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The Gift of Singleness (Part 2)

My post on the gift of singleness has generated many responses, some favorable, some negative. Of the latter, some said I misrepresented Debbie Maken’s book; others took issue with my proposed biblical trajectory regarding singleness. I should clarify that my post was not intended as a book review of Maken’s book; I mentioned her only in the first and final paragraph to relate my comments to the contemporary scene. My primary purpose was to set forth the biblical teaching on singleness by way of a digest from the chapter on singleness in my book, God, Marriage & Family. I should also note that the digest is not a substitute for reading the entire chapter. Mrs. Maken has now responded to my post, and I find her response on the whole constructive and helpful in crystallizing some of the pertinent issues.

It is probably inevitable that those who don’t know me personally or who haven’t read my entire book, or at least the chapter on singleness, will misrepresent my position. Nevertheless, the issue is not served by misrepresentations, so let me start by correcting a few misapprehensions. First, Maken says I counsel singles, “instead of looking to [tag]Scripture[/tag],” to search their feelings, because I say in my original post that, all things being equal, if anyone is anxious about possibly having the gift of singleness, they may well not have it. So by her own account, Maken advocates living by Scripture and I advocate living by feeling. I will not dignify this characterization with a response other than to say that virtually my entire post was devoted to present the biblical teaching on singleness, and so to quote one sentence out of context is patently unfair and misleading.

Second, some have said that I am, in essence, “pro-singleness” and do not advocate marriage as the norm today. This is false. I do believe marriage is the norm today, as Jesus made clear in Matthew 19. Having said this, Jesus in the same passage proceeded to speak in positive terms about an exception to this norm, namely refraining from marriage for the sake of God’s kingdom. So it is really a both-and rather than an either-or proposition.

For this reason, third, I believe the central issue is: What is the “gift” Paul is talking about in 1 Corinthians 7 (and Jesus in Matthew 19)? Maken and others here dichotomize between the “gift of celibacy” (which they say exists, in a very narrow scope; for those “called . . . to accomplish something of monumental proportions,” to cite Maken) and the “gift of singleness” (whose existence they deny). To clarify, it may be helpful to note that neither “celibacy” nor “singleness” are biblical terms; the expression used most frequently in this context in Scripture is agamos, “unmarried.” Rather than erect an unbiblical dichotomy, therefore, it might be better to talk about people being divinely gifted to remain unmarried for the sake of God’s kingdom. For some, this calling is permanent (apparently this, among other things, is what Maken means by “celibacy”), while for others it is temporary (Maken’s “singleness”?).

Here is the critical point, however: How does a person who is currently unmarried know whether or not their unmarried state is permanent or temporary? Maken says, if I understand her correctly, “Assume it is temporary unless you meet the high standard of ‘monumental service.’ ” Plus, hasten the day when the unmarried state comes to an end (i.e. get married). I would be less certain in assuming that in virtually every case a person who is currently unmarried must be urged to pursue marriage on the basis that marriage is the biblical norm. Note what Maken does here. She first distinguishes between celibacy and singleness (neither of which are biblical terms) on the supposition that only celibacy is a gift and then, unsurprisingly, finds that singleness is unbiblical! Yet this is circular reasoning and hence proves nothing. We are still left with the question, “What is it that Paul calls a divine gift in 1 Corinthians 7?” (and Jesus refers to as those who have “renounced marriage for the kingdom of heaven” in Matthew 19).

What is more, once Maken states, categorically, that singleness is unbiblical (her definition, over against celibacy), the implication, if I understand her argument correctly, is that virtually everyone who is currently single is so for unbiblical reasons. I have had unmarried men and women post on my blog saying they were content in their singleness, and others (favoring Maken’s view) have written in taking those people to task for their positive approach to singleness. This strikes me as judgmental and in conflict with Paul’s advocacy of a non-judgmental attitude toward others in Romans 14–15. I believe that intrinsic to Maken’s view is a certain arrogance and judgmental attitude that says, “I know what God’s will is for your life, and if you think differently, you’re wrong. Trust me, I know what Scripture says.”

The fact is, Scripture does not say whether Debbie or Jimmy or Sandra or Peter should get married or have the divine gift of singleness (or, more precisely, should remain unmarried for the sake of God’s kingdom). Scripture provides general parameters (such as Genesis 2 or Jesus’ and Paul’s statements), and on a personal level every individual is called to discern God’s personal leading for them as they are led by the Holy Spirit.

Now Maken says in her response that her and my position (which, as she mentions, is widely held today and represents the prevailing view) are mutually exclusive. I see things differently. The way I see it, she and I agree on the following points:

  • Marriage is the norm for believers today as it was in OT times (Genesis 2; Jesus’ reaffirmation of Genesis 2 in Matthew 19);
  • Remaining unmarried is an exception to the norm and is presented as a divine gift in Scripture (Matthew 19, 1 Corinthians 7).

The main difference, in my judgment, comes in the extent or degree to which God may call individuals to remain unmarried. I am not sure how Maken arrives at her test of “monumental accomplishments.” Nor do I know on what basis she judges just how rare (or virtually non-existent) this divine calling is. Perhaps she is overreacting here against certain teachings or practices; I’m not sure. In Matthew 19, Jesus globally refers to “some . . . others . . . and others”; there is no mention made of a very narrow limit. In 1 Corinthians 7, likewise, the discussion is general: “But each of you has your own gift from God; one has this gift, another has that.” It seems that Maken is importing her notion of the rarity of the “gift” into those passages; I cannot find it there.

