The Gift of Singleness

Posted by on Aug 18, 2006 in Blog | 26 comments

“30 and Single? It’s Your Own Fault”—a Christianity Today review summarizes the message, at least in part, of a controversial book, Getting Serious About Getting Married: Rethinking the Gift of Singleness, by Debbie Maken. The author herself got serious about getting married at age 28, signed up with a Christian web agency, and shortly thereafter entered marital bliss. Maken’s contention, however, that women who are in their late 20s or in their 30s and still unmarried have only themselves to blame for listening to erroneous evangelical teaching on the subject has created quite a stir among those very women who plead “not guilty” and question Maken’s categorical stance (singles should get married and those who teach the “gift of singleness” should stop misrepresenting the Bible’s teaching about God-ordained singleness), not to mention her theology of singleness.

What does the Bible say about singleness? In my book God, Marriage, and Family: Rebuilding the Biblical Foundation, published by the same publisher as Maken’s book, I devote an entire chapter, Chapter 9 entitled “Undivided Devotion to the Lord: The Divine Gift of Singleness,” to this question. The first part of the chapter features a biblical theology of singleness in the Old Testament and New Testament plus a treatment of singleness in the early church. This is followed by a discussion of issues related to singleness, such as singleness and ministry, cohabitation and premarital sex, courtship and dating, and biblical teaching on singleness addressed to particular groups.

Space does not permit to reproduce the entire chapter, and readers of this blog are referred to the printed volume for complete coverage. A few salient points must suffice. In a nutshell, what I find is that in Old Testament times, singleness was rare among individuals old enough to marry. There were those who were in the unenviable state of widowhood such as Naomi or Ruth (who eventually did remarry); eunuchs who were widely looked down upon and excluded from congregational worship and the priesthood (Lev. 21:20; Deut. 23:1); those who could not marry due to disease (e.g. leprosy) or severe economic distress; those who did not marry because of some type of divine call (this was, however, exceedingly rare; but see Jer. 16:1–4); the divorced (Deut. 24:1–4); and unmarried young people prior to marriage.

The situation seems markedly different in the New Testament. The Baptist, Jesus, and Paul were single, and both Jesus and Paul mention celibacy, Jesus calling it “eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of heaven” (Matt. 19:12) and Paul speaking of singleness as a “gift from God” (1 Cor. 7:7). 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).

What is more, as Jesus taught, in the final state people will no longer marry but be like the angels in heaven (Matt. 22:30). That is, all of us will spend eternity as singles! When I did research on this chapter for God, Marriage, and Family, I was surprised to find that there is in Scripture a trajectory, or development, from singleness being rare and highly undesirable (OT) to singleness being presented as advantageous for kingdom service and as a divine gift (NT) to singleness being the universal state of humanity in heaven. In the book I briefly discuss possible reasons for this rather startling fact (see esp. the chart on p. 198 and the comments on pp. 198–99; see now also the updated discussion in the chapter on singleness in the 2d edition of God, Marriage, and Family). For our present purposes it is sufficient to close with the following brief observations.

First, groups such as the Roman Catholic Church err greatly when they require celibacy for all its priests. This contradicts explicit biblical teaching regarding the first apostles (1 Cor. 9:5); Pauline instructions regarding elders and deacons (1 Tim. 3:2, 4–5, 12; Titus 1:6–7); and blatantly disregards Paul’s severe warning in passages such as 1 Tim. 4:3 that forbidding people to marry is tantamount to propagating “things taught by demons” (1 Tim. 4:1). I have written on this subject at some length elsewhere.

Second, even though we must not require singleness of all church leaders, we should not portray singleness as a second-class or undesirable status in the church either. If Paul calls singleness a divine “gift,” this implies that this gift is good (though obviously not everyone has it). Also, if it is called a gift, it is given by someone else, God, rather than originating with the person who has that gift. Which leads to the often-asked question, “How do I know if I have the gift or not?”

In short, my answer to this question usually is, “If you ask this question with fear or trepidation, this probably means that you do not have the gift.” Having said this, it is impossible to know for certain whether or not one has the gift of singleness until one dies. In some cases, it may be that it is God’s will for a person to remain unmarried for a season and later in life provides a marriage partner. And there are many other possible scenarios. In any case, as mentioned, Jesus and Paul make clear that singleness has many advantages for Christians and should not be despised.

