The Gift of Singleness: Part III
- 2007 26 Feb
Is it sin to simply remain single by choice?
In regard to the issue of singleness, author Debbie Maken (in an article titled "Rethinking the Gift of Singleness: Is Singleness Really a Gift?") appeals to historical precedence. "The laws and practices of [early Christian] cultures likewise conveyed to all what was normative and what behavior was expected. Throughout the ages, for example, women enjoyed an infrastructure (their family or clan) to see them into the safe harbor of marriage. From arranged marriages to courtship/calling, all conspired to protect and guide women from squandering their best, most fertile years in futility."
She continues. "In these earlier systems, those who were beholden to the bride through either blood or other ties were given the responsibility to guide her into marriage. This was primarily done by conditioning access of any prospective suitor on demonstrable showings of worthiness. Men were kept on a tight leash in these earlier systems. Today, we are stuck in a system that is the exact opposite – the balance of power has shifted to some random young man who, though he has virtually unfettered access to the woman, has no binding to her to initiate and bring about a marriage.
"Also in these former cultures, there were consequences when behavior fell below the expected societal standard. The Puritans, for example, actually maintained laws that executed fines and imprisonment for single living. In one case where a single man John Littleale was found living by himself, where he was 'subject to many sins, which are ordinarily the companions of a solitary life,' he was ordered to move in with a family, or be placed in the house of corrections in the Hamptons."
Maken opines, 'I suspect that there was nothing as off-putting to a grown man as being treated like a child in the home of another. However, the shame alone in such measures would have caused John and others like him to grow up and meet the demands of true biblical masculinity as defined by those around him."
A few points are in order here. We affirm that today's practice of serial dating is problematic and have no problem with some forms of courtship, especially among teenagers. But, that particular issue is different than the issue under consideration. We also agree that that the role of families and especially that of fathers has been largely usurped or neglected. Of course, there are always situations in which familial or paternal involvement would not be possible or desired. And, those who live alone certainly face unique temptations. At the same time, there are some young men who simply need to grow up and unless admonished to do so will remain in a state of irresponsibility. But, those issues do not make the case that marriage is required of those who do not posses the gift of celibacy as Maken defines it.
Moreover, while we regard the Puritans as lofty and wonderful examples in many things, and while their theological precision and biblical application is unsurpassed, we must admit that a hint of legalism often ruled their practice and judgment. We affirm and appeal to the Puritans in so many ways and on so many fronts. Yet, Christian liberty must have its rightful application as it, too, is a biblical teaching. Liberty must be brought to bear upon the issue of singleness. With these things in mind, let us move back to the Corinthian text.
The fourth major issue to consider is singleness. In 1 Corinthians 7:25-35, Paul helps us a great deal. A number of applications can be gleaned that relate to the advantages of being single.
Paul commences a new thought that is related to his previous thought beginning in v. 25. He begins to discuss virgins, that is, those who have never been married, and he does so in a pastoral way that expresses his concern for their well-being. Four contextual points must be made from the outset.
First, Paul gives loving and practical advice to five groups of people: virgin men betrothed to women (25-28a); virgin women betrothed to men (28b); Christians in general including those who are married, those who are unmarried, and those who have never been married, i.e., virgins, (29-35); fathers who have virgin daughters (36-38); and wives (39-40).
Second, Paul is seeking to combat false teaching by certain members of the church mentioned earlier. False teachers had to be confronted whether they were ascetics, libertines, or legalists.
Third, Paul's advice must be seen as just that, solid Christian counsel. Paul does not lay down rules in regard to what all Christians should do in all cases. He lays down principles to guide Christians in difficult decision making processes.
Fourth, while Paul himself prefers that individuals remain single if they are able, he attempts to affirm that position without giving the ascetics approval. God has ordained marriage as good and has called many Christians to be married. No one is more or less spiritual because they are or are not married. The church has been plagued with those who have taken both positions. There will always be those who say that one cannot be fully devoted to Christ and his work unless he/she is single. At the same time, there will always be those who view singles with great suspicion, particularly as they get older. Both views are in error and sinful. In this text, Paul desires to affirm both singleness and marriage as right and good, while at the same time affirming that in some ways for some people singleness is the better course.
