Singleness is Not a Spiritual Gift

Even though people like myself will often talk (or complain) about how those of us in the church put great pressure on people to get married, it would be unfair to say that the church doesn’t ever talk about singleness positively. Nor is it true that singleness is never talked about as a legitimate option for people. It often is, in a sense. The issue, however, is in how we discuss singleness and the false theological assumptions that we have about singleness.

Often teaching on singleness will go something like this: Some people are given the spiritual gift of singleness, that is, some people don’t really struggle with sexual temptation. For these people, it’s a great idea for them to stay single like St. Paul talks about in 1 Corinthians 7. However, if you struggle with sexual temptation in any way, you clearly have not been given this gift of singleness or celibacy. You should then seek to get married as St. Paul instructs in 1 Corinthians 7.

I’ve exaggerated it a bit, but this is how I’ve often heard this issue discussed. The problem is that it’s a misreading of Paul. And if that weren’t enough, it fails to take seriously the doctrine of vocation and the theology of the cross. The result is that it tells people who are in the vocation of singleness that the response to sexual sin and temptation is to get married. This is a faulty and sub-Christian way of responding to these issues and if a person finds themself single not of their own choosing, they’re simply left out to dry.

Singleness/Celibacy is a Vocation, Not a Spiritual Gift 

We often talk about there being this spiritual gift in which a person is perfectly satisfied being single and doesn’t really struggle with sexual temptation much at all. We’re sure that such people exist, even if they’re rarer than four-leaf clovers in Arizona. This kind of thought presumably comes from 1 Corinthians 7:6-9, where Paul has been instructing the believers in Corinth about marriage and sexuality:

I wish that all were as I myself am [i.e. single]. But each has his own gift from God, one of one kind and one of another. To the unmarried and the widows I say that it is good for them to remain single, as I am. But if they cannot exercise self-control, they should marry. For it is better to marry than to burn with passion.

This text is often taken to imply that the ability to “exercise self-control” is a special spiritual gift. But it does not mean that the ability to remain chaste is a gift that people either do or do not have. Rather the gift that Paul is talking about is the vocation of being married or being single. The Corinthians had been debating whether or not it was a good idea to get married or to remain celibate in marriage (1 Cor 7:1). Paul’s response in this chapter is that the Corinthians should live in accord with how they’re called in life (i.e., their vocation). If they’re married, they should be married, which includes having sex (1 Cor 7:5). If they’re widowed, divorced, or never married, they are encouraged by Paul to remain single. Paul’s overriding point is that in contrast to how the Corinthians were thinking about this issue, there is not a better, holier, or more Christian way of life with regard to marriage and singleness. Which is likely part of the reason why Paul is at pains to point out that his own recommendation to be single is exactly that, his own advice and not a command from the Lord.

Nowhere does Paul imply that the ability to exercise self-control is a gift that only some people have. Instead, self-control is something that all Christian are called to. In Galatians 5 “self-control” is listed as one of the fruits of the Spirit, granted in this context it’s far broader than merely sexual self-control. Of course, these are not optional fruits or fruits that only some Christians get, but promises of what the Spirit who dwells in every believer will necessarily produce. Likewise, in 1 Corinthians 6 Paul commands all believers to flee from sexual immorality. Which is why believers who are single must then necessarily be celibate for as long as they are single.

To throw another wrench into the common reading of this passage, we tend to think of spiritual gifts as static qualities or abilities possessed by a person. This is evident from the practice of so-called spiritual gift inventories, which seek to determine someone’s spiritual gifts like a personality test. But this is an assumption imposed onto Paul’s discussion of this topic. Spiritual gifts are given by God, thus they can come or go according to his will. This is why Paul encourages the Corinthians, “Earnestly desire the higher gifts” (1 Cor 12:31). The implication is that these gifts are not innate qualities, but like any other gift, something given by God at any time. So then, even if Paul is saying that the ability to exercise sexual self-control is a spiritual gift, it is not then the case that someone who finds it difficult to exercise self-control must then give up trying and seek to get married as their only way out. Rather, it would make sense for such a person to pray for such a gift with the full hope and confidence that Jesus encouraged when he assures us that the Father will give us what we ask for in Jesus’ name.

Vocation

Furthermore, when we talk about singleness as a spiritual gift, we end up encouraging people to look inward and evaluate whether or not they have “the gift of singleness,” by which we usually mean someone who doesn’t deal with sexual temptation in any serious way. Are we surprised then, when almost no one determines that they have such a gift? I for one, have never met a single person who would say that they have “the gift of singleness” in this sense. As sinful human beings, we all struggle with sexual temptation and will continue to do so until Jesus returns and raises us from our graves.