30 and still single? Is the author of the above-mentioned book right with her advice that women in that situation better get busy and sign up with a dating agency? Not necessarily. Space does not permit a detailed review of the book and the author’s argument. Suffice it to say that God’s leading is individual and personal and cannot be reduced to one and only one way of guidance. Who is she to say how God may lead you if you are a woman in your thirties and still single? At the same time, there may be an element of truth in what she says. In some cases—and you need to examine whether or not this could be you—singleness may in part be self-inflicted (if it is indeed God’s will for a given person to get married), and there may be things you can, and should, do to cooperate with God’s purposes in your life (while remembering all the while that God is sovereign). Knowing this calls for wisdom, prayer, discernment, and trust in the God who alone knows you and cares for you intimately—the God who has a wonderful plan for your life, a plan that may, but in most cases probably does not, include singleness.

For further reading, see God, Marriage, and Family as well as my commentary on the Pastoral Epistles in the Expositor’s Bible Commentary, Vol. 12 (rev. ed.; Zondervan).

26 Comments

  1. Basically, a woman can remain celibate much longer than
    a man because of biological differences. Men are born with
    strong sex drives, men were created to be the aggressor
    or the pursuer of a woman and the man usually initiates
    sex because of stronger sex drive. For a man to be celibate
    for a prolonged period is very difficult, that is why the
    scripture says ‘it is better to marry than to burn with
    passion’.Sex within marriage satisfies a man’s sexual need
    the biblical way but celibacy and singleness often leads
    to sexual frustration and many times to sexual perversion
    such as pornographic addiction, homosexuality, bestiality,rape, fornication, hiring a prostitute and
    the use of sex objects( blown up dolls) etc. The only sexual
    outlet for a single man is masturbation and yet most men
    with deep religious roots often feel guilty if they
    masturbate to release sexual tension. 99.9 percent of men
    would have difficulty living a single life without sex
    which is a natural desire. Marriage is the only biblical
    way to express a man’s sexual needs.

  2. Kim back again. Just checked out the bible and Paul uses the word GIFT and that is good enough for me without mankind giving their own interpretations. Quite simply A GIFT IS A GIFT! Be it marriage or singleness!

  3. Marriage is a gift. Children are a gift and Singleness is also a gift. Like any gift we must concentrate on how we can use that gift in a positive way and focus on what the gift does not what it doesn’t do. None of us are free from problems and troubles. There is blessings to be found in all of the gifts above and we will all encounter problems whether married or single. The single person can spend more time with the Lord and it is a precious gift to have and should be treated with gratitude just like marriage. The creator of the Universe is more than capable of allowing us to use our particular gift in a way that glorifies him and gives us deep peace that we are walking in his will. Like all gifts God can take them back and give us a different gift. There is no guarantee that we have the gift of marriage or singleness for life – for life is one day at a time and we should enjoy the gift we have today!

  4. If you want to know about singleness as a ‘gift’–then I’m the one for you. I am the real deal! I was given 2 gifts–Speaking in Tongues and Singleness at age 31 and I am 64 now Talk about the church not understanding you! That’s an understatement…I never ‘fit in’ and remain isolated from the Boby–a real freak show to them! HA~ It’s bad enough being single, then you have to tell them that you are ‘married to the Lord’ and minister to Him in Tongues/songs! My life is one of sanctification (mortification)in the body. I was divorced w/o kids, and then the Lord pulled me out of sin–He said that I would never again live for myself. It took 2 yr. of cleaning up before receiving my gifts. I was so full of unbelief. I only wanted to be married–but then told the Lord “Thy will be done.” 3 days after that, I recognized that the desire for marriage was gone and even the passion in my body left!!! That’s exactly what happened–and that’s how you know you have the ‘gift’!!! I never made any decision not to marry–my whole being changed and I KNEW the Lord — it was like my ‘eyes’ could ‘see’ — it’s a relationship. I was ‘on fire’ zealous–and, boy, did I hate evil! I mean people began to think I had flipped out. I was taking this Jesus thing way to seriously they said. Over the years, my battles have been with all ‘ministers’! YES! Since Martin Luther spoke out against celibacy (Calvin,too) the Protestants are Family Values only! True. I had to find all this out the hard way. Today at 64, I am still ‘outside’ the Protestant understanding. I can answer a lot of questions people might have about singleness as a ‘gift’–but my experience is that people don’t believe me–their minds are so fixed on what they’ve learned from their Protestant fathers. I get joked about, scoffed and mocked–it’s been a ‘gift’ that nobody has or that nobody wants to have! But it does exist! People are immediately turned off when I tell them because they think I’m some weirdo…not a real person. They seem to think I am ‘handicapped’–not full of the Holy Ghost! They are not interested in me in the least. This ‘gift’ really is about ‘losing’ — in their minds. They ‘lose’ their tongues if they have to Speak in heavenly tongues–they ‘lose’ their children or sex life if they remain single, they ‘lose’ respect in their church culture. Yes, I gave up a lot of these ‘perks’ that Protestants really love to boast in today. But my relationship to Jesus far exceeds anything they understand in their little bitty Sunday School books or seminaries!~! What a joke. The things these Protestants esteem are so insignificant to the glories of the Kingdom to come that the Lord has given to those who submit to the ‘gift’ of singleness. Singleness of heart–the greatest gift for serving the Lord has been totally maligned by every Protestant since Martin Luther! It’s a total shame Protestants will have for eternity!!!

