“It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife,” – Jane Austen, Pride and Prejudice.
Jane Austen wrote Pride and Prejudice about and during a time when marriage was often a financial necessity for women and a social necessity for both women and men. There is little doubt, however, that Austen wrote that line with her tongue firmly in her cheek.
Cultural expectations have changed significantly since Jane Austen’s day. Just in the last few decades, the average age for a first marriage has risen to nearly 30 years old for both women and men in America. Delayed marriage, lifelong singleness, high divorce rates, and a rising population of widows from the Baby Boomer generation have combined to bring the percentage of unmarried adult Americans up to 50 percent, according to 2014 Pew data — the highest it has ever been.
While the number of single Americans has been growing quickly, the number of single people within evangelical churches has been growing much more slowly. According to a 2016 Barna Group study, 67 percent of evangelicals are married, compared to 52 percent of all Americans and only 36 percent of 20-somethings — an age group that has historically been less likely to attend church than older adults.
Anecdotally, it seems the more theologically and socially conservative the church, the lower the number of singles within the congregation. The high, biblical valuation of marriage leads many evangelicals to marry earlier, contributing to the fact that singles do not always feel comfortable in our churches.
Beyond simply feeling uncomfortable because they are in the minority, single people are made uncomfortable by how often pastors, leaders, and fellow church members equate marriage and children with blessing or even Christian obedience. Conversely, many look upon single people with a mixture of pity and suspicion. How do we address the discomfort single people feel within our churches? A good place to start is the Bible.
“What do you think about the gift of singleness?”
Ask this question in a crowded room and you will quickly kill the mood. Not only is it an odd question that you’re only likely to hear on a seminary campus, but it’s also likely to touch a number of nerves. Some will tear up, fearing that the “gift” is a curse to a life of loneliness. Others will roll their eyes, assuming what some call a “gift” is just an excuse to spiritualize selfishness. A few will prepare themselves for battle, ready to defend single people everywhere.
Such an emotionally charged issue deserves long and careful consideration. I will limit myself to a brief answer to a single question — what is the “gift of singleness”?
Referring to singleness as a “gift” is drawn primarily from I Corinthians 7:7 and is commonly interpreted in one of two ways. In the first option, this gift is understood as the ability to remain free of sexual sin, temptation to sexual sin, or perhaps even desire for a spouse. This type of freedom is rarely granted and is usually given in light of a particular circumstance the believer is facing or calling placed on the believer’s life. This view of the gift leans on what appears to be a number of caveats to Paul’s wish that all could be single (v. 7).
Paul almost immediately admits that some will lack self-control and that for them, it is better to marry than to “burn with passion” (v. 9). Later in the chapter, Paul reiterates his desire for all to be single with what appears to be a second qualification — Paul thinks singleness is advantageous in light of “this present distress” (v. 26). “This present distress” is understood as a reference to an intense time of persecution for the Corinthian church. Lastly, the call for “undivided devotion to the Lord” (v. 35) might suggest that Paul limits the gift to those who are called to an all-encompassing kind of ministry. Those who hold this view assume marriage is expected of almost everyone.
The second option is that singleness itself is the gift. Everyone who is single has the gift of singleness already and only needs to steward it well. This response leans more on Paul’s general endorsement of singleness in the chapter. The identification of the institutions of marriage and singleness themselves as gifts is the most likely reading of verse 7 (“Each has her or his own gift from God, one of one kind and one of another”) because in the following verses Paul immediately begins to speak to two groups of people: those who are unmarried and those who are married.
Throughout the chapter, Paul’s praise of singleness is directed toward the inherent benefits of singleness, not the personal gifting of particular single individuals. Refraining from marriage spares the believer of worldly troubles (v. 28) and the anxieties that come along with a family (v. 32–33). These benefits are especially helpful in light of “this present distress” (v. 26), which should be read together with verse 31 (“the present form of this world is passing away”) as a way of saying that Christians live in the last days of salvation history. These benefits are available to all the unmarried, not just those with a specific set of gifts.
Keep in mind that Paul’s letter would have been read to the whole church, not just those in ministry or destined for mission work. These benefits constitute, among other theological and practical benefits to singleness presented in Scripture, the basis for calling singleness a gift. Therefore, in this view, since marriage and singleness are both gifts from God, the question facing the single person is not whether they have the gift of singleness or not, but what they are doing with the gift God has given them.
Toward a healthy view of singleness
Thoughtful Christians can disagree on which view is more in keeping with Paul’s main concern. But in some sense, the answer to “What is the gift of singleness?” is: Both. Lifelong singleness is not for the faint of heart, and those who are single should utilize their situation for the good of the church and the growth of the kingdom. But we must remember that being single, even if temporary, is itself a gift. There’s no escaping Paul’s word choice. Paul argues that, as a general rule of thumb, it is good for those who are unmarried to remain single (v. 8). Going even further, Paul concludes the chapter by saying, “He who marries his betrothed does well, and he who refrains from marriage will do even better” (v. 38, emphasis mine). That argument sounds strange to us in Protestant churches, but we need to feel the weight of it.
In light of the New Covenant and for the Kingdom of God (and I think there’s a strong case to be made that Paul is referencing and expanding on Jesus’ teaching in Matthew 19 throughout 1 Corinthians 7), Paul determines that singleness ought to be celebrated as a gift, and single people ought to be celebrated as uniquely gifted individuals for the advancement of the kingdom. The key is: Everyone is given the gift of singleness in this general sense for some portion of their adult life, before marriage for all and after the death of a spouse for some.
Some Christians will experience the gift of singleness in the more personal and lifelong sense. For some, the gift of singleness will be marked by the beauty of a life within and in committed service to the kingdom. There will be others who desire marriage, but never experience it. If they persevere in self-control and use the gifts and opportunities the Lord has provided them for kingdom work, they too are experiencing the gift of singleness in the more specific sense, even if the unmet desires for marriage remain. Of course, the reality is that Christian singles will experience both the unique highs and lows of singleness at different points in their lives.
So, what is the “gift of singleness”? In short, it is singleness itself — a gift that is given to all for some time and to some for all time. And as with all God’s gifts, we should receive it, celebrate it, and steward it well.