The Gift of Singleness (Part 2)

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My post on the gift of singleness has generated many responses, some favorable, some negative. Of the latter, some said I misrepresented Debbie Maken’s book; others took issue with my proposed biblical trajectory regarding singleness. I should clarify that my post was not intended as a book review of Maken’s book; I mentioned her only in the first and final paragraph to relate my comments to the contemporary scene. My primary purpose was to set forth the biblical teaching on singleness by way of a digest from the chapter on singleness in my book, God, Marriage & Family. I should also note that the digest is not a substitute for reading the entire chapter. Mrs. Maken has now responded to my post, and I find her response on the whole constructive and helpful in crystallizing some of the pertinent issues.

It is probably inevitable that those who don’t know me personally or who haven’t read my entire book, or at least the chapter on singleness, will misrepresent my position. Nevertheless, the issue is not served by misrepresentations, so let me start by correcting a few misapprehensions. First, Maken says I counsel singles, “instead of looking to [tag]Scripture[/tag],” to search their feelings, because I say in my original post that, all things being equal, if anyone is anxious about possibly having the gift of singleness, they may well not have it. So by her own account, Maken advocates living by Scripture and I advocate living by feeling. I will not dignify this characterization with a response other than to say that virtually my entire post was devoted to present the biblical teaching on singleness, and so to quote one sentence out of context is patently unfair and misleading.

Second, some have said that I am, in essence, “pro-singleness” and do not advocate marriage as the norm today. This is false. I do believe marriage is the norm today, as Jesus made clear in Matthew 19. Having said this, Jesus in the same passage proceeded to speak in positive terms about an exception to this norm, namely refraining from marriage for the sake of God’s kingdom. So it is really a both-and rather than an either-or proposition.

For this reason, third, I believe the central issue is: What is the “gift” Paul is talking about in 1 Corinthians 7 (and Jesus in Matthew 19)? Maken and others here dichotomize between the “gift of celibacy” (which they say exists, in a very narrow scope; for those “called . . . to accomplish something of monumental proportions,” to cite Maken) and the “gift of singleness” (whose existence they deny). To clarify, it may be helpful to note that neither “celibacy” nor “singleness” are biblical terms; the expression used most frequently in this context in Scripture is agamos, “unmarried.” Rather than erect an unbiblical dichotomy, therefore, it might be better to talk about people being divinely gifted to remain unmarried for the sake of God’s kingdom. For some, this calling is permanent (apparently this, among other things, is what Maken means by “celibacy”), while for others it is temporary (Maken’s “singleness”?).

Here is the critical point, however: How does a person who is currently unmarried know whether or not their unmarried state is permanent or temporary? Maken says, if I understand her correctly, “Assume it is temporary unless you meet the high standard of ‘monumental service.’ ” Plus, hasten the day when the unmarried state comes to an end (i.e. get married). I would be less certain in assuming that in virtually every case a person who is currently unmarried must be urged to pursue marriage on the basis that marriage is the biblical norm. Note what Maken does here. She first distinguishes between celibacy and singleness (neither of which are biblical terms) on the supposition that only celibacy is a gift and then, unsurprisingly, finds that singleness is unbiblical! Yet this is circular reasoning and hence proves nothing. We are still left with the question, “What is it that Paul calls a divine gift in 1 Corinthians 7?” (and Jesus refers to as those who have “renounced marriage for the kingdom of heaven” in Matthew 19).

What is more, once Maken states, categorically, that singleness is unbiblical (her definition, over against celibacy), the implication, if I understand her argument correctly, is that virtually everyone who is currently single is so for unbiblical reasons. I have had unmarried men and women post on my blog saying they were content in their singleness, and others (favoring Maken’s view) have written in taking those people to task for their positive approach to singleness. This strikes me as judgmental and in conflict with Paul’s advocacy of a non-judgmental attitude toward others in Romans 14–15. I believe that intrinsic to Maken’s view is a certain arrogance and judgmental attitude that says, “I know what God’s will is for your life, and if you think differently, you’re wrong. Trust me, I know what Scripture says.”