  5. It is painful to be single, and I don’t believe any of the “cliches” people throw in my face about it. It’s lonely, and it makes no sense to have sexual longings and be punished with not being able to engage in them because you aren’t married. If you are married, then you are totally in the clear to share yourself with someone intimately, but single people seem like we are left to suffer or feel guilty for our desires because we have to ignore them or pray them away….it’s just a really sad time because I know I want to be a mother and a wife…yet….

  6. Tell me more about singleness after divorce.
    I understand the gift of singleness according to scripture, but does singleness after divorce carry the same gift. I’m thinking the singleness because of divorce is different. I could be wrong. What do you think?

  7. It’s a hard thing. I exhort anyone to please (as it took hard tears and much falling into sin to realize I did not have the gift) examine themselves much, and pray god send fiery trials. Especially if in your day to day there aren’t people attractive to you or attracted to you.
    But if you do have the gift and are fair to look upon, you can be strength for many people who have no one but are led to believe it is necessary.
    Fare well.

  8. I am a 38 single woman. I am a pastors daughter. I have been earnestly praying for a godly husband since I was 16. I think it is o.k. to validate the longings that are in my heart to be married. I love the story of Hannah. She longed for a child and it was o.k. for her to have that dream. I have gone on several long fasts and wrestled with God about this issue. On the first fast as I was reading in Genesis, I saw something that I had never seen before. When God had created Adam, up until that point everything He had done was good. When he saw that Adam was alone he said that was not good. You know, everyone always says there is a God shaped hole inside all of us. It has been placed there by God. Now I am suggesting that if you are suppose to be married there also exists a husband or wife shaped hole. Stick with me a second. God could of filled that spot in Adam with Himself but He didn’t. He could of created a bunch of buddies for Adam so he wouldn’t be alone, but He didn’t. He choose to take a physical rib from Adam to create this woman. Almost as if something was missing from him that was found in Eve. I am sure some readers are saying, wait a minute you need to be whole by yourself. I agree with that. I feel in my singleness that God sustains me and I am productive to what He would have for me right now. But I cannot deny that there is a longing inside of me to be married that will not go away. Sometimes I wish it would. I don’t think that it will because I believe that it has been placed there by God.

  9. I think you’ve let your inspiration get too far ahead of what’s really true.

    Sure, you can try and explain away things, but to say that the current edition of the Bible to be flawed because of the Romans? There’s been more than 2 millenia for human errors and intentions to muck up the way that the Bible is presented, and still it survives. I think that’s already enough proof that the current used edition of the Bible is what God intended for us to read.

    I also think that the ideas in this passage are too shallow, but that’s only my opinion.

  10. I am a 50 year old male and never married. I have sought the Lord diligently for many years. I have never wanted to be single. I believed God’s promise that if I delighted myself in Him, He would give me the desires of my heart. Unfortunately, I have yet to meet my soulmate. I am very disappointed because I truly have sought ot be about seeking, praising, serving, and praying to God. I am very puzzled at the way my life has gone. I would also say that, although I have sought God earnestly, trusted in Him and applied myself to seek the acquaintance of others in the faith, I have never heard God speak anything to me about a soulmate. As this is a heartbreaking issue for me, I am equally puzzled by this experience. Praise God, His mercy endures forever. He is a God of love. But, his cup can be sad!

