rest of the class—that her exclamation was more of a testimony than exegesis.
But I never forgot what she said because I think it rang really true. I think she understood this text exactly in the right way, and she spoke from experience. It is better to marry than to burn with passion.