The fact is, Scripture does not say whether Debbie or Jimmy or Sandra or Peter should get married or have the divine gift of singleness (or, more precisely, should remain unmarried for the sake of God’s kingdom). Scripture provides general parameters (such as Genesis 2 or Jesus’ and Paul’s statements), and on a personal level every individual is called to discern God’s personal leading for them as they are led by the Holy Spirit.

Now Maken says in her response that her and my position (which, as she mentions, is widely held today and represents the prevailing view) are mutually exclusive. I see things differently. The way I see it, she and I agree on the following points:

  • Marriage is the norm for believers today as it was in OT times (Genesis 2; Jesus’ reaffirmation of Genesis 2 in Matthew 19);
  • Remaining unmarried is an exception to the norm and is presented as a divine gift in Scripture (Matthew 19, 1 Corinthians 7).

The main difference, in my judgment, comes in the extent or degree to which God may call individuals to remain unmarried. I am not sure how Maken arrives at her test of “monumental accomplishments.” Nor do I know on what basis she judges just how rare (or virtually non-existent) this divine calling is. Perhaps she is overreacting here against certain teachings or practices; I’m not sure. In Matthew 19, Jesus globally refers to “some . . . others . . . and others”; there is no mention made of a very narrow limit. In 1 Corinthians 7, likewise, the discussion is general: “But each of you has your own gift from God; one has this gift, another has that.” It seems that Maken is importing her notion of the rarity of the “gift” into those passages; I cannot find it there.

Also, whether or not Maken is right in her bottom-line conclusion, I question some of the statements she is making in arguing for it. For example, she says that because “God is the same yesterday, today, and forever, and his law does not change,” marriage is the norm and singleness is rare. That may be so, but hardly for the reason Maken cites. It is true that God never changes, but that does not preclude God pursuing a course with humanity that moves, for example, from the sacrificial system to worship in spirit and truth apart from sacrifices (other than in a metaphorical sense). Many more examples could be given (such as giving; see here my two-part series of articles on “tithing”). There is much development in Scripture, and to say this is inconsistent with the nature of God is not a very defensible argument theologically.

Maken also seems to imply on the basis of 1 Timothy 3:2 (“faithful husband”) that church leaders must be married. This, too, is a precarious position that is held by very few (if any) informed students of Scripture (see on this my treatment of this passage in the revised Expositor’s Bible Commentary Vol. 12, pp. 524–25). Rather, as commonly held, Paul assumes (an entirely reasonable assumption) that most candidates for such a position will be married and so spells out marital and familial qualifications. It is an illegitimate argument from silence to infer from the marital qualification in 1 Timothy 3:2 that Paul required marriage from all church leaders. Moreover, it is difficult to believe that why Paul would have excluded himself (or people like himself) from eligibility for church leadership because he was unmarried. Notice also that it is nowhere mentioned that Timothy (the recipient of the letter in question) was married.

There are several other arguments in Maken’s response that seem precarious and open to question, such as the statement that, “The reason we have singleness running rampant today is because we no longer cherish marriage” (emphasis added). This analysis is surely unduly simplistic in that Maken attributes increasing singleness to one single cause when the situation is arguably considerably more complex. To be sure, marriage is under siege in our culture today, which is the very reason why I wrote my book God, Marriage & Family. Indeed, we stand united in our concern to defend marriage and to commend it. In addition, I, for one, also want to commend singleness as a legitimate (albeit exceptional) state for those who have received this divine gift and calling.

One element absent in Maken’s comments on 1 Corinthians 7 that would shed considerable light on the situation, in my opinion, is the particular background to Paul’s comments there. Specifically, it appears that in Corinth some taught that singleness is a state that is spiritually superior to marriage and hence told single people to stay unmarried and married people either to divorce their spouses (so they could be single and more spiritual!) or to live with their marriage partners in a continent relationship (remain married but refrain from sexual intercourse in the future). All this owing to the Greek philosophical dualism between matter (as evil) and spirit (good). Similarly, in Ephesus (1 Tim. 2:15; 4:3; 5:14) some disparaged marriage and procreation and in some cases even forbid marriage altogether.