Again, Paul is answering questions the Corinthians had put to him by way of letter. He comes now to the issue of virgins; "Now concerning virgins I have no command of the Lord, but I give an opinion as one who by the mercy of the Lord is trustworthy." Several points may be made here. First, in this verse, Paul refers to virgins in general, that is, those who have never been married. This group of persons is to be seen in contrast to those who are unmarried (divorced) and widowed. A point of interest concerning Paul's status may be pointed out. Paul places himself in the category of the unmarried in v. 8, and of course, throughout the text, makes a distinction, as noted, between those who are unmarried and those who are virgins, particularly in v. 34.
Second, Paul again says that he has no command from the Lord. His point is that the Lord Jesus, in His earthly ministry, did not address this issue specifically. A question had been raised and Paul was answering with spiritual wisdom and apostolic authority. Even Peter referred to that which Paul wrote as Scripture (2 Peter 3:16). Paul's words here are now the inspired word of God.
Third, while it must be pointed out that Paul wrote with apostolic authority by virtue of his being an apostle, he did not seek to exercise his authority in answering the question posed by the Corinthians. He appeals to the mercy that the Lord had granted him and the trustworthiness that accompanied that mercy. Paul's comments are trustworthy. They are reliable. God has granted him mercy in that regard. He is, by God's grace, an apostle who receives and dispenses revelation from the Lord.
But, he does make a point here. Singleness is advantageous.
Now, the first thing we can say in regard to singleness being advantageous is that singles have it easier it times of great distress. God has a word for the singles in times of distress: it is good to remain single in view of the present distress.
In v. 26, Paul says, "I think then that this is good in view of the present distress, that it is good for a man to remain as he is." A question is raised at this point; "what does Paul mean when he refers to the present distress?" Some would say that Paul anticipated the persecution that was about to befall the church. Some would say that Paul refers to the distress that befalls the church in all places in all ages. He is simply laying down a general principle. While it is difficult to be dogmatic with such a statement, we take Paul to refer to the distress that had befallen the Corinthian church, or, perhaps the church in general. His use of the word "present" would indicate a distress that was relevant to the Corinthian situation specifically or the circumstantial context of the church in general at that time. To what type of distress Paul referred can only be a matter of speculation. Suffice it to say that Paul was concerned for the believers at Corinth.
In view of the referenced distress, Paul indicated that it was, in his opinion, "good for a man to remain as he is." Again, Paul does not lay down a command. Rather, he offers a prudent and practical opinion in regard to the difficulty a person will face if he/she chooses to alter his/her circumstantial position, specifically in regard to marriage. In certain situations, it is good for persons not to complicate their lives that they might not be divided in their interests and/or commitments.
We should make a point before going further. If singleness in general is a sin, that is, remaining single without the gift of celibacy as defined by Maken, then it would be sin regardless of circumstances and Paul could not thus speak this way. By way of objection, one may argue it is not always wrong to kill someone even though murder is wrong. That individual is right in that murder is sin while self-defense is not sin. Lying to protect the Jews from Nazis is not sin by virtue of the sanctity of human life and biblical precedent in other contexts (Exodus 1:15-21). However, we are told to submit to the government despite persecution (Romans 13). We sin if we do not submit unless we are asked to sin. In that case, we must not submit. Thus, it follows that self-defense and defense of others is not sin in certain situations. But murder is always sin. Now, do we have warrant to sin simply because something is difficult or inconvenient? Certainly not! So, we are not allowed to sin to avoid distress or even persecution.
It follows then that God would not make an allowance for persons to remain single simply because of distress. If singleness in general were sin, Paul could not speak in the manner in which he does. Paul is simply giving a reason here as to why some might want to choose to remain single (in addition to other reasons not addressed).
Click here to read Part I.
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