Dear single people, from your local pastor (Part 1)

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.

photo-1464454709131-ffd692591ee5-2

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.

photo-1444665317802-08aa1d89c10c

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.

photo-1469537053566-3081fd1e0de2.jpeg

Conclusion

We should understand the following things about singleness from 1 Corinthians 7:

  1. Singleness is a perfectly acceptable, good and dignified state for the Christian.
  2. Singleness can come from different conditions: not being able to find a suitable spouse, the capacity for continent singleness, etc.
  3. Marriage is preferable to promiscuous singleness, and monogamy is the commanded way of handling human weakness regarding sexuality.
  4. Singleness is a superior option, at least in some situations, for those capable of sexual continence (long-term unmitigated celibacy).
  5. 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.

7 thoughts on “Dear single people, from your local pastor (Part 1)”

  1. Hi Pastor Nic,

    Thanks for writing this post. I’m really glad to see singleness have some space to be addressed–particularly because, as you said, it’s rather prevalent. I tried to make my thoughts concise but…. Well, that’s never been my strength, so I fear this is longer than I anticipated. As a word person yourself I hope you don’t mind!

    I find lots of these points interesting, but one thing I’m stuck on is the point equating the “gift of singleness” with “lifetime sexual self-control”.

    When a person is married, we say they have the gift of marriage. The marriage is the gift, regardless of how holy they are when they live into that gift (for certainly a person can have an unholy marriage). I’d likewise say that the state of being single is the gift of singleness. “Each of you has your own gift from God; one has this gift, another that”.

    I’ve always heard 1 Corinth 7:2 as a concession on the level of Moses permitting divorce (“I say this as a concession, not a command” 1 Corinth 7:6). Yes, if you’re married, you can have sex. In fact if you find yourself unable to go without sex, then marriage is your only God-designed option for that fulfillment. True. But we wouldn’t from this verse conclude that the gift of marriage is *merely* a way to control unrestrained sexuality; it’s much more than that, though it’s true it can help you with that. Likewise I don’t think we can conclude that the gift of singleness is *merely* “unmitigated chastity”. Chastity is just a part of singleness–the part that everyone wants to talk about because it’s the part everyone thinks is impossible, but it’s really only just a part of it.

    Another thing on the idea that the gift of singleness is the ability to deny sexual pleasure, and since that’s too hard, people should get married: I have a hard time with this, since it implies that married people *don’t* have to control their sexuality, which they do. Sure, they have within the gift of marriage the only God-designed outlet for sexual desire, but just being married and having that outlet isn’t sufficient for sexual holiness (obviously, or adultery wouldn’t be a thing). Single people aren’t the only ones required to have sexual self-control (though the only ones for whom it is required for a lifetime). And we all have been given victory through Christ to be able to deny ourselves, to choose to turn away from sin–even the strong, visceral sins of fallen sexuality. Married people have this freedom as much as single people. So since we all have in Christ the ability to deny ourselves, I don’t think I agree that the gift of singleness is sexual self-control. Everyone has that potential, that gift already offered through Christ, and we are all capable–it’s just that total chastity is only *required* for the single Christian.

    I’m also kind of concerned presenting the gift of singleness as just happily denying the self sexual pleasure for an emotional reason. If I’m single, and I struggle to deny those things does that mean I don’t have the gift? Am I not a good single person if I do these things unhappily? Single people are already treated by the church as something that needs to be fixed. There’s the base assumption that I’m being selfish–the church frequently calls single people selfish regardless of whether we’ve chosen it or not. This post makes it sound like if I am to turn down a date in the near future, that I must be either incredibly selfish or have achieved perfect sexual continence. Can you see why that can be hurtful, or isolating? It makes me feel like I can’t talk about the hard parts of being single, or I’ll be told to find a spouse already since if I’m struggling, I must not be gifted. I’m not allowed to be struggling *and* single– if I’m struggling, then I can only be classified as “to be married off”. Does that makes sense?

    Like I said, I’m really, truly glad to see you/High Point opening up these discussions–I think it’s the first church I’ve ever been at where I’ve seen singleness actually discussed. I still find it very encouraging, even though I don’t seem to 100% agree with some of the conclusions 🙂

  2. Rachel, I think I would agree with almost everything that you said with just a couple of caveats. I think the word gift is being used in two ways here which aren’t actually the same. There is gift as ability, and gift as status. The gift of prophecy for example would be a gift of ability. The question is, is singleness a gift of ability, or a gift of status? in general, I believe that Paul is talking about singleness as a gift of ability – rather than status. But when he talks about that gift advantages, those advantages primarily have to do with the status that goes along with the ability. So it can be confusing.

    Being single in status therefore is not the same thing as having the gift of singleness. And I wouldn’t want to conflate those two – though both may obtain in any particular person. You may have a person that is single and status who has the gift of singleness, that is, that the continence of celibacy is not a major trial of life. Such a person does not experience a stifling liability and singleness- fighting for sexual continence- but can give virtually all of their attention to the benefits of singleness, which I have discussed in the post.

