For various reasons and by various means, the teaching that singleness “is a gift” has got about in the Christian church. Like many other things that have got about, like your teen-aged son’s pet bull snake, this has been the cause of much excitement, most of it not good.
A few years ago, I wrote a piece that argued that young men should get married by their 23rd birthday. Despite the cogency of the reasoning therein, this contribution of mine did not fix our culture-wide disgrace of a problem, and so I thought it best to have at it again.
Let Us Define Terms, Shall We?
Singleness is an affliction, not a gift. Or, if it is considered as a gift, following the instructions of the New Testament, it is the same kind of gift that a bona fide affliction is. More on that in a moment.
Got that? Singleness is an affliction, not a gift. But in order for this argument to hold water for more than three minutes, I hasten to define here what kind of singleness I am talking about.
Singleness is a gift if it is freely chosen by a responsible adult, and is freely chosen in order to devote oneself to kingdom work, and the choice is not rashly made by a nineteen-year-old at a revival meeting. “No man may vow to do any thing . . . which is not in his own power, and for the performance whereof he hath no promise of ability from God” (WCF 22.7).
A three-year-old is single, and that is a gift to everyone, in pretty much every direction. I am happy to call that status a gift. And the unmarried apostle Paul was gifted with celibacy (1 Cor 7:7), and he explicitly calls this status of his a gift.
So perhaps we should distinguish celibacy from singleness this way — celibacy is voluntary singleness, embraced for the sake of kingdom work by a responsible adult. This would exclude those who are voluntarily single, but whose reasons have more to do with the thought processes of crotchety bachelors than they do with the dedication of frontier mission church planters. As my father says, men turn into old maids sooner than women do.
So singleness is an affliction if it was not chosen freely and voluntarily for the sake of kingdom work, and the person concerned is of a marriageable age, and would very much like to be married.
The problem is that many thousands of young adults in just this circumstance have been told in numerous ways, and on many occasions, that their singleness “is a gift.” But this puts many of them in a really awkward position. They are the sort of church member that the church, broadly speaking, likes to pick on. They are generally too nice to speak up about it, but it is as though the church held a birthday party in their honor, and made a special point of giving the young lady concerned a special birthday present, one that had the card signed by Jesus Himself. This is a gift from Jesus, the whole church says, beaming at her. But when Suzy, or Sadie, or Sally opens it up, what she finds is a bulky sweater, knit by a clear amateur, with a big ugly moose on the back. And the only advantage in the size of the moose is that it leaves no room for any white elephants, which somehow seemed to be involved or anticipated. And the thing that hurts, and maybe even stings a little, is the expectation of the church at large that you hold the sweater to your chest and cry out that it is “just what you wanted.”
But it isn’t.
Affirming the Consequent
Now a number of the comments on this subject from our evangelical leaders have a great deal of truth jumbled in with them. But right near the center a fatal confusion can usually be found. And that is the equivocation over the word gift. All who have the gift of celibacy are single, but not everyone who is single has the gift of celibacy. To confuse the two is to affirm the consequent. All dogs have four legs but the fact that this cat here has four legs doesn’t make it a dog.
All who have the gift of celibacy have a true gift, given as a blessing, and received as one. All who are single, but without that gift of celibacy, have an affliction. Now an affliction is also a gift, about which more in a minute, but for our purposes here it is a completely different kind of gift.
But notice how Vaughan Roberts breaks this down:
When Paul speaks of singleness as a gift, he is not speaking about a particular ability that some people have to be contentedly single. He is speaking rather of the state of being single. For as long as you have it, that is a gift from God, just as marriage will be God’s giftVaughan Roberts, link here
But notice what he is saying here. There is no difference between a person who is equipped and empowered by a distraction-free opportunity to labor for the kingdom, and another person who is tangled up in a bad case of temptations, which are a daily distraction. If it is not lust, it is the lonesomes.
The “particular ability to be contentedly single” is the only thing that makes the single state a condition that is free from distraction. And you cannot say that while God did not give you the ability to be free from distraction, you must be free from distraction anyhow.
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).Andreas Kostenberger, link here
There is a lot of truth here, but it is still mixed up with this fatal confusion. The condition of being “distracted” can happen in two different ways. One is the distraction that Paul was talking about — the man who marries will in short order have a wife, three kids, two car seats, and the dog was not his idea, and a minivan, and on top of all that, a pending time of persecution. This is the kind of distraction that Paul tries to get people to wave off, for those who can.
