Christian commentators continue to note that marriage in the United States is in the midst of a historic (some say, precipitous) decline. This is most certainly attributable to the self-centered, pleasure-driven, experience-oriented, commitment-free spirit of our age. The pornification of culture, the delay of first-time marriage, unchecked materialism, and the carnage of broken families all serve as prompts for Christians to reinforce a portrait of biblical marriage in both church and society.
Thus, plenty of ink is spilled encouraging men in their twenties to “get it together.” Men should get married early, not for the sake of numbers, but to keep them out of porn, make them responsible, keep them from getting grouchy, get them the help they desperately need through a wife, and to kick the shins of cultural feminism. All of that is fine, as far as it goes.
Recently, however, I came across an article that questioned whether the Bible considered singleness a gift at all. The writer asserted that Paul in 1 Corinthians 7 identifies a “gift” of celibacy not singleness — that the idea of a gift of singleness “is not a Bible thing.”
While the exegetical argument is problematic, I was particularly struck by the counsel provided to those singles who very much wanted to be married. For those pining away for marital bliss, singleness should be endured as another of the necessary, various trials in the Christian life. God is working even this suffering for your good.
But would God have us view (even unwanted) singleness as suffering? Is my singleness a gift or a grief?
Singleness Is a Bible Thing
In 1 Corinthians 7, Paul takes issue with an ascetic statement in a letter he has received from the Corinthians. The church at Corinth had written Paul saying, “it is good for a man not to touch a woman” (1 Corinthians 7:1, my translation). This attitude, characteristic of many opponents to the gospel in the first century, argued that the denial of pleasure promoted holiness. Thus, extreme self-denial would produce superior spirituality. Elsewhere Paul condemns this as “teachings of demons” (cf. 1 Timothy 4:1–5) and antithetical to the accomplished work of Christ (Colossians 2:16–19).
In his response to the Corinthians, Paul counters that sexual temptations are actually a valid reason to pursue marriage (1 Corinthians 7:2). Against asceticism, he argues that sexual pleasure itself is not an evil, rather a God-given good when pursued in the context of marriage. Paul underscores this by arguing that sex is a joyful and right obligation for married couples. Thus, one is not more holy for depriving a spouse of conjugal rights (1 Corinthians 7:3–5). Paul is even concerned to say that temporary abstention for the sake of prayer is a concession, since such abstention could provoke greater temptation (1 Corinthians 7:6). Sex, not celibacy, in marriage is a holy thing.
But lest the pendulum swing towards the extreme of marriage as the only fulfulling station for the Christian, Paul argues that there is also great joy and purpose to be found in singleness, with celibacy. He presents himself as exhibit A: “Yet I wish that all men were even as I myself am. However, each has his own gift from God, one in this manner, and another in that” (1 Corinthians 7:7). Here, too, Paul is cautious to identify his gift and the benefits he sees in it as God’s command (7:6).
But Paul is definitely saying something here is a gift. Some want to say that he means the celibacy he’s just been talking about (1 Corinthians 7:1–5). Others want to say that it's his own (and others’) unmarried status that he’s about to discuss (7:8). Whatever we decide, given what he has argued (7:1–5), we cannot separate celibacy from singleness. And if we can’t, it is legitimate to say that Paul views unmarried celibacy as a gift.
What’s crystal clear is that Paul isn’t some masochistic killjoy wishing that others would join him in his pain of unrequited sexuality. He doesn’t seem to view singleness or celibacy as any hindrance to joy. Who, after all, talks more about joy than this (single) apostle? Paul has a friend in every town. His letters are ebullient; full of the joy of a man whose life in Christ is also is full of meaningful relationships. He has no wife, but countless (spiritual) children. Despite his countless sufferings, he’d choose to live another day for the joy of the church than to be in the presence of Christ (Philippians 1:24–26). His life of singleness is not a bleak winter waiting for the spring of marriage. Paul not only sees singleness as legitimate but as “beautiful” (kalon, 1 Corinthians 7:8).
Singleness Is a Positive Good
What is more, the single life can be beautiful, in Paul’s mind, because of where we live in the storyline of history. Jesus’s victorious resurrection from the dead and his ascension and enthronement as Lord has ushered in a new stage in redemptive history. This world, as it has been known, is passing away (1 Corinthians 7:31). The nations, once held in bondage and unable to receive the message of God’s love, are now being brought by the millions into the kingdom of God (Revelation 20:1–3). The outpouring of the Spirit hasn’t simply changed the dynamic of sanctification (John 14:25–27; Romans 8:1–5); it has radically constituted a new family formed not by genetic relationships but in fellowship with Christ Jesus — the church.
Thus, Paul can argue that the gift of singleness is undistracted freedom to please Christ (1 Corinthians 7:32). While this “undistracted devotion to the Lord” (1 Corinthians 7:35) can be reflected in activities like earnest prayer, it also certainly includes the kind of service Paul himself offered: preaching, teaching, evangelism, training, correspondence, discipleship, encouragement, organization, biblical interpretation, and so on. Without the immediate concerns of providing for a wife and children, Paul could devote his energies to the church with single-minded attention. And what of those labors (Romans 15:17–19)? Singleness, even for those who long to be married and aren’t, is not a trial to be endured; it is a positive good. It is a gift to be cherished and maximized. We ought not waste our singleness by viewing it as a trial to be endured.
Singleness Is Not Junior Varsity
For many (perhaps, most), marriage is the context for faithful Christian living. Paul argues that some, on account of sexual temptation, must be married (1 Corinthians 7:9). Unfortunately, culture (sometimes, unfortunately, even church culture), rather than Paul, argues that sexual fulfillment is essential for human happiness. While Paul renounces the priggish, super-spirituality of asceticism, he does not cede the ground to those who would say life without marriage (and sex) is incomplete. Sex in marriage is not moving up from some kind of junior varsity celibacy in singleness. It is not an accomplishment that somehow makes life more fulfilling or a person more wise or more qualified for leadership in the church.
That’s because sex, despite every current evidence to the contrary, does not define what it means to be human. Sexual pleasure is, like any other good gift, a temporary good to be enjoyed in its proper context. It is neither eternal nor ultimate. We must keep in mind that the same apostle who gives us some of the deepest reflection on marriage’s end (Ephesians 5:22–33) can also long for Christians to live “as I myself am” (1 Corinthians 7:8). And Paul is not alone in the matter. He echoes someone else who seems to think that purposeful singleness and celibacy is a Bible thing: “Let the one who is able to receive this receive it” (Matthew 19:12).