Do You Have the Gift of Singleness?
“30 and Single? It’s Your Own Fault”—a Christianity Today review summarizes the message, at least in part, of a controversial book, Getting Serious About Getting Married: Rethinking the Gift of Singleness, by Debbie Maken. The author herself got serious about getting married at age 28, signed up with a Christian web agency, and shortly thereafter entered marital bliss. Maken’s contention, however, that women who are in their late 20s or in their 30s and still unmarried have only themselves to blame for listening to erroneous evangelical teaching on the subject has created quite a stir among those very women who plead “not guilty” and question Maken’s categorical stance (singles should get married and those who teach the “gift of singleness” should stop misrepresenting the Bible’s teaching about God-ordained singleness), not to mention her theology of singleness.
What does the Bible say about singleness? In my book God, Marriage, and Family: Rebuilding the Biblical Foundation, published by the same publisher as Maken’s book, I devote an entire chapter, Chapter 9 entitled “Undivided Devotion to the Lord: The Divine Gift of Singleness,” to this question. The first part of the chapter features a biblical theology of singleness in the Old Testament and New Testament plus a treatment of singleness in the early church. This is followed by a discussion of issues related to singleness, such as singleness and ministry, cohabitation and premarital sex, courtship and dating, and biblical teaching on singleness addressed to particular groups.
Space does not permit to reproduce the entire chapter, and readers of this blog are referred to the printed volume for complete coverage. A few salient points must suffice. In a nutshell, what I find is that in Old Testament times, singleness was rare among individuals old enough to marry. There were those who were in the unenviable state of widowhood such as Naomi or Ruth (who eventually did remarry); eunuchs who were widely looked down upon and excluded from congregational worship and the priesthood (Lev. 21:20; Deut. 23:1); those who could not marry due to disease (e.g. leprosy) or severe economic distress; those who did not marry because of some type of divine call (this was, however, exceedingly rare; but see Jer. 16:1–4); the divorced (Deut. 24:1–4); and unmarried young people prior to marriage.
The situation seems markedly different in the New Testament. The Baptist, Jesus, and Paul were single, and both Jesus and Paul mention celibacy, Jesus calling it “eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of heaven” (Matt. 19:12) and Paul speaking of singleness as a “gift from God” (1 Cor. 7:7). Both Jesus and Paul indicate that such a call to singleness allows unmarried men and women to devote greater and more undistracted attention to religious service (see esp. 1 Cor. 7:32–35). There is no question, therefore, that singleness can be God’s will for certain individuals; in those cases, at least, singleness is not a curse but a divine gift—just as “every good and perfect gift is from above” (Jas. 1:17). In fact, at certain times and in certain situations singleness is preferable to marriage (1 Cor. 7), though marriage continues as the norm (Matt. 19:4–6).
What is more, as Jesus taught, in the final state people will no longer marry but be like the angels in heaven (Matt. 22:30). That is, all of us will spend eternity as singles! When I did research on this chapter for God, Marriage, and Family, I was surprised to find that there is in Scripture a trajectory, or development, from singleness being rare and highly undesirable (OT) to singleness being presented as advantageous for kingdom service and as a divine gift (NT) to singleness being the universal state of humanity in heaven. In the book I briefly discuss possible reasons for this rather startling fact (see esp. the chart on p. 198 and the comments on pp. 198–99; see now also the updated discussion in the chapter on singleness in the 2d edition of God, Marriage, and Family). For our present purposes it is sufficient to close with the following brief observations.
First, groups such as the Roman Catholic Church err greatly when they require celibacy for all its priests. This contradicts explicit biblical teaching regarding the first apostles (1 Cor. 9:5); Pauline instructions regarding elders and deacons (1 Tim. 3:2, 4–5, 12; Titus 1:6–7); and blatantly disregards Paul’s severe warning in passages such as 1 Tim. 4:3 that forbidding people to marry is tantamount to propagating “things taught by demons” (1 Tim. 4:1). I have written on this subject at some length elsewhere.
Second, even though we must not require singleness of all church leaders, we should not portray singleness as a second-class or undesirable status in the church either. If Paul calls singleness a divine “gift,” this implies that this gift is good (though obviously not everyone has it). Also, if it is called a gift, it is given by someone else, God, rather than originating with the person who has that gift. Which leads to the often-asked question, “How do I know if I have the gift or not?”
In short, my answer to this question usually is, “If you ask this question with fear or trepidation, this probably means that you do not have the gift.” Having said this, it is impossible to know for certain whether or not one has the gift of singleness until one dies. In some cases, it may be that it is God’s will for a person to remain unmarried for a season and later in life provides a marriage partner. And there are many other possible scenarios. In any case, as mentioned, Jesus and Paul make clear that singleness has many advantages for Christians and should not be despised.
30 and still single? Is the author of the above-mentioned book right with her advice that women in that situation better get busy and sign up with a dating agency? Not necessarily. Space does not permit a detailed review of the book and the author’s argument. Suffice it to say that God’s leading is individual and personal and cannot be reduced to one and only one way of guidance. Who is she to say how God may lead you if you are a woman in your thirties and still single? At the same time, there may be an element of truth in what she says. In some cases—and you need to examine whether or not this could be you—singleness may in part be self-inflicted (if it is indeed God’s will for a given person to get married), and there may be things you can, and should, do to cooperate with God’s purposes in your life (while remembering all the while that God is sovereign). Knowing this calls for wisdom, prayer, discernment, and trust in the God who alone knows you and cares for you intimately—the God who has a wonderful plan for your life, a plan that may, but in most cases probably does not, include singleness.
For further reading, see God, Marriage, and Family as well as my commentary on the Pastoral Epistles in the Expositor’s Bible Commentary, Vol. 12 (rev. ed.; Zondervan), 488–625.