It is in this context, as I develop in God, Marriage, & Family, that Paul’s comments should be understood. On the one hand, he made clear that singleness is not superior to marriage spiritually. People should not refrain from marriage on the basis of this belief, much less should they divorce their existing marriage partners to be more spiritual in an unmarried state! At the same time, Paul tried to balance his comments by noting certain advantages of the unmarried state for kingdom service and even called such a state a “gift” from God. It is this correction of a teaching that singleness is superior spiritually that is important for us to understand. Yet note how even when putting singleness in its place and proper context, Paul still speaks very positively about it and does not disparage it or cast it in extremely narrow terms.

I conclude with a few personal reflections. It appears that much of Maken’s underlying concern has to do with encouraging men to take more initiative and being more responsible in pursuing marriage. With this I heartily concur. I also concur that some women are too prepared to be content with “being married to Jesus” when they should pursue marriage to a flesh-and-blood husband. And, certainly, there are pastors and counselors who provide unhelpful teaching and counsel in this regard. As usual, there is an element of truth in every overcorrection or overreaction. Nevertheless, while Maken may be correct, at least in part, in diagnosing some of the problems in the contemporary scene, I have several concerns with Maken’s own alternative approach.

To begin with, if I were single, I would not appreciate being essentially labeled as almost certainly out of God’s will, and, if currently content in my singleness, being told that I am self-deceived or worse. Singles are already frequently excluded in many social settings in the church. Also labeling them as almost certainly out of God’s will is hardly going to help their situation, and this, in my view, is unfortunate. I think God would have us not only encourage those many toward marriage who are called to marriage (though not prod them to rush into marriage), but also affirm those few who are content in their unmarried state and see it, whether permanently or temporarily (and who among those who are currently unmarried knows for certain which it is?), as God’s calling for them. Indeed, as Paul says in 1 Corinthians, there are many advantages for the unmarried in serving in the church and in promoting God’s kingdom (whether Maken or I would describe their contribution as “monumental” or not).

When Maken writes, “The call to marriage applies uniformly to all mankind,” I would simply add, “Except for those who are called by God to remain unmarried, whether for a lifetime or a season in their life.” Despite Maken’s confident assertions, no one truly knows just how many people fit in that category except for God, and he really is the only one who needs to know. We don’t need to decide for someone else whether or not they are called to marry or to remain unmarried. We are not the Holy Spirit, so why are we not content to leave this decision up to God’s leading in that person’s life and that person’s own conscience and judgment? In the end, it is their life, isn’t it? Those women who have written me that they are bitter about being single very possibly don’t have the gift of singleness. But why deny that anybody (or virtually anybody) else may have that gift? This, to me, seems to be an extreme position, even a judgmental one, and I, for one, believe it is more appropriate—not to mention being more in keeping with Scripture—to affirm marriage as the norm and singleness as the exceptional, but honorable, calling for those who have received it.

20 Comments

  1. Maken does a great job of bringing up an issue that she experienced personally and needs to be discussed. Her problem of applying it globally and over-reaching scripture to bolster her position are forgivable in my view. Forgivable – not condonable. I have used Maken’s position to ferret out underlying motives of many singles and it has been invaluable at times. At other times it proved only to strengthen a singles position of their call to that state – despite the monumental accomplishments they were experiencing. Either way it helped. Here lies the difference between exegesis and eisegesis. Thank you Andreas for your faithful use of exegesis to help steer us as we try to glean the truth from helpful, but incomplete, eisegesis.

  2. Thank you for your response. I appreciate you encouraging believers to go back to scripture and to rely on the Holy Spirit for guidance. I think that anything more specific that that advice definately appears to be arrogant and judgmental. After all, any wise counsel is quick to encourage the believer back into the Word of God. Thank you again.

  3. I am curious as to Debbie Maken’s views on 1 Timothy 2:11-12…? Her propensity for male bashing seems unbiblical.

  4. Being single might be considered a blessing by some, and, it has it’s good moments (emphasis on moments), but, if the person is growing into middle age alone and miserable, and fearful of dying alone in old age (almost all of my family are gone), where is the blessing in that kind of sad life?

    I never wanting a house full of noisy children or a wife in curlers, but, I did want a loving relationship. How is it that being alone and wanting for something that will likely never happen – aside from being with someone in a way that is against God’s Will – is blessed?