Instead of thinking in terms of alleged innate superhuman qualities, we should encourage people to think of their current vocation. What has God called you to right now? This is not about trying to discern whether or not God will call you into married life or to continue being single. Such information is not given to us and it’s foolish to try to read the tea leaves of our life and determine what God will do with us. (See God Does Not Have Someone Picked Out For You)

The doctrine of vocation understands that all God-pleasing vocations are exactly that: God-pleasing. They are good. After all, all vocations are a gift, and our Father only gives good gifts to his children. This means that someone who finds themself single has been given a good gift from God. Someone who finds themself in a dating relationship or is engaged has been given a good gift from God. Someone who finds themself married has been given a good gift from God.

This does not mean that any of these vocations are easy. None of them are easy. They all have their unique joys and crosses. But they are all good. Since when did difficult mean bad?

This way of looking at singleness, romantic relationships, and marriage also allows us to graciously accept when these vocations change. The unmarried person can accept becoming married as a gift. The person who was married or in a dating relationship can accept becoming single as a gift as well, even if it doesn’t feel like it. This view allows us to be flexible and open to all the various ways that God may call us. Life is full of unpredictability, but we trust that God will guide us through it in the safety and freedom of the Gospel of Christ, not the safety and freedom of our own preferences or comfort zones.

Theology of the Cross

What I’m talking about here is largely rooted in what Luther calls the Theology of the Cross. Namely, thesis 21 from the Heidelberg Disputation, “A theologian of glory calls evil good and good evil. A theologian of the cross calls a thing what it is.” It’s easy to make our judgments based on the outward appearances of things. Often being single appears to be the less desirable vocation. There are very few people who actually believe St. Paul when he says that he himself believes that it is better to be single than to be married (myself included). The single person is often alone and unfulfilled. Despite what many single people might think, not being able to have sex is hardly the biggest struggle. The biggest struggle is lacking the kind of community and intimacy that becomes accessible (although not automatic) with marriage and family.

But the single Christian is never actually single. Through the cross and resurrection, Christ has gathered his church to himself and made them one. This does not mean that the perfect community and unity of the body of Christ is actually lived out in perfection here and now. Of course not. But the church on earth lives now with this reality in view and looks forward to the day when the church is finally the one united family of God. In the meantime we live future-oriented. Because we know that God always makes good on his promises. This means living as the people of God as much as we are able to. Doing so is not only our calling, but it makes life a whole lot better, not just for single people, but for all of us.

Furthermore, the single person doesn’t need to measure their own happiness over against their married friends to determine whether or not their vocation is a good one. They already know that their vocation is a good one even if it doesn’t feel like it. This is what it means for the single person to call a thing what it is. It also means that to struggle with sexual temptation and even to suffer in the face of loneliness and unfulfilled desire is good. The world as well as the theologian of glory sees struggle and suffering and calls them evil. But the Christian who knows the way of the cross knows that suffering is not evil. To be a follower of Christ means to suffer. It means to struggle against sin so long as one remains in the flesh. But we do not struggle and suffer as those who have no hope. We know that the way of the cross leads to resurrection. The way of death in Christ leads to new life. In fact, it’s the only way to new life.

For Those Who Are Single

When we act like singleness is a magical spiritual gift, the message we end up telling people who are single is that it is impossible for them to resist the temptation to sin unless they have been somehow endowed with this superhuman ability to not struggle with sexual sin or even desire sexuality at all. It’s true that sexuality is an extremely powerful (and good) thing and that sexual sin is therefore dangerous and difficult. This is why Paul speaks so strongly about it in 1 Corinthians and elsewhere. But this doesn’t mean that it’s impossible to resist sexual sin without having a superhuman spiritual gift.

Instead, singleness is a vocation that God calls each and every one of us to for at least some portion of our lives. For some people, this is a very small portion, for others it may end up being the majority or their lives or even their entire lives. For however long we are called to singleness, God also calls us to celibacy. It would be absurd to say that celibacy is impossible without some incredibly-rare-to-the-point-of-being-nonexistent spiritual gift. After all, what kind of God do we worship? A god who would call us to celibacy without giving us the spiritual gift necessary to live faithfully to the very thing that he has called us to? This is not the God of the scriptures. Our God only gives good gifts to his children, and I am confident that if he calls us to celibacy for a season or for our entire lives, he will be faithful to give us the fruit of the Spirit of self-control. This doesn’t mean we won’t ever fail, fall, or struggle. We probably will on account of our weakness. But God is not a cruel taskmaster who abandons us in our struggle. He is the God who comes into the middle of human suffering and suffers himself on the cross. He does not abandon his children.