    When Paul says in 1 Corinthians 7:5-7 “do not deprive each other except by mutual consent and for a time, so that you may devote yourselves to prayer. Then come together again so that Satan will not tempt you because of your lack of self-control. 6 I say this as a concession, not as a command. 7 I wish that all men were as I am. But each man has his own gift from God; one has this gift, another has that.”

    Is easy to assume here that Paul is referring to the gift of singleness, and conversely to the “gift of marriage”. But that is a logical assumption which may not be warranted in the passage. Paul has the gift of singleness – the ability to not fail when Satan tempt us because of lack of self-control. You and I may have another gift, like speaking in tongues, leadership, helps, administration, math capacity- or any other naturally given or spiritually empowered capacity. it does not necessarily mean that marriage is the converse gift referred to in “that”.

    That is, singleness as a gift of ability- the ability to live in sexual continence through abstinence- and in so doing wielded the great benefits of the focus of singleness- is a rare, special and powerful gift. It is a gift of ability that is held probably by quite a few of people who are single of status.

    This is why the church has for the most part counsel people who are single to pursue marriage. Since most people who are single of status do not have the gift of singleness as an ability. And so though they are free in Christ and empowered to live with chastity and abstinence, it is quite a great struggle for them. The relief most likely to help them would be for them to marry a suitable partner if one can be found.

    Therefore I think the church have three attitudes concerning singleness:
    1. Singleness can be a gift of ability – and though it may be somewhat nonnormative, it is incredibly important, and people who have it should be celebrated, as we celebrate those with other gifts.

    2. Singleness can be a difficult and painful status- many without the gift of singleness as ability are in the gift of singleness in terms of status. Many of these people would benefit greatly from marriage, yet that status may be beyond their control, for various reasons. The people of the church should lovingly help bear the load of this singleness- either through covenantal friendships with other single people, more deep nonsexual intimate relationships with people of the same gender, adding single people into the family life of other families, and so on.

    3. Singleness can be a selfish and self-centered status- some people are single because they don’t want to take on the responsibilities, difficulties, risks, and exploitations of married life. in studies of single people in America, a significant percentage, if not an absolute majority are in this category on the basis of self reporting. Most single people in their 20s, and even into their early 30s simply don’t want the risks and responsibilities of marriage, and children. So leaders in the church, like myself, have to speak to this.

    However, no single person should assume that any speaker is putting them in one of these categories unless that speaker says so. As a pastor, I need to encourage people in #3, to repent and believe the gospel in relationship to the good things God has for them in marriage. This doesn’t mean that I’m attacking #2. Hopefully I’m serving #2. And neither of these has anything to do with #1.

    However, I find that whenever I talk about one of these three categories, I get emails and letters from people in the other two categories who feel hurt. That’s one of the things that feels like a lose-lose situation for someone like me.

    does that make sense? I feel like if you understand things within those categories, most everything you said, and most everything I said are true at the same time.

  3. Pastor Nic,
    (I’m sorry it’s super long again.)

    Thank you so much for your response. I think understand your stance much better now.

    It sounds like you believe the only people that should be single are the people with the gift of ability. I don’t know that I agree with that interpretation of the passage, if singleness is truly a good and acceptable state for the Christian. This is partly because it assumes a degree of permanence I don’t think is possible to know.

    It is entirely within God’s character to call people to pursue something they are not gifted in (Moses, Peter, etc.). Does this mean He is calling them into sin? No, he is calling them into something through which he will undoubtedly grow their character and faith in him. He likewise uses circumstances–even temporary, unideal ones–to grow us.

    “Gifts” are not always instantaneously endowed– you can learn and cultivate a gift. Most obvious example is “the gift of a servant’s heart”; most of us probably do not have that (Greetings, we are selfish creatures) but we can choose to cultivate it by engaging with opportunities to serve. Likewise, if I am single (choice or not) I can still press into this time in my life. God may grow in me the gift of ability, if I choose to respond to his will–he’ll certainly grow me somehow. This doesn’t mean a single person ought to deny marriage in order to pursue that gift (for if we see the states of singleness and marriage as equally acceptable **when lived out in congruence with God’s will** then there’s no reason to deny one for the other), but it does mean that singles who are in that state not by choice could be encouraged to live well as a single instead of being told to pursue marriage. A group #1 single who has the gift of ability might be a rare exception, but a group 2 or 3 single is still called to pursue living out the same self-control regardless of whether they have that gift.

    This is partly because I agree that, as a whole, people in their 20s and 30s don’t want marriage because they’re selfish–if you are referring to both secular society and the church. Within the church, most Christians seem to *want* marriage (some for selfish reasons, too, but let’s not get into that).

    Therefore I do think that counseling single people without the gift of ability to pursue marriage can be harmful. I could name one (possibly two?) of my single friends who is single by choice. The majority of us are single by circumstance– we don’t hate marriage. Some of us desperately (possibly too desperately) hope it is temporary. Some of us grapple with the very real possibility that maybe we’ll be single our whole lives (contrary to our desire) and are trying to figure out what to do with that. We are trying to live holy lives in the *now*. Being told to repent and get married is really frustrating because we are trying so very hard to live a holy life while we’re single.