    I maintain that what St. Paul said is true – better to be married, than to be filled with passion, since being filled with unanswered passion makes the person less – in my mind, St. Paul’s verse says it all, since, being “blessed single”, but, being tempted with sin constantly as a single person, is not being blessed at all, but, is only a stumbling block to the persons life – better, if the person cannot handle single life, that they are instead in a loving marriage, and can then discard the unrequited feelings of the “blessed single” life for a married life that is emotionally more balanced.

    Frank

  5. Dear Readers and Writers,

    Your letters and comments regarding the state of being single are thought-provoking and affirming. I recently wrote an artilce titled, “Singled Out”, for a local Christian publication. In the process of writing I was confronted with many, if not all of the issues that have been placed on the table in what I just read.

    I consider deliberations regarding singleness a healthy exercise for marrieds as well as unmarrieds in the church. Obtaining the grace to discern God’s leading regarding the state He is calling us to; then to live therein appreciatively in honor of Him is no small task for anyone.

    Thanks to each of you for sharing your convictions and views.

    Susan

  6. Thank you so much for saying this.
    I had many of the same concerns about Maken’s viewpoints.

    It’s a shame Boundless.org [a Focus on the Family website] doesn’t ascribe to what you’ve said; they promote Maken’s view in an otherwise solidly biblical website.

    Thank you so much for airing what I [and I assume many others] have been thinking.

  7. Dear Dr. Kostenberger,

    Thanks for sending me your book. I really appreciate it. It looks like an excellent and thorough treatment of a broad range of topics. I’ve read parts of the preface, the endorsements, and chapter 9 so far. . .

    Blessings,
    Alex

  8. Dr. Kostenberger, thank you for your thoughtful posts in response to Debbie Maken’s book.

    As a never-married forty-something man, I am deeply troubled by Mrs. Maken’s arguments. Such arguments will only lead to the further marginalization of singles in the evangelical church, perhaps even driving some singles out of the church altogether.

    I am also deeply troubled by some of Mrs. Maken’s supporters who are using her arguments to judge and condemn older singles as sinners solely on the basis of their marital status. There is no biblical basis for such judgment and condemnation.

  9. Deanna,

    You said:

    Under no other circumstances is singleness condoned in the Bible, in fact it is in direct contrast to God’s mandate to go forth and multiply. As such, could protracted singleness not even be regarded as sinful?

    Deanna, do you believe that infertile couples are sinning because they are unable to be fruitful and multiply? Of course you don’t. I am sure that you would never think, let alone say, such a crass, insensitive and unbiblical thing.

    Why, then, is it suddenly open season on Christian singles whose ‘sin’ apparently, is never to have got married?????? A sin which is never mentioned in the Bible for the very good reason that it does not exist. When singleness is mentioned in scripture, it is not condemned. Of course the Bible doesn’t address singleness as we know it in the 21st century. It doesn’t address the question of woman’s suffrage either. Does that mean Christians are wrong to believe in it?! That would be pretty absurd (not to mention worrying.)

    Do I believe in the timeless principles of biblical teaching? Of course I do. That’s why I am sexually abstinent.

    Do I believe the church is right to uphold marriage as the norm and to challenge some current attitudes towards singleness? Yes, I do. Of course I do. Christians are meant to be counter-cultural.

    But let me assure you, the last thing today’s Christian singles need is condemnation. We don’t want pity. We also don’t want to be regarded as objects of suspicion. That is the last thing I would have expected from the church community.

    I am a ‘protracted single’. I’m 44, never been married, would like to be married (because nobody is ever too old to fall in love), but I don’t mope around, I get on with life and serving God, etc. etc. etc.

    I am curious about two things, Deanna:

    – What counsel would you give to a single Christian who is struggling with a lesbian or homosexual orientation?

    – What counsel would you give a single-again Christian – i.e. they are divorced and would like to marry again – who is struggling with their sexual desires? Do you believe that Christians have the freedom in Christ to marry again after divorce? Do you believe that God has blessed them to be fruitful and multiply in their second marriages?

    In all this current brouhaha, the silence over these two issues is deafening.

    Dr Kostenberger, thank you very much for your post.

