Monday, November 14, 2011

Is Singleness Really a Gift? - Part 2

For years, Jeremiah was my least favorite prophet.  You’re probably thinking, “Why would anyone have a least favorite prophet and what did poor Jeremiah ever do to you?”  Jeremiah has, of course, done nothing to me.  He is, however, the quintessential poster child of the gift-of-singleness movement.  Because Jeremiah was ordered by God not to marry (Jer.16:2), he is held up to singles today as the reason why so many of us aren’t marrying.  All singles who cannot marry, according to many Christians, are simply modern-day Jeremiahs and Jeremitas.

If you’ve heard this explanation for your singleness before, you know that the comparisons don’t end with good old Jeremiah.  Family, friends, and pastors often bring up the apostle Paul, John the Baptist, Nehemiah, and even our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ as proof that God habitually decides that some will be single for a lifetime, despite their desires otherwise.  They feel it’s a normal part of God’s overall plan and you, Ms. Single, are destined to walk in the footsteps of the illustrious unhitched who’ve gone on before you – whether you like it or not.  Like Jeremiah, your fate is sealed.  Your singleness and childlessness have been written in the Lamb’s Book of Life and no amount of praying or pleading is going to change your status.  God has willed you to be single.

Like the prophet Jeremiah, has God willed me to be single?

If the singleness of Jeremiah, Paul, John the Baptist, Nehemiah and Jesus Christ seemed to kill your hopes for marriage and family, fear not.  There are perfectly good explanations for why these men were single.  Before we explore that, however, let’s take close look at 1 Corinthians 7 from which the gift-of singleness doctrine was derived.  Does Paul really state in that chapter that singleness and marriage are spiritual gifts assigned to each person by God?

“This” and “That”

It comes as a shock to many when I express my doubts about the gift-of-singleness doctrine.  “Of course, singleness and marriage are gifts!” they say.  “Paul clearly states that in First Corinthians 7:7.”  The verse in the NIV reads:

I wish all men were as I am.  But each man has his own gift from God; one has this gift, another has that.

A careful reading of this verse reveals that Paul doesn’t mention singleness or marriage at all.  He writes that one person has “this gift” and the other person has “that”.  Paul does not specify what he means by “this” and “that”.1  This may appear to be a minor quibble, but it’s extremely important because we are not the authors of this text.  The Author is God, through the inspired apostle Paul.  Therefore, since we are not the authors, we cannot assign whatever meaning we want to the words “this” and “that” in the text to prove whatever point we want to make.  To know what Paul means by the words “this” and “that”, we must pay close attention to two important details:  Authorial intent and context.

"This" and "That".....two small words that are the cause of much controversy in singleness theology.

What’s the Message?

What truth is God trying to teach us in First Corinthians 7?  To find that out, we need to go back to First Corinthians 6:12 because the thoughts Paul is expressing in First Corinthians 7 are a continuation of a subject begun in First Corinthians 6.  The book of First Corinthians is a letter written by Paul to a specific church with unique problems regarding sexual immorality and, indeed, it is sexual immorality that Paul is discussing from First Corinthians 6:12.  As with any letter, there is a continuous and logical flow and we can see that Paul is still discussing the problems of sexual immorality when we get to First Corinthians 7:1. 

Historical research (I know….nothing interesting ever starts with the words “historical research”, but stay with me here) informs us that sexual immorality was a major problem for the Corinthian church because the city of Corinth in the first century celebrated almost every form of sexual perversion.  Fornication, adultery, and homosexuality were not only rampant, but had even come to be considered a superior form of sexual expression over marital sex between husband and wife.  Even the idolatrous religious rituals in Corinth involved sex with temple prostitutes.  If that wasn’t enough, incest was being tolerated inside the church itself (it is revealed in First Corinthians 5 that a church member was having sexual relations with his father’s wife).  With all this going on, it is little wonder this church was in need of Paul’s guidance on matters of sex. 

Because sexual desire had been so misused and degraded in the Corinthian culture, Christians at Corinth began to believe that sexual desires and needs represented a threat to holiness and godliness.  In a sermon on First Corinthians 7:1-7, evangelical pastor John MacArthur explained how Christians in the Corinthian church had developed an incorrect disdain for sexual desire:

In the midst of all of this, some would suggest that the best way out is never to get married, just forget the whole thing. And they began to elevate that to the idea of celibacy, becoming a spiritually elite people. If you weren't married and you were single and you were celibate, you're sort of a spiritual super-person. You had denied yourself the flesh. You had laid aside all of those things and totally devoted yourself to Jesus Christ. And there was a prevailing view in the Corinthian church that celibacy was the highest form of Christian life, to never get married, to have no sexual relationship at all. And it got so bad that people were not only not getting married, but condemning the people who were married. And the people who were married were leaving their partners in order to be celibate so they could be more spiritual. And people who were married to an unbeliever were getting out fast because there was supposedly defilement in being married to an unbeliever and having a sexual relationship with an unbeliever. So, the Corinthian church had a lot of problems about marriage. 2

The intended message that the apostle Paul (and the ultimate Author, God) gave to the Corinthian church was that although it was honorable and good to live a celibate life and abstain from sexual relations (“It is good for a man not to marry” – 1 Cor. 7:1), this would cause problems for those who could not control their sexual desires, especially in an over-sexed culture like Corinth.  For those singles, Paul strongly advised marriage which is the only godly provision for dealing with the sex drive:

·         “But since there is so much immorality, each man should have his own wife, and each woman her own husband.” – 1 Cor. 7:2

·         “But if they cannot control themselves, they should marry, for it is better to marry than to burn with passion.” – 1 Cor. 7:9

Paul’s message to the married Christians at Corinth was that though their desires to refrain from sexual relations and devote themselves to prayer were good, they should do so only “by mutual consent” and for a set period of time.  This was because the husband and wife had a marital duty to satisfy the needs of the other; they could not use their desire to devote themselves to the Lord as an excuse to avoid sexual relations with their spouse.  To deny their spouses sexual fulfillment was to make them vulnerable to temptation because of their “lack of self-control” (1 Cor. 7:3-5).

