Thinking About the Gift of Singleness: Part I
"Singles live in a time when their church leaders and friends have told them that their state of singleness should be considered a 'gift' from the Lord, a special time to devote themselves to spiritual work. Bumper sticker flattery is routinely used to justify prolonging the single years. Perhaps it's time to ask whether singleness in general -- specifically protracted singleness (apart from 'celibate service') -- has much historical or biblical legitimacy." So begins an article by Debbie Maken entitled "Rethinking the Gift of Singleness: Is Singleness Really a Gift?"
We were privileged to have Mrs. Maken as our guest on "Calling for Truth" earlier this week. She is a fine, Christian woman who is committed to the Scriptures and the Lord Jesus Christ. She is issuing a call that many young men and women, and indeed many others in the evangelical world, need to hear. So much of what she says strikes a needed and corrective chord in the church today and I resonate with her message in so many ways. However, I must point out that in all honesty, I cannot agree with all she says, and thus my little multi-part article on the issue is posted here. Let me say again how much I appreciate her message and willingness to be on our program. I appreciate her zeal and willingness to take a tough stand for Christ. Because of such, we hope to have her on the program again. At the same time, in light of the fact that we allowed her to present her view practically uncontested, I must offer this response with the hope that further dialogue will be fostered.
By way of summary in regard to her key point, and we will add to this summation in subsequent installments, Mrs. Maken asserts that marriage is a mandate and notes in historical church practice, "It was not only the duty to marry that was held sacrosanct, but also the proper and timely execution thereof. With I Corinthians 7 intact in their Bibles, Christians used to believe that extended singleness had no biblical warrant. The Westminster Confession, for example, lists the 'undue delay of marriage' as sin (Q. 139). Even Scripture five times hearkens to the phrase ‘wife/bridegroom of your youth,' not your middle ages, youth being the only season that allows one to enjoy the full bundle of rights and privileges of marriage, and to accomplish its generational purposes."
Further, Mrs. Maken writes, "The ease of flattery and our alliance with pop culture has produced a language of holy doublespeak where adult singleness is thought of as acceptable, even biblical. Instead of placing this modern phenomenon of protracted singleness under Scripture for scrutiny, we have done the exact opposite -- we have made Scripture the handmaiden to the phenomenon. I Corinthians 7, anyone? Instead of viewing Scripture as a whole and acknowledging that out of the thousands of characters, only a handful were single, we like to take parts out of context and argue that it gives us cover."
Mrs. Maken's argument hinges on her understanding of 1 Corinthians 7. She notes, "Past Christians also read I Corinthians 7, and they understood that Paul was writing at a time of 'great distress,' referring to the famine in the Greek countryside and the percolating persecutions taking place at the time. Because of these threatening circumstances, Paul advised that marriage could temporarily be placed on the back-burner. They understood that letter to convey expediency, nothing more. Paul never held marriage and singleness to be on equal planes, and neither did past Christians. Paul acknowledged celibacy (i.e., the supernatural removal of sexual desire) as a God-given gift. He acknowledged that the celibate could be single, but that the single could not necessarily be celibate and therefore prescribed marriage."
I can hear myself cheering her on, it sounds so right. I mean that will all sincerity. But, let us step back just a bit. Let us stop there for a moment and consider 1 Corinthians 7. Paul does mention the issue of great distress, but not until v. 26. He has much to say prior to that point in regard to singleness. In looking at the text, by way of application, let us consider some major issues related to this subject.
The first major issue to consider is God. No matter what the issue is under consideration, our primary and ultimate duty and delight is to glorify God. Perhaps surprisingly, according to Paul, we can glorify God with our bodies by remaining single. Obviously, it is necessary to refrain from sexual contact outside of marriage. At the same time, the Scripture indicates that it is good to remain single if one is so inclined.
In 1 Cor. 7:1, Paul is coming off the heels of admonishing the Corinthians to glorify God with their bodies. His primary concern was that they flee immorality. Here, he turns to answer some questions the Corinthians had asked him. At the same time, he deals first with the question of sexual relations. In so doing, he moves from the negative admonition of "flee immorality" to the positive admonition "have regular sexual relations in marriage." In so doing, Paul implies that we not only glorify God with our bodies by fleeing immorality, but we glorify God with our bodies by having regular sexual relations in marriage.
