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.
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.’”