A New Testament Theology of Singleness
- Monday, September 15, 2003
Having seen in our previous column the biblical example of singleness, what is the biblical teaching about singleness? The most significant discussion of singleness in the Bible occurs in Paul's first letter to the Corinthian church.
This church had been established in a wild, pagan party town. Consequently, new believers were coming into the church with all manner of what we might call "creative living arrangements." In 1 Corinthians 7, Paul settles a dispute by addressing at length the relative spirituality of marriage and singleness. You see, while some of the Corinthian Christians had been arguing that any unmarried adult must be some shade of weird, others were boasting that marriage was for people who weren't really serious about "giving it all for God." Some in this latter group were even married folks whose main motivation was to escape their marriage responsibilities.
Where does Paul come down in this debate? That marriage is not the "superior" state, nor is it a concession to those without the "superior" gift of celibacy. Singleness is neither the highest form of spirituality nor the unfortunate status of the unmarried. As Paul graciously responds to these confused folks, he lays out the following fundamental principles.
The sovereign hand of God has placed each of his children in his or her present status. "As the Lord has assigned to each one, as God has called each, in this manner let him walk" (v. 17, NAS). In this verse, Paul is putting a freeze on a sudden frenzy of marriages, divorces, and remarriages that had broken out among these young Corinthian believers as they tried practically, although unwisely, to walk out their new faith. But on a deeper level, Paul is pointing them to the providence of God--that is, they are exactly where God wants them to be at this time. It's Paul's way of saying, "Relax, God is in control."
With God's providential positioning comes supernatural enabling. "But each man has his own gift (literally 'charismata') from God" (v. 7). Are you a charismatic? If you're single you are. If you get married you'll still be. Paul says that there is a gift-a "charismata" or supernatural ability-to live the life to which you have been called. You'll have the gift of singleness as long as you are single. When you get married, you won't need it anymore.
As Elisabeth Elliot has written: "It is within the sphere of the circumstances He chooses for us-single, married, widowed-that we receive Him. It is there and nowhere else that He makes Himself known to us. It is there that we are allowed to serve Him....Single life may be only a stage of a life's journey, but even a stage is a gift. God may replace it with another gift, but the receiver accepts His gifts with thanksgiving. This gift for this day." (Elisabeth Elliot, Let Me Be a Woman, Tyndale House, 1976)
Our view of our present situation should be shaped by eternal perspective. "What I mean, brothers, is that the time is short....For this world in its present form is passing away" (1Co 7:29, 31). Paul urges us to live in the ongoing reality that the eternal future is pressing into the temporal now. He is concerned that we live undistractedly in joyful anticipation of the approaching kingdom. And he issues a call to all those who desire to make a difference. Both singles and marrieds can apply. Paul's advocacy of singleness ("I wish that all men were even as myself," v7.) is rooted in a holy practicality that sees the goal and the best way of getting there.
What concerns us defines us.
"I would like you to be free from concern. An unmarried man is concerned about the Lord's affairs-how he can please the Lord. But a married man is concerned about the affairs of this world-how he can please his wife-and his interests are divided. An unmarried woman or virgin is concerned about the Lord's affairs: Her aim is to be devoted to the Lord in both body and spirit. But a married woman is concerned about the affairs of this world-how she can please her husband. I am saying this for your own good, not to restrict you, but that you may live in a right way in undivided devotion to the Lord" (1Co 7:32-35).
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