  11. Thanks for this commentary on Maken’s book and an ACTUAL biblical perspective on singleness. So needed and so helpful!

  12. What I find interesting is that it’s always assumed we’ll all be single in heaven. But the opposite is true, we’ll all be married. At the moment the church is the bride of Christ. Then comes the marriage supper of the lamb…and after that I would assume we live for all eternity married to Jesus! :-)

  13. It seems to me that the major question is the following: who is responsible for finding a marriage partner? Is it responsible to the individual woman? The family? God alone? Culturally the answer to this question has changed during the years as Christianity has moved from traditional, ceremonial practices to a vibrant personal relationship with God Himself that involves personal communication and listening to God’s voice as an individual. I think that Kostenberger has a point: Our churches do not necessarily agree on how we should Biblically view singleness. I think this is also a reflection of our culture in that Christianity itself has changed from a focus on familial, traditional religious practice to an individual, personal relationship with God. In more traditional cultures, it is the responsibility of the family to work on a person’s behalf. In today’s modern culture it is up to the individual to serve God while listening and waiting for His “call” to marriage. While I feel that Debbie’s message about singleness is on the extreme side, I believe that single women can also take their singleness to the other extreme by hiding their heads in the sand and hiding themselves both physically and emotionally in fear of acting on an individual basis without God’s divine direction.
    Personally I believe that making a decision about a relationship out of fear or apprehension for the future–whether the fear pushes you in the direction of forwardness or whether it holds you back into obscurity–is only doing yourself a disservice as a Christian single.

  14. I just read through 1 Cor 7 again and I was struck by a new, more coherentist, thought on this topic… It seems like God’s goal in this section is to renew our thinking and to adjust our affections in the process. Paul’s main goal appears to be to highlight his priorities and encourage us to follow them. Perhaps if we start with that premise: to glorify God with our lives and be used effectively in God’s church, the rest is understandable. He seems to argue that marriage or non-marriage is secondary. If we view our mariatal status as secondary to our relationship with God and his church, perhaps we’ll more accurately approach the rest of this section.

  15. Scott, in some places Paul acts as if the parousia could be imminent, while in others he acts as if it could be delayed. He never assumes it will be either, including in this passage.

  16. Are there any concerns that 1 Cor 7 is taught with the parousia immanently expected? Shouldn’t this temper our reading of this section?

  17. I appreciate this Biblical description of singleness, and I think it does great justice to Scripture. I think that in our marriage-oriented church we must go beyond just making sure singleness is not looked down upon. We must advocate it, as Paul does in 1 Cor 7, as a choice that brings great gain.

    Where do you see Biblical support for responding people who aren’t interested in singleness by telling them that’s OK? Paul and Jesus both seem to encourage all to pursue it, and only in the case of sexual struggle to be willing to marry.

  18. In all, it looks like there are several issues at hand in regard to singleness:

    1) Some people want to be single, some people don’t want to be single.

    2) People who want to be single, want their singleness to be valued (and may appreciate it being called “a gift”).

    3) People who don’t want to be single don’t want to be objects of pity, but do want compassion. Calling their singleness a gift is often well-intentioned but patronizing (it’s funny how often we’re most patronizing when we’re our most well-intentioned!).

    How can we find ways of supporting both kinds of single people so that singleness is valued (but not oversold as a gift to those who don’t want it), and handled with compassion (but not pity, esp. with those who are doing very well on their own, thank you very much!)?

  19. I find that many, many people in churches do, in fact, treat singles and singleness as pariah. Singels are rarely asked to be leaders or to be responsible for ministries, regardless of capability or availability. However, I have found, as a dedicated virgin-for-life, that God uses the state of singleness in unique ways: more time to pray for others (no family affairs to preempt prayer-time), as an example to others of how everyone ought to behave extramaritally, and being more sensitive to others’ feelings who are still virgins.

    I’ve found myself balking at others within the general church who ignore single adults or who cater only to couples and families. Chalk it up to ignorance on the behalf of those particular insensitive church people in living out the Golden Rule. We who are single should delicately instruct them and assert our availability and abilities without ourselves being rude. I do not think most are aware of their attitudes or behavioral patterns toward singles and that most would immediately change upon realization.

    But as I stated earlier, God is aware and provides unique opportunities to reach out to others like ourselves. Look for them. Avail yourself of them and find that life as a single can actually be “abundant.”

