Part 1: Prolonged Singleness As a Non-Normative Blessing
In the most recent sermon from our Onward series, we considered the significance of the family within the kingdom of God, looking specifically at both marriage and singleness. Since churches are prone to giving attention to marriage and parenting to the neglect of singleness, even though single men and women make up a growing portion of our churches, I wanted to give some extra time to a Biblical reflection on singleness.
Biblical Christianity makes reference to “the gift of singleness.” This comes from a passage in 1 Corinthians 7 which teaches that singleness is a beneficial state, even better than marriage. Taken on its own, this passage can be easily misunderstood, but it finds its full depth when considered in unity with the teaching of the rest of the Bible.
In 1 Corinthians 7:7 the apostle writes, “I wish that all of you were as I am. But each of you has your own gift from God; one has this gift, another has that.” Now, this can have two meanings. One meaning is that his gift is “singleness” as opposed to marriage. The other more probable view is that he has what Augustine called “continence,” the ability to exert sexual self-control consistently and, presumably, happily. This is evident in verses 5 and 9, where he is counseling people without such continence to marry as a means of dealing with their sexual desires in a godly way.
It is this continence in singleness, the capacity for unmitigated celibacy, that the apostle is referring to as a “gift.” If you have it, then not marrying is a great option for reasons he explains later in the chapter, especially in their context. But if you’re not cut out for delivering on such celibacy, marriage is the proper outlet for this drive.
What Continent Singleness Has to Offer
Continent singleness has two advantages in this text, one objective and one relative.
Relatively, he says, “Because of the present crisis, I think that it is good for a man to remain as he is” (1 Corinthians 7:26). This “crisis” was almost certainly persecution. Single people can flee and hide better and cannot be extorted through dependent family members. In volatile and changing times, only having yourself to take care of is a huge asset. Marrying at the moment this letter was written was a scary option.
Even in this context, though, marriage retained its dignity and regulations. Paul’s teachings here (see his desire in 7:28 to spare them the troubles that would come with marriage) have to be taken in context with the rest of the Bible’s teaching on marriage. It’s a fact of human life that external factors can make marriage a better or worse deal depending on the place and time. When God sends his people into exile in Babylon, he commands them not to stop marrying and having children (Jeremiah 29). At this time in Corinth, probably a brutal situation of torture and persecution, marriage might have included many terrible possibilities.
But if Paul’s statement is taken to mean that singleness is universally better than marriage, then God’s gift of marriage in Genesis is what Paul wishes to spare people from in 1 Corinthians 7. That would be an anti-Biblical interpretation. Paul’s teaching is contextualized to their present crisis in which waiting to marry is a good idea. In fact, this is probably why so many engaged couples were delaying marriage in the first place (7:36).
Objectively, continent singleness allows for an undivided array of responsibilities. To the extent that your spouse is not kingdom-minded, you can be held back from being so in many ways. In this sense, your devotion to the Lord is partly contingent on your spouse’s devotion to the Lord. That can be and often is extraordinarily limiting. Even if two people are of equal devotion when they marry, there is no guarantee that will always be the case; it often isn’t. Single people take no such gambles with their future freedom to act devotedly to God. This is a great advantage.
We should understand the following things about singleness from 1 Corinthians 7:
- Singleness is a perfectly acceptable, good and dignified state for the Christian.
- Singleness can come from different conditions: not being able to find a suitable spouse, the capacity for continent singleness, etc.
- Marriage is preferable to promiscuous singleness, and monogamy is the commanded way of handling human weakness regarding sexuality.
- Singleness is a superior option, at least in some situations, for those capable of sexual continence (long-term unmitigated celibacy).
- This passage does not overrule or diminish the overall normativity of procreative marriage in human life and society.
It can hardly be said often enough that non-normative situations are not weird or abnormal in the sense of being “defective.” Many stations in life are minority stations, and singleness, in the Biblical vision, results from either gift or misfortune. In a healthy society, the vast majority of people should marry, especially in a highly sexualized one that is not conducive to continence (like ancient Corinth and modern America, to name two).
The church should extend fitting sympathy and care to those who are single out of misfortune. Those who choose singleness for godly reasons should have our respect and appreciation. We should have clarity about these non-normative stations without denigrating or diminishing married life as the normative station. Marriage continues to be part of God’s gift in the creation of complimentary genders and the foundation for generating and nurturing life in the family. But sometimes non-normative stations are indispensable, even when those stations are tiny percentages of people.
The question we must ask in our time is:
In a culture that is 50% single, what is really going on?
Are we embracing the good of singleness, or is something else happening?
More to come on that in Part 2.