  10. Desiring marriage is not making an idol out of it. Marriage is God’s design – His blueprint for our lives.
    The only exceptions are as a temporary measure in times of crisis, or if we fall into one of the three categories of eunuch: we were born with some disability, we have suffered an injury, or we have some Kingdom purpose that would be incompatible with marriage. That is most likely the catagory that Paul would come under, and therefore his lack of sexual desire is described as a gift in 1 Cor 7:7. Under no other circumstances is singleness condoned in the Bible, in fact it is in direct contrast to God’s mandate to go forth and multiply. As such, could protracted singleness not even be regarded as sinful?

  11. Dear Alex (and Marni),

    Thank you for honoring me with your Open Letter. I understand your situation with your limited family budget, so if you will supply me with your mailing address, I will mail a copy of my book to you free of charge. Hopefully you will enjoy reading the book which, as you know, deals not only with singleness but with other issues related to marriage and the family as well. You can contact my administrative assistant to let him know your address, and we will mail the book out to you promptly.

    With regard to your response to my post, yes, you have rightly discerned that the answer to my question is “only God knows.” As far as whether a given person should marry or not, I believe it is ultimately that person’s prerogative to discern this, if they are a Christian, under the personal guidance of the Holy Spirit and in keeping with the general scriptural parameters given. Of course, you and I may differ in our interpretation of Scripture, so there may be some difference in whose parameters we are talking about (yours? mine?). As I mentioned in my blog, I believe it is judgmental and arrogant to try to settle this personal issue for someone else.

    Sure, there are all kinds of wrong reasons to stay single, as there are to get married. That’s because we’re all sinners! There’s just no easy formula, in my opinion, to “solve” the “problem” of singleness in our day. You raise a good point when you talk about what you call “the parameter of sexual continence” in 1 Corinthians 7. Still, there seems to be a subjective element in this, and it is hard to quantify just how high this standard is (as you also seem to indicate in your parenthetical remark). I think we should remember here that all believers are called to exercise self-control, and both of us have heard people quote “It is better to marry than to burn” out of context.

    Please give my regards to your wife. My wife’s name is Marny as well, so there’s something we have in common.

    Cordially,

    Andreas Kostenberger

  12. I must respectfully disagree with Jennifer Henry’s comment above, particularly when she states:

    “There are so many lonely single men and women who don’t want to be content as singles, they don’t ever consider singleness to be a gift and they want love and marriage. Yet…they are told over and over that if they are single, there must be a holy purpose and not to seek relationships until this purpose is realized. I’m surprised more men and women aren’t leaving the church. Men aren’t interested in endless debates over 1 Corinthians 7 and church singles groups are turning into women-only book clubs.”

    Perhaps this is exactly the issue–that many singles are NOT focused on walking with the Lord and growing in maturity. Instead, there can be a strong temptation to put their desire to be married above everything else (I say this as a single man), making it an idol in their lives. Anyone who has been involved in singles ministry knows how such a group can degrade into a meat market, where men and women are more interested in finding a mate than loving and caring for their brothers and sisters in Christ.

    Jennifer, the fact that many men and women are lonely (which I can sympathize with), don’t want to be content in their singleness, and don’t consider being single a particularly good gift, does not mean that such an attitude is right or biblical. Those believers need help renewing their minds to the truths in Scripture.

    Marriage can often become a panacea to a single person. Instead of viewing both singleness AND marriage as platforms on which God is honored, the focus on wanting to be married can blind a single man or woman to the tremendous blessings that accompany being single.

    As I recall, the mission of the Church is to glorify God by being a community that selflessly loves and serves one another while advancing the proclamation of the gospel. I don’t see the church’s mandate as the inclusion of providing spouses for believers. The Church should provide an environment that fosters healthy and godly relationships between brothers and sisters in Christ, which means discouraging the activity of checking out (or “scoping out”) that brother or sister as a potential date which is commonplace today, and replacing it with an attitude of service based upon a trust in the Lord to meet all of our needs.

  13. Andreas,

    If we set aside Maken for a moment, the rumblings on the Christian singles messageboards represent a very real difficulty.

    You have made yourself very clear, but many men and women in the church who feel they are leading singles are in fact creating more roadblocks to dating and relationships.

    Whereas your writing is addressing the difference between a true “Gift of Singleness” and just being without a partner, many others are insisting that unwanted singleness is a gift and unhappy singles are wrong to resist it. There are so many lonely single men and women who don’t want to be content as singles, they don’t ever consider singleness to be a gift and they want love and marriage. Yet…they are told over and over that if they are single, there must be a holy purpose and not to seek relationships until this purpose is realized.