Now, that all being said, I think St. Paul’s point in 1 Corinthians 7 about getting married if one can’t exercise self-control still stands. If you know that you struggle pretty badly with sexual temptation, then you should avail yourself of the vocation of marriage if given the opportunity. It would be foolish not to do so. After all, there’s nothing shameful, dirty, or unholy in marriage or sex. Both are God’s good gifts. If you genuinely believe that being married would make this struggle easier (keep in mind, it doesn’t always), then by all means go for it; you are free.

The issue however is for the people who believe that they should get married in accordance with St. Paul’s instructions and yet are unable to get married. After all, in our culture this isn’t how it works. You can’t just go and get married the same way you can go down to the store and buy a gallon of milk. And moreover, entering into an ill-advised marriage (for whatever reason) just for the sake of not “burning with passion” is just jumping out of the frying pan and into the fire. It makes a mockery of marriage and only breeds more problems.

Those who are single not of their own choosing require patient suffering and much prayer. They also require the faith to say that even in this situation, it is still good to be single. Yes, you may have determined that it would be better to be married, any maybe you’re right, but it is still good to be single.

But the final word for such people is the final words of Jesus for all of us who struggle with sin, sexual or otherwise, in whatever vocation, single or married, divorced or widowed: “You are forgiven.” We try to live out our various callings faithfully, but our faithfulness isn’t worth much by itself. But the good news is that God doesn’t evaluate us by our own faithfulness, which too often looks like faithlessness. Instead he doesn’t evaluate us at all. He redeems us and calls us his own because he is faithful. The faithfulness of his Son has delivered us from the power of sin and death and has given us the promise of new life now and forever.

“‘Return O faithless sons; I will heal your faithlessness.’ ‘Behold we come to you for you are the Lord our God…. Truly in the Lord our God is the salvation of Israel.’”

—Jeremiah 3:22-23

See also:

God Does Not Have Someone Picked Out for You

Singleness and the Church

An Open Letter to All My Friends Getting Married

Image: Free-Photos CC 0

7 thoughts on “Singleness is Not a Spiritual Gift

  1. Why would singleness be a gift anyway? Not fun growing old all alone by yourself, especially when so many millions of other people on this earth were very lucky and blessed meeting their loved ones which makes their life so very complete. The real problem though is that even God unfortunately has no control at all over these women today that make it very difficult for many of us good single men trying to find love today. Women today are so much different compared to the old days since they just like sleeping around with so many different men all the time, and God forbid if they only knew how to just commit to only one man since they like to party and get real wasted with their girlfriends all the time every chance they get. And since feminism is every now just makes it even more harder for many of us men trying to meet a good woman to have a very serious relationship with. Back to being single which unfortunately it really has so many disadvantages for many of us men since wherever we decide to go. For instance when we will go to a restaurant to eat out which so many other people will stare at us as if we don’t belong there. Makes me very uncomfortable which most of the time i will take my food home to avoid the aggravation. Very hard to go on trips by yourself since it is always wonderful to go with a loved one. And there are so many other disadvantages as well. A very different time we live in today which makes love very hard to find when back in the old days it definitely would have been much easier since most of the women were very old fashioned and Real Ladies compared to the women of today. Very obvious why our family members were very blessed and lucky meeting one another in those days since it was certainly a much better time than now, and i know other friends that are having a very difficult time finding love too.

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  2. I’m curious to know how you would explain the Lutheran Confessions on this subject. The Confessions seem to be unmistakably clear in explaining that marriage is a necessity for most people, and that chasteness is impossible outside of marriage apart from a special gift given to only a few. Here are a couple of examples:

    From Luther’s Large Catechism on the sixth commandment:

    211] In the second place, you must know also that it is not only an honorable, but also a necessary state, and it is solemnly commanded by God that, in general, in all conditions, men and women, who were created for it, shall be found in this estate; yet with some exceptions (although few) whom God has especially excepted, so that they are not fit for the married estate, or whom He has released by a high, supernatural gift that they can maintain chastity without this estate. 212] For where nature has its course, as it is implanted by God, it is not possible to remain chaste without marriage. For flesh and blood remain flesh and blood, and the natural inclination and excitement have their course without let or hindrance, as everybody sees and feels. In order, therefore, that it may be the more easy in some degree to avoid inchastity, God has commanded the estate of matrimony, that every one may have his proper portion and be satisfied therewith; although God’s grace besides is required in order that the heart also may be pure.