  20. Dr. Kostenberger,

    I appreciate your comments here. It is hard being a 28 year old single student at SEBTS. Parents, friends, fellow employees etc., constantly ask why you aren’t married. I really appreciate comments after I’ve cooked a good meal for someone and they say, “for the life of me I can’t figure out why you’re still single.”
    I’m very encouraged by your post and I hope that others find encouragement to pursue Christ more.
    Thanks,
    Dougald
    PS-I’ll be applying for the Phd. at SEBTS soon. I’ll be going for O.T.–sorry for the choice of testament. :)

  21. Thank you Dr. K for all you do to equip the saints, we love and appreciate your heart for the Truth. I would like to link this page from our website: RC3SINGLES.COM

  22. You say that Paul calls singleness a divine gift in 1 Cor 7:7. It appears to me that looking at the context through v. 9, the gift is continence, freedom from sexual desires, not strictly singleness per se. So I wonder if this is really a verse that can be used to teach a postive gift of singleness? I wonder if Paul is not saying that those who have the gift of self control need not marry, but I would think that those who do not have this gift (self control) should normally seek marriage.

  23. This column has really helped me focus on what is important. Sometimes us single women lose hope, but we should never lose faith. It can be difficult, with fewer single Christian men, chaperones on dates and so forth. Thanks for the reminder that we are serving the Lord as singles!

  24. Thank you for your biblical examination of this topic. As a young believer, I committed myself to the conviction that if I sought first God’s kingdom and righteousness (Matt 6:33) then the Lord would provide me the desires of my heart–including a godly spouse.

    I’ve served in full-time ministry for the last ten years, and unfortunately have encountered a very poor attitude towards singleness in many churches I’ve visited. I’ve gotten the distinct impression from other believers that singleness is a disease to be cured, much akin to a rather nasty strain of the flu.

    Sympathetic looks or nods, or the inevitable “You should meet so-and-so” makes me think that singleness is in today’s church culture what an inability to have children was in biblical times.

    At the ripe old age of 36 the Lord has led a wonderful, godly woman into my life who shares with me the passion to walk with God and make Him known in this world. Our relationship is a platform in which we desire to minister and serve others. April, being 32, faced pressure from family and friends to compromise her convictions regarding what kind of Christian she wanted to be courted by. She didn’t just want to consider marrying a believer–she wanted to only date and marry a man who could spiritually lead her and their marriage and encourage her in her walk with Christ.

    Both April and I chose to seek the Lord and followed Him, even if that meant being single for a longer period of time than most other believers in our culture. We could not compromise on our convictions that we wanted the Lord to join us to someone who had an intimate walk with the Lord, a heart for the lost, and who desired a relationship that was centered on glorifying Jesus Christ, not just meeting our emotional needs. And now the Lord has done just that.

    The bottom line? You don’t have to be like Sarah, who tried to push God’s timetable by using Hagar to produce a son for Abraham. Trust the Lord, walk with Him and focus on the things He desires, and in due time He will provide.

  25. Thank you very much for this column. You are encouraging us to look to the Lord, rather than to our own feelings or others’ assessments, for guidance in how a “singleness season” should be viewed.

  26. Following the recommendation of a friend, I recently read your book chapter on the topic of singleness and found it to be one of the most balanced and biblically-based treatments of the subject I have ever encountered. In fact, it revolutionized my thinking. How refreshing to find someone who bases his stance on what Scripture says as a whole rather than isolating a passage or two to back up a particular agenda.

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. Speaker of Truth » Blog Archive » Singleness: Köstenberger versus Maken - [...] Although I don’t always agree with Andreas Köstenberger on gender-related issues, I appreciate what he has to say about …
  2. » Got Singleness? - [...] What is your gift? I would like love to think I am destined to have the gift of …
  3. Ochuk’s blog » Blog Archive » Marital Status: Sinful - [...] New Testament Scholar Andreas Kostenberger doesn’t agree that singles who are in their late 20s or in their 30s …
  4. Heart Soul and Might - passionate pursuit of God, truth and the abundant life » The Gift of Singleness - [...] You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or …
  5. Parableman - Gift of Singleness Andreas Kostenberger has a thoughtful post on singleness in the Bible. I especially found one observation noteworthy. He …
  6. Linking Up (8/18)-- Stepping in Faith - [...] The Gift of Singleness. “Andreas Kostenberger provides a summary of the Bible’s teachings on the gift of singleness.” (HT: …

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