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An Open Letter to Doug Wilson & Michael Foster
On "The Gift of Singleness?"
Dear Michael Foster and Doug Wilson,
My viewing of your short video, ‘The Gift of Singleness?’, prompted me to write to you both. Before I get ahead of myself though, let me make my introduction.
My name is Danielle Treweek. I’m a 44-year-old, never-married woman. I’m also a lifelong evangelical Christian who lives in Sydney, Australia. I have a Bachelor of Arts majoring in Religious Studies from the University of Sydney, a Bachelor of Divinity (Hons.) from Moore Theological College and a Doctorate from St Mark’s Theological Centre/Charles Sturt University. I have almost 20 years experience in pastoral ministry. My PhD research—four years engaging in a mixed methodology of church history, systematic theology and biblical exegesis—focused on the retrieval of a theological ethic of singleness for the contemporary church. I founded and direct a parachurch ministry called Single Minded. I have an academic book about singleness due to be published with IVP in 2023. I write and speak frequently on the topic of Christian singleness. Oh, and I’m complementarian by conviction (something I mention not because it is particularly relevant to the substance of this letter, but because I sense you may both regard it to be of some import).
I believe such significant qualifications and experience make this letter—and me, its author—worthy of your respectful consideration and engagement.
Brothers, I was appalled by some of your comments in the aforementioned video. I particularly have in mind your caricature of the old, lonely, unlikeable, “tubby”, attention-seeking spinsters you are so concerned will soon be filling up evangelical churches. You know the ones? Those you described as having an abundance of pent-up love that they can’t do anything with because they have no children or grandchildren to shower it upon. The same women who you said “don’t have anything” at all.
While such comments certainly appalled me, they didn’t shock me. Unfortunately, I have heard (and read) it all before. My familiarity with such scornful and dismissive comments means I am also aware there is little to be gained by seeking to persuade you that you have spoken unlovingly, unkindly and unfairly of your single sisters in Christ. God has heard your words and knows your heart’s attitude towards us. I don’t need to hold you accountable for both of those things because He will.
However, while I don’t intend to further address the pastoral implications of your comments, I would like to engage with you on their theological substance.
You have asserted: “Singleness is not a gift. Celibacy is.”
You have also asserted, “There is a difference between singleness which is a state and celibacy which is a gift. So the apostle Paul had the gift of celibacy […] Undesired singleness is an affliction, not a gift”.
Assertions are important. But as we all know, an assertion is only as strong as the argument it relies upon. And so, I’m interested to understand your detailed argumentation behind these assertions.
I’m interested to understand the exegetical basis upon which you assert Paul had the “gift of celibacy”, when the construct of “celibacy” itself is nowhere to be found in Scripture. I’m interested to understand how you read “celibacy” into 1 Cor 7 and actually what you precisely mean by it when, as I’m sure you are aware, Paul speaks in that chapter of those who are married, betrothed, virgins or widowed—not celibates.
I’m interested to understand what you make of the fact that “celibacy” as a special calling/vocation to lifelong sexual abstinence was a development that took particular hold in the early Middle Ages (many centuries after Paul was writing). I’m interested to understand your reflections on the fact that when the early church fathers spoke of “celibacy” (and they spoke of it far less often than they did “virginity”) they used it to refer to the situation of being unmarried, as per the term’s etymological roots (caelebs from the Latin, meaning the state of not being married)
I’m interested to understand how your exegetical analysis of 1 Cor 7:7 has lead you to confidently conclude that Paul speaks of his gift as being an extraordinary spiritual booster that he needed so that he might not sin sexually. And because I’m reasonably confident that you’ll wish to direct my attention to v.9, I’m also interested to understand how you deal with the exegetical complexities, contestations and complications of that verse in your argument.
I’m interested to understand why you say Paul considers a supernatural gift of celibacy to be necessary to secure his sexual godliness, when just a chapter earlier he exhorts all his readers to proactively flee sexual immorality (1 Cor 6:18), thereby indicating he believes it is within all their (Spirit enabled) ability to do so. I’m interested to understand how you see Paul’s gift of celibacy relating to his reassurance just a few chapters later about God not allowing us to be tempted beyond what we can bear, and providing us the ability to endure it (1 Cor 10:13)?
I’m interested to understand how your exegesis of 1 Cor 7:7 interacts with other parts of the Pauline corpus in which he speaks of the Spirit—that is, the indwelling third person of the Godhead whose nature is of power, love and self-control (2 Tim 1:7)—to be at work actively bearing the fruit of self-control in lives of all believers (Gal 5:23).
I’m interested to understand why you believe the indwelling Spirit of God is able and willing to lead us to progressively mortify all sinful temptations and desires in our lives—except for sexual temptations and desires. I’m interested to understand why you believe we need a particular spiritual gift over and above the “ordinary” work of the Holy Spirit to put those particular desires to death. I’m interested to know if you think the Holy Spirit is unwilling to use his “ordinary” work within us for this purpose, or whether he is instead unable to do it through his “ordinary” work.