    I’m surprised more men and women aren’t leaving the church. Men aren’t interested in endless debates over 1 Corinthians 7 and church singles groups are turning into women-only book clubs.

    I think it would help everyone if the “Gift of Singleness” was not the main topic in Christian singles groups. I believe a cult of pious Christian singledom has arisen within many churches and this explains the popularity of women such as Carolyn McCulley.

    Perhaps the churches should be interested in getting people together, preserving marriages and being realistic about the times we live in and how difficult it is to meet people and form relationships as Christians in a secular society.

  14. Kostenberger writes:
    “One element absent in Maken’s comments on 1 Corinthians 7 that would shed considerable light on the situation, in my opinion, is the particular background to Paul’s comments there. Specifically, it appears that in Corinth some taught that singleness is a state that is spiritually superior to marriage and hence told single people to stay unmarried and married people either to divorce their spouses (so they could be single and more spiritual!) or to live with their marriage partners in a continent relationship (remain married but refrain from sexual intercourse in the future). All this owing to the Greek philosophical dualism between matter (as evil) and spirit (good). Similarly, in Ephesus (1 Tim. 2:15; 4:3; 5:14) some disparaged marriage and procreation and in some cases even forbid marriage altogether.”

    This is absolutely, 100%, perfectly correct!!! And as far as I can tell from my reading, it’s a relatively newer interpretation. And the ESV is the first translation to help make this explicitly clear.

  15. This has been a very interesting discussion (parts one and two). I was especially interested to read it because I recently finished writing a series of posts on “unmarriage” (as I called it) on my blog based on my study of what Scripture has to say on this issue.
    I appreciate your desire to present a Biblically-based perspective on this important issue.

  16. I am glad that you are finally jumping into this debate, even if it is to sell a few books.

    Thanks.

  17. This is a wonderful response to Mrs Maken’s book which I expected to enjoy and was then absolutely taken aback at what I read. Thanks for doing what I could not do in my sophmoric attempt to deal with her position.

    http://discerningthetimes.blogspot.com/2006/03/rethinking-biblical-paradigms.html

  18. Dr. Kosteberger,

    I appreciate your desire to avoid heaping judgment on singles who are fruitfully enjoying what is (perhaps) merely a season of singleness. And I agree with you that many singles marry later in our culture for entirely justifiable reasons (e.g., our more knowledge-based economy encourages more years of study, both at the collegiate and post-collegiate level).

    But I am wondering if you’d agree that we are seeing a unique problem with adult men in our day lacking masculine impulse to assume responsibility and marshal God-given strength for the good of others. For example, most colleges observe an under- representation of men, and female graduates increasingly outpace their male counterparts. Is one manifestation of this phenomenon the inappropriate delay of marriage on the part of men? Would you agree, pastorally, that immature men who employ their singleness for selfish indulgence (e.g., excessive golf or other hobbies, spending a high percentage of their salary on entertainment) would be well-served (with respect to their Christian sanctification) by marrying? In other words, might Christian maturity/fruitfulness be a parameter whereby a single Christian discerns whether they should “get serious about getting married.” Lastly, what about the parameter of sexual continence? Is Paul referring to a high (unusually high?) degree of sexual continence when he discusses the “gift” in I Cor. 7?

    Thank you for your ministry to the body of Christ on matters pertaining to marriage and family.

    Yours truly in Christ,
    Alex Chediak

  19. Thank you for this response. As a single person I cannot express how disappointing it is to be marginalized by such a distorted teaching of the Scriptures, that most likely, was not believed or adhered to before the author married.

    It is always easy to single out a section of people and find fault with them when you don’t fit their category.

  20. Thank you for this follow-up post. You seem to have a real gift for empathy for singles, even though you are married.

    Maken seems caught up in a very narrow viewpoint, one that seems to reflect little formal training in or understanding of proper exegesis. All of us, married or single, benefit most from humble, well-trained and tried men and women of God.

    The irony is that the good advice Maken has is really what men should be hearing, and a woman is not the one to be admonishing men in terms of spiritual conduct.

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