So Paul is giving advice to two sets of Christians in First Corinthians 7:1-7:  Single Christians who cannot control their sexual desires and, therefore, must marry and married Christians who should not deny sexual relations to their spouse and cause them to sin due to the inability to control their sexual desires.  Neither group, the singles or the married Christians, has the gift that Paul has:  Self control.  Self control, or the supernatural ability to live a celibate life without any concerns about sex, marriage, or children, is the spiritual gift Paul had, not the state of singleness. 

Did Anyone Have the Gift of Singleness in the Bible?

Now, let’s return to the prophet Jeremiah.

While we cannot deny that Jeremiah was a God-enforced single, we can see that as a prophet of God, Jeremiah was not your average Joe Israelite.  Prophets of old were God’s special spokesmen.  These prophets revealed God’s messages to his people and, according to Hebrews 1:1, God spoke through them in “various ways”, meaning both verbally and symbolically.  It is the symbolic nature of some of the messages of the prophets that explains why God ordered Jeremiah to remain single.  By forbidding Jeremiah to marry, God was not informing Christians today that he would regularly require some to be single.  Rather, he was telling the Israelites of Jeremiah’s day that the sons and daughters of their land would “die of deadly diseases” (Jeremiah 16:4), foretelling the terrible Babylonian exile that was upon them.  It’s worth noting, too, that Jeremiah is the only person in the Bible who was ever given a direct command from God not to marry.  That was a specific command to Jeremiah only, not a general command that applies to anyone else. 

God commanded other prophets to do similarly unusual acts to get his people’s attention and reveal a prophetic message:  Hosea was commanded to marry a prostitute to display God’s loyal love for Israel, despite her constant idolatry (Hos. 1:2-3); Isaiah was forced to walk around naked and barefoot for 3 years to denote the captivity of Egypt by the Assyrians (Isa. 20:1-5); and Ezekiel was commanded to eat food baked over burning cow manure to describe the desperate conditions of Israel’s upcoming Babylonian captivity (Ezek. 4:9-15).  Just as no one would suggest that these passages command us to wed prostitutes, become nudists, or load up the kitchen pantry with cow chips, no one should insist that Jeremiah’s singleness dooms some women to lifelong spinsterhood.  That idea is simply not biblical.

Isn’t it comforting to know that God hasn’t commanded us to remain single?  And doesn’t it feel good to love the prophet Jeremiah again?

Did Jesus Christ have the gift of singleness?

Paul’s Gift
Now that Jeremiah’s off the hook, let’s take a look at the apostle Paul.  Paul’s own letters, which fill up almost half of the New Testament, indicate that he was single not because God imposed the gift of singleness on him, but because he could freely choose to remain single – presumably because of his gift of not desiring sex as much as the average man and because he wanted to travel extensively in his ministry.  In fact, Paul makes it clear that he could have married if he’d wanted to, indicating that his decision to be single was a personal choice, not an act of God.  He says of himself and missionary partner Barnabas in I Corinthians 9:5, “Don’t we have the right to take a believing wife along with us, as do the other apostles and the Lord’s brothers and Cephas?”

As for John the Baptist, it doesn’t take a seminary degree to figure out why he was single.  How could a man who wandered in the desert, eating locusts and wild honey, ever be able to marry and raise a family?  His lifestyle was not conducive to marriage.  Nevertheless, we see no evidence in the Scriptures that God commanded him to remain single.  Whether John the Baptist would have eventually married and settled down (after fulfilling his role of ushering in the ministry of Jesus), will never be known.  He was beheaded by Herod before he could make such a decision.  And what about Nehemiah, the unmarried Old Testament hero who led the rebuilding of Jerusalem?  He was a cup-bearer to the Persian king Artaxerxes and, therefore, very likely a eunuch, unfit for marriage.

Was Jesus commanded to remain single?  Was he given the gift of singleness?  We see no evidence of either in the Scriptures, but consider this dilemma:  How could Jesus Christ, who was God in the flesh, ever settle down, get married, have sex, and father children?  He had a very different purpose on this earth than the average man and the complications that would have arisen from such actions would have been numerous.  For instance, what would we call Jesus’ spouse?  The wife of God?  Would his children be half-God and half-human?  Please understand I’m not asking these questions to be irreverent, but to point out the inherent problems of comparing protracted singleness today to the singleness of Christ, the Savior of the world.  Jesus remained single during his time on Earth not because he had the gift of singleness, but because he was, and is, God.

So Why Am I Single?

If singleness is not a spiritual gift God is assigning to singles everywhere then why are so many women single?  Is singleness out of God’s control?  And why is it so hard to get married these days?! 

Look for the next post in this series, “Do I Have the Gift of Singleness? – Part 3”, for the answers to these questions.

1 I am aware that some newer translations, such as the New Living Translation, replace “this” and “that” in I Corinthians 7:7 with “marriage” and “singleness”, but I believe they do this in error.  They do not derive that meaning from the original Greek text and are instead imposing a popular interpretation on the text itself.

2 John MacArthur, “To Marry or Not to Marry,” Marry


Copyright © 2011