I’m interested to understand how you reconcile the Bible’s consistent teaching about the purpose and value of divinely empowered spiritual gifts being for the building up of the body (1 Cor 14:1-25), with your conclusion that the spiritual gift of celibacy finds its purpose and value in the empowering of the individual to resist sin and find personal contentment in singleness. I’m interested to understand the exegetical and theological basis on which this particular gift is rightly considered to be the exception to this Scriptural rule.
I’m interested to understand how you teach that ‘the grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation for all people, training us to renounce ungodliness and worldly passions and to live self-controlled, upright and godly lives in the present age’ (Titus 2-11-12) while simultaneously maintaining that in order for an unmarried Christian person to renounce ungodliness and worldly passions and live self-controlled, upright and godly (sexual) lives they require something extra over, above and beyond the grace of God that has appeared. I’m interested to understand how you hold this to be true without inadvertently implying that Scripture contains untruth.
I’m interested to understand why you consider the remedy for sexual temptation to be either a special spiritual gift of celibacy or alternatively (sex within) marriage. I’m interested to understand why the having of godly sex in marriage is to be considered a miraculous spiritual cure against ungodly temptations to have sex outside of marriage.
I’m interested to understand why married people don’t also need a special dose of the Holy Spirit to keep them on the sexual straight and narrow—especially when Scripture warns married Christians about very real and ongoing temptations to adultery and all forms of porneia . I’m interested to understand the basis on which you expect the many married Christians who struggle with sexual temptation to successfully flee from it without the assistance of the same empowering spiritual gift required by unmarried Christians. I’m interested to understand how this doesn’t suggest that married Christians have superior spiritual reserves to unmarried Christians.
I’m interested to understand why you hold your view with such confidence when no early church writer exegeted 1 Cor 7:7 in the way you do. I’m interested to understand why you readily reject the gift as referring to the situation of being married or unmarried when early church theologians such as Origen1 and Jerome2 held it to be saying exactly that. I’m interested to understand how you see v.7 to say that an unmarried Christian is simply not able to live in sexual holiness without a little spiritual something extra, when John Chrysostom writes the reason Paul wishes that all men were as he himself was because “he knew that all were able to be as himself. For he would not have said this, if it had been impossible. Dost thou wish to become [such]? Only lay hold on the beginning”.3
I’m interested to understand what you make of Augustine’s rhetorical question on 1 Cor 7:7, namely “Now, do the many precepts which are written in the law of God, forbidding all fornication and adultery, indicate anything else than free will? Surely such precepts would not be given unless a man had a will of his own, wherewith to obey the divine commands”.4 I’m interested to understand what your assertion means for your understanding of our human responsibility to obey God’s commands.
I’m interested to understand your reflections on the fact that the tradition which delineates so clearly between “singleness as an afflicted state” and “celibacy as a spiritual gift” is largely a theological invention of the Reformation. I’m interested to understand your thoughts about how the Reformers' appropriate protests against the abuses and misuses of institutionalised celibacy led to their intransigent and rather, shall we say, theologically novel perspectives that sex is ‘as necessary as the fact that I am a man, and more necessary than sleeping and waking, eating and drinking, and emptying the bowels and bladder.’5
I’m interested to understand how and where you see other comments such as those from Luther (that not more than one in one thousand people are given a special gift of celibacy and anyone who tries to remain unmarried without it is destined to commit heinous sexual sin without end)6 or Calvin (that marriage has been ordained as a necessary remedy to keep us from plunging into unbridled lust)7 as being consistent with the clear testimony of Scripture with regards to God’s ordaining of marriage before the fall, the doctrine of sanctification and the powerful work of the Spirit within each of God’s adopted children.
Brothers, I’m genuinely interested in understanding how your extended argument concerning “the gift of
singleness celibacy” interacts with all these matters.
You have made your assertion with such confidence, clarity and certainty that I have no doubt your conclusion must be based upon well-reasoned theological, comprehensive exegetical and factual historical argumentation.
As a fellow theologian, gospel minister and sister in Christ who writes, teaches and ministers in this space, I really would like to benefit from the opportunity to read and consider such a well-rounded argument. I do hope that you might be willing to share it with me. I look forward to hearing from you.
Rev. Dr. Danielle Treweek
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John Chrysostom, The Homilies of St John Chyrsostom on the Epistle to the Hebrews, Homily XVI.
John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, ed. John Baillie, John T. McNeill, and Henry P. Van Dusen, trans. Ford Lewis Battles, vol. 1, ed. John T. McNeill, The Library of Christian Classics, (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1960), 405, §2.8.41.