Paul actually eases into the subject. He transitions by saying, "Now concerning the things of which you wrote to me: It is good for a man not to touch a woman." Now that statement is significant in light of our discussion. Again, he has just finished saying that we should flee immorality and avoid fornication. Therefore, "it is good for a man not to touch a woman." His meaning is that it is good for a man not to have sexual relations with a woman.
Paul has a couple of things in mind here. First, it is good in the sense that one avoids immorality and sin. God is pleased with such. Second, it is good in the sense that marriage is not necessarily commanded for all. While God has told humans in general to be fruitful and multiply, and while Paul affirms the sanctity of marriage in a number of places, God does not require that all persons get married, nor does He require all Christians to get married. "It is good for a man not to touch a woman." God calls some to singleness as we shall see later in this chapter.
Paul actually may be combating false teachers here as well. Some see abstinence and celibacy as ideal. Those who engage in sexual relations, even in the context of marriage, are viewed as less spiritual by some. Paul gives no credence to such a notion. Sexual relations outside of marriage are forbidden. Sexual relations inside of marriage are commanded.
The second major issue to consider is marriage. We have already touched on the subject of marriage. We may break the subject down just a bit by briefly noting what Paul says in regard to those who are not married, those who are considering marriage, and those who are making the decision to marry.
Initially, when outside of marriage, Christians must employ self-control diligently. Note that self-control flows from one's contentment in life. In 1 Cor. 7:7, it is clear that Paul was content with his calling, his vocation, and his singleness. He makes the point that self-control flows from the gift of God. In other words, some have the gift of self-control and some have the gift of proper-desire. What do we mean by such designations? Let's look at v. 7 and find out.
On the heels of admonishing couples to engage in conjugal relations, Paul says, "yet I wish that all men were even as I myself am. However, each man has his own gift from God, one in this manner, and another in that." Paul expresses joy in regard to the providence of God in his life. Two points may be made here in light of Paul's wish.
The first point is that Paul is not married. Does Paul mean that he wishes that all persons were not married? In light of God’s pronouncement of marriage as good and in light of His command to be fruitful and multiply, we doubt Paul means he wishes no one was married. Certainly, one of the ways in which Christians fulfill the cultural mandate of Genesis 1 and the great commission of Matthew 28 is to produce godly offspring who will influence the world for Christ. Paul is most likely referring to the self-control he has in the area of sexual relations and the contentment he has in his calling.
It is likely that Paul had been married at one time. By Jewish law, one had to be married in order to be a Pharisee. Paul was a Pharisee prior to his conversion. It is likely that his wife either died or that she divorced him when he became a Christian. She, as well as the Jewish leaders would have viewed Paul as a traitor to the faith and declared him dead. While it is probable that Paul was married at some point (other textual evidence exists to confirm this dynamic, which will be dealt with later, vv. 8f; 25f), we do not know that dynamic to be a fact nor do we know the circumstances that led to his current singleness. Thus, Paul does not disparage the institution of marriage, rather, he rests in the self-control God has given him in his circumstances.
The second point is that Paul affirms that each has his gift from God. Specifically, Paul refers to the gift of self-control and the gift of proper-desire. Both of these dynamics are gifts from God. The gift of self-control in this context is specific to self-control in regard to sexual desire. Those with this gift do not struggle with desire in this area that they might be devoted wholeheartedly/full-time to the gospel ministry (whether vocationally or bi-vocationally). Those with the gift of proper-desire have a desire for proper sexual relations in the proper context, namely, marriage.
By proper-desire we do not refer to lust. Thus, in the broader sense, Paul refers to the gift of singleness and the gift of marriage. If one has the gift of self-control, he/she then has the gift of singleness that he/she might be singularly be devoted to the gospel. If one has the gift of proper-desire, then he/she has the gift of marriage that he/she might fulfill his/her God-given role in that context.
To reiterate, when thinking of marriage, Christians must embrace God's gift joyfully. The gift of self-control flows into the gift of singleness as something to enjoy for God's glory. Further, the gift of proper-desire flows into the gift of marriage as something to enjoy for God's glory.
[Part Two Tomorrow]
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