    The logic I’m seeing is this: If I don’t have the gift of ability, then I am meant for marriage. Therefore I should act in a way that assumes I will be married, and care more about pursuing marriage than pressing into singleness; If I don’t, then I am setting myself up for sin/failure, or sinning against my future spouse, or being selfish, etc.

    Even if this logic is only meant to apply to group #3 only, these aren’t static categories. God can teach a group #3 single to be a group #1 single. A group #2 single can become a #3, if they respond poorly to their circumstance and repeatedly indulge selfishness. Therefore I’d say there is higher value in helping singles be single *well* (I am including healthy Christian dating in this, by the way!!) than counseling the single to be married–most singles want this already. As we the church pursue this, single Christians who get married will do so viewing their previous single life as a time God grew them (I do think this is lacking today), and the singles who remain so are better equipped. By focusing on telling group #3 singles to marry, I am concerned that 1) singles will treat their singleness as merely preparation for marriage when it can be much more than that, 2) we devalue the very legitimate state God has them in *now* and the enormous potential for growth, and 3) it communicates that marriage is a solution for unrestrained sexual desire, when A) it isn’t by itself and B) marriage is much more than that.

    Even if you do believe the only people who ought to be single are the ones that currently have the gift of ability, treating singleness this way will only help marriage flourish more. Too many Christians desperately seek a spouse to ward of loneliness since they feel cut off from their community, or think that they’re broken/sinful if they’re single. Treating singleness and marriage first as valid states, instead of starting from telling singles to pursue marriage, allows for so much freedom–for example, dating becomes disentangled from all these nasty fears of being alone forever, since that is no longer a bad thing.

    I do understand that it’s difficult as a pastor to preach on a topic like this and feel like you always lose. My intent isn’t to make you feel attacked, and I do apologize if it’s coming off that way. My intent is to thoughtfully engage with the theology you put forward. I can only imagine how frustrating it is to feel like you can never win whenever you broach this topic, so I thank you for engaging with it despite all of that. A couple people commented to me that they saw your blog post, my response, and your response, so please be encouraged to know that this conversation is serving more than just me.

  4. Rachel, I think somehow we have missed each other again.
    I encourage people who do not have the gift of singleness to pursue marriage- emphasis on the word pursue. That is, I generally believe that if Providence and opportunity oblige, marriage is for the welfare and happiness of all mankind. It is usually the state they desire, and is the design God has given for the complimentary genders to support, aid, and comfort each other.

    However this does not mean that anyone who is single is sinning by being single. There are scores of people who do not have the gift of singleness by any reasonable description, that are single.

    What 1 Corinthians 7 is arguing is that marriage is not only the design for men and women to live in complement your union, but it is also a mechanism that aids in the comfort of people in relationship to loneliness and sexual temptation. Marrying is a benefit to them.

    The most important thing to consider from my first comment, is the distinction between category #2 and #3. This is the key distinction. There is a singleness of Providence and there is a singleness of indulgence. The latter is sin. And I believe that some people should consider that the way they are inhabiting their singleness by not pursuing marriage, may not just be about themselves, but they may be depriving other people of God intended companionship. That’s something that most single people don’t consider, especially if they are quite young. But it is relevant.

    so please don’t understand that I believe, or that the Bible teaches, that being single is in some way sinful if you don’t have the gift of singleness. I absolutely do not believe that, and I do not believe the Bible teaches that.

    However my counsel for people without that gift, who struggle with sexual continence and some of the other common difficulties of singleness, like loneliness, is to pursue marriage. That’s all.

  5. Interesting article. I can give you the names of several thousand married couples I have known over my lifetime. All of them have plenty of status. Of the 570,000,000 people in North America, can you name one with the gift of singleness (1 Cor 7) who is pastoring a church?

    1. thank you for the offer John. Please send me the names you offered.

      Just kidding. I don’t think I can name a single pastor off the top of my head right now, however some of the great ones in church history were single. John Wesley was single most of his life. Charles Simeon I believe was single his entire life- maybe the greatest English pastor of the 18th century. John Stott was single for all of his life. The fact is that most churches won’t touch a single person, not for primarily biblical reasons, but for reasons of sociology and bigotry. Sociologically, it’s a leadership question. Most single pastoral candidates would like to be married, so why haven’t they been able to convince a single person to follow them in their life? Churches can be a little skittish of a man who can’t get a woman to marry him, but wants to have ministry of teaching people to become the bride of Christ. And secondly, there is just flat a bunch of bigotry against single men. It is generally thought along Freudian lines that the sexuality of human beings is untamable. So a single man is either dysfunctional, gay, hiding a pornography addiction, or ultimately will become a sexual predator Wolf among the women of the congregation, if not the girls. I see many very qualified single men seek to become pastors of churches only to have the experience that no one will touch them with a 10 foot pole. And that had I think more to do with bigotry and worldliness in our understanding of sexuality than anything else.

  6. Yes, there’s a bit too much of the world in churches today. I would go beyond calling it bigotry though. It’s sexual idolatry. While I’m not a pastor, I have followed in Paul’s footsteps. So now you know of at least one living person.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s