But it would be better to have to flee persecution in your minivan than to stay single with periodic sexual lapses. That also is a distraction (1 Cor. 7:9). I was once talking with an earnest young man who wondered aloud if he might have the gift of celibacy, so I asked him if he used porn. Somewhat startled, he replied that it had been a problem, and so I told him that he could cross celibacy off his list of possible gifts.
One of the reasons why the church is so accepting of large numbers of young people remaining single for extended periods of time is that we have signed a secret peace treaty with porn industry. Yes, we have a couple hundred singles in their twenties. Yes, they are all full of hormones, and yes, they all have computers. Let’s not ask too many questions though. We pay for the very public condition of our “distraction-free” singles by saddling them with this most private distraction, and we do not inquire into it too closely, This is how we keep the costs of available babysitters down — twenty bucks, and a wink and a nod.
Chalk from Cheese
When we are talking about singleness as an affliction, we are talking about a circumstance that we consider undesirable. We pray that this condition go away. We don’t like it. That said, we don’t get to respond to the situation by shrieking and moaning — we are supposed to cope with it like Christians.
“I know both how to be abased, and I know how to abound: every where and in all things I am instructed both to be full and to be hungry, both to abound and to suffer need. I can do all things through Christ which strengtheneth me.”
Philippians 4:12–13 (KJV)
But coping with affliction like a Christian is not supposed to be a grand exercise in kidding yourself. You don’t get to go sit out in the rain in order to pretend it is perfect weather for a picnic. When Paul said he had learned to be content in whatever state he was in, he did not do this by flattening the differences between the alternative states in question. He still knew the difference between abasement and abounding. He could still tell the difference between being full and being hungry. He could still distinguish chalk from cheese. Contentment does not destroy all your nerve endings, and it does not obliterate your ability to distinguish what you want from what you don’t want. Paul knew the secret of contentment, and he also knew enough to come in from out of the rain.
So Affliction Is a Gift Too, Sort Of
Now Roberts is correct that everything that comes to us from the hand of God should be received by us as coming from the hand of God. But the apostle Paul could still tell the difference between his thorn in the flesh and a second helping of mashed potatoes and gravy at Thanksgiving dinner.
So those who are single (and who don’t want to be) should thank God for their situation. But they should do so without any trace of delusion. They are thanking God for it the same way they should thank God for bad financial news, or a cancer diagnosis, or any other true affliction.
This will be easier to do once you stop trying to persuade yourself that your chief private sorrow is actually a piece of Boston cream pie.
But this is where the confusion mentioned above comes in again.
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).Ryan Griffith, link here
But depending on who you are, your condition of singleness could be very be a very bleak winter indeed.
“And in that day seven women shall take hold of one man, saying, We will eat our own bread, and wear our own apparel: Only let us be called by thy name, to take away our reproach.”
Isaiah 4:1 (KJV)
We are to count it all joy when we meet various trials (Jas. 1:2) We know that suffering produces perseverance and perseverance leads to hope. This is why we are to glory in tribulation (Rom. 5:3). We are to grow in character, in diligence, and in patience (2 Pet. 1:5-8). We do this in the face of trials and temptations, faced with clarity and boldness. But we do not do any of this by telling ourselves lies.
One Last Thing
There is a common temptation in conservative Christian circles that fails to take into account the true nature and magnitude of the problem. At least the problem in such circles is recognized as a problem, but it is usually thought to be a problem with the young men, who just need to get off the dime. If the young men would just start asking girls out, we could fix this thing up in no time. But that is not it.
Our problem is not that the young men are slackers, and everybody else has their act together. Our difficulty is that we in the church have gone along with a downgrade of the understanding of marriage, and particularly the value of marriage to young men. Because the church has accommodated itself to a soft feminism (otherwise known as soft complementarianism), the evangelical church today thinks of marriage as a licit form of “friends with benefits.” But that is not what it is.
When we repent, and get out of this mess we are in, the young men will certainly have their share of repenting to do. But the lion’s share of repenting is going to have to be with the teachers of the church. We have been misleading the people of God on the true nature of creation, sex, marriage, men, women, children, pregnancy, and love for a long, long time.