    213] From this you see how this popish rabble, priests, monks, and nuns, resist God’s order and commandment, inasmuch as they despise and forbid matrimony, and presume and vow to maintain perpetual chastity, and, besides, deceive the simple-minded with lying words and appearances [impostures]. 214] For no one has so little love and inclination to chastity as just those who because of great sanctity avoid marriage, and either indulge in open and shameless prostitution, or secretly do even worse, so that one dare not speak of it, as has, alas! been learned too fully. 215] And, in short, even though they abstain from the act, their hearts are so full of unchaste thoughts and evil lusts that there is a continual burning and secret suffering, which can be avoided in the married life. 216] Therefore all vows of chastity out of the married state are condemned by this commandment, and free permission is granted, yea, even the command is given, to all poor ensnared consciences which have been deceived by their monastic vows to abandon the unchaste state and enter the married life, considering that even if the monastic life were godly, it would nevertheless not be in their power to maintain chastity, and if they remain in it, they must only sin more and more against this commandment.

    From the Apology of the Augsburg Confession on the marriage of priests:

    14] Thirdly, Paul says, 1 Cor. 7:2: To avoid fornication, let every man have his own wife. This now is an express command pertaining to all who are not fit for celibacy. 15] The adversaries ask that a commandment be shown them which commands priests to marry. As though priests are not men! We judge indeed that the things which we maintain concerning human nature in general pertain also to priests. 16] Does not Paul here command those who have not the gift of continence to marry? For he interprets himself a little after when he says, 7:9: It is better to marry than to burn. And Christ has clearly said, Matt. 19:11: All men cannot receive this saying, save they to whom it is given. Because now, since sin [since the fall of Adam], these two things concur, namely, natural appetite and concupiscence, which inflames the natural appetite, so that now there is more need of marriage than in nature in its integrity, Paul accordingly speaks of marriage as a remedy, and on account of these flames commands to marry. Neither can any human authority, any law, any vows remove this declaration: It is better to marry than to burn, because they do not remove the nature or concupiscence. 17] Therefore all who burn, retain the right to marry. By this commandment of Paul: To avoid fornication, let every man have his own wife, all are held bound who do not truly keep themselves continent; the decision concerning which pertains to the conscience of each one.

    18] For as they here give the command to seek continence of God, and to weaken the body by labors and hunger, why do they not proclaim these magnificent commandments to themselves? But, as we have said above, the adversaries are only playing; they are doing nothing seriously. 19] If continence were possible to all, it would not require a peculiar gift. But Christ shows that it has need of a peculiar gift; therefore it does not belong to all. God wishes the rest to use the common law of nature which He has instituted. For God does not wish His ordinances, His creations to be despised. He wishes men to be chaste in this way, that they use the remedy divinely presented, just as He wishes to nourish our life in this way, 20] that we use food and drink. Gerson also testifies that there have been many good men who endeavored to subdue the body, and yet made little progress. Accordingly, Ambrose is right in saying: Virginity is only a thing that can be recommended, but not commanded; 21] it is a matter of vow rather than of precept. If any one here would raise the objection that Christ praises those which have made themselves eunuchs for the kingdom of heaven’s sake, Matt. 19:12, let him also consider this, that He is praising such as have the gift of continence; for on this account He adds: He that is able to receive it, let him receive it. 22] For an impure continence [such as there is in monasteries and cloisters] does not please Christ. We also praise true continence. But now we are disputing concerning the law, and concerning those who do not have the gift of continence. The matter ought to be left free, and snares ought not to be cast upon the weak through this law.

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    • I’m happy to reply.

      I think there are a couple important distinctions between what I have said in this article and what Luther and Melanchthon are saying in the sections you’ve quoted.

      First of all, Luther and Melanchthon are responding to a very different situation where marriage was despised, where those who took vows of celibacy (according to Luther) often thought it preferable to engage in open fornication than marry, and where men and women were not allowed to marry once they had taken a vow of celibacy even if they struggled to maintain sexual continence. The situation that I am speaking to is people who neither despise marriage nor have taken vows of celibacy. The sort of people I have in mind often desire to be married more than anything and have prayed for years that they could marry, but circumstances have not allowed this to happen. The point of the reformers’ emphasis on marriage as a natural state for men and women to be in is to demonstrate that medieval vows of celibacy were against God’s naturally designed order. My concern however is that we would not use the naturalness of the state of marriage to cause Christian men and women who are single not of their own choosing to despair of it being possible for them to find peace and contentment in their station in life or sexual continence.

      Secondly, when the confessions speak of a gift given to the single, they speak of a “gift of continence” (Ap XXIII:16), i.e. the ability to refrain from fornication. This is very different than the sort of gift that is often discussed in our circles, which I describe in this article as a gift of not desiring sex at all. If the gift of continence is rare, then the gift of not having a sex drive at all is even rarer. But this second gift is not what the confessions are talking about. I therefore agree with the confessions that someone who is incapable of being continent should marry if possible. I do not think that someone who simply has a desire for sex is under the apostles’ command to marry if possible.

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