Also, whether or not Maken is right in her bottom-line conclusion, I question some of the statements she is making in arguing for it. For example, she says that because “God is the same yesterday, today, and forever, and his law does not change,” marriage is the norm and singleness is rare. That may be so, but hardly for the reason Maken cites. It is true that God never changes, but that does not preclude God pursuing a course with humanity that moves, for example, from the sacrificial system to worship in spirit and truth apart from sacrifices (other than in a metaphorical sense). Many more examples could be given (such as giving; see here my two-part series of articles on “tithing”). There is much development in Scripture, and to say this is inconsistent with the nature of God is not a very defensible argument theologically.

Maken also seems to imply on the basis of 1 Timothy 3:2 (“faithful husband”) that church leaders must be married. This, too, is a precarious position that is held by very few (if any) informed students of Scripture (see on this my treatment of this passage in the revised Expositor’s Bible Commentary Vol. 12, pp. 524–25). Rather, as commonly held, Paul assumes (an entirely reasonable assumption) that most candidates for such a position will be married and so spells out marital and familial qualifications. It is an illegitimate argument from silence to infer from the marital qualification in 1 Timothy 3:2 that Paul required marriage from all church leaders. Moreover, it is difficult to believe that why Paul would have excluded himself (or people like himself) from eligibility for church leadership because he was unmarried. Notice also that it is nowhere mentioned that Timothy (the recipient of the letter in question) was married.

There are several other arguments in Maken’s response that seem precarious and open to question, such as the statement that, “The reason we have singleness running rampant today is because we no longer cherish marriage” (emphasis added). This analysis is surely unduly simplistic in that Maken attributes increasing singleness to one single cause when the situation is arguably considerably more complex. To be sure, marriage is under siege in our culture today, which is the very reason why I wrote my book God, Marriage & Family. Indeed, we stand united in our concern to defend marriage and to commend it. In addition, I, for one, also want to commend singleness as a legitimate (albeit exceptional) state for those who have received this divine gift and calling.

One element absent in Maken’s comments on 1 Corinthians 7 that would shed considerable light on the situation, in my opinion, is the particular background to Paul’s comments there. Specifically, it appears that in Corinth some taught that singleness is a state that is spiritually superior to marriage and hence told single people to stay unmarried and married people either to divorce their spouses (so they could be single and more spiritual!) or to live with their marriage partners in a continent relationship (remain married but refrain from sexual intercourse in the future). All this owing to the Greek philosophical dualism between matter (as evil) and spirit (good). Similarly, in Ephesus (1 Tim. 2:15; 4:3; 5:14) some disparaged marriage and procreation and in some cases even forbid marriage altogether.

It is in this context, as I develop in God, Marriage, & Family, that Paul’s comments should be understood. On the one hand, he made clear that singleness is not superior to marriage spiritually. People should not refrain from marriage on the basis of this belief, much less should they divorce their existing marriage partners to be more spiritual in an unmarried state! At the same time, Paul tried to balance his comments by noting certain advantages of the unmarried state for kingdom service and even called such a state a “gift” from God. It is this correction of a teaching that singleness is superior spiritually that is important for us to understand. Yet note how even when putting singleness in its place and proper context, Paul still speaks very positively about it and does not disparage it or cast it in extremely narrow terms.

I conclude with a few personal reflections. It appears that much of Maken’s underlying concern has to do with encouraging men to take more initiative and being more responsible in pursuing marriage. With this I heartily concur. I also concur that some women are too prepared to be content with “being married to Jesus” when they should pursue marriage to a flesh-and-blood husband. And, certainly, there are pastors and counselors who provide unhelpful teaching and counsel in this regard. As usual, there is an element of truth in every overcorrection or overreaction. Nevertheless, while Maken may be correct, at least in part, in diagnosing some of the problems in the contemporary scene, I have several concerns with Maken’s own alternative approach.

To begin with, if I were single, I would not appreciate being essentially labeled as almost certainly out of God’s will, and, if currently content in my singleness, being told that I am self-deceived or worse. Singles are already frequently excluded in many social settings in the church. Also labeling them as almost certainly out of God’s will is hardly going to help their situation, and this, in my view, is unfortunate. I think God would have us not only encourage those many toward marriage who are called to marriage (though not prod them to rush into marriage), but also affirm those few who are content in their unmarried state and see it, whether permanently or temporarily (and who among those who are currently unmarried knows for certain which it is?), as God’s calling for them. Indeed, as Paul says in 1 Corinthians, there are many advantages for the unmarried in serving in the church and in promoting God’s kingdom (whether Maken or I would describe their contribution as “monumental” or not).

When Maken writes, “The call to marriage applies uniformly to all mankind,” I would simply add, “Except for those who are called by God to remain unmarried, whether for a lifetime or a season in their life.” Despite Maken’s confident assertions, no one truly knows just how many people fit in that category except for God, and he really is the only one who needs to know. We don’t need to decide for someone else whether or not they are called to marry or to remain unmarried. We are not the Holy Spirit, so why are we not content to leave this decision up to God’s leading in that person’s life and that person’s own conscience and judgment? In the end, it is their life, isn’t it? Those women who have written me that they are bitter about being single very possibly don’t have the gift of singleness. But why deny that anybody (or virtually anybody) else may have that gift? This, to me, seems to be an extreme position, even a judgmental one, and I, for one, believe it is more appropriate—not to mention being more in keeping with Scripture—to affirm marriage as the norm and singleness as the exceptional, but honorable, calling for those who have received it.

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