Sarah Owens answers: Is Singleness A Gift?
In an ancient empire bent on expansion, it makes sense that a married, growing population is preferable to an unmarried, shrinking one. But what about today? Aren’t there enough people in the world?
The following is a guest post from Sarah Owens, one of our essay contest winners. (Writing Prompt: “Is singleness a gift?”) The views expressed in these essays do not necessarily reflect the views of Dominion Dating.
Most excellent reader,
Considering the straight-forward title of this essay, the brave few who undertake to read it are owed a straight-forward answer. (Nothing is worse than looking for the answer to a simple “yes” or “no” question to find it halfway up the last page and the answer turns out to be “maybe”.) So I want to begin at the ending, and give my conclusion upfront: singleness is not a gift, but rather is a trial to be endured for the sake of the advancement of God’s kingdom. It bears reading twice: singleness is not a gift, it is a trial to be endured for the sake of advancing God’s kingdom. A trial? Yes indeed, a trial. Now that you at least know where this train is headed, let’s ride.
Singleness in the ancient world was the exception, rather than the norm. Rome actually had laws on the books forbidding celibacy, with a few exceptions for “vestal virgins” or palace eunuchs. In Sparta, a man could lose his citizenship for not marrying 1 . The philosopher Plato was a little more broad-minded when he wrote his Republic, tolerating bachelors up to the age of 35, after which they were consigned to the last rank in public ceremonies 2 . And if those were the metaphorical sticks, marriage also came with its share of carrots: alliance to other families, public prestige, a lineage to carry on the family name.
From the perspective of an ancient empire bent on territorial expansion, it makes sense that a married, growing population is preferable to an unmarried, shrinking one. But what about today? Aren’t there enough people in the world? Surely such an emphasis on the importance of marriage was the product of a more backwards time, and we as a society can move past that.
However, before there was a Rome, before there was a Greece, there was a God who created all things perfect and without flaw, yet declared “It is not good for man to be alone.” Each stage of creation, and each creature in it were declared “good”; the only thing in all creation that was “not good” was the state of a man unable to be united with a woman. This emphasis on the goodness of marriage goes far beyond the pragmatic desires of ancient empires. It applies to men in all times and places, and not just to Adam. In verse 24 of the same chapter, the author takes a short excursus from the story-telling, to explain why this story matters: “Therefore a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and they shall become one flesh.” This is why any man leaves his parents to find a wife-- because it is not good for him to be alone!
“But what about Paul?” you may wonder. “Doesn’t Paul say singleness is a gift, and people should be unmarried?” Before we put Paul at odds with God, wrestling as though he were Jacob, we have to examine the chapter where Paul teaches most clearly on marriage and singleness: 1 Corinthians 7.
Paul writes this chapter to give specific answers to specific marriage-related questions the Corinthians asked him (“Now concerning the matters about which you wrote…” 1 Cor. 7:1) Twice in the span of three verses, Paul implies singleness is better.
6 Now as a concession, not a command, I say this. 7 I wish that all were as I myself am. But each has his own gift from God, one of one kind and one of another. 8 To the unmarried and the widows I say that it is good for them to remain single, as I am. 9 But if they cannot exercise self-control, they should marry. For it is better to marry than to burn with passion.
Similarly, he twice uses the phrase “as I am”, highlighting his own singleness. The first time, in verse 7, is where we get the idea of singleness as a gift. Paul says he wishes everyone were single, like he is, but acknowledges that each has his own gift, “one of one kind, and one of another”. Paul’s train of thought, then, goes like this:
It would be great if everyone could be single
Everyone has different gifts, Therefore,
Not everyone can be single
This logic does not run perfectly smoothly-- It feels like something is missing in step 2. The standard answer is that there is a gift of singleness, and because not everyone has that gift, not everyone can be single. Paul’s sentence would be filled in like this: “Each has his own gift from God, one of singleness and another of marriage.” But looking at verse 9, I will argue differently.
Even though Paul just expressed a preference for everyone to be single, in verse 9 he does what seems like an about-face and commands certain people to get married. Anyone who “cannot exercise self-control” is told to be married, and from the context we understand this self-control to be a control over lust and sexual desires.
This helps us clarify Paul’s logic in verse 7: the missing gift is not the “gift of singleness”, it is the gift of self-control over lust. Because the ability to reign in lust is a requirement for holy single living, and not everyone is equally gifted in that area (or certain people are “gifted” with a much stronger desire for a spouse), not everyone should remain single. The spiritual gift Paul was given to enable him to remain unmarried was the gift of self control over sexual sin, possibly coupled with less sexual desire.
Finally, we need to put these two pieces together. If God says in Genesis that it is good to be married (or, “not alone”), then in what sense can Paul say “it is good to be unmarried”? To be unmarried requires a person to walk a more difficult road, requiring special spiritual gifting. This is why I identify singleness as a trial. But a person who is thus equipped can do work for the kingdom of God that a married person could not do. Deafness can be a gift, if it allows a believer to reach a community in sign language that would be otherwise difficult to reach. Being born in a country hostile to the gospel can be a gift, if that person can preach Christ to those who couldn’t hear from someone born elsewhere. Singleness is definitionally a lonely endeavor, but it frees a person’s priorities and allows them to devote the hours of their day to God in a way that a married person just cannot match.
Many applications come from this biblical teaching, but the one I will leave you with is that to choose singleness for the sake of “enjoying your life” is foolishness. The world tells you that marriage is a ball and chain, that you need to travel and explore and discover the real you before you get married (because after you get married, they don’t allow you on airplanes, I guess?). This is a diabolic lie. If you feel gifted to remain single, then remain single and “secure your undivided devotion to the Lord” (1 Cor 7:35). Join your local church and serve till your shoes fall off. Picket your local Abortion mill. Invite your neighbors to dinner every Tuesday and pray for them. But don’t forsake what God calls good to chase after what the world calls good. Recognize the value of what you are forgoing, and let that spur you on to not waste your singleness, no matter how short or long the season, but to wholeheartedly pursue the kingdom of God.
Numa Denis Fustel de Coulanges, The Ancient City, 38–39 (2) Diderot, Denis. “Celibacy.” The Encyclopedia of Diderot & d’Alembert Collaborative Translation Project. Ann Arbor: Michigan Publishing, University of Michigan Library, 2013. Web, 18 Apr. 2009. Trans. of “Célibat,” Encyclopédie ou Dictionnaire raisonné des sciences, des arts et des métiers, vol. 2. Paris, 1752.