The gift of singleness
First, here are a few thoughts on Carolyn McCulley's book, Did I Kiss Marriage Goodbye? . Being single as a lifelong circumstance is something most adults are uncomfortable with, so I have immense sympathy with her writing. I also applaud the change in name. Woman is no longer defined by her marital status.
However, I would like to share just a couple of things that I think could make being a single woman more problematic. In McCulley's book she discusses contentment while you are waiting, and states,
- The groom couldn't complete the task that God called him to do without the help of his bride, God's provision of a helpmate. The bride couldn't help without knowing her groom's task. Page 65.
- She was created to be a helper suitable for him, to complement him, to nourish him, and to help him in the task God has given him.
Many people, however, both men and women, are able to become absorbed in a challenging or demanding task or mission from which they derive a great deal of fulfillment and pleasure. If this is one reason why some people at my age seem to be okay with remaining single, another is that they have already had one primary relationship and it has been either extremely unsuccessful and disillusioning, or intensely painful to lose a beloved partner through death, and they simply do not have the intention of investing in another relationship. The opinions I hear on this vary a great deal according to the individual. Most, but not all, still hope to find a partner.
The reason why some of the greats were single is up for grabs in my mind. It could be total absorption with their task, or it could be that they had had their one relationship and were not prepared to have another, especially one that would be culturally acceptable.
So singleness, in my view, is seen by most, but not all, as a difficulty. It has greatly varying significance in a person's life. It is also simply a circumstance in which a person is placed. Paul said he knew how to be content in all situations. We don't know why he was content with his singleness but there are many logical reasons. I am happy to leave it at that.
However, I do not think that singleness was given to him as a "gift" in the same way that "tongues" is a gift. I don't think that someone who badly wants an intimate partner can simply pray for the "gift of singleness." Or maybe they can. What does the scripture say about this?
This is the problematic verse, 1 Cor. 7:7
- Yet I wish that all men were even as I myself am. However, each man has his own gift from God, one in this manner, and another in that. NASB
For I would that all men were even as I myself. But every man hath his proper gift of God, one after this manner, and another after that. KJV
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. ESV
I wish that all were as I myself am. But each has his own special gift from God, one of one kind and one of another. RSV
I wish that all were as I myself am. But each has a particular gift from God, one having one kind and another a different kind. NRSV
I wish that all men were as I am. But each man has his own gift from God; one has this gift, another has that. NIV
But I wish everyone were single, just as I am. But God gives to some the gift of marriage, and to others the gift of singleness. NLT
Sometimes I wish everyone were single like me—a simpler life in many ways! But celibacy is not for everyone any more than marriage is. God gives the gift of the single life to some, the gift of the married life to others. The Message
- θέλω δὲ πάντας ἀνθρώπους εἶναι ὡς καὶ ἐμαυτόν
ἀλλὰ ἕκαστος ἴδιον ἔχει χάρισμα ἐκ θεοῦ ὁ μὲν οὕτως ὁ δὲ οὕτως
- McCulley's misinterpretations of 1 Cor 7:7 occur because she overlooks the Greek word "idios" preceding "charisma" (grace gift), a common mistake among Christian singleness writers who use Bibles that translate the word as "own". Idios is more correctly translated as "particular" or "peculiar". It's the root of the English word "idiosyncratic", and the French word "idiot", which means "peculiar one". In speaking of this "idios charisma" or "idiosyncratic grace gift", Paul was referring to something much more unique than the either/or status of married or single. He accentuated his point about uniqueness by using a Greek expression still common today: "hos men houto de hos houto", most closely translated in the NASB as "one in this manner, and another in that." It's a figure of speech! "This" and "that" are non-specific: "this" does not mean marriage and "that" does not mean "singleness".
As much as he recognized the advantages of singleness at that time of "present distress" v.26, we have no reason to believe that he saw it as a gift or calling. (Nor is McCulley's reference to verse 17, also regarded as non-specific by most Bible scholars, a strong argument for it.) Whatever was his peculiar gift that allowed him to proceed on such a perilous mission alone, Paul probably didn't quite understand himself.
The Living Bible of the 70's was arguably the first to mistranslate 1Cor7:7 to mean that "God gives to some the gift of singleness and to others the gift of marriage", and later, "The Message". With these late 20th century biblical revisions, rogue doctrines on singleness have proliferated throughout the Christian world.
The never-married, later disgraced Bill Gothard taught millions who attended his Basic Youth Conflicts seminars that singleness as a gift and a calling, using the terms interchangeably, with the underlying assumption of divine assignment or "rhema". Into the 80's and 90's there may have been some softening attempts that stressed "gift" over "calling", but the two remain inextricably linked. Obviously, this is damage control because there has been damage done. Ellen Varughese in "The Freedom to Marry" wrote at length about Christian singles immobilized in their intent to pursue marriage without any clear "word from the Lord", having been taught to view their default singleness as "God's plan" for their lives, rather than as something that could be caused by individual or generational sin.
From its biblically specious roots to the careerism of Christian singles writers who keep passing it on, "the gift of singleness" does not have an honorable history. It has become a thorn in the side of a generation of surplus Christian women that dismisses their collective grief and allows leaders to hide behind sermons about sovereignty and contentment instead of addressing the sinful causes of this epidemic, such as the flight of men from our churches (as well as teachings that have sown seeds of doubt, ambivalence, and complacency towards pursuing marriage).
We do not need to call singleness a gift to effectively encourage spiritual essentials such as gratitude and contentment, or to honor those who have devoted themselves to celibate service (and wouldn't need the flattery of calling it a gift, if indeed their service is sincere). Even if you take the strictest view on sovereignty, there are plenty of things that God has given that are not considered gifts. When was the last time you heard the Ten Commandments referred to as a gift?
Let's all send "the gift of singleness" to the Christian lexicon trashbin, and work together to persuade church leaders to do the same. We can begin by appealing to the editors of The Message and other modern translations to restore translations of 1Corinthians 7:7 so that they once again conform more closely with the original Greek. If we care about the future of the church, we will need to restore the ordinariness and universality of marriage enjoyed by previous generations of Christians by putting the emphasis back on God's revealed will about marriage, which puts the onus on human volition and agency. And we will once again give singles exactly what they have been lacking: a wholehearted